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Baja 1000 Adventure - From Behind The Glass

Posted in Ultimate Adventure on February 20, 2007
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If there is a singular off-road event that every dirt-loving four-wheeler on the planet (even we magazine groupies) aspires to partake in, it is the Tecate/SCORE Baja 1000. The 1000 is the apex of motorized competition, the pinnacle of human endurance, and the ultimate test of man and machine against... well, man, machine, and Mother Nature. Unmatched in scale and complexity, the Baja 1000 is also the longest nonstop motor race on the planet.

The Donahoe crew (left to right): Shannon and wife Tammy Campbell, old desert dogs O.J. Shrum and Vernon Roberts (these guys raced with Donahoe Sr. back in the early days), Mike Palmer, Kreg and Paige Donahoe, Bob Bower, and "Wild Bill" Donahoe.

This year marked the 39th running of the 1000. In some years, the race is a loop course from Ensenada and back. For 2006, SCORE went back to the traditional format, traversing the Baja peninsula from Ensenada to La Paz, a full 1,047.8 miles. When we received an invitation to jump in one of Donahoe Racing's rigs and get our kidneys rattled loose, it took all of a quarter-second to respond "let's book that one right now." It was going to be one wild ride, and we thought we'd bring you along for a behind-the-glass view of the Baja 1000.

The 1000 is about total immersion - immersion in swirling dust clouds through the cab, dirt in your ears, suffocating silt beds, sweat, late-night wrenching, 90-weight and racing fuel dripping down your sleeve, sleeping amongst roadside cactus, crazy local drivers, and even crazier chase teams. And if you have to go potty (#1) during the race, just enjoy the pain, because the train is not stopping. Sounds like more fun than watching three monkeys and a football; why would you not want to go? For many, the race is less than 100 miles and terminates at the end of a towstrap back to the road. With a record number of 431 official starters this year, only 234 would find their way to La Paz. That left 197 of us who would break, roll, break and roll, or just flat give up. Experiencing the above-mentioned conditions can form bonds that strengthen and pull race teams together - or it can splinter them like a telephone pole in a tornado.

When Kreg Donahoe asked if we wanted to get our brains rattled loose, he wasn't kidding. Suggestions for prerace health: no dairy products before the race - they curdle in your stomach. Dramamine: It keeps you from throwing up on your driver. Don't drink too much - the truck doesn't stop for potty breaks. Don't forget the diarrhea medicine in case you eat some bad fish tacos the day before the race.

Team owner Kreg Donahoe split duties into four sections. Campbell, Palmer, and I would run the first 299.9 miles to Checkpoint 4 at Coco's Corner near the Sea of Cortez. It would be dark by the time we arrived. Kreg and his wife Paige would then take the wheel, and I'd join the chase team to pull a red-eyed all-nighter on the road to the next pit stop and points farther south.

The original plan was to run the new Donahoe/BFGoodrich Toyota FJ Cruiser (which was on display in the BFG booth at SEMA this year) along with Donahoe's Ford Super Duty F-250, but in racing, stuff happens! A few weeks prior, the Super Duty went up in an auto-flamb, and the FJ Cruiser wasn't delivered to Donahoe in time to have it race-ready. Kicking from the 50-yard line, the team resurrected its 2004 Baja 1000 Class 7S championship car, a Double Cab Toyota Tacoma. Not a bad alternative at all.

When we say "kicking from the 50," what we really mean is that the night before the race, the prep team was up till 1 a.m. checking onboard tools and spare parts and swapping out fuel pumps, filters, and lines in search of a fuel delivery problem. A dirty mass airflow sensor was determined to be the culprit. This was after Kreg Donahoe spent the day at the police station filing a stolen vehicle report. Yep, less than 36 hours to the green flag, Donahoe's Ford Super Duty tow rig, along with our race suits, helmets, and satellite phones, disappeared from the hotel parking lot. We later heard rumors of a half dozen other Super Duty tow rigs that disappeared that night. Stuff happens.

Racers are not the most patient people on the planet, and this bumper would take some hits before the race was over. After we broke our shocks and were down to 20 mph, several other rigs gave us a friendly reminder that they wanted to pass - NOW! The Donahoe Tacoma also sports BFG Baja Terrain tires, twin Optima batteries, a Fluidyne trans cooler, a fully gusseted Currie 9-inch rear axle, and Deaver springs.

