American driver Robby Gordon won the first stage of the Dakar Rally as the world's most grueling road race got under way Friday.
Driving a Volkswagen in his first appearance in the event, Gordon finished the 6km prologue along a beach outside Barcelona in 4 minutes and 20 seconds, becoming the first American to win a car stage in the Dakar rally.
Gordon, a successful Indianapolis and NASCAR racer, surprised the rest of the field on a very soft surface, coming in two seconds ahead of second-place Hiroshi Masuoka of Japan and three ahead of Giniel De Villiers of South Africa.
According to the Gordon's Web site, he is known "for his racing exploits, which include sports car class wins in the Daytona 24 Hours and numerous single-seater and stock car victories."
"Gordon is no stranger to off-road competition and is a two-time winner of the most famous US rally, the Baja 1,000," the site added.
Titleholder Stephane Peterhansel of France had to settle for ninth, while Britain's Colin McRae was eighth.
Peterhansel is the favorite to defend his title as a record number of competitors drove on the opening day of the race which ends Jan. 16 in Dakar, Senegal.
Peterhansel won the four-wheel event last year, becoming only the second man to win in both a car and motorbike categories.
The French driver is seeking a 10th title for Mitsubishi in the 8,956km race.
The first day of racing featured three stages totaling 50km, of which only the short, special stage along the beach was timed and counted toward the final race results.
David Fretigne aboard a Yamaha won the motorbike special stage in a time of 4 minutes, 11 seconds.
Hans Bekx of the Netherlands won in the truck category in a DAF, clocking 5 minutes and 20 seconds.
The race begins in earnest today with a 920km leg from Barcelona to the southern Spanish city of Granada.
A total of 696 vehicles -- cars, motorbikes and trucks -- took part in the 27th edition of the rally, an increase of more than 20 percent on 2004. In all, 39 nations were represented.
Barcelona will host two more stages before entrants travel through Morocco, Mauritania, Mali and Senegal.
The race has been shortened considerably with 2,134km cut from the distance raced in 2004.
It includes a punishing 660km slog across the Sahara desert from Zouerat to Tichit in Mauritania and a staggering 819km journey from Kiffa to Bamako, the capital of Mali.
As a mark of respect to three-time motorcycle winner Richard Sainct, who died after an accident during the Rally of the Pharaohs in Egypt in September, the number-one jersey was not be issued for this rally. The Frenchman was runner-up in last year's Dakar Rally.