Gina explains the impossible-to-answer question of why anyone would want to do such a thing as race the Baja 1000 in Class 11
Story by Gina Wilson
Well, we did it. All the odds were against us- in fact one website had us at 9 to 1 but we did it, suckers! We were finishers at the 50th Anniversary of the Baja 1000.
It’s difficult for people who don’t live for racing and haven’t experienced such a thing to have a concept of what was accomplished so I will try to explain.
The Baja 1000 is the longest off-road race on this continent. This year it went from a throw South of San Diego, CA to a throw North of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico- just over 1,134 miles. The time limit was 48 hours- STRAIGHT, no stopping, no sleeping. We took about 58 hours, oops. Our car is a nearly STOCK (basic, OG, original), 1970 Volkswagen Beetle (for reference, Matt’s daily driver Beetle has more power and upgrades than our race car). This car should not have A. been able to do this and B. survived… but she did. The course is marked in ~September, pre-run by whoever wants to up until the race, then about 350 other vehicles, much faster and more capable then ours are released from the start line, THEN we get to run it. So, by the time we’re running the course we have whatever is left of it, the participants, the signage, the pits, the staff to stop traffic at road crossings, etc. For perspective, the course is literally in the middle of the desert between two bodies of water. There are boulders, beach, water crossings, cactus forests, silt beds (which is like flour but sand- fun.), ruts the size of a small child, cliffs with no guard rails, etc. The course runs through yards, farms, towns, main streets and this time, thankfully, some highway but mostly it’s just in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes our chase (assistance) vehicles aren’t equipped enough to get to the car near the course so the race car is totally on its own. If you think the main highway that the chase crews travel is much better, that’s funny… Matt told me- you have no idea what we went through. Then, he drove from La Paz to Ensenada and said- actually, I think what you went through was worse.
Our crew and drivers this round came from Colorado, Alaska, California, Utah and Baja, ages 30-77, 17 total (which is small by crew standards) some of us are 9-5ers and some have some experience that lends itself well to this kind of situation such as Baja people, guides and professional bikers/campers/outdoorsy people, if you will. We all met up (many for the first time) about 24 hours before the race began. Our logistics plans this time included a type of accordion where everyone left in separate phases but met back at driver changes, then left again and met back up again, etc. While we did think through this part of the plan and discuss it several times, in practice it was darn near flawless, which was awesome. We had 7 total vehicles with us. Two vehicles, Gold and Canyonero had crew with rotating duties. The Canyonero (me and Rolf) was always at the front hauling one or two sets of drivers down the highway to the next driver changes to get as much rest as possible. Gold (Hudson and Zac) was the last vehicle and assisted with tracking the car, communications and any decision making while also hauling the trailer. Also a quick note about coms- 2/3 of the peninsula doesn’t have cell service (because there is virtually nothing between Ensenada and La Paz) so you’re alternating between push to talk SAT phones, SAT phone calls, a CB radio with it’s own etiquette, cell phones, GPS trackers, the SCORE trackers and good old fashioned huffing and puffing because you haven’t heard anything from anyone in forever. Then we had two primary chase vehicles, Bob (and Anne) and Larry (and Lance) who alternated going as close to the course as possible and assisting with any immediate needs for the vehicle. Last but not least was Red (Chris, Cullen and Alex) who shadowed the race car and primary chase car and would jump ahead or fall behind depending on the circumstance, they saw a lot of action. We also had the pleasure of our friends from Colorado, Jason and Erin and Kristen with Blanco Diamante who showed up with their two vehicles to assist us the last section of the race. When I try to think of whose/what job was most important from the drivers to the crew, I can’t. Each person had a role and gave 100% to that role- totally owned it and made it theirs with their team of people they had likely never even met before the start of the race. Crazy. Team work doesn’t get much sweeter than that. Also, none of us killed each other which is pretty great considering you’re in very unsafe, high stress situations and you’re both food and sleep deprived. Most of us were awake from Thursday at 6:00 am to Sunday at 3:00 am. You try to sleep but it’s almost impossible. I personally was lucky to get from 2-4 hours/day. It’s also worth pointing out that you’re not just lounging around as crew, there is a lot of adrenaline pumping at any given point- you care about the car getting to where it needs to go and the people inside. Add on top of that that it’s freezing cold at night and frying hot during the day, you haven’t changed your clothes, brushed your teeth or eaten a decent meal in days, you’re half-awake trying to make really important decisions for your team, make sure people are eating and drinking, taking drivers out of cars, putting others in and trying to make sure they’re in halfway decent shape, making sure all the lights, badges, logos, etc. are cleaned on the car for checkpoints, removing trash from the doors, refilling water and getting new snacks taped on, re-packing your own vehicles, making sure you’re heading to the next right place, heating up hot water for food and drinks, etc. etc. It’s no picnic.
