How one man got off his couch and became a Baja racerS

For those who haven't seen it, "Dust to Glory" is an epic movie about what it takes to run the Baja 1000 in Mexico. There probably isn't a gearhead on the planet who hasn't watched that flick and thought, "OMG. I wanna do that." Jim Graham, co-founder of Desert Dingo Racing, is one such gearhead, and OMG. He actually went out and did that. Here's how.

What originally attracted you to Baja?
In December 2006 I rented "Dust to Glory", a documentary on the 2003 Baja 1000, from the local video store. 10 minutes into it, I turned to my wife and said "I have to do this." She said "You don't know anything about cars." I said "I don't care." I convinced a buddy of mine (team co-founder), Mike Aquino, to watch the documentary. He said "I think we can do this."

Tell us about your race vehicle. Did you buy or build it?
We started with a $300 chassis Mike picked up from a guy who was going to haul it to the junkyard the next day. He was restoring it, but ran out of cash. We didn't have the heart to tell him what we were going to do with it.

By March 2007, we had a full team of mechanics and fabricators. Pretty much everyone had some background in racing -– motorcycles, motocross, dirt track, etc. But no one had off-road racing experience.

How one man got off his couch and became a Baja racer

I put in a call to Eric Solorzano, who's featured in "Dust to Glory" and won the Baja 1000 nine times. I said "You don't know me from Adam, but I want to race the 1000, you've won nine times and I want to meet you." Four of us flew to San Diego and followed him to his shop – which is basically a one-car garage – in Tijuana. We spent six hours going over his two cars with tape measures, micrometers, still and video cameras. We barely made it across the border in time to make our flight home.

We built the car from the ground up over eight months and went off the start line in downtown Ensenada in November 2007. 144 miles later we were out of the race, having sheared off the oil filter cover after losing our rear skid plate. Basically we made every noob mistake in the book.

Why did you pick this particular class?
I was under the mistaken impression that Class 11 (aka Stock Bug) was cheap to race. I've since been disabused of that notion. Building a competitive Class 11 will set you back $8,000 to $15,000. That's just the car. After that you're acquiring enough spare parts to basically build another car. Then you've got race fuel, fuel for support vehicles, entry fees and food and lodging for the team.

Building the car is just the tip of the iceberg. Early on in racing you learn to lie to yourself about how much it costs.

How one man got off his couch and became a Baja racerS

Tell us about a time you narrowly avoided a DNF. How did you press on regardless?
If you don't count the times we actually DNF'd (all three Baja 1000 runs, a couple of short course races at Prairie City and when we timed out racing the Mint 400), our biggest near-miss DNF was the Hawthorne 225 last year. We had a problem with the accelerator sticking wide open and jury-rigged a piece of insulated wire that I (the co-driver) yanked on any time the driver yelled "PULL!" whenever he felt the pedal stick. I was late on the pull doing 45 mph into a sharp left and ended up hanging from my five point harnesses staring down at the driver when the car stopped rolling and the dust cleared.

Checking we weren't on fire, weren't leaking fuel and the driver was conscious, I climbed out the passenger window and announced to a buddy who pulled up behind us in his Class 9, "THAT WAS AWESOME!"

We got the tow strap out and got the car back on its wheels. The car looked like it'd been hit by a freight train but we finished second in class.

You can win or lose a 10-hour race in two seconds.

What keeps you involved in Baja?
We do a full season of racing in California and the Nevada desert before heading to Mexico for the 1000, which I consider the Olympics of off road racing. I tell Eric (Solorzano) that the only reason we're doing this is to beat him. Thankfully he laughs. The great thing about racing Class 11 is the teams help each other out. You don't often see that at the higher levels of racing.

Mexico is beautiful and everyone we meet are tremendously helpful and supportive. I've lost count of the times that fans have helped us get unstuck from silt or helped us work on the car.

What keeps you from being more involved?
Easy. Money and time. The thing that's killing us right now is the price of fuel. It's our biggest expense by far. We switched from racing the SNORE series in 2009 to the VORRA series in 2010 because we were doing 1,000 mile round trips in a weekend just to attend a race. VORRA's a lot closer and has a wider variety of courses. The organizers are great and it's a little more laid back.

How many races did you run last year? Is that trending up or down? Why?
We did the entire VORRA series in 2010 – four short course races at Prairie City and four desert races in Nevada -– and finished second in class, with the championship decided on the last race of the season. After the end of the season, we started a body off rebuild of 1107. After three years of racing and three rolls, the car was pretty trashed. We were gifted with a new (OK, pristine 1970) body by another team and started prepping it to be a desert racer.

Racers know this but it's often a surprise to normal people –- street cars are designed to operate within established parameters of normal use. If you're going to take a street car and turn it into a desert racer, you basically take it completely apart, analyze every nut and bolt, every welded seam, every moving part, and make them better / stronger / faster. Mark Donohue's "The Unfair Advantage" became my Bible. That and "Tune to Win" and "Engineer to Win" by Carroll Smith.

How one man got off his couch and became a Baja racerS

Spectators: What do you think?
Race fans are the best. They love the bugs and say we're either heroes or crazy for attempting to race them in the desert. We hand out thousands of hero cards every year -– most of them at the Baja 1000. Five guys helped me lift the rear of the car out of the silt beds just past the Ensenada dump one year and when I broke my leg getting out of the at the 2009 Baja 1000, three guys helped the driver, Bob Russell, get the car unstuck and back in the race.

