Some experiences are so big that it takes a while to grasp how truly big it actually was. Thisexperience fits in that category. Three and a half years ago when we hatched this crazy idea I had no way of knowing just how big it would end up being. What at first seemed like a simple-ish drive through the Baja desert (we had no delusions that it would be easy…) in a modest 1970 VW beetle became a hub for life long friendship and a wealth of knowledge and one hell of a set of stories.
Racing the Baja starts with friends. I knew Josh and Evan, but Matt was new to us. We quickly became quite a tight group. We had many setbacks and upsets that would have shattered a lesser set. I don’t know of another group that would have survived the trials of money, time and commitment we had along the way. Through the 4 core friends the rest fell into place. We met racers and family and other friends throughout the project and put together a great team of people. Without that eclectic group coming together to support this project it would have never left the garage in Colorado.
The grandeur of the Baja 1000 really hit me when we rolled into San Diego. Josh casually mentioned something like, “hey guys, we’ve been in the truck for 2 days, driven 1100 miles, had 5 meals and slept through an entire night in a hotel. We haven’t even gone as far as we need to go in the bug yet…” For me that put it in perspective. This was going to be a big deal.
Desert racers are the best people. We spent the next few days in San Diego working on the car and resting with friends from the BFG radio relay team. We met them in Colorado when Art Savedra was out checking the car. We were welcomed into their home like we had known them for years. We were visited by some San Diego friends who wanted to see what it was all about while we worked. It was great to see everyone and it was a perfect place to get the car settled in to its new altitude. Once we had it dialed in we may have taken it for a little ride in the city… But don’t tell anyone.
From there it was on to Mexico! We woke up early and breezed through the border. We passed through Tijuana without stopping and aimed the truck south. Driving the coast was beautiful, full of colorful taco shops and little towns backdropped by the Pacific Ocean. We rolled through the countryside and down into Ensenada, which was bustling with race energy already. We passed through and went to our accommodation. We stayed in a tiny quiet cabin chopped into the side of a hill 40 minutes south of town. It was a perfect place to relax and get out the race books and study. We studied and planned and plotted. We sewed, we ate, we learned and we had a few Tecates.
Time for contingency.
Contingency was something I had heard a lot about from experienced people, and I was really looking forward to it. I knew it was going to be a zoo but just how much of a crazy scene it actually is, one can not know unless you have been there and done it.
It is a strange thing; being a hero. People pressed against each other, pushing for a chance at a sticker and your autograph. Everyone around wants your autograph. We arrived in the contingency line around 7 am and left sometime around 5 pm and did not stop signing cards, shirts and skin the whole time.
Many hours and countless sharpies later we finally reached the tech inspection area where the crowd was kept at bay by fences and guards. Time to get down to business, or so I thought. We had had our car inspected by Art in Colorado already. He was there and in charge of the inspection so it went really smoothly. We shared some stories, got some great recommendations from Art on where to go out in town, had our trackers installed and checked and got our helmet stickers. Matt W jumped into the car fired it up and rolled off. Just like that it was done. The team gathered together and headed back to the house for dinner and final inspection and adjusting of the car. Tomorrow was the big day.
For almost 4 years we had come together on Tuesday nights and many weekends. For 4 years we had been working on the car. We tore it down to absolutely nothing and rebuilt it like drill sergeants would a soldier. We took that stock VW beetle, a daily driver, and made it into a warrior. Now it was time to put it to the ultimate test.
We didn’t start until early afternoon so it was a relatively relaxed morning of getting dressed in the race gear and driving the car into Ensenada. We got a final fuel up and signed a few more autographs and took pictures at the gas station on the way. Matt W and I met up with the rest of the team and headed off to queue up for the main event. The line moved quickly and through a flurry of signing autographs and meeting the other class drivers we worked our way through town again.
Finally we got to the point when we had to strap in and hook up. It was time to drive. I finally felt comfortable. There was nothing but the car and the course. No more mobs, no more signing, no more waiting. We rolled over the ceremonial dirt mound in the street and right up to the line. There it was, the green flag that signifies the start of the Baja 1000. Right there, right in front of me. I shook the race directors hand and turned to watch the flag. “Are you ready for this?” I asked Matt. “Because it is about to happen. We are really doing this!”
The flag flipped up, I gunned it, let off the clutch and we were off! The blur of orange fence and cheering faces along the course was impressive and endless. There were so many people. I could tell that they were cheering and yelling by their expressions, but through the roar of the car and the helmets I could not hear them. I was in a tunnel and all I could see was the course in front of me and all I could hear was Matt. I felt the focus, the kind I had not really felt since my mountain bike racing days. It felt good.