But yes, back to the roads. There is, generally speaking, one highway in and out of Baja so when it’s race time, you get to share the road with the normal commuters (who all seem to be missing at least one light on the front and/or back of the car…) lots and lots of semi-trucks, chase crews who think they’re in the race and sometimes the race itself plus add in at least 8 military check points where you stop and cross your fingers they just say hello and wave you through. There are un-fenced cattle roaming the roads, deer, mice, kangaroo rats, potholes all freaking over the place, construction, washed out shoulders, washed out road- oh and take a typical highway in American, deduct about a foot and a half from each lane, remove all the shoulder after the white lines and add in a 3 inch drop and/or sandy shoulder and you have the glorious Highway 1 in Baja AND if you’re climbing one of the many, many passes on the road you’ll be lucky to have guardrails and if they are there, they’re smashed to hell anyway. Not for the faint of heart. After driving 3-4 hours in either of the vehicles I was in, my nerves were totally fried. As we say, it’s a very interactive driving experience.
As far as why someone would want to do such a thing… I had a friend ask me and it’s nearly impossible to answer or at least nonsensical to 99% of people. These boys (MY boys) started SIX years ago just looking for something fun to do (idiots…). They took the shell of a car, stripped it down entirely and engineered it from the bottom up. And then re-engineered and re-engineered and re-engineered until it was race time again. It was trial and error and good old fashioned hard, hard work. The Baja 1000 is man vs machine and man vs terrain and this time, we fucking won. My choice to participate was simply in an effort to see my husband but turned into so much more and means so much more on this day. I will never be able to put it into words. Why so many years ago a neighbor (who we had lived next to for a decade and never spoken to) approached Matt on the way to the hardware store about a crazy idea that just so happened to already be a dream of Matt’s AND just so happened to be Class 11 (when there are DOZENS of other classes), I won’t ever know. For the Wilsons, this iteration of racing with Project Baja is the conclusion of six years of choices about time, money, marriage, energy, arguments with our financial advisor (Lucila), etc. So you see, it’s impossible to answer the question of why someone would want to do such a thing, it’s really just because. Because we could. It’s you challenging yourself.
The experience this time was so similar and so different than last time for me. I can say that I am super glad to have been able to go down early with the team and kind of acclimate instead of just showing up in the madness of contingency. But don’t get me wrong, I love contingency. The race is literally a holiday and the Mexican people celebrate, hard. There were several times where the only thing I could see all around me where hands reaching out for stickers and I have several pictures with people I don’t know as if I had done something important just by being next to our vehicle. It’s also not just kids that get excited it’s everyone- Moms, Dads, Grandparents, the cart guy at Walmart, gas station attendants, military guys, kids at stop signs in random towns. The guys signed autographs and all up and down the peninsula. It’s crazy. We were celebrated because the Mexican people have a love and attachment to these old VW’s. When we drove back from La Paz and saw the place we had to call the race off before just outside of San Quintin, I almost threw up. It was like, just outside of Ensenada and yet felt just as long as this race! Baja is a beautiful and wonderful place, like a time capsule, and I was thankful to get to see most of it this time and actually put names to places I had only heard our friends talk about. More than anything, I am thankful that we all made it out of there and back home unharmed (Matt and I drove about 4,500 miles in the last 15 days). That was the teams #1 goal above all else.
