ST. GEORGE — As soon as St. George resident Skyler Howes could ride a bicycle without training wheels – just shy of 3 years old – his father put him on a dirt bike. His legs didn’t reach the foot pegs of his 1974 Honda XR75, but from the moment he zoomed off into the desert, riding dirt bikes was in his blood.
Now the racing phenom has taken the world by storm placing ninth overall on the bike in the world famous Dakar Rally.
Originally known as the Paris-Dakar Rally, the annual off-road rally-raid stage race previously took racers from Paris, France, to Dakar, Senegal, until security threats in Africa forced the cancellation of the event in 2008.
From 2009-2019 the event was held in South America, and in 2020 it moved to Saudi Arabia.
Much like the stage race itself, Howes’ journey to a top ten Dakar finish was filled with long dusty days in the desert and endless grit and determination to be his best at the sport he loves.
Though he rode in his first race when he was 4 years old and did well at sporadic races throughout the years, Howes said that from the time he was 4 until he was 16, his life on a dirt bike was really just about having fun.
“We would just go out on the weekends and ride around with everyone,” Howes said.
His mother, Jan Howes, said he was quite a sight to see riding around in the desert with boots that went clear up to his knees and a helmet that fell clear to his shoulders.
But ill-fitting gear aside, somewhere among those weekends on the bike and the occasional races, Skyler Howes found out that his passion was also a talent.
Howes and his father did an entire season of the Utah Sportsman Racing Association off-road racing series when he was just a teenager, but not long after that season, his father was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“That really put a damper on the whole racing and riding,” Howes said.
When he turned 16, Howes was able to get an after school job where he worked every day from 3-10 p.m. The work enabled him to pay for bike parts and race entry fees to continue to do what he loved.
“When I was 16 years old I basically started learning the value of working hard and paying for things,” Howes said.
His father was able to beat the cancer and was there for Howes to take him to his races, sign him up and help work on the bike.
Howes did well in many races, but he said he was still riding mostly for fun until a handlebar company known as Fasst Company opened in Washington City.
Howes said he went on a trail ride with some of the guys from Fasst Company in 2010. They were able to spot his innate talent and suggested he ride in the National Hare and Hound series, one of the western United States’s premier desert racing events.
Howes signed up and raced with hand-me-down gear, wheels he found dumpster diving and a duct taped number, he said.
“I almost won a national championship that year like that,” he said.
The following year, he was able to procure a few sponsors and returned to the National Hare and Hound series and won the 250 cc championship.
A year after that, he earned his professional number.
Through his connection with Fasst Company, Howes was introduce to Chris Blais, who up until this year, was the last American to take a podium spot at the Dakar Rally, placing third in 2007.
Blais’ racing career ended when he was paralyzed in an accident, but he stayed in the sport and put together a racing team.
Howes said Blais asked him to race on his team, and it was then that his interest in racing Dakar was piqued.
Growing up, Howes often watched the famous race with his dad on television, but riding for Blais gave him firsthand information about desert stage racing from someone who had done it.
While racing, Howes became friends with Kurt Caselli, another racing legend whom Howes said is still one of the most talented racers to ever swing a leg over a motorcycle. Caselli raced and won several rally stage events, including winning two stages in place of an injured rider on the Factory KTM team at the 2013 Dakar Rally.
Caselli was a rising star in the off-road rally racing world.
“He became one of the top Americans and the American hopeful to break the streak and get on the podium, if not win it,” Howes said of Caselli’s future at Dakar Rally races.
Unfortunately Caselli passed away from injuries sustained during the 2013 Baja 1000 but not before inspiring Howes to chase his own Dakar dream.
“Kurt kind of gave me more of a boost,” he said, adding that his friend showed him it was doable, that it was not just something you see on television.
A few years later, Howes was on his own with no sponsors or support for racing, he said, when a guy named Garrett Poucher messaged him on Facebook and asked if he was interested in racing rally for him.
Poucher helped him learn how to read a road book and set him up with the equipment and knowledge necessary to race rally.
