Just in case you were wondering…
Story by Matt Wilson
The trailer was loaded with enough food, tools, and supplies for 14 days on the road. We planned for everything. Extra transmission, axles, tires; and pretty much enough parts to make a second car. We had our passports, permission letters, pesos, maps, and antibiotics. We took first aid lessons. We felt prepared and ready.
We set off on a Thursday. I drove the Canyonero – a 2000 Ford Excursion V10, pulling our 18-foot Haulmark race trailer. It felt heavy and slow. We had a long way to go to get from Colorado to Ensenada. After getting lost and turning around in a Home Depot parking lot, I picked up the rest of the main driving team in Golden. We loaded up the remaining personal items and headed west.
The weather was nice, and perfect for driving. Fisher tackled the initial climb up the hill on I-70 was brutal. 4,000 RPM in 1st gear towing this seemingly immovable object. Once we got past the first few hills things seemed to level-out. We certainly were on our way – next stop Las Vegas!
After about five fuel stops, (one of them, nearly clipping a gas pump with the trailer) and an In-N-Out Burger, we arrived in Las Vegas late Thursday night. We chose The Orleans hotel casino for its low room rate and easy trailer parking. The Orleans isn’t a very new hotel. The typical Las Vegas casino, dressed-up in tacky mardis gras theme – complete with a bar adorned with large fiberglass ‘gators. We headed up to the 8th floor and promptly went to bed. Instantly Evan began to snore. He was having back pain the last few weeks and was unable to sleep on his side. This resulted in a deep baritone, thunderous cacophony which instantly awoke Fisher. He promptly shot out of bed, ran to the bathroom, and grabbed all the towels. He lay back down in bed and proceeded to lob towels at Evan’s head, in an attempt to dissuade him from snoring. It didn’t work.
We got up the next morning, ate an uninspired breakfast in the hotel. Nobody wanted to shoot machine guns, so we headed out to California. We briefly stopped in Primm to ride the rollercoaster, but it was closed, so we continued on.
After another couple gas stops and another In-N-Out Burger, we arrived in San Diego. We were fortunate enough to stay with a very nice family who was also involved in the Baja race. Their Lakeside home had plenty of parking for our tow rig as well as accommodations for garage and the entire crew – even a pool. We took the opportunity to do a few last minute adjustments on the car. I re-jetted the carburetor, adjusted the timing, and tightened a torsion spring. Josh finished cutting the corners off of our BF Goodrich All-Terrains. The car was running like a champ, even with the odd rattling sound.
After a couple of stops at Kinko’s for their excellent printing services, our plan was to be packed-up and ready to go across the border directly after the BF Goodrich pit meeting. That didn’t happen. We stayed one more night in Lakeside and set out first thing in the morning for the border.
Crossing the border was fairly easy, especially with our early hour and very experienced escorts – several slaloms of concrete, follow the arrows and there we were, first in line. The Mexican border agent was a nice woman – she simply glanced into the trailer and into the back of the Canyonero. She spoke very little English, and I was not able to recall much of my Spanish at this point. We understood each other and I locked-up the trailer. We scurried off to get our tourist visas, which took $25 and a few minutes. We were ready to continue through Tijuana.
Tijuana is a dump. If there’s not a moving vehicle, people and garbage occupy the remaining space. Stray dogs, both alive and dead, litter the streets. The air instantly smelled foul. Needless to say we pressed south.
The scenery opened up the further south we travelled. The Ocean was visible to our right and the coast was peppered with cantinas and small seafood restaurants. We eventually arrived in Ensenada. The city itself was bustling with people, traffic, hotels, restaurants, and race preparations. We pressed further south through the city to a quiet respite called Las Cañadas. Las Cañadas consisted of a dozen small cabins perched on a hill, opposed by an equally large hill. The valley below supplied the campsites, mini golf, dirt bike trails and other family fun. The hills we conjoined with several ziplines.
