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BAJA 1000: Wild Dirt Yonder

By Robin Postell

Baja California is a land only God could love. It is a knotty tailbone of a place, with lizard-hide terrain. Inhospitable, but perfect for a 1,070-mile off-road race seemingly designed for masochists. 

Racers gather in Ensenada, turning the place into a metal menagerie of motorcycles, buggies, ATVs, and trucks. They’ve spent $1000 on the entry fee, a pile more on preparing for the race. Many have been here for more than a week,  pre-running the course. Over the next two days, with a cutoff period of 44 hours, participants from 20 states and seven countries will run in 23 different classes and attempt the jaunt through the barren wasteland of Baja. This Baja 1000, as is the case every three years, is a point-to-point race from the top of the peninsula to the bottom; other years the course simply runs a loop. 

Twelve miles south, in Santo Tomas, competitors will charge off into the desert at one-minute intervals. If they finish (most won’t), they’ll count themselves lucky. A few will take home a trophy.  Most will take home a bucket of bolts that was their racing machine. Nobody wins any money: this race, which has claimed its fair share of lives and made scrap metal out of most of its competing machines, is all about glory and bragging rights. 

Competitors charged off into the desert at one-minute intervals

I’ve been instructed by Sal Fish, CEO of SCORE International, the Los Angeles-based outfit that owns and operates the event, to hook up with White Lightning Racing. The team consists of 120 people; nine full-timers, the rest volunteers. White Lightning is owned by Dale White, a rags-to-riches type who made an honest living before devoting his life to his first real love – off-road racing. He and Brian Collins, both from Las Vegas, will be splitting time in a 1998 C1500 Chevrolet. This is a new breed of truck that costs the equivalent of 40 Mexican laborers’ yearly salaries, and would tear a hole in your front yard. This is no domesticated animal, but it’s perfect for the Trophy Truck division in which they’re competing. 

The team informs me that I’ll be in the chase truck following Collins and White. White, who won the 1995 Baja 1000 overall (meaning he had the best finishing time of all the racers among all four divisions), will begin driving after the halfway point as darkness falls. Night driving is his specialty. “It’s another world then,” he says. 

Our chase truck will provide them with any mechanical assistance the C1500 might require along the way. 

Also in the White Lightning lineup is Phoenix’s Larry Ragland, furniture-manufacturing mogul –turned-race-pro, who has won the past three years in the Trophy Truck  division. Even with 53-year-old Ivan Stewart kissing his bumper, Ragland has managed to hold onto his crown.  But Stewart is a hard competitor and has been doing this professionally for 20 years,  running only two races a year (the Baja 500 and the 1000). He’s won overall in the race several times but has never taken a point-to-point Baja 1000.  With a million-dollar truck and his sponsor, Toyota, cheering him on, Stewart is never an opponent to disregard. 

All the drivers know that winning this race – or just surviving it – requires more than money or skill. It is going to take luck. And luck has a way of changing in this game. 

Brian Collins, a privileged buff-boy who helps run the family land-developing  business, has the confident stride of a gym junkie and the disposition of Richie Rich. “No matter what you spend or what you do,” Collins said that evening, holding court over lobster and steak dinners for 25 of his crew, “it’s all about luck in the end.” 

Of course, Collins’ $250,000 Chevrolet probably doesn’t hurt. The crew of mechanics who work around the clock, breaking it down and lovingly putting it back together before and after each race, also helps. 

Today’s Baja is a far cry from the first race, held in 1967. Back then 68 entrants took off for the wild dirt yonder. They were just a bunch of guys who over the weekend tinkered with their race vehicles in their garages, had their wife and kids working the pits, and slept in the back of the truck with a cooler full of sandwiches and sodas. The brute race started by a San Fernando Valley florist with a thing for off-roading. SCORE International eventually took the reins, now holding a six-race series through the year, with the Baja 1000 in November as the final blowout. 

Today’s Tecate SCORE Baja 1000 is all about rabid, high-powered engines. Dust. More dust. Big bumps. Endurance. Strategy. Rocky p its. Booby traps. Potential death. Flat tires and busted transmissions. Banditos. Any number of altercations with Lady Luck. 

For the top racers, I begin to realize, it is also about deep pockets. Very deep. 

