Chasing The Mexican 1000 In A 1972 Volkswagen Bug - Road Trippin’Posted in Features on August 27, 2014
It just didn’t seem right to take my air-conditioned, fuel-injected Toyota 4Runner to the General Tire NORRA Mexican 1000. Truth be told my ’98 4Runner is only a few years away from qualifying as “vintage” by NORRA standards, but it just didn’t have the right feel for this race. So instead I took a Bug to chase the race. A ’72 Volkswagen Beetle.
Just to make it clear, I am not an air-cooled guy. I don’t know the difference between a fastback and a hunchback, or enjoy messing with points ignitions and packing CVs with grease. My good friend Brian Errea had been bugging me (pun intended?) about building a Bug for years though, and the Mexican 1000 seemed like a good excuse to finally do it. The deal was that I would foot the bill, Brian would build the car, and then we would go to the Mexican 1000 together. When Brian and his wife Gretchen brought a baby girl into the world just a month before the race, it was clear that Brian would not be attending. The writing had been on the wall for a while, but fortunately my friend J was interested and had the time/money/inclination to make the trip with me. And he was a Volkswagen guy to boot.
What other surprises lay in store for us as we drove a completely untested car 2,600 miles?
Getting There Is Half the Fun?
Before we could cross the border and eat tacos with Bruce Meyers, we needed a car. Brian Errea lives in South Dakota, where he spent months transforming a clapped-out shell into a beautifully restored car. The plan was to build a Class 11-inspired Bug with Fox remote reservoir shocks and General all-terrain tires, but with a full interior and a big engine instead of a ’cage and a high-strung 1,600cc motor that requires race fuel. Brian hit the mark perfectly, with a car that is a sleeper on the outside, looks brand new on the inside, and hides a 160 hp torque monster under the decklid. Unfortunately the car had zero miles on it when we took possession of it, only four days before leaving for Baja. We headed over to Samco Fabrication, who was fresh off a win in the 6100 class at the BITD Silver State 300, to convince them to prep the car for us. And they did, with two guys working full time on the Bug 10 hours a day for the three days before we left for Mexico.
The car fired long enough to load on the trailer so we could tow it to Horsepower Ranch in Ensenada. We arrived on Friday night to find the part in full swing, with a gaggle of Meyers Manx dune buggies, endless carne asada tacos, and the Tecate flowing. We got a chance to rub elbows with Bruce Meyers; the trip was off to a great start! The next day we took the Bug to contingency and met even more of our heroes, listening to stories and crawling over vintage race cars. On the way back to the Horsepower Ranch we stopped at Pemex for fuel. We had stuffed a jerrycan under the hood and could not get it open as a result. “What other surprises lay in store for us as we drove a completely untested car 2,600 miles?” we silently wondered.
Not wanting to push our luck, we stuck to pavement on Day 1, catching the race cars on the road sections and spectating and the beginning and end of the two special stages where the course met the tarmac. Other than some leaks, the little Volkswagen performed admirably. It had no shortage of power and was a big hit with the Baja locals.
Then Disaster Struck
From Bay of L.A. we were going to go to Mission San Francisco Borja at the recommendation of Ned Bacon and Curt LeDuc. “You can make it in a car, no problem,” they both assured us. Heading down the empty dirt road we had second thoughts though. We are in an untested car. We are not with the race anymore. Is this a good idea? We thought better of it and returned to pavement to follow the route used by the chase trucks.
Then disaster struck. As I decelerated we heard a loud, violent noise from the rear of the car. “Uh … must have been a bump in the road,” we lied to ourselves. On the next corner though it was clear that something was wrong. We pulled over on the shoulder and pulled a rear tire off the car to assess the damage. One caliper bolt was missing, and the other three were finger-tight. Fortunately there was no collateral damage, so we just had to wait patiently for a chase truck to pass with the parts we needed. As our patience waned we considered pinching off the brake line, or removing the caliper and tying it out of the way. Both seemed to create more problems than they would solve though. Eventually Team Pajaro Loco came by with their Baja Bug on a trailer. They let us steal a bellhousing bolt that was the right size and thread pitch, and we used the nut to make the threads the proper length for our caliper bracket. The fix is still on the car as I write this. Disaster averted.
We were up and running again, although our confidence in the car had been shaken and we had to drive well into the night to make it to Loreto. This meant that the most beautiful part of the drive, along the Sea of Cortez and Bahia de Concepcion, was made in the dark. Our only consolation was the Baja Designs light bar, which allowed us to travel at speeds that would never have been possible with the dim factory bulbs. At one point we blasted past a pit at the end of a special stage with the light bar shining and the air-cooled engine at full song. It made driving through the night all worth it.
Directions From Curt LeDuc
Although we had chickened out on our trip to a mission the previous day, we had another opportunity in Loreto. And this time the road was paved, and followed the race course. “If you leave an hour before the cars,” Curt LeDuc advised, “you can get to San Javier and shoot photos of all of the cars coming up the course through the canyon.” Sounds great! Except we didn’t get up in time to go to the mission an hour before the cars left the starting line. Instead, we were on the live course in the middle of the race. We had gone native.
J would look in the rearview mirror as I darted up the road, shouting “truck coming up fast!” as I looked for any place wide enough to get our Bug out of the way. When we found safety we would stop for a while and watch the competitors come by. They were racing through a working construction site complete with heavy equipment. In a narrow canyon. It was like something out of Death Race 2000, and it was glorious.
