Imagine, idling in front of your pit in the middle of the desert, your team doing final tune-ups and checks to make sure your racecar will return in one piece. To make sure you return in one piece. Testing the microphones, wrapping you in kidney belts, making sure the GPS system is linked to your racecourse, making sure your harness makes you part of the car in case of a roll….this is Wide Open Adventures, and they do this everyday. The only difference in this particular day is that it’s an all-female race. This is the 4th Annual Powder Puff Race for the Cure, benefiting Cedars-Sinai Women’s Cancer Center in Los Angeles. Last year, $115,000 was raised by 150 racecars. This year the goal is $150,000, and over 240 cars are entered into the race.
Meet the Team
Nothing could have prepared me for this. Sure, I did my research. I cyber-stalked Wide Open Adventures online for videos, I watched Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s desert racing scenes for Wide Open’s theatrical debut, but that was a walk in the park compared to the carnage my driver and I were in for. Brad and Angelina barely broke the seal, whereas we were about to rip it off, chew it up, and pin it to the wall with our Stilettos.
I arrived the night before the race and met the rest of my team, made up of three women from three totally different worlds. I work in the beauty and fashion industry, and I’m as girly as they come. I can’t drive a stick shift, so I could only be a co-driver, i.e. the navigator. One of our drivers is pro-snowboarder, Tara Dakides, a seasoned extreme athlete in it to win it. Her big question to Wide Open was, “what’s the record speed for this car?” She planned to break it. Everyone seemed afraid of her. The other driver is Quintessa Cu, who works for a big Hollywood production company, with a smile from ear to ear. She’s also driven before, but this will be her first race. Quin had an aura about her that led me to believe she’s tougher than she looks.
Falling in Infatuation
My team and I checked in and signed our lives away with the race authorities, and then Wide Open’s tour operations manager, Nick Johnson, took me to see the car. I had arrived late, so the other team members had already been introduced to the soldier Wide Open had chosen to protect us. It was parked beside its trailer—a gorgeously painted purple shimmer covered in pink ribbons and sponsor logos, also in pink. It was a real life Baja racecar, estimated to be worth over $100,000. And I was going to get to ride in it! I crossed my fingers that nothing would come up between now and the start of the race that might prevent me from participating. In particular, I hoped I wasn’t considered too girly to be able to keep up with the other racers. The wheels were obviously made to wrestle anything a desert could throw at it, with massive 3-inch thick tread and shocks as big as my body. There are some pretty serious looking harnesses in place of seat belts, and two GPS computer screens, one for the driver and one for the co-driver. The crowd began to dissolve as ladies anxiously headed back to camp to rest up for tomorrow. No one would be sleeping tonight. As I nervously sized up the competition, my very existence was interrupted by what could only be described as the earth opening up to swallow us whole, anyone within earshot stopping to gawk and stare, jaws hitting the ground faster than I could gasp. I looked up at the sky for evidence of disaster striking. I balanced my feet on the ground in case we were in for a quake. No disaster. It was just Nick preparing to get the car on the trailer. It was overwhelming! My whole body could hear that engine revving! Not the typical roar from movies and streetcars: this was a low, beefy grumble which made it clear this car’s got a whole world alive under that hood, and this was nothing compared to the show it’ll be putting on tomorrow. It was merely clearing its throat. I did a double take when I thought I saw the car smirking. My whole body broke out into a sweat. We all headed back to camp to bonfire and strategize for tomorrow, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the car; I was utterly mesmerized by the mystery of what this thing was capable of. I was infatuated.
Just as I predicted, I barely slept Friday night. Racecars were doing pre-runs outside our window, and I could hear frantic repairs being made all night, followed by test runs and voices. I heard the squeals of other cars, but none of them haunted me like Wide Open’s purple punisher. It was in my dreams. I had never felt such a pull to a vehicle before. This was my first race! This was my first time in the desert! Why did I feel this way? I sat up quickly and checked to make sure the car was still on the trailer. It was pitch black, but I saw its silhouette against the moon like a ticket to an invincible life. I felt the car would free me. All of this after standing next to it with the engine idling. I couldn’t imagine what today would bring. While I brushed my teeth outside of camp, and rinsed with my water bottle, I realized I wasn’t scared at all. This car wasn’t a death trap; it was made to survive anything. I was safer in that car than I had been, sleeping in my Toyota 4Runner the night before. I was normally an extremely careful driver, barely getting above the speed limit, but over the years I turned into a vulnerable, fearful adult, always nagging my husband to slow down and be cautious. Better safe than sorry, right? But I’ve been missing out on a lot of wonderful things in life that are worth their risk! I’ve been so afraid to die, I was forgetting to live. Right then and there I decided this race is going to be the first day of the rest of my life. I threw some sunscreen on my face and ran over to find my teammates, my first time without makeup in ages.
