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1979 Chevy Custom Deluxe 4x4 Crew Cab - Big Blue, The Beast of Baja

Posted in Features on September 24, 2008 Comment (0)
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The explosion was deafening. The big truck heaved forward and to the right. As Hal wrestled the wheel to keep us from fishtailing out of control, he cheerfully yelled, "Uh oh, May Day. May Day!" I glanced in the rear view and seeing sparks, smoke and debris flying from the rear wheel, said something like, "Blue to Base, we've been hit -we're going in." A horrible whapping and banging noise was echoing through the truck as Hal managed to wrangle it across three lanes of traffic for a forced landing on the shoulder. Drivers behind were on their brakes and swerving to other lanes to avoid collateral damage from flying bondo, dirt and miscellaneous loose parts.

Once out, we saw what had happened. The new-looking tire Hal had bought just 20 minutes before at the used tire store, had completely disintegrated on the rim at 60mph. "Look at that", Hal said calmly. The whapping noise had been caused by the 4-foot long steel belted tread tangled on the spinning rim and wrapped around the axle. It beat the daylights out of everything in and about the wheel well; the exhaust pipe, the gas tank filler tube, side panel supports and rear brake lines--all bent, twisted and leaking.

Hal Friddle keeps a low profile around this town. He has a nice wife, Anne, who works for the Performing Arts department of Coronado High, a daughter, Meagan, who's a college teacher, and a wire-haired terrier named Chloe, who's currently unemployed. Hal takes care of all the maintenance needs of the Shores buildings and seems almost normal. But the truck he drives belies his past risky undertakings south of the border.

Big Blue is a twenty-five foot behemoth that is as long as a legal lot is wide in the beach town of Coronado. It is perhaps the ugliest blunt force truck made west of the Eastern Block countries. The shape that failed the wind tunnel test is muscular but not well proportioned--lanky, like a giant chunk of beef jerky.

The 1979 Chevy Custom Deluxe 1-ton 4x4 with crew cab has absolutely no design or aerodynamic reason for being. It proudly proclaims itself a `Work Truck' in steel-toed boots, sweat socks and paint-splattered Dickies low enough to show plenty of butt crack.

Its `70s kidney-busting suspension sporting added overloads cradles a big dumb in-line 6 cylinder motor that is low-geared for dead-weight-hauling. Hal and my cousin, Ken Shortt, bought the truck as military surplus from the Air Force at a Vandenberg Base auction in 1984. Ever since they've been exploring parts of the Baja that aren't written up in the travel brochures. "What happens in Mexico stays in Mexico." is the stolen credo that stays with Big Blue.

Now Blue wasn't always blue. It's true that while in the Air Force he wore a sophisticated blue uniform with stenciled lettering describing his nomenclature and military affiliation. But once retired from active duty, just before the auction, Blue was painted a shabby metallic silver right over the dirt, rust and numbers. And over the next thirteen years, that's the way he looked as he lived on the streets of Coronado, provoking many midnight Police searches for vagrants living in his back seat.

As far as I know Blue never won a medal for Valor or had any other fancy awards festooned upon him. He was the kind of truck that did his job and kept his mouth shut. But once Ken sold out his share to Hal in 1997, the veteran was taken to Tijuana for the finest civilian two-tone sky blue go-to-hell paint job a peso could buy.

The added touch of red wheels and an aftermarket "Silverado" emblem glued to the dash pulled the whole fashion statement together. It should be noted that the trucks' age and cheaply renovated appearance allows Blue to blend with typical well-used Mexican trucks and therefore stand out when surrounded by tricked-out expensive chase trucks of the elite race crews.

Blue also has an appropriate high-mileage and patched-together camper that just squeezes in the extended 8' bed and flexes the overloads to their max. When it's loaded for a trip, the truck appears ready to spring into a back flip. The upside down broom attached to the camper's backside is never used for sweeping, only as a permanent signal that an emergency is in the making.

Hal himself has a reputation based on past deeds under the influence of Mexico. And when his friends relive the scrapes, booze and felony company, he just smiles and claims "That wasn't me, I was at the library at the time." But photographs document most of the exploits of the Boys without Borders.

