Kevin Kewley and his friends like adventure. So, to follow up their off-road parasailing experience why not compete in the grueling Baja 1000 race? Unfortunately, that race is a little pricey, so instead they tried to cross the same distance for $1,000. Here's their story. —Ed.
For years, itʼs been our dream to race the Baja 1000. Since it costs thousands of dollars to do that, we came up with another plan. To do our own Baja adventure on a budget; we would attempt to drive 1000 miles in a car worth no more than $1000. We figured half the adventure would be driving 1,000 miles through Baja, and the other half would be doing it in an old crappy car. Would we make it?
Following in Bill Caswellʼs footsteps, we began scouring Craigslist for cheap, yet running vehicles. We looked at anything from a 1977 Chevy Malibu, to an ʼ89 4Runner but ended up throwing down $800 on a 1984 Chevy Surburban that seemed to run well but was unsmoggable and not registered. We had our work cut out for us.
We quickly learned that any car bought for less than a grand is going to have itʼs fair share of problems. Visually our car looked like a mashup of junkyard parts. The previous owner had grand plans of painting it flat black, but had only finished the hood. His drunk friend had also helped out by spray painting the interior black as well.
The roof rack, in her 27 years of service, had caused rusted holes all over the roof. Our tires were ready to blow at any moment, and we were missing 3 lug nuts and a lug bolt. Driving at night was difficult as our headlights pointed almost straight down, and the "brand new LED" reverse lights the previous owner had bragged about, were red. Starting also was an issue, as it didnʼt always happen. And we were leaking about a quart of power steering fluid each week. We also thought the carburetor was running too lean, so we tried to rebuild it.
We started down the list of issues, teaching ourselves as we went. We grinded, drilled, bondoʼd, cleaned, adjusted, and tweaked until we thought our trusty steed was ready to conquer Baja. With a few days until the trip began, we took her to the smog shop for our 3rd attempt to pass. While idling she began running so hot that the floormats started smoking. Needless to say, we failed smog again.
The original idea was to have 3 or 4 vehicles driving through Baja, however when it came down to it only 5 guys were willing to make the journey south. We had mapped out a route going as far south as Bahia de los Angeles, with most of the drive being paved, but a section to San Felipe on dirt roads. Even if our car didnʼt make it, we knew it would be an epic adventure, and we were only spending a couple hundred bucks each.
On New Years day we were still making last minute preparations. The Burban continued to run extremely hot so an hour before we left we decided to cut out the catalytic converter in hopes that it would help the exhaust system run cooler (at this point passing smog was already hopeless). With a full tank of gas, and 8 mpg, the 5 of us headed to San Diego. If our car could make the 200 mile initial journey to the border, we were hopeful she would make it the other 1,000.
Our drive to San Diego was the longest we had ever been in the car. And we sure got to know her better. First off, the horn, which originally sounded like it came from a cruise ship, suddenly was controlling the dome light. Tap the horn, and light up the back seats! Who needs a horn anyways? Also, anytime we tried to turn the car off, she sputtered and back fired for a few seconds before finally coming to rest. We told ourselves it was simply because she was so eager to drive, she didnʼt want to ever stop. Naive and excited, we slept well that night, looking forward to crossing the border in the morning.
Early the next morning we set off and were welcomed into Tijuana with itʼs colorful sights and smells. Our adventure had begun, although it seemed like our car was running far worse than when we first purchased it. The goal of the first day was to make it 250 miles south to El Rosario for the night. Miraculously we made it in one piece. Our only problems were dodging insane Mexican tour busses and navigating construction detours that that seemed to pop out of nowhere, and lead to dead ends. Our second day was even more exciting.
We set off in the morning fog and headed southwest. The destination was the other side of the peninsula in the fishing town of Bahia de los Angeles. We added fluid to everything we could, hoping to refill whatever caused the mystery puddles on the ground from the night before, and we charged forward.
The scenery was stunning. Hundreds of miles on winding roads, all the time surrounded by towering saguaro cactus and boulder covered mountains. Just after noon we made it to the bay and enjoyed some fresh fish tacos. So far we were facing far less opposition than we expected. That however, quickly changed.
The road into the bay gave us breathtaking views of bright blue waters with scattered rocky islands offshore. We decided to head north out of town to find a place to camp for the night. After a washboard covered road which literally caused parts of the car to fall off, we came to a stone covered beach leading out to a jagged peninsula. After surveying the beach, and seeing tire tracks leading to the end, we decided to give it a try.
Our weighty Suburban however, did not make it very far, about 30 feet before the rear tires were sucked into the rocky beach. No problem though, weʼd been stuck plenty of times on our other adventures. We quickly cleared out the rocks, placed wood in front of the tires, and slowly gave it another go. The rocks seemed to slide out from beneath us, and we sank deeper.
Realizing that a simple dig out would not suffice, we searched the car for anything resembling a shovel. Our tools turned out to be, 2 milk crates, a jackstand (which is a better shovel than one might think), a jack, and our favorite - a folding shovel duct taped to a baseball bat. We once again cleared out the rocks, making what seemed to us a smooth way out of the deep rut we were in. However we were wrong and somehow managed to sink even deeper.
By this time the sun was setting. Seeing that we were more stuck than when we first began, we decided it would be a perfect place to camp for the night. After building a fire and eating dinner, we got back to work clearing out the rocks. This time we were
determined to break free. After 5 hours of back breaking work, and literally moving a few tons of rocks, we broke free. The victory felt at that moment was indescribable!
We woke the next morning to a breathtaking sunrise and for the first time fully saw the crater that had been dug the night before. After yet again refilling lost fluids, we headed north for the rough and dusty road to San Felipe.
We figured if our car had made it thus far, it should be able to push through this toughest leg of the journey. While on the map the roads were technically considered "improved gravel" we learned first hand that gravel wasnʼt actually involved and instead bowling ball sized rocks were randomly strewn about. The washboards and ruts shook our car so violently that we began a collection of screws and parts that fell from various places.
After hours of rugged dirt roads, a visit to the famous Cocoʼs Corner, and more fish tacos, we somehow made it back to pavement without any flat tires or major issues. It was smooth sailing to San Felipe for our final night in Mexico.
Our car at this point was still running, but had been steadily degrading, especially at idle speed. Anytime we would turn her off she would sputter and backfire for a good 10 seconds, something that the Mexican army did not seem to enjoy at their checkpoints.
Following the Sea of Cortez north, we encountered some of the most scenic and barren landscapes yet. We pushed through Mexicali and while waiting to cross the border once again encountered the dreaded overheating. After everything we had been through the last thing we wanted was for our car to die while sitting in traffic. She limped across the border where we immediately stopped and filled up with good olʼ American gasoline. Clean gas and breezy highway speeds seemed to give the car enough pep to get back home to Santa Barbara.
After 1,300 miles of driving we had successfully completed the Baja $1000! What couldʼve been us taking a bus back to America ended up being not so bad after all. Next year weʼre hoping to have more vehicles and more opportunities for adventure. Let us know if you want in.