Nick and the three team members figured out how to work one co-driver, and two drivers, into a five lap course without wasting too much time pulled over to switch off. Obviously, I couldn’t drive the car without knowing how to drive a stick, so Quin and Tara were the only drivers. Who would co-drive with professional snowboarder-turned professional racecar driver Tara? She was our biggest chance at doing well, so she needed someone who could guide her through the storm. Neither Quin nor I had experience racing, but at least Quin had a test run under her belt, and had driven the car before. I only had my brief introduction to it. Then I heard the verdict, “Katie you’ll be co-driving for Tara the first lap, then Tara will co-drive for Quin, then they’ll switch for the remaining three laps.” For the second time in twelve hours, my whole body broke out into a sweat.
8:00 am rolled up with Tara and I positioned in our car outside Wide Open's pit, my nerves frazzled, the cool desert air filtering in through the net like the icy fingers of a ghost. Tara gave me a few final suggestions, such as to remember to breathe. We had everything we needed, so we were ready to head to the starting line. Being strapped down and made “one with the car” made me feel like an ant on a camel’s back, barely noticeable. Being inside the car was definitely different than standing next to it. It wasn’t as loud, and it didn’t shake as much as I expected it to. I could hear Tara as clear as a bell speak over the microphone, “Ready to head out?” I gave her a thumb’s up and turned my head as much as I could to see her, which proved to be very difficult with everything I was wearing, and we started to move. THERE’S the growl I was expecting. It must have been somewhat muffled inside the helmet, but there wasn’t a chance we could miss this. Tara took me over the part of the course that was in front of our pit, made of a series of bumps, barely warming the engine up. It was clear she wasn’t going very fast, she was simply showing me what to expect. Up and down, with an overly exaggerated bounce, thanks to the monstrous shocks this car carries. I couldn’t help but giggle since it wasn’t as rough as I thought it would be, almost a slow motion version of what I had anticipated. Between the giant tires, luxury shocks, cushioned seats, neck braces and helmets, it felt like the greatest rollercoaster on Earth. We passed Pit Row where a few other cars were getting ready to head over, and that’s when it occurred to me this car was probably one that the crowd was looking forward to seeing. Other pit crews were taking pictures of us shoot past, and I saw quite a few conversations seize as the sound of our engine closed in. I was feeling pretty confident knowing we had such an advantage, and then Tara told me we’d be starting off last.
I didn’t know what she meant; the only races I’d seen had started with an all-encompassing “GO!” Not this one, we were staggered with the other cars, each starting about 10 seconds after the car in front of us. And yes, we were scheduled to begin in last place. This really took away any buffer space I had for messing up. I felt butterflies start to flutter in my stomach. Parked in position, waiting for our class to be called, Nick and the crew found us and went over everything one last time. He was giving the lesson of a lifetime, and he clearly had tons of experience with first-timers. He pointed out a few cars that we’d need to watch out for, and said they were pretty fast, and have drivers who have been practicing since they were kids. Great. As we sat and waited, several photographers walked by and captured the purple beast on film. A few spectators posed in front of us for pictures. I told Tara I was really worried I’d let her down. She calmed my nerves by telling me she’d already driven the course once, and she’s totally capable of driving this car alone; I was only there to help. That made me feel a little relieved, but still, I didn’t want the race to end and wish I could have done more. No regrets! I told Tara not to hold back, that I’ll probably never get another chance to do this, and I’ve got the rest of my life to heal. I wiped off the visor of my helmet with the back of my glove, adjusted my neck brace, and took one last sip of water. My net went back up with a loud snap, and we pulled in line to leave. My vision started to rattle with the car, and I did one last pull on my harness straps. I’m sure my vision will relax a bit once we get to a speed the car’s comfortable with. I planted my feet firmly on the floor of the passenger side, zoomed my GPS screen to a viewable size, and we pulled up to the starting line. I felt like all eyes were on us. I saw photos later that proved all eyes were on us. This is what the crowd had been waiting for. The car cleared its throat.
