I know that the formula that usually works best for a Jason Drives episode is to cram myself into something tiny, obscure, ill-conceived, a bit dangerous, and very uncomfortable. I mean, who doesn’t want to see me struggle and hurt a little? This week is different. This week is the finale, so I’m treating myself. I’m driving a car I genuinely, unashamedly love, a real Class 11 desert racing Beetle.
I drove the Beetle in Barstow a couple of months ago, and since that happened, the team that built and runs this car, Project Baja, has taken the Beetle to the legendary Baja 1000 race and, even better, finished. The Baja 1000 may be the most brutal, punishing automotive race in the world, and this little 1970 Volkswagen Beetle managed to finish the whole thing.
There’s purpose-built sand rails and trophy trucks that don’t finish that race, and somehow this little economy car designed in 1938 managed to do it. That’s absolutely incredible, and a huge part of why I’ve been so obsessed with Beetles: they manage to do things so far beyond what they were originally designed for, and have transcended their original role in so many new and unexpected ways.
Of course, an awful lot of why car 1137 finished that race has to do with the Project Baja team, and how they prepared the car. As a painful, painful Beetle geek, I was extremely impressed both with the team’s tolerance of listening to me talk about VWs, and their incredible, deep knowledge of VWs.
The team is made up of engineers and designers who approach the building and maintaining of the car with a rigor and set of standards that wouldn’t be out of place in a national space program. Every possible point of failure has been identified, and they engineer solutions to eliminate those points.
The Class 11 rules are pretty strict; the goal is to have cars that stick very close to the stock Beetle design. Even within these parameters, though, the Project Baja team finds ways to improve; a novel custom transmission mount, for example, allows for easier repairs and removal. Hoses and connectors are all of the highest possible grade, and often incredible overkill.
This may be one of the best-put-together Beetles I’ve ever driven, period. And it has to be, because the whole purpose of this car is to have the crap kicked out of it, by the road, the distance, the time, the dust, and even the other racers.
See this strange dent? That’s a type of body damage well-known to Class 11 racers: it comes from a trophy truck driving over the fender. So not only do the Class 11 racers have to do the same race with 1/10 the horsepower of many of their competitors, they have to deal with getting driven over as well.
Baja racers will often say that the Class 11 teams are the most hardcore racers out there. Sure, they’re the slowest, but they’re also the only ones doing the race in a car that was often sold to college professors who didn’t want to spend a lot of money on a commuter car or bought by parents as a first car for their kid.
Project Baja’s Class 11 Beetle did something incredible for me: it made me fall even deeper, more stupidly in love with a ridiculous little car with a troubling history that I’ve already been smitten by for decades.
In many ways, the Class 11 Racing Beetles are the ultimate, best form of the Beetle. It’s a use never anticipated or planned for the car, and yet there it is. Tough and cute, under-qualified yet somehow highly capable, primitive and yet oddly advanced. It’s all the contradictions that have always drawn me to the car, just magnified and covered in dust.
(Thanks to everyone at Project Baja, and to Volkswagen for flying me out to Barstow to drive the car!)