Wrecking and Racing a 1957 Chevy at the 2015 NORRA Mexican 1000 Will Change Your Life
Six miles from the finish line. We’d made it 1,294 miles across the Baja desert. We’d lost a bumper and a decklid and the entire passenger-side quarter-panel. We’d swapped engines in a borrowed open-air mechanic shop in Loreto and now 6 god-dang miles were going to keep us from finishing. One of the mechanics became attached to the tequila stand. Another wouldn’t even look at us, afraid we might notice some dust or something in his eyes. Trying not to lean back into a cactus, we slouched on a low stone wall in downtown San Jose del Cabo, dizzy from sun and lack of sleep as we watched our competitors get the checkered flag. A few days ago, those single-seat buggies and retro Broncos were eating the dust of the Azunia Tequila 1957 Chevy, but now we were done. Stuck in the silt 6 miles away. Race over.
It had started with so much optimism—literally with a party at a small hotel in Ensenada named after horsepower. The walls of Horsepower Ranch were hung with paintings of rooster-tailing buggies and black and white photos of Hollywood celebrities in open-faced helmets. Famous off-road racers like Walker Evans mingled with first-timers. Bruce Meyers, inventor of the Meyers Manx, was raising a beer to an Australian team that had entered the race in a newly restored Manx Tow’d. The NORRA Mexican 1000’s nickname is, “The Happiest Race on Earth,” and certainly that evening it seemed we were gearing up for nothing more than a fun run along the ocean.
The Mexican 1000 is a retro race, what the Baja 1000 was before the big money, big crowds, and chase helicopters. It’s been running since around 2010, organized by Mike Perlman—son of the original Baja race founder, Ed Perlman—and some dedicated enthusiasts, like filmmaker Marty Fiolka. It was Fiolka who’d suggested we cover the race, and during the kick-off party he pointed out a lifted Bel Air behind the Mariachi band in the ranch’s circular driveway. Yes, we were planning to bomb through the desert in a Tri-Five Chevy. The Mexican 1000 has classes for various open buggies, 4x4 and two-wheel-drive trucks and motorcycles. The 2015 entries added up to about 82 different vehicles, the greatest number being in the sensible vintage truck category, and in the category we’d be racing, Vintage Production Sedan, a whopping three competitors.
Of the three cars in the class, the Bel Air was hard to miss. Even if it wasn’t cherry-bomb red with “Rippin Rooster” graphics painted prominently on each door, there’s something about a 1957 Chevy on 35-inch General Grabber tires that tends to stand out, even in a crowd of off-road race cars. We sidled up to the Rooster’s owner and driver, Jim Riley, and asked him if he knew that HOT ROD was joining his team for the week. He nodded yes, but his eyes said, “First I’ve heard of it.”
He might have been startled, but you don’t win off-road races by being slow to recover from surprises, and after asking if we knew our left from right—“If you don’t, I’ll mark your hands with a Sharpie”—Riley introduced us to the rest of the team and said, “Meet us at the Punto Moro Hotel at 5:30 a.m.”
We had no idea where the Punto Moro hotel was, but 4 a.m. on race day found us hoping the cabbie did, as we hurtled along the coast in the dark. In Baja, it seems one only drives slowly if one knows where one is going. A mysterious destination should be gone after full throttle, the sooner to know you’ve missed it, and can turn around. After the U-turn and a long driveway, we were delighted to see the Rippin Rooster and fellow Vintage Sedan class racer, the 1971 Snortin Nortin Nova, parked on the Punto Moro’s immaculately kept lawn, lit by cell phones and chase truck headlights. It was the first time we would see the sun rise over the Azunia crews. It would not be the last.
Riley was already in his racing suit, patiently explaining the GPS buttons to his co-driver for the day, 15-year-old Duran Morley. There would be two timed dirt stages, and Morley would switch out after the first one to give another crewman a chance at the passenger seat. The goal was to get two different co-drivers in per day, keeping them fresh and alert. Riley, an accomplished racer in Trophylite spec-off-road-race trucks, could handle the demands of a full day in the car, and enjoyed sharing the experience with off-road newbies. The Nova’s driver, Rick Johnson, was also trying out a new co-driver, his teenage daughter, Ashley. Johnson and Riley have been racing together for four years, swapping crew members, cars, and wins. The Nova fired up first, artillery-loud and fluorescent yellow against the gray-blue backdrop of the early morning Pacific Ocean. The Rooster followed a few seconds later. “You ready?” asked crewman James Pfeiffer, as his brother, Wayne, wedged our little duffle bag between a spare tire and a gas can in the back of the Ford chase truck. Feeling very much like a duffle bag, we wedged ourselves in beside some extra safety gear and there was no turning back.
