Baja Bustin’ Bimmer

Martin Christensen is Munich’s lone wolf in the rugged deserts of the American and Mexican southwest. The dedicated Escondido, California, off-road racing champion drives the only BMW-powered racer in SCORE’s tough six-event desert racing series against dozens of Honda, Toyota, and Porsche-powered single-seaters-but in a cliff-hanger end-of-the-season running of the Baja 1000, he won his second class championship in as many years.

These specially-constructed Class 10 desert racers are some of the most sophisticated racing machines in the world. With a displacement limit of just 1,600cc, the emphasis is on light weight and maximum suspension travel; some cars have more than 30’ of total movement at their wheels! The Mexican fans call them arenas-spiders-because of their long, delicate suspension components.

But 2003 hadn’t been Martin’s best year in the desert. Unlike the previous season, when he’d usually placed in the top three. Christensen hadn’t won a single race since the season started in January at Laughlin, Nevada. The competition in this premier lightweight class was increasing-not only in numbers, but in quality as well. Powerful Honda and Toyota-backed teams, driven by some of the toughest veterans in the series (plus a miserable run of luck in two events), had often pushed Christensen off the top step of the podium.

But his competition wasn’t winning with the singular consistency necessary to keep the BMW driver out of the running for the championship. Christensen’s steady finishing record of seconds, thirds, and fourths in the first five events of the six-race series put him in second overall in the standings, trailing by just 30 points-and giving him a fair chance to win the championship provided he could beat the points leader. Steve Meyers, in the final, treacherous round on the Baja peninsula. Moreover, Eli Yee, of Tijuana, trailed Christensen by just eight points; if he won overall in the 1000, Christensen would have to take second to take the crown.

What had kept Christensen’s All German Auto racing team in contention for the championship was the reliability of his car-and an extremely efficient crew. The BMW-powered Jimco chassis had been carefully refined over two seasons and boasted incredible reliability in both the powertrain and the suspension. Bilstein, one of the Christensen’s most important technical allies, had used the AGA car as a development platform for a new line of shocks devoted exclusively to the off-road racing and recreational market; at the completion of every race the shocks were returned to Bilstein’s Southern California developmental lab for evaluation and rebuild. “The handling on this car is one of my biggest assets,” says Christensen, “and that’s due entirely to Bilstein and to Eibach, who supplies my springs, and to BFG, who continue to make the best tires in the desert.”

AGA’s racing crew is made up of many of the mechanics who work in Christensen’s service department. “We have sixteen guys who are the hard core of the team,” he says, “the men who build and service the car with me in Escondido. And then we have about twice that number who volunteer to help on the weekends. The camaraderie and spirit of the entire group is what makes this team so successful.”

The course for the Baja 1000 changes each year, mapped out months in advance by Sal Fish, SCORE’s dynamic president. He spends weeks in the wild and desolate Mexican outback with his small team of advisors, trying to devise a course that provides the minimum disruption to the local farm communities through which the race will run while remaining relatively safe and accessible to the racers’ rapidly-moving service crews and the quarter-million boisterous fans who will line the sides of even the most remote roads for this classic event. This is no easy task, as the main centers of commerce along the course eagerly look forward to the influx of cash brought by the tourists who come to watch, but at the same time are not always equal to the task of keeping the heavy non-race traffic off the main course.

Every four years the race runs the entire length of the Baja peninsula, from Ensenada to La Paz or Cabo San Lucas. On alternate years-2003 was one- the course is configured as a massive, jagged loop that crosses the mountainous spine of Baja, allowing the course to run along both the Sea of Cortez on the east and areas of the Pacific on the West. The Baja 1000 has always been an open-road race, a course made up hundreds of tiny secondary dirt roads that are mostly unmapped and known only to the locals-and to racers who spend weeks before each race pre-running the course to learn its secret twists and turns. Since much of the race runs at night, an intimate knowledge of the back-country is imperative, not only for the drivers far out into the desert to make complicated repairs.

Ensenada, the starting point and major port city on Baja’s northwestern coast, is a colorful community with good hotels, great restaurants, and a safe harbor- a regular stopping point for the giant cruise liners that Mexico’s Pacific ports. Situated at the end of a beautiful superhighway that runs down along the coast from Tijuana, Ensenada is the perfect jumping-off point for the real Baja that lies below. It permits the thousands of race fans to have a final night in civilization before heading off down one of the peninsula’s two main highways to their favorite camping and viewing points, which can be literally hundreds of miles to the south in some of the most barren but beautiful country in the world.

