Robby Gordon won the first stage of the Dakar Rally, a 6km super special, on the Castelldefels beach near Barcelona.
Gordon is a Nascar and Indy Racing star in the USA
The first win by an American in the car category, the Volkswagen driver clocked four minutes 20.2 seconds to beat Japan's Hiroshi Masuoka by 2.7secs.
Britain's Colin McRae, driving a Nissan in his second Dakar Rally, was eighth.
David Fretigne, on a Yamaha, won the motorbike race, clocking 4min 11.6sec to edge out KTM rider and fellow Frenchman Cyril Despres by 8.1sec.
"It wasnt easy because the sand was really soft after the jumps," said Gordon, a former Nascar and Champ Car driver in the United States driving in his first Dakar Rally.
McRae and co-driver Tina Thorner in their Nissan
"I was really excited at the start especially with such a crowd. I feel lucky to be here."
The first woman to cross the line was Jutta Kleinschmidt of Germany, sixth in her Volkswagen, with former rally driver Ari Vatanen seventh and last year's winner Stephane Peterhansel in ninth.
Following this special stage, the competitors must complete a 17km untimed section back to Barcelona from where they will start Saturday's 920km, second stage to Granada in the south.
In total, 686 vehicles, with 463 racing and 223 support vehicles, are officially taking
part in this 27th edition of the rally.
There are 164 cars, 230 motorbikes, including six quads and a side-car, and 69 lorries competing.
The 8,956km, 16-stage event goes through Spain, Morocco, Mauritania and Mali before finishing in Senegal's capital city Dakar on 16 January.
First stage results:
1. Robby Gordon (US) Volkswagen 4min 20.2sec
2. Hiroshi Masuoka (Jap) Mitsubishi 2.7sec behind
3. Giniel De Villiers (SA) 3.5
4. Bruno Saby (Fra) Volkswagen 5.6
5. Luc Alphand (Fra) Mitsubishi 7.8
6. Jutta Kleinschmidt (Ger) Volkswagen 9.9
7. Ari Vatanen (Fin) Nissan 12
8. Colin McRae (GB) Nissan 13.9
13. Juha Kankkunen (Fin) Volkswagen 23.2
1. David Fretigne (Fra) Yamaha 4min 11.6sec
2. Cyril Despres (Fra) KTM 8.1sec behind
3. Eric Verhoef (Ned) KTM 13.0
4. Arjan Brouwer (Ned) Yamaha 21.0
5. Kellon Walch (US) KTM 26.7
6. Janis Vinters (Lat) KTM 28.1