We roared into the iconic arroyo that cuts through Ensenada and pinned it! It was straight and fast with a few showboat jumps built by the race as well as one hell of a mud pit built by the spectators. We came up to that pit and there was nowhere to go. I tried to skirt the edge a bit to keep out of the really deep part, which was successful, but ended up hooking the left wheels in some deeper stuff. The car pulled hard left into the soft surface and we were going sideways through the mud. After a few swaps and a little berm ride on the far side of the course I pulled it into 2nd gear, gunned it and got us back up to speed. That was a close one, but it gave me confidence and let me relax a little more.
We roared through the streets and ditches in Ensenada for a while, dodging people, holes, trees and construction equipment. The whole way Matt W was giving me calls on the turns to come and watching the cars performance. “1137 race running A-OK” was the radio call. We drove out of the city with no issues. The course got more and more technical the further out we were but the Bug never wavered. We charged on into the countryside.
There was a slight tail wind at this point which was a bit troublesome. It caused the dust to shadow us and as we were passed by the class 19’s and some of the Sportsman vehicles there were long stretches where there was zero visibility. That was a bit frightening. I had to press on and trust that the car could take whatever I could not see. I stuck us to the right side of the course and kept the hammer down on some long steep hills and again the Bug never wavered.
Then there was silt.
We entered the silt valley with the sun low at our backs but with good visibility since most of the cars that were going to pass us had already done so. Silt is something that you can not prepare for. I had read about it, heard about it and watched videos, but nothing compares to actually having to drive in it. The ruts in the main line were so deep that it was almost impossible to keep moving. I spent a lot of time precariously straddling ruts and looking for alternate lines. There were places where the silt beds were very wide. In those areas I would jet off the line and look for untracked terrain and anything I could run over for traction. Matt was keeping us parallel to the course and letting me know when I was running out of real estate.
At one point Matt looked up and calmly announced “tree,” to which I did not respond. He followed up with “Tree… TREE!” Finally I responded with “yeah! I see it!” right as we plowed over it. Every time I ran over something it felt a little like hitting a speed boost in a racing video game. The car would lift out of the silt for a second and get a bit of much needed traction. It would surge forward with a slight bit more momentum for the next section of bare silt. This is how we navigated the silt valley. We were off track and hunting shrubs and trees the entire way.
At one point there was what I could only describe as a drift of silt. We had a 90 right to get onto it and the ruts were impassible. I hit it with everything we had which, if you are familiar with class 11, is not much and did my best to cross the ruts and plow off into some nice looking vegetation on the right side. We got right to the crest of the drift and the car just sank. We were stuck. Perched on the crest of this drift up to the doors in silt. Matt W prepared to get out of the car. Then, a bunch of spectators jumped to our rescue! They even had their own set of MaxTrax with them! I remember seeing the Desert Dingo come flying up the drift right about then and getting stuck right next to us. It was on. The spectators split up and 1/2 went to help the Dingos. Right then the car started to rock, I gunned it in 1st gear and we set off like an underpowered jet ski with a family of Midwesterners on board. 1st gear pinned was pretty much the only way to get the car through that stuff. Speedo read 30+ mph most of the time and we were not doing anything better than 5.
At the end of that valley there was a seemingly insurmountable hill… It was full of ledges, was really steep and had a 90 right to a 90 left at the bottom so there was no chance to keep up momentum. Needless to say, I stalled it about 1/3 of the way up. We were, hanging from the brake pedal, engine off, hooked on a ledge staring at the sky. I eased the car back off the ledge struggling to get my heel on the stem of the brake pedal so I could free up my toes to operate the clutch. I had my right foot on the throttle and fired her up. I was still not quite sure how we were going to get out of this one… Matt was instructing me and keeping it all in line. “Rev it!” So I did. I pinned the revs and with my left foot controlled the brake and clutch simultaneously. We lurched over the ledge and up, losing momentum the entire way until we were finally chugging so slowly that I swear we could feel each cylinder firing. Again, that little car made it. We chugged over the top of the hill where spectators were cheering us on and with a quick beep of appreciation we were off to find the next trial.
Dusk had set in pretty well by then and we were through Ojos Negros. Despite some GPS malfunctions we were able to navigate the course. We followed other cars and trucks wherever possible and hoped for the best otherwise. There was a disturbing amount of spectator traffic on the road at that point and a lot of it was coming right at us. The roads were narrow and technical and it was pretty sketchy passing some of those vehicles. We made it through and got out of that stretch without issues. “1137 race, A-OK”
We had seen our crew cheering once earlier on the course and we had radio contact that we were about to see them again. They were at the bottom of what would turn out to be a 7 mile uphill silt bed. We rallied passed honking and waiving and headed up the hill. Right away we encountered that blue and white truck that must have broken down earlier in the day. The course was narrow and the ruts were deep, there was nowhere to go and he was in a hurry. BAM! He blasted past us running over the left rear quarter and side-swiping the whole car. “Alright then!” I said and continued to plow through the silt.
