It’s midnight and it’s freezing. The tiny industrial park is dead and empty, save for one open garage bay. Bathed in harsh lights and fatigued by 48 hours of continuous work, six guys are dirty and bloody trying to turn the husk of an old BMW into a race car. They don’t have enough time. They don’t have the right parts. But they’re working for Bill Caswell, and he wasn’t about to be discouraged by such trivialities.
Calamity, chaos and extra effort in the eleventh hour are all how Caswell conducts business. Once, he was like so many people who love cars—a suit with a boring desk job who dreamed of going on wild adventures and running any car he could deem close to up to the task in any race he could find. Now he’s living the dream, building cars and driving all over the world. But behind all the Instagram glory there is sacrifice.
Caswell sleeps wherever, or sometimes not at all, busts his knuckles dumps his soul into wild, sketchy engineering projects and sometimes comes out with literally nothing to show for it. The fact that sometimes he actually succeeds in satisfying his epic whims, like “wouldn’t it be hilarious if we raced this junkyard car against professionals,” is part of the reason he’s emerged as kind of a legend in the automotive community.
This feels like one of the times he won’t. Less than 12 hours before the start of the ultra-competitive and impossibly brutal Baja 1000 off-road rally, Caswell’s friends are working themselves to the bone to help him realize his dream of building an ancient BMW E30 into a viable off-road race car.
I guess I actually mean, “rebuild.”
Caswell’s vehicle, the “Baja Pig,” looks more like a sick breeding experiment between a sedan, Star Wars prop and monster truck than a car. But it actually has raced in the Baja before. It’s just never been close to finishing.
The people hammering away at it this time around came together from hundreds of miles apart to be cogs in Caswell’s 2016 Baja 1000 attempt. Their hope was to prove the old and unconventional race car, and its equally eccentric owner, could hold their own against the racing veterans at Baja, one of the most grueling races on earth.
That, and everybody wanted an excuse to party in Mexico.
But as the night before the Baja turned into the wee hours of November 18th, race day, “unlikely” started looking too much like “impossible” and even the indefatigable Caswell ran out of gas. I eventually found him collapsed on the ground using a duct-taped Patagonia jacket as a sleeping bag.
Spoiler alert: Caswell and company didn’t finish the race. They never even made it to the starting line. But thing about Caswell is, he doesn’t really have to pull off heroics to have an adventure. He’s a twirling Tasmanian devil of chaos and energy and if you’re anywhere near him... you’re a part of it. Caswell’s personality is big enough to fill a book. As a matter of fact, Hollywood already has a contract drawn up for the first half of his life story.
No, seriously. Six years ago Caswell’s insane experience punting a (different) beater BMW through the 2010 World Rally Championship in Mexico as recounted by Sam Smith on Jalopnik caught the attention of basically everybody on the internet, including actor and producer Jeremy Renner, who’s planning to make the story into a movie called Slingshot.
Those of you familiar with the story of how a $500 Craigslist car beat $400,000 rally racers might already appreciate Caswell’s special brand of crazy. I thought I did too. Then I spent a couple days locked in a garage with him and had to learn more about him than I ever wanted to. But I also got to see how he’s uniquely successful, and why his friends would fly to his garage from all over the country to help him work on a moonshot Baja 1000 project.
Smith’s story about Caswell’s Craigslist rally car triumph is as quintessential David-beating-Goliath as you can get. Six years later, Caswell is still riding the momentum of relevance from that unlikely triumph.
Now that he’s one of the car scene’s established colorful characters, I set out to find how he’s really managed to sustain this “hot-shoe” hobo life situation for so long now. More importantly, is it actually possible to travel the world driving incredible cars without a fixed address or a real job? And is the Caswell myth anything close to the Caswell reality?
Like every other “car guy” you’ve ever heard interviewed, Caswell was “always into cars.” He played with dinky old BMWs before college, got into shifter carts, got involved in amateur wheel-to-wheel racing after that...
“You want to go back even further? Like how this whole thing started?” he told me. “It started because I was playing chess. Right?”
Caswell may be from Chicago but he’s embraced the Californian habit of ending statements with a questioning inflection. He also grinds words out of his mouth like a snow blower running through a quarry. When he talks—and he will, at length—his voice gives him a unique intonation somewhere between a chain-smoking trucker and a surfer.
