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Living Legends

Posted in Features on July 16, 2013
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Author:Chris Collard    Photos:Chris Collard

Norra Mexican 1000 Walker Evans Dodge Photo 67320937

The predawn light had yielded to streaming rays of a Baja sunrise, flooding through a forest of cardon cacti and washing the Sierra Madre with golden hues. In the distance, the high-pitched whine of a V8 spinning at 6,000 rpm, or more, resonated off the mountains. As it intensified a dust trail rose from the cardon, then a blue and white speck appeared. It was a 1978 Dodge D150, and behind the wheel was Baja racing legend Walker Evans. He had his game face on and his right foot pinned to the skinny pedal. The vado before us, a two-foot depression in the track, would be a strong argument to slow down for many, but Evans never lifted from the accelerator. The following was a procession of iconic machinery: the 1975 BFGoodrich Blazer of Frank “Scoop” Vessels, Rick Johnson’s Rippin’ Rooster ’57 Chevy, Bud Feldkamp’s VW-powered ’75 Bel-Ray, Bob Gordon’s ’85 Chenowth, and the ’56 VW Beetle of John Howard and Judy Smith. Each vehicle had pedigree; each driver possessed the wisdom attained through decades behind the wheel. We were 10 miles south of Bahia de Los Angeles on the Baja peninsula and en route to San Jose Del Cabo. The previous morning, 383 miles to the north, 150 vintage buggies, trucks and motorcycles departed Mexicali, at the U.S. border, for four days of what has been deemed “The Happiest Race on Earth,” the General Tire NORRA Mexican 1000. Dirt Sports has been a huge fan of the rally since NORRA reunited in 2009 after a 35-year hiatus. Our team took the Dirt Sports Elf VW to the rally in 2010, and this year our lead paparazzo Boyd Jaynes knocked off his second Mexican 1000 Class win in his vintage Bronco. While the 2013 rally brought liberal doses of dust, cactus, azure coastlines and copious quantities of Azunia tequila and Tecate (at the finish line, of course), this year we’re changing up our coverage. Though there are dozens who merit icon status, we’re featuring five legendary Baja racers and their drivers; vehicles and people who helped forge off-road racing as we know it. We found, after interviewing several of these deities of off-road, that they run in small circles, family circles, and there have been tire-to-tire feuds for well over 40 years…and counting.

Rippin’ Rooster 1957 Chevy Bel Air The Azunia Tequila racing team was having so much fun with the Snortin Nortin Nova during the first three Mexican 1000s, they decided to track down one of its rivals of the era, the Rippin’ Rooster Chevy Bel Air. Back in the day, these two heavy metal monsters battled tire-to-tire for Class 6 titles in dozens of venues. What better place to reunite these two classics than the deserts of Baja. Originally built and raced by Larry Schwacofer, the Rippin’ Rooster has a trophy-case argument to back up its Orange Crush attitude. In its prime, the Rooster knocked down 40 class wins, five in the Baja 1000, and was a nine-time points champion. It was retired to Schwacofer’s barn in 1995, where it sat idle for almost two decades. After purchasing the car from Schwacofer, the Azunia team and Matt “Shrek” Dowland stripped the car to the frame for a body-off restoration. Rick said, “It was in terrible condition, it had been sitting for a while and had seen its years of racing. It needed a lot of work, but the history of the car was there. It had pedigree. The engine was shot, so Robert Simpson built us a new 350. The rear end, which was from an Impala, was too far gone, so the guys at Currie replaced it. Culhane Transmissions did a great job with rebuilding the Turbo 400. “While the body was off, Extreme Powder Coating treated the frame while Cap’s Auto Body applied an Orange Crush color scheme and stock car white interior. The suspension was completely rebuilt, including 16 Fox shocks, and a new Jazz fuel cell installed. Keeping the old Bel Air on the ground is a set of Red Label General Grabbers on American Racing wheels. Amazingly, the entire build took just 120 days, and here we are, ready to race. With the exception of a race radio and Lowrance GPS from PCI, it is basically original. “The NORRA Mexican 1000 is probably one of the funnest races of the year for us. The reason I got involved with vintage racing was that these guys, Malcolm Smith, Bob Gordon, Frank Vessels, Ivan Stewart and so many more, were the guys I grew up idolizing. The Rippin’ Rooster is a legendary racecar. I am excited to bring the car back to Mexico and add a little sizzle to it. It’s time I give Jim and the Snortin Nortin a little competition this year.” With dozens of class wins, including the Baja 1000 (four times), the Baja 500 (three times), and the Mexican 1000 (twice), Rick Johnson was determined to do right by the Rippin’ Rooster. The back-story on this is that Rick owns the Snortin Nortin while Azunia Tequila CEO Jim Riley owns the Rippin’ Rooster. The two traded cars for the 2013 race and when the dust settled in San Jose Del Cabo, Johnson and the Rippin’ Rooster were again first in class, chalking up another trophy for the mantle.

