Thanks to my co-driver, Dave Roberts, for providing this report of our week in Mexico.
Baja 2011 was, well, Baja. This was the 44th running of the Baja 1000 and we entered two cars. The number 1803 Kawasaki powered, Hawk Performance Sportsman UTV and the number 120 Chevrolet powered, Black Rock Wheels Class 1 buggy. We expected big things from both in the race.
This year’s 1000 was the loop configuration of the race course. The race started in Ensenada and ended back in Ensenada after making the run over the summit, through the San Felipe loop and the trek back to Ensenada on a southern route.
Our driver teams in the UTV consisted of Chris Koch and Shannon Rippe taking the car from the starting line, over the summit to the driver swap location near the military checkpoint in north San Felipe on Highway 5, race mile 210. At this location, Bob Viau and Steve Rone would get into the car and take it through the San Felipe loop, turning the car over to John McCarthy and Nick Short to drive it across the finish line in Ensenada for the win.
The Class 1 car was started by Todd Romano and Jack McCormick. They were to take the car over the summit to the driver exchange point at race mile 210. From there, Mike Skeen and I were to get into the car and take it through the San Felipe loop and then turn the car back over to Todd and Jack to take it back to Ensenada.
The weather two weeks leading up to the race was rainy and wet. As a result of the weather and four races that were held on the same circuit this year, the San Felipe loop was in the worst condition I have ever seen it. It was 250 miles of deep whoops. The only break was the dry lake bed, which was smooth and fast. Too bad you are only on it for about 20 miles.
Half of the team arrived on Saturday night and the second half arrived on Monday morning. As Mike Skeen and I arrived on Monday morning, we got into the Class 1 pre-runner and headed south to run the course from race mile 320 back into San Felipe. We decided that Mike should drive since it was his first time at Baja. Our chase crew headed south in a suburban and met us where we were to head onto the course and filled the fuel cell. You can never have too much gas in the desert. Once fueled, we followed the course into one of the river washes. These washes are narrow, filled with loose sand and covered with very large granite river boulders. As Mike and I got into the wash we saw a number of motorcycles and cars pre-running the same section.
It is off-road etiquette to stop and make sure everyone is okay when you see a car or bike stopped during the pre-run. During one of those stops to see if a car and crew were okay, we pulled onto what we thought was hard pan. As we were pulling away, the rear tires sunk into very fine sand and buried the car up to the floor pan, high centering the car. Mike tried to drive out to no avail. It was time to start digging, and digging in this case was with our hands. It took approximately 2 hours to dig under the tires with the car supported by a Harbor Freight jack. We gathered up river rock boulders, putting them under the rear tires, and finally got enough traction to drive the car out of the sand. The remainder of the pre-run went without issue and it didn’t take Mike long to adapt to off-road racing.
Back at the El Cortez Hotel, we decided to have a quick dinner and go out as soon as it got dark to run a northern section of the course, an area along the power lines that is notorious for whoops. We decided I would drive the car through this section. This is generally the worst place on the entire race course. At dark we drove the car through the San Felipe city streets to catch the race course at the San Felipe garbage dump. We ran this section up to Zoo Road, turned off the course onto Zoo Road and took it back to the paved highway leading back into San Felipe. Once on the pavement, we decided to run that section of the course again. We just couldn’t get enough of the whoops. After two runs down that section, we headed back to the hotel to call it a day.
On Tuesday, we ran the northern section from the military check point to the dry lake bed, which was “whooped out” as badly as I have seen it. It was incredibly rough. After running the whoops, the dry lake bed and the silt bed, we reached the back side of Zoo Road where it crossed the course headed south. I decided I had enough and headed back to the hotel. I had seen everything I wanted to see. The race course took the same route as the Baja 250 race earlier this year and I was done with pre-running. Mike, on the other hand, wanted to go run the southern section. Back at the hotel, Bob Viau said he would ride with Mike through the southern section and off they went about two hours before dark.