We stayed at Las Cañadas for two nights, studying our race books, sewing our race suits, resting and getting organized. Day two, we headed into town to finish our registration. We split into two teams: drivers (Josh and Fisher) and co-drivers (Evan and Wilson). Since we needed several tracking devices installed in the race car, Josh and Fisher used the race car to get around town. We parked the trailer in a dirt lot for $16 and Evan and I went on foot, tasked to get final GPS data loaded and internet access secured. It was hot out, so we went to a gringo coffee shop for refreshment and to ask for directions to a TelCel outlet to buy internet service. We then headed to contingency row to talk to the Lowrance GPS folks and buy the remaining course map overlays that we required. We stopped in the center of the town at the registration booth, bought a hat and rejoined the group. At this point my Spanish started to return and I gave a middle-aged woman directions to the bathroom. After chatting with Rugged Radios, we loaded up the car and scoped-out the starting line and Ensenada Hotel. We drove to Wal-Mart and to the TelCel outlet then headed down BC23 toward La Bufadora to meet up with Paul, Jason and Mark. There was still one more hoop to jump through: contingency.
Armed with hero cards, stickers, temporary tattoos and Sharpies, we drove the car in to contingency, arriving about 6:50 AM. We were in line behind a Pro Truck and ahead of a bright yellow class 10 buggy, about 75 cars deep and in for a long day. The line snaked through the city streets of Ensenada and did not move for at least two hours. The entire day was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It was a non-stop mob of people demanding, pointing, clawing for stickers and autographs. Loud music constantly blared. The smell of roasted meats and cigarettes hung in the air. Vendors selling everything from hats, to food, to slingshots peddled their wares and added to the mêlée. We pushed our little Volkswagen for 11 hours through the streets toward our final safety inspection. As we neared the end of the parade, we were joined by our family and friends, who flew-in to California and drove across the border.
Two people only were allowed into the tech inspection. I was joined by Matt Fisher and my Dad. We were instantly greeted by the friendly embrace of Mr. Art Savedra. His team attached three different tracking devices, and we proceeded to pull out and lay out all the race suits and helmets, assuming they are checking the car for class legality as well as all the safety equipment, seat belts, etc. Instead, Art signed-off and waved us through. I promptly got in the car and drove it around the block. We regrouped and headed back to La Bufadora for last-minute car adjustments and pre-race meeting and dinner.
We pulled the middle skid plate to check front transaxle mount security, did one last brake shoe adjustment, filled the car with snacks and water, and checked the oil.
Matt Fisher, Gina and I stayed at La Bufadora the night before the race. The rest of the team headed back to the hotel in Ensenada. We ate, showered and went to bed. My bed was not warm. I shivered and hardly slept. We didn’t need to start lining-up for the starting line until about 1:30PM. We suited-up in full Nomex jump suits and gloves. We drove the car into town, gassing-up at a local Pemex station. The fuel attendant requested a picture, and autograph, and sent us in our way with a hearty “suerte!”. (Good luck!) We parked in line behind three other Class 11 cars and several Class 19 vehicles. Sportsman’s buggies and trucks lined-up behind us. It was hot. We baked in the 85 degree sun. We stripped down out of the Nomex, removed our helmets and gloves and waited. As I waited in the shade in front of a hardware store, my catheter instantly soaked my left sock. Still a few people asked for pictures and autographs. I met Jim Graham and shook his hand. The line moved quickly. We were then joined by Class 11 legend Eric Solarzano in his silver 1111 car. I shook his hand and took a picture, then it was back to last minute preparations. Cars lined up behind us: 1107 (Jim), 1121 (Dennis), 1189 (Guys from Big Bear) and 1111 (Eric). The pace quickened. We pushed the car down the hill and around the corner and tried to start it – it didn’t start! As Fisher frantically tried to reach behind himself sitting in the driver’s seat, while the car was rolling to turn the key, one of the 1121 drivers ran up beside our rolling car and connected our battery key. Amateurs.
