Story By: Bob Green
Nineteen of your best buddies…
Two thousand two hundred forty miles…
Fifty four hours in the truck…
That’s the short version of what it takes to beat the Baja Peninsula into submission and get back home safely, and that’s exactly what we did.
It all started months ago when plans were made, and preparations began for the race car, chase trucks, and crew. It all came together early in the morning of November 16, 2010. My truck was packed with tools, spares, food, water and everything else that we might need to get the job done. We met up with the rest of the crew and headed south. Crossing into Baja at Tijuana was uneventful, travel documents were obtained, and our adventure began.
We had a pleasant journey to Ensenada, checked in to our hotel at Estero Beach Resort. One of our first things to do was to get to the Big Burro taco shop just outside of the Estero Beach Resort compound for the first of many meals at the best taco shop in all of Baja. Irena and her family did a fine job of keeping us nourished with her fish, shrimp, and carne taco’s. Ralf Kuller had flown in from Germany to help with our effort. He’d never driven the PRP Wrangler, so some of the crew headed to the beginning of the race course for some pre running and to get Ralf familiar with the car. The rest of us relaxed back at the hotel. Wednesday morning we made the obligatory stop at the Big Burro for breakfast burritos, and took the race car to the carwash next door to get it looking spiffy for contingency.
Contingency was it’s usual spectacle with all of the racers, fans and vendors crammed into the main street of Ensenada. The car sailed through tech with no problems. Soon enough the car was loaded back on the trailer and we headed back to the hotel. On the way back, we decided that we should find a Mexican flag to fly from the car for the race. Every advantage you can get is needed to beat the Baja Peninsula. If flying a Mexican flag would get us the slightest assistance from locals along the way, then so be it. After several stops we still had not found a flag. We had just about given up on finding one on such short notice. We decided to stop at the Big Burro for some taco’s and ask them if they knew where we could get a flag. It turns out, they had a flag at the taco shop they would give us… perfect.
After a good nights sleep, it was finally race day. The culmination of all of our hard work and prep was finally upon us…all that remained was the racing and chasing. Our team owner Scott Hartman was driving the first leg with Larry McRae of Poison Spyder navigating. We strapped them into the car, fastened the window nets, and we were off. The crew wouldn’t see the car for three hundred miles. We knew we had help if we needed it from Laird Nelson’s crew at BFG
Pit 1, our first scheduled stop. We had made last minute arrangements with some friends of Scott Parker that were going to be near San Felipe if we needed help further south. We sent two chase trucks east to Ojos Negros. They would monitor the car for the first 50 miles or so until it was out of radio range, then they would double back and head south. My truck with Machelle, second leg driver Ralf Kuller, his brother Josef and myself, and the Hartman’s truck with Scott Parker, the second leg navigator, and Tandi and Robby Hartman all headed south to Coco’s Corner, where we would make our first driver change. We knew we had a seven hour drive ahead of us. Along the way we heard on the radio that Mike Shaffers Pirate 4×4 entry had blown a transmission and was out of the race. The news was unfortunate for Shaffer’s crew, but it’s part of the Baja test. We had also heard that the Coan Racing entry was approximately five miles ahead of us early on.
Hwy 1 down the Baja Peninsula can be a treacherous road. It is the only paved road down the peninsula, very narrow, and desolate. Tractor trailers generally have 3-6 inches of lane left on their side. There is no shoulder , and usually a six inch or better drop off from the edge of the road to the dirt. In addition the Mexican’s plant concrete pylons on the edge of the road maybe 6-12 inches off of the road surface, so running off the road to escape oncoming traffic in your lane is not an option either. I swear the roads get six inches narrower as soon as the sun goes down. We saw evidence that catastrophe could be around the next corner soon enough. A recovered tractor trailer that had rolled was parked along the highway, not long after that we saw a rig upside down in a wash. The driver had missed a turn, crossed over the road and ended up in the wash. We would see two more rolled big rigs before our adventure was complete. Needless to say, oncoming trucks were somewhat nerve wracking, I two hands on the wheel with white knuckles and was prepared to take whatever evasive action that might be possible.