Norra Mexican 1000 Rippin Rooster Photo 68809965

BFGoodrich 1975 Chevy Blazer The BFGoodrich Chevy Blazer is another Baja legend that merits icon status. Parnelli Jones built the black and gold Blazer for General Motors in 1975. His approach was completely unconventional for the day; a full-size truck body on a tubular chassis, short suspension travel, an aluminum wing like the one on Parnelli’s “Big Oly” Bronco, and loads of horsepower. In the minds of many, the BFG Blazer was the genesis for the modern Trophy-Truck. After racing it for a few years and landing a number of titles, Bob Gordon and Frank “Scoop” Vessels, with the help of BFGoodrich, bought the vehicle. BFGoodrich was new on the scene at the time and even had the slogan “We’re the other guys.” Racing the Blazer in Baja resulted in major improvements in the BFG lineup, including the All Terrain and Mud Terrain tires. They weren’t “the other guys” for long. After being retired in the early ’80s, the Blazer was sold and eventually ended up in Colorado in the barn of Don Adams. When NORRA announced it was resurrecting the Mexican 1000, Cameron “Cam” Thieriot, unbeknown to Scoop’s son Kash, tracked down the Blazer and purchased it. Kash Vessels reflected on piloting his father’s ride: “I’d been racing with Cam for several years, and I had no idea he was doing this. He took the Blazer to Sean Hoglund at YT Motorsports who did the most amazing restoration. It had a lot of rust and wasn’t running, but it was actually in decent shape. Sean and Cam restored if from the ground up. They did it right, they didn’t update anything so it would be exactly like Scoop Vessels drove it. Bilstein did a great job on the shocks, it has the original motor, and Art Carr did an amazing job on the transmission. The crazy thing is that when all these guys heard about the project, they graciously got on board and did most of the work for free. These guys were great. “Though it’s a two-seat truck, it was a little heavier than normal because there were three of us. We could feel my dad in the truck with us the whole way. It was good to know he was with us. I’ve got to give Cam so much credit for heading up this whole project, he’s is the most unselfish person in the world. “Before the race, during the restoration, Bob [Gordon] would call me in the middle of the night with a story about he and my dad in the Blazer. He called one night and said that Parnelli had put a landing light from a 747 on both Blazers, there were two of them then. Parnelli said it would be like a train going through the desert. Bob and my dad were running the two cars first and second. When it got dark they fired up the lights, which killed both vehicles’ alternators in about 20 minutes. But they were separated and didn’t know the other was broken down. They both climbed up on the wing and went to sleep. A motorcycle stopped, woke my dad up, and said an identical truck was parked a half mile back. My dad walked back and, sure enough, there was the other Blazer. When he walked back to his truck someone had replaced the alternator, jump started the truck and left it sitting there running with jumper cables sitting on the hood. It was Parnelli.” When the dust settled in San Jose del Cabo, this iconic bit of Baja history, “The Other Guys” Blazer, once again rolled under the checkered flag for a podium finish.

