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The NORRA Mexican 1000 Reaches A CrossRoads

Posted in Features on September 10, 2014
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The original Mexican 1000, started in 1967 by Ed Pearlman, was the basis for what has become the SCORE Baja 1000, a nonstop thrash through the Baja peninsula for the most advanced off-road machines on the planet. Since the current Baja 1000 has little room for sentimentality, Mike Pearlman (Ed’s son) revived the National Off Road Racing Association (NORRA) and brought back the General Tire Mexican 1000 in 2010. NORRA’s stated goal is to “Honor the Past, Forge the Future,” but after five years and a record number of entries it appears as though they may have reached a crossroads where they have to decide between the past and the future.

What Is Vintage?
When Mike Pearlman brought the Mexican 1000 back five years ago, the vehicles had to be 20 years old to qualify for vintage status. To put this in context in 1990, “Baja” Bob Gordon won the Baja 1000 in a Chenowth buggy with a beam front axle and a six-cylinder engine. The date for NORRA’s “vintage” classification has been a rolling 20 years, so now vehicles from 1994 and older qualify for the vintage classes. In 1994 Jim Smith won the Baja 1000, ushering in the era of the Trophy Truck. The Herbst family even entered their famous Land Shark truggy in the vintage class at the Mexican 1000 this year. The Truggy was not raced after scattering an engine in testing, but the idea of the Land Shark being vintage when it is arguably still competitive at the highest levels of competition does raise some questions about what exactly is “vintage.”

This is not to say that all was lost. There are still plenty of guys who “get it.” People like Rory Ward, who restored Mickey Thompson’s Challenger IV. Or Rick Johnson who raced an Allerman sprint car this year in addition to the Rippin Rooster Bel-Air. Or Mark McMillin in the Macadu; the same car that he won three Baja 1000s in back in the ’80s. And there are guys building old cars and trucks to participate in the adventure, like Rene Aguirre’s beautiful Ford Galaxy and Mark Harber’s four-seat Suburban party wagon.

Muddying the waters is the exponential growth of the “evolution” class at the Mexican 1000, which is open to late-model trucks and buggies who also want to experience this adventure. Even Walker Evans abandoned his famous Class 8 Dodge this year (the vehicle he won the Mexican 1000 in last year) for a new Alumicraft buggy. These entries are critical for NORRA to maintain enough entries to put on such a high caliber event, but dozens of high-horsepower, big-tire vehicles degrades the course for the dune buggies and Suburbans behind them. Putting the fast Evolution vehicles at the back of the pack would not make any sense though either, as it would cause a huge increase in traffic and passing between vehicles of greatly varying speed.

The drivers’ meeting at the Riveria Convention Center featured speeches by Bruce Meyers, Rod Hall, Marty Fiolka, and Mike Pearlman. It was followed by a welcome dinner sponsored by Walker Evans Racing, complete with paella, Tecates, and a lot of anxious race car drivers.

Was It Too Hard?
This was the first year that the Mexican 1000 started in Ensenada instead of Mexicali, where it worked its way south through San Felipe along the Sea of Cortez. “It was over 100 degrees in Mexicali while we were enjoying 80-degree weather in Ensenada,” Pearlman explained. That was just one of the factors for moving the start, however it did result in a longer first day of racing to get to Bahia de los Angeles. In addition to being more mileage, the new course was difficult, with one particular section of the second special stage turning into a giant silt bed and miring several vehicles well into the night. The second day was no easier coming out of Bahia de los Angeles, with even more silt.

This race has a reputation for being a “booze cruise” that travels from town to town on dirt roads to party every evening. Instead we found more carnage than we could have ever imagined with rollovers, breakage, and vehicles out of the race after the first day. Some loved it, noting that compared to the Baja 1000 it is still a relaxed pace since you get to stop each night. Others packed up and headed home, unprepared for the challenge that they had undertaken.

Carnage was at an all-time high at this year’s Mexican 1000. When people are tearing the corner off of a modern four-seat buggy you can imagine what the vintage cars look like by the time they reach the finish line. We saw more rollovers, flat tires, and broken cars on the first day than seen in the entire race in past years.

Bruce Meyers Returns To Baja
One team that never backed away from the challenge, no matter how daunting, was that of Bruce Meyers. In honor of the 50th anniversary of Meyers invention of the dune buggy, Marty Fiolka assembled an all-star team, including Andy and Neil Grider, Todd Clement, and Rafael Navarro III for the “Destiny in Dust.” Meyers set the first record for crossing Baja in a four-wheel vehicle back in 1967. That laid the ground work for the inaugural Mexican 1000, but despite being the catalyst for this all, Meyers had never officially finished an off-road race.

After the first day at the 2014 Mexican 1000, it looked like he still might not ever finish an off-road race. Repairs and upgrades were being made to his Meyers Manxter race car well into the night prior to the start of the race, and this was a theme that would continue each night. On Day 1 the team lost the transaxle. On Day 2 they lost the engine. But the team persevered. They were the last official finisher in San Jose del Cabo, but the effort got Meyers to the finish line. In doing so, Fiolka and the team had a unique opportunity to give back to the man who has given all of us so much.

For the third time in five years, Bob Gordon and Ryan Arciero won the Vintage Open Buggy Class in their Toyota-powered Chenowth DR2. This is a true “vintage” car with a V-6 engine and beam front axle, yet it managed to beat all but one the Evolution class vehicles.

What A Party!
The Meyers team made it just in time to partake in the South Point Driver’s Award Celebration at the newly opened Grand Mayan Resort. Maître d’s. Open bar. Seven-course dinner. Mariachi band. Azuñia Tequila flowing like water. Fireworks. It had it all. Maybe that is where the booze cruise reputation comes from. It was unlike anything we had ever experienced at an off-road race and everyone who made it to San Jose del Cabo definitely earned it. Jerry Herbst took top honors in the Vintage Unlimited Class, with Bob Gordon winning Vintage Open Buggy and John Gable winning Vintage Open Truck.

Who Is NORRA Catering To?
Now that the 2014 Mexican 1000 is in the books, Pearlman has some tough decisions to make about next year’s race. The record number of entries this year certainly suggests that there are plenty of people who like what NORRA is doing. The bulk of those new entries come from evolution vehicles though, not vintage. One option is to take to those evolution vehicles and put on a long, tough race that uses a rally format with special stages and stops each night. The risk this runs is alienating people who want a place to race historically significant and true vintage vehicles without damaging them. At the other end of the spectrum, if the course consists of a couple hundred miles of dirt roads each day, the evolution entries will certainly drop as a result. This is not an easy task, but Pearlman has shown he has the leadership necessary to “Honor the Past, Forge the Future.”

The Ford Galaxy of Rene Aguirre is full of oddball parts, cool resto touches, and top-notch fabrication. For instance the car uses Land Cruiser front radius arms on a beam axle and has upright spare tires with reliefs in the trunk lid so it still closes. The guys from Triple Nickel Racing definitely get what NORRA is all about.

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