What used to be a relatively low-budget gig for backyard mechanics has turned into a high-tech, top-dollar production for professional off-road racers. Though in the past decade the starting field has dropped considerably (there are about 200 entrants this time around), those who have stuck around have made the Baja count. 

The three Singleton brothers, who will be  my hosts for this made ride, haven’t slept in days. Barry, the oldest and one of White Lightning’s full-time mechanics, has had about three hours of shut-eye in the past three days. He feels the heat of competition. His hands have been inside and out of the Collins-and-White truck; it’s like an appendage by now. The machine is his job. So he’s not sure about having a stranger – much less a girl – riding with him for 1,070 miles. 

We go over a map of the course and the list of pits, which are positioned throughout the race about every 115 miles. We will have to try to reach each pt ahead of Collins and White, so that we’re ready if they need us. We are in a race of our own. Chase trucks fortunately follow a different, mostly-paved course, making our task a bit easier. 

Santa Tomas, where the race begins, is suddenly flooded with what sounds like a thousand chain saws. We don’t pause for the stat.  Motorcycles and ATVs left at seven a.m.; they need a head start, since in a race like this they are mere gnats on the asses of the bigger vehicles. Trucks take off at nine. 

Miles past the start, we wait at a crossing where the vehicles will intersect the highway. Flagmen stand by, ready to direct them safely across the asphalt and back onto the dirt. Our radio is our lifeline to the White Lightning team; we hear that Ragland and Stewart aren’t far behind. Stewart’s in the lead, but only by seconds.  By 10:50 a.m., Ragland’s rear brakes have gone out, but he keeps going. At some point they change his master cylinder.  Ten minutes later, Collins has a flat rear tire. We sit patiently. 

“If he can get to the pit he won’t have to get out of the truck,” Barry says, contemplating the time that can be saved if Collins doesn’t have to change his own tire.  In racing, the driver avoids getting out of the truck; it’s far too time consuming. To relieve himself, a driver attaches a hose to his penis. Pissing into a bag is better than losing the race. 

A few minutes later, we hear that Collins did have to get out of the truck and change his own tire. Last year, in a similar situation, he rode on a flat instead and burned out the transmission. 

In the distance, we hear what begins as an insect-like hum, then grows to the roar of Stewart’s Toyota. To our surprise, Ragland is only feet behind him. In an amazing transition, Ragland takes the lead just as the two vehicles cross the pavement and grind back into the dirt. 

The Singleton brothers holler. 

Finally, Collins roars through like a mechanical bull off its foundation. 

We follow. 

In the pit, teams wait for their racers to appear on the horizon. Everyone listens. A snaky trail of yellow dust rises in the distance. This is where evidence of technology and teamwork shines brightest. 

“This is a team sport. Everyone has a job to do,” says Mario Santa Cruz, who is working Pit A. “It’s a game based on seconds. Do  your job. Do it right. Or lose the race.” 

As usual, gassing up takes front and center in the pit. 

“The fuel apparatus has a breather on top and the intake for the fuel on the bottom,” Santa Cruz says, adding proudly, “When he pulls in, all we do is put the plunger into the truck, and then the 55 gallons that it takes will go in in only 19 seconds. We check the two spares on the back and then walk around and check the rest of the tires. The faster he can get out the better.” 

Ain’t that the truth. In one race the White Lightning team lost first place by mere seconds. If they had fueled faster, they could have won. 

Before a driver pulls away from a pit stop, his crew stuffs rolled bologna and Power Bars through his faceplate.  Into the helmet go orange slices, which, aside from boiling coffee, are the only things capable of cutting through the film of silt that accumulates in drivers’ mouths. With no windshields, their helmets protect them only so much. 

At night, the atmosphere changes. 

You know the racers are out there in a blackened sandbox, maneuvering through pine forests, driving as slow as 10 or 15 miles an hour around boulders and up mountains, descending into canyons, and attacking the straightaways at speeds beyond 150 mph. 

Dale White is going to love this, his time to shine. Well rested and relaxed, he’s ready. 

I think about what Ivan Stewart said to me the day before the race. “I tell people I come here to breathe the water and drink the air.” 

I also remember that gunfighter look in his eye, the impeccable physique that any 20-year-old would envy. Being in good shape is a real plus. Holding down a brake, making sharp turns, withstanding the constant jarring, all take a toll on a body. And so I wonder how he’s faring. Still a close race between him and Ragland, there’s no halfway mark for them where they change drivers; they like to do the route alone. 