There's Hal and Ken stuck in Guadalupe Canyon during a flash flood runoff. They tried to help another truck out of the sudden rain charged creek and found themselves in peril. They had stretched a safety line bumper to bumper between the two trucks and proceeded to dig a new path for the runoff around the other truck. But when Ken ventured across the rampage, holding the line, he was swept off his feet; his motorcycle boots filled with water, stretching him like plastic man horizontally down river. He was rescued by others in the party, but not before nearly drowning and gaining two inches in height.

The trek across Laguna Hanson is legend. Once again it was Hal and Ken bumming around Baja when they decided to see if they could make it across the quicksand area above Ensenada. Hours later they were digging out every twenty feet, because that was the combined length of the scrap 2x6 lumber they happened to have in the back. They completed the equivalent of the famous 1930s Plank Road, before reaching firm ground.

But it was on a visit to Hussong's bar where they left an impression that's still being talked about to this day. I'm not saying too much sarsaparilla impaired the driver--Let's just say it wasn't the first bar he had visited that day. And there could have been a pilot error while gauging the distance between the bumper and the wall as they pulled into the parking lot. After all, the spare tire is mounted above the front bumper adding a forward extension of about two feet. Hal and Ken will tell you in unison, "It's really a safety feature that acts as a cow-catcher during awkward moments."

When Blue bulled the wall, it sent patrons, tables and beer inside flying. The band was in full crescendo, winding up a rousing version of "Guadalajara" when all the casement windows along that wall that were propped open with sticks, fell as one, with a resounding slam coinciding with the last musical note. The windows were immediately reopened with folks yelling, "Well, c'mon in and have a beer!" After management inspected the impact point for damage and Hal bought a round for the house, no charges were filed. In fact the party was decidedly better and louder after the incident then before. Hal was allegedly at the wheel. But he would say, "I'm pretty sure I was on the way to Bible Study that morning. But the important thing to note is, that no beer inside the truck was spilled."

Over the years, Blue has been tested many times and always gotten home, sometimes dragging broken parts and desert souvenirs along, but always under its own power.

The Baja Races offered new challenges for the Blue. Another friend, Jon Sanford is a Pit Captain for Mag 7, a loose-knit group that provides services and gasoline to the racers every 50 miles along the course.

Jon handpicks the volunteers from a motley collection of Mexican adventurers and life-long friends. The tools and supplies are kept in a questionably overbuilt garage in a seedy neighborhood of Logan Heights. Jon takes care of the paperwork and runs the pit.

Pit responsibilities are taken seriously, but after the pit closes things happen. One or two Cervezas and the crew reverts to high school pranks and good-natured jokes. Hal is famous for hidden fireworks that explode in the campfire when you least expect. Or hand-lit rockets that screech into the night like errant scud missiles looking for targets of opportunity.

Last year for the 1,000 Race, the so-called "Crew" volunteered to work a pit at race-mile 625. Turned out our pit was a mere fourteen-hour drive from San Diego. The last four hours were on a worn-out dirt hump that used to be a road across the desert to a now-deserted town. Our crew traveled in a two-truck, one camper convoy. I was riding with Hal in Big Blue. And because it was our largest truck, it carried the bulk of the equipment--1,500 lbs of tents, spares for racers, tools, jacks and fill cans plus five fifty-gallon barrels of race gas (an additional 2,500 lbs.), not to mention the base truck weight of 5,500 lbs of rolling dead weight for a total of 9,500 pounds--enough to sink an aircraft carrier.

There was no doubt it could haul the load but we hadn't planned on the road being as rough as the course. As we were making our way though one of the worst washouts on the raised road, we began listing heavily to the left and suddenly experienced the slosh factor.

The weight shifted in the barrels, the sand gave way and we went into a slide off the road. Sensing an impending rollover, Hal turned left with the slope and we plowed down into a deep sand wash. When the dust cleared we found ourselves stuck up to our hubs in a place that probably had swallowed dinosaurs millions of years before.

We celebrated the fact that we hadn't rolled and then tested old Blues resolve to the limit. By jamming it into four-wheel we were able to wallow down the wash parallel to the raised road. It was a rough half-mile later when the slope flattened enough for Hal to floor it so the truck could haul it's own fat butt back on the so-called road. In the process we broke a motor mount and ripped the radiator fan shroud loose which came back to haunt us later.