I found a little shelf about 1/2 way and got out of the ruts and was able to gain a little rest from the whoops and ruts. I found a few of the now familiar shrubs and some smooth silt up there. It was nice, but short lived. The line closed out into another narrow and I had to run back into the main ruts. As I came off the shelf the front end had to drop a few feet, which ended up digging in. Again, stuck. This time nobody was around to help.
There we were, high centered on the edge of the course. Matt jumped out. “If you get going don’t stop until you can start up again!” were his parting words before unplugging his helmet. Matt began to dig and scrape with our MaxTrax to get the car into a position where I could charge forward. He was under the driver’s side of the car when a buggy came up and tapped the front end of the car. He stopped, backed up a little and lurched forward trying to climb the edge of the rut but he was unsuccessful. He was in some kind of hurry and he then proceeded to run over the front right of the car. Fortunately there was very little damage and Matt was not under the car when it was hit.
Two people came out of nowhere at this point and helped Matt push. The car dropped into the ruts and I was off, alone. I kept the car moving and did all I could to do so. It was slow going and I was not sure that I was going to make it, but managed to get to a flat spot a few miles up where I could pull over. I knew it was going to be a few minutes before I saw Matt again so I got out, stretched my legs, had a pee and took a look at the damage from the other vehicles. I could hear the back fender rubbing so I was pretty sure it was pretty crushed and it was. So was the bumper. I grabbed on to the bumper, put my foot on the center and pulled it out as much as I could. That made clearance for the fender to get the same treatment. After pulling and begging for a few minutes I was able to get it off the tire and ready to roll. At that point a truck carrying Matt, who had apparently gotten tired running uphill in silt, pulled up and dropped him off. We strapped in. “1137 race, Matt is back with the car, we are strapping in. Rear driver fender is pretty banged up from that truck, but it is off the tire at this point. A-OK.”
We drove through the rest of the silt bed in the dwindling dusk and ended up on a road at the top that was pretty fast. It was dark and we were firing up the lights. At this point we had realized that we we’re not doing well with fuel economy… But, we were close to our 1st. We charged on down the road past camp fires and fans in the dark. This was a really fun section and I don’t think I mentioned before, but I love driving at night. After a stretch on that road we came up to some light in the distance. It was the paved road and our pit. We rolled in, stopped and readied the car for Josh and Evan.
What felt like it could have been 30 minutes was actually well over 3 hours. I am still not sure how long we were actually in the car. But we were done with our shift and Josh and Evan were eager to get in. We briefed them and helped them get in. Then we briefed the pit crew and got everything settled. It was a flawless change but we were not able to resolve the fuel consumption issue.
We decided to have the car stop a few miles down the road so we could check on it again, because we were certainly not going to make it at the rate we were using fuel. We filled up the chase vehicles and set up a quick pit so we could change the jet and go through the shop car. There was a leak around the fuel cell sending unit and it was splashing fuel out. Once that was tightened we were pretty sure we had solved the issue, but had no way to know other than to send the car on and do the math later.
At this point it was clear that we were not going to make our next driver change. The car was ahead of us on the same road we had to travel to get to the pit. We agreed to send them on to the next stop where we could catch back up. I did everything I could to relax in the truck while we drove rough and rugged roads crossing the peninsula. We got to BFG pit one, our original driver change pit and met up with the team. The car had been through long before we got there. We shuffled around and headed down the road to the next rendezvous.
Through the haze of half consciousness I could hear the radio calls from the car. “1137 race, A-OK.” Many times over, but then the calls started to change. “1137 race, stuck in the silt.” Became a frequent broken squawk, followed but the rapper calling out that they were on the way. This went on for a long time. Josh and Evan were in some formidable silt beds and it was the middle of the night. Then it became the wee hours of the morning. Hours went by, filled with bad karaoke and parking lot doughnuts from the bar across the street. It was not the most relaxing place to be, but the car could have arrived at any moment and we could not find a better refuge.
Matt was still sick from the trans peninsular road and was unsure about being able to get in the car at that point. So when the car finally made it to our position we slashed fuel in it and sent it on the way again. We set off for the next rendezvous. Again the night was filled with calls of insurmountable silt hills and “1137 race, we are stuck again.” The Raptor team was very busy.
As the sun crept up that morning we got another call from the car. The stub axle had broken and could we please bring them a new one. Matt and I loaded up parts and some of the pit crew and headed out into the desert to find the car. We were finally going to relieve Josh and Evan after an incredible night battling the silt.
When we arrived at the car it was almost a comical scene. There is was sitting at the edge of a road, wheel off. We made quick work of the repair, but were unable to find the hub spacer, which was critical to tightening the hub properly. Everyone was sure that it was there. It was not lost down the road. They had seen it. So we sifted and dug and sifted some more. Nothing. It was gone. Without it all we could do was limp the car back to the trailer for more repairs. Finding that unacceptable I continued to look, using a latrine shovel to scrape at the silt. “Clink” that feeling and sound when metal contacts metal. There it was! “Got it!” I handed the spacer to Matt W, triumphantly speared the shovel into the silt berm beside the road, sat down and ate my bag of potato chips.
