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2008 SCORE Baja 1000 Off Road Race - Let's Go Racing!

Posted in Events on January 1, 2010
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Photographers: Rick Péwé

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.

Every possible scenario is prepped for by the chase crew. With pieces and parts and a good map, they lie in wait for the team Hummers to arrive at the pits, where they gas, feed, and fix the racers and rigs and send them on their way. They are truly the unsung heroes of the team.
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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.

I knew I was gold when I finally sat next to Rod Hall fully suited at the start of the '08 Baja 1000. Two years of practice and patience finally paid off!

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.

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In this race, simply finishing is an achievement. The man hours put into the event are incredible, as is the boost to the Mexican economy. Yes, tons of money gets spent on both sides of the border, with the majority coming from the working racers and teams themselves, even in these lean times.

When Rod and Emily aren't driving, they are chasing the team to the next pit or checkpoint. This goes on all day and night, the swapping of drivers and chasers, all to get the race finished and hopefully won.

When I signed up for the chance in 2006, the real reason was simply to ride with Hall, as I felt our driving styles were similar and knew it would be a crazy time back in the desert. Our first plan of attack was like most teams: usually a driver change at a checkpoint or pit as well as a co-driver change. Hall races with his partner Mike Winkle, Emily Miller, and sons Chad and Josh, depending on how their rides are doing. Hall also has a few co-drivers that I would swap with, depending how the race went.

I was scheduled to ride with Hall for a few hundred miles. As it happened, he rolled the H3 near the start line, which put the team a bit behind the clock. By the time it was my chance, he was out of the driver's seat. After repairs were made, I hopped in with Winkle for a wild nighttime dash through the lower Baja canyons, silt fields, and river crossings. While this wasn't riding with Hall, Winkle and I clicked, and I navigated him safely through the darkness as he boldly pressed on through the night. At the next checkpoint he and I hopped out so Hall could finish the race and win the class. I could always hope for next year.

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Next year came another chance to ride with Hall, this time in the 40th Baja 1000 (2007). He had raced in every one of the previous 39 and won 18. Not only that, this was to be his 70th birthday, and he was still charging hard for the win. I was again scheduled a section with him midway, and I helped pit and waited patiently halfway down Baja, as this course went from Ensenada all the way to Cabo San Lucas.

But once again, circumstances changed during the night. After Josh Hall's Hummer H2 entry had issues, the team knew the best decision was for Josh and me to take his dad's No. 760 car down a ways, where the thought of winning could be anticipated. Josh's style was unique and exciting, and by now I had a very good appreciation and understanding of the car. Josh and I zinged through the night and day and some 500 miles that seemed a beautiful blur, and then I swapped out my seat and joined the chase team. I hadn't ridden with Hall, but considering that Josh brought the team car in for a class win-a true birthday gift for his dad-it was all worth the effort.

Hall's entry completed the 1,296-mile desert route from Ensenada to Cabo San Lucas in 40 hours 4 minutes 30 seconds for an average speed of 32.35 mph.

Maybe next year I would get a chance to ride with Hall himself?

The '08 Baja 1000 started like most, except this time I was in the No. 760 car at the start, with Hall, so there was no chance of my not riding with the Master. Even if we only lasted to the first corner, I could finally say I rode with Rod Hall. Lucky for me the ride was a few hundred miles. A steering failure forced him to wrestle the H3 to a open spot, where the roving pit crew jumped into action. Even though I gave up my seat to another co-driver here, I had completed my mission of riding with the Master. More importantly, I had helped Hall and his team complete their mission of running another Baja 1000.

I'll miss the Baja 1000 this year, but there is no doubt that Hall and his crew will be there and will undoubtedly finish-and possibly win-the granddaddy of off-road races.

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