"Donahoe Chase, Donahoe Race."
Mike Palmer keyed the radio.
"Donahoe Race, go ahead."
"We are just pulling up to the start."
"We roger that. We'll see you at the first highway crossing, over."

A scantily dressed Tecate Girl dropped the green flag, and the skinny pedal hit the floor. Adrenalin flowed as we rounded the first 90-degree left turn and blazed full speed through the streets of Ensenada. Over 10,000 people lined the course as we dropped into a riverbed in the middle of town, throwing the car into a four-wheel drift and heading for the first airtime of the day. We pushed hard to get through the city and barrio without hitting anyone or getting shanghaied by booby traps (nasty speed bumps crafted by locals the night before the race).

Meanwhile, my rig, the Two-Week Tacoma, was commandeered to replace the missing Super Duty as a chase vehicle. As we blasted out of Ensenada, our chase teams jumped on Highway 1 for an insanely hairball drive to three separate points to the south: Coco's Corner, Guerrero Negro, and San Ignacio. The chase teams are the unsung heroes of the Baja 1000. While we guys in the car get the glory, the pit crew manages the logistics of being somewhere along the 1,050-mile course when the race car arrives. They will live in the chase truck for the next 40 hours - drive, sleep, eat crappy street food, and wrench on the car if it breaks. Ahh, the glory of racing.

Campbell and Donahoe do a final inventory of spare parts and onboard tools.

"Donahoe Chase, Donahoe Race."
"Donahoe Race, go ahead."
"We just cleared the first paved section at Mile 34 and are heading into the canyon."
"The new GPS route won't boot up, please advise."

GPS systems have become invaluable tools for today's racers. With a savvy navigator dictating upcoming turns, straight-aways, and corkscrews, you can literally outdrive your field of vision. Such technology prompts most race teams to go like hell through blinding dust, praying that no one is stopped in their way. Of course, that's if the GPS is working.

When the sun goes down and you are doing 70 mph down a Baja two-track, you'd better have some good high-beams. The Donahoe truck runs two sets of four KC halogens.

The tires lifted as we careened off the highway and back onto the dirt. Campbell focused on the next 100 yards, John tackled the GPS issue, and I assumed navigator duties, scanning the next ridge for turns and traffic (I knew I could be more than just the water boy).

"Can't see a damn thing in this dust," Campbell lamented.

"Hard right at the top of this hill, big drop on the left. We've got a Bug off the right side of the trail at the bottom of the wash... 50 meters."

"Got it. That was tight, thanks," Shannon replied. "Mike, how's that GPS coming?"

"Nothing, we may just have to drive this thing the old-fashioned way."

The team meeting on the eve of the race was all about logistics, driving safe, and staying alive. The chase crew's job is to be available for support at a dozen or so rendezvous points along the route. With our satellite phones stolen the night before, communication would be limited and the chase crew would be doing double duty keeping track of the truck in over 1,000 miles of Baja desert. With his tow rig, race suits, helmets, satellite phones, and personal gear stolen the night before, Donahoe rallied the team to stay focused on the goal.

We dropped into a canyon on a steep, marbly grade and bicycled (on two wheels) around a hard right turn at the bottom. We had already passed most of the Class 7 trucks and were making good time, but we had 1,000 miles to go. Four eyes are better than two, and conversation among the team is a good way to keep everything in check. Are we pushing too hard? How does the truck feel? Have we got traffic behind us? Need some water? We also reminded each other that this is a marathon, not a sprint.

Mike rebooted the GPS, found the route, and pulled our track up on the screen. The timing was perfect. Ten-foot walls of thick scrub and chaparral poured off the mountains to the trail's edge. At the bottom, a thick layer of fog appeared to cover the canyon floor, obscuring all detail. Fog? No, dust!! And not just your average dust. This was the finest, most asphyxiating concoction of airborne silt we could have imagined. Visibility was reduced to about 10 feet past the front bumper. Braking hard, we stopped just inches from a Class 9 buggy. We could see the amber rear lights on the backs of the next two rigs. After that, nothing. To the left and right were several rigs that had ventured into the tall brush to pass, only to bury themselves in the earthen abyss.

The sun had set into the Pacific Ocean and the last light was fading over Ensenada when we made our final prerun for the first section of the course. That is when we realized we had a fuel delivery problem.