Those of us who weren’t pre-running waited at the hotel, had dinner, but quickly began to wonder about Mike and Bob. The sun had set and it was the typical darkness that befalls the desert. After waiting for another hour, we decided to drive south on the highway to see if we could reach them on the radio. Down near the southern end of the course, we saw bright lights about two miles on the horizon coming our way on the pavement. Finally able to reach them on the radio, we learned that they had decided to return to the hotel rather than run the entire southern section. Since we were going to be racing it at night, Mike thought it would be good to see, or not see as the case may be, that canyon at night. Mike and Bob made a wise decision. There weren’t any cars out pre-running and the last thing you want to do is breakdown or get stuck in one of the washes where a chase truck cannot get to you very easily and you have no communication back to your team. It makes for very long nights in the desert. They ran most of the southern section without incident and wisely decided to retire for the night.
On Wednesday, we headed to Ensenada with all of the team drivers to register for the race and put the cars through tech inspection. Each driver has to go through registration to get his or her wristband. Without the wristband, if you are injured SCORE will not offer medical help or provide transportation back to the states. I am not sure if that is truth or myth, but I didn’t want to be the first person to test the theory.
Speaking of medical assistance, we were very lucky to have Dr. Leigh Miller with us this year. Leigh is dating Jack McCormick and she decided to come down to Baja to provide medical support for the team. It was very comforting to have a doctor with the group. The usual assistance is for stomach ailments created by eating or drinking the wrong thing in Mexico, but occasionally someone receives a minor injury.
On Thursday, we took our helmets to tech inspection to get our sticker and then walked though Contingency. Contingency is where the race cars that did not go through early tech, line up and the crews push their cars through the streets of Ensenada to inspection. The cars are lined up bumper to bumper with thousands of fans gathering around the cars. After doing this once, I am not sure why anyone would do it again. It is one of those events that is fun once, maybe twice, but no more than that. We quickly walked through contingency, and then looked for a restaurant to have a leisurely lunch. We went to a restaurant which claimed to have the best taco meat in Ensenada. The waiter explained the difference of the four different grades of meat available for you tacos. I liken it to ordering Kobe beef or Grade “A” beef. As the food was delivered, we noticed it was being walked up the street. When asked, the restaurant told us their kitchen was closed during the day and they had, my words not theirs, outsourced their kitchen. The tacos were delivered with two plates per meal, one below and one on top of the meal. It keeps the flies from feasting on the meal on the way to the sidewalk café. By the way, it wasn’t Kobe beef!
While we were at contingency, Chris Koch and Shannon Rippe were out pre-running the start of the course with Steve Ford and Colm Gallagher. This was the first time Steve and Colm had been in Baja and they seemed to truly enjoy the experience.
That afternoon, those of us getting into the race cars when they reached race mile 210, headed back to San Felipe to wait for our turn, which would come Friday afternoon. After another fine Mexican dinner of Fajitas and Tacos, we went to bed, restlessly tossing and turning, not knowing what the desert would hold for us the next day. Running Baja is the most unpredictable event I have ever participated in as a driver.
Friday, RACE DAY. The excitement continues to build as the motorcycles and ATV’s go off a few hours before the rest of the field. They begin the race by leaving Ensenada at 6:00am, with a bike leaving every 30 seconds followed by the ATV’s departing at the same 30 second interval.
Your starting position is determined by a blind draw. I am not sure if they actually use a hat, but the name of the “Driver of Record” is placed in a hat. The blind draw then begins and where your name is drawn determines your position on the starting grid. Our Sportsman UTV received number 1803 which meant we were the 4th name drawn from the hat and would be the 4th car off the starting line on race day. The C1 car had number 120, which meant we were the 21st car selected during the blind draw. The only disadvantage of having your name drawn late, means the dust is very thick and heavy at the start of the race, reducing your visibility.
After a small breakfast Friday morning, we packed our survival bags. The bags are packed with snacks, water, matches to light a fire, rags, a first aid kit and a much needed jacket for the nighttime cold. We also packed our passports, because without them you can’t get back into the US if there is an emergency.