The sun settled below the horizon before we made the town, leaving us to figure a way after dark through the empty gaggle of falling-down houses and a crazy quilt combination of paths and streets headed in all directions

In the process, we came across an Army Base. Surprisingly, the soldiers were actually on guard, after a long day of painting rocks white. The directions we received to the racecourse were sketchy at best, but when the troops finally got all their flashlights pointing in the same direction, we took a chance and followed a rough path out of town, into the night.

Thirty minutes later we arrived at the race path, but 15 miles up-course from our pit location. Noting the cow skeleton lying there and knowing the so-called course would destroy our trucks and camper over 15 miles of rocks and ruts, we decided to camp there and find our pit location in the daylight. It was a wise move. In the morning we could actually see where we were going.

We hurried to set the pit, because we knew racers were already headed our way at blistering speeds. Over the next fifty-three hours we serviced sixty-eight vehicles--a new record. It was a long night and day highlighted by three close calls as one hundred mile an hour trophy trucks roared through, sirens and horns blasting, overtaking slower vehicles right in front of our pit. What a show. "Look, it's going to eat the motorcycle..."

After our pit had closed, Hal and another Pit crew member, Bill took off for a few days of Baja exploration. A few hours later, they encountered an off-road opportunity meant for a much shorter wheel based truck. They stopped on the edge to size up the situation.

The gully was steep going in and even steeper going out. If they didn't play this right, Blue could end up as a permanent footbridge with front and rear bumpers stuck in the opposite banks and the wheels dangling uselessly in mid air. Hal figured the key was momentum. Bill wisely got out of the truck and stood where he thought it might be safe as Hal and Blue prepared for the gully run.

Hal muscled Blue into 4wheel, turned up `The Grateful Dead' and stuffed the foot feed. The big 6 cylinder roared, the load nearly jumped out of the bed as gravity helped them free-fall down the embankment. But auguring into the gully wasn't the worst part--that came when Blue leapt for the other bank through the rocks of the dry wash and came up a little short, barging the front mounted spare into the dirt embankment. The colossal explosion of dirt and dust obscured the windshield, but Hal knew if he let off the gas he would be there forever.

Blue scrabbled for traction and found enough to plow the spare clear of the dirt and begin a charge up the other side. Hal felt a tremendous shudder passing through Blue's chassis, but the nose bounced skyward and he kept going. He bulled his way up the hill, fighting the steering wheel with both hands as it jerked back and forth over the rocks.

When he cleared the top, Hal let out a whoop and kept it rolling to the flat where he stopped for an inspection of the chassis. As Blue idled proudly, catching its breath, Hal peered under. The whole front clip was tweaked an inch or more to the right. The Spare tire and rack had taken the brunt of the blow in the dirt and was at a jaunty new angle, the idler arm for the steering was twisted; bumper supports were bent but not too bad. The raised letters on the front plate were no longer raised. But overall, with just some corrective steering techniques, Blue was drivable until repairs could be made back home.

This year, we went back for the Baja 500. But because of all the recent disturbing headlines (Mob murders, kidnappings and robberies) many entrants, spectators and sponsors stayed away. Ensenada was dead. Still, there was a noisy fiesta-style party in the central fairgrounds. And many familiar hairy faces and random tattoos were there as motor-head volunteers. Blue took a parking place in the back row trying hard not to stand out from the high dollar trucks and high tech equipment.

The forty-foot tall blow-ups of Coca Cola and Tecate Beer cans dominated the skyline. and Red Bull signs and just about every car product made shouted from the edges around the park. Live, loud music from high-rise stages rocked the park trying to fill in for the skimpy crowd. Hopeful food vendors, and hawkers peddling shirts, posters, hats, serapes, sunglasses and race equipment, all pushed their wares to the occasional clumps of people wandering by. The racecars, trophy trucks, and motorcycles caused a commotion as they were pushed by crewmembers to a staging area. But the guys went slack jawed when a dozen drop-dead gorgeous trophy girls, sauntered in partially dressed in identical midriff-baring, tiny muti-strap tops, hip-hugging black pants and race-appropriate high heels. They danced with the throng, posed for pictures and generally stirred things up. As the party heated up, the beer and wine flowed freely and I noted that passing women paused to take a second look at Blue, whether it was out of disgust or adoration is not clear.

