2014 Baja 1000, through Josh’s Eyes

In May of 2010 we bought a car and stripped it down. This was going to be our race car and we were certain that we would be racing it this year. Our ambition was as big as many of our accomplishments in the past, but our new project was much larger than anticipated. Fast forward to November of 2014 and we are crossing into Mexico with our car in tow. It was surreal. It was unbelievable. This project had begun to feel like it was perpetual, but our goal was being realized.

We were about to campaign a 1970 VW bug that we built from the bottom up in Class 11 at the Baja 1000 and we were just rolling into Contingency. For those who are not in the know, Contingency is a party, it is a tech inspection and it is a great social event where you get a chance to meet and greet with all the other great people who are about to accept the same challenge you have accepted: 1275 miles of the best (or worst, depending on your perspective) the Baja Peninsula has to throw at you. The experience of signing almost anything that slows down in front of you, handing out “steekers” to every person you see and basically being a celebrity for a day is nearly overwhelming. Sitting in the driver seat of the race car as a million tiny hands reach in for a sticker is actually equal parts thrilling and claustrophobic. When we finally reached our turn for tech inspection we breezed through. Our car has been built for battle and it is well over built for safety. Our new friend Art Savedra was already familiar with the car as well since we flew him to Colorado weeks before to make sure we didn’t run into any surprises when we were in Mexico.

With the car through tech inspection the team split up. Chase all began to work through the plan and discuss any changes and concerns. We just added three last minute members to our chase plan they each have extensive time in Baja. Look up “Fire Guys Racing” and you will quickly learn about Jason Hutter, Mark Murrell and Paul Massey. The team was making final preparations to the car and I was left in Ensenada to tend to the formalities. My duty was to go to the drivers meetings. I got there a little early and sat down looking to take in the entire experience and in walks a man who I feel like I know, but I have never met. Malcolm Smith walks in, looks at the seat beside me and asks if it’s open. Since he is probably the nicest person I have ever met we chatted for a good amount of time, he asked about my car, told me about the course and more. It turns out he is very familiar with some of the racing we do in Colorado, our hill climb series and of course he has competed at Pikes Peak. What a great experience!

Race day came pretty quickly and our plans were put into motion. The Driving duo we dubbed “the Matt’s” took the car from the start line. We chased and intersected the course to watch them pass a number of times. The car was just running along solidly and we were glad to see them without issue. Evan Chute and I waited at Race Mile 85 or so for the car to arrive. Our cleanliness was fading with the sunset and just as the sun disappeared behind the horizon the car arrived. Fuel was on E and we were anticipating better fuel economy. The car took nearly 13 gallons and we only have a 15 gallon tank! We loaded up and Matt Fisher grabbed my helmet, looked me in the eye and said “this is the greatest thing we have ever done.”
We tore out on course, 1 mile of speed zone and we actually reached the max speed! We ducked into the course and immediately we were in whoops. The course was great actually, we were making great time but fuel was already dwindling when we made it back to the highway. Turns out we had a fuel leak. Our crew found and fixed the situation and before we knew it we were climbing the mountain passes near Valley de Trinidad. This was like home turf to us. The roads are exactly what we see in Colorado and we made great time through there. We passed a couple chase trucks, caught a couple 19 cars and we were through checkpoints before we knew it.

The darkness seemed to become it’s own entity very quickly despite the fact that it was dark the entire time we were in the car. We droved down this tunnel of light that we were producing and regardless of how much light we had, we could always use more. The events through the night began to blend together, locations and time were lost and everything became limited to a race mile designation. We encounterered booby traps that ranged from a small peak added to the middle of a trail or a reasonably large trench dug out of the trail to metal poles stuck into a cattle grate. We rolled up on two locals who ran out to tell us about a Trophy Truck that had rolled. “You have to go around” tentatively we started going the way they suggested but quickly we became suspicious. After scoping the situation I went to talk to the trophy truck team. Turns out it was Mike Palmer out of Colorado and after a quick chat the trail was cleared and we passed on by. Soon we approached a skull and crossbones on the GPS and we eased over the edge to a steep downhill. The back of the car slid a little to the side and I chased it but immediately regretted that decision as I put the car into a ditch. If only I just let off the brakes and just let’er roll! It was too late for that, we radioed with no response and started digging, soon we got a quick tug out of the ditch and were on our way… Soon is what it felt like, but now I think it was probably an hour that we were stuck. Onward into the darkness and we came across Silt. Everyone tells you about silt, but it is something you can’t understand until you are standing up to your calves in the stuff trying to figure out what the hell just happened. The Fire guys came to our rescue a bunch of times as we learned what this mystery substance was but my favorite experience was on a lonely hillside of silt, we nearly made it to the side of the trail with a bit of traction when we got stuck. We were digging and preparing some brush to give us some traction when a little truck shows up on the horizon. There are no roads, just brush and desert terrain and this little truck pulls up and two guys hop out, they immediately start digging and in a flash we are back in the car. We harnessed up as they drove away and just disappeared into the night.

