As a car nerd, I’ve given a lot of thought to my bucket list of must-attend races. Way up high on that list is the granddaddy of all desert races, the SCORE International Baja 1000, which is celebrating its 50th year, this November 14–18.
Once jokingly described as an “all-day plane crash,” the Baja 1000, SCORE’s flagship event, is a point-to-point race across more than 1,200 miles of Baja California’s most rugged terrain, starting in Ensenada and finishing in La Paz some 48 hours later. Now far from its 1960s roots, Baja is a high-tech sprint in serious racing machines. Today’s top-tier desert racer is about as similar to a fancy SUV as Velveeta is to Brie, and the premier class consists of 900-horsepower Trophy Trucks, literally capable of flying over obstacles while tearing across the desert. Sophisticated “buggies,” as well-engineered as most road racing cars, lead a variety of pickups, historic racers, motorcycles and even classic VW Baja Beetles that fill out the field.
And whatever the machine, Baja racing vehicles demand service — not just gas and tires — with frequent major roadside fixes common after unplanned encounters with rocks, animals and even cacti. The pit crews following along the dusty route in separate vehicles and taking on these repairs range from seasoned professionals to friends and families working for beer, pizza and tacos. Not all teams have pit crews, but those that do appreciate the help from those doing it for the excitement and love of the sport.
Pre-race buzz is palpable as Ensenada becomes filled with Baja racers, fans and hangers-on, all gearing up for the downtown start. My fantasy plan includes ogling the sexy mechanical hardware, followed by retreating to a comfy poolside bar at one of Ensenada’s many resorts. I’d come back to watch the Trophy Trucks blast off early the following morning, and after a siesta, grab a rental Jeep and head out to watch a pit stop or two. Finally a celebratory margarita would be in order as I check off this must-do event.
Desert Racing: More Tech Than You Think
The Trophy Trucks used at the top level of the Baja 1000 are far more technical than they appear from the outside. The composite skin of these million-dollar machines (yes, you read that figure right) hides a rugged yet sophisticated CAD-engineered chassis and a long travel suspension that enables the 900-horsepower drivetrain to push these rigs across the desert floor at speeds nearing 140 mph. Racers pre-run the course and plot route guidance via GPS, and during the race itself, co-drivers refer to detailed course maps and pace notes to help safely and accurately route their drivers. Driver and co-driver communicate by intercom and wear cool-suits to fend off the heat. Two-way radios keep drivers in touch with crews and support vehicles, which range from 4x4s to purpose-built heavy trucks that carry all the tools, spares and equipment to rebuild a stricken car in the field.
50 Years of Grit
Testing man and machine in Baja dates back to 1962, when Honda sent its new Scrambler motorbikes from Tijuana to La Paz, proving their toughness and gaining advertising fodder. Others soon followed on four wheels — making Baja racing a real thing — with the inaugural race held in November 1967. Baja attracted hard-core bikers and off-roaders, along with racing stars of the day such as Parnelli Jones and celebrities like Steve McQueen. The ’70s and ’80s saw new stars like Rod Hall, Walker Evans and Mickey Thompson emerge, while simultaneously creating the aftermarket off-road industry. Winners like Ivan “Ironman” Stewart crossed over into mainstream popularity in the ’80s through media coverage and manufacturer tie-ins. From the ’90s to today, multifaceted racers like Robby Gordon, members of the Mears family, and NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson continue to compete in the Baja 1000 for its unique challenges and special place in motorsports history.
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition with the headline: “Baja Blast”.