“I was playing chess on this chess pavilion in Chicago,” he continued. “I’d go for a run after work and put a couple dollars in my pocket, and I’d play the homeless guys in chess for a dollar a game. And they’d beat me pretty damn regularly. One guy smoked a crack pipe while he was playing a game with me and, like, beat me in a game of logic and strategy. And I got really angry.”
This seems like a good time to make it clear that Caswell has a tendency to indulge in hyperbole, and he never answers a question without two or three layers of backstory. So I’ll fast forward the origin story for you just a little: Caswell went on to say he bought a chess book to beat his homeless friends, but they stopped playing him when he started winning. So he went back to the bookstore and started reading about history, quickly lost interest in that, found a Chilton BMW manual, and somehow was so captivated by its wiring diagrams and faded black-and-white pictures that he used the book to teach himself how to do an engine swap on his first non-running vehicle: an E30 BMW. He’s really got a thing for these cars.
“The first time I worked on a car was changing an engine,” he said. “Never done an oil change, never done spark plugs… like, ‘Chapter Two’ was ‘Changing The Engine.’ I just went through, looked at lots of pictures, disconnect this, disconnect that, get a hoist, I rented a crane... bought another engine, threw it in the back of my mom’s car, and drove it home.”
That’s a pretty bold dive down the rabbit hole of cars to take off the bat. But as you’re starting to understand, Caswell crashes through life in full-measures only.
“So I [had] like three months of my life into this car and it [was] still just a $500 E30.” Caswell remembers thinking. “What do I do with it now?”
The answer he arrived at was “take it racing,” and he got talked into trying autocross despite, well, autocross seeming kind of lame. “I was like, ‘I’m not racing in a fucking parking lot, that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of.’” He added: “Of course I was awful at it.”
The car-craziness snowballed from there though, and he started playing with vehicles every opportunity he got.
But like so many of us at that point, Caswell went to college, got a job, went to business school, got a better job, and eventually ended up spending more time dreaming about driving than actually doing it.
But the metamorphosis into the Caswell we know today, into the living caricature who parties his way around the velvet ropes, makes miracles out of junkyard parts and gets his friends to willingly work for three days straight to help him build a car against impossible odds, really started happening in 2009.
That was the year Sam Smith, Caswell’s old buddy who was a writer for Jalopnik (and later an editor at Road & Track magazine) got Caswell to try off-road rally racing in Tennessee.
Caswell recalled the only advice he got about how to do that kind of driving, from one of the race organizers through the open window of his car at the starting line: “He told me ‘You should only be having, like, a moment, a couple times a race.’” That “moment” meaning an incident scary enough to make you soil your seat.
“Yeah, okay,” Caswell recalled replying skeptically. “No you don’t understand,” the marshal continued, “most road racers come here, drive at the limit like they do at the track, and they’re off on the second stage.”
How do you think it worked out for Caswell?
“Sure enough, second stage, I crash. Smash the radiator. We’re out of the race. But I hated going back to that desk so much.”
Caswell was working in finance at the time, specifically in a sector he described as “the toxic waste that blew up the economy in ‘07 and ‘08.” He cut a deal with the bank he worked for and bailed, freeing him up to live the story that made him internet-famous and is still supposed to be a movie someday.
“I find an E30 for like $1,200 on Craigslist, we go look at it and it’s got huge 17 or 18-inch chrome rims on it. And I’m like ‘the car’s great other than the wheels,’ and the guy’s like, ‘dude that’s the best part! If you don’t want the wheels, like, $500.’” And thus, the world’s most famous $500 BMW was born.
After the story of Caswell’s epic underdog adventure in Mexico went viral—it remains one of the most-read Jalopnik stories ever—he rode the momentum to drive Pikes Peak, heaps of other rallies, the Nürburgring and Baja.
In the process of building his own personal off-beat motorsports program, Caswell had basically bought up the entire Miller Welders catalog of fabrication equipment. Noticing that a picture of his shop in Grassroots Motorsports “looked like a damn Miller ad,” he pitched the company to sponsor his idea for a “Caswell Buggy.”
What he had in mind was an E30 BMW on huge tires, with a custom chassis and steering system to hold them to the car. What it would become was the “Baja Pig.”
Miller gave him support, all Bill had to do was build the car on the show floor at SEMA as part of the company’s product display.