At some point it became apparent that we were well behind Checkpoints. “You have 60 minutes to go 60 miles” I heard as we were getting fuel in a dirt parking lot. I remembered the BFG notes, “silt beds” were listed and the distance to the next note was “10 miles” This could be tricky, but we were determined to give it a go. Anything we could go fast on we did. Long straightaways, fast rocky sections, we moved as quick as we could, but silt is unreal. Every time we saw silt we lost a minimum of 10 minutes and it could easily be an hour before we were completely out. We entered the last silt bed only to find out that we were in probably the worst part of the bed we could be in. We had chase vehicles on their way to help give a quick tug but I was digging. Evan said “just save your energy, they are on their way” I responded “If I stop moving now, I will stop moving period.” Turns out this tug was unlike any previous assistance we had. The course had a 45 degree vertical wall just ahead of us and this tug was more of a roller coaster ride than some roller coasters I had been on before. We probably went 200ft, but wow, I will remember that forever.

We unhooked and the sun had risen, Evan swore it was 1 am, but it was closer to 6 at this point. Ahead of us was dirt roads and I know dirt roads. With Evan shouting out the next turn and me with the ability to have a good visual of that call I was able to really start moving. Evan says we hit 70 at points along this and I don’t doubt him. The Fire Guys later told me they had no idea how we got away from them so fast. There is a trick to dirt roads in Mexico though, they aren’t exactly like roads in the US. At any point there could be pretty massive water damage, a roll, a dip or something that is pretty nutty. We saw a little road damage ahead, but it looked pretty mellow, no need to slow down…. then it was just in front of us. It was a bit more extensive than we expected, but still, the little bug could deal with it. Then we were in the air, nose down, all we see is a dirt road passing by through the windshield, no sky, no horizon, just dirt road. In my mind I though “if this bumper catches when we land we are going end over end” my reactions put my foot on the floor and my grip tightened around the wheel… The car came down and the front wheels touched down first, the car swapped from side to side a bit and we didn’t miss a beat. Evan, through his laughter called out the next note as I apologized and drifted around the next turn. Soon we were looking for an intersection, we had a left turn to make and all we could see was water. A big flooded intersection was ahead of us and well, if we don’t have to go through water, we aren’t going to. We cut through a small irrigation ditch and hooked a left on the dirt road again. As we got on the gas the car started to shake. The feeling was alien as the back end dropped to the ground and we slid to the edge of the road.

Evan radioed to the chase crew that we had a problem and I hopped out “we lost our rear wheel!” He called it in. As we took in the situation we discovered that our stub axle broke. This holds our rear wheel on so our wheel just slid on off the remaining stub axle and here we were stuck on the side of the road. Over the radio we relayed the parts we needed, soon all hands were on deck and the fix was nearly complete. We loaded “the Matt’s” into the car and they were off. A short distance down the road we were stopped again, this time it was because we had decisions to make.

We knew the possibility of timing out was very good and our intention was to press on, as far as we could go and as far as the car would go. One thing we hadn’t considered was how timing out would affect our fueling plan. With fuel waiting for us at all the pits we were unfortunately watching our fuel plan go up in smoke as each one of the pits closed ahead of us. We had a decision to make. Either we could exhaust our team even more by forcing our chase crew to figure out how to get fuel to the car when it was needed or we could call it. Our Chase crew was working on no sleep in over 24 hours and decision-making was already suffering. The Matt’s asked everyone what their opinion was. The only response I could muster was “I’d love to see you guys have more time in the car.” And with that our race was over. 300 miles of the course was behind us with 975 left untouched by our tires.

Our car was never-endingly impressive. Baja Designs lights lit up the night, BFG tires barely looked used and Rugged Radios were clear as day. The design we created for the car was solid and in conjunction with the Fox Shox, it took everything that Baja could throw at us. We will make two adjustments to the car before our next race. #1, we are going to need a larger air intake with a particulate prefilter and #2, we are going to raise up the suspension a little more to gain a bit of clearance. We have to say thank you to Painters Grinding for the fantastic engine they built for us, to Scott at MetalCraft for a bombproof transmission that never ceased to amaze and to everyone that has supported us over the years.

Here are a few more of our sponsors, we definitely encourage you to support those who support racing!
Rock Barbers
Gates
MaxTrax
Oakley
MasterCraft
Rusty’s Offroad
23 deluxe
J Paks Adventure bags

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4 Comments

  1. Paul Hartl says:

    Great write-up and you did amazing! It was nice to meet you and all the best in the future Baja races.

  2. Keller Crowley says:

    Bravo Project Baja Bravo

  3. Brad and Kathy Smith says:

    Great job!! We enjoyed immensely reading your chronicle of the race. We could feel your exhilaration, pride and of course the rough terrain. Your entire team is amazing! Next year I can see Project Baja with all 1275 miles in the rear view mirror. I wear my Project Baja t shirt with pride. And thanks to Evan for the patches and “steekers”. Brad and Kathy Smith

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