Ever since I first photographed the Mexican 1000 in 1970 I have dreamed of the day when I could go all the way down the Baja Peninsula. A lack of funds precluded me from entering the race, though I did co-drive in the Bilstein Baja Bug in 1978 for one quarter the distance.
Although I still enjoy photographing off-road racing I decided three years ago that a change of scenery would be fun, so I volunteered to join the sweep team that traverses the course after the last car has started each stage. It’s a great way of experiencing the stages firsthand and catching up with stories from the back markers who invariably never get a mention in race reports.
It's not just sweep teams who help stranded racers. I learned this when I photographed the 1970 Mexican 1000 along with Jim Ober from Trackside Photo. It was the first time either of us had photographed an off-road race, and after the last car came past us we headed back home and came across this stuck racer. Ober (on the right) and I helped push him out of a ditch so he could continue on down the Baja Peninsula.
The purpose of the sweep team is to make sure nobody is left behind whether stuck off course or broken down. By the time we get to close stages many of the racers have already been retrieved by their support crews. However, some get stuck in situations where it’s impossible to get a truck and trailer in for rescue and have to be towed out by the sweepers.
The downside of sweeping is crews often get to that day’s night stop way past party time. The latest for my crew was 6:30 a.m. after towing a broken buggy for four hours in the middle of the night on the tough and stage into Loreto.
Sweeping is a great way to experience the racecourse without having to spend a fortune. You’ll still need a capable off-road vehicle for winching and towing as well as a willingness to get down and dirty — oh, and tired!
I was teamed with Dave Conklin driving his '95 Toyota Land Cruiser along with Elie Rodrigue who had to spend most of the time in the back seat as I was navigating and keeping track of messages and the whereabouts of stranded racers who might need rescuing. Photos by Dave Conklin.
The most dramatic rescue in the three years I've been sweeping was last year when two sweep crews helped retrieve a Nissan truck that had gone way off course onto the beach where it got stuck in the pebbles. After tying together three winch straps Mike Bradley, who was a competitor this year, was able to winch the truck out just before the incoming tide consumed it.
Soon after the start on the third day we got an SOS call, which meant a sweep crew and a Red Cross unit raced to the location 10 miles south of Bahia de Los Angeles. Fortunately, it was a false alarm, but we did find Walker Evans and Jason Schneider, both with blown engines, at the same location. We waited until Walker's support crew arrived and his personal helicopter took him and co-driver Betsy Anderson onto Loreto. We left Schneider and his son catching shade under their Ultra 4 racer as their support crew was nearly there. We set off as we got a message over the M-SAT radio about two broken cars further down the stage.
Fortunately, there were no injuries that required immediate medical care this year. That wasn’t true in 2016 when we got an urgent SOS message that required the assistance of a medical helicopter to airlift the injured driver of a buggy that had rolled down a 300-foot cliff. Since it was 40 miles along a dirt road from our location we only just arrived as the chopper took off. A medic along with Dave Cole, yes Ultra4 Dave Cole, who swept last year and competed this year, took the injured co-driver on an UTV to a Red Cross ambulance.
Toward the end of the race we even had to tow a couple of cars at the start line in Loreto. The competitors wanted to get a start time—even if they were unlikely to finish the days stages they would at least get a time, albeit with full penalties for missing check points.
The only other sweep crew who has swept the past three NORRA races along with Dave Conklin and myself are Scott and Tandi Harman in their tricked out Jeep, seen here helping load a buggy on the team's trailer. They also helped tow several competitors out of silt beds. Photo by Tandi Harman.
We were alerted to a truck that had rolled off the course just south of Coco's Corner. By the time we got there their crew had already towed it out of the ditch and the sweep crew of Dave “Hawk” Sirota and Shawn Smith assisted them in loading it on their trailer.
Even the sweep team vehicles need service at times. If we cannot help each other out we get help from local mechanics and shops that always seem ready and able to work on any car at short notice and at extremely good rates. For example, it cost just $19 to have the front end re-aligned on Conklin's Land Cruiser after we hit a silt bed.
Well, that’s your problem right there!