“Whats it going to take to get you guys to come to Baja with us?”

Two weeks before the race, I would not expect to hear this question and it is a difficult question to answer. I had responsibilities. Work, wife, home…how could I even imagine going to Baja just two weeks before the event?

Whatever it took (thank goodness I have a wife who understands) the adventure just seemed to happen. I was going to the Baja 1000.

It’s 5am and I am in Boulder, Colorado and our trip starts by climbing into my car to head to Baja. We venture over the Rocky Mountains and 3 hours later, we are in the sleepy little ski town of Snowmass to pick up Jason, who is crew member number 2 of “Chase Vehicle 1”.

Jason has been off work with a broken arm, so it was easy for him to get the time off for the trip.  He also needs little convincing about a trip to Mexico…especially, knowing that we are headed to the Baja 1000.

As for “Chase Vehicle 1”, it is a Ford Raptor which makes an excellent chase truck for the Baja campaign and Jason loves to use his truck for what it was designed to do.

We are finally loaded up and it’s on to the next stop, Grand Junction Colorado, to the race shop to pick up crew member number 3, Mark.  Mark is an experienced Class 11 campaigner, he needs little prodding to make the annual trip south! For those unfamiliar with Baja, Class 11 is for a stock, old-generation VW Beetles. The only major modification is a roll cage and average speed on the desert course is 25-35 mph.

Another bag a few more tools and a bunch of VW spare parts are loaded up and we are off!   Late in the day, but that’s pretty much right on time for a race trip! Next stop is Primm, Nevada for the overnight bivvy.  Which consists of a cheap casino hotel. But,  before we rest for the night we must make the obligatory stop at In and Out Burger in St. George Utah.

No road trip west is complete or allowed without an In and Out!

Tuesday’s dawn has emerged and the destination is to Ensenada Mexico.  It’s not too much of a stretch from the state line and we make the trip quickly and cross the border into Tijuana from San Diego to pick up our tourist visa’s. Getting our visa’s at the office was WAY easier than dealing with the old guy at the port in Ensenada, who has been there since the beginning of time.

Things are beginning to change in Mexico.

We are on the road again, headed south and we encounter the first detour of the trip.  Highway 1 had a major landslide right after last year’s Baja 1000 and has not yet been completed.   The detour took us through an area that none of us had seen before which was an awesome little valley that seemed like it had been bypassed by time. That is how Baja is and with every trip, not much of the beautiful landscape changes. This detour is a very nice change from the usual toll road which everyone is trying to navigate.

Once in Ensenada, Baja traditions must be adhered to so our first stop is at MK Taco on the Melacon a place.  Our crew has been eating here for years. We have a 100% success rate here, something that cannot be said for be said for all dinning in Baja!

Jason and Mark enjoying MK Taco
Jason and Mark enjoying MK Taco

Next off to the house that we rented out on the beach, another longtime favorite and a secret location, that we even with bribes, we can’t give up the spot!  We settle in and are later joined by Matt Wilson, Matt Fisher, Evan Chute and Josh McGuckin who are the four team principals of Project Baja.

Baja Luxury on the Cheap
Baja Luxury on the Cheap

This is one of my favorite times, sitting around and sharing stories from many previous Baja campaigns. Calling it a meeting neatly disguises the fact it is just a cover for us to indulge in one of our favorite pastimes….talking about Baja!  These stories, while self-indulgent, are in fact very valuable. It reminds returning folks that being in Mexico is very serious business.  Fun yes, but it can be very dangerous down here as well.
Fatigue, other chase drivers forgetting that they are not the ones in the race, difficult road conditions, huge amounts of traffic, drunk people, livestock and locals are all part of the challenge of racing and chasing in Mexico.

For the uninitiated it can be a little intimidating and for some downright scary. It needs to be.

With the rookies who are new to Baja, you always see the nod of heads indicating that they understand but for the ones that have been here before, we know that they do not have a real grasp of what they are about to undertake.