The Mexican Highway Patrol realizes that the race course has to cross both of Baja’s two main highways at certain points- in fact, it uses long stretches of pavement to join the secondary dirt roads that make up the course- so in the interest of safety it warns the racers that if they are caught speeding on these main thoroughfares they will be subject to detainment and even arrest. Since the race’s fastest cars start first, early in the morning at 30-second intervals, the powerful marquee-class Trophy Trucks and Unlimited Class 1s were first off the line. The Highway Patrol, realizing from past experience that the lead racers would be going flat-out, had set up a roadblock where the first leg of secondary road leaving Ensenada entered the main highway toward Ojos Negros. Armed with radar guns, video equipment, and even trailers to haul away the scofflaws, they were determined to thwart the speeders.

It wasn’t long before the first dozen racers, running flat-out, just seconds apart, were flagged down and apprehended by the mass of arm-waving cops, swirling gumballs, and red flags. Total chaos! Even as the thundering Trophy Trucks were being motioned to the side of the road, more racers came streaming up the highway at high speed, creating a logistical nightmare. Just as the police were attempting to arrest the drivers of the leading cars, the teams’ support helicopters descended from the heavens, creating an even more surreal scene; Airborne team managers, some with frantic translators, materialized out of the swirling rotor dust to try and bargain with the police, while other drivers, who had come upon the scene at a more sensible pace, were trying to sweet-talk their way past the leaders, proclaiming their own innocence. When even more race cars and everyday morning traffic began backing up on the road, there was no solution but to let the race proceed. Large amounts of cash may have hastened this decision, but the roadblock was suddenly opened, creating a highly disorganized mass restart. The entire pack went howling on down the main road at an even more furious pace.

Because this year’s route shoe-laced itself across Baja’s two main highways in several places as it snaked some 480 miles to the final southernmost turning point at Rancho Chapala, it allowed the hundreds of service crews to place themselves strategically along the route to fuel and re-tire their vehicles. Once their drivers had gone through their first service points, these crews could load up and race down along the main highways to meet their drivers and service them again- in effect creating another very unofficial race.

Christensen’s co-driver for the 2003 Baja 1000 was veteran racer Dave Mason of Valley Center. This tiny agricultural community is a hotbed of desert-racing activity just east of Escondido, where Christensen had his independent service garage, All German Auto. The plan was to have Mason run first, driving the slower, more technical portion of the course down the center of the mountainous Baja peninsula. He would pit at Race Mile 204, where Christensen- acting as crew chief- could help his team refuel, change tires, and reconstruct any major damage that might have occurred in the first quarter of the race. Mason would then continue east and south through some of the most difficult terrain, finally taking in a desolate western loop that included a notoriously difficult stretch of silt beds along the coast; if all went as planned, Mason might make it through in the fading afternoon light, which could help him avoid problems in the deep, talcum-powder-like silt. Christensen would then get into the car at Race Mile 440 and hopefully race ahead of Yee and Meyers to the finish in Ensenada.

It didn’t work out that way.

About ten miles before Valle de Trinidad, Mason, coming down a fast, sandy wash, hooked his left rear tire in a deep trough, almost flipping the car. The incident tore the wheel off the hib and he had to radio his crew to come off the main highway to more repairs. After some serious mechanical surgery, he finally made it out, but the car’s rear suspension was severely damaged. He’d  so badly that the tire was toed out some 4”. This, of course, made the handling rather peculiar, but there was so thought of quitting; Baja racers make do.

Since Yee and Meyers had started several positions ahead of Christensen, all the BMW pilot could do was try to keep track of their progress by radio. Yee had gone through the checkpoint at Valle de Trinidad almost two hours earlier, sounding strong, so there seemed little hope of catching him. Meyer’s luck, however, was even worse than Mason’s; he’d blown his engine less than fifty miles into the race. That evened the odds, but Mason’s progress was now too slow to even think of catching the fast-disappearing Yee.

When Mason finally made it into AGA’s road-side pit area on the main highway just north of Catavinia at Race mile 440, it was well past midnight. The crew had built a roaring fire to keep warm and tried to keep track of the race by radio. Some two dozen cars were buried out in the silt beds, and difficult radio reception made it difficult to contact Mason. Was he, too, stuck in the silt? No; eventually the distinctive song of the BMW was heard. Mason had made it through!

