Six men are driving 1,500 horses across a Mexican wasteland. On a tight schedule to make town, they’ll cut though plenty of danger, dust and drinking before the week’s out. It’s not a John Wayne movie, it’s a Baja prerun—the drive ahead of a huge off-road race. If you think the west isn’t wild anymore, this will change your mind.
This drive comes on the eve of one of biggest, baddest off-road races in North America. And this year, one of the competitors will be a Canadian madman making his first foray into competition in a big way. I’m going with him.
What have I gotten myself into?
Pictured: Baja gas station. Open all night. Both octanes, bro.
The Baja peninsula dangles from the spine of California down Mexico’s western seaboard. The picturesque Sea of Cortez separates it from the mainland east, with a fierce and fickle Pacific Ocean on the other side. In between lies about 27,000 square miles of moonlike terrain, a few decent-sized cities, more taco stands than flies on a horse’s ass and an endless network of “roads” in the loosest sense of the word.
These map lines run the range from smooth paved highway to crusty goat paths you’d have trouble getting up if you were, well, a goat. Mostly just cattle in Baja anyway, and they only move when they really have to.
A lot of this routes are flat-ish dirt, and they’re all begging to be attacked by a big truck on mean tires.
That’s why this region is host to some of the most exciting off-road races on Earth, the flagship of which is the SCORE Baja 1000. You might have heard it described as “Mad Max meets NASCAR” or “a bunch of rich rednecks turning money into noise.” All of that is accurate.
The 2015 edition will be a 800something-mile loop from the city of Ensenada, southbound, around and back up again. It’s slow. It’s technical. It’s my first time competing.
To fans of off-road racing there are plenty of familiar names in the starting grid: Robby Gordon, Bryce Menzies, BJ Baldwin and more. But there are many more amateurs and dreamers filling out the field.
Or, in the case of our team, a Canadian businessman who woke up one day and said “hey, let’s go off-road racing.”
Mike Jams is stockbroker from Quebec. In the third quarter of an apparently successful career selling money, he finally can afford to make an earnest effort at his dream of desert racing. And dammit, he’s going for it.
The saga started just about a year ago when he Googled “desert race school” and found my friend Ron Stobaugh.
Strategizing at Coco’s Corner, one of the many bestickered Baja rest stops you’ll hear veteran talk about at other rest stops.
Ron’s been into desert race cars his whole life and now runs a business called—get this—the Desert Race School. Along with his son Austin and Baja veteran Shannon Boothe, Ron offers a full-service operation to get anybody out of an office chair and into a five-point harness after a couple quick training days.
But Jams wants to take his effort a few steps further and compete internationally. In the biggest and baddest race “south of the border,” no less.
“I figure if I go for the toughest, so it’s only going to get easier after this,” he told me after describing the Baja 1000 fantasizes he had as a school kid.
So Stobaugh and company made Jams a deal. They’d manage his entire program from vehicle prep to logistics to co-driving, and take care of every other inevitable incident that would come up in Mexico. They provide the expertise, Jams has the time of his life with people he can trust watching his back.
All the Canadian has to do is keep the car in one piece for his stint behind the wheel, with crags and cracks trying to kill it from below and hundreds of competitors breathing down his back from every other angle.
Eventually, Jams wants to wrap some kind of sponsorship or marketing proposition into his racing. Maybe we’ll check back in on that after he puts down his race miles.
The Desert Race School is a miniature multigenerational cross-section of the off-road industry, which makes it a pretty interesting place to be embedded.
Shannon’s the crotchety old sage who knows everything and everyone. He doesn’t give a damn if you’re comfortable and will leave you at a taco stand in the middle of the night if you piss him off. But damnit he gets results. Seriously though, classic hardass with a heart of gold.
Ron’s not quite as cynical, and pretty much only gets mad when somebody urinates on his truck. Which only happened one time this week.
His son Austin can pretty much tear down and rebuild his a on the side of the road, and his making tracks his own right by racing Jeep Cherokees in the JeepSpeed class. He’ll be a venerable competitor once he gets a few more trips down there under his belt, but 2015 will be his first race in the Baja 1000.
Horsepower Ranch, one of the fancier racer haunts in Baja. Generator stays on as long as somebody’s got a tab going.