We got the car started. We got buckled. We approached the starting gate. I booted up our GPS and held on. Rows of people cheered us on as we drove through the streets of Ensenada. We blew past the stop signs and traffic signals and finally turned right over a small hill and into the wash. People lined up for blocks peering down into the wash, watching the race traffic. They cheered us on as Fisher worked his way up through the gears. With the pedal to the floor in 3rd gear, we ran into a patch of mud. The mud took the car a bit sideways, but we fish-tailed our way out of it. Spectators thinned as we distanced ourselves from the starting gate.
The car felt great. Lots of power. Comfortable and smooth. She handled the bumps just fine. We were flying. We followed the GPS trail and had a plan for a driver change at race mile 80. The swarm of Class 19 vehicles began to pass in rhythm, only a few race miles in. My initial fear that they would be aggressive was put at ease with the sportsman-like passing and repeated thumbs ups. Since we were headed east, and the sun was starting to set, we had awful glare. I could hardly see the GPS. I pressed the (+) button to zoom in. The GPS instantly went to a blank white screen. A moment of panic set in. Luckily we were getting steadily passed by sportsman vehicles as well as 1121 and 1107. we weren’t lost.
We pressed forward through the crowds of people, opposing traffic on course, livestock, booby trap pits, rocks and dust. Dusk was beginning to settle in, and we had a long way to go. We charged up a steep rocky hill into a level, wide-open clearing. Silt. Three feet deep, a quarter-mile wide. Fisher steered us right, toward the shrubbery, but momentum was lost. We were stuck like a spitball shot at the wall.
Moments later, much to my surprise, 1107 came flying up the same hill. They instantly got stuck about 20 feet to our left and 20 feet ahead of us. I was ready to rip of my harness, disconnect my radio and breathing air, unlatch my secondary door latch, climb out of the car and start digging, pushing, bouncing etc. Instead two teams of Mexicans came running out – one to 1137 and the other to 1107. It was now a race between who would get unstuck first. With a combination of pushing, sand ladders and gassing in 1st gear we freed ourselves from the silt – 1107 was not far behind. I instructed Fisher to ‘hug the edge of the pool’. Sorry nature, but we kept our wheels in the shrubs.With the continual race traffic it was difficult to keep up momentum on a sandy, silt hill and let faster vehicles pass us. We saw lights in the mirrors and planned for a safe pass. Fisher veered left to a wide embankment away from the ruts and into the shrubs, but it was too late. A blue and white sportsman’s truck passed on a tight left and ran right over our left rear fender, completely caving it in. The combination of stopping, and getting smooshed into the silt, got the little car stuck again. Unfortunately we had no bystanders to push us this time. I told Fisher that if we get free, to just keep going until he’s sure to not be stuck. I disconnected and excitedly jumped out of the car. I kept an eye down the hill for oncoming traffic. I pulled the MaxTrax (sand ladders) out of the back of the rear window opening and shoved one ahead of the right rear wheel. I ran around to the left side and shoved the other ahead of the left rear wheel. The wheels spun. I shoved and dug the boards under the tires. Fisher floored it. The car climbed right up on top of the two blue boards and out of the pits we’d dug. He was parked in a good spot on some shrubs so I grabbed both boards and secured them in the back window. More race traffic passed to our right, kicking up dust and debris. As he tried to pull out of the way, the car got a little stuck. Out of nowhere two Mexican men ran up behind me and assisted in pushing the car to get it going. I thanked them and began running up the sandy hill after the 1137.