Instead of climbing into the car to continue north, Christensen began a careful evaluation of the car’s potential to make it to the finish. Most drivers would have had their adrenaline pumping, anxious to take off in hopes of catching the competition, but Christensen realized that Yee was long gone. His only hope was that in Yee’s zeal to win, something might work to the BMW team’s advantage.

In spite of being suited up, ready to race, with his helmet on, Christensen remained in his analytical crew-chief mode, carefully going over every point on the car, checking shocks, springs, fluids, and wiring, and resetting the lights. The left rear was still pointing outward at an awkward angle. The car, according to Mason, was a handful; it required both a deft touch and a heavy hand to keep it in line.

While torquing every fastener, Christensen discovered a major problem; several of the bolts that hold the hub assembly together on the left rear trailing arm were broken off at the head! The remaining bolts had been severely weakened in Mason’s crash and were threatening to pull out. If they did, the suspension would fail- and Christensen would be out of the race, possibly miles from his crew and any chance of survival. He quietly pulled off his helmet, intent on solving the problem.

Half the bolts were still firm, but the critical broken fasteners would have to be removed and replaced- but how? The broken off bolts were flush with the hub’s surface; there was no way to get a Vise-Grip on them. Trying to drill them out would only result in damaged and weakened internal threads.

A generator and portable are welder were pulled from the team’s service trucks while Christensen continued to study the problem. He realized that if he could somehow weld a nut onto each broken bolt, he could then apply wrench to nut and back the broken stud out. There were half a dozen broken bolts…but no welding goggles! Christensen would have to weld the nuts to broken studs by feel. Striking an arc in the pitch-black night, Christensen closed his eyes and carefully fed the brilliant stub through the nut against the slight resistance of the bolts broken surface. Stopping to check every few moments to make sure he hadn’t burned off the bolt heads, he slowly stitched a nut to each broken bolt and then used a wrench to back them out. It took more than 45 minutes to complete the job.

When everything was finally torqued down to his satisfaction, Christensen put a handful of extra nuts and bolts in his pocket, climbed in through the roof of the car, and strapped in to give chase. It would take the crew another 45 minutes to repack the gear. Half the team would follow behind Christensen, paralleling his course through the desert on the paved highway while he drove up the east side of the peninsula. The rest set off back toward Ensenada- a long six-hour drive after a fifteen- hour day of chasing the car. Baja is just as tough on crews as it is on drivers.

Normally Christensen could have used the BMW’s superior power and speed on this faster portion of the course to make up time, but tonight it was different. Running flat-out on the long, swift rolling sand roads was impossibly. In addition to the bent left rear suspension, a strong wind off the Sea of Cortez was blowing the car around so badly when he crested the rollers that he could barely maintain control. The car pitched and veered violently, trying to head off into the unknown blackness that framed the brilliance of its lights, while Christensen tried to drive in a way that would put minimum strain on the highly-stressed rear suspension. “That was perhaps the most difficult part of the race,” said Christensen at the finish. “I couldn’t run at the speeds I was used to, and I knew Yee was gaining all the time.” At each pit shop Christensen jumped out of the car, inspected the rear suspension, and hollered for a welder. Then he’d repeat the time-consuming process he’d invented down in Catavinia. Often more than one bolt-head would be broken off, but he stubbornly refused to quit.

At the coastal resort town of San Felipe, about three-quarters of the distance to finish, Christensen saw the most incredible sight of his race; Eli Yee’s Honda…on a trailer! The seemingly-unstoppable Yee had blown his engine and had already packed up to head home. Now all Christensen had to do was make it back over the mountains, through Valle de Trinidad where Mason had earlier crashed, and on to Ensenada. It was no longer a race but a matter of survival, a test of mechanical, mental and physical endurance. If he could nurse the car into Ensenada, he would again win the championship.

Whenever he stopped to refuel, Christensen checked the damaged rear end to find more broken bolts. By Valle de Trinidad- Race Mile 700- the light was breaking in the east; he had used almost all the spares he’d stuffed in his pocket at the southern turn-point. Deciding then that discretion was the better part of valor, he again parked his racer and welded and pulled every stressed bolt from the rear hub, replacing them with the last of his stash. For good measure he changed the left rear tire; he hadn’t had a single flat, but the distorted suspension had abused the tire to the point that looked like it might fail.

It would take another three hours to complete the course. By now there were broken cars all along the route, and many more in trouble, motoring along slowly, trying to make the finish line at about 10:30 in the morning; it had taken more than 25 hours to complete the loop. Christensen was fourth in Class 10- but that was enough to deliver the championship to the bare-eyed BMW welder of the Baja 1000.