Mike Hembree, NASCAR Scene
BAJA BAD BOYS
Robby Gordon slept on top of his race truck. Because of the rattlesnakes. Big rattlesnakes. “You don’t want to mess with them,” Gordon says.
This wasn’t the Nextel Cup race at Phoenix. It was the Baja 1000, a legendary off-road race that tests the strength and endurance of men, women and machines (and, not incidentally, the mental stability of those who compete) on a thousand-mile journey across the badlands of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.
The Baja is the Super Bowl of off-road racing, a form of motorsport that has included participation by NASCAR drivers Robby Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Brendan Gaughan and Casey Mears. There are numerous opportunities - including many on the edge of sanity – to race off-road in the United States, but the Baja is in a league of its own and tends to generate most of the wild stories associated with this exotic style of racing.
The vehicles look like post-Apocalyptic remainders, wild hybrids designed for speed, endurance and nimbleness. Speed because, quite obviously, one needs to go fast. Endurance because of the length of the race and the diversity of the landscape. Nimbleness because drivers must dodge the occasional cow (not to mention a human being or two) along the way.
This is racing not for the faint of heart.
“It’s epic,” says Gaughan. “There’s nothing like it.”
One of the first things Gaughan learned about off-roading in Mexico was the cow rule.
“I’ve hit a cow before,” he says. “If you’re in Mexico and you hit a cow, the proper thing to do is find the farmer and pay him. So you always carry money. That’s the first thing my dad [Michael] taught me about the Baja race.
“In 1992, I was 17 years old and racing on my own for the first time down there. The last thing my dad did before the race was hand me a Ziploc bag. It had a book of matches and $800. At the end of that race, I think I had $140 left. I bought my way out of two holes [the race course is not exactly pristine], and I found a farmer to give me a shortcut.”
And the matches?
“That’s to burn the sucker down if it gets real cold,” Gaughan says.
Gordon is the most accomplished off-road racer in the Nextel Cup garage. He won the Baja 1000 in 1987 and ’89, continues to participate in the event, has an off-road vehicle supply business and is one of the most popular drivers south of the border. His success off-road earned him a spot on the Volkswagen team – alongside three previous champions – in this year’s Dakar Rally, a 5,565-mile endurance event run in Europe and Africa.
“I guess I do it because I can,” Gordon says. “It’s what I grew up doing. The biggest thing about it? No rules. I like no rules. It’s probably the only series in the world where there are no rules. You can put the engine in front of the front tires or behind the rear tires or sideways, or you can run two engines.”
Occasionally, off-road racers share a story that seems beyond the range of belief.
“Early in my career, I raced a single-seat vehicle, and I told people some of the stories from out on the road, and they said, ’Yeah, sure,’“ Gordon says. “Now at least I have a passenger [drivers have a co-driver or rider in the passenger seat] to ride with me so that when we drive off the road, down big ditches, pop tires and change them and all the crazy stuff that goes on, somebody else knows.”
It’s not unusual for participants to drop out of the Baja. This isn’t like having a mechanical problem in a NASCAR race and pulling into the garage. There is no garage. There’s a desert. Or a canyon. Or mud bog. There are long stretches of general nothingness. No Dunkin Donuts. No 7-Elevens. Vehicles can crash or break down in the middle of the night on the edge of a mountain, and the drivers might not be heard from for hours.
Speed limits? Realistically, no.
“Who’s going to enforce them, the Mexican federales? With their cars that might run 40 miles per hour?“ Gordon says.
“You have to understand the vehicle, know how to work on them, change tires, all that,” he says. “You’re consistently traveling new ground. Just because you’ve been there three weeks ago [drivers typically do a “pre-run“ over the course to get a general idea of the layout] doesn’t mean that a tree didn’t fall down in the middle of the road. It doesn’t mean that the Mexican spectators didn’t build a jump for your vehicle to go over. They call them booby traps. They’re not wanting people to crash. They want to see them jump in the air.
“You have a computer in the car that shows the course and that there’s a left turn ahead, but you can’t see around it. You hope to God there are no horses, cows, goats, pedestrians. I run a helicopter during the daylight hours to help me with situations like that, but during the nighttime it’s not there.
“I broke down in the Baja in 1995 and ’96 and was out there for some time. Only one time did I have to fall asleep on top of a vehicle. I went up on the roof so the snakes couldn’t get me.”
Running the Baja is a complex logistical operation, particularly for serious drivers who hope to do well. Teams have pits located at intervals (typically separated by about 100 miles) along the course, and each must be stocked with tires, fuel, spare parts and the necessary tools for all manner of repair work. Gordon’s Baja team totals more than 60 people. Chase crews, which follow the race cars at differing distances to provide assistance, also are part of the package.
Despite the expense and the planning, however, this remains largely wilderness racing with very unpredictable results. The variables include weather, wind, a shifting landscape and a strange parade of mammals, all capable of changing the course of the race and-or the racers. A course guide, listing the corners and turns, includes such helpful information as “upside-down rusted van on left“ and “shrine on left.”
Gaughan has had numerous adventures in the Baja.
“Last year I drove off a cliff,” he says. “Right off the side of the thing. I went about 75 to 80 feet down the side. We spent most of the night down there. We went over about 3 in the afternoon, and somebody came and got us about midnight.”
That wasn’t the end of the story. Gaughan’s vehicle was in a precarious position.
“There was a sheer cliff about 50 feet below us, and the car was kind of teetering,” he says. “When they pulled us up out of there, that was one of the scariest moments of my entire life. My faithful spotter [co-rider] got out with a flashlight to watch, and I was crying like a little girl.