Finally we got to the turn off for Coco’s Corner. We knew Coco’s Corner was roughly 20 miles down a dirt road. What we didn’t know was the road was all cross grain. Essentially a 20 mile long speed bump. Our trucks were loaded heavy, Hartman’s truck was pulling the car hauler trailer. There was no way we could go fast down the road. After an hour and fifteen minutes of pounding we were finally there. We got some good news for us almost immediately. The Coan Racing entry was broken at Race Mile 185, seems they had lost their oil pump. With Shaffer’s car also out we were the only remaining Jeepspeed car in the race. The bad news, we still had 761 miles to go.
We set up our pit at Coco’s and waited to hear from the race car. At one point, through the magic of radio waves bouncing around, we heard Larry call out Race Mile 240, the car was 60 miles out. An hour or so later things started looking not so good for us. Larry knew they were getting close to the pit, started calling out the repairs needed over the radio. We had lost the rear sway bar, the u-joint retaining tab of the rear pinion yoke was broken, and we had lost something in the front differential, it still worked but made bad noises if we left the front hubs engaged.
The crews that had gone to Ojos at the beginning were just getting to Coco’s when the car arrived. We checked the rear sway bar, the arms wouldn’t tighten up, the splines were stripped. The tab on the pinion yoke was indeed broken, but the u-joint had not moved and was still secure. Scott Hartman thought we had spider gears going out in the front differential. After considering welding the sway bar, we decided to just take it off the car, we left the rear yoke as it was. We dumped five gallons of fuel in the car, Ralf and Scott Parker climbed in and the car was off again.
The pit crews collected our tools and parts, loaded up and headed out. Soon enough we heard Scott Parker call out that the car had been stuck in a muddy wash but they were moving again. The radio in the race car seemed to be transmitting OK, but they could not hear responses from the chase crews unless it was within a few miles. We later found out that in addition to the muddy wash, the race car encountered dense fog. Ralf and Scott both wear glasses, not only were their helmet face shields fogging up, but their glasses were as well.
All four chase rigs took the pounding down the dirt road from Coco’s back out to the highway. I never thought I would be so glad to see the pot holed asphalt of Baja Hwy 1. My shoulders were aching from white knuckling the steering wheel. The chase crews freight trained down the highway to the point where the race course came near the highway just north of San Ignacio. We split up again at that point. Two trucks headed in to BFG Pit 4 where we were scheduled for our next driver change, the other two trucks waited for the car for to splash 10 gallons of fuel, and look the car over to determine if any repairs would be needed at the BFG pit.
Soon enough the crews that had stayed back to splash fuel were at the BFG pit. LJ, our crew chief reported that the car was in good shape, the only real complaint was the steering was very loose, and the rear end was very loose since there was no sway bar. It wasn’t an issue in the dirt, but the paved sections of the course were treacherous. Death wobble, and over a half turn of slop in the steering made the car steer as if the driver was herding cats down the asphalt sections of the course. Keep in mind, the asphalt sections were on the same highway that the chase crews white knuckled when oncoming traffic appeared.
The car rolled in to the BFG pit just as dawn was approaching. We were way ahead of schedule, our competition was out of the race, so we took our time and did a complete look over of the car. We strapped Jeff Lessley into the drivers seat and Clem Grieco into the navigators seat and sent the car. We were half way there, the sun was coming up, everyone had made it safely to this point, things were looking good for the 1701 entry in the 2010 Baja 1000. We added the two trucks that had been in Baja Sur ahead of the rest of us to our chase crew train, saddled up and headed for Baja Sur.
