The toughest off-road race in the world, and I loved every single minute of it!
“Junket: An extravagant trip or journey or promotional trip made at another person’s expense.”
It has been only a matter of hours and already I want to go back! Why? Well, once you have experienced the world’s most gruelling off-road endurance race you are completely hooked; for life too, I suspect. Yes, it is that good. It was the ultimate press junket and one of the best things I have ever witnessed!
Picture this: 1,000hp of ear and body rumbling power, 40-inch tyres built to withstand the toughest environment in the world, suspension travel measured in feet, double sets of long-travel suspension at each corner and tube-constructed chassis with the longest suspension arms ever devised – and all of this built to team spec, not governed by rules or regulations other than those relating to safety (well at least in the unrestricted classes, anyway).
This is the pinnacle of off-road endurance and extreme-environment product development; this is the Baja 1000. Somewhere on your beloved car right now is at least one piece of technology that can trace some design elements back to this race.
I am going to hide nothing here. A few months ago BFGoodrich asked me if I would be interested in joining them at the 50th anniversary of the Baja 1000 race, hosted in Mexico. Well, keeping a fairly straight face, I managed to gracefully accept! But this presented a little problem; while I had heard of the race, I really had no idea what it was about. I am an off-road tourer. So with all good intentions I swore I would research the cars, the drivers and the race beforehand.
That did not happen. Like a school kid doing homework the night before, I Googled at the airport – before meeting the media team at San Diego totally and utterly underprepared. Fortunately it did not matter though. I was to learn that the real beauty of this event is not in knowing the details as much as it is about enjoying the spectacle. It is simply fun – and as I was to learn, deceptively mesmerising.
Over 400 teams from across the globe entered this year’s event. Of those, only a dozen or so were the ridiculously-specced Trophy trucks. Only 238 competitors managed to finish. There are a lot more categories ranging from restricted Trophy trucks right through to buggies, ATVs and motorbikes. Each category (other than the top ones) has its own regulations and restrictions such as engine capacity, tyre size etc; but rest assured, the mud- and dust-caked faces I saw in all competitors (be it at the end of a driving stint or at the finish line) told the same story – utter exhaustion! For those that did manage to cross the line though, the battle-weary faces also told another story: Elation.
The Baja California peninsula is a long strip of land running south of California. It is a stunning part of Mexico; a largely desolate landscape of rock, shrubs, large cacti, high rugged peaks and small towns of varying wealth. To the south, the towns are more ‘westernised’ and offer popular resort-style getaways for US citizens. This year’s race stated in the north at Ensenada and finished in the south at La Paz, covering over 1,130 miles of tracks. This meant that sadly we would not have the opportunity to get out onto the track as we would have liked. These are the fastest off-road vehicles on the planet and there were no big highways we could use to leapfrog the competitors. The big teams have helicopters to run support and relief drivers; it’s the only way to catch up.
We were immediately struck by the sense of festivity in Ensenada. The race is one of the highlights of the year for the locals – and jeez they are passionate about it too. Thousands of people constantly streamed through the start zone eager to score free stuff from the teams and touch the cars and drivers. Mexican musicians were abundant and the constant stream of brass trumpets and drums acted as an unending backdrop for the thriving crowd. Overhead, the slapping rotors of media choppers also did their best to add to the noise and excitement.
The day before the race is called ‘contingency’. Officially, it is where the teams are assessed for compliance and regs; but really it is just an excuse for the teams and crowds to interact – the polar opposite of what we do not enjoy in an over-regulated Australia. The locals here were overwhelmingly friendly and genuinely kind; and another thing – once they noticed the BFGoodrich caps and shirts of our travelling group, they became almost reverential toward us.
The next day, and with the drivers leaving at 30-second intervals, we enjoyed the spectacle of these monsters roaring through the streets of Ensenada; destination the distant dirt and hills. The streets were lined with locals and overseas tourists. Impromptu food stalls were scattered about, promising genuine (if not belly ache inducing) food. The water quality and the food handling of the smaller outlets are not kind to a Western stomach.
The next day BFGoodrich whisked us away to the airport and we were bound for the finish line at La Paz. Most of us had kept track of the leaderboard along the way, but you never know what misfortune awaits the weary driver. Add to this the need for ‘corrected times’ due to departure intervals and penalties and it’s all a little confusing. Nevertheless, we were in a thriving sea of media when the line-honours Trophy truck (and corrected-time overall winner) piloted by Mexican local Carlos Apdaly Lopez arrived after 19 hours and 53 minutes of hell.
Surprisingly, his car was largely intact. The remainder of the field we witnessed had all suffered serious collisions with Mother Nature and other vehicles. Apparently, a common driving technique is to ‘bump’ into slower cars in front (that cannot see those behind approaching in the thick dust); and a common spectator technique is to pre-build ‘booby traps’ for the competitor vehicles – massive holes dug by hand, logs and rocks placed on blind corners and gates deliberately closed. Pretty hectic stuff!
The Baja 1000 is one of the greatest events on the global motorsport calendar. Similar Australian events – like the Finke Desert Race – are well within reach and worth checking out if you are travelling around the country.