After the meeting we shuffle some gear around between vehicles tinker a little with “Tope” (our affectionate name for our Class 11 VW bug) and put her to bed in the garage that this nice little house affords us.

It’s technical inspection and contingency day.

Wednesday arrives with a little cloud cover which is nice because it’s technical inspection and contingency day. Typically a very long day of waiting in line to receive our final approval that we are ok to race. It is usually sunny and VERY hot!  For the teams, essentially you line up early in the morning and push your car through contingency row, which is made up of race sponsor booths and other vendors.  The line car be very long depending on the number of entries and how early you line up. At the end of the line is tech inspection. You just keep moving up in the line until it is finally your turn. A looonnnnnggggg day in the hot sun.

All of the locals from many towns near and far treat the Baja 1000 like a holiday. Kids are out of school, parents are off work and everyone is in town just to see all the vehicles. You are treated like superstars and what seems like Baja’s entire population is screaming out to anyone even remotely attached to a race car asking for autographs, t-shirts (the one on your back will be just fine) and the unofficial currency of Baja…. “Steekers!” It is quite a mob scene. It is like 4th of July, the Indy 500 and New Year’s Eve all in one day, one huge line of vehicles and motorcycles…tens of thousands of people and their kids….it is crazy! Watching brand new racers hand out hero cards and stickers, sign autographs on just about anything (and I do mean anything) is just one of the most amazing things you can witness.

Josh in rockstar mode!
Josh in rockstar mode!
Awesome chops...and Evan.
Awesome chops…and Evan.
The paper work. Matt Fisher buried in the details.
The paper work. Matt Fisher buried in the details.
Talking business with the team's BFGoodrich contact.
Talking business with the team’s BFGoodrich contact.
Matt Fisher enjoying the shade as he goes through contingency.
Matt Fisher enjoying the shade as he goes through contingency.
"Canadian" Paul celebrating his adopted heritage.
“Canadian” Paul celebrating his adopted heritage.

Even through the mayhem, Tech is almost a calming experience as we are finally in the “process” of the race, which means we are soon to be in the race.

A quick dinner at another local Taqueria and then the all important team meeting. The big one where we all get together and review chase plans and check and double check all the information that will be needed to keep the car moving. Cell and Sat phone numbers, radio frequencies- primary, secondary and tertiary for our team as well as those for all pit support and emergency contacts. We double check our maps, chase books and GPS downloads.  The list is long, boring but crucial for safe and successful racing in Baja.

There is the last minute shuffling of supplies, parts and equipment between our three chase vehicles and some last minute tinkering on Tope. It’s finally time to tuck her in the garage for the night and get some sleep. We all know this is probably the last good sleep for the next….well, who knows how long before we sleep again!

Tope all tucked in and resting for race day.
Tope all tucked in and resting for race day.

Race Day

The entire team just before the race.
The entire team just before the race.

It’s funny. You thrash and thrash on every last detail and race day arrives and there is nothing to do but wait. With our estimated start time around set for around 2 PM there is not much to do for the morning accept for pack up the house, clean up and finish sorting the chase rigs and then sit around and do some more waiting. It is one of the things you get used to down here. Hurry up and wait.

Our first chase vehicle assignments are pretty easy. Chase Vehicle 3 will wait and watch the car off the start, Chase Vehicle 1 and Chase Vehicle 2 will get tacos and head out to RM 14 for our first chance to see the car roll by.

Finally!  We get the call that they are off the line. The rhythm of the race is on! It’s such an exciting time! We are part of the Baja 1000!

We sit out on the course for a while and watch cars start to get closer to our class…. where is the car….. where are they?? It is (of course) just us being impatient. The car is perfectly on time and before long…. there they are!!! We have waited and waited….and just like that the car whips by and is out of sight. AND in the lead!! WooHoo!!!  Did I mention that they were in the LEAD OF THE BAJA 1000!?!

