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Bug Bashing Baja Style

Posted in Features on March 18, 2016
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The 1985 Baja 1000 was a notable event; this was the first time a Class 10 car, driven by Steve Sourapas and Dave Richardson won the overall.

It was also the scene of a classic battle for the 5/1600 (1600cc engined Baja Bugs) class championship.

The top names in this class battle were R.C. Jones in his famous Baja bug “The Tar Baby,” soon-to-be Baja legend Andy Devercelley and top Baja class winner Johnny Johnson, with car owner Mark Steele as his codriver of record.

This Baja 1000 was to be a loop race, covering lot of familiar territory to the seasoned Baja veterans. It went through Ojos Negros, down to Mike’s Sky Ranch, over to the Pacific Coast to Camalu, along the Pacific Coast all the way to the silt beds near Punta Prienta, then across the Peninsula and north over the treacherous Three Sisters, to San Felipe, across Diablo Dry Lake, and then caught the same course that they were on earlier back to Ensenada. The total distance of the race was 822 miles, which is a long way in a 5/1600 car with the limited suspension of the day.

Steele, with co-rider Craig Stewart (Ivan’s son), was behind the wheel off the start and was to take it to Punta Prieta (halfway point) where Johnny Johnson was waiting. Jones and Devercelley started ahead of Steele and were ahead of him all the way to Santa Maria, which was 215 miles down course. Steele was gaining on them though and all three drivers, Jones, Devercelly, and Steele were in the BFG pits at the same time fueling up, getting fresh rubber and having various things tightened up. Five miles before the road crossing at Santa Ines, Devercelly was passed as he was stuck in a silt bed.

Steele was soon having problems of his own, and started to bog down in the sand on the beach. Luckily, there was plenty of ice plant growing, which gave good traction, so he ran on it and luckily continued on without getting stuck. At last, 100 miles later, the car was turned over to Johnson in the dark.

Driving in Baja at night is the perfect role for Johnny Johnson, and there were few drivers that were as fast as he in that situation. He took three class championships (70, 72, and 73) in Class 1 and all were won by him driving a final leg in Baja in the dark. “Dust was our biggest problem (at night). On Diablo Dry Lake, I was running with only one headlight that allowed me to see better. I came up on one driver who thought I was a bike and he let me by. I started getting a flat on the final stretch coming into the finish, but eased off and made it OK,” said Johnson at the finish line. And despite some additional fuel pump problems, Johnson had won his ninth Baja 1000 class win, in one of seven different classes over 18 years, which was close to being a record in the day. Steele was also credited with the class championship.

Mark Steele commented afterward, “We ran real strong at the top of the race. It was real dirty and dusty out there, but a good race for a 50-year-old, 300-pound man,” Johnson, Steele, and their crew had to wait seven long minutes at the finish line to see if they had won, which they did.

Postscript:
Steele’s racing isn’t his only Baja achievement: In the past up to present day, he and his son Cameron (Trophy Truck owner/driver) devote a lot of time and effort to supporting Bill Lawrence’s orphanage at Rancho Santa Marta. They do a lot of fundraisers, which has raised $85,000 to date. Also, Mark takes pride in introducing the Mears brothers, Roger and Rick, to Baja in the early ’70s. “We took them on their very first Baja prerun,” said Mark. “They loved it, and soon started racing down here.” Johnny Johnson’s love for Baja led him to retire in La Paz, where he lives comfortably today.

L. to R.: Driver Steve Wolcott congratulates Mark Steele and Johnny Johnson after their class win at the '85 Baja 1000.

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