I ran about 100 yards until I started walking. I was suffocating in my Nomex jumpsuit and helmet, which only amplified my breathing. My glasses fogged. It was getting dark. I could see up the hill and down the hill. I was all alone. I kept walking in the ankle-deep sand, where 3 steps forward was only 2. One 19 car passed, then shortly after a 10 car. I kept walking.Behind me I could see a black Ford F-150 driving on course. He pulled over right beside men and rolled down his window. He said nothing but only motioned with his thumb. I climbed on the right rear tire and jumped in the back of the open pickup amongst the tools and junk in the bed. I held onto a generator with my left hand and a loose ratchet strap with my right hand. I stood half crouched atop tools and blankets, using my knees to steady myself. He slowly drove up the hill. Not for 2-3 miles did we see 1137 sitting on the left with the engine off. The man politely pulled over to let me jump out. I thanked him for saving my life and I climbed back into the Beetle.
I did a quick math equation in my head. We were consuming way too much fuel. The assumed 10mpg was slashed to 5mpg. With a 15 gallon tank and no fuel until RM80 we were going to be in a severe situation. Fisher started the car as I fumbled with my harness and air connection. I got four out of five points attached and my visor was severely fogged. We radioed our status to the chase crew and charged ahead.
We still were taking on some race traffic from behind from not only sportsman’s vehicles, but vehicles that were temporarily broken down. A red Class 10 rail buggy that we passed 30 miles ago finally was trying to catch up. It squeezed through to our right, biting into our right front fender, leaving tire marks and scars from its bead locker bolts. Even though I didn’t see a race mile marker until race mile 65, I was calling out to our support crew in the Ford Raptor: “1137 race to 1137 chase, we’re running A-okay”.
It was fully dark when we pulled into a bustling Baja Pits 1 RM80 where supposedly more capable vehicles were already retreating on their trailers. We climbed out of the car and let the crew fuel and check the vehicle. They checked lug nut torque, and the engine timing and we pulled the smashed fender out of the way of the tire. No smoking guns telling us why the fuel consumption was cut in half. Evan swapped the faulty GPS memory chip and Josh climbed in the driver’s seat. They were gone before we knew it.
We ate a quick snack and then jumped into the chase vehicles – Fisher in Chase 2 and me in Chase 1. We had to chase on-course to traverse in time for the driver change. We determined that we need to figure out the fuel consumption issue right away. After a few miles, we stopped to fuel the chase vehicles at a Pemex station and pulled off on the opposite side of the road to set up an impromptu pit. I pulled out my tool kit, carburetor jets, screwdrivers and a few wrenches. 1137 rounded the corner on the pavement and down the hill, then pulled in for service. They shut off the engine, and we went to work. I loosened the hose clamp for the carburetor hat and fuel connection, as well as the throttle cable and two M8 nuts. I swapped the 122.5 main jet for the 120 jet and put the carburetor back together. I ran to the front where the rest of the team was under the hood looking at the fuel cell. I immediately noticed that the gasket for the sending unit was improperly seated and pinched between the sender and cell. I handed Paul a Phillip’s head screwdriver to repair the loose sender. He also noticed the fuel fill inlet connection was not tight. We buttoned up, topped-off with fuel and fired the engine. Off they drove into the night.
We hopped back into the chase vehicles and headed on-course for BFG Pit 1. Still excited and slightly hyperthermic, the bumpy, slosh-y backseat of the chase truck turned my stomach. Motion sickness was setting in. All I could do to not vomit was to shut my eyes and focus on breathing. The heavy breaths only made it worse. My arms started to tingle as I hyperventilated. I had to slow down. Two miles shy of BFG 1 I had Jason pull the truck over. I stumbled out of the back door of the truck and took a moment. I loosened my stifling race suit and got my feet on the ground. After a pee break and fresh air we all piled back into the truck toward BFG 1. We missed our driver change by 30 minutes since the chase wasn’t fully able to keep up with the race. The race car fueled and left before we even showed up. Fisher and I both got into Chase 3. I laid down, still sick.
