As a dreary and dense fog settled on the seaside town of Ensenada, Mexico, 347 teams from 29 states and 34 countries prepared for one of the harshest races in the world: The infamous Tecate SCORE Baja 1000. This year's 41st annual event featured a 631.35-mile course following the tradition of not being particularly fast or forgiving. In the day and a half that followed the first drop of the flag, only 227 teams would know what it was like to cross the finish line.
While a remarkable 65.4 percent finished the race, there were plenty of tales to tell at the end, from flips and rolls to grenaded engines. This year's overall four-wheel winner was the team of Roger Norman and Larry Roeseler in their Norman Motorsports Ford trophy truck in a time of 12:40:33 with an average speed of 49.8 mph.
Other notables included a First Place win for Honda in the Stock Mini class by Gavin Skilton and his No. 779 Ridgeline race truck in 21:22:21 at an average speed of 29.5 mph. Ford successfully raced its Raptor R to a Third Place finish in Class 8 with a time of 25:28:10 with an average speed of 24.8 mph. Not bad for a truck that was designed for the Stock Full class with a mission of just completing the race. This isn't the last time you'll hear about the Raptor completing the 1000.
On the tire front, BFGoodrich won the overall tire title for the 22nd time in the last 23 years and General Tire cemented its return to desert racing with two class wins (Class 6 and class 9).
We sent three editors down south to cover the race first-hand; here are their stories...
In the days leading up to the race, thousands of hard-working individuals dedicate time, money, and equipment to a cause that may seem like a poor return on the investment. These people take time off work, travel to a place where nobody's guaranteed a return home, and then bust their knuckles until the early morning hours for a 50/50 chance at 20 minutes of glory, bragging rights, and a plastic trophy if you're lucky. Why do they do it? The reasons are as varied as the colors of an Ensenada sunset. Some are trying to fulfill a life-long dream, while others are drawn to a mystique that is virtually indescribable to someone who hasn't experienced it first-hand. In the end, all I could say is Baja is about challenge: Challenging the terrain, challenging the clock, and challenging the rules of human safety for the euphoric high you get when you live to tell a friend about it.
This year I tagged along with Trophy Truck team No. 2 of Pistol Pete Sohren. Pete's mix-matched crew of mechanics, logistics managers, communication experts, and generally good-natured order-takers personified team spirit. Each member shared a passion that was only bested by dedication to do whatever it took to get the job done. Despite a race-ending head gasket failure at race mile 7, the team found glory in the days before the race, while prerunning the 631-mile course. Everywhere they went, the people of Baja greeted the group with smiles of anticipation, words of encouragement and praise for embracing a venue where economic instability and corruption rule. The Baja Mil is that once-a-year escape from a life full of struggles. The spectators feast on the opportunity to experience the granddaddy of all off-road motorsports, businesses close, and practically everyone stops to watch the race unfold live and in person.
For me, the Baja 1000 is the pinnacle of all that I do each year. And this year was no exception--despite not getting the dream ride of a lifetime in a SCORE Trophy Truck, it was my favorite Baja to date. Now I understand that the challenge itself is rewarding enough, and heroes are everywhere in Baja.
--Robin Stover, Feature Editor
Back In The Saddle
After a disappointing race again last year, where Team Hummer's newly minted Hummer H2 SUT race truck suffered mechanical calamity before I was able to jump in it (Four Wheeler, May '08), I was determined to get in and race this year. After a personal invite from driver Josh Hall at SEMA, I made plans to meet the team in Ensenada for another Baja rendezvous.
After a team meeting of strategies and a final supper before a good night's sleep, I spent the first leg of the race chasing with the crew in our long-term Hummer H3 Alpha, before getting to BFG Pit 1 (at mile 147) to suit up for my ride. In this year's race, I would be getting in the third seat of Josh Hall's No. 863 Hummer H2 SUT and racing until BFG Pit 2, approximately 132 miles away.
At sundown on the northern edge of Laguna Salada, my ride arrived, where I hastily jumped in and enjoyed a nearly 100mph stint across the dry lakebed along the course. It wasn't long before we were passing other competitors before coming across a roadblock of stuck racers in the wash. After co-driver Sam Cothrun got out to run ahead of Josh through the thick brush, the Hummer pushed its way through the vehicular mess and back on course, where we were holding steady to First Place. Chad Hall, also in our class in his No. 861 H3 Alpha, was not far behind us. As our lights cut through the thick dust and dark of night, we picked off one racer at a time with the H2 running strong.