The term “chase” truck is misleading, it’s really more of a “rush ahead and meet them there” truck. While the Chevy made the ceremonial start, we hit the highway, driving as fast as Baja traffic and roads would allow. The goal of the chase vehicle is to get to the rendezvous points before the race car so the crew can top off fuel or make any adjustments the driver needs. The result is a madcap dash followed by minutes-which-feel-like-hours of waiting for your car to come around the corner. Occasional crackles of conversation came through on the radio. “Chris, FYI,” said Riley’s disembodied voice. “We don’t have any brakes.” This was immediately followed by, “Don’t worry about the brakes, we’re ahead,” and then the Rooster roared around the corner all vintage body roll and dust and glory and Riley gesturing for the crew to top off the gas and let him go. Of the three cars in the class—the 1957 Chevy, the Nova, and a VW bug—the Bel Air seemed to be in the lead. The brakes appeared to be good enough, so we piled back in the truck and headed for the next stage exit, kilometer 128, a gas station. Our job was to claim and hold a convenient gas pump, a task easier said than done at a busy stop on a public highway. As the Pfeiffer brothers dodged increasingly irritated Mexican motorists, the rest of the team stayed glued to the radio, from which we learned that the Nova’s chase truck had gone back to assist with a broken ball joint, and nobody had seen the Rooster, which seemed to have taken a wrong turn somewhere. The VW, our greatest competition, fueled up and buzzed out, taking our lead with it.
Another competitor mentioned that the course arrows were wrong, something that can be attributed to fate or local tricksters, but is apparently quite common. There was some discussion of heading back to look for the car, but before a decision could be made, Riley radioed that he was back on course, and soon after, he pulled into the station. Morley climbed out of the car, sweaty but beaming. John Lucas climbed in, and the Pfeiffers checked the oil. We didn’t have a funnel, but a pen knife and an empty plastic water bottle worked fine to top off the Rooster’s small-block Chevy. Wayne adjusted the expensive LED light bar—one of the few modern luxuries on the car—and Riley peeled out in a Tasmanian Devil dust cloud.
The off-road route took Riley and Lucas through the desert along the ocean. In the chase truck, the highway wound through the high desert, the landscape growing ever more alien, with single-stalked Boojum trees making Art Deco question marks in a green-brown landscape punctuated by the bright yellow glow of cactus spines. At the rendezvous point, we waited. We waited and waited. Cars came and went. The crowd of support vehicles thinned out. The sun went down. Someone mentioned the Chupacabra, and everyone laughed, but nobody ventured quite as far from the group for pee breaks.
Finally, the ’57 emerged from the darkness. The stage had not been kind. They’d gotten stuck in a knee-deep silt bed and lost the bumper to an unexpected dip in the road, the Rigid light bar so carefully adjusted at the last stop probably gracing the front of some lucky farmer’s pickup truck by now. They’d managed to rewire the vintage overhead roof lights and make it to the meeting point, but the car was in rough shape as we lit its way for the last 20 miles to the check-in point. One of the big hits had broken the one of the leaf-spring centerpins, and the whole rear axle was tweaked to one side. Riley crab-walked it into town and parked it while the crew discussed what to do before the next morning’s start. Bahia de Los Angeles (Bay of LA) is not exactly a teeming metropolis. There were no nearby parts stores or race shops to borrow a hoist or get new spring hangers. Even if there had been, it was well past 10 p.m. by the time we arrived in town. The guys looked at the car, and at each other—we’d all been up since 4 a.m. that morning. There was a slight rush of breath, a collective sigh, and then everyone got to work. James Pfeiffer limped the Rooster onto the patio of our rented beach house. Lucas pointed the work lights from the truck at it, and Wayne P. pulled out the brake clean and began looking for the fasteners under the layers of desert dust. “Don’t stay up too late,” Riley told me. “You’re co-driving tomorrow. We need to be at the start line by 8 a.m.” It was nearly 2 a.m. We left the guys working under a very questionable homemade jackstand system and stumbled into bed, forgetting all the warnings to check for scorpions. If there was anything there, it was also tired, and we left each other alone for the piddling remainder of the night.