The Race of a Lifetime
Green flag! Tara eased into the race so as not to spin the tires, and we grew into a comfortable speed almost immediately. With over 240 cars entered in the race, we passed camp after camp for at least a mile, spectators and fellow enthusiasts cheering us on as we flew by. I could barely focus, let alone honk the co-driver horn to thank them. That comfortable speed turned into a full blown lift-off, and we were still battling the initial bumps and jumps before the course leveled out for the real speed zone. Everything I had known was telling me we need to slow down, but this is my one chance at racing a car like this, and everything was set up for me to come out alive. I closed my eyes and talked myself out of being afraid. Our speed continued to increase, and the snarl of the beast under the hood convinced me that given the chance, it would love to jump out and ditch the car to finish this race on its own. The hood wouldn’t contain it much longer unless we let it perform, and kept our speed up. The cool breeze of our air tubes produced the strangest sensation in my helmet; I was hurling through the desert with dirt bucketing through the windshield, but I could breathe better than ever, hear Tara perfectly, and my contacts were tip top. My helmet had its own atmosphere. This is surreal! I heard static over the main radio frequency, interrupted by shaky voices calling in flat tires and mechanical problems, and it sounds like there had been a roll already. Tara continued to increase speed. We landed our first jump right into a cloud of stirred-up dust, not slowing down for a second. I couldn’t see a thing. It was as if we drove right into a tornado. On the streets, I would have pulled over, or at least slowed my speed to a crawl. You never know who’s in front of you with their lights off, not thinking twice about standing in the middle of the road. Well Tara wasn’t hesitating; she actually continued to accelerate, blinded by the dust and not entirely aware as to what lay ahead. I later learned that off-road cars have orange lights on them to pierce through any dust clouds. But I was completely out of my comfort level. Clouds poured in through the windshield, and right out the side windows. I glanced down at my GPS, and I could barely make out a thing. I was bouncing like a rag doll. I put one hand on the computer for support, wiped the screen and my visor with the back of my glove, and tried my best to comprehend what I was looking at. I’ve GOT to get it together. I couldn’t get my thumb to stand still long enough to push the zoom button, so I felt around with my fingers until I found it, and walked my thumb over it. We were going so fast, as soon as I’d find us on the map, and let Tara know a curve was ahead, we’d already be turning. We left the dust clouds and two slower racecars behind, looked ahead for a clear shot of our competition, and then Tara really opened up the engine. I was told after the race that we hit 71.9 mph!
Another car was up ahead, and I could see just how we looked by watching them leap around as if they were out of control. It looked like they were hanging on for the ride, not actually driving their car, like Tara was. I could see where talent comes in handy in this race. I would have never guessed it was such a factor though. I always thought races were won because the cars were superior, not a combination of a great car, and a great driver to control it. The gap between us and the car ahead grew smaller by the millisecond, and before I knew it, Tara was telling me to honk and let them know we’re here. I heard my nervous “beep beep beep” as we zoomed past, and I decided that would be the only way someone like me could help Tara, just to be ready to honk when she told me to. After all, I was beginning to feel like this was our course, and everyone would eventually come to a point where they’d need to get out of our way. When they did, I’d be ready for them with a beep.
A few miles into the course was a pretty good-sized hill. Since it was still pretty early in the morning, the sun was low in the sky, and as we started to climb, our lack of a windshield was filled with sunshine. We were pointing up, and we were increasing in speed again. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say this rocket we were strapped to was about to take off for the sun. I wasn’t used to accelerating while going up hills, so this was very extraordinary for me. The ground felt like it was crumbling beneath us as we seemed to move closer to the light. We must have been pretty high up when suddenly, we didn’t feel the ground beneath us anymore. The sun that had just seconds ago dominated our view, stayed with us just a moment longer, and then began to rise as the nose of our car started its descent back down to Earth. We were flying, all four tires off the ground, and all we could see was sky. What in the world happens next? What’s underneath us? Everything went silent for just a moment, and I heard myself take a deep breath. This was going to be bad.