It was now lunchtime and those who were not getting into the cars until late evening ate lunch. I powered up my laptop and went to www.racetheworld.net. This web site tracks the location of every race car during the race. After the bikes and ATV’s, a few hours later the Trophy Trucks are off. While watching the start on the computer, we noticed that only a few trucks departed the starting line on time. The others were sitting on the grid. We learned quickly that “Occupy Ensenada” was underway. Apparently, a disgruntled Ensenada citizen would rather not have the race take place in his beloved Ensenada. To prove this point, he pulled a camper onto the track and over turned it. The race was halted while the trailer was cleared. We are not sure what exactly happened, but it appeared that all of the Trophy Trucks were sent to the location of the blocked track and the field was started from there after the traffic mess was cleared up.
As we watched the start of the race on the computer, we saw Todd start 20th and begin to quickly pick off cars. Chris did the same thing in the UTV. Todd had moved to 6th on the road and Chris started 4th but was quickly in the lead. Very good results at the start of the race and we became very optimistic—the wrong feeling to have only 50 miles into a 1000 mile race.
At about the two hour mark, it was time to depart the hotel and head out to the race course to wait for the race cars to arrive. The drive was about an hour from the hotel. Mike Skeen, Bob Viau, Steve Rone and I gathered up our gear and were driven to the race course by Mister Neon. A gentleman named Ed Everret is Mr. Neon and has helped us at every Baja race we have run. He knows the countryside and always seems to get to us quickly if we need something. He also owns the Chevy Suburbans we rent to use as chase trucks.
As we headed to race mile 210, Bob Viau had the race on his iPhone tracking the action. At one time, Chris was only 10 miles behind Todd in the C1 car. Todd told us earlier in the week that the early miles of the track were very narrow and technical. He thought the UTV would be as fast as the C1 car. He was right.
As we tracked the cars, Todd got to 6th in the C1 car. A remarkable start considering he started 20th, but we noticed that the car was stopped on track. Chris continued to stretch the lead on the UTV class as cars headed up the summit. He reached race mile 110 and stopped. Without communications with either car, we had no idea what was happening, but at least we knew where they were. With the 120 car moving again, Mike and I put on our driving gear. It was another 45 minutes and a call came from car 120. They were close. As we were waiting we noticed nine C1 cars along with a few Class 10 cars go by our location. We knew something was amiss as Todd and Jack gave back some of the positions they had gained.
When the car was about 5 miles out we heard a call on the radio that they needed a spare tire. A flat tire had cost them the three class positions. As they arrived at the pit location, Todd and Jack jumped out and Mike and I were in the car. We decided that Mike would drive the car first and I would navigate. As we got into the car, there was still no word on 1803.
With a full fuel cell and a new spare mounted on the spare tire rack, we were on our way. Within a few miles from the pit, Mike was doing some countryside landscaping. We were knocking down bushes as Mike hunted for the fastest route, all while avoiding spectators. Once we were out of the congested area, Mike was fast. We passed a few motorcycles, ATVs, the class 10 cars and the three C1 cars that passed Todd when he had the flat tire.
The going was tough, however. It was non-stop whoops until we reached the dry lake bed. What a relief, Mike was running the car at 125mph and we were driving by the navigation system, keeping the car on the long green line on the screen. “Bring the car slightly right Mike. Good, stay right there. We need to come back to the left slightly. Great, hold it right there”. At 125mph, we ate up the 20 miles of the dry lake bed in no time.
Off the lake bed and into the silt bed we made our way to the Zoo Road intersection. From there the whoops got bad again. We knew it would be rough but this was ridiculous. As we entered Matomi wash, my stomach was beginning to feel the effects of reading the navigation system and looking up at the road to spot obstacles. About 30 miles from the BFG pit where we were to fuel the car, my stomach could no longer take it. Thankfully, I had not eaten lunch, but I did have two bottles of water and a small package of Oreo cookies. The driver and navigator are tied together with a live communication link that has open microphones. No need to push buttons to talk this way. I felt sorry for Mike having to listen to me. Without requesting we slow the car, Mike slowed to a pace where my stomach seemed to be okay.
