Mexico main event: Baja 1000 rerun on TV

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Marvin West

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Monster truck from Mexico's Baja 1000, the world's toughest motor vehicle race © Baldwin race team, 2013
Monster truck from Mexico’s Baja 1000, the world’s toughest motor vehicle race © Baldwin race team, 2013

If you missed the November excitement of the Baja 1000, you can see the December version, minus dust and exhaust fumes, on ABC or ESPN the day after Christmas.

The world’s toughest motor vehicle race followed an 883-mile desert loop designed by the devil himself, out, up, down and around, across washes and over boulders, on the most inhospitable terrain of the Baja California peninsula, starting and finishing in Ensenada.

You know about the dunes of Ensenada? According to P. J. O’Rourke, “This is a place where things go wrong no one ever heard of going wrong before.”

The Baja 1000 is an amazing event a mix of cactus, sombreros, mostaches, 850-horsepoower trucks on 40-inch tires and even an occasional rattlesnake — something for every motorsport enthusiast. Alas, not nearly enough other people know about it.

History and facts

The Baja is the granddaddy of off-road racing. It is famous for bumps, ruts and rocks. It is the peak passion for some who might otherwise have missed Mexico.

B. J. Baldwin of Las Vegas was the repeat winner of the big truck prize with a greatly enhanced Chevy Silverado conservatively valued at half a million dollars.

The formal name of the top truck is Monster Energy Toyo Tires Rigid Industries King Shocks Method Race Wheels Chevrolet.

B. J. gave an iron-man performance, driving all 18 hours and 34 minutes. Most professional racers divide the punishment and pain as two-man teams.

More than 250 trucks, cars, ATVs and motorcycles had staggered starts for the timed race — seconds, minutes or hours apart so they didn’t run over each other at the first turn. Most drivers and support crews came from the United States. Twenty-four other countries were represented. Some entries, maybe half, finished.

Six VW bugs made the attempt. One made it home.

Cactus in Baja's San Felipe desert © Bruce F. Barber, 2012
Cactus in Baja’s San Felipe desert © Bruce F. Barber, 2012

Juan Carlos Lopez and his 18-year-old son Apdaly of the border town of Tecate carried Mexico colors on their Ford Raptor and finished fourth in the big-truck division. They were just an hour and change behind Baldwin.

NASCAR survivor Robby Gordon lost 90 minutes with a broken right front spindle but made repairs and finished sixth.

Death caught up with motorcyclist Kurt Caselli of Palmdale, Calif. He was running through a sandy, high-speed section near the 796-mile mark when he apparently struck a small animal and lost control.

Larger animals are normally the problem. Spectators sometimes add hazards to the course to generate a little more excitement. They dig holes, build awkward jumps, roll in a few more rocks and sometimes reroute little streams.

Racers are warned to watch out for crowds in remote places. That may be a clue to unexpected traps.

Hazard-building is not really intended to do harm but vehicles and people sometimes get hurt. Top race teams with sufficient budgets do pre-race fly-overs. During the race, they share radio warnings.

The idea for off-road racing in Mexico came out of American Honda’s 1962 hope to prove the reliability of the CL72 Scrambler. A dirt biker suggested an endurance test from La Paz to Tijuana, almost a thousand miles of desert, mountain passes, cattle crossings, dry lake beds and tar and chip roads.

The first official Baja race went the other direction, Tijuana to La Paz, in 1967. Minus a few twists and turns, it was 1366 kms, about 849 miles. The winning dune buggy needed 27 hours 38 minutes.

The rugged terrain of the Baja 1000 race © Bruce F. Barber, 2012
The rugged terrain of the Baja 1000 race © Bruce F. Barber, 2012

Baja racing got a boost from ABC’s Wide World of Sports with Jim McKay. Some famous names caught the fever. Hollywood stars like Steve McQueen and James Garner made a run for it. Famous drivers from other forms of motorsport gave it a go. Hot-rod icon Don Prudhomme has been there. Indy 500 winners Rick Mears, Danny Sullivan and Parnelli Jones had their fling. Jones won twice with a souped-up Ford Bronco.