The next thing I saw were hilltops in the horizon, the roofs of trucks parked on the side of the track, dust clouds growing closer, and then we saw the track itself as we hit the ground with a deafening clap. “Sorry!” Tara shouted as her arms spun with the wheel, doing everything she could not to let the car take control away from her. Everything in my body continued to fly although I was strapped in the car, and I felt everything compress. I couldn’t help it, but I let out a scream. The car revived itself from its landing and planted firmly back into its track, and Tara came on the radio to make sure I was ok. I thought that could have been the end back there, what if there was a cliff or a broken down car on the other side of that hill? But no, it was all part of the course, and I had survived it. Quite a few cars had to pull over for flats, but not us – it seemed the harder we pushed the purple beast, the better it performed. Tara pointed out that this was where everyone would be getting flat tires; it was obviously the roughest segment of the course. I felt empowered as spectators and chase cars cheered us as we sped past, making hand signals to inform us of our position in the race. Everyone was helping.
Later, while reliving the death-defying moment to my husband, he reminded me of our chase car, and I realized they would have warned us about any problems with the jump, had any existed. Not to mention the radio would have been spitting out calls from other racers for everyone to watch out and be careful. There’s a huge sense of community in the off-road racing sport, and later I witnessed many chase cars and pits helping out their competition when they were in distress. It made me feel like I wasn’t an outsider here, everyone seemed to be there to survive, not to come out on top. Maybe it was even more so with the race being a charity benefit, and also with new racers in almost every car. This was more of a celebration than a competition. After all, we all would come out winners if we reach our $150,000 goal.
Rock and Roll on the Road
I unfroze a little after the jump, “You’ve got a gradual right up ahead,” I said to Tara as we passed that same gradual right. I was just off my game. Tara began to worry we had a flat because of the torture we were putting this animal through. She asked me if I could see one, but I had no idea, I couldn’t turn enough to see her, let alone the outside of the car. The radio went silent and I could tell she was calling home base to alert them of our potential crisis. Nick told her our chase car was waiting for us at the 16-mile marker, so we should pull over for them to check everything out. We pulled up and I recognized the Wide Open guys immediately. They ran over to us “Are you ok? Are you ok?” They ran around the car and checked everything, but we were still in perfect shape. No flats. “Go! Go! Go!” We catapulted out of there as everyone else at the checkpoint cheered for us. We had no idea where we stood in ranking, but this quick pit stop couldn’t have helped. We were really flying now, soaring off a mini-jump after the checkpoint that left us with an extremely sharp left turn, followed by a substantial dip in the track. I bet if I had been watching my screen, I would have seen a skull and crossbones symbol, indicating we needed to proceed with caution. Unfortunately, I was still trying to accept everything that was happening around me. Combined with our acceleration, the jump landed us right in the dip in the track, and the sharp left must have pushed us up on the front and rear passenger tires. I heard Tara curse in anticipation of the roll, arm-wresting the steering wheel to gain back control, and I held on so tight I forgot to brace my right leg, which flailed into the dashboard just enough to remind me to pay attention; as if the car was giving me a slap on the wrist not to underestimate its power. I closed my eyes while waiting for the worst to happen. We waited in suspense for gravity and velocity to determine which force would win this round, and with a light plop we landed on all four tires, already revving to open up that engine again.
