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Industrial Revolution: SCORE Baja 1000 30th Anniversary

Posted in Events on March 1, 1998 Comment (0)
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Photographers: 4-Wheel & Off-Road Files

During the 30 years that off-roaders have participated in sanctioned races south of the border, there haven't been too many changes to the rugged, rocky peninsula called Baja. The stately cacti are probably an inch or two taller now, and all the rural dwellings seem to have sprouted satellite dishes. But for the most part, the land has remained unchanged; dusty, barren, and punishing, it's just about one of the most exciting and challenging courses on the planet.

In the early days, competitors would venture into the backroads of Baja in near-stock Ramblers. While some of those first efforts actually completed the trip, most didn't.

The drivers who come to Mexico to accept its dare haven't changed much from those early days either. Mostly from Southern California and other southwestern states, the participants in this annual rite compete for the same homegrown glory and personal sense of fulfillment as their predecessors. After all, this type of lonely desert competition doesn't bring out a stadium full of screaming fans, nor does it attract primetime television coverage. Of course, such names as Hall, Stewart, Jones, Ragland, Smith, and Gordon are synonymous with the Baja tourney today, just as they were a decade or, in some cases, two decades ago. But these well-known hall-of-famers are the exceptions. Thousands more have raced-and sometimes won-in virtual obscurity.

However, one aspect of the Baja 1000 that has changed radically is in the area of technology. Whereas some of the early efforts included successful runs in a near-stock '67 Rambler, the rigors of Baja have necessitated new developments in every component of the vehicles that compete there, from air filters to valve stems. Described by one writer as "a stronghold against progress," the Baja race challenges engineers to unsheath their slide rules and join the dusty chic.

The very first Mexican 1000 Rally featured a purpose-built racer dubbed the Hurst Baja Boot, brought to life by designer Vic Hickey. A General Motors engineer and desert racing fan, Hickey transformed his preliminary sketches into an actual vehicle in less than a month. Fabricated from SAE- 1010 1 3/4-inch steel tubing, the 3,450-pound vehicle boasted zero front and rear overhang and 9 inches of vertical wheel travel. At 112 inches in length, this hybrid four-wheel-drive buggy relied on a suspension system that included parts from Corvette rear drive assemblies, Olds Toronado axleshafts, and a Dana transfer case. Inverted from their normal positions, the drive assemblies allowed the driver to disengage the transfer case so the Boot could be operated in front-wheel drive only. A collapsible steering column, 11-inch Hurst-Airheart disc brakes, and a 20-inch-diameter, six-blade fan with reversed pitch (to blow air away through a Chevy truck radiator) were among the vehicle's most innovative features. Even the 350ci V-8 was used in a unique manner: Hickey installed it backward in the chassis, in front of the rear axleshafts.

Today's Truggy epitomizes the on-going technological developments that the rigors of Baja demand.

Other radical designs were not far behind. The Meyers Manx, Pete Condo's Con-Ferr Thing, and the Big Oly Bronco were among the most significant pioneers. The Boot's present-day equivalent comes in the form of the "Truggy." Powered by a 430ci Ford V-8, this recent mishmash of technology is highlighted by its innovative suspension design. The vehicle, developed by the Terrible Herbst team of Huntington Beach, California, sports 32 inches of suspension travel in the rear and 30 inches up front. Such massive articulation is achieved by front coil-overs and rear inverted springs. Last November, the Truggy swept the 1997 Class 1 points battle.

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While it will be a while before you see any of the Truggy's science applied to mainstream cars and trucks, some of the technology developed for the Baja has found its way into most of the vehicles Americans drive today. Over the years, Ford has used the race to aid in the creation of its all-wheel-drive systems, and GM engineers had the advantage of 20 years of experience down south before building their most-recent independent front suspension. Even more recently, Ivan "Ironman" Stewart's Toyota T100 received the company's much-anticipated V-8 before the first production model rolled off the assembly line.

The Baja Boot was among the earliest purpose-built vehicles. Two versions of the four-wheel-drive Boot were built over the years. Drino Miller and Al Knapp drove the first Boot. Other drivers included Bud and Dave Ekins and actor Steve McQueen. Pictured is McQueen in 1968.

Although high-profile racers have often relied on mega-buck factory sponsorships to finance their rides, Baja has remained fairly accessible to low-budget efforts. These teams rely more on baling wire than computer-aided designs. This, as much as any other factor of history or lore, is how the Baja continues to retain its old-fashioned charm and dangerous allure.

Hall of Fame
Nobody Knows Baja Like Rod Hall
Some racers spend their whole careers trying to complete the entire Baja 1000 course. But one driver not only managed to beat the odds his very first time out but has racked up enough miles battling the Baja to circle the earth.

In 1967, racing fixture Rod Hall swept the four-wheel-drive truck class, earning his first taste of Baja glory. Three decades later, the challenge is still alive, but the pressure is off.

"This was one of my most enjoyable races," Hall said. "I don't have anything to prove. I stay involved to keep up with the times."

While a win in 1997 would have provided the perfect bookend to 30 unbroken years of experience, unfortunately, it was not to be.

Rod Hall started his career 30 years ago in Mexico with a CJ-5. Now Hall breaks new ground in an AM General Hummer.