While my stomach was upset with me for putting it through the past few hours of abuse, the car began to pick up an intermittent engine miss. It would run at full throttle for a few seconds and then lay down. It would catch again and run at full throttle then lay down again. We knew something was wrong but weren’t sure what it was, but were pretty sure it was a fueling problem.
I can’t tell you how happy I was as we neared the BFG pit. I radioed we were five miles out. I mentioned the engine problem and asked if there was anyone available to take my place in the car. A resounding “yes!” came back on the radio. Two of Todd’s good friends, Hans and Paul Cummins, were there and Paul was willing to get into the car. Problem was he didn’t have a driver’s suit or helmet. Fortunately, while slightly taller than I, which isn’t hard for many people, he was about my size. We got to the pit, Paul put on my driver’s suit and helmet, despite the fact that it was “wet”. I pulled the dirt skirt off the helmet as it was the most soiled of the garments I was wearing. I put on Paul’s jeans and made my way to the chase truck. I needed to sit down in a non-moving object.
With my driver’s suit on and without being able to diagnose the engine problem, Mike and Paul headed off into the darkness. In the chase truck with John McCormick and Hans, we began our drive out of the wash. We had about five miles through very rough roads to get to the highway. The drive wasn’t helping my stomach any, but at least I didn’t have a helmet on and the truck’s power windows were very fast. We were headed to San Felipe to make sure the C1 car came through the garbage dump before heading further north to meet it again at race mile 210, where another driver switch would take place.
We arrived in San Felipe to wait for the car. Back in cell phone coverage, I called Bob who was still up at race mile 210 waiting for the 1803 car. He said they had not heard from the car, but it wasn’t moving. We sat in San Felipe and began to wonder about the C1 car. In another call to Bob, he said the C1 car was sitting stationary at race mile 350. We waited 15 minutes thinking that they may have had a flat tire and were replacing it. Another call to Bob to learn the car was still sitting. There was no way to get to Mike and Paul from this side of the race course. To get to them, we needed to drive more than 50 miles down the highway and Zoo Road to the other side of the race course. We needed to make radio contact with the C1 car to understand the problem they were having.
We began the drive at approximately 1:00am Saturday morning. As we got to the southern end of Zoo Road we began radioing the race car. Finally, as we got to approximately race mile 350 they responded. They were stuck in silt and couldn’t get the car free. The best way to get through silt is to bury the throttle, never lifting. As they were navigating the silt, the engine cut out causing the car to sink in the silt. They had only gone 30 miles from the BFG pits where I got out of the car. It was now nearly 2:30am.
After another 30 minutes they had the car free and were moving again. We again lost radio contact. Another 30 minutes passed and Paul called to say the engine was cutting out. They would go a mile or so and have to set and wait for the engine to decide to run again.
Sitting at the southern end of Zoo Road, the only way I had to communicate with Bob Viau was with the satellite phone. Bob was tracking the race through Nick Short, who was on his laptop back at the hotel—a rudimentary, but effective means of communication. They had learned that the 1803 had a broken steering rack. Shannon Rippe, the navigator in 1803, attempted to make a temporary repair to the rack with a tie-down strap. They wanted to get the car to the next Baja pit where they could have the rack welded. As they tied the rack together with the strap, they didn’t realize they also had a broken brake line. The rack broke 300 meters from the top of the summit. They now had 1803 moving again, but as Chris and Shannon began their downward trek they realized they didn’t have brakes. To get the car stopped, Chris steered it into the side of the mountain. 1803 was out of the race while leading the class.
Now the arduous task of retrieving car and crew began. Tom Roberts headed up the summit in one of the Mr. Neon rented Suburbans, but the truck was too big and lumbering to make a quick rescue. The only answer was to send Nick, one of the top technicians from DragonFire and his fiancé, Ashley, to the summit in one of our Teryx pre-runners. The Teryx was at mile 210 and the race car was out of commission at race mile 110—a monumental task to say the least.
