A cool breeze drifted off the Pacific Ocean, carrying with it the typical morning fog Tijuana, Mexico, was known for. It was Halloween morning, and somewhere in the confusion and border-town mayhem, a handful of anxious racers lined up near Tijuana's famous bull-fighting arena; dirt bikes, buggies, a few race-prepped sedans, a Jeep or two, and the odd pickup truck. Eight hundred and fifty miles to the south, in the sleepy port town of La Paz, a large checkered flag wrapped around a wooden dowel stood in the corner of a small hotel room...waiting. The year was 1967, and a guy named Ed Pearlman and his crew from the newly established National Off Road Racing Association (NORRA) had come up with the idea for a non-stop race down the Baja peninsula - The Mexican 1000.
Forty years have passed, racing technology has advanced tenfold, many of those old cars and racers are no longer with us, and the Mexican 1000 has become and been known as the Baja 1000 for many years. But last year the folks at NORRA came up with another brilliant idea to recreate that original race, resurrect some of the original fleet, and invite those iconic names of yesteryear to suit-up and do it again. Enter the 2010 NORRA Mexican 1000.
When I got the offer to ride with Rod Hall in one of the most recognized rides of its day, the James Garner Olds 442 Cutlass, I immediately booked the appointment.
I arrived in Reno, Nevada, two days before the race for an orientation and to help with last-minute prep for the car. There were a few issues, including a chewed-up flexplate on the transmission. It was 11:30 p.m. by the time the tranny was going back in, and I headed for Los Angeles to pick up our Lowrance GPS, then to Mexicali (about 700 miles). Rod called about 7 a.m. "Chris, I'm sorry but the engine has problems...metal shavings in the pan...looks like we ain't racing." I was just shy of the border and my ride-of-a-lifetime just went down the pan. I was bummed. I pulled up the race route into my GPS, looked at my media credentials, and thought, "the worst day in Baja beats working...." I decided to chase the race on my own. Plus, the rulebook stated that support teams couldn't run the course, but media could-it was the perfect opportunity.
Walking through contingency row the next morning was like passing through a time machine into an off-road carnival from the late '60s. Lining the streets of Mexicali were vintage Bill Stroppe Broncos, Meyers Manx dune buggies, Edsel and Studebaker sedans, Funco sand rails and early Class 1 cars. Accompanying all those cool rides was a literal who's who contingent of legendary drivers and early innovators of off-road racing. Parnelli Jones, Walker Evans, Malcolm Smith, Bob Gordon, Bruce Meyers, Curt Leduc and the entire McMillin family just started the list.
The thousand miles between Mexicali, near the U.S. border, and La Paz was sliced into three sections. The first section through the Salada and Diablo dry lakebeds, San Felipe and Coco's Corner, a mere 379 miles, put teams in Bahia de Los Angeles for the night. Another 398 miles on day two landed them in Loreto. And if their stamina and vehicles could hold together for the final push, a light day of only 284 miles, the checkered flag awaited them in La Paz.
My longtime wheeling buddy Jim Harris (AKA "Uncle Willy" to the dozens of race teams whose cars he welded, winched, wrenched on or towed) and I were a few miles into the course when the green flag dropped and Parnelli Jones threw his custom Chevy Blazer into gear.
Chasing and shooting the race was almost as fun as racing. We got to pick up the stragglers, help the guys who broke down, ran out of gas or got stuck, and listen to the dozens of trackside yarns of current and yesteryear. The common denominator, whether broken down or doing 80 mph with their hair on fire, was "fun." While it was technically still a race and top honors would be highly coveted, the Mexican 1000 was just plain fun. Dirty, sweaty, raccoon-eyed, drivers would crawl from their trusted steeds with ear-to-ear grins, shaking their heads and saying... "I don't know what I was thinking when I signed up, but this is awesome." And the scene would repeat itself hundreds of times in the next three days.
On the afternoon of day three, racing legend Bob Gordon sped into La Paz in his Toyota Class 1 buggy to claim the first Mexican 1000 trophy in almost 40 years. As the field arrived (52 of the 92 teams finished), each team reflected on their own accomplishments. Just getting to the checkered flag in a 1970 Meyers Manx VW or vintage Bronco was cause to celebrate. Past the checkered flag, La Paz rolled out the red carpet and thousands of locals kept the party going late into the night.
There are rumors that NORRA may be looking at doing this again, possibly even a series of vintage races. If this comes to fruition, do whatever you can to attend or pull a rig out of the mothball fleet and be a part of history. Stay tuned to www.norra.com. We'll be there.