Just to give you some perspective, the level of planning that seems to be going on as part of Wide Open Baja’s effort to run twelve cars in the Baja 1000 seems to be somewhere between a quinceañera and the Invasion of Normandy. Closer to the Normandy side. It’s a huge, complex effort with many moving parts, and I’m just hoping I don’t do anything to screw it all up.
Before I go into what I’ve encountered so far, it’s probably worth taking a minute to talk about how fundamentally insane Wide Open Baja is. In a good way.
Essentially, they’re letting you buy a seat time in a very specialized car to run in one of the most grueling, demanding forms of motorsport out there, among all the pro guys and everything. To put it in perspective, it’s sort of like if you could just buy time in an Indy car to run the Indy 500, or in a NASCAR car to run a NASCAR race—if you think about it like that, it’s nuts.
I suppose the fact that the drooling amateurs like myself who will be in the cars aren’t trapped on some oval track— they’re spread out over 1,000 miles of rough, untamed desert, which means the mixing of moron and master won’t be so disastrous, or at least shouldn’t hurt the pros much.
Wide Open Baja is running a dozen cars, with six racers per car, for a total of 72 racers and an insane number of hotel accommodations, ferries to driver changes via private planes, support vehicles to pull cars out of the silt or make repairs on the route, communication systems, mapping, and on and on and on.
Today I finally got a chance to get up close to the Baja Challenge cars we’ll be running in the race, and they’re extremely impressive beasts. They’re built at a shop in Ensenada, Mexico, that Wide Open Baja runs, with engines and other parts shipped from the U.S.
The cars are using 200 horsepower (up from 175 last year) Subaru flat-fours, mounted in the rear, as God himself prefers (seriously, Google His forum posts), and have a four-speed transaxle that I’m told is the weak link in the system.
The cars have an absurdly beefy tube-frame chassis with a fiberglass body over it that somehow reminds me of a very cut-down ‘40s or early ‘50s car, like a Henry J or something. Incredibly, these cars even have a usable trunk up front, a detail which makes me quite happy.
The radiator is right behind your head, and gets fed air from the glass-free non-shielding windshield opening. Drivers get fed air into their helmets via tubes, which keeps your visor from fogging, though it does sort of make you feel like they don’t want you taking up any of the engine’s precious, precious airflow with your stupid breathing.
They weigh about 2,500 lbs, and get, I was told, about 5 MPG, likely at best. With a 25-gallon fuel cell, that should give us a range of about 100 miles, and the crack logistics and chase teams have set up refueling stations all along the route.
I got a chance to finally drive and ride in the cars at the Estro Beach Hotel Track, a huge dirt squiggle with plenty of jumps, turns, mud, and what the off-road community calls “whoops.” A whoops is basically a sine wave written in the dirt, a three or so foot-high lump that you drive over. Often these will be in series, making what they call an “on-rhythm section” where your car is bouncing into the air, rhythmically.
Many of our readers are likely most familiar with the concept via this computerized simulation:
My driving partner is four-time Baja 1000 winner Mark Stahl, who is incredibly nice and accommodating even though he has every right to be aloof—hell, I opened up the commemorative program thing they gave out and there he is.
While having Mark with me on my stint of the race, the last leg, is a huge help, there’s also one significant problem that goes against my very nature as a participant in motorsports: he wants to win.
From my perspective, I’d been thinking about winning our class in the Baja 1000 about the same way I think about breathing underwater: a fun thought, but not gonna fucking happen.
Mark, of course, has other plans, and when I rode with him on the test track, that was made very, very clear. Mark tore ass all over the track, the car leaping into the air and sliding around the corners and doing acrobatic things that, if the car was covered in spandex and sequins and made to look like an erotic hippo, wouldn’t have been out of place in a Cirque du Soleil show.
I held on, giggled nervously, and realized I probably could have given my race catheter a really rigorous test right then.
After that, it was my chance to drive. I think the thing that surprised me the most at first is how comfortable the car actually is. After driving a Class 11 Beetle on a 10-mile rugged loop around Barstow last month (more coming on that, I promise) I found I was pretty exhausted from the physicality of it all.
While this Baja Challenge car is absolutely as or more physical, it’s lot less punishing than the nearly-stock Beetle Class 11 is. That’s not too surprising, when you consider that the Baja Challenge cars have suspension travel that’s as tall as the average toddler.
Seriously, those wheels can move about 36", which makes the driving of these things very, very strange. The body leans and rolls like a drunk-driven Citroën 2CV carrying a full hot tub, and over bumps and as you’re leaning into a turn you can sometimes see that wheel peeking up over the hood, which is a strange sensation.
The transmission, as the weak link in the setup, takes a fairly gentle touch, so no banging between gears and no revving when you’re aloft—the wheels aren’t air-paddlewheels, after all.
Steering is hydraulic and very direct, with decent communication through the wheel on dirt, and, I’m told, almost zero on pavement. There’s way more power than I knew what to do with. I slid and bumped and skidded and leapt across that track mostly in third gear, never touching the brake and having a somewhat nervy blast. I made probably every mistake you can, but I didn’t wreck or break anything, so I call that a victory.
Mark said I “looked smooth” out there, which is the way nice people tell you you’re slow, I think.
But I’m okay with that. I just want to not do anything stupid to the car, and not ruin anyone’s chances. The race is 1,000 miles of hell, and just keeping the car moving and not crashing or getting stuck is a huge, huge part of this.
There’s so many things that can go wrong, even before I get into the car. Since we’re the last stage, the car and other drivers have already been through hell, with our middle-section driver tackling a 12+ hour stint over some of the hardest, fastest stuff at night, without a driver change.
I’m nervous. Really nervous. I have confidence in the car, the systems, the chase teams, the other drivers, all that, I just don’t want to be the one factor that screws things up for everyone else.
So, I’ll try my best! If Mark can keep from murdering me after spending eight hours and 150 or so desert miles, I’ll consider that a great victory for him, no matter what the outcome.