The very first stage rally race Howes ever entered was the Yokohama Sonora Rally in 2018 – a race he won, garnering him an entry into the 2019 Dakar Rally in Peru.
“Then everything, like a flood, became a reality,” Howes said.
The 2019 Dakar Rally would prove to be quite the testing ground for the young racer who at that time was starting at only his third stage rally race.
“I was way overwhelmed,” he said. “I had no idea what I was doing.”
Howes started the race plagued by the flu and already feeling disoriented. On the third day of the 10-day rally a kid on a scooter on the side of the highway swerved in front of Howes, causing him to crash and dislocate his shoulder.
Not wanting to quit, he popped his shoulder back into place and rode into the pits where he was able to fix his bike, tape his injured shoulder and get ready to start the next day of racing.
Howes had a few good days of racing and was able to break into the top 20 overall, but a crash on the sixth stage popped his shoulder out again, and he was unable to pop it back into place this time.
Howes is no stranger to injuries; Jan Howes jokingly said there is a plaque in the emergency room of the Intermountain Dixie Regional Medical Center that says “paid for by Skyler Howes’ mom.”
Still, he did not give up on his rally racing dreams. Thanks to Poucher and other sponsors like the Lake Powell Off-Road Association, he continued to race – and win – in prestigious rally’s like the Morocco Desert Challenge, the second largest rally-raid after Dakar.
“I was able to go and get a lot more experience under my belt,” Howes said.
But even with some big wins and a lot more experience, getting to and competing in the Dakar Rally this year was filled with ups and downs.
Just four months prior to the race that began Jan. 5, Howes broke his neck and was unable to do anything but heal for three months. Once he was finally given the green light to get back on the bike, he had only three weeks to get back in shape and physically and mentally prepare for the race.
Howes had a great first week of riding at the 2020 Dakar. He was able to go from starting at the 60th spot to breaking the top 20 and then the top 10, where he was able to consistently stay.
But on stage 7 of the race, Howes saw the death of fellow racer Paulo Goncalves just minutes after it happened, a sight he said he will never be able to unsee.
The death of Goncalves, one of the best riders in the world, took its toll on all the riders, Howes said. Organizers cancelled the eighth stage so that the rest of the racers could process the events of the previous day, but he said continuing on was emotionally difficult.
The race would ultimately claim the life of two dirt bike riders. Dakar organizers confirmed that on Jan. 24 motocross rider Edwin Straver passed away from injuries sustained during a crash in the 11th stage of the race.
As racing continued, Howes navigated through sandstorms and giant dunes, pinning his Husqvarna 450 to its absolute limit. Toward the end of the race, he had some mechanical issues with the bike that slowed him down, but he held on with the same determination that got him there and ended up in ninth place overall.
In addition to finishing in the top 10 overall, Howes took first place in the privateer category, meaning he was the first nonfactory-sponsored racer to cross the finish line.
Unlike a factory racing team that has funding and a large support crew, sometimes including massage therapists, Howes said, he had a mechanic and Poucher, who also was racing. Howes was there basically on his own dollar with support from his generous sponsors.
Howes also walked away with the overall win in the amateur super production bike category.
The 2020 Dakar Rally bike category saw history being made for racers from the United States, with three Americans finishing in the top 10, including the overall win for Honda racer Ricky Brabec.
Friends and family of Howes gathered Monday night to celebrate their hometown hero at Rocky Mountain ATV, where Howes once dumpster dived for spare parts.
“He’s always been so dedicated to the sport and trying to reach his dreams,” Bobbi Hughes said. Hughes’ sons grew up riding with Howes, she said, adding that it has been both hard watching all that Howes has been through and incredible watching all that he has accomplished.
The night was probably most emotional for Howes’ parents, who have supported him since before his feet could find the ground on his motorcycle.
“This is his dream, he is living his dream since he was 3 years old,” Jan Howes said. “He is doing what other people talk about. … It’s awe-inspiring to me to see him grow into this type of a man.”
Though he has a full race calendar ahead of him this year, for now Howes is happy to be home in the place where he first learned to love riding.
“St. George is my home, and it always will be my home,” he said. “I love it here.”
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