How a race effort can be successful when you make a plan, then throw it out the window, then get back to the plan
Story by Josh McGuckin
Again!? Yeah, again. We competed in the Baja 1000 in 2014 and when we got home it took a little time to believe that we would actually be able to pull off going back. This is such a monumental task and it is hard to explain just how much work it really is.
Of course, we came around and we started developing the car based on all of the things we had learned. Over the course of about 12-14 months we revisited all elements of the car, updating the suspension, fueling and more. Every little element that could be checked and changed was checked again and changed some more. Steering boxes were built, beams checked, spares created or purchased. It is a labor of love but over time the task became a little over whelming. I’ll be honest, there were a number of times when I personally didn’t think that I would make it through the whole project… but fortunately stubbornness can be a good thing at times.
We shipped out, 3 vehicles loaded to the gills left Colorado at 7 am on a Saturday, along the way we acquired more of our crew and by the time we got to Mexico we were 6 vehicles and 18 people strong. Over the next few days we spent our time preparing, servicing, adjusting, finalizing plans. I know for me, this time was spent working on a lot of chase planning that we just couldn’t nail down before. One thing you forget when you are sitting in the comfort of your own home is just how rugged a lot of the Baja peninsula is. There is one paved road that spans the length of the peninsula and that road is never near the place you want to be. When we are planning for our chase routes we definitely overlooked the time it might take to travel down some of these roads and navigate their terrain. We were comfortable though, our beach front house was cozy and gave us a great place to work out of.
Time moves quick when you are working on last minute details and before I knew it, I was in line at contingency. Contingency is a 8 hour + long line of race cars surrounded by a party. The cars are actually in line to be tech inspected, but mostly it is a big event to get the fans and the racers together. We gave away piles of stickers, piles of hero cards and more. I spent some time in the race car signing autographs. Just when I was ready to get out it was time to roll the car up on stage. A quick interview meant that I had to remember to mention all of our sponsors. On an average day, that isn’t a difficult task, but with cameras and microphones in your face… well I had to really focus. I’m told I did well, but I don’t really remember what I said to the camera. Rolling down the other side of the ramp I could just think “Wheew, glad we got through that part.”
That night we held a meeting, we were still getting our team familiar with one another. The core driving team is, of course, very familiar with one another. But our Chase team comes from everywhere and they were getting acquainted. I was learning the various strengths and weaknesses of the individuals as well so just before our final meeting our core team made a few final adjustments to ensure we put people in positions that were strongest for the team.
Race day arrived, I was our lead off driver and Emme Hall was my codriver for the entire event. There is a lot of pressure in this position for a few reasons. I really didn’t want to lead off the race… But I did. The main reasons I didn’t want to lead off the race? Well, it is the one shift that starts hours before you actually start driving, you sit around in the sun, waiting for the start. Inevitably you are not able to rest because you have adrenaline; you also have fans stopping by for stickers and cards. The other reason I didn’t want to lead off? Well, to be honest, I was looking at 8 hours of driving before handing off the car, 8 hours and all it will take is one small mistake and I can ruin the whole event for the team. My entire focus was getting the car to the next driver change after that I have no concerns. Anything can go wrong and for some drivers anything did go wrong. We were fortunate to have paced ourselves and pushed hard.
The moments before the start we saw Dana Brown, the creator of the movie Dust to Glory. He provided the motivation for probably half the drivers that are at the Baja 1000 and I was able to say “Look what you’ve done! Do you have any idea how much money you’ve cost me!?” He laughed and we chatted and literally the next thing I remember is being on stage watching the car in front of me go off the line. It all happened so quick that nerves didn’t even have a moment to crop up. We were on course, in the iconic wash, driving in the Baja 1000… again.
The first portion of the course was surrounded by people. You worry that these people will try to direct you into bad lines, but we really had no bad experiences along the way. We were driving along in speed controlled roads when we approached dirt sections they would suddenly turn into intense uphills and crazy little technical sections. At one point we approached the top of a rise turned sharp left only to see one of our fellow Class 11 Racers, Eric Solarzano, down in a hole, easily 6’ down. It looked painful. Moments later we saw a little roller that went downhill then back up a very steep embankment. As soon as we nosed over the edge I realized this was going to be tough. Silty, the car was nearly on its side and the throttle just pulled the little car out of the hole. As we came up the other side I heard “LEFT” an saw a left cut ahead with rocks just in front, we couldn’t let off, we needed the momentum, so I just aimed and gave it gas, the car came down hard on a rock, front tire, middle, rear tire…. We continued on and again, Tope the wonderbug just shrugged it all off. I can’t even believe what this little car is capable of.
