A Brutal Baja

RALLY GOES DESERT

Germany's Armin Schwartz, a world-class rally driver in the WRC, was this year's top cross-over driver from another series. Ironically, he'd drawn the first starting slot in Class 1 for this year's Baja 1000. That position meant that Schwartz would be first off the line, just 30 seconds after some three dozen Trophy-Trucks had powered off into the distance. What made this bit of trivia interesting to many veteran Baja observers was the fact that Schwartz had never driven anything resembling the blindingly fast Jimco-Chevy he was sharing with owner/driver Bret Hartman, who was scheduled to run the lower half of the course after Schwartz delivered it–hopefully intact–at Bahia de Los Angeles.

After a couple days of prerunning the Northern section of the course, with coaching from Baja champ Martin Christensen, Schwartz quickly adapted. "The WRC cars we run in Europe have about the same power-to-weight as this car, but they are very nervous and twitchy; you have to be on them every second to extract the best times. This Jimco, with all its suspension travel, is quite different. It has a lot of roll, so it's a bit slower in response, but after I got used to that aspect it was a great car....I love it."

While many think the typical WRC stage to be smooth and fast, Schwartz was not out of his element in the rough of Baja. "Actually, the sections I practiced were very much like Kenya in the Safari Rally, and as for being rough...yes, most of the WRC events are much smoother than here but some, like Corsica, are just as rugged, so there were few surprises."

Schwartz was quick to point out the differences between the 1000 and the WRC. "Baja is about survival, not outright speed, so you have to understand the race pace the car can absorb. Next is the freedom you have here. In Europe, the FIA has everything so over-regulated that it's difficult to go anywhere without special permission; you need passes for everything. Baja is just the opposite. I'm running an Unlimited Class car here and that word, 'unlimited' says it all: complete freedom to run the car however you want. The Baja 1000 is some of the best racing in the world."

Schwartz rolled off first in the super competitive 27-car, Class 1 field and, to the surprise of many, arrived first in Bay of LA, about 375 race miles south of Ensenada, without a scratch on the car. What's more, he'd passed several Trophy-Trucks in the faster sections. "The car ran perfect–no flats and no problems."
Well, in fact there had been one small problem. Armin's support truck, with all its spare wheels, tools, radios and dump cans was stolen the day before the start! "That could have happened anywhere in the world," he said philosophically, not in the least perturbed by this seeming calamity. "Martin Christensen's AGM crew had enough spares brought in overnight, so we could start–I left Ensenada knowing we could make it."

Schwartz handed over to Bret Hartman in Bay of LA, confident they might win Class 1. Hartman, however, made a single mistake. He tried to "straight-line" a dry lake instead of taking the planned route around the perimeter. Halfway out on the lake, the dry surface caved in, sinking the car in mud up to the axles.

TO THE NTH DEGREE

American rally star and X Games god Travis Pastrana was also among the field of cross-overs. Teamed with Damen Jefferies in a beautiful new Class 1 car, the duo was looking strong in Class 1 until Jefferies got stuck in the silt for two hours at Race Mile 70. "That pretty much killed our chances," said Pastrana, "but then later, I blew it; I didn't set up right for a big whoop and ended up upside-down. We'd just fueled it five miles back, so when a fuel line split, the engine caught fire and with that amount of fuel, it went up big time. It burned to the ground. Nothing was salvageable. This is a tough race." Although the car came to a fiery demise, Pastrana, luckily, walked away uninjured.

One of the best aspects of racing in Baja is that there is far more to winning than being first overall. Not every team can afford a Class 1 Unlimited racer or Trophy-Truck, with huge budgets needed to support such endeavors, so the long-held traditional rivalries in the numerous smaller classes with different engine sizes and chassis make for some of Baja's best competition.

This year, though, the time posted at the La Paz finish by Class 10 privateers Darren Hardesty and Mark Randazzo, seemed inconceivably fast. They'd covered the 1,048-mile course in their tiny, VW-powered Alumicraft in 21 hours and 34 minutes–only two hours and nineteen minutes behind the Gordon/McMillin Trophy-Truck. They'd smoked not only their entire 13-car field, but some of the fastest, most sophisticated racecars ever to run over Baja's rugged terrain, netting an amazing 9th overall. Randazzo, the car's crew-chief and driver for the first 520 miles, said, "We built this car to win–that was our goal from the start. We didn't come to run second or just survive; we built it as a single-seater to save weight, and we knew that was a risk because you're alone if you have problems. We also knew it was going to be really tough because the Honda-powered cars had us on the top end. Our top speed is only 92 mph, while some of our competition can run 105. That meant we had to make our move early in the race and run faster averages on the first legs of the slower Northern portion of the course rather than in the South, where the speed of our adversaries like Eli Yee could beat us."

Randazzo had a single flat with a bent wheel near Morelia junction. "I don't know who they were, but when I pulled into a volunteer pit, they had the wheel off and fixed before I could climb out of the car. Baja is just incredible that way."

Hardesty, who climbed in at 9 p.m., about 520 miles down course at Vizcaino, drove the final leg into La Paz. He was in the driver's seat for 11 hours straight. "I never unbuckled and had a great run, even through those killer silt beds around Loreto. Our car is so light, I went straight through the middle of the worst part even though I couldn't see anything for about 30 yards because of the silt. This engine, built by Kenny Major, has great torque. It performs best from 0 to 50, so through the deep stuff, there's nothing out there stronger. That, combined with our Yokohamas, had a lot to do with this win because they were so light and stuck so well; we could really maximize the engine's torque." The victory was doubly sweet for Hardesty because he iced the SCORE Class 10 Championship as well as the 1000 win, just like his dad had done in 1988, proving again that experience counts for a lot in Baja.

Rick Johnson's win in the Protruck category was a coup for Toyota as well as K&N, who helped sponsor Johnson's two car team. He made it to the checker in 23 hours and 9 minutes. Only 11 of 19 starters in Protruck finished the race.

TALES FROM THE ROOKIES

Boris Said, another cross-over from NASCAR, was driving the first leg out of Ensenada in Martin Christensen's BMW powered Class 1. Uncharacteristically, the right-rear suspension failed only 10 miles out. It was almost dark before the AGM crew could backtrack down course and get him running. Then, with only a single light (planned for the daylight section), Said could only run about 80 mph. "The car was great after it was fixed, even with only three brakes working, but I just couldn't see. This just wasn't our year, but I'll tell you...this is great racin'!"

Perhaps the best rookie story was the cross-over team of Super-Motocross star Kenny "Cowboy" Bartram and rock crawling champ Tracy Jordan. They survived a 300-foot plunge off a cliff near Mission San Javier after a long day of trials and tribulations that would have stopped a less-determined team. When the BC crew came back for the car the next morning, the vultures had picked it clean. Will they be coming back? "Hell yes," said Bