Racing 1,200 Miles In Vintage Iron
A cool breeze drifted off the Pacific Ocean, carrying with it the typical morning fog that Tijuana, Mexico, is known for. Somewhere in the border-town mayhem, a few dozen cars, four-wheel drives, and motorcycles lined up near the bullfighting arena.
The year was 1967, and a guy named Ed Pearlman and his crew from the newly established National Off Road Racing Association (NORRA) had come up with the idea for a non-stop race down the Baja peninsula. Several time records had been set for the charge from Tijuana, at the U.S. border, to La Paz, but none involved multiple vehicles, side-by-side and handlebar-to-taillight competition, let alone a checkered flag at the end. By today’s standards, the vehicles were crude and low-tech, and the only way to confirm the actual time was with a telegraph wired to the U.S. via Morse code.
This new race to La Paz would be known as the Mexican 1000. Little did the NORRA crew know it at the time, but their endeavor would become the foundation for the SCORE Baja 1000, an international motorsports icon. During the next 40 years it would attract motorcycle pioneers Dave Akins and Malcolm Smith, and suspension wizards Ted Mangles and Bill Stroppe. A few “unknowns” such as Indianapolis 500 champ Parnelli Jones, and actors Paul Newman, James Garner, and Steve McQueen stepped into the ring. And there were the regular Southern California dirt junkies Mickey Thompson, Dick Cepek, Rod Hall, and Walker Evans. Over time, up-and-coming talent like the McMillan and Gordon families bid for a piece of the action.
Though NORRA disbanded in 1974, in 2009, Ed Pearlman’s brother Mike came up with another brilliant idea: resurrect NORRA and recreate the original race. It would be in rally form over a four-day period, with vintage cars, nightly bivouacs, and gatherings at the Baja Social Club each evening. Would it be a real race with points, penalties, and trophies? Without a doubt! But above all this, it was to be “fun.” They put out an APB for surviving vehicles of the original fleet, and invited racing legends of yesteryear to suit up and slip behind the wheel again. That classic race to the tip of Baja, Mexico, now the General Tire NORRA Mexican 1000, would live on.
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Rules of the Road
Baja is a rugged and special place. Every fishing village you pass, every turn of a dirt track, and every crest of a hill, reveals a secret, a new experience. It is a place with 1,000 tales of dust, sweat, and emotion. Though the Mexican 1000 is a race, and many competitors are hell-bent on a podium finish, NORRA considers it “an amateur sport where the pleasures of taking part must exceed the desire to win.”
The event follows the FIA definition of Cross Country Rally. Each day’s route is broken into several legs: Special Stages, which are on the clock (and may the best man/woman win), and Liaison Stages. In Liaison Stages, or paved transit sections, teams are given a target time window to check into the next Special. This time is calculated at the legal speed limit plus 30 minutes for refueling or repairs, and penalties are assessed for arriving at the next Special early or late. Though each day resulted in different “winners” in each class, final times are based on accumulative results for Special sections plus penalties.
Back in 1967, the inaugural Mexican 1000, most teams wore blue jeans and open-face helmets, stored extra fuel in jerrycans between the co-driver’s legs, and had a cooler of sandwiches (probably made by their wives), water, and Cokes. There weren’t any support crews, just a starting line in Tijuana, a finish line in La Paz, and 1000 miles of wide-open Baja desert between. Though most teams today have chase crews for support, a few racers, such as Ned Bacon and Kat Wiechert, driving their rally-prepped ’74 Porsche 911, did it the old fashion way. Today, NORRA requires fire suits and Snell-approved helmets, and teams are provided a GPS track as well as a route book. However, NORRA can slip in an old-school “checkpoint-to-checkpoint” Super Special Stage (which they did), where no GPS route is provided and teams must revert to the “tulip chart” route book.
When the Dust Settled
When the dust settled in San Jose del Cabo and the final checkered flag was dropped, that blue and white speck we witnessed “flying” south near Bahia de Los Angeles, Walker Evans’ Dodge D150, took top honors in the vintage classes (there are over a dozen classes ranging from swing-axle buggies to short-wheelbase open trucks). Buddy Feldkamp, who shared driving a Funco VW with his father Bud Feldkamp, and Baja legend George Erl joined Evans’ on the podium.
Though NORRA Founder Ed Pearlman once commented, “The whole thing was held together with spit,” with General Tire stepping up as NORRA’s premier sponsoring partner, the Mexican 1000 has experienced overwhelming growth. With recent worldwide media exposure, registration numbers were up 50 percent over past years, and this year’s rally attracted competitors from across North America, Australia, and Europe. If the recent revival of vintage-car enthusiasm has any bearing on the future, we see a bright outlook for this “everyman’s rally.” For information on the 2014 General Tire NORRA Mexican 1000 Rally, held around May 1st each year, go to www.norra.com.
“There weren’t any support crews, just a starting line in Tijuana, a finish line in La Paz, and 1000 miles of wide-open Baja desert between.”