But for the crew, we were right on to the next assignment. We all know it is early in the race and anything can happen. We don’t have t0o many more miles down the course for our next chance to see the car.  Moving quickly we get to the next course stop in time to see other cars pass. “Have you seen 1137?” we ask a spectator, “Yeah, already through.”

Damn, our little Tope is flying!  The guys in the car are doing a great job, moving fast and banking time.

RM14 and we are in the lead (and flying!).
RM14 and we are in the lead (and flying!).

Jumping ahead Chase Vehicle 1 and Chase Vehicle 2 split-up for our next assignment but we get to the next chase road in time to see our car come by with another racer, which is such a cool thing to see!  Your car really racing another car! Not the most usual thing for a class 11 team, did I mention how cool it was?? It was cool!

With the car through it was time for the first pit stop and service. Chase Vehicle 3 had gone on to KM 77 on Hwy 5, which is a common stop to set up a pit and we are now joined by Chase Vehicle 2 as we prepare for the car to arrive.  Over the radio we hear, “1137 race to 1137 chase, we are 1 mile out” and the racers are right on time and it becomes “go time” for us. It’s funny. It’s only a couple of hours since the start and there has been periods of frantic activity followed by lots and lots of waiting.

Pit stops.

The car rolls into the pit and is swarmed by the crew, all with jobs to do. Look the car over, fuel, change out GoPros driver and co-driver change. A flurry of activity and the car is gone off into the Baja night. Everyone is feeling good and just pumped that the car is doing great. By this stage, one of the other Class 11 competitors were already out of the race, such is the brutality of Baja.

The course now heads south, first on Hwy 3 and then parallel to the east towards Valle T and the next scheduled pit stop for the car. We are needing just fuel, but a lot of it, far more than the car should have used.  We decide we need to do a re-jet of the carburetor.

The car rolls in and we get to work at our assigned jobs. The car is fueled while the carburetor work is happening.  “Fuel on the ground” not something you ever want to hear and upon investigation we find that there is a leak on the fuel cell at the sender unit. Tools are sourced and I go to work with only the light of my headlamp. Headlamps tend to be part of the uniform and an indispensable item.  With the car serviced and repaired we once again send the car off into the night.

After looking at our chase plan, we see a problem.  We need “The Matts”, our next driver co-driver combo, over on the coast for our next change and pit but to get them there we either have to go all the way back around through Ensenada or follow the race car on the cross over road and back to the 1 saving many hours.

Decision made.

Chase Vehicles 1 and 2 hit the road and cruise across on race course. Not really a problem because the Class 11’s are amongst the last cars on the road!  We meet up with the crew from Chase Vehicle 3 to find that the car had come and gone which is good news as it put the car well ahead of the time cuts.

From San Isabel the course headed out towards the Pacific Coast where the race course was reportedly pretty tough.  The fact that those reports came from many of the Trophy Truck teams made me a little nervous for our little bug. For what seemed like an eternity we heard no news from the guys which is common with the long wait times.  You typically try to think that no news is good news, but after a while the no news becomes worrying enough that we get on the sat phone and call through to one of our watchers back in the United States. Being able to have someone thousands of miles away check the vehicle tracking to find out location and speed is modern technology at its best, a far cry for my first Baja adventures.

“The car is at RM 184.75, 0 miles an hour”. The precision we could get from the US is just amazing. We quickly replied with an “Ok, thanks” and it was time for Chase  Vehicle 1 to move and find our bug.

We take a look at the BFG chase book and there it is, a chase road that gets us to with in half a mile of the race car.

The awesome detail of the BFG book.
The awesome detail of the BFG book.

The car was at the bottom of a steep ravine in a huge rain ditch, big enough to swallow up almost the entire car. The guys were already hard at work trying to extract Tope.  With the MaxTracks in place as ramps, we hooked her up Chase Vehicle 1, the Raptor, and pulled the car out of the ditch.  We packed up the car and off again Tope went in the dark of night.