Norra Mexican 1000 BFG Blazer Photo 67320943

Bud Feldkamp’s Bel-Ray Funco Type II With roots dating back to the 1975 Baja 1000, few vehicles epitomize the family nature of off-road racing like the VW-powered open seat Bel-Ray buggy. Built and owned by Bud Feldkamp and Malcolm Smith with the intent of a podium finish, the car, and the team, went on to overall wins in two Baja 1000s and two Baja 500s. Unlike many racecars, which are sold off, wrecked or shoved out to pasture to rust, the Bel-Ray was respectfully placed in storage. Bud Feldkamp reflected on the early years: “My first race in Baja was in 1972. I drove with Malcolm Smith and he had just come out of motorcycles and was getting into cars. He called me and asked if I wanted to race with him. It was a wonderful time, we ended up second behind Bobby Vero. I remember the whole left front fell off on the beach below San Ignacio. I was worried I was going to lose the wheel, so I put it on top of the cage and held it with my hand. That lasted about 50 yards and I drove about 75 miles to the next pit on three wheels. There was an old VW there with a whole front end and we swapped it out and continued. “About 15 years ago we had the car in a shed. I talked to Malcolm and we agreed to fix it up. We asked Jerry Penhall to do the work and had no intention of ever racing it again; it would be just a conversation piece. When the new NORRA event came around, Malcolm and I said, ‘Why don’t we race the Bel-Ray?’ This event has been a very positive thing for the off-road community. I think it is going to bring a lot of growth to the off-road world with getting the old guys like myself back down here to have some fun, be competitive and bring some of the younger generation along. Watching my kid race has been wonderful. I love to hear comments from him on what it is like in the car, and I can reflect back on when I felt the same way. He high-centered today for a few minutes and I could totally relate to it.” Bud’s son, Buddy, shares his experience racing his father’s car: “We raced the car as it was when my dad and Malcolm raced it: no radio, open-faced helmets, stock Bilstein shocks and the exact same engine. The only thing we had different was a GPS. We did it real vintage style, and I think this is the spirit of the NORRA race. Coming out here with old equipment and bringing it to life. We literally had no issues, and I had only one flat tire. I’d never driven the car, but I grew up following them around, and to come out here and drive it with my dad was awesome. Racing has been in our family pedigree. I’m hoping eventually my boys come down here and race.” Bud, Buddy and the Bel-Ray again landed a podium finish and a class win in the 2.2-liter Vintage Open Buggy class.

Norra Mexican 1000 Bud Feldkamp Bel Ray Funco Photo 68809968

Walker Evans’ 1978 Dodge D150 Walker Evans, who entered the Baja racing scene in 1969 driving a Rambler, is a man who needs little introduction. Returning from that first Baja 500 and fully understanding the brutal nature of Baja’s back roads, he knew he needed a vehicle with a little more moxie under the floorboards. He proceeded to the local Ford dealer, bought a new truck (on credit), stripped it down, prepped it for the Mexican 1000 and sold the extra parts back to the dealer to pay for fuel. By the time Evans built his ’78 Dodge D150, his trophy case easily shadowed that of Mark Spitz, and he would go on to claim 142 wins and 21 championship titles before retiring from racing. We caught up with Walker before the race and asked him about his original Ford, resurrecting the D150, getting back on the track and what the NORRA race brings to the table. “Goodyear had called me and said, ‘Walker, get that truck out, breathe some life into and go run the Mexican 1000.’ The car was literally up in the rafters in the second story at our shop. We had to take down handrails, move a CNC machine, remove lights, take down walls, and use a forklift to get it out. It was in fairly good shape. It had an old motor that wasn’t any good, so we replaced it and put in a fresh transmission, new shocks, wheels and Goodyear tires. Of course, I build racing shocks and wheels, so we put on Walker Evans Racing parts there. We went through the whole car. We breathed some life back into it and have been running it for four years. “In the first NORRA race I ran like hell. I didn’t understand what rally racing was all about, and didn’t use the clock to my advantage. Every time I’d get a penalty I’d wonder what the heck I was doing wrong. I was screwing up left and right. Fortunately, I learned how to do it, and last year I made it to the Bahia de Los Angeles with an eight-minute lead over everyone. The truck just wants to run. In 1979, that was the first truck to win the Baja 1000 overall, beating the dune buggies and beating the motorcycles, so I’m really proud of that truck. I ran it for another five or six years. It’s a winning little truck and we probably won eight or ten races overall. “The Dodge is just awesome for this type of event, and I think it is as excited to come out and race as I am. I wouldn’t be here doing this race if it weren’t in a rally format. For 35 years I raced this peninsula as hard as I could run, night and day, all the way to La Paz. We never got out of a vehicle like these young guys do today, run half way, then get out and let someone else drive. Everyone iron-manned it back then; Parnelli Jones, Ivan Stewart, Rod Hall. When we climbed in that seat, the only reason you got out was if the car was broke. “In this rally format, you run about 350 miles, that’s good for an old guy like me at 74. Then you have a drink and tell lies about what took place that day. It is just wonderful, the camaraderie between all these drivers is what makes this event special.” Walker Evans would pilot the D150 to both a class win and overall victory at this year’s General Tire NORRA Mexican 1000.