After reaching Mission San Javier we had a choice to make. We could either continue down the race course to Santo Domingo or back track to Loreto and take the pavement. Backtracking meant either waiting until the course was clear or going backward on a live course, neither of which sounded like a good option. Instead we soldiered on, 30 miles down the course at 10 mph, cringing every time a rock crashed into the skidplate under the engine.
Once reaching pavement we rejoiced, upping the speed as we headed for La Paz. They were doing road work in Santo Domingo, paving the road we were on. “I wonder how abrupt the transition is where the paving ends…” I wondered aloud just as I launched the Bug off a 6-inch-tall, square-edged transition at 60 mph. So much for babying the car!
Now We Have To Get Home
The speedometer cable broke somewhere outside of La Paz, but that was the only mechanical issue we had after tightening the caliper bolts. Unless you count the morning ritual of adding brake fluid and engine oil, which we do not count. We were in the groove, clicking off the miles as we bench raced about how to build J’s Meyers Tow’d for the Mexican 1000. We made it to San Jose del Cabo to watch the winners cross the finish line and had plenty of time to get cleaned up before the South Point Driver’s Awards ceremony. Which, by the way, was amazing. Hanging out with Bruce Meyers and Larry Roeseler. Free margaritas. Fireworks. This is what we came for!
After the hang over wore off from the award ceremony we counted up how much money we had left and started working our way north. “You race south and then eat your way north,” Curt LeDuc advised. The plan was to take two days back to the Horsepower Ranch in Ensenada, then cross the border on the third morning and continue home to Reno. We took our time, stopping at tourist traps in Cabo San Lucas and Todos Santos, and we worked our way north. We stopped for the night to camp under a full moon on the beach south of Mulege. The ocean water was cool and inviting after another sweltering day in the car with the windows down and the revs up. Overdrive was high off the list of priorities when we got home.
Taking Curt’s advice, we stopped at Rice and Beans in San Ignacio and Mama Espinoza’s in El Rosario on our way back to the Horsepower Ranch. We also explored the French architecture of Santa Rosalia’s charming downtown. And by “French architecture,” I mean tacos. Before we knew what had happened, the Bug was back on the trailer and we were in line to cross the border back to Los Estados Unidos. As Baja shrank in the rearview mirror our cell phones blew up with frantic coworkers and emergencies real and imagined. Even with the sunburn and the bug bites and empty wallets, we were already planning our next trip to Baja. It will take some planning; this one will be hard to top.
Top 10 Features On Our Bug
1. Big Engine: Power comes from a 2180cc mill that Brian Errea built. It makes as much power out of each cylinder as the original engine made overall! The dual Weber IDF carbs brought a smile to our face every time we mashed the throttle to pass a semitruck on Mex 1.
2. Baja Designs Light Bar: Twisted Customs typically builds high-end rock buggies, but they did us a favor and built the trick light bar mounts for our Baja Designs OnX Arc Series light bar. It was definitely the most popular feature on the car.
3. General Grabber AT2s on vintage Baja Edition rims: Brian Errea found a set of genuine Baja Edition Volkswagen rims that our friend Sam Cothrun said look like steel Method Race Wheels. We shod them with 215/75R15 General Grabber AT2s and never had a single problem.
4. Fox Shocks: We got Fox Class 11 shocks that bolt in to the stock mounts and use a 2-inch shock body but big 2.5-inch reservoirs. The shocks soaked up the bumps with ease, even when the car got airborne.
5. MasterCraft Safety Seats: If you are going to spend 2,600 miles in a Bug you want to do it in comfortable seats, and these MasterCraft Classics fit the bill. We ordered the optional map pockets for the rear of seats that had enough room for not only maps but our water bladders and stickers as well.
6. Autographed Glovebox Door- The plaque on the door is a factory reproduction that Brian Errea found on TheSamba.com. Bruce Meyers, Bob Gordon, Walker Evans, and Bud Feldkamp added the finishing touches at the Mexican 1000.
7. Custom Paint: This is a bit of an inside joke. I own a rockcrawling pickup with Forest Service paint dubbed the “Junior Mint” so Shad and Shane Dalquist painted the Bug to match, earning it the name “Spare Mint.”
8. Wing Windows: Why don’t they make these anymore? We didn’t have air conditioning, but with the wing windows properly positioned we never felt like we needed it.
9. Wood Steering Wheel: The walnut Grant steering wheel is a classy touch in the completely restored interior. The shifter knob is wood as well and we intend to add a wood knob to the cutting brake handle and wood window rollers to complete the look.
10. Names on the Side: Nothing makes you feel like a race car driver like putting your name and blood type on the side of your car!
Five Things We Would Change For Next Time:
More time on the car beforehand!
Hard-mounted race radio
Five Things We Are Glad We Brought:
Pesos (6,000 each, and we used them all)
Stickers (to hand out to kids and soldiers)
Camera (to capture the memories)
CamelBak (to stay hydrated without having to stop)
Straw hat (to cover our pasty skin)
Five Things We Did Not Need:
Jet Boil stove (ate tacos for every meal)
Socks (wore sandals every day)
Pants (wore shorts every day)
Cutting brake (never got stuck)
Stereo (couldn’t hear it anyway)