An in-depth look at what it takes to finish the 1000
Racing is a dangerous activity. Those who take part in any form of motorsports will agree. However, there is racing, and then there is racing in a foreign country where even the simplest of mistakes can be fatal.
Racing the Baja can be the greatest adventure of a lifetime, or a nightmare that you'll spend the rest of your life trying to forget. In either case, it all boils down to a series of decisions that everyone must make while striving for a common goal. Last November, I joined up with a race team at the 2006 SCORE Baja 1000 to get a first-hand look at what's required to first survive, and then win, the world's longest-running off-road race. At this year's race I spent nearly 22 hours in the co-driver's seat of a Stock Full Dodge truck with Kent Kroeker at the wheel. Kroeker is the president of Kroeker Off Road Engineering (KORE), a company which specializes in bolt-on suspension systems for the popular Dodge Ram pickup trucks. Two years ago, we also ran the race in a Stock Full Dodge ("Rage Against the Machine," May '05). But back then, I didn't quite understand the dangers involved with the race effort as a whole because I was strapped into the passenger seat for all 30 hours of it. This time, I only played the co-driver role for 700 of the 1,042-mile course. This gave me a new perspective on what thousands of chase crews have to deal with while traveling throughout the Baja peninsula.
It takes a lot more than just passion, a skilled driver, and a well-prepped race vehicle to succeed in Baja. Team Worthington/KORE secured a Third Place podium finish, which in a field of 11 stock full trucks, was an amazing achievement-especially when you consider the top three finishers were the only finishers of the class. It is also worth mentioning that team Worthington/KORE ran the entire race on biodiesel, a first ever for SCORE International. If you've ever dreamed of racing in Baja but don't know where to begin, this article's for you.
This is the single most important part of the equation. Without a detailed plan, a race effort is forced to rely on chance. A good race plan will include such things as a mission statement (ugh, even racing has been infected.-Ed.), team driving rules and procedures, a comprehensive list of do's and don'ts for everyone involved, a list of specific jobs for each team member, communications information and logistics information containing detailed maps clearly displaying pit locations, emergency medical outposts, and other relevant supporting information.
Obviously, you must have a vehicle to race. However, there are a few ways to increase the likelihood of finishing in Baja. Here are 10 things to keep in mind:
1. Driver/co-driver safety is paramount
2. Four-wheel drive improves your chances of finishing
3. Suspension travel-to-weight ratio determines vehicle top speed on rough terrain
4. Power-to-weight ratio determines quickness
5. Simplicity is crucial
6. Redundancy is key
7. Waterproofing is imperative
8. HID lights are essential
9. Tow points are important
10. Diesel-powered vehicles have an economic and safety advantage over race-gas-powered rigs
In many cases, the driver will have to completely rely on and trust judgment calls made by the navigator/co-driver. It is essential that the two maintain a respectful, purposeful, and focused relationship during the race. Everybody has emotions, but during the race, however, these emotions must be ignored. Communications must be based on facts and presented in a clear and efficient manner. For example: if the co-driver feels that the driver is taking unnecessary risks, the co-driver should tell the driver "I think we need to be more careful." The driver should respond "Thanks for the input." And then make a decision about slowing down or not. Likewise, the co-driver is typically in charge of navigating via the onboard GPS unit. It is his responsibility to know where the sharp ditch is on the left side of the trail at mile marker 288. This means the co-driver must inform the driver of the upcoming obstacle well enough in advance that the driver has time to react before reaching the ditch. Simultaneously, the co-driver has to consider variables such as speed, dust, and other racers before communicating to the driver. The key here is to maintain a constant visual on the course and the GPS navigation screen. The main responsibility of the driver and co-driver is situational awareness.
Precise and efficient communication cannot be overemphasized. Com/Nav can be broken down into two parts: procedures and technology. The best technology in the world won't help unless your implementation and procedures are correct. The KORE/Worthington race team is largely comprised of former Marine Corps combat pilots and other law enforcement officers who use the highest technology com/nav equipment on the planet. As such, they are also strict and merciless about the way the team communicates. In addition to being one of KORE's race drivers, John "Zambo" Zambie, a former Harrier pilot, is KORE's communication/navigation officer. He was in charge of the team's GPS downloads, Mexican cell phones, satellite phones, radio frequencies, call signs, and communications procedures. If you don't use the proper, "you, this is me" format or say something like, "we're getting close" instead of, "Race 866 passing race mile 745," be prepared for a Marine Corps-style tongue lashing you won't soon forget. Good radio discipline combined with advanced technology can literally be the difference between finishing and a DNF. KORE is currently refining dual-band VHF/UHF triangulation technology that can give pinpoint vehicle tracking and even "FLIR" (Forward Looking Infra Red) thermal imaging that can literally see through dust, fog, and darkness.
Each year after the 1000, I hear about more people dying while supporting the race effort than while driving in a race vehicle. Most teams will agree: chasing in Baja is the single most dangerous activity there is. This is not because Mexico has fewer laws than here in the States, or even fewer enforcement officers around to protect people. It is because roads in Baja are very narrow, poorly marked, and seldom maintained. For the most part Highway 1 represents a kill-zone where nobody is safe at any time. The whole route south of La Paz is dotted by little white crosses, each representing a life lost to unexpected circumstances.
The best way to survive the journey is to adhere to the following list of rules:
1. Never drive alone, stay in groups
2. Avoid driving at night
3. Never go faster than you can see
4. Stay to the right
5. Never drink and drive
6. Use radios to relay a "clear" for passing big rigs
7. If you get tired, swap drivers or pull over and sleep
8. Drive defensively at all times
9. Carry stickers to hand out at military check points
10. Purchase Mexican auto insurance