Last month we put the finishing touches on KORE's new Hemi-powered race truck. Now it's time for the fun part - taking her to the desert for some hot laps.
We took the truck out on two separate test sessions to Ocatillo Wells off-road area. The first session allowed us to get the shocks fairly well dialed in and make sure the steering and brakes were behaving correctly. After some shop time to adjust a few things, we went back and set up a 25-mile loop that we drove over and over. After a couple of hundred miles, we figured that we had the basics hammered out and it was time to head back to the shop and work on the details.
The next few days were spent finishing the wiring, adding a toolbox to the bed, and strapping in all of our spare components. We also got our beadlock wheels from Weld and enjoyed some quality time with a speed handle mounting our Toyos. After much shouting, finger-pointing, and a complete disassembly of the center console (not to mention a lot of help from Chuck Dempsey at Procomm), we finally got a few bugs in the radio and intercom worked out.
The guys at AEM furnished us with a trick intake that allowed us to route the Workhorse dry filter into the cab and under the dash, which greatly helped to keep the airflow clean and uninterrupted. We even hooked up a police-style horn that we originally kind of smirked at, but it eventually turned out to be quite valuable. Without skipping a beat, we spent about two hours throwing all kinds of spare parts and tools into our trailer, packed our camping gear, and headed south.
We set up camp near Valle de Trinidad, which is near the center of the Baja 500 racecourse. For the next three days, the drivers went out to their respective sections of the racecourse and began the sometimes arduous process of prerunning. At the end of the first day, we all met back at camp and the theme of that evening's conversation was pretty much unanimous: "This course is heinous!"
Indeed, my first day of prerunning was almost over before it started. I had only been on the course for a few miles in my own personal KORE Hemi truck when a Trophy Truck prerunner appeared behind me in a tight rocky section. I was able to get over and let him by, but I followed too close behind and hit my front diff on a giant rock that I couldn't see because of the dust. Luckily, I only bent the flange of the cover, and we were able to pound it back into place and continue. Kent had prerun his section in his old race truck, the Beast, and our second team of drivers, Darren Skilton and Jason Hughes, preran their section in the new race truck. Over the next couple of days, my fellow Marine codriver "Happy" Jack Ruddy and I were able to run our 100-mile section four times, which let us accurately mark the danger spots and good lines on our GPS. More importantly, we were able to commit most of the section to memory.
On Wednesday before the race, we spent the day in the hotel parking lot in Ensenada prepping the truck. We changed stub axles, driveshafts, fluids, control arms, etc. This also gave Jack a chance to get acquainted with the truck. We also had to perform some "field expediant" repairs to a couple things that we broke during the prerun.
On Thursday, we continued with the prep, finished race registration, and got our driver wristbands. Later that evening, Jack and I took the race truck out for one last dress-rehearsal prerun. This would also serve as a final shakedown run. Some racers like to start the race on a fresh prep, but we feel that too many things can happen during the prep itself to trust going off the line without wringing the truck out first.
Since we'd be driving our section of the race at night, Jack and I preran our section for the last time after sunset. I feel this was a true difference-maker for us. Sections and lines can look completely different at night, and those on this course were no exception. We took a couple of wrong turns in sections that we thought we knew by heart, and we went back and hit those sections again and again until we were absolutely confident that we would nail it during the race. We handed off the truck to Rudy Iribe and Keg Parker at the end of our section. They would be doing the last 80 miles of the race, and they preran their section at night in the race truck as well. The new KORE Hemi would go off the line that weekend with over 200 off-road miles logged since we prepped it outside the hotel.
We got back to the hotel at about 4 a.m. and got to work. We changed the tires and cleaned the truck then handed it off to Mongo, who drove it into town to get in line for technical inspection. We were a little nervous about tech because this was the first race for this truck, but we passed with no problems. We got the truck back to the parking lot around noon and spent the rest of the day going over it with a fine-toothed comb.
The next morning, Kent and Robin Stover drove the race truck over to the starting line around 10:30 a.m. I followed in my truck in order to top him off with gas out of a dump can and make sure there were no last-minute mechanicals. Since we were late to register, Kent would be starting at the back of our class. I would then shadow him for the first 80 miles of the race down the highway in case he needed any assistance.
When I arrived at the point where the course crossed the highway, we were held up in a line of traffic about a mile long. Evidently, due to the number of entries this year, SCORE started most of the classes at 15-second intervals instead of the traditional 30 seconds. This created a logjam of racers crossing the road, and normal vehicular traffic came to a standstill. Luckily, I was able to find a trail off the main road and bypass most of the roadblock. I got to the next road crossing at Race Mile 77 shortly thereafter.