We had some time before we were to see the car again. There were hot showers, a restaurant, cell service and Wi-Fi at Rice and Beans in San Ignacio. The whole crew stopped there and we regrouped, relaxed for a bit, ate, made phone calls, checked the race status on computers and the crews that had been in the race car for the first two legs took showers. Somewhat refreshed, we were on the road again.
North of Loreto we picked up the car on the radio again. They had been stuck in silt beds a time or two, the floor jack on the race car was broken/useless, but they were still moving. Just outside of Loreto there was a miles long silt bed. SCORE had attempted to blade the silt bed a couple of days before the race to no avail. Instead the course was rerouted out to the highway to get around the silt beds. Unfortunately, the reroute was not on the GPS and the signs to direct the cars on the re-route had long since been mowed over. The car was stuck in the silt, the jack didn’t work, and the front differential was questionable at best. The chase crews all rallied at a turn off, consulted our BFG race notes, and fanned out along the various course access roads to try to find the car and lead it out to the highway. Scott Hartman (pulling the trailer) and I headed down a dirt access road to where we thought we’d find the car. Clem reported that they had the car moving, but the silt was bad. Scott and I headed down the access road that we felt sure would intersect the course in front of the car. Within a quarter of a mile we ran into some locals coming the other way. Despite the fact that the road was on the BFG GPS download, the locals told us it was a private road, and they did not want us on it. Scott backed the trailer down the road, I turned around and we headed to where we thought the next intersection with the course would be. Then we heard that the car had made it out to the highway, so we tried turning around again. Scott’s truck is only 2wd, add the trailer and soft sand and it was soon stuck. Some more locals that had been working in a field came over to see if they could help. We managed to get my truck around Scott’s, hooked a strap to the back of the trailer, and got Scott unstuck. We offered the locals some stickers, a couple of hats, a few beers and some Nitro2Go energy drinks for their assistance. In return they gave us four fresh picked honey dew melons from their fields.
The car stopped where our crew chief had pulled off the highway. LJ and crew looked the car over, swapped the jack off of LJ’s truck for the broken one on the car and sent them on their way. Scott and I got out to the highway, waited a few minutes to see the race car coming down the road, jumped on the highway and followed it to the turn back on to the course. Everything was good again and we continued the chase to victory.
The chase crews got to our next scheduled stop in Loreto an hour or so ahead of the race car. Eric Filar and Ron Lessley suited up and prepared themselves for the final push to the finish. Our driver change and pit stop went off smoothly. We started this race with the intention of a first place finish, we were three quarters of the way there. Eric and Ron had pre run their section three times, so they were familiar with what was ahead of them. Victory was in our reach.
The race radio had gone from bad to worse. It would still transmit, but reception was all but gone. We shadowed the car down the course along the highway. South of Ciudad Insurgentes the chase crews split up, Each truck went to a different access road then pounded down dirt roads to the intersection with the race course. A chase crew would see the car every 15-35 miles for the next one hundred miles. The car was working as well as it had been with no new issues. The last time we would see the car before the finish was at BFG Pit 7. The final load of fuel was dumped in, everything was looked over, and the boys were sent on their way to La Paz. The chase crews rallied at the highway. It was now well after dark again. We had all been going for over 36 hours with nothing more than cat naps here and there.
The final adrenaline rush from seeing the car had worn off. I was against the wall, not sure if I could push on, but knowing that I had to. Quitting the chase now was not an option. Stupidity or just plain being stubborn kept me from letting a relief driver take over the driver seat of my truck. The roads were treacherous, I’m a crappy passenger, and it was my truck. If something were to go wrong, I wanted it to be my fault. I hate all of the energy drinks, rarely drink them. We’d made coffee in my camper along the way, I was coffee’d out, it wasn’t doing anything for me. Reluctantly, I resorted to one of the concentrated versions of Nitro2Go, I slammed down a double dose and hoped that it would kick in.