Jams’ daily-driver is a bicycle, one he rides to a first class airport lounge. He doesn’t know a supercharger from an oil filter. He hasn’t done any off-road driving outside of two U.S. desert sprint events. He barely drives.
“And this is the worst course I’ve seen in 20 years,” Shannon would add, any chance he got.
But Jams is a hell of a nice guy, and after spending a few hundred miles riding shotgun with him in his new Raptor I feel like... well, he’s entirely not hopeless.
The guy got a Raptor he’d never driven through 800 miles of race course without popping any tires and only got bogged once. That once was a terrific sinking up to the axles in sand, but he’s obviously been paying attention to the instructions of the Desert Race School crew.
For this year’s Baja 1000, Jams Motorsports (working title) has scooped up myself and and photographer Kyle Wells to get a taste of the region at its wildest; running remote corners of race course before dangers are marked, without support outside your own entourage.
Here’s what we learned.
Before an off-road race even starts, the teams that have the time and resources will run the entire course a few degrees below race pace to get and idea of what they’re up against, mark their GPS for hazards and formulate a strategy.
It’s a colossal advantage on race day. It’s also an excuse to spend a week in Mexico sucking down tacos and Tecate.
But basically, it’s the ultimate road trip. There’s a general idea of where you’re going, a vague schedule and a hard objective. With major challenges along the way and roadside attractions you couldn’t make up, to say the place is “memorable” doesn’t come close.
For starterss, there’s Coco’s Corner. Coco retired from a career in crop dusting and now holds down a “bar”/“hotel” in between miles of nothingness. Coco has no legs, and will insist that you crawl into a giant pair of red panties to sign his guest book. He’s happy to take a photo with you as long as he can flip off the camera.
His field is littered with old pickup truck camper shells, which you can rent if you don’t have a tent (they have electricity!) and a circle of toilets that have held the ass of just about every racer that’s made a name for themselves in the toughest terrain in off-road.
And as for the taco stands. Well, if you can’t smell gasoline or burning rubber (tire fires, not burnouts) chances are you can waft some sizzling asada. If it smells good, it probably is good. Don’t forget to slap a sticker on the wall if your cook is cool with it.
Ron runs a close-to-stock Ford Raptor with long and wide desert suspension. For his first prerun, Jams went ahead and bought his own Raptor. Off the SEMA show floor.
His truck has a mild suspension setup, bumpers, and a Whipple supercharger that supposedly boosts output to 700 horsepower. (It still managed to get stuck in sand though.) Also a bright orange wrap and Fast & Furious style sponsorship-stickers. Actually looks pretty legit, and sounds like the devil belching every time you kick it in the guts.
An old F-250 diesel chased the Raptors around with extra fuel cans during prerun week, while all three trucks will be on support duty come race day.
When the course is active and the race starts, we’ll be running what’s called a “Trophy Lite;” a V8-powered buggy that looks something like a pickup truck. But that’s only if everyone survives the prerun.
High-dollar teams from brands you’ve heard of have dedicated prerunning vehicles that can take as much of a beating as a race car. They blaze through Baja with experienced co-drivers taking notes and marking danger spots with the truck at a full gallop.
Where a purpose-built prerunner could do 60 mph, we’d be lucky to make 30. And only if we didn’t mind our brains shaking around like a hot wok full of frying food. A Ford Raptor is an amazingly quick and capable vehicle, but compared to an open-wheeled crawler, it’s still an F-150.
The whole point is to look around. Take in the sights and smells. And tacos. You’re never going to memorize 800 miles of race course, but there are always landmarks you can use to mentally bookmark the gnarliest jumps and drops and boobytraps.
If you’re keeping your eyes open, the trail ranges from vague to “this has gotta be it, right?” Until it’s neither, and you’re in the middle of a cactus patch crashing through branches covered in spines.
This is where having the race course loaded into your GPS is essential. Not just for putting X’s on the danger zones, but for reference when tire tracks go every direction and somebody’s stolen the little orange course markers.
On our prerun, each truck ran a GPS mounted to the middle of the dash and easy for driver or passenger to reference. In the race, it’s right in the face of the co-driver and their sole responsibility to read it.