About 10 minutes after we arrived, the yellow H2 Hummer driven by Josh Hall came through, and then about a minute later Kent came through in the Dodge! Except for the H2, he had passed everyone in our class! We followed him down the short paved portion of the course until he pulled off back onto the dirt trail. The truck looked great and Kent radioed that everything was working perfectly. A few minutes later, Kent radioed that they had passed the yellow Hummer, which meant we were in First Place! I was ecstatic that he was able to pass everyone in our class even during the dusty chaos at the start. As it turns out, the horn we installed helped quite a bit. It was so loud compared to the relatively quiet Hemi that when Kent got right behind someone and started emitting the weapons-grade decibels, they were so startled that they would pull to the side rather than "rabbit" away as racers often will. Maybe they thought we were a Trophy Truck that had suffered mechanical problems and was trying to catch up. I'd love to hear the conversations that took place in some of these theoretically faster vehicles when they realized they had been passed by a Stock Full pickup!
We motored down the highway to the location of our first pit. Darren Skilton had been asked to help drive Bob Gordon's Hummer against the highly touted VW Touaregs in the International class, so Jason Hughes would be doing the driving. Our good friend Chris "Mongo" Williams would sit in the right seat. A former UNLV lineman, we call him Mongo because he can knock out horses with one punch.
Kent arrived at the pit and we had a quick driver swap, but just as they were about to pull out we noticed a broken alignment bracket pinched between one of the rear leaf springs. It took about 10 minutes to jack up the truck high enough to pound that broken bracket out of there, and during that time the yellow Hummer passed us back.
Running strong again, the Hemi was making up time on the field until the engine started to get hot for some reason.A quick inspection revealed that the electric radiator fans weren't working, and then a water hose actually blew off its fitting. Jason and Mongo refilled the radiator with the water we had on board and then tried to limp the truck to the next pit but were forced to stop when the radiator boiled over. It turns out that we blew a fuse in the power wire to the radiator fans when the electrical connector got submerged during a water crossing. Jason used the power wire for two of the bumper-mounted Fuego lights to hot-wire the fans, but now they were forced to scrounge for water in the middle of nowhere to refill the radiator. This cost us about 45 minutes as they ran back and forth to a stream, but the truck was back on the road and running strong.
Shortly after getting back up to speed, Jason and Mongo ran into a massive logjam around Race Mile 212. It literally took over four hours to get the whole mess sorted out. Evidently, one car got stuck in an im-passable spot, and then another car got tangled up with it while trying to get around. None of the trucks that came through the pass shortly thereafter had the traction or power to help, so it took quite some time to back them all out of there and get the big 4x4s in to help. With the help of the red H1 Hummer driven by the Henn brothers, Mongo and Jason were able to eventually get the lighter vehicles pulled to the side and up the hill. Finally, the KORE truck was back on the road.
Shortly thereafter, they passed the yellow Hummer again, this time sidelined with major mechanical damage. The next pit was at Race Mile 242, where Jack and I would jump in. The Griffin F-350 had passed us around 7 p.m. Apparently, they got through the pass before the logjam started. It was now after midnight. We were over five hours behind but now in Second Place, but it would take a flawless run to the finish just to make the 20-hour time limit.
Jack and I took off and it was just like the prerun. One good thing about being that late in the race is that there isn't much traffic on the course. Actually, we were more worried about some drunk local getting on the course than about other racers. We immediately passed a number of slower vehicles and then had clear air for about an hour as we made our way out toward the Pacific. I was also worried about fog materializing like it had in 2006, but with the exception of a few patches here and there it was mostly clear.
After a short time, I realized that my neck was hurting, and then realized it was because the seat cushion had become so flattened out during the race that I was craning my neck to see over the hood! We had to pull over for about five minutes so I could take off my jacket and sit on it for some extra seat height. After that, it was no stopping. We covered our 100 miles in 2 hours and 30 minutes, including the 5-minute stop. In our best estimations before the race, we were predicting about 2 hours and 45 minutes, so needless to say we were pretty pumped up.
At the pit in Santo Tomas, I let Rudy keep my jacket/seat cushion, and he and Keg took off for the finish. Their 80-mile leg was the shortest but also the tightest and most technical section of the course. While successfully navigating an endless string of treestands, siltbeds, and hillclimbs, the four-wheel-drive Hemi passed several cars, trucks, and buggies snared in the bizarre quagmire that is Baja. They also passed six or seven other vehicles that were still racing, which surprised me since we encountered so little traffic during the previous section.
