Mastering Teamwork At The Baja 1000
It was 2 a.m. and we were closing fast on the remote village of El Arco, still over 100 miles from our second pit. We'd been strapped in our seats for over 13 hours. The dust plume from the buggy in front of us reduced our visibility to almost zero. Kent Kroeker was silent, hands on the wheel, leaning forward slightly, often toggling between the HIDs and the truck's factory lighting. As our truck crested each hill, our lights would reveal a small proton of merciless trail, the only reassurance that we were on track and still in the race. Kroeker said, "Good, we've got him." Shortly thereafter, he announced ecstatically, "I love this."
It was that very moment when I realized our teamwork was completely responsible for our fate. One wrong move here and we could all be dead. The reality of the situation left no room for error. I turned to Kroeker and for the briefest of moments felt fearful of what lay ahead. The distinctive sound of our turbodiesel engine pierced the night silence as few had ever before. The sound was purposeful, continuous and voracious, like a freight train at full tilt, screaming across the landscape. "We're showing 36 pounds of boost and 3,100 rpm," I replied. "This is where this truck exceeds over all other vehicles," Kroeker assured me.
The GPS read 97 mph. "Hard right turn in less than a mile," I yelled, teeth clenched, focused on the moving map display.
"How hard?" Kroeker asked, trying to sound calm.
"Looks like 80 degrees, then into a sweeping left-decreasing radius ... be careful!" I replied.
As we entered the turn, Kroeker didn't touch the brakes. Wheels, tires, tube frame, and engine materialized out of the dust. Our rate of closure was too fast-we were about to hit the other vehicle! Kroeker applied the brakes violently, pitching us sideways, aligning the race car and its dust to our right. As we rounded the corner, the winds shifted to the opposite side and we could see ahead for the first time in 80 miles. Kroeker got back on the throttle. With a sigh of relief, and almost an hour of battle, we'd finally passed the buggy. Ahead in the distance we could see another plume of dust. It was on again.
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This was a scene from the 37th annual trans-peninsular Baja 1000, the longest continuous off-road race in the world. This year, I had the opportunity to co-drive the entire race with Kent Kroeker, president of Kroeker Off Road Engineering (KORE), a company that specializes in aftermarket Dodge Ram 4x4 suspensions. We were to compete in KORE's project vehicle, a black '03 Dodge Ram 2500 4x4 known affectionately as "The Beast." The Beast has some mandatory safety equipment installed, some upgrades and reinforcements to make it competitive, but it's essentially a stock truck that you can purchase at your local Dodge dealer.
When I'd asked Kent what it was going to be like to race a 9,500-pound diesel truck for more than 1,000 miles off-pavement, day into night into day into night again, he just looked at me sideways and, in a low voice, said one word.
He wasn't kidding, either. We drove continuously for 29 hours, 23 minutes, and 10 seconds. It was a punishing, brutal experience, a challenging exercise in teamwork-and one of the greatest adventures I've ever experienced. We ended up taking Third in the SCORE Stock Full class. We even finished in front of Robby Gordon's Trophy Truck.
What made our effort so significant was the fact that this was the first Cummins turbodiesel-powered vehicle ever to finish the Baja 1000.
You may ask, "Why race a diesel-powered truck in the Baja 1000?" How about 12.7 mpg at full race speed? The average trophy truck makes about 700 hp, but also consumes between 750 and 1,000 gallons of special, high-octane race fuel. This means a Trophy Truck has to stop 10 to 12 times during each race for fuel. Every time you stop, your speed average goes to zero. The KORE race truck only had to stop for fuel three times. And we used Mexican pump diesel the whole way.
At one point during the race, we stopped to help a team in a badly stuck Class 7 two-wheel-drive Toyota. Unfortunately, many Baja race vehicles are two-wheel drives, so when they encounter deep mud or silt beds, they often get trapped. These guys were helplessly mired in deep Baja muck, and had no hope of escape until we pulled up. We wanted to keep our average speed high, but knew at the same time we had the perfect vehicle to resolve the situation. It was a treacherous area where both the trail and a river squeezed through a narrow canyon. Vegetation in this area was thick, and each side of the trail seemed to suspend any hope of a detour. To make matters worse, six additional vehicles were trapped behind the Toyota. Each rig had an unhappy co-driver working strenuously to free the vehicle from the muck. Each guy was covered from head to toe in black mud from the canyon floor. I quickly assessed the situation, realizing time was of the essence. With the snap of a strap, out came the marooned truck. Grateful drivers cheered us on sincerely as we reversed and then gave the Toyota a final pull to freedom. After a quick handshake, I leapt back in my seat. As I buckled my harness, I looked down at the GPS unit, astonished to see our act of sportsmanship had only cost us 12 minutes. As we drove off into the night, we heard one driver comment to SCORE race officials on the Weatherman frequency, "We just got pulled out by the gnarliest Dodge Ram in the world!" We felt like heroes-and indeed we were to the dozen or so guys who were now back in the running.