I wasn’t the only one that was in bad shape. We tried telling stories on the radio as we freight trained down the highway to La Paz. We had to pull off the road several times to jump up and down to get blood circulating and try to get some life back in to our bodies. We were all seeing things on the road at some point. This was bad, disaster was always lurking around the next corner. We had no choice but to push on and hope for the best.
My stomach was in knots and on fire from the coffee, Cokes and energy drink. I’d taken acid reflux meds, and was eating antacid like I had stock in the company, all to no avail. Machelle had been a trooper in the right seat of the truck the whole trip. She may have cat napped a time or two, but had been a second set of eyes on the road. I finally realized something was wrong with her. She had been hiding the pain she was in for hours. She finally told me that her whole left side was hurting, and she thought she had some blood in her urine. She’s a tough girl and insisted that we had to push on and she would be OK. We had some pain meds with us, she took one of them. It seemed to knock the edge off, but she was still in significant pain. I was fighting sleep deprivation, my eyes felt like they had rocks in them, my heart felt like it was racing from caffeine and energy drinks, my wife was in moderate to severe pain, and we were a minimum of two days of hard driving from getting home. At times I worked myself into a near panic to the point that I thought I was going to just shut down.
The chase crews got to the finish line and began the wait. We got word from SCORE that our car had cleared the last Check Point…
We were going to beat the Baja…
We were going to do this…
An idea that I had four and a half years ago, that others took and ran with, was going to become reality. We were going to win the Baja 1000, and not just any 1000, but a Peninsula Run, the toughest of the Baja races. Machelle was in bad shape, she could hardly walk, standing or sitting offered no relief, yet she insisted on being at the finish line to see the car cross and drive up on the podium. Finally we saw the distinctive yellow lights on the front of our car in the distance.
We’d done it, the Dust Junkies/Fat City Racing crew had won the Baja 1000! We were Baja Champions!
Baja stories don’t end with the checkered flag. We’d won, yet we were still 1200 miles from home, and exhausted.
We’d made arrangements for a hotel in La Paz, the problem was we finished the race eight hours ahead of our projected finish time, our hotel rooms were not available. We finally stumbled upon a large field next to the Hotel Marina in La Paz. There were numerous race and chase vehicles parked in the field. We pulled in, went to the office to see if they had any rooms, they didn’t.
It was now 3am Saturday morning, the crew had been going for 40+ hours, we were done. We made the call to crash in/under/on the chase trucks in the field and hope for the best. I had my camper, so Machelle and I were able to climb in to a real bed to get some sleep. Machelle was still in some pain, we were technically trespassing/squatting on private property in a foreign country. Machelle couldn’t sleep from worry that we were going to wake up to the sounds of the local Policia’s handcuffs. At first light we all got up. Shortly after other race crews came out of the hotel and began coming into the field. We now felt somewhat secure that we weren’t going to get thrown out or arrested as there was no way for hotel staff to know who was who. We went to the hotel office to try and secure some rooms for Saturday night. The desk man said we’d have to check back around noon.
One of the teams getting their rigs ready for the trip home was Cameron Steele’s. Scott struck up a conversation with a couple of the crew. They told Scott they were done with their room, the door was still open, and we could at least go take showers. Our crew started cycling through that room getting some what refreshed. After a bit Cameron Steele came out to the field, Scott started talking to him about our predicament. Cameron didn’t hesitate to offer a fix for us. He had three rooms that were already paid for that his crew wasn’t going to use for Saturday. He gave them to Scott with out asking for a single thing in return! He assured Scott that we deserved it for our accomplishment.
Holy Crap! I’ve never heard anything but good things about Cameron Steele and the Desert Assassin’s crew, here was evidence of that right in front of me. We took him up on the rooms. The crew was famished; there was a breakfast buffet in the hotel restaurant. I’m sure they lost money after serving our group.