Not long after we felt the feeling of a flat tire. But the steep climb that we were driving up was no place to stop so we pushed on and found a flat spot at the top of the climb. Two locals were there and my co driver yelled out in Spanish asking them if our tire was OK. After a few minutes the confused man looked back and said “there is no tire” One quick tire change later and we were on the road with a wheel that looked like it had just barely made it out of the wrecking yard.
We traversed the course and despite some incredible terrain we really had minimal issues until the entire car just shut off. Then came back on again! Well, I thought, that was interesting, but we are moving. Then it shut off again and this time it wasn’t coming back on. We radioed to our crew and they mobilized… I had a hunch I could fix it though. With the hood up, the spare out I found that our ignition switch had fried itself. I looked for a switch I could steal, but no luck.. until I found a spare switch in our parts bin. That Matt Wilson thinks of everything. I put in the new switch and fired up the car. We were on our way again and made it to San Felipe to hand off the car. My only goal was complete.
Bob and Anne, part of our chase crew and some of our most experienced crew in Baja loaded us up and took us on down to our next meeting point. The roads were rough, I mean really rough, some of the roads were shared with the race course, so the bright lights of race cars came up on you. We spent 8 hours driving down these roads stopping once to help out another teams chase vehicle who had two flat tires and pausing momentarily to take a look at the iconic CoCo’s Corner. Meanwhile the race team was out in Calamajue Wash… and stranded with a charging issue maybe? Maybe a wiring issue? Either way, they were out of juice and needed a jump, a battery or an alternator… or all three. Our chase team was making their way to them, but all I could focus on was resting. We had to assume that the chase and race were going to get the car to our next handoff and if that happened, we couldn’t be so exhausted that we couldn’t function when we got back in the car.
When our crew arrived at the next driver change location the car was still a couple hours out. I laid down on the trailer and tried to sleep. Sleep never really materialized but I kept my eyes closed and tried to keep my heart rate down. Just rest. Its nearly as good as sleep.
When the car rolled up we took some time to clearance a rubbing fender, tighten all the bolts we could find and were about to send the car out on course when Larry and Bob jumped into action. “There is a charging issue and we need to fix it.” These two guys were on it and I was just in the way, I stepped back and watched these two masters at work. Within a few minutes they had diagnosed and solved the problem. They made a fix and they sent the car off again. Matt and Nick Wilson were in control now and I was so impressed by our Chase crew that I could just barely contain myself.
Hours down the road, we were approaching the next driver change location… yes, I was getting back in the car again and I wasn’t quite sure I was up for another 8-10 hours. This next leg was particularly challenging because… we were going to be out of contact with our chase team for the majority of it.
The car rolled up and Emme and I hopped in, before we knew it we were approaching a river… This doesn’t look good. A guy approached the car and explained what we were about to experience. This is one of those moments in life where you know… right now, I am ok, but this thing I am going to do might make me not ok. We followed this spectators instructions and crawled across the shallow water and felt the nose dive and gunned the engine, The car submerged, water came over the hood in a wave as the car lurched up the other side of the embankment. Tope wasn’t happy about the experience, but after a few minutes the little car shook it all off, we continued on our way stopping a little while later to clearance another fender since it was starting to cut into a tire.
All of our radio calls were going off into the void. No responses from any of them… but alas we knew they were out there. We came up to a dry lake bed, socked in with fog. I kept the little car going at 50-60mph as Emme said “little left, little more… perfect… Slight right up ahead” We just kept the car on the GPS line but we really just couldn’t see much at all. The terrain turned rough, then sandy, then rough, then sandy. We came over a rise and before us we could just see another river.
I don’t want to cross any more rivers. This one had a big wall on the far side. Sandy with a little trail going up to the left then turning to the right. Another car was there and the driver came over. He pointed out the basic paths that were available and encourage us to take a quick look at it. We hopped out of the car and explored the terrain.