We awoke to catch the tail end of the sunrise. A pelican floated by in the bay. A fish jumped. The Rooster sat back on four wheels, square and clean. Exhausted mechanics slept on every flat surface in the living room, dreaming—one assumes, of racing engines and Holley carbs. Riley came downstairs looking rested and cheerful. He held an extra race suit, gloves, and helmet. “Tape your passport into your pocket,” he said. “They can’t medevac you over the border without it.” With that, we suited up and headed for the start line.
As we skidded and skipped over the silty sand leading away from the beach house, Riley explained the co-driver’s duties. Using the GPS and the stage notes, we needed to tell him if the road ahead would be turning right or left, and how dramatically. Seemed easy enough until we actually got onto the dirt stage and then we were going so fast and the GPS was so small and the pen we were using to mark course notes disappeared somewhere under the seat and the borrowed oversized helmet started sliding down, and the borrowed oversized gloves made it hard to move the GPS points and so we took one off and then it got lost somewhere under the seat, too, and we were still going so fast and there wasn’t anything but dust clouds up ahead of us even when we were brave enough to open our eyes.
Eventually, we developed a method of holding the helmet up with one hand and bracing in the seat with the other, which made it possible to at least see the GPS. We had a tendency to lose track of how fast we were going and send Riley around tight turns with little warning, but at least we generally got the right and left part right. As we passed some of the slower cars, the dust cleared, and during a few rare straight sections of road, we were able to marvel at the forests of Cardon catci, towering several stories high, glimpses of turquoise blue sea visible through their upward-reaching arms. “Isn’t it beautiful?” Riley asked, and we nodded, right before a rise with a hard blind turn. “Which way? Which way?” he asked as we got airborne. “Left! Hard left!” we yelled, and were as surprised as anyone when that was correct.
We were diligent about the directions after that, although it soon became clear from Riley’s cheerful banter that he really didn’t need a co-driver. He chatted about the landscape and the finer points of the tequila business and we kept our eyes on the map and answered, “Slight right, no, wait, hard right.” We passed all the single-seat buggies and several trucks without incident, but as we came around a Jeep Cherokee, a rocky ledge gave way under the rear of the Chevy and we got a split second of being door to door with the Jeep, whose driver looked about as startled as you would, if you’d suddenly collided with a 1957 Bel Air whilst driving full speed through Mexico. “Are they OK?” asked Riley. “Are you OK?” Since the answer was yes to both, we kept going. It wasn’t until we stopped at the start of the highway section that we realized how much damage our Jeep tap had done: the entire right-side quarter-panel—already more bondo and fiberglass than metal—was hanging off the frame in shreds like lace drapes in a house full of kittens. While Riley went to apologize to the Cherokee driver, the crew took a cutting wheel to the Chevy’s crumpled fin.
Lightened of guilt and bodywork, we climbed back in what remained of the Rooster and headed back out for the second dirt stage. The route was wider than the morning’s section, and Riley was on the gas, slaloming cows and schooling us in the unwritten rules of open-course racing. “If there are people in the middle of nowhere, it’s because there’s either a jump or a silt bed,” he said, skirting a rock the size of a dishwasher, “Either way, you slow down and watch out.” We drifted around a corner and found ourselves headed right for the grille of a late-1970s Ford truck. Its front fenders were folded into Mexico’s least delicious taco, wheels no longer attached, drivers thankfully standing safely to the side. They waved us past and as we balanced out the warring emotions of sympathy for them and relief that it wasn’t us, Riley made a concerned noise that sounded a lot like, “Should we have more than 10 pounds of oil pressure?” It was sort of a moot point, the section of road had narrowed, flanked on either side by dense and prickly patches of Cholla cactus—also known as “jumping cactus,” due to its nasty barbed spines. The Cholla is capable of leaping out to grab the unwary traveler, or pop the tires of the unwary driver. There was nowhere to stop. We continued on.
About 10 miles from the end of the timed section, the road widened, and Riley pulled off. We removed the hood, noting that a hoodpin seemed to have fled into the desert, maybe to join the various other pieces of Chevrolet we’d lost during the week. Another water bottle was sacrificed to the funnel cause, but the oil refill didn’t seem to be enough to appease the greedy gods of racing. When Riley went to start the small-block, it clicked and whirred in a slow grind to a dead battery. About this time, Baja performed one of its magic tricks. A silver Suburu wagon appeared out of nowhere and a lanky gringo jumped out of the driver seat brandishing a towrope. “Do you need me to pull you out?” he asked. “I’d love to get a photo of my Subaru towing this.”
“We’d hate to get that photo,” Riley answered, “but we could use a jumpstart.”