"The Hummer had a flawless race from start to finish," Hall reported.

With no flats, no down time, and perfect pit support, this was the type of race that most drivers only dream about. "The only problem was that the Fords beat me this year," Hall noted.

But that's not a crushing blow to a driver who has one overall win and 15 class wins to his credit. Hall's enthusiasm and genuine love for the sport (he actually waves at spectators during competition) has produced a loyal following and a healthy band of sponsors, which include AM General Hummer and Snap-on Tools. Most recently, Hall led a team of Americans to a first-ever successful Paris-Dakar effort in an American-made vehicle.

But during that first sanctioned race in 1967, when the world had yet to discover global satellite positioning and the only thing people surfed were waves, Hall drove a Jeep CJ-5-"The only brand-new vehicle I bought in my life."

In that early race, Hall won the four-wheel-drive class, which was plenty of motivation to participate in the next race. And he has continued ever since.

"It's amazing how you can build a business out of a hobby," he added.

Race Notes
Campbell, Ragland, Fortin Win Overall at 30th Tecate SCORE Baja 1000

Only a handful of people can tell you who the first winners of the Baja 1000 were. While Vic Wilson and Ted Mangles may have faded into obscurity, the race they pioneered has influenced most of the vehicles on the road today.

Jonny Campbell, Larry Ragland, and Doug Fortin each collected a piece of history by claiming overall victories in the 30th Tecate SCORE Baja 1000 desert race in Ensenada, Mexico, last November. Campbell posted the fastest time in the 701.4-mile-race and captured the motorcycle title, while Ragland won the featured Trophy Truck division for the third straight year and Fortin claimed the overall pro and unlimited Class 1 victory. Ragland powered his Chevrolet C1500 to a time of 13:53:46, averaging 40.47 mph to hold off Robby Gordon's hard-driving but problem-plagued Ford F-150 by just over 30 minutes. Fortin survived a pro race saddled with mechanical problems of varying sorts to win in his Chevy V-4-powered Chenowth desert race car in 14:31:02. Fortin was third overall among four-wheeled vehicles behind Ragland and Gordon.

The 221 racers from 17 states and 5 countries started the race in brilliant sunshine to run a course made muddy by a prerace rainstorm. Campbell cruised to a victory margin of more than an hour and a half over the runner-up Honda team led by Marc Burnett. Basking in the reflection of the full moon on a cloudless Baja night, Ragland relished the thought of his third consecutive Trophy-Truck victory in the legendary race.

Motorcycles are just as essential to the Baja experience as the trucks. Pioneer bike racer Malcom Smith owes much of his career to the race.

"It was a great sage race. We ran fast early, steady later, and backed off at the end after Robby Gordon broke near the end," Ragland said. "The last 10 miles were the slowest I've ever raced in my life. Our Chevy truck was fit to win. The only problems we had were my fault. I hit some things I shouldn't have and we had five flats.

"We had a lot of different challenges, including rain and some dust, to go along with some solid Trophy Trucks we were running against and the toughness of the course. Jon Nelson built this truck we have won three consecutive years in, and Dale White's team prepped it flawlessly," he said.

Larry Ragland drove the first truck across the line in this year's anniversary race. His Chevrolet competed in the Trophy Truck class.

Ragland, of Phoenix, picked up his fourth career class win in the Tecate SCORE Baja 1000 and will start the new year by racing again in the 6,000-mile Grenada to Dakar Rallye.

Prerace favorite Ivan Stewart, who won the Tecate SCORE Baja 500 Trophy Truck race in June, was forced out of the race at mile 213 while leading by more than 20 minutes. His new Toyota T100 V-8 suffered a failure in the heat exchanger, which caused the oil to heat up, resulting in engine failure.

Gordon, the defending Trophy Truck seasonal champion, kept his Ford F-150 near the front, dicing with Ragland much of the day and night.

Truck racing ambassador Ivan "Ironman" Stewart spends a Kodak moment with a fan prior to the start.

Behind as much as 30 minutes at one point, Gordon pulled to within 30 seconds of the leader with just over 20 miles to go when he went off the road, ripping apart two tires and breaking his transmission.

"I was just going strong, but playing catch-up in the dark is double tough," said Gordon, who left the desert this year for an ill-fated season of Winston Cup racing. "I just got it going strong in the Guadalupe Wash and lost it."

Plagued by a power steering problem and five flats, Gordon seemed to be playing catch-up throughout the entire race. "When we were running, I had to put the pedal down," he said.

Ryan Thomas of El Cajon, California, captured the Pro Truck class in his Dodge for the third straight race, while Carlton Beal III of Midland, Texas, won his third straight Class 3 SCORE Baja 1000 in a Nissan, and Dave Westhem of La Jolla, California, won Class 8 in a Chevrolet C1500.

Deputy Steve Williams of Carson, California, won the Stock Mini class in a Ford Ranger, while San Diego's Marc Stein took the Stock Full class in a Ford F-150. Brady Helm of Chatsworth, California, drove a Ford Ranger to the Class 7S win, and Perry McNeil of Lemon Grove, California, drove another Ford Ranger to victory in Class 7. -Score

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