We head to the next pit at the Pariaiso Hotel right on the Highway.

Waiting, back to waiting.

Waiting, back to waiting. We manage to hear from the guys that Tope is stranded again and off we go again to help them get back on course. The car is stuck at the bottom of a silt hill. Silt. I could write a whole novel on silt. It gets everywhere and is the finest sand you can imagine. Silt has been the demise of many at Baja and now Tope was up to her fenders in the nasty stuff. In short Silt sucks. We had the Raptor but to get to them, we had to go over 4 similar silt hills just to get to the car. Finally, we make it and hook her up again. It takes all the Raptor has to drag the car out of the silt and near our pit.

Tope, the little car that could, is a tired, it is having trouble breathing.

The silt, dust sand was badly blocking the air filter. Other than that the car was in surprisingly good shape, testament to the amount of prep the guys had put into the car.  I go to work on the obstructed airway and the filter was filled with debris. Remember, Class 11 is pretty much stock VW Bugs and they don’t have the most sophisticated air filters. The filter was small and doing its job, but it was clogged solid. Not great for the way the car was running and it certainly didn’t bode well for what lay ahead.

Back out into the silt and then along the beach.

Mark and Jason were massively jealous as we waited for the car to hit the sand, both had raced down here for years on courses that missed the beach, and now here the guys hit the beach flat out turned left and headed south along the water. Funny enough, in the tunnel of light that you live in at night down here they had NO idea they were on the beach!

For the next several hours the Chase Vehicle crews play a game of sit, wait, listen for the radio and rush off to the car to hook up and help keep it moving.

The guys and the car were doing amazingly well, but they were starting to get pushed by their biggest adversary. The clock. To finish within the time limit, we had to push an average of 26 miles an hour.  The night passes and we help the car several more times. As the sun comes up we find our selves out in the middle of an enormous silt bed, two miles long and about 3/4’s of a mile wide. And the silt was deep….very, very deep.

We fuel the car and watch an amazing sunrise. The rhythm is the same. Hook up Tope, extract Tope and move on. Back into the sand again. Repeat. Hook up Tope, extract Tope and move on.

Servicing the car at sunrise...in the silt, day 2.
Servicing the car at sunrise…in the silt, day 2.

The road smooths and gets fast and the car disappears from sight.

Shortly after the last view of our car, the radio buzzes to life.  “1137 Race to Chase Vehicle 1 — We just lost the back of the car.” There is a pause, I have seen cars break apart before, entire engines or suspensions falling off.

“Can you let us know what you need” we asked?  “Just looking now” came the reply.

We continue up the road and see the car stopped at the road side with a wheel and hub missing. “Ok let’s get her going” is the first thing out of my mouth. I have been going for 24 hours and all I can think of is how do we get the car moving, that’s Baja for you.

Mark and Paul thrashing to get the car going again.
Mark and Paul thrashing to get the car going again.

By this stage we are behind the time cut off, check points and pits are closing and that means you are on your own. You could catch up in a fast car but you need to find all your own fuel and emergency support. That can be dangerous down here. It’s dangerous enough as it is down here but trying to race under those conditions with a very small determined team can be deadly.

The car is pieced back together and heads off to the meet the rest of the crew.

This is the hardest part. The team meeting to discuss the next move.

Long story short, the decision is made to end our race. It is in the best interest of our safety and the only conclusion to be made at this point in time.

Slowly we pack up the car onto the trailer and head to a beach side hotel in San Quintin.  We get to our rooms clean up and head out to dinner. We have been up for more than 24 hours and just raced in the Baja 1000. Even with the disappointment, we all know that it is Baja.

At dinner, it is a funny time for all of us on the team. Disappointment that we didn’t finish. Excitement over what we had just achieved. The telling of stories, retelling of old ones and talk of,  “Next Time”.

Baja, Tope will be back.

True Racers.