With the car repaired to 100% drivable it was Matt W’s turn to drive. We strapped into the car and took off. We had about 15 miles to go to get to the actual pit where we would have a full rendezvous and a serious conversation about where we were and where we were going. We had already missed the checkpoint and were well outside of the time.
At this point we were about 20 miles short of 300 miles. I wanted another crack at driving and I though 300 sounded like a good number. Matt W was done, but Evan had yet to get behind the wheel. After a serious discussion and thought about safety and such, we decided to run 20 more miles and get that nice round number.
We hopped into the car, me behind the wheel, and took off down the course again. It was a really beautiful stretch or trail. There were tall cactus spaced out everywhere on the plateau. We climbed to the top of the hill and I stopped the car to swap seats with Evan. “1137 race, stopped. We are going to change drivers.” The crew responded sarcastically “I don’t know if that is a good idea… That guy is sketchy.” To which I responded “understood, 1137 race, A-OK.”
Now is a good time to mention that when the wheel fell off the car a while back we lost 1/2 of a brake shoe and the brakes really don’t work very well… Evan was aware of this, but I reminded him anyway. I had driven the car for the last 10 miles and I was painfully aware of just how bad the brakes really were. After we got moving I had Evan bring the car to a stop just to illustrate just how bad the brakes really were. “Oh man! That is bad!” Or something along those lines was what Evan said. But they worked, we just needed to be aware of the situation and plan ahead.
We continued with Evan driving and having a blast. Visibility was really good and the track was pretty predictable so we were moving along pretty well. Around a long right we saw a common rutted hole. The answer to that is to straddle the ruts, thus hitting the high points of the hole and reducing the impact. Evan executed the line well, but we were moving a little fast so the car left the ground. We were off the ground and the track went subtly right, so we were about 1/2 off the track when we came back down and all we could see was the silt cloud we had just made. Suddenly, through that silt cloud, hand grenade sized balls of cactus started flying into the car. We were both peppered with balls of cactus. They stuck through the race suit and into my skin and they were everywhere. If there is any justice it is in the fact that Evan was far worse off than me.
The car was stopped, we had both doors open and we were carefully removing cactus from ourselves. Once I had a cactus free hand I radioed the pit crew. “1137 race, we are stopped again. We have hit a cactus and have some issues to deal with.” It was 2 minutes before we had a response from the crew. We could still hear laughter in the background. “Well, sounds like you have had a real Baja experience!”
I looked over at Evan who was struggling to get a cactus ball out of his hand. He had another one stuck right under his chin so I mentioned that he might not want to look down. At that point had him look at me and let me know if I could move without making anything worse. Once I had been cleared by Evan, I reached over and removed the cactus ball from under his chin. He moved on to the ball stuck in his thigh and I went on to the ones that were all over me. Out of the corner of my helmet I saw Evan get the thigh ball free only to have it whip across and stick into his arm. He screamed. I reached over and turned off the intercom.
After a few minutes of struggling with the cactus we finally had all the needles removed and could get moving again. We charged on, descending into the valley, into the silt and river rock beds. From there we had a ‘smooth’ drive. There were a lot of bumps and a lot of rocks, but we were never stuck and never felt like we were doing damage to the car. After successfully navigating the canyon we ended up in a wide wash that went under the highway. We went under and around ending up back on the road. We pointed the car north, toward the rest of the team and the end of our race.
After arriving back at the pit and rejoining the team we got the car ready to trailer up and head out. All of this was done with the chants of an entire elementary school in the background. They wanted autographs and “steekers.” Once we were done with the car we obliged the school kids. One last mob. It was a fitting and fun end to that part of the adventure. Our race was over, but there was no end to the excitement of the locals.
I think I said something like ” I think it is time for a case of Tecate and a beach.” Everyone agreed so we loaded up and headed toward the coast. We found a nice hotel resort right on the beach in the middle of nowhere. It was perfect. We spent the next 2 days trying to absorb the experience we had all just had. We walked on the beach, we ate and we rested. The second night we convinced the hotel staff to let us take the car out on the beach for some hot laps. We were able to get anyone on the crew who wanted a ride to have a ride. It was a good night that ended with a fire on the beach and some celebratory cigars.
The next morning we loaded up and turned the convoy north. We were headed home. We hit up taco stands and headed to the border. It was a long drive, and it was a triumphant one. We had achieved this huge goal. We had done this thing that we had set out to do so long ago. We had done this thing that so many say they want to do, but never do. Having completed 300 miles of the Baja 1000 we had all won.