“We went over the cliff and stopped and stayed there in the freezing cold. It was probably 35 degrees. Finally, a guy came along with a four-wheel drive and dropped a wench down to us. He had to pull me straight up the hill. My life was hanging by a thin steel braid. He pulled me up about 40 feet, and then the car turned, and all I could see was darkness and the moon.
“He told me to hit the brakes because he had to back up and reset the wench. I’m in tears. All I can see behind me is a sheer cliff. We got about five feet from the edge, and I hit the gas, and I’m screaming. But I landed on the other side.”
Gaughan finished the race.
In another Baja, Gaughan suffered “heat exhaustion and frostbite in the same race, got stuck for an hour, caught on fire three times and flipped twice. Billy Holbrook, my co-rider, gets very animated talking about that race.”
The driver and co-rider in this day-to-night-to-day race become much more than pilots. Gaughan described the co-rider as “an extra set of eyes and an all-round utility guy. He has to fix problems like MacGyver.
“You have to know what you’re doing out there. I’ve held together a carburetor with bubble gum. I’ve used a farmer’s barbed wire to hold stuff together. If it can get me 10 miles, I can get to a pit and get it fixed.
“In the Baja in 2002, we had an awful night. We ran for 10 miles on two handheld flashlights because our alternator was dying. We almost drove off a cliff that night. Finally, it just shut off. We slept in the car a couple of hours until sunlight. We found an old farmer with a battery, put it in and got it where it would start.
“We ended up spending four hours in this little town with the locals in the middle of nowhere. A guy came out and offered us wine. We ended up coming out of there with a couple of jugs of moonshine and made it back to the highway.
“I love the Mexican people. When I race down there, I feel very comfortable. If I end up in a town like that, I don’t worry about it. The people are so nice. They help you if they can. They gave us something to eat.”
Johnson had a relatively unsettling experience in the Baja in 1995.
“I went off the road about 3 or 4 in the morning about 800 miles into the 1,000,” he says. “By the time somebody got to me, it was a good day later. By the time I got back in a safe environment, it was two days later. I learned a lot sitting there thinking about the mistake I made. I really just fell asleep at the wheel. At that time, I was pretty aggressive and made some dumb mistakes. That one really woke me up.
“I had been driving over 20 hours and was trying to make it until the sun came up. Once you see the sunlight, it really helps you stay awake. It was in that last hour or two before the sun came up, and I was on a long gravel road and kind of did a head nod like you might do when you’re driving down the street and you’re tired. But this head nod was at 100 miles an hour with a corner coming up, and the car went off the road and flipped off through the desert. It bruised us up and bent the cage of the truck.
“We felt like our chase vehicle would get to us and we’d be able to repair the truck and at least get back to a pit. Little did we know they had an incident where they broke down, and they weren’t behind us. We didn’t have anybody coming, so we just sat around, and, after a while, we realized nobody was coming.”
Waiting in the team’s next pit was Gary Johnson, Jimmie’s father. He had fueled his son’s interest in off-road racing years earlier when Jimmie accompanied him in a BF Goodrich truck, hauling tires to off-road events. Jimmie basically grew up in the truck, playing in the tires in the back.
“I heard him on the radio going through checkpoints all day and into the night,” Gary Johnson says. “I knew he was third overall. They should have been the third truck through, but they didn’t make it. They had to go out in the mountains and weld the truck back together to get it out. It was a bad wreck and scared him pretty bad.
“The next day when the race was over we were loading stuff up, and here they came out of the hills. I gave him a big hug. It made me nervous all night until I heard somebody had stopped to help him.”
Johnson had other off-road adventures. “You always end up sliding into a cow,” he says. “Luckily, I never hit one hard. The fans - for some reason in Mexico they think they’re cool if they can touch the side of the truck as it goes by. You’re going by at a high rate of speed, and they’re reaching out with their arms trying to touch the vehicle. So there are a lot of scary moments.
“You have everything from booby traps that they build to see a crash or a big jump to them detouring you off the road down some side road so you have to turn around. You learn to expect the unexpected in Mexico.”
Casey Mears basically learned how to drive while traveling with his father, Roger, who raced in the desert from the early 1970s to the mid-1990s. As part of his pre-NASCAR career, Casey Mears ran off-road stadium SuperLites in 1996.
“Casey never got to do any desert stuff because the timing wasn’t right,” Roger Mears says. “He was too young. When he started off-road, he started in the Mickey Thompson Stadium Truck Series. But I’d take him on pre-runs [in the desert] with me, and he learned how to drive at an early age.”
Mears, who now drives his son’s motorhome, described Baja as “a huge adventure every time you did it. There were some places that were a little scary. There were about three areas you always kept your eyes out for. It was rare, but I know there were two or three cars shot at. I actually saw the bullet holes in the cars. I got hit with a bucket of water one time running about 90 miles an hour through a little village.
“In my first Baja , I spent the night from about 11 to 11 sitting out there with a stranded car. I had a little fire going. Then I saw a fire nearby. I limped the car over there with a bad transmission. I sat there and talked all night with the guy.
“When I got ready to leave the next morning, he handed me his card and said, ’If you ever get to Vegas, come in and we’ll take care of you.’ It was Michael Gaughan [Brendan’s father and a casino-resort owner in Las Vegas]. That’s how the Mears family met the Gaughan family.”
Thirty years later, their sons are in NASCAR, racing under much more controlled conditions. Matches? Not necessary.