While the H2 SUT handles the rough and fast with ease, it was the wickedness of the whoops this year that would do us in. After what seemed like an hour of the most brutal whoops you, or your guts, could imagine, I heard Josh report over the intercom that the truck was starting to run funny, wanting to die at low rpm. After discussing the problem amongst ourselves, we decided we'd have to pull off the course to further investigate our unexpected development.
With our First Place lead quickly evaporating, we pulled off the front tire, popped the hood and looked for everything we could to try and diagnose the problem. The first anomaly we noticed was the driver-side motor mount was missing its bolts, leading us to our second problem....
Over the unendingly brutal whoops section, the motor-mount bolts apparently loosened, dropping off into the desert abyss. This allowed the engine to move within the engine compartment on subsequent gyrations over the fluctuating terrain. Now, if you have ever looked inside the engine compartment of a Hummer H2, you'll know that the engine sits back, partially covered by the cowl. You'll also know that on the 6.2L engines, such as the one we were running in the race truck, that the computers sit on top of the intake plenum on mounts molded to the plastic intake.
About the time Josh was experiencing driveability problems was about the time we had driven over the whoops, causing the motor-mount bolts to drop free. As a result, the engine moved up in the engine compartment, damaging some wiring and causing the ECM to make contact with the cowl. That broke the mounts off the intake, resulting in holes in the intake plenum, which allowed sucking in dirty, unmetered air.
While Sam got to work borrowing bolts from the dash mount to the firewall to secure the motor mount, I got to work mixing up a concoction of epoxy to get the plenum temporarily repaired until we got to the next pit and it could be looked at again.
With the repairs completed, and over an hour of downtime experience, we fired up the H2 and got back in the race. After Josh and Sam dropped me off at pit 2, they had a few additional problems with the steering system, but remained competitive, eventually finishing third with a time of 24:50:06 and an average speed of 25.4 mph.
The rest of the family carried on the family tradition of success, with patriarch Rod Hall finishing in Second Place in Stock Mini on his 71st birthday with a time of 22:51:17 and an average speed of 27.6 mph, securing the season points championship and carrying forward the tradition of being the only person on four wheels to participate in every single Baja 1000 since the first race in 1967. Rod's other son, Chad, took home the trophy in Stock Full in his H3 Alpha with a time of 19:22:47, with an average speed of 32.6 mph for his seventh career class win and the Stock Full points championships.
--Sean P. Holman, Tech Editor
This year, the guy holding the checkered flag at the finish line was famed Coco of Coco's Corner. If you've seen the movie Dust to Glory, you know who Coco is. If not, just know that he's one of the many characters south of the border with a story of misfortune and perseverance. This former parking lot attendant lost one of his legs in a car accident years ago. Unable to find work with one limb absent, Coco left Ensenada to salvage whatever he could of his adult life. He ended up some 200 miles south of San Felipe in a place only Baja racers and lost adventurers could find. He calls it Coco's Corner, and he'll let you camp there for free. To the racers Coco represents a sanctuary in the middle of nowhere. Despite Coco's life struggles, his spirits remain high and his impression on Baja's legacy continues to evolve. Recently, Coco had to have his only remaining leg amputated due to health issues. As you can see here, that did inhibit his role as flagman at the 2008 Tecate SCORE Baja 1000.
Hero: Those Who Refuse To Give Up
The No. 7 Trophy Truck driven by Jimmy Knuckles, Scott Steinburger, and Mike Childress was running strong in fourth position when Childress hit a man-made booby trap at high speed, sending the truck into a horrific multi-rollover accident. When the dust cleared, Childress figured his chances of finishing the race were over. Then team owner Scott Steinburger dispatched his chase crews to the scene. After several hours of wrenching, the truck was rolling again. This photo shows the battered vehicle as it approached the finish line to secure a 15th Place finish some 24 hours after the truck left the starting line. While not the stellar podium results Steinburger was hoping for, the performance will forever go down in the history books for sponsor General Tire as the first SCORE Trophy Truck to finish the Baja 1000 on the new General Grabber race tire--a small yet significant upshot to not giving up.
View From The Sidelines
While Tech Editor Holman and Feature Editor Stover were getting down and dirty with the Halls and Pistol Pete, I was busy living the sweet life. For the last few years, I have been right beside the rest of the team getting dirty, eating street tacos, and enjoying every minute of it, but when the invitation to join Volkswagen in Baja to watch the debut of its new Touareg TDI Trophy Truck team came across my desk, it was an opportunity I couldn't turn down.
