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June 2011 4Word

Posted in Features on March 17, 2011
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The windshield of the H1 cracks as a branch hits it while we tear through the Baja backcountry. I’m driving as hard as I can, trying to keep up with Rod Hall, who’s driving an identical H1 and is now far ahead.

This adventure started when AM General called to ask if I wanted to go to Baja with Rod Hall and a few others from the factory. It was 1992, and Rod was going to see if he liked the H1 well enough to race them. I wasted no time saying yes; I wanted to go along. We met in San Diego, and then headed south to a point halfway between Mexicali and San Felipe that had been part of a Baja 500 racecourse. We entered the course to the west of Laguna Salada in an area that was a mixture of sandy washes, graded road, two-track, rocks, whoops, and beautiful desert backcountry.

We had four H1 Hummers. As mentioned before, Rod Hall was driving one, AM General staff were driving two others, and I was driving the fourth. I figured this was my big chance. I had driven for decades in the backcountry and was a competent Jeeper. Over the years, I had convinced myself that I was a hot driver at higher speeds, too. My friends had heard me say, If I was in a race truck, I could easily compete with anyone! They usually rolled their eyes and changed the subject (but what did they know?).

We lined up two abreast in our Hummers, Rod and me up front. At the word, we floored the H1s, not spewing gravel as these had normally aspirated 6.2L GM diesels in them, and gathered speed until we were traveling at a respectable clip through the desert. Rod immediately got into the lead. I was driving as hard as I could to keep up. The H1s we were in had a tendency to launch the rear into the air when traversing whoops. Disconcerting at first, we soon learned that nothing untoward was going to happen, so got used to it.

These vehicles were also 7 feet wide, so the creosote bushes, ironwood trees, cactus, and everything else that hung over the trail slapped the vertical windshields with a resounding whack! until the smash! that signaled the windshields were finally cracked. All four Hummers had broken windshields by the end of that day.

Anyway, we were speeding through the desert, and I was concentrating hard. I don’t remember seeing the other two Hummers behind us once we really got moving, but I saw Rod up front. For a few minutes, that is. Hot pilot Phil, who could wax anybody and was driving as hard as he could, lost sight of Rod after about eight minutes and could only see his dust at times. In 20 minutes, he was out of radio range! Alone in Baja, I had time once in a while to glance around and take in the beauty of the desert. I also had time to ponder that maybe I wasn’t quite the off-road racer I thought I was. After lunch, I told one of the AM General drivers I wanted to ride with them on the way down from Mike’s Sky Ranch to Valle Trinidad.

For those of you who’ve been there, you know the descent from Mike’s is on a fairly good graded road cut into the side of the mountains. Rod immediately took off and was gone. Unfortunately, the AM General driver I was riding with decided he could keep up and was driving as fast as he could (lesson time again). As the big Hummer slid around the corners, I looked out the window over the cliff on my side and was thinking, don’t worry. He doesn’t want to die any more than I do. Whether he wanted to or not, we started into one big sweeper on the side of a cliff and started drifting toward the edge. The driver floored the accelerator to pull out of the drift, but the 6.2L didn’t have any more to give, so we continued our drift. I tucked my hands under me and leaned over, figuring the heavy Hummer would probably collapse the ’cage as it rolled over. The edge came and over we went in a spray of rocks and sand.

There was a vertical ledge, then a 70-degree talus slope that ended in a wash about sixty feet below. The Hummer fell sideways down the vertical ledge, and then rolled when it hit the slope. And rolled. Then rolled again, ending up on its four flat tires in the wash at the bottom. The factory rollcage in the big H1 held up fine so no one was hurt, although Rod had put a gallon of milk in our cooler that bounced off my head and drenched me with sticky liquid.

The Hummer’s Central Tire Inflation system reinflated the tires (pretty nice, especially after an accident like this) and we drove down the wash to a point we could get back on the road. Rod came back, looked at where we went over and said, That’s the same place Walker Evans slid off. Let’s go. And he was off again in a cloud of dust.

That night, I couldn’t sleep, so I went for a walk around the vehicles. Someone was in one of the H1s, so I knocked hard on the window to find out what was up. The figure stirred, and I saw that it was Rod. He opened the door and explained he had decided to sleep in the Hummer to become one with it, or words to that effect. It must have worked, because Rod Hall decided that Hummers were for him. With him at the helm, the Hummer Race Team finished first and second in their class that November in the Baja 1000. The rest is history.

I learned some things in Baja from that trip:
Lesson 1: Successful and famous off-road racers are that way for a reason. They’re good. Better than almost everyone at what they do.
Lesson 2: I am not as good at driving fast as they are.
Lesson 3: H1 Hummers are built well.
Lesson 4: Being in the backcountry of Baja California, or in any backcountry for that matter, is wonderful. Whether you’re driving or riding through it or walking on foot, the backcountry will renew your spirit and improve your outlook, so everyday problems won’t seem so large.
Lesson 5: Off-roading is good.

Next month, look for the last of these three installments about Baja adventures.

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