Norra Mexican 1000 Walker Evans Dodge D150 Photo 68809971

The McMillin “Macadu” The McMillin name and Baja racing go together like cerveza fria and tacos de pescado. The family dominated the scene throughout the ’80s, when Mark landed an impressive five overall wins in the Baja 1000, and as recently as 2009 and 2011, when brother Scott and son Andy took top honors. Through all this, Corky, patriarch to he McMillin family, didn’t sit back and watch the kids have all the fun. He pushed his Porsche-powered Chenowth to two Baja 500 victories. The “Macadu,” a ’78 Chenowth with three Baja 1000 overall wins, carries more bragging rights that almost any other vehicle in the field. We tracked down Mark before the race to query him on the McMillin legacy, about the Macadu, and what draws him back to Baja each year for the Mexican 1000. “We started out in the sand dunes, at Gordon’s Well at Imperial Valley dunes, in the early ‘70s. Later we came down to watch the races, guys like Parnelli Jones and the Big Oly Bronco. We had a friend who raced in 1975, and we ended up buying his car just to see if we could do it. It has been 37 years of racing ever since. At first it was me and my dad Corky, who passed away seven years ago, and my brother Scott. Scott’s son Andy races and has won the 1000 several times, and his daughter, Jessica, is racing a Trophy-Truck this year with Heidi Steele. My boys, Daniel and Luke, both race. We’ve had a great run and it has been a lot of fun. Our extended off-road family has been such an important part of the McMillin family. “When Mike Pearlman announced that he was going to put the NORRA race together, a lot of us were scampering around for our old cars. Fortunately, I still had the Macadu, which was a nickname I got in college. The history of the car, which is a Chenowth chassis, is that it originally had a VW engine and bus transaxle, and we slowly graduated to a new engine and then a Fortin transmission. It has always had Bilstein shocks on it, a beam-style front end, and MasterCraft seats from the early days. We used fiberglass pods like the ones used with the early Chenowths, and my dad, after we put the Porsche engine in, put a little wing on the top, kind of like the one on the BFG Blazer. He thought the car was going to be so fast that we would need it. It was a fast car, Macadu won the Baja 1000 in ’81, ’83 and ’84. “Putting Macadu back together and testing it in the desert brought back a lot of memories of the people who used to help me in the ’70s and ’80s; people who are now gone. It is a way of looking back in the mental history book of your mind and jogs a lot of memories. I like this race. This is a fun race. I told Mike Pearlman that this might be the funnest off-road race in the world, and I think it’s proven to be that every year. It’s great to see all these old cars, Mike Leslie’s Jeep Cherokee, Larry Schwacofer’s car (Rippin’ Rooster Chevy Bel Air), and to see Scoop Vessels’ BFG Blazer with his son Kash driving. It reaches back and pulls out all those dead brain cells from the past, bringing them to the front. It’s just wonderful to be here. This is my fourth year here and I’m honored to be the Grand Marshall, following legends like Parnelli Jones, Bruce Meyers and Dave Despain.” The Macadu unfortunately experienced mechanical problems midway down the peninsula as was unable to finish this year’s race.

Norra Mexican 1000 McMillin Macadu Photo 67320949
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