That’s when I heard Nick over the radio “Car 1344, you’re in third place right now, let us know when you get to the 26 mile marker and we’ll get Quin ready.” I didn’t recognize the trembled voice that replied, “Got it, Nick.” It was mine. We did a few more sharp turns, and passed three more broken down cars. As we approached a fourth car, it lost control after misjudging an appropriate speed for this set of bumps, and its front began narrowing in on ours. It was going to hit us! I nervously honked our horn again, and the car continued to head towards ours, bouncing around like it was jumping hurdles. Tara shouted “HONK!” as she pulled the car harshly to the left, a tree flattening in front of us as bush after bush collided with our car. Branches flew into our cab and got caught up in the netting and roll cage. Tara kept control of the car, but we were off course, running over anything that stood in our way. Tara increased speed, and pulled in front of the wild racecar we narrowly missed a collision with, and again told me to honk. With little visibility, I walked my fingers to the horn and found what I was looking for, just as we settled back into the carved out dirt track. “Beep beep beep beep,” I apprehensively sounded. Again we pulled sharply to the left and actually slowed down, just as Nick and the other crew came running out to the track. We were back? Voices shouted at me to jump out, but I didn’t know where we were, and in my confusion I started removing my helmet instead of the window nets and harness. I felt hands pulling at my air tubes and grabbing my arms for support as I fell out the window, one wobbly leg at a time. My first instinct was to walk away from the car, heading straight for the course itself where other cars were ripping by. I felt someone grab me by the waist and turn me around, leading me back to the pit, “You’re done, you did it!” It was my husband, but I didn’t recognize him at first. I still had my helmet on, drenched in sweat, and I only had one thing on my mind: Did I do everything I could? What about the car? I looked over my shoulder and with the reason still unbeknownst to me, tears welled up in my eyes as I was escorted further away from it. That had been my only chance. The crew was rapidly crawling all over the car like bees on honeycomb, checking for damage, assessing the tires, helping Tara drink from her water bottle and hooking Quin up to her tubing. The engine idled impatiently. “We’ve gotta roll!” I heard echo through pit row, and sure enough, across the track where we had earlier leveled all of those bushes was a car on its side, wheels spinning frantically as it positioned itself on its final resting place, the roof. Men poured out of their pits, dodged oncoming cars and crossed the track. About 10 spectators and crew members worked together to get this unknown car back on its tires, using just their hands. They didn’t know whose car this was either. Tara and Quin peeled out just as the rolled car settled back on its feet, but sadly this one was down for the count. It had put in a great race if it had kept up with our car, but the damage was too severe to continue. As Wide Open’s sturdy warrior disappeared into the dust storm, I watched to see what kind of injuries I had escaped by being in a better car, and having a better (luckier) driver and trainer. No injuries to report, both racers in the bedridden car walked away, only their hopes of winning were scratched. Reality struck and I remembered that I was standing, and grabbed a nearby table for support, my shaky legs becoming more apparent as the adrenaline started to wear off.
As I downed the contents of a fresh water bottle, Tara and Quin continued their combat out of sight, and my husband told me I had actually done two laps instead of one. My sound would turn off when Tara communicated with home base, so I was unaware they had worked out a new plan for the final three laps, in light of our excellent position in the race. We were in third place overall as Tara and I pulled up to swap co-drivers, and we had yet to be passed by a single car. This meant that I had been in the car fighting for an hour and a half. I could tell the Wide Open guys were proud of us, maybe even a little surprise mixed in with their smiles. Before she left, Quin must have been listening in on the radio, too, and heard how well we were doing. She then selflessly made the decision to forfeit her laps as driver, to instead co-drive for the team’s win. Wide Open had a new agenda, its new team wasn’t just going to finish in one piece; it was going to try to place!
Going for Third
After I got my balance back and chugged a few more water bottles, I took off my race suit and kidney belt, and my husband and I joined the rest of the pit around the radio. Everyone listened for Tara’s and Quin’s voices, like families used to crowd around old antique radios before the invention of TV. The tension was almost too much! The radio picked up all calls to home base, so we overheard a few more rolls and accidents throughout the course. By now cars were beginning to lap each other, so we couldn’t tell which laps cars were on when they passed our pit. It didn’t really matter, the only cars we needed to know about were in the top three, and you could feel that rank of car approaching before you could see it. Just then the first place car roared past our pit and all went silent. Over the radio someone heard Quin’s shaky voice, and we all jumped up to get a closer listen. We heard Wide Open’s chase car communicating with Tara and Quin, but there was too much static and noise to find out what happened. Nick got on the radio, but received no response. I had been out of the car for awhile now; they should be passing us soon. Where were they? We saw a pretty impressive dust storm impending in the distance, and the desert cracked open with the roar of piercing engines and flying debris. We couldn’t see a car yet, and the storm was approaching at about 50 mph, bushes and rocks flying in the air as they were being crushed, anything in its path trampled beyond recognition. It looked like we were in the path of a tank. I grabbed my husband’s camera and backed away from the track. This would be the first time I’d seen “it” in action. I held the camera to my eye and zoomed in on the tornado. I saw headlights and tires burst through the cloud, and instinctively started shooting – but it wasn’t Wide Open’s car. It was second place. I stopped and looked up from the camera with my heart breaking, what happened to the other girls? I spoke too soon. Tara had been drifting behind second place, and then launched the car into the brush to avoid the bumps, and dive in for the pass. As we were watching second place break through the dust cloud, Tara flattened every bush in her path to heroically shoot past them, risking another potential roll by sliding sideways back onto the track, the front driver’s tire feeling for the dirt, the other three wheels in the air, the top of the car visible enough to remind us you don’t want to see the top of the car at that speed. Then all we saw was the front driver’s tire in the air and the underside of the car, and then I blinked and Tara and Quin pulled up to the pit, shouting that they think something was definitely wrong this time. I somehow managed to keep clicking through the whole pass, sidestepping my jaw that was lying on the ground.