My adventure began Thursday morning at a hotel in downtown Los Angeles, where I met up with the folks from Volkswagen. We caravanned down to Ensenada in a fleet of new 2009 V-6 TDI Touaregs, arriving just in time to catch the end of tech inspection and contingency. I awoke bright and early Friday morning and headed for the starting line to watch the VW take the green flag and become the first ever turbodiesel Trophy Truck to compete in SCORE. The VW pulled up to the starting line with Ryan Arcierio behind the wheel, the green flag dropped, and he stalled it. This was a sign of things to come for the race Touareg and crew, though none of us knew it at the time.
Arcierio quickly got the Touareg refired and took off like a rocket. I, too, had to take off at that point, quickly heading over to the waiting helicopter that was going to fly me to approximately mile 150 on the race course, where I would next see the race Touareg go by. The helicopter landed and dropped us off at the Rumarosa Grade just in time to watch the first Trophy Truck go flying by. From that point on, we waited--and waited--for the Touareg to come through. It shouldn't have been far off but nobody could tell us where it was or what had happened. Finally, as I was heading for the helicopter for my return flight to Ensenada, without much warning the VW race Touareg emerged through the dust and went flying by just as fast as any of the other Trophy Trucks. It was a beautiful sight to see, but night was falling, and since helicopters can't fly at night in Mexico, we had to get moving.
Once back in Ensenada, there wasn't much to do but sit around and wait for the trucks to start coming in. So I grabbed a quick dinner at the V-Dub Club and a drink at the Red Bull Energy Station, and then headed over to the SCORE Media Center where I met up with Feature Editor Stover, whose day had ended shortly after it had begun. We spent the next several hours sitting around bench racing and watching the live tracking site that was being projected on the wall. The tracking system was working out great; we could see where each truck and motorcycle was at any given time and what their current speed was. This was all well and good except for the fact that the VW race Touareg was nowhere to be found, and to add even more to the mystery, none of the VW or SCORE staff could tell us where the Touareg was.
Fast forward five hours. It's now 11 p.m. Friday, and we see on the tracker that the first of the Trophy Trucks are heading for the home stretch, 12 hours after they had started the race. So we all headed for the finish line, hoping the Touareg had somehow made up the lost ground and would be coming in soon. Shortly after 11 p.m., the first truck arrived--the Trophy Truck of Roger Norman and Larry Roeseler, followed closely by B.J. Baldwin. As the night wore on, the trucks and buggies trickled in, but the Touareg was nowhere to be found. Finally, at about 2 a.m., some news; the VW people informed us that the truck was up and running strong and due to arrive around 4 a.m. Weary from the long day, I headed back to the hotel to try and get a couple quick hours of sleep before the truck came in.
4 a.m., Saturday: I'm barely awake, standing at the finish line in the cold and fog, waiting for our truck to show up. Again nobody knows exactly where it is, so we wait. Finally, just before 6 a.m., the VW Touareg TDI Trophy Truck crosses the finish line. With my photos taken and congratulations handed out, I was off to bed, exhausted from the long day of waiting for the Touareg.
So what happened to the Touareg, you ask? Well, here is the full scoop. Remember the stall at the start line? That was just the beginning of transmission problems for the team. At race mile 40, the truck lost clutch pressure because of a lack of fluid in the clutch slave cylinder; this cost them one hour to fix. Next, at race mile 130, as a result of the slave cylinder problem, the dog rings on the Second and Third gears in the transmission suffered damage and warranted replacing the entire thing. This cost the team one hour and 45 minutes. Back underway between race mile 170 and 190, the truck fell victim to a silt bed with over 15 stuck vehicles. It was one hour and 20 minutes until the course was cleared and the VW was back on track. At race mile 234, the truck stopped for fuel and a driver change; this took 41?2 minutes. Then at race mile 425, the truck stopped for its final pit stop but ended up having to change out the rear-axle third member because of a broken pinion gear. This took 45 minutes to complete. The team ended up finishing 13th in class in a time of just under 19 hours. So, in theory, if the five hours of downtime due to the transmission could have been avoided, the VW TDI Touareg Trophy Truck could have finished with the leaders.
The 2008 Baja 1000 was an exciting time and one that I will never forget. It was great being treated like royalty and getting to watch the race from a helicopter. But next year, I hope to be right back in the thick of it watching the race from inside the race.
--Jason Gonderman, Online Editor
Hero: People Behind The Lenses
We simply couldn't convey the whole story of Baja with words alone. It takes vibrant color photography caught in the moment as it happens. As such, we thought it was worth honoring those people who risk their lives to get the shot. Hundreds of film makers, videographers, and photographers attempt to capture what happens at the Baja 1000, and in most cases the majority of their work goes unappreciated. This unnamed photographer captured a shot of one very excited Ernie Negrete, solo driver of the No. 551 VW-powered Class 5/1600 race car as he crossed the finish line in Third Place. To Ernie, this photograph is priceless.