Larry McRae needed to head home. We reluctantly said our good byes to him and his co-dog Don. Around 1PM, LJ is beating on the door to the room yelling at us to get up. I just knew the place was on fire or some other calamity. Turns out, he just wanted everyone to get up so we could try to get our bodies back on some sort of schedule. I still felt like crap, tired, stomach boiling, and rocks in my eyes, but got up none the less. Machelle was still in some discomfort but felt a bit better. We went down to the pool, enjoyed a cocktail or two then hopped a cab down to the awards ceremony location.
When it was finally our turn, the whole team went up on the podium, what a moment, Baja Champions! We ate some dinner, went back to our rooms and passed out with smiles on our faces. The Fat City guys really needed to be back for work on Monday, so they planned on rolling out early and fast for home. Ralf and Josef were flying out from La Paz, Josef to Miami, and Ralf to Los Angeles, so they made their own arrangements for early morning cab rides to the airport.
The Dust Junkies crew decided that we would get up at 4AM to head out of La Paz for the long drive home. We actually pulled that one off. We were fueled up and out of town by 5AM. Our early intention had been to iron man the drive home, ten hours and less than half way there we determined that plan was not going to work. We looked at the maps to find a lay over spot. The only reasonable spot was Bahia de Los Angeles. We’d all heard about the Bay of LA being the jewel of Baja. It was the one place that truly had to be seen to be appreciated. The only problem was it is 40 miles out of the way. We decided it would be worth the extra travel and headed that way.
As we pulled into the Bay of LA around 9PM with no real plan, I saw a sign that indicated the Bahia Villa had rooms, kitchenette’s and was on the beach. It sounded like our kind of place. A few miles down a dark desolate road I saw another sign for the turn off. Now we are going down a dirt road through the desert, no significant lights were seen in the distance.
After a mile or so we pull into what looks like a locals house/driveway. Just as I’m thinking this can’t possibly be right, two young American dudes come walking out from a building asking me where we’d been, they’d been waiting for us all night. I was a little dumbfounded (OK a LOT dumbfounded) but asked if they had rooms, they said sure come on in. It turns out there were four or five buildings in various states of disrepair, with beds, bathrooms, and kitchenettes. This was our kind of place. We made arrangements for the rooms. I parked my truck on the beach and put the camper up. The crew had a beer or two together and then we all turned in for the night knowing that we still had a long day ahead of us the following day.
Monday morning a rooster announced that dawn was upon us… repeatedly. I did my best to wake up with the intention of watching the sunrise over Bahia de Los Angeles. I lost that deal. I missed the sunrise as did Machelle. We were up with plenty of time for an early morning walk along the beach. What a beautiful place. Paradise on the Sea of Cortez. Plans will be made to return when we have several days to spend doing absolutely nothing but relax.
All to soon we were in our trucks and on the road home. We had one more planned stop. The Big Burro Taco Shop in Ensenada. We had a flag to return. We asked some locals if it was disrespectful if we signed the flag, they assured us it would be OK considering the circumstances. The whole team signed it.
We got in to Ensenada in the late afternoon after a long days travel and went straight to the Big Burro. Irena and her daughters saw us roll up and their faces lit up, glad to see us again. In no time at all fresh fish was frying, shrimp and carne were on the grill, the girls were making tortillas from fresh dough, fresh trimmings were being chopped and diced and all was right with the world! The look on the families face when the Hartman’s gave the flag back was priceless. One of the girls went a few blocks up to get their dad from his hot dog stand to come see us. The old man was so proud of that flag. Immediately a hammer and nails were out, and the flag was proudly displayed on the wall of the Big Burro Taco Shop. We’ll be back to borrow that flag for a day or two again next year!
We left Ensenada with our bellies full of the best cooking in Baja, smiles on our faces, and a little swelling in our hearts knowing that we had set out on a mission, and completed it, letting nothing get in the way of our goal. Sure, we had some squabbles among the crew here and there along the way, but we all had a common goal and worked together to get there.
There’s not another team in Baja that Machelle and I would rather be a part of.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!
Viva Dust Junkies Racing! Viva Fat City Racing!