Meanwhile, the actual race teams, who had already been there a week, pre-running the course and plotting strategies, were all business, getting their game face on for the monstrous challenge ahead. Even Hal was inspired to check the oil on Blue before we moved down the course to await the racers at our pit.

The course begins right in town under a balloon-festooned Starting Line. It then follows a rough river bottom before climbing a sandy bank into the surrounding mountains and over to the Baja coastal plain. Over the years Hal and Blue have explored most of the course, making full use of 4 wheel drive and a bumper mounted winch to get them through the toughest, nearly impassable parts.

A couple of years ago, after the racers were already home and all the hoopla had died down, Hal and Ken followed the rugged course south, just for the heck of it.

In retelling the story, they said, "It's amazing what you find in the wake of all the action; mirrors, banks of road lights, spare tires, roll bars, exhaust systems, filters and once; a complete racecar hidden from view back in the brush, under a tree."

They checked out the $80,000 racecar, found paperwork identifying the driver and noted the race number for the officials. You know what they did next? Yep. And it started right up. When they tried to move it, they found the clutch was burned out, explaining why it was left behind.

Turns out, the car had been abandoned by its driver when he suffered dehydration and had to be Medivaced home. But no one marked the cars location on a map. Back in San Diego, Hal and Ken were able to tell both the race officials and the grateful driver where the car was hidden on the course. After four months of being lost, the found car was recovered within a few days.

Baja off-road is racing at it's best, or worst, depending on your perspective. Crowds line the first leg of the course, surging dangerously close to the racers who slide around turns and fly over rises on their way out of town at eighty or ninety miles an hour. Touching a passing racer is as good as petting a bull on the run in Pamplona.

None of the established safety rules apply. There are stretches of the race that actually run over Baja's only two-lane highway to get around impassable rocks and canyons. But local traffic control is spotty at best, making unwitting participants out of locals on a Sunday drive.

Some well-heeled competitors have helicopters shadow them on the course. The flying service stations carry everything from tires and transmissions to engines, and they can turn any flat surface into an instant repair shop. But most teams depend on the more normal race pits that are set up about every fifty miles. The pre-paid pits are stocked with fuel, water, communications, and enough energy bars to get you to the moon.

At our pit Blue played a central role as a rolling Gas station. The fifty gallon fuel barrels stayed onboard with hand-crank pumps at the ready. As each fill can was emptied into the tanks of the waiting racecars, the containers were refilled as fast as possible. Anyone manning the crank handles had a very large right arm by the end of the day.

The course has many pinch-points called narrows. Drivers blinded by the dust and amped up by adrenaline sometimes run over each other when the first guy hits the brakes. When everybody finally gets untangled the field is no longer spread out--cars swarm into the next pit like killer bees on steroids.

Normally there are about ten guys in a pit with maybe fifteen to twenty vehicles signed up for service. But last year, there were only five of us manning the pit with forty-three cars, trucks and motorcycles scheduled to drop in during the long day and night the racers are allotted to finish the course. Somebody yelled, "Gird your loins, boys" As three or four vehicles bore down on us all at once, sliding to a stop in clouds of dust. We clambered all over each vehicle hastily inspecting critical parts to make sure nothing would fall off or blow up during the next leg of the race. The engines are too loud for yelling, so we used a lot of hand signals you'd never see in a baseball game.

While we cleaned their goggles and running lights, the drivers, still strapped in their seats, would yell and point to anything they think might be wrong. Water was fed to the driver through a straw while a twelve-gallon dump can was rammed into the car's tank.

Now, the worst thing you can do as you rush from racer to racer is spill gas all over a motorcyclist's lap during a sloppy speed fill. (Well, maybe the worst thing would be to light him up.) But we did okay for a bunch of amateurs.

No wet drivers. No fire in the hole. And most vehicles were out of there in less than two minutes, spinning tires and throwing dirt in our faces as thanks while we jumped to the next racer in line. We even did a couple of quick-fix bailing-wire and weld repairs in that time. After it was over, we swaggered around and gave ourselves kudos and high fives for not killing anyone.