The pit crew came back to life and the bees were crawling the car again, shouting and buzzing as each part of the car was scanned for problems. “Clear!” “I’m clear too!” “Tires are clear!” Two of the guys held water bottles for Tara and Quin while going over the strategy for the last two laps; we were going to hold onto third place with everything we had. The car cleared with zero problems after the beating it had already taken, and within seconds of its arrival, the car departed again, attacking the final 28-mile lap with the full support of their team. Again, we crowded around the radio and listened.
The Final Lap
We didn’t hear much in the final lap, the car was far enough behind second place not to be able to pass them, and far enough ahead of fourth not to feel too pressured. It’s tradition at Wide Open to ring in the last lap with a full moon, so upon learning of their soldier’s incoming flyby, the entire crew lined up across the pullover area of the pit and grabbed their shorts. I grabbed my camera and photographed the looming monster that had previously encapsulated me, while my husband joined the team on the track. Being the incredibly talented driver she is, Tara got her revenge on the crew by maneuvering the car to fly past newly-named “moon row,” from less than five feet away from the poor volunteer on the end, my husband. And then they were off to finish the race on their own, nothing more anyone could do to help them. With less than a mile to go, we all anxiously waited to hear how the rankings turned out once we heard the distant roar of Wide Open’s engine hush to an idle. The pit was buzzing with guesses and wagers of whether or not we got third place just in this race, or third overall. We impatiently waited for Tara and Quin to return, and when we saw that beautifully beat up purple beast pull around the pit and wind down to a park, Quin’s big smile and sunglasses shining from the driver’s seat, Tara happily collapsed in the passenger seat, we knew it was good news. “Get these girls beers!” I heard the crew shout. We all celebrated the fact we had finished the race, no one got hurt, and the car had one of its sickest performances ever! No injuries, crashes, or hiccups, just fast-as-you-can, pedal to the metal, good old fashioned racing! The girls got out and everyone shared in long hugs and high-fives, posing for photos around the creature that made our dreams come true. It was completely filthy, almost to the point of not being able to see the paint, but it was beautiful, and we didn’t care if we got dirty. The girls hugged each other and crawled all over the car for team photos, and the proud crew shook each other’s hands and took a knee in front of the beast, and in front of the team who had been able to tame it for the cause. This unearthly wild ride had come to an end, and this feeling of new family was almost too much to let go, to head back home to reality.
This day, for such a precious cause, 240 cars full of courageous women joined together to face their fears as one, and fight for something close to their hearts. Wide Open had placed their trust in three women whom they knew personally, and who they felt had a special connection to the race, and would be able to best represent Wide Open and its support of finding a cure for breast cancer. Personally, I’m determined to race again. If I ever stop dreaming about that purple beast that made me feel so empowered that day, to forget my troubles and focus on being all I could be, then I’ll know I’ve once again allowed myself to forget to live.
For those who would like to experience Wide Open Adventures firsthand, Baja racecars and the purple beast we raced can be rented, and one-on-one training with the experts can be arranged. For those who have loved ones interested in driving, but don’t want to risk their own prized hand-built beasts, let Wide Open rent them one of their cars to play with. It’s a little easier on the nerves. Book a day session for as little as $250, and a one-day Mexico tour starts at just $850. Want to buy your way into the actual Baja 1000 race? A car, full technical support crew, and a team of 4-6 drivers can be yours for a cool $82,500. Contact Nick at www.wideopenbaja.com for details.