NORRA Celebrates Its 50th Anniversary In The Wilds Of Baja, MexicoPosted in Events on August 14, 2017
Westafari Chase, we have a problem. It was two minutes after midnight, and we were somewhere north of Loreto when a text from our team registered on our satellite communicator. Broken shift rod. Crawling under to shift by hand. Moving slow. 80 miles out. It was day three of a five-day off-road rally from Ensenada, near the U.S. border, and San Jose del Cabo, at the southern tip of the Baja peninsula. We had been running strong and free of mechanical issues—until now. Other cars were straggling into the day’s final checkpoint, but morning had just begun, and it looked like it was going to be a long one. Although it seemed we were alone in our dilemma, we were joined, at least in spirit, by souls of thousands of adventurers who have tested their mettle in the empty quarters of this wild and unforgiving land. There was history here: the ghosts of iconic racers such as Steve McQueen, Mickey Thompson, and James Garner seemed omnipresent, observing the scene from thick stands of cardon cactus and spinning salty yarns of the old days. This was the NORRA Mexican 1000. They had prevailed; the question was, could we?
Three days earlier in the wee hour of the morning we were lined up in front of the Hotel Riviera, Ensenada. Around us were some of the sport’s most notable cars—the Snortin’ Norton ’71 Nova, Rippin’ Rooster ’57 Bel Air, an original Stroppe Ford Bronco—and a rare few that put tire to dirt in the first Mexican 1000. It was a scene that had played out each year since 1967: a green flag, a thousand miles of arid desert, silt beds, and coastlines, and aspirations of grandeur. Back then it was a low-tech game, a run-what-ya-brung affair. Teams wore jeans and open-face helmets, extra fuel was stored in jerry cans, and satellite communication and GPS were decades away. There were no support crews because there were no roads. As for paper maps, they didn’t exist either.
BackstoryBy the mid 1960s there had been several time records for the Tijuana-La Paz run, the first set by Bud Ekins on a Honda CL72 Scrambler. The local racing scene in Southern California was on the move, gaining public and manufacturer attention, and setting the stage for an epic. Ed Pearlman, along with his crew from the newly formed National Off Road Racing Association, set his sights on Baja and a sanctioned event. It would be a tire-to-tire contest of speed, endurance, and mechanical fortitude. The first race was approximately 850 miles, as there wasn’t a defined route and no one knew the exact distance—apparently 1,000 sounded like a good number and it stuck.
Baja was a truly wild place in the ’60s. Fuel was scarce, usually sourced from rancheros along the way, and teams were technically on their own after they left Tijuana. Jeeps, VW bugs and buggies, classic hot rods, and motorcycles, 68 in all, filled the four classes. When the dust settled in La Paz, Vic Wilson and Ted Mangels, who were driving a Meyers Manx, found a checkered flag, small contingent of organizers, and a few locals standing in front of the La Perla Hotel. The only way to confirm the actual time was via a telegraph to the U.S., and it was each team’s responsibility to find the telegraph office and make it happen. Little did Pearlman know, but their fledgling event would set the stage for an entirely new genre of motorsports, and influence the creation of dozens of events worldwide. The race was eventually taken over by SCORE and became the Baja 1000, but in 2009, Pearlman’s son Mike came up with another brilliant idea: resurrect NORRA and the nostalgia of racing vintage iron in the Baja desert.
The Funnest Race on the PlanetThis year, which marked NORRA’s 50th anniversary, was expanded to five days and encompassed 1,300 miles of Baja’s best. As is tradition, if you want to race, whether it be in a Ural sidecar, Porsche 911, ’57 Bel Air, or Triumph “desert sled” Scrambler, they will find (or create) a class for you. All are welcome.
Although it is known as the “Funnest race on the planet,” it is still a race and competition within classes is fierce. However, unlike other events, nerfing is strictly prohibited (vintage parts are hard to replace), teams tip cold ones together in the nightly bivouac, and the atmosphere is one of camaraderie. Drivers will stop to help another out of a ditch, and organizers support this by deducting good-Samaritan time from their overall score.
While today’s 1000 incorporates GPS trackers and route books, and nearly all teams have chase crews, there were a who that gravitated toward old-school Baja tradition. An example is Ned and Kat Bacon, who piloted their ’60 Willys with no support, buying fuel at Pemex stations, and relying on their own moxie when things went sideways. To top it off, after 1,300 miles of racing they turned around and drove it home. One of our favorites was the “Baja Triumph,” a ’59 TR3 driven by Lyman Scherer. This pintsized sports car entered the 1967 event as a Class 1 and was left for scrap in an arroyo when it broke a crankshaft. Decades later it was discovered Alan Brickey, restored, and given a new lease on life. And lest we forget to mention “Macadu,” Mark McMillin’s championship buggy. This Porsche-powered ’79 Chenowth landed three overall Baja 1000 wins in the ’80s and continues to dominate the limelight.
So you might ask, “who won?” Well, everyone did. If they rolled under the green flag in Ensenada they became forged in the annals of racing history. Most of those who suffered game-ending mechanical failures loaded their rigs on a trailer and followed the race south, joining the party each night at the bivouacs. The Mexican 1000 is about the experience: the campfire yarns to be spun about bottomless silt beds, endless sandy beaches, and midnight snafus in a forest of cacti.
As for our Westafari hooligans and the GoWesty Vanagon (yes, there is even a class for RVs), we didn’t get to the bivouac that morning until 5 a.m. After fixing the shifter and wiping the grit from our eyes, we were back at the starting line in time to start the next leg. We were three car lengths behind last place, but set on beating the competition regardless of cost to liberty or life … and we did! I should mention, of course, we were the only vehicle in the class. Viva la Baja!