Even when the race cars come into the pit one by one, you can only hope the wind is blowing the other way, Coming and going, they kick up a dust storm so thick, blinded drivers sometimes literally run over each other. And at the end of the race, when you clean up, you find pounds of dirt in nooks and crannies you didn't know you had.High on a mountaintop sits the Weatherman. Like Moses, he passes down race commandments to the hordes below. Every pit and every chase crew is tuned in, listening to his updates and satellite positing reports of individual racers. The GPS even tells how fast they were going as they passed, "Race number 186x passed check point 3 doing 57 miles per hour at 1600 hours." it's easy to patch together a picture of the entire race; who's in the lead, who broke down, what obstructions to watch out for, who's lost, who's hurt, how to get an emergency helicopter... all are broadcast by the guy in the sky.

Speeds on the course vary anywhere from zero to a hundred mph, which considering the nearly impassable rough and rocky terrain through the mountains, seems impossible. But, the racers are so jacked up on energy bars and adrenalin they could probably do the course just as fast without their cars.

Last year my son Mike and three of his buddies built a raced-up SUV for the 1,000 Run. They were still working on the truck at the Start Line. But, much to their surprise, they were forth in their class two hours after leaving Ensenada. Only ten miles later they rolled the truck. Fans along the course helped them get it back on its wheels and they sped on to race mile 210 without a windshield, top lights and other assorted parts.

At three the next morning they rounded a soft turn on top of a mountain, hooked a wheel in the sand, rolled over an abandoned truck that was teetering on the edge and fell into the abyss. About fifteen or twenty end over end flips later, they came to rest some eight hundred feet down in the bottom of a ravine. According to Mike, "It was the best E Ticket ride I've ever been on." He wasn't scratched, but the driver suffered bruised ribs, a mild concussion and was Medivaced home at first light. The SUV could not be recovered and was left for the local vultures to fight over.

This year, our pit for the 500 was just sixty miles from the start line along the coast on a scenic point of land just opposite Bird Shit Rock near the town of Erendira. We were fully exposed to the gale force winds off the ocean that were enough to take the food off your plate and blow you across the camp yard. Every once in a while, I would take cover in Blue's crew cab, but even lead-butt Blue was rocked by the gusts.

As usual, the kids in every town asked for Race Stickers as souvenirs, but vandals went further, stealing Race Markers from the course, sending many drivers in circles trying to find their way. Wise guys up the course took our arrows and signs that pointed down the course and switched them to a hard right "Short Cut" up and over a hill, causing drivers to miss their fuel stop at our Pit. Some driver's ran out of gas a few miles farther along or were forced to beg for it at the next pit.

At the end of the race, we had gallons of fuel left over and had I known gas would hit four bucks, I would have snuck some back across the border. I know Hal filled Blues' extra tanks with some racing 110 leaded and he ran like a rocket fired from Vandenberg.

Every year there are serious injuries. And it's not just people who get hurt. As tough as Blue is, he suffers too. You remember the broken motor mount and ripped fan shroud? Well eventually they conspired to unleash an errant bolt, which somehow bounced into the fan blade and then was shot through the radiator. Luckily it happened in downtown Ensenada. Unluckily, it was on Sunday.

But things have a way of sorting themselves out. We broke down in front of a restaurant. The owner had a friend with a radiator shop. The guy lived above his shop and was home when we called. It didn't matter that his floors were dirt and he smelled of coolant, burritos and burned grease. He had a great old-school nudie calendar to keep us entertained while he and his even dirtier assistant made the necessary repairs. We were back on the road in less than two hours.

Considering the thousands of racers and spectators that are in harm's way, it's amazing that most folks return home from Mexico unscratched with only a touch of Montezuma's revenge and some mighty tales to tell.

Big Blue has witnessed it all. He is a Baja proven sexy beast--solid as Sears and a testament to brawn over beauty. Between trips, he waits patiently around Coronado, trying to blend with the clean-living hybrids and careful not to run afoul of the twenty-five foot vehicle parking restrictions.
-Tim Shortt


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