The Subie maneuvered closer to the Chevy, and after a few false starts, the Rooster fired up. It only took a few seconds of listening to it rattle, though, before we realized that Suburu man would be getting his tow photo after all. The Chevy sounded like eight children learning snare drum. We were toast.
Figuring we were in for a slow crawl for the remaining 10 miles, we figured there was no need for helmets. We figured wrong. The Suburu driver seemed to think we were still being timed, even on the end of his towrope. We saw the GPS read 43 mph before we went completely blind from flying grit and sand. The dust didn’t settle until we were crossing the stage finish and getting the depressing DNF stamp from the course workers. The fact that we came in like a fish on a string didn’t seem to bother the crowds of local children who waited eagerly at each stage point and demanded “steekers” of crew and drivers. “Race stickers are like currency during these events,” the boss had told me, sliding handfuls of HOT ROD stickers at us before we’d left, and he was right. Not only children, but adults, even police officers accepted Azunia and HRM stickers as if they were $20 bills, and good luck to the careless crewmember who had too many visible at once. You could be eaten to bones in seconds.
Riley’s team was well prepared, and he signed posters and shook little hands as the crew prepped the trailer for the crippled Rooster. Baja loves “La Carrera,” viewing it not only as a source of income but also of pride. At every stop, no matter how remote, people were waiting and waving as the cars came through. If there is to be a next generation of hot rodders, we’d be wise to look for it in Mexico. The only way Riley was able to clear the trailer of car-crazy niños was to invite them all inside the Chevy as he bump-started it up the ramps. Here you’d probably be sued for letting children within 20 feet of a race car. In Baja, we made them local legends. The littlest co-drivers.
With the car on the trailer and all children well-stickered, it was time to figure out what to do. We were only halfway through the race. The day had been hard on everyone. Bruce Galien stood next to his 1968 Ford fire truck and called it quits due to a blown head gasket. Rick and Ashley in the Nova had suffered ball-joint issues again, and the damaged Ford we’d seen before our own calamity was still out there in the dirt, resting on its broken control arms. Beers were drank. Tequila was drank. “It’s a small-block Chevy, right?” someone asked. “There must be 350s all over. Can we just buy one?”
“I think I know a guy in Loreto who might know a guy,” said Riley, and then we were on the road, whipping the trailer behind the F-250, playing chicken with the big rigs in the mountain passes. Riley was singing along with an absolutely filthy iPod mix. We fell asleep on the dusty pile of racing suits and dreamed Pfeiffer was a chauffeur for Britney Spears. Apparently, we woke up once to tell him this. We pulled into Loreto around midnight and Riley’s guy’s guy was there, telling us in a mix of Spanish and English to meet early the next day to go buy the engine. If this were a movie, you would see the hotel security guard in the background, in hearing distance of the conversation. That became an important detail when the first guy was a no-show the next morning.
In yet another bit of Baja magic, the security guard overheard our need and called his father-in-law, who had a 1988 Silverado that wasn’t for sale, but wasn’t not for sale either, and it had a running 350 beneath the hood. This he would sell to us for $800, and his good friend would rent us his shop for 1,000 pesos—that’s less than 100 U.S. dollars. We’d miss one day of racing and have to take the DNF, but we could, in theory, do the swap, tow to the start of the last stage in La Paz, and finish the race in San José Del Cabo. Riley looked thoughtful. James Pfeiffer looked inspired. “Wayne and I haven’t had our chance in the car,” he said. “I’ll buy the engine.”
Loreto is a beautiful little town, famous for white-sand beaches, whale watching, and a sleepy, friendly pace of life. We were certainly sleepy as we unloaded the car and tools in Jorge Romero’s open-air garage attached to his home on a dirt side street on the outskirts of the main town. The Silverado sat in the corner, ready for pillaging. We broke into groups, half on the truck and half on the Rooster. Romero hung back, but as the engine fluids and blood started to flow, he and his employees stepped in here and there, with sawdust, with a broom, with just the right wrench. Despite the stress and lack of sleep, the team members were in good moods, speaking with each other and Romero’s crew in a mix of Spanish, English, and charades. “Righty tighty!” shouted someone. “Don’t tell me how to live my life!” came the reply from the underside of the pickup.