At just over 19 hours, the new KORE truck crossed the finish line. We were amazed to find out that the Griffin truck, which we last thought was over five hours in front of us, had only finished two hours prior. It first struck me that if that radiator fan wire hadn't shorted, we wouldn't have been stuck in that logjam and probably would have won the race. But then again, that's Baja and that's racing.
We built this truck to win, but all in all we are pretty happy with its performance in its first race, especially considering the amount of time we had to build the thing from scratch. It is definitely a fast truck and it will win races, but more importantly KORE will continue to apply the knowledge and experience gained from racing to build quality suspension systems for the guy in the trenches.
So I get a call from Kent Kroeker several months prior to the Baja 500. It went something like this: "Rudy, KORE is building a new Hemi race truck. Do you know any tough, Baja-proven Mexicans who could help with the driving duties?"
How do you answer that?
"Sorry, I can't - busy cleaning the house."
Not! I'm in!
Now, my phone does not ring frequently with invitations to drive someone else's race truck in Baja, but this time I knew what was happening. Years ago, Kent and I rode and raced Baja on motorcycles. We logged a lot of prerun and race miles together. One year, we clocked over 11,000 miles of off-road Baja. Although it was a lot of fun, it was also a lot of work. Now all that effort was paying off.
I was pretty excited about the proposition. I had driven several KORE Cummins diesel race trucks under prerunning conditions and found them to be quite comfortable and very capable of handling the Baja terrain at speed. I was thinking that this new, lighter-weight Hemi race truck was going to be even faster than the current KORE race vehicles.
Because the truck was a completely new design, the plan was to test and drive the truck as much as possible prior to the race. Kent invited me to all the test sessions in Ocotillo Wells. The first time I drove the truck, I became aware of its massive size. I was concerned that such a big truck wouldn't be able move that fast over desert terrain. The first test session was kind of scary. I would hit the whoops faster and faster, and at a certain point the rear would kick up and sideways - 5 feet off the ground!
Kent would then tune the shocks and adjust this and that. In the past, I used to make fun of him for constantly fiddling with the suspension on his motorcycles. Once, he crashed his XR650 in a huge cactus patch, and as I pulled hundreds of spines from his back and neck with a pair of pliers he complained that his shock wasn't adjusted right. I ridiculed him for years about that! When he would crash or I would pass him, I would say, "Oh, what's the matter? Your sag isn't set right? Better watch out for cactus! Ha, ha, ha!"
But I wasn't laughing now: Every test session the Hemi's performance would get better, and the suspension would allow us to go faster. At our last testing session, the truck was refined, smooth, and predictable.
We were ready to race the legendary Baja 500.
The week prior, I preran my section in the Hemi. The truck felt strong and I predicted a podium finish, maybe even a win if Lady Luck was on our side. My copilot was Keg Parker. Keg was intimately involved in building the truck from start to finish, so with his mechanical abilities and my knowledge of Baja we would make a strong team. Our section was from Santo Tomas to the finish.
Keg and I received the truck just after 3:00 a.m. The truck was four hours late but in great mechanical condition. Off we went into the darkness. By this time, the course was really beat up. No problem for the KORE truck. That Hemi, along with its 4x4 and Toyo tires, seemed to enjoy the deep ruts and silt. The Baja Designs lights and the huge Fox bypass shocks proved to be a great combination for the twisted terrain of the Baja 500. We passed many race cars still struggling toward the finish. We also passed many stuck and broken vehicles - too many to recall.
As the sun was rising, we were having difficulty safely passing a Class 7 race truck due to the low visibility that airborne silt creates. We finally came up on him and realized there was a huge ditch with a Class 5-1600 VW in it. We took a clean line and were able to avoid the ditch and buggy. Although the driver was desperately pleading for help, I was not going to waste time towing him out, since the 7 truck would get by us again. As we got closer to Highway 3 near Ojos Negros, I recognized my brother on the side of the trail. I stopped and asked if he needed assistance. He said YES in an excited voice. He said that he had reports that his Class 5-1600 buggy was stuck in a ditch several miles back! That's when I realized who owned that buggy. Oh well, too late to go back and help.
"Sorry bro, I had no idea it was your vehicle, and I got a cold beer waiting at the finish."
Keg reminded me over the intercom that if we made it to the finish he would buy me a beer.
We got to the finish sometime around 6:30 a.m. The entire KORE team was there to see us cross the line. What a feeling. It was one of those things that you have to be there to experience. A true testament to teamwork, solid logistics, and the desire to beat all odds - that's what it's all about.
I looked at my copilot and asked him for my beer. Salud, amigos. We just finished one of the most grueling off-road events in the world - and we are looking forward to the next one.
Hasta la proxima carrera, amigos!