I seriously don’t even have words to explain what the hell just happened, but I’ll try a little bit.
Josh and I got in 1137 around Rm 80 and the car had already started to take a beating. Rear fenders were dented, engine was boggy and lacking power, it was missing a piece of headlight trim, the front fender had been run over by a 10 car, but overall we were (and still are) super impressed with how our little race car runs. Night dropped on us ridiculously quick once I was in as co-driver, and Baja at night is like visiting an alien planet with the odd shapes of the cactus and other foliage looming at you from everywhere. Thankfully we made both checkpoints 1 and 2 fairly uneventfully, and were keeping a pretty good pace despite the rough terrain. With the race car bogging we tried re-jetting the carburetor at a fuel stop to get more power, which didn’t seem to make much difference. We finally realized that the air filter had become clogged with sand and silt. We cleaned it out at the next fuel stop and instantly our little race car, who by now had affectionately been dubbed “Tope”, came roaring back to life. The terrain in Baja is unreal, I can try to describe it but until you’re IN it I just don’t think it can be understood. There where whoops as tall and deep as the car itself, rocks, alien plant life, rutted out goat paths, sand, impossibly steep hills, and silt.
Oh, the silt. Eff that stuff.
Running at night we were full-on tunnel vision mode, often only being able to use the low mounted lights on the car. Silt bed after silt bed we would get stuck, dig out, have a random Mexican show up out of nowhere and push us out, get towed out, or whatever. We were advised by our pit service, BFG Pits, that the next SCORE checkpoint was closing and that we weren’t going to start missing cutoff times for the checkpoints to be open. In addition the BFG Pits, which had the majority of our race fuel, were closing along with the checkpoints. We acknowledged that at this point were were ~2-3 hours back on closing times but knew we had some seriously long stretches of highway and smooth farm road coming up that we’d be able to maintain a much higher average speed and possibly make the time back up going in to Baja Sur. We decided to run.
After getting stuck in yet another long stretch of silt (and probably another and another), the sun started to come up and we got going on some really fast, wide-open dirt road and were feeling good about life. We had been in the car from dusk until dawn and were just 15-20 miles from our next fuel stop with Josh hanging it all out and Tope singing at the top of her lungs. It was glorious. And then the road narrowed with us going nearly 70mph, and a couple of rain runnels and huge bumps jumped out of what seemed like nowhere. Tope smashed into a ditch/bump thing and was pitched forward nose-down as all four wheels came off the ground. We were staring at dirt, convinced were were going ass over tea kettle. She came down nose hard, slammed the back end, swapped side to side a couple of times but miraculously Josh kept his foot in it and we eventually straightened out without losing much speed at all. After another couple of corners, we came up on a busted irrigation pipe spilling water all over a big corner on the course, and the only way around was to cut the corner through a ditch. After a couple run ups I convinced Josh that Tope could handle it and we were through the ditch and off, slowly getting back up to speed.
And then what felt like the entire back end fell out of the car.
We radioed the chase crew and let them know we were down and needed to assess the damage. Turns out we sheared the end of the stub axle clean off and lost the left rear wheel, with the brake drum still attached. We got our chase teams gathering necessary parts and headed towards us for a repair. We found the axle nut in the dirt nearly a quarter of a mile back from where Tope came to a stop. It took several hours to get Tope back in to running shape, and even then it was only with half of the brake shoes in the wheel that fell off. We were 8+ hours behind checkpoint closing times at this point, everyone had been awake for well over 24 hours, and we had decisions to make. Technically we could decide to keep running, we could see how far we could go in the 49 hour time limit. But it would be on our own—adding heaps of stress to an already ragged crew. They’d have to be not only sorting fuel for the chase vehicles but also for us since the BFG Pits were closing with the checkpoints. And with no way to make up the time to get back on top of the checkpoints closing we’d be out there. Like, really out there.
The decision came hard, but I think we made the smart choice. Going in to this we all read and re-read various “safety talks” and even had our own one night at the shop. We had decided as a team we were coming back from Baja. All of us. We felt pushing on at this point would compromise our safety and decision making. We had a hell of a run, and it exceeded all of our expectations in so many ways we cannot count. Don’t get me wrong, I would have ran. I WANTED to run. But I also knew then and know now that it wouldn’t have been the smart (or safe) choice. We put Fisher and Matt Wilson back in the car to run her out to where the next chase vehicle was parked so Matt W. (who co-drove the first leg) some time behind the wheel. Then from that point the course did a 20ish-mile dog-leg out then back to the highway, so I got back in the car with Fisher who drove a bit and then co-drove so I could get at least a few miles of time behind the wheel time as well. Those few miles solidified what will likely be a life-long attraction to this sport for me. A lot of folks I know say things like “It’d be awesome to get a ride in one of those Trophy Trucks!” but let me tell you this: driving a Class 11 in the Baja 1000 is worth so much more than riding along in a TT, any day, hands down. As compromised as she was, Tope goes.
This was honestly one of the most difficult things I have ever attempted in my life. Getting beat up for 13-1/2 hours dusk to dawn but grinning the entire time changed me in ways I can’t explain. There are so many more little stories (ask me about the cactus) than I have time or words to relate in this web post. I’ve been asked what I would do differently if knew now what I know. Funny how most every conversation the team had after the race seemed to start with “If we would have known…” The list is short-ish, but already started of stuff we’d change / do differently.
We probably won’t attempt the Baja 1000 again next year, but there is talk of doing some closer to us (and shorter distance) domestic races to get more experience of what the car is capable of. I certainly don’t think we drove her at her limits and we’ve got some learning to do in that respect. When we do decide the time is right to tackle the 1000 again I have no doubt we’ll go in more prepared than we were this year. It’s just a matter of how much more prepared will we be, and will it be enough?
Unreal. I’m still overwhelmed.
We couldn’t have done any of this without some great support so thank you to all of the great companies that have helped out Project Baja through the years.