Word spread quickly through the neighborhood that La Carrera was in town, and by midday there were close to 30 locals leaning back against the wall to enjoy the show. We went with Jim to pick up lunch. “How many tacos do you want?” asked the taquería owner. He wasn’t expecting the answer to be 50. We returned with packets of carne asada and ice and beer to find that one of Romero’s friends had picked up a bucket of fresh shellfish, and next to a table of hot sauce and sea salt, was giving sign language instructions on how to eat a live clam. With greasy hands, we had the best meal of the week. After lunch, we took stock of our progress. Both engines were out. Everyone’s hair was gory with transmission fluid and sawdust. Armed with a notepad and three local kids—who just wanted to ride in Riley’s F-250, a truck so new being a rarity in Loreto—the cleanest of us were sent to the auto-parts store, where we learned through trial, error, and Pictionary skills how to say “zip-ties,” “gasket material,” and “carb cleaner” in Spanish.
When we returned, it was to discover the truck engine bolted in the Bel Air, but without a gasket for the water pump, water poured from the block like Niagara Falls. We caught Romero looking thoughtfully at the now-empty beer carton. Our eyes met. He smiled, “You are like a Mexican mechanic,” he joked when we suggested the homemade gasket. With the idea approved, he took over with the expertise of a racer, which he is, piloting a trophy-winning Triumph in the sand drags, often against the owner of the Silverado, who runs a 1975 Camaro. With the cardboard and a tube of sealer, the Rooster was pronounced ready, and we headed for La Paz very literally bruised and bloody, but unbeaten.
We managed about two hours of sleep after checking in to the hotel, and then it was time to race again. The cars were lined up along the ocean, an ocean so clear you could see small rays and fish darting beneath its surface. Above the waterline, the remaining competitors eyed each other’s battle scars. The drivers of the backward truck from two days earlier had found a race shop able to weld up their broken Ford. The Nova had a cow-shaped dent in the door. “We didn’t hit it,” Ashley said. “It ran into us!” Then there was the Rooster—bumperless, bodyworkless, practically just a cage on a chassis—powered by a 20-year-old, work-truck engine that probably hadn’t been floored in its whole life. Just seeing it drive to the starting grid was an almost unbearable joy.
The first half of the day went fine. Wayne navigated, Riley drove without incident, and the entire female population of a small town thoroughly enjoyed watching James Pfeiffer change into his driving suit for the driver swap at the halfway point. Everyone loves a race-car driver, especially one who’ll dance in his underwear for an audience of abuelas. The driver change went smoothly, and for a while it seemed that the biggest problem we’d have was the warning light on the Ford threatening to speed-limit the diesel if we didn’t refill its urea tank. Then we got to the finish line and heard the bad news. The Rooster’s engine was oozing oil from every seam. The guys were stopping every hundred yards to add more water. When they hit the last sand patch, everything just let go. They were stuck. They were empty. We were done.
Half the crew headed back to retrieve the Rooster. The rest of us sat in the shade of the finish-line banners, barely speaking. Bruce Meyers, on hearing our tale of woe just smiled at Lucas. “In 1968, I crashed in a solo buggy and spent 22 hours alone in the desert with two spiral-fractured legs,” he said. We stopped complaining about our bad luck. The Nova came in, Ashley behind the wheel, grinning like a madwoman. “Is my hair all messed up?” she asked after removing her helmet. We looked at the back of her head where the helmet had been rubbing for four days. Her hair had been matted into a coaster-sized patch of blonde felt. “Looks fine,” we told her.
Course workers began to clear the finish-line cones. “Wait, wait!” cried Lucas. “There’s still one more car. There’s still our car.” And then, there it was, coming around the corner on a towrope, Pfeiffer behind the wheel. Someone unhooked it and it coasted forward, and then everyone was running toward it, our team, the Nova team, random onlookers, and they pushed it the last 60 feet and up the ramp to the checkered flag, and people were cheering and Pfeiffer and Riley were toasted with overflowing plastic cups of beer and shots. We may have lost, but there was nobody who felt more alive at that moment than the team of the Rippin Rooster.
There are different kinds of wins. There is the sort that has “First Place” carved on it. You can put those on the mantle, and they’re easily read and recognized. That’s winning a race. Then there is the sort that gets etched in your being, that betters you, replaces a bit of you that was once fear with confidence. That’s winning at life. That’s why we race.
Words to know in Spanish if you’re going Baja racing, as suggested by Romero:
Gasoline - gasoline
Agua - water
Herraminetas - tools
Baleros - bearings
Compresor – compressor
Cincho de plastico - zip tie
Tuercas de llanta – lug nuts
Llanta – tire (can also describe wheel/tire combo)
Junta – gasket
Soldador – welder or weldor
Aceite de motor – engine oil
Mucha cerveza – lots of beer