“I don’t trust anyone enough to share driving time with them,” Ragland said prior to the race.  “If anything happens, I want it to be my fault.” 

Collins has driven 584.7 miles in ten and a half hours. He wants out of his fireproof harness, the helmet, the truck. He’s got a mouthful of dust and an empty stomach.  He rips off black electrical tape and pulls earplugs out of his head. 

For Brian Collins, it’s over. For Dale White and his navigator, Mike Emerson, the hell has just begun.  They smile, wave, and crawl in. 

Collins pauses to see his rival, David Westhem of La Jolla, California, peel off. Collins eyes the distance apprehensively for a moment. He mentions something about the suspension being too stiff, that maybe that’s why he had the flats. The Singleton brothers listen intently. Nobody wants to get blamed for anything. 

We’ve got one flat tire, then another. This means we have to stop about every six miles to fill the tires with air because we have no more spares, at least not until we reach the next pit. We get behind if anything happens to Dale white we’re not going to be there to help him.  The radio keeps us informed, but the back-and-forth banter grows delirious. 

The Singleton brothers are like sleepy boys, saying silly shit to entertain themselves. 

All we can do it get to La Paz and hope White beats both us and Westhem. We’ve been driving for 15 hours ad still have miles to go before we can even think about the finish line. 

The radio keeps us abreast. Ivan has a flat, then Larry has one, too. They swap places. 

The race is tight. 

White and Westhem are still neck and neck. 

Some racers have resorted to holding their trucks together with fence wire they gather from along the course. 

Whatever works. 

The biggest danger racers face is the local traffic. The Baja course is not closed, so anything can happen. Racers also have to be wary of bored locals, who have been known to dig trenches and lie in wait to watch racers bottom out. 

So they learn to watch for signs: groups of Mexicans with curious looks; greenery, which indicates water. And where there’s water, there are cattle. You don’t want to hit a 1,500-pound steer while driving 100 mph. 

Competitors must look out for one another too. When drivers get behind other vehicles and want o pass, they “tap” the bumper in front of them and sometimes even push the other guy off the road entirely. The Baja 1000 is not an altogether polite race. 

La Paz is a heavenly ending to a hell of a race. The Sea of Cortez is a big drink of water after the barren landscape all have traveled to reach it. 

Stewart crosses the finish line at 4:08 a.m., capturing the overall title for the third time and the featured Trophy Truck division for the first. He has finished the course in just 19 hours, eight minutes, 20 seconds; his average speed was 55.91 mph. 

Ragland is crestfallen. His time is 19 hours, 13 minutes, 31 seconds, averaging 55.66 mph to finish second. 

“A phenomenal amount of money is spent by the big teams,” Ragland says. “As far as the level of competition, I would rank this race up against any other automobile racing. It’s not a race that you can just come down and spend a bunch of money and win. It’s very involved. Our vehicles are really as sophisticated as the Indy cars. They do more than those vehicles do. But unless they’ve been here and driven one, most people don’t understand what it takes to compete and win.” 

A frazzled Stewart adds, “It’s like being in an all-day plane crash.” 

Only 123 competitors out of 207 finish the race, but luck is on our side. Dale White crosses the finish line around 7:30 a.m., a full 17 minutes before Dave Westhem. The latter half of the course had taken White only eight hours to complete; he and Collins combined for a total time of 21 hours, two minutes, 59 seconds. The most danger White encountered was a herd of steer, which he had dodged by running off the road. 

As trophies are handed out and everyone stands to thank their mom, crew, sponsors, God, and SCORE International, I’m struck by the reality of what the end of the millennium holds. Not a plague of Y2K problems. Not Armageddon. 

No. 

Sal Fish announces that for the year 2000 he is planning not 1,000 miles, but a full 2,000 mile loop, which will go down the peninsula and back up again. The Marquis de Sade meets Laurence of Arabia. 

I wince. 

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Writer and photographer since age 7, I took it pro when I turned 21. Freelancing for magazines, newspapers, websites, blogs ever since, my portfolio grew. The publishing industry has changed and I continue adapt. Now, I'm shifting gears and looking for new adventures, both personally and professionally - the two have, frequently, been synonymous.

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