Back in the C1 car, Mike and Paul continued to struggle with the engine. We were able to contact them again and told him to come to race mile 368. There, they should head across the desert toward us. Hans and I walked out to the race course with a flashlight and a hand-held radio to direct them to the waiting chase truck.
We heard the engine and saw their lights coming up the track. Via radio communications, we directed them to turn left and head our way. Not sure how many of you have spent time in the desert at night, but it is dark. We told them to head toward me as I was standing in the middle of the road waving my arms. As they came up at a high rate of speed, I jumped out of the way just as they came to a stop. It was about eight hours from the time Mike and I got into the car. Our plan was to run this section in four hours. When the car reached me, we still had about 100 miles to go just to complete our section. It had taken eight hours to get this far. For the 120 car and crew, the race was over for another year.
Using Zoo Road and Highway 5, Mike took the car back to the hotel. We followed at a distance because we couldn’t drive as fast as the C1 car in the Chevy pickup truck chase vehicle. While Zoo Road is a graded stone road, it is washboard rough. On the way back to the hotel in the chase truck, we stopped at a Pemex station to fill the gas tanks. Jack, Hans, and the rest of the Ensenada-based crew were headed back to Ensenada for what remained of the night and needed fuel to get there. As John got out of the truck, he called to Hans. Hans and I got out of the cab to see the front bumper hanging off the truck and nearly dragging on the ground. Apparently, the roughness of Zoo Road caused the bumper mounting bolts to break though the hard plastic of the bumper. It is a good thing we stopped for fuel as in a few more miles the bumper would have fallen off and under the truck.
When we got back to the hotel in San Felipe, it was 5:45am. In Nick’s room, we found him watching the laptop and tracking the progress of the 1803 car as it was being towed off the summit. They had broken about 4:00pm Friday night and were still not off the mountain. This is where the survival bag comes in handy. With water to keep yourself hydrated, a jacket to keep reasonably warm and matches to start a fire, you have a chance of making it through the night in good spirits. Chris and Shannon built a large bonfire to keep warm which actually served as a marker for the chase crew to find them.
Back at the hotel and now 6:00am on Saturday morning, I decided to get the entire crew out of Baja as early as possible. I e-mailed our pilots and asked them to have the plane in San Felipe by 8:00am. When the plane landed, we loaded Bob Viau, John McCarthy, Steve Rone, and me to head to the US. Chris was on his way and only 27 kilometers from San Felipe when we reached him by cell phone. We held the plane for him.
Off in the distance, we saw the Mr. Neon white suburban headed up Airport Road. They decided to abandon the race car and get Chris to the plane. He climbed aboard still wearing his driver’s suit. Thankfully he had removed his helmet or he may have been confused as the STIG by the large crowds lining the streets.
When flying out of Baja, we stop in Tucson to clear customs. As Chris disembarked the plane still in his driver’s suit, the US Customs agent gave him a nickname, “Ricky Bobbie”. It was a nice piece of levity after spending the past 30 hours in the Baja Desert. We cleared Customs and made our way to Phoenix’s Sky Harbor airport with the plane returning to San Felipe to pick up the remaining crew members. The race was over for the Black Rock and Hawk Racing Teams.
This year’s 1000 was the most difficult race in recent memory. 24 Class 1 cars started the race and 5 finished. SCORE’s premier class, the Trophy Truck had 40 entrants. Only 10 finished. Most of the big names in the sport didn’t finish. Robby Gordon crashed his Trophy Truck at over 100mph on the road to Mike’s Sky Ranch. Larry Roesler, the driver with the most overall wins at Baja, rolled the Terrible Herbst’s Trophy Truck at Ojos, just 40 miles out of Ensenada. In the Sportsman UTV class, 9 cars started and none finished. This year’s track was brutal. I can honestly say this is the first time I didn’t wish I was back in the car 15 minutes after I was out of it.
For Team Black Rock Wheels and Team Hawk, the 2011 edition of the Baja 1000 was a disappointment. We really thought that we had a chance at class wins in both classes. It was also a major accomplishment. For 16 people who have day jobs to go down to Baja and compete in this race is a major accomplishment. Despite that, it felt good to be back on American soil!