The night before, the entire team met for a driver's meeting where Kreg shared some of his 20-plus years of racing wisdom with us rookies. "For you chase guys, whatever you do, be careful on Highway 1 - you have to finish to win. The first 100 miles will weed out 30 percent of the pack. After that, it clears out and you are on your own."

Heeding Kreg's words, and feeling like sitting ducks in the middle of the trail, we looked for an out. A slight clearing in the dust revealed an opening through the brush to our right. Campbell shoved the transfer case into Low range, grabbed Reverse, and off we went at a whopping 2 mph. A left turn into a creek bed and visibility increased (to about 30 feet) as we followed the creek bed until it started getting hairy - time to bail. Exiting up an embankment, our only reference was a thin line on the GPS screen as we blindly inched our way toward it. The 100 or so vehicles ahead of us had churned up enough silt to collect in thick layers on the brush. It fell like sheets of water onto the windshield as we crept along. The sounds of stuck vehicles and the whine of engines spinning flat-out resonated through the fog.

No one likes a backseat driver. I was quickly reminded that Campbell already knew where the horn and headlight were located.

Nosing up to where the GPS indicated the trail was, one of those screaming motors went flying past us with a truck attached to it, just inches from our bumper.

"Whoa, that was close!"
We listened... nothing.
"You guys ready?" Campbell queried.

We dropped onto the trail, made a blind right turn, and drove by GPS until the dust began to clear. At the next sharp left, our speed-demon buddy was off the trail sideways in the bushes. Clearing the top of the hill, the entire desert opened up before us with nary a dust trail or vehicle in site. We had somehow sneaked by a logjam of about 30 rigs in less than 5 minutes! Waaahaaa!!

"Donahoe Race, Donahoe Chase, we just passed Mile 65... and Jesse James' Trophy Truck is off the side of the trail."

We were feeling pretty cocky about now - making good time, passing everyone. Shoot, we'll probably catch Robby Gordon in no time. That's about the time a loud explosion shook the bottom of my seat, filling the cab with the smell of burning oil - not good! We realized what it was when the other rear shock grenaded, blowing the reservoir tube completely off and rendering the back of the truck uncontrollably springy. We pulled over to inspect.

"Donahoe Race, Donahoe Chase, we have a problem."

We shared the situation with team engineer Dylan Evans. Unfortunately, most of the chase crew and spare parts were several hundred miles to the south by now, and the team's satellite phones were in some local thief's new Super Duty. Dylan said to limp the next 5 miles to the highway crossing. He would get on the radio to look for parts. Fair enough. Stuff happens, right?

Six-point Crow racing harnesses will literally save your life. Bob Bower suggested, "Snug the lap belt down so your hips are down tight on the seat; adjust the shoulder straps so you can reach your instruments."

About 3 miles from the pavement, the front right bumper dropped to the ground as the sound of shredding fiberglass on a spinning tire shrieked from the passenger side. The lower control arm slammed into the dirt, shearing the ball joint and sending our tire, spindle, and halfshaft rolling off into the cactus. We stopped dead in the middle of the racetrack. Reverse did nothing but bury the rear tires. Do we get out or stay in the safety of a fully caged race car? The answer: get out, create a bypass, assess the problem, fix it, and keep rolling.

The damage: two sheared ball joints and a boogered-up axle and steering arm. The following four hours was spent sifting axle parts from the sand, removing the coilover shock, and patching the assembly back together with ratchet straps. We weren't going to finish the race that way. In fact, we weren't going to finish the race at all, but we were able to limp back to civilization.

Our race ended as it started: in a spray of dust in the Baja Desert. But that's the kind of stuff that happens when you play with the big boys. And that's racing.

Losing two shocks while driving "the shock guy's" truck begs the question, what happened? Talking with Kreg Donahoe after the race, he said, "We used some prototype reservoir cans. We tested the truck in Barstow, and after the test we thought, 'Seems to work - let's run it!' They didn't have a deep enough snap-ring groove. That was the failure. It was my choice to run them, my oversight."

On that note, and before Kreg beats himself up too badly, one thing Kreg didn't mention in his post-race comments is that everything Donahoe sells is tested on the race track long before the public ever sees it. We've worked with Donahoe and run Donahoe coilovers in the past, and present. What we like is that we know they have been put through the wringer before we mount 'em up. The Baja 1000 is the ideal place to work out the bugs. Sometimes they fly like an eagle; sometimes they blow up in your face. But as we said, that's racing!

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