And that car did end up in the 2010 Baja 1000, but only made it a couple hundred miles into the action before it jettisoned its steering rack and forced Caswell to quit the race after spending a night in the desert.
While his car went to shit, his racing career certainly didn’t. Caswell has been going strong getting himself back to Pikes Peak, WRC Mexico, the Mint 400, Targa Newfoundland, LeMons beater-car races and a massive list of other automotive events in between since that wimpy little BMW steering rack let him down in Baja.
And yet Caswell doesn’t appear, at first glance, to have an existence outside of all that. The guy seems to have an infinite supply of resources and cars stashed all over the world, but no house or apartment in his own name. I’ve found him sleeping on garage floors and seen him holding it down in high-rises with Hollywood royalty. In the same week. He’s a hard man to pin down.
“When I left for the Nürburgring in 2014 is when I started the actual ‘homeless Bill Caswell program,’” he explained when I asked him how long he’s been, you know, “crashing wherever.” The reality of the situation isn’t quite as filthy as sleeping in the back of his old BMW X5, though I’ve seen him do that a few times too.
“I made a fortune as a banker, then I got my severance package, and because I was severed I actually got unemployment, right?” Caswell admitted. “Then I had a Lotus Exige and a BMW X5, and they both got totaled, and got insurance checks from that. And dude, I sold my Caswell shirts! I mean I sold, like, crates of those. Well over 10,000 shirts.”
So he’d have no trouble paying rent. He just doesn’t want to. Or have to. He splits time between his dad’s house in Maine, the Team O’Neil Rally School in New Hampshire and his mom’s house in Chicago (“where I build most of my cars,” Caswell explained. The basement there has “three or four dismantled cars” stashed in it.) Lately, you’re most likely to catch Caswell staying with his significant other in Hollywood, or hanging out near San Diego at the off-road shop SRD or fabrication outfit EV West, which occupies garage space Caswell used to co-lease with the company’s proprietor Michael Bream.
Eventually, he went halfsies with on the two-bay SoCal workspace where we began our story and I got my first real sample of the Bill Caswell Lifestyle.
“Yep, that’s where I lived. For like five months,” Caswell told me between bites of a chicken sandwich made of equal parts meat and automotive grease. He was referring to the couch I was trying to pretend I hadn’t just spilled guacamole on. I decided not to eat the chip I’d just recovered from between the cushions.
After parting ways with his ex-wife, Caswell moved into the shop he shared with Bream. “As a car guy, there’s really no better place to live than a shop. And there’s a brewery like 20 feet from the front door.”
I tried asking if he missed having personal space. Or his own shower. Or like, rooms not stacked to the ceiling with what most people might call “rusty trash.” But it didn’t seem like the thought had occurred to him.
“I’ve got a place to stay in three corners of the country, plus I’m over in Europe watching racing all the time, like, why would I pay rent?” he said.
As a rolling stone Caswell has done a good job avoiding the moss that is responsibility, but he’s had no trouble making friends all over the world. Friends like Travis Marr, Paul Donlin, John Ackerman, Tim McNulty and Eric Frentress who congregated with Caswell to try and turn his twisted hulk of an old BMW into a vaguely legitimate Baja 1000 race car.
Underdog characters against a longshot objective with the glory of an epic upset on the line—all the makings of a great story, or just another weekend with Bill Caswell. Either way, these guys were pulled in by Caswell’s gravity and kept motivated by his gregariousness.
By now you’re starting to see why people like living vicariously through this guy: His life looks like fun. But the reality of Caswell’s crusades are a lot more about frustration, sweat, pain and exhaustion than sliding around corners and spraying champagne over victory wreaths, as I learned for myself watching this Baja project come together.
Of course I was excited to hear Caswell was planning to take a bite out of the Baja 1000. I ran it myself in the winter of 2015.
Mexico’s western peninsula is the perfect place to get into just enough trouble, or entirely too much, either of which makes good kindling for a story. The problem becomes whether or not you can publish it, but that’s my favorite problem to have. Caswell felt the same way.
“You’ve got to come down and see this thing,” he told me on the phone, about a week and a half to race day. Caswell’s voice is coarse in person. On the phone, it’s like a spaceship’s distress signal in a sci-fi movie, loud and apocalyptic.
CRACKLE CRACKLE “Mexico!” CRACKLE CRACKLE “Getting the Bimmer going again!” CRACKLE “You’re coming with!”