Conquering The Baja 1000: Riding With Rod Hall & Hummer
A bucket list is a slew of way cool stuff you want to do whether or not you ever make them come true before you kick the bucket. In our sport of dirt, dust, mud rocks, and 4x4s, there is always the Baja 1000, the iconic off-road race most people never get to participate in. Sure, quite a few watch it, and most everyone has heard of it, but to do it?
My chance came up over the last three years, when Rod Hall racing invited me to participate in the Baja 1000 as a co-driver. I've known Hall for many years and have trail-ridden with him, and the chance to co-drive with the winningest man in off-road history was too good to pass up. But first, let's retrace some steps and events.
Venturing into the great unknown is a hallmark of human endeavors. The quest to accomplish something different, great, and satisfying spurs humanity on. The Baja 1000 off-road race is no different in this respect, and our chance to ride along and witness this spectacle, and to participate and help, is extremely satisfying. The classic Baja event has been 42 years in the making, and last year's thrashfest was a pinnacle of achievement.
To get the full flavor of the granddaddy of all off-road races, you'd need more than a USA Today story. Suffice to say that back in 1967 a group of desert racers figured on driving the length of the Baja California peninsula and trying to see who could do it the fastest. There were few paved roads, a few towns, and little infrastructure to help the racers; for that matter there wasn't a true course or a map on how to get from Point A to Point B! Among those first racers was a 29-year-old from Hemet, California, often known as a "pool shark" but already a successful service station owner and a lover of running around the desert in 4x4s. Rod Hall started racing back then, and 40 years later he would be the Baja racer with the most wins ever. Today he is accompanied by his sons as they sail Hummer brand race rigs across the Mexican landscape. Hall won the class championship in the first Baja 1000 (known then as the Mexican 1000) in 1967. Hall also won the overall Baja 1000 title in 1969, teaming with Larry Minor. Nowadays the motorsports Hall of Famer is joined in the driving chores by his sons, Chad and Josh, as well as by Mike Winkel and Emily Miller.
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For those of you unfamiliar with the Baja, it is run as a loop or a straight line drive. At around 1,000 miles, the course is somewhat different from year to year. The course is laid out by Sal Fish of SCORE, the sanctioning body. Although the course isn't known until a few days prior to the race, most drivers prerun the full course (at less than race speeds) to familiarize themselves and their co-drivers and navigators with the lay of the land and the dangerous parts. Pit crews also participate and plan out where they should be at certain times, with contingency plans thrown in should breakdowns or stucks occur.
The chase trucks are as technologically advanced as the race vehicles. They often are carrying complete engines and drivetrains in addition to the standard amount of spare tires and fuel and everything else imaginable. Most chase crews sleep in shifts or get no sleep at all, since timing is critical to the Baja-each year a set number of hours is available to finish, and slim crews might have to drive from pit to pit just to service their race rig. In fact, more casualties and deaths have happened on the Mexican highway from overtired, over anxious chase crews passing trucks on blind curves than from racing.
While some teams have highly paid staffs of mechanics, drivers, and shuttle crews as well as helicopter support, for the most part everyone at the Baja race is a volunteer, most of them missing work and salary while paying their own way to be a part of the spectacle.