One of the greatest reasons veteran racers will lament the ubiquity of GPS in desert racing: it makes people crazy enough to charge through dust clouds full-noise.
Sometimes it’s necessary to execute a pass, but you can never forget that a straight line on the map only tells part of the story.
On another trip to Baja, rally pro Andrew Comrie-Picard told me that“every dust cloud has a crunchy center.” Sounds like an Easter candy, but you do not want to eat it. Naturally, the Desert Race School boys gave newbie Jams similar advice; don’t drive blind unless absolutely necessary.
In the siltbeds, it becomes absolutely necessary.
Silt is like sand, only heavier. In Australia we called it “bulldust” because it basically knocks your tires anywhere it wants. When you power through it, a cloud envelops your vehicle and renders your windows worthless. But let off in the stuff and you’ll never get going again.
Once you’re blacked out there’s no sensation of where you’re going or how quickly, that’s where it’s nice to have satellites for eyes.
We found this out on the southernmost loop of the Baja course, where silt beds give way to islands of cacti. While Mike keeped his boot on the gas and his eyes peeled for a break in the duststorm our wheels were making, I assured him the vehicle was still moving and on-course by calling out our speed on the screen.
The tires caught hardpack again and the smokescreen lifted just in time for us to barely avoid rear-ending Ron’s parked prerunner.
It didn’t take too long to figure out why Ron had stopped at the end of the silt run. As he inched his truck forward the front left axle sounded like a demonic rooster being raped with a rototiller.
Everyone climbed out to scratch their heads and stare at it. Somebody suggested Ford Raptor front axles “are known to bind.”
The sun was hot. The wind was firehosing silt into our eyes. The satellite phone wasn’t working.
We stood around kicking rocks until a light bulb when off above our photographer Kyle’s head.
“Oh. Dudes. Bet there’s a rock stuck in the brake dust cover.”
He might as well have told us he’d just farted out $100,000 in cash the mood changed so quick.
We whipped the wheel off and yep; a stone had been pinned between the spinning brake caliper and the little steel guard right next to it.
Those who have taken roadtrips know issues arise, traffic happens, and you’re going to be a lot better off if you budget some extra time. This is twice as true off-road, where small incidents can escalate and tensions can run a little high after a few days on the trail.
Just a big rig off-roading. Slowly. Slowly. Wonder if he’s still out there.
By the way, the locals are more badass than you. Every time I’ve been off-road in Mexico, I’ve had the luxury of a well-built 4x4. And every time, I pass some local doing the exact same trail in a hopelessly inadequate car.
This time we got smoked by three people wringing the life out of an ancient Nissan Frontier, and got stuck behind a damn semi-truck on a path we could barely squeeze our Raptors through.
It hit me as I was marking the 80th or 90th point of interest on our GPS; “DANGER. JUMP/COUCH IN ROAD.”
I was going to have to ride this course in a week. At night. At race pace. With nothing but my memory and the notes I was scribbling now to guide my driver through our section without letting him run off a cliff, or into a jump someone had made out of a couch.
Our strategy had me riding navigator with Ron through the second quarter of the race, which was going to be about 250 miles of what the team assured me was “the roughest section of the race.”
Ron’s promised he “could pretty much do it without me,” ostensibly to keep me from pissing myself before I’ve even hooked up my catheter yet. But it’s still going to be a lot of speed, a lot of bumps, and a lot of pressure. I really don’t want to wad our race effort because I confuse left with right or get distracted by an interesting cactus.
The only thing I’m not worried about is staying awake. The Trophy Lite has no windshield and no muffler. I’m pretty much expecting to feel like I’m sitting on the wing of a crashing airplane for five hours.
Also, don’t forget to stop and smell the ocean. You’ll stop for the novelty of driving on the beach without a permit, you’ll stay because you’ve got a beautiful beach to yourself. Or because you’re stuck.
So we survived the prerun. But luxuries we had—such as they were—won’t be available to us tomorrow, when the actual race starts in our Trophy Lite. I’ll be navigating for real then as Jams races to win, scrambling hundreds of miles across this desert.
Earlier, I wondered what the hell I was getting myself into. I’m still not sure I know.
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