When we got back the driver was asking if we had any parts to fix his car. Turns out we had a belt, and that is what they needed. We tried for a few minutes to help, but eventually had to just move on. Emme stayed out of the car as I attempted the hill climb. I crossed the river and got to the base of the sand hill. I made sure all the water was out of the system and just gave it all it had. The little car romped up the hill, cornered around the corner and the next thing I knew I was sitting at the top. Emme came up and just shook her head in disbelief that the little car just keeps on going.
We stopped soon after at a pit to make sure they knew that a car was stuck back there… Soon we approached another river crossing, this one had quite the rock garden on the other side. After a few minutes of exploration we decided that we needed to put a few rocks in a hole so the little car would be able to clear a ledge. No need to take additional risks! This hole was probably 2’ deep and our bumper is about 2’ off the ground! Tope just cruised on up the hill, again… amazing.
Hours of rough and soft terrain passed by and we came to the final 25 miles. I was bleary eyed and starting to make some bad decisions. My reaction time wasn’t quite what it used to be… and..it turns out our steering box was pretty much spent. Every quarter turn of the wheel barely engaged the steering. None the less I plowed over a few rocks and ended up getting yet another flat. We limped the car for about 10 miles until our crew was able to throw a new spare on the car. We had 9 miles to go, Emme and I were spent. Small talk was gone and we were focused on getting to our driver change location. Rocks turned to silt and we were in ruts that were 3’ deep the car was on its side at times and a blip of the gas pedal always popped it right out of there. We pulled into our pit and peeled ourselves out of the car. Our crew had set up two cots, maybe they were for us, maybe they weren’t, but I woke up on one 2 hours later and wasn’t entirely sure how I got on it in the first place…
Our car pulled into a pit complaining about the steering. I started remembering glimpses of our night before. They came as little memory flashes…
“oh yeah, the steering was pretty bad”
“Wait, we broke the tow rope”
When the car rolled up our crew was pulling the steering box and I butted in. I have done this a dozen times, it is quirky, just let me do it. I hope that I didn’t step on any toes, but at the same time, I knew I could get this done. Once the swap was complete the car was ready for action. The drivers were back on the road and we didn’t see them for a while. I was in a little bit of a haze when the final driver swap was complete.
I think we all started getting a little confident at that point. We even started sending cars to La Paz! But soon reality set in, regroup, get the chase plan back to what was working before. I took our Gold communications vehicle with Hudson and got back into position. We were there to support the rest of the chase team and we did the best we could making coffee and snacks for everyone that passed by. Our driving team was making slow progress. We had lost reverse, we had lost a front shock, the car was taking a beating… but we were making progress. I was marking every mile into our chase book as the team passed by. I was posting progress on our facebook page as I heard it. It was getting really exciting and it was hard to hold back that sense that we were “DEFINITELY” going to make it. Anything could happen….
We pushed forward to the final mile marker before the finish. We waited as the race car descended the Waterfall section. I can’t tell you how good it was to see the headlights of the little car round the bend. We guided them in, their comm’s were on the fritz, the car was listing to the left. Our chase caravan guided them to the finishline where they completed the last few corners of the race and passed under the finishline. We celebrated and I avoided our media crew. If they asked me any questions at all, I was going to lose it. I was just on the verge without questions… (yeah, that’s right COTU, you missed out, you coulda had a crying guy on your footage!)
Over the next couple days I really processed what we had done. I was in La Paz, our team was just flawless. Our plan worked… I couldn’t believe it. We spent a couple days in La Paz in an Air B&B that happened to be run by a woman who also lived in Colorado. It was incredible to relax and just enjoy some time with the crew. When Monday came around we shipped out. The majority of the crew flew out of Cabo or hopped in one of our chase trucks that headed north quickly. The convoy towing the race car consisted of 2 trucks at this point. We headed up the peninsula, taking our time on the treacherous roads. La Paz to Mulege, Mulege to Ensenada…
When we arrived in Ensenada we stopped by Mi Casa Esperanza. Wow. What an amazing experience. We also got to stay with Bob and Anne and recap all of our experiences. Then onward north. Ensenada to Barstow, Barstow to Grand Junction… with a Turkey Dinner stop at the Golden Nugget. Grand Junction home to Denver. The trip was complete and now we just have to unpack and start fixing the little car for the next one.