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Dust And Glory - 1,000 Mile Vintage Iron Off-Road Race

Posted in Features on September 11, 2014
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The year was 1967. Chevrolet just introduced the Camaro, China detonated its first hydrogen bomb, an upstart magazine called Rolling Stone landed on the newsstands, and the controversy over the Vietnam conflict was nearing the boiling point. While a political tornado was spinning north of the border, a small group of motorheads, off-roaders, and adventurers lined up their steeds near the bullring in Tijuana, Mexico, for a 1,000-mile off-road race.

If old iron is your thing, and you don’t mind dirt in your teeth, the NORRA Mexican 1000 the place to be next May.
Ensenada, Mexico’s, malecón hosted the General Tire NORRA Mexican 1000 race contingency and technical inspection, where iconic examples of vintage iron lined the sidewalks.

On that cool November morning in 1967, the coastal breeze was challenging the searing climes of the inland deserts of the Baja Peninsula. A guy named Ed Pearlman—president of the newly formed National Off-Road Racing Association (NORRA)—picked up a green flag, waved the first vehicle off the starting line, and launched what would become known as the birth of off-road racing, the Mexican 1000 Rally.

A thousand miles to the south, in the sleepy seaside town of La Paz, Mexico, a checkered flag rested in the corner of a hotel lobby. The rules were simple, find the best route to La Paz via five mandatory checkpoints, and be the first one to get there. It was a small but well-publicized affair; for the first time, motorcycles, two-wheel-drive cars, and four-wheel-drive trucks would compete on the same track. All shapes and forms were on hand: a Rambler American, Ford Broncos, Jeeps, and Volkswagen Beetles. Ak Miller and HOT ROD’s Ray Brock showed up in a Ford Ranchero, and automotive pioneer Bruce Meyers (who had recently set the Tijuana–to–La Paz time record) entered a handful of his Manx dune buggies. There was even a Triumph TR3 and ragtag, low-budget ’56 Chevy. It was a real run-what-ya-brung kind of gig.

Rick “Hurricane” Johnson saved the Snortin’ Nortin Nova from the mud-car circuit and rebuilt it for the ’11 Mexican 1000 (which he won), and followed up with a ’12 victory. The car runs a Matt Dowland 350ci Chevy matched to a TH350 automatic. Fox Racing shocks dampen a Dana 60 rearend, and General Grabbers wrapped around American Racing wheels put the power to the dirt.
The Rippin’ Rooster ’57 Chevy Bel Air was originally built by Larry Schwacofer. It scored more than 40 class wins in the ’80s and ’90s, many of which were tire-to-tire with the car known as the Snortin Nortin Nova. The Azunia Tequila Racing Team located the car last year and sent it to Matt “Shrek” Dowland for a full restoration. It was fitted with a Robert Simpson 350ci V8, Culhane-built TH400 transmission, and J&S-built Impala rearend. Rick “Hurricane” Johnson and the Rippin’ Rooster went on to a first-in-class finish this year. The back story is that Johnson and Rippin’ Rooster owner Jim Riley traded cars this year, and the Snortin Nortin yielded its title to the Bel Air, driven by Johnson.
A ’64 Ford Galaxie was the last thing we expected to see flying down Baja’s backroads, but it kept up with the best of them. De La Baja Galaxia’s owner René Aguirre says, “At 5,500 pounds and with 13 inches of suspension travel, the car can definitely clear a case of Tecate.”
The public snubbed the snub-nosed Ford Edsel back in its day; little did they know it could handle 1,000 miles of Baja’s brutal backroads. “The Beast,” a ’58 Ford Edsel, first competed in the ’72 Mexican 1000. Ray Swift rebuilt the Edsel after it was T-boned by a train, and Thomas Swift rolled under the checkered flag in San Jose del Cabo to claim a second-in-class podium finish.
The “Jalopy,” a Class 1 sprint car built for the ’70s-era, drag-racing legend Smokey Allerman, was purchased off eBay by Rick Johnson and restored for the ’10 Mexican 1000. It sports a Holley-topped Chevy Vortec 350, Culhane-built TH350 transmission, independent rear suspension, and General tires. The single-seat configuration puts the transmission (and the heat from the motor) right between the driver’s legs.

Much has changed since that inaugural rally, and the Mexican 1000 was taken over by SCORE International, which changed the name to the Baja 1000. Fortunately for dirt-loving hot rodders everywhere, Mike Pearlman (Ed’s brother) resurrected NORRA (NORRA.com) and relaunched what has become known as the General Tire NORRA Mexican 1000.

The concept is much as it was in 1967: patch a vintage rig together, gather some friends that don’t mind eating, breathing, and sleeping in the dirt for four days, and head for Baja. This spring dozens of old-iron examples of automotive moxie met on Ensenada’s malecón to race. If old iron is your thing, and you don’t mind dirt in your teeth, the NORRA Mexican 1000 the place to be next May.

The Eternal Off-Road Racer

The Meyers Manx VW-based Scooby Doo–mobile is as “Baja” as they come. Bruce Meyers set the time record to La Paz in early 1967, and Vic Wilson and Ted Mangels won the inaugural Mexican 1000 in a Manx. The Team 1964 Manx—piloted by Meyers, Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame inductee Marty Fiolka, Dakar veteran Andy Grider, and Wide Open Baja founder Todd Clement—didn’t win, place, or show this year, but Meyers crossed the finish line to a banner celebration.

At 88 years of age, Bruce Meyers, creator of the Manx dune buggy, returned to Baja for what may be his last race. Though he’s not as spry as he once was, his excitement as he shifted through the gears on day one was contagious. As he rolled into the first driver change at San Vicente, he commented, “Baja has changed so much in 50 years, but smell the air, it’s still the same…it feels good!”

M/T Challenger IV Restoration

Rory Ward’s rebuild of the Mickey Thompson’s Challenger IV off-road racer can be seen at Race-Dezert.com by visiting the “Shop: Show & Tell” section of the site’s forum.

Mickey Thompson’s Class I Challenger IV was a game-changer when it hit the scene in 1977. After its glory days, and the passing of Thompson, the Challenger collected warehouse dust until vintage car aficionado Rory Ward tracked it down. He purchased the car and restored it to near-original specs, returning it to its desert-racing roots. Between the framerails are a naturally aspirated, 383ci small-block and Powerglide automatic. Out back is a custom Henry’s Dana 60 fitted with a spool and 40-spine axles. Overheating issues put the Challenger IV out of commission on day 2, but Ward claims, “Only 363 days to go.” We expect to see this work of art back on the track next year.
How tough is the race? With an average of 400 miles of grueling Baja backroads each day (or night), reaching the finish line is a cause for celebration.

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