Actor Paul Newman whipped up new interest when he went racing at age 80.

Through the years, the Baja 1000 evolved from a wild and reckless hobby to big-time spending and high-tech challenges. It is now the world’s most famous — and expensive — off-road race.

Viewing in real time meant finding a favorable spot and watching the racers run past. There is no way to really know what is actually going on.

The Baja 1000 route

The TV version will be more informative and show some great scenery. You might want a map to follow the show.

From Ensenada, within sight of the Pacific, the course ran east into the mountains to the farming village of Ojos Negros, across Highway 3 toward Tres Hermanos and through the forest of Los Pinos.

The 150-mile mark was along the drop into the Laguna Salada dry lake bed. The next landmark was Cerro Chinero. Racers crossed Highway 3 again and ran along Highway 5 and the Sea of Cortez, through some wild turns toward San Felipe.

Still going south, the course ran near Laguna Percebu and through Puertecitos. Before mile 350 came San Luis Gonzaga and Coco’s Corner, then Calamajue Wash. The 400-mile mark was after Highway 1, supposedly built by American soldiers during World War II. I don’t know why.

Baja racers returned to the Pacific coast at Punta Blanco. At about 450 miles, they swept inland again, back across Highway 1 near Catavina. Guayaqui was the next point of interest.

Drivers worn to a frazzle found some serious mountains before turning back toward the ocean and Colonia Vicente Guerrero. Camalu, Colonet and another mountain adventure were next.

The Baja course reconnected with Highway 3 near San Matas, a hundred miles or so from the finish. It ran past Valle de Trinidad, El Alamo and Tres Hermanos and again into Ojos Negros.

Tips for drivers

I read some of the race notes in drivers’ preparation folders:

Carry a valid driver’s license and Mexico insurance documents. Watch out for cattle guards. Be sure gates are open. Note military checkpoint signs. Roads used for this race course are open to the public. You must expect to encounter traffic, especially oncoming traffic.

Stream in the rugged deserts of Baja © Bruce F. Barber, 2012
Stream in the rugged deserts of Baja © Bruce F. Barber, 2012

No race vehicle shall be towed, pushed, pulled or hauled by another vehicle more than 1 per cent of the total distance (8.83 miles), or within one mile of the finish line. Properly identified race vehicle occupants are permitted to push a disabled race vehicle across the finish line.

Think about this one: At no time may any participant go backwards on the course.

There was very practical advice: Beware of the really big ditches. Be cautious in speed zones. Note route around a dam and pond is better than through the water.

Stay out of deep silt. Don’t look too long at the shrines, water tanks or windmills. Know which way you are going before you arrive at Y. Rocky area and switchbacks require extreme caution. Road washed out near Guerrero.

So, how to summarize the Baja 1000 course? One racer said, “Sun-scorched goat path with invisible pitfalls.”

The unexpected

There are some interesting sideshows.

On the assumption that almost 900 miles of risky racing might not be enough for one weekend, Adrian “Wildman” Cenni warmed up the audience with a 360-degree barrel roll with his four-wheeler. It was truly a death-defying trick.

Out on the race course, one goofy fan hunkered down beyond a jump to experience trucks flying overhead.

Now and then, among the big spenders, is a low-budget entry by somebody just living a dream. One year there was a Range Rover purchased from a scrapyard for $400. It looked as if it might have run several previous 1000s.

One year the Baja platform was used to promote a political panel discussion of the Yo Soy 132 Movement. The student-led protest called for fairness in Mexico media.

The Boys and Girls Club of Mexico offered a performance of Alice in Wonderland. There was a walk across the peninsula known as the Travesia Baja 100. There are concerts to change the pace. One year priests conducted a fundraiser with a stated goal of building a new cathedral in Tijuana.

Most exciting peripheral incident was at the 2007 race. A helicopter crashed near the circuit, killing several people. One of the deceased turned out to be a high-level member of a drug cartel.

Perhaps you read about it: unknown gunmen raided the morgue and stole the bodies of the crash victims. Two police officers were killed.

Sorry I don’t recall who won the 2007 race.

Published or Updated on: December 13, 2013 by Marvin West © 2013
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