My wife came up with the idea for us to use the race effort to promote a good cause. We did a show of hands on the team and two members live with Type 2 diabetes. I contacted the International Diabetes Federation and said we wanted to do a drive-a-thon fundraiser to support their education and outreach programs (the Baja 1000 coincides with World Diabetes Day on Nov. 14) and it's just taken off from there. We distribute several thousand hero cards, printed in English and Spanish, which have a photo of the car on the front and the warning signs of diabetes on the back. My wife worked with a local artist to create a superhero character – the Blue Circle – and then put together a coloring book that we hand out at the 1000, along with a pallet load of crayons that the IDF sent us.

We've had the car on display at the World Diabetes Congress in Montreal and taken it to a local school and had an entire class of kids put their painted handprints on the fenders. Then they followed us during the race.

How do you get people involved in Baja?
We do a lot of fan outreach, particularly through social media. More than 25,000 people have downloaded the Desert Dingo Racing iPhone and Android apps and a ton of folks follow us whenever we head out for a race. We've got over 1,000 Twitter followers and over 300 folks on our Facebook fan page. We had more than 200 folks take part in a Twitter contest we did back in 2009. We asked them to retweet a message of ours and everyone who did – their name would be in the car during the Baja 1000. I printed out all 200 names and duct-taped them to the ceiling of the car. It sounds cheesy but people loved it.

How one man got off his couch and became a Baja racerS

What's one piece of advice you'd give someone looking to get into Baja?
I tell people "Anyone can do this." We built our car from scratch, but if I had to do it over again, we'd have bought a race-ready Class 11 and modified as we got a feel for it. It's cheaper than building and you're racing a whole lot sooner. The Class 11 community is really supportive of new folks. We usually camp together in the pits and it's not uncommon for teams to help each other with refueling and repairs. You don't see that as much among the higher classes.

We help out a lot of new teams because that's' what other teams did for us when we were starting. There's always the question of buy vs. build, what sorts of spare parts do you need to have, how much does it really cost to race. We share all that information.

What's the biggest problem with Baja today and how would you solve it?
The greatest challenge facing off road racing today is that the economy sucks. Low car counts make it tough for promoters to keep afloat. That will change when the economy turns around.

There's a perception among non-racers that off road racing is environmentally destructive. We do tear up the dirt roads we race on, but we're not racing in the open desert and, at least in the VORRA series, the promoters go out and repair the roads after the race.

The biggest challenge for racing in Mexico is the security situation. There's a lot of military on the streets of Ensenada and military checkpoints on the main roads, but for a lot of the race you're out in the middle of nowhere. You just need to use common sense. I've only had to go to one Mexican jail to retrieve a teammate.

If you could enter any motorsport event, anywhere in the world, which would it be, and why?
Mind you, in four years I've never driven the car in a race situation. I co-drive (handling comm, navigation, GPS and changing flats), but I have absolutely zero interest in driving the car. Other members of the team are much better at it and that's great. Our agreement is that if you chip in for expenses and you put in time working on the car, you get seat time. You start as a co-driver and work up to driver. That being said, I'd love to do Dakar, the Northern Forest Baja Rally in Russia and The Silk Way Rally.

It's a challenge for some people to get their head around, but what I tell folks is "I don't like racing. I like winning." If you look at the Baja 1000, people say 75% of the race is logistics. The weakest link for any team (except those that can afford chase helicopters) is communications. Everyone has Iridium phones and the satellites get overwhelmed. Race radios are useless once you get a mountain range between you and the person you want to talk with. And cell service is spotty on a good day. So I arranged a sponsorship with a company that provides satellite-based communications for emergency vehicles, ocean-going transport ships and airline fleets.

My wife, sitting in front of a couple computers in California, tracks the location and speed of 1107 and our chase vehicles in real time from a thousand miles away. You can see me using it in this video, sending her a message that we blew a transmission and need a chase truck to come in and replace it.

The fun of racing for me is the logistics – figuring out what we can do to be faster than anyone else in our class.

Three cars: You get to race one, daily drive one, and restore one. Go.
Race? No question. A Russian Kamaz truck prepped for Dakar. Daily driver would be the as-yet-to-be-built street-legal version of the VW Dakar Touareg 3. Totally impractical, naturally. I barely know what end of a ratchet wrench to hold, but if you asked what vehicle I'd want to drive that someone else restored, it'd be Don Orosco's Bartoletti Transporter.

We've all got a racing hero. Who's yours?
There are a lot of racers out there who go down to Mexico and rebuild orphanages, raise money for charitable organizations and even raise visibility for pet adoption agencies. They don't do it for the visibility. They do it because they care. Those are the folks that I respect and admire.

What's a helpful trick or time-saver you've picked up since you started racing?
There's no simple thing. You can win or lose a 10-hour race in two seconds. If you don't look at every single thing you do during a race weekend, you're decreasing your chance of winning. It just depends how much you want to win.

What's the most important lesson you've learned from your time in the Baja community?
Learn from anyone who'll share their experience. Tell everyone thank you. When you can, show your appreciation.

Is there anything else Baja-related you'd like to talk about, but hasn't been asked?
You just have to do it. Experience comes from doing.

You can follow the Desert Dingo race team in today's Baja 500 here.


This story originally appeared on Gearbox Magazine on May 12, 2011, and was republished with permission.

Email us with the subject line "Syndication" if you would like to see your own story syndicated here on Jalopnik.