They call it the “The Happiest Race on Earth” and for three years now, it hasn’t disappointed me. Once again, Mike Pearlman and his great crew at NORRA, delivered an epic race adventure. The race is defined by the participants in our very individual motivations for taking on Baja in this four day desert rally. From Mexicali to San Jose del Cabo, covering over 1200 miles, stopping in Bay of Los Angeles, Loreto and La Paz, through cactus forests, dry lake beds, mountains, sand washes, silt beds, and barely paved roads – each team made it their own.
This adventure started last year. I navigated for a friend with my brother, Kyle Eickhoff driving the chase truck. He caught the NORRA race bug and promptly started plotting how he could enter the race with his hobby Jeep – a 1988 Wrangler, set-up for more traditional Jeeping adventures. Part of his plotting was convincing me to race with him. My usual quest is to enter desert races with a girls team…I dropped that idea and committed to the brother / sister team. The pressure was on, I’ve finished the last two years on the podium, and of course, I wanted that again. Truth be told, I had one goal – to finish.
It’s important to remember that Kyle is not a desert racer. I barely am. Modifications on the Jeep started last summer. The list was pretty long and it included help from my friends at General Tire, American Racing, Sparco, and Wicked Quick apparel. He did a bunch of stuff along with convincing his buddy Todd Shaklee and my business partner, Jim Hancock to chase for us. My work travels meant I wasn’t much help, but he never complained. Early on April 26th, we loaded up our bags and set-off for tech and contingency in Mexicali.
Upon arrival, we found our spot in the hotel parking lot, which, as it turns out, are not set-up to accommodate dozens of race vehicles and their chase trucks with trailers. This happens at most of our stops down the way, luckily, Todd is an expert trailer backer-upper, he could wind his way through the maze frontwards and backwards, always finding a spot.
Throughout the first day, we met up with our friends made in last couple of years, met new ones, and inspected each other’s rides. The entries were up by 50% this year. The pre-race activities are held at the Bull Ring in Mexicali, with the driver’s meeting IN the bull ring. They even hosted a Baja Social Club happy hour. That happens at all the stops down the road, too. Every time we gather the vehicles up, it looks more like an early Saturday morning car show at the local donut shop parking lot. There’s nothing spec looking about this race. It’s all a loose interpretation and no one complains. The spirit of this race is less about racing and more about adventure. Notice I said “less,” it is still a race.
And race we did. We encountered a couple gremlins in the Jeep that meant not finishing a special on time. Those blanks on the vehicle time slip are what I anticipate motivating Kyle to race next year. We finally got it figured out after changing the fuel pump three times in one day, once in San Felipe during a transit, another time at Coco’s Corners during a special and again in Bay of Los Angeles on the overnight. It wasn’t the fuel pump. It wasn’t the air filter, either. Whatever it was, the fuel delivery wasn’t happening correctly. Well, we finally figured it out during the longest special, on the desolate mud flats along the Pacific coast on day two. It was the fuse box. And we’re not even sure how we fixed it. Kyle tried to bypass but that wasn’t happening. Somehow, after wiggling, coercing, taping and lots of swearing, it worked. Thankfully, it held for the rest of the race. We got through Day 3 pretty well, except for a broken leaf spring – which he clamped together during the overnight. Day 4 was a good run, too…until the very last secret special. We hit the rough sand wash and broke the leaf spring again, and sheared the sway bar. We limped in trying to minimize more damage.
We finished. All told our time was25:00:32. We even earned first in our class. The other guys had more problems than us. That’s all a part of racing in Baja.
Everyone talks about the “spirit” of NORRA. It is still being defined by the racers, organizers, chase crews, and sponsors. Each day, I heard about the spirit of NORRA and what brought so many people from around the world to love and embrace this race.
It’s making sure everyone gets in safely each night. It’s the gathering up at the end of the day to share your stories. It’s moving from a pre-runner to the Vintage classes with a bitchin’ restoration. It’s how everyone helps each other – like towing, wrenching, sharing parts and expertise, or a simple thumbs-up to let fellow racers know you’re ok. It’s embracing the people of Baja and the history of the sport. It’s the only way many can experience racing. It’s building a different kind of team where brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, fathers and sons, buddies, and business partners figure out how to finish. It’s the opportunity to hang-out, socialize and get to know your fellow off-road racers. It’s how you get to the vacation at the end of the peninsula in Cabo.
For us, we were able to share a goal, an adventure, as brother and sister. Along the way we made friends, with the unbreakable bond of Baja as the backdrop.
The NORRA Mexican 1000 is more than a race, it’s more than just being happy, it’s about change – the change that happens inside your heart and mind when you participate and encounter the challenge of Baja. There aren’t many places, adventures, or races in this world that fill you up instead of draining you. And that feels good. Put it on your bucket list.
For more information about the event, visit www.norra.com
[see Melissa’s Autoweek photo blog for more tales from the trail]