The major lesson that Baja taught me this time was that sometimes you have to live life one step at a time and I really needed that reminder. Had we truly thought of the luck and what it would take for us to make it to the end we all would have just quit. It’s not that myself and the team didn’t think we could do it, we did with all our hearts but the reality is grim. We raced one section at a time, sometimes moments, sometimes 15 minutes, sometimes an hour, sometimes a driver change at a time. There was no reason to think farther ahead and then we looked up and we had the end in our sights and it was BEAUTIFUL. And, not gonna lie it was pretty amazing to meet Dana Brown- twice. The man who caused allllll this trouble in the first place by making a documentary film called Dust to Glory. PLEASE, PLEASE GO SEE HIS NEW MOVIE IN THEATERS FOR ONE DAY ONLY (12/6) AND GET A VISUAL FOR WHAT WE JUST WENT THROUGH.
In the end, we finished second to last of the entire race, stage packed up and the crowds long gone with only us there to cheer us on (and we may have bribed people to leave the finish line up), last in our class (7 of 11 entries in our class finished, which is amazing!), more than 10 hours outside of the time limit but- ask us if any of us care and I assure you that we don’t. We were able to get a car built in a rented shop in the middle of nowhere Denver down a torturous 1,134 mile peninsula on our own accord in every capacity to the finish. AND we did it with only organization approved short cuts, very little assistance getting towed out of silt- with all integrity (which is what I love about our team) and MAN was it SWEET.
As with any big feat, none of this would be possible without the support of our friends, family and sponsors. My wonderful high school friend Megan who hosted NINE of us at her house and made us the most amazing food in Las Vegas. My Mom Cindy and sister Crystal who stayed up all hours of the night and were available for phone calls on car tracking, our dear friend Paul who was our guardian angel in the states keeping us updated, keeping our social media updated and watching his home team, Fire Guys (who came with us in 2014) cross the finish line first in their Class Jason, Mark, Jennifer! Having a sponsorship from Volkswagen- yes, that Volkswagen (ah!) who heard our story and believed in us- enabled us to not have to short cut any aspect of the race as we may have if we were self-funded again. If it wasn’t for Painter’s Grinding and Eddie for building us the world’s best engine and transmission we never would have made it even close to the finish line.
The cherry on top this time was the COTU Media crew that traveled with us and was our light in the dark, early hours of the days. They were so much fun and such a pleasure to have along. Even down to the prep before, our personal trainer Mått who helped Matt and I physically and mentally prepare for this race and we both agreed we couldn’t have done what we did without his help. And my husband, I don’t know where to start. He is so smart and amazing and the car has so much of his heart in it. I could not be more proud. The team agreed long before the race that the car would be his to take across the finish line no matter what (with his brother no less) and I am grateful, it was one of the most proud moments of my life. All in all he drove about 20 hours. It was an honor to work with each person on our team and so fun to have friends, brothers, fathers and daughters (Emme) on this year’s crew. It took a village and I love our village.
We in Class 11 are more about finishing than competition and we were happy to cheer along any Class 11 we saw along the way as if they were our own team. Huge congrats to all the folks who raced Class 11 (two placed but 7 total finished) who JFFed (just freaking finished) this race, we were cheering loud for you.
I have a million stories but I am sure others will tell them better (check out www.ProjectBaja.com for more race stories). A few worth mentioning is that we were pitted one night in the middle of nowhere about 2:00 am and this gigantic chase truck rolls up. At first it was like, um, you’re in our pit but then the guy in the back seat jumped out and was trying to help flag down our car, which was awesome. The guy turned out to be trophy truck/NASCAR Robby Gordon who was spry and nice as pie. His crew said he was getting in to drive the last bit of the race with his son. I was like thinking, sure, that’s awesome, finish with your son (assuming his son was in his 20’s or 30’s). His son was NINE. Nine freaking years old. One of the places we stopped to stayed, in which Alex slept in a lighthouse, had two adorable wiener dogs and a seagull that ate dog food from a bowl. You can see anything you want in Baja! I am including pictures from Adventures in Alternators but I will let someone else tell that story…