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
Tools and equipment are equally important to the race as the race vehicle itself. For instance, without a welder ready to repair a broken shock mount, the race vehicle is forced to travel at a slower rate of speed until it can reach one. Therefore it is essential to have plenty of tools and equipment on hand during the race effort. As a rule of thumb, it's a good idea to have enough equipment to rebuild any one specific part or component of the race vehicle at each and every pit. For many teams, this is simply too expensive. So chase crews are required to leap-frog their way down the peninsula as the effort progresses.
Each pit area should have a director or pit boss who is responsible for each crew member at his or her pit. It is essential that the pit be well organized and clearly visible to the incoming racer. At night, this means having some type of lighted sign or flashing light to draw attention to the pit area. The pit boss is also in charge of each crew member's safety. He or she should conduct meetings prior to go-time to delegate pit responsibilities and make sure everybody understands what their particular job is during the pit. Drinking alcohol is never a good idea in the pits. At this year's 1000, I witnessed a leading Trophy Truck pit from start to finish. It was a complete joke watching the inexperienced, drunk, and otherwise unprofessional volunteers attempt to add fuel, change a lightbar, and replace two rear tires. At two separate instances, pit personnel were almost run over and/or dragged off unintentionally. Pitting is a serious responsibility that requires the utmost concern for safety.
I highly recommend prerunning the entire course before running any Baja race. Prerunning gives you an opportunity to strategize and map out exactly which areas are critical during race time. A low-lying area where mud puddles collect during the prerun will likely become a bottomless silt bed once 200 vehicles have passed through it. There is no substitute to actually running the course beforehand and programming dangerous obstacles into the GPS. In many cases, a given section will change so much that it doesn't even look anything like you remembered it. The GPS will save your bacon in these scenarios. All professional race teams prerun before racing. Without doing so, you might as well forget finishing because you're relying solely on reaction time and luck. In my opinion, prerunning is the most fun part of the racing experience. The stress is low, the pace is easy-going, and if you want to stop and get a taco, you can. Not to mention, prerunners are typically a lot nicer to drive than race vehicles.
When it comes to funding a race effort, there are two simple things to remember. Racing on someone else's money means you pretty much can't screw up if you plan to keep the sponsorship going. Sponsors usually want a return on their investment, and therefore require additional information such as post-race reports, budget projections, itemized expenditures, and copies of media materials featuring the sponsored team. In short, sponsorships carry with them a debt of responsibility in place of personal fiscal outlay. Self-funded race efforts are usually less stressful and require less accountability, but very few can afford to race without some type of sponsorship. Team Worthington/KORE had sponsors this year, which included KORE LLC, Toyo Tires, Baja Designs, Weld Racing, DTT transmissions, Mobil Radio Communications, Big Power Diesel, and Chassis Fab. The name of the game with sponsorships is to attract as much media attention as possible. I'd recommend inviting a journalist on your prerun. If all goes well, and you gain the confidence of someone connected to a print, television, or Internet media outlet, you might have a decent chance of keeping sponsors happy, assuming you actually run a decent race. If you're really lucky, you might even get a media person with valuable Baja experience.
The SCORE racing organization is operated by Sal Fish in Calabasas, California. The official rules and regulations governing each individual class can be found in the official SCORE Off-Road Racing rule book available online at www.score-international.com. Once you determine which class your vehicle fits into, it is necessary to perform a series of SCORE-mandated safety modifications to ensure occupant safety. In most cases, this means installing a rollcage, fuel cell, safety nets, number plates, and amber indicator lamps. Some classes, however, require much, much more. Before each race, you are required to set up an official vehicle tech inspection to ensure all the appropriate rules and regulations have been met.
If you've never traveled south of the border before, consider joining a Baja Travel Club such as Discover Baja (www.discoverbaja.com). These agencies charge an annual membership fee in exchange for simplifying the process of getting Mexican auto insurance, tourist visas, maps, and satellite phone rental, along with offering valuable discounts on restaurants, hotels, camping, and sport fishing. Be sure to carry a passport along with at least one other form of government-issued identification. Cash is always a good thing to keep on hand as ATMs are few and far between. Guns are illegal in Mexico, so don't bring them, and if you have access to a Spanish-speaker, insist that they tag along; much of the larger populated areas have English-speakers around, but out in the middle of nowhere ... good luck. Contrary to popular belief, the gasoline sold in Baja is of decent quality and the diesel fuel is even better. Drinking water, however, is one item we recommend travelers take extra precaution. Nothing is worse than heading back to the United States with diarrhea.
We fell for the whole "green racing" idea hook, line, and sinker. Nothing stands out more in our minds regarding the fight to keep trails open than reducing emissions and conserving fuel.
Biodiesel is produced from renewable sources such as soybean oil, and it meets the critical specifications set forth by the federal government. Biodiesel is typically produced by a reaction of a vegetable oil or animal fat with an alcohol, such as methanol or ethanol, acting as a catalyst to yield mono-alkyl esters and glycerin, which is then removed. Loren Worthington of Team Worthington/KORE makes biodiesel in his garage. The only tricky part of running the stuff in Baja was getting it across the border. For some odd reason, Mexico's border inspection agents don't like seeing 55-gallon drums of fuel coming in from the U.S. So our team had to be stealthy about how our race B-100 fuel was transported. We used a 100-gallon transfer tank equipped with a pump, similar to what you might see at a construction site with heavy equipment. The setup worked perfectly as our team was able to fill quick-dump jugs directly from the tank.