We drove to our next pit location off the highway across from an establishment called The Bar. We parked at about 10:30 PM and waited. We tried to sleep, but every few minutes the doors to the truck would open, turning on all the dome lights. We waited. Every few minutes we’d see a race vehicle pass and chase vehicles blast down the highway. 1111 passed and was expected to be about 20 minutes ahead of 1137. Radio chatter also prevented sleep. Every few minutes We’d hear Josh on the radio – which meant Evan wasn’t in the car. “1137 Race to 1137 Chase – we’re stuck”. Eventually we waited for Evan’s voice to come back on the radio. “1137 Race to 1137 Chase, we’re A-okay”. This cycle continued throughout the night. Hours passed, The Bar was hopping. Then longer we waited, the louder the karaoke got. After midnight a 1960’s Mustang with a broken taillight came flying down the highway, did two donuts in the dirt parking lot in front of The Bar, and then sped off in the same direction. About 2:00AM two young boys came up knocking on our windows asking for something to eat. The cycle continued “1137 Race to 1137 Chase – we’re stuck”. It was the worst feeling in the world, knowing someone is in trouble, and not able to do anything about it.
Finally in the wee hours of the morning 1137 came down the hill and pulled in front of the bar. They received some fuel, then passed through the white gate and up the next silt-y hill. We could see their headlamps and they nearly got stuck driving up this next hill. By now the engine was gasping for air as the air filter was clogged with fine silt. 1137 had to be push started to get going again. I asked about the fuel intake, did another math calculation – we were back up to 10mpg. What a relief!Still sick to my stomach, we headed out down the highway in Chase 3. We pitted in the dirt shoulder an hour before daybreak in front of a primary school, Escuela Primera de Santa Maria. My dad got out and started setting up a small camp kitchen to make coffee. I stood outside nervously awaiting the next driver change, trying to wretch and vomit, to get this sickness out of my system. I walked around the dirt and rubble, garbage and stray animals. It was very quiet, no more race vehicles or chase vehicles were in our vicinity. I sipped half my coffee before spilling it. Then we got word that 1137 was broken. Via satellite phone, radio and cell phone it was determined that a rear trailing arm was damaged. Fisher and I hopped in Chase 2 with spare parts and tools.
With the sunrise, people got a second wind. We back tracked about 20 minutes on the empty course and headed to the broken car. Chase 1 was with them already and had the car lifted and tools ready. Josh and Evan looked exhausted. 1137 was filled with brown silt. I grabbed a few tools and told them to take a break. We went to work.
The left rear trailing arm had come down hard on something, which snapped the end off of the chromoly stub axle and bent the brake backing plate, severely galling the brake drum and shattering a brake shoe. Evan actually found the 36mm axle nut about 50 yards behind the car. Needles to say the wheel fell off, drum and all. They were stuck, having trouble removing the six CV bolts from the stub axle. I promptly installed the drum back onto the broken off stub axle and jammed the wheel studs with a breaker bar. I then was able to use vice grips to remove the stripped bolts. I removed the broken stub axle, inspected and packed the bearings and installed the new axle and CV with new bolts. I bent the backing plate out of the way as to clear the drum and bolted it all together. I installed the broken brake shoe. The hardware that holds the shoe on the drum was missing, so I improvised with an old cotter pin. After all, we don’t want the wheel cylinder to blow out!
Something was still missing – a spacer 10mm thick which is normally sandwiched between the brake drum and outer roller bearing. Without this spacer, all the work would be for naught. Paul assured me this spacer was here. Exhausted, we all began frantically and carefully combing our fingers through the mushy brown silt. The rest of the crew looked in their tool boxes and parts boxes for anything that might work. I gave up. I knew we had one of these spacers back in Chase 3 and was ready to go back for it. Fisher used our little digging shovel to scratch at the soil underneath the car until he felt a solid *tink*. He grabbed at the ground and shook out the missing spacer! He tossed it to me. I cleaned it up and installed it. I torqued down the 36mm nut as tight as I could (247 ft-lbs) and popped in a new Cotter pin. Bobby checked the oil, air filter and carburetor hat connection. The steering box had nearly hammered itself apart, so we tightened that back down. Fisher and I jumped in the car – now with my motion sickness at bay, I got behind the wheel.
It fired right up and was running like a champ. Mark, Paul and Jason pushed the car out of the silt hole and away we went. The road ahead was a dirt country road. I floored it. I came up on a silt bed, but fair level. I downshifted into 2nd gear and punched right through – got a little sideways, fishtailed out, and shouted “yee haw”. We were moving again! I passed through some pasture land and a flock of sheep. Then eventually came up on a couple vehicles stopped in the road. One truck was Policia and the other was a civilian. “Should I nerf this cop?” “I don’t know…” The cop got moving and then pulled over to let me pass. I opened it up in 2nd gear and shifted into 3rd. We turned right and came up to a paved highway. We headed through a small town toward Highway 1 flat out 4th gear 75mph. We radioed-in and headed back to Chase 3 for remaining adjustments. I pulled-in and immediately jumped out of the car. I needed to adjust the brakes and steering box. A few minutes later Chase 2 and Chase 1 pulled up behind us.
It was determined that if we were to continue, it would be unsupported. All the pits would be closed. No medical support, and limited communication support. The checkpoints had all timed out. We were at race mile 265.Fisher and Evan went for one last ride on course, encountering silt, rocks, and a run-in with a nasty cactus, taking us to race mile 300.
We then rearranged the trailer, and admitted defeat. Concurrently the elementary school children were at the fence of their school chanting, demanding, haranguing, us for autographs. There was no letting-up. We all four went over with Sharpie’s in-hand. They wanted us to sign their shirts, hands, arms, anything – and we did.
We limped north for a few minutes in an exhausted daze and eventually landed at a nice little oceanside hotel Santa Maria. It featured a Saturday breakfast buffet, so I was sold. We checked-in, ate fish tacos and tequila, showered and went to bed – at about 4:00PM. I slept for about 20 hours.
The next couple days were spent playing on the beach, eating seafood, smoking cigars, drinking beer and resting. We felt like winners, even though we only drove 25% of the 1,275 race miles. We headed north up Highway 1 and toward the border. Every single little town has a speed bump, in Spanish “tope”. At each tope, we had to hand out stickers and autographs to the children, who live for this race. We briefly stopped in Ensenada where Christmas celebrations were already underway. We visited Hussong’s – the oldest Cantina in Mexico – apparently they invented the margarita!
It took two hours to cross the border at San Ysidro. Hundreds of cars converge 10 lanes wide, and travelling at about 1mph, between the traffic every 30 yards or so, are various taco carts and vendors, trying to make one last buck off of the travelers. As our trailer and side view mirrors scraped the awnings of the food carts, we finally got to the gate. The border agent was cordial and professional. Looked in the trailer. Checked our passports and we were on our way. We headed north to San Diego to the Naval lodge at Coronado. Reeking of gasoline, we stayed the night, soaked in the WiFi, ate the continental breakfast, said our goodbyes, and headed back to Denver. Josh, Evan and Gina were sick the entire way home so Fisher and I split the driving duties. Before we got out of California, we gassed-up, ate an In-N-Out Burger and helped a woman assess her overheated BMW. We stopped in Primm to visit Buffalo Bills Casino and the Tree Bar and possibly ride the rollercoaster – it was still closed. Evan nearly vomited in the casino when he caught a whiff that was described as “hot garbage”. Fisher won $20. I lost $20. We pressed east.
After dropping off everyone in Golden to grab their vehicles, we arrived back at the shop late to unload the car. We quickly unloaded and everyone went home, happy and weary. I towed the trailer home and after several attempts, parked it in front of my house. I promptly went to bed. The goal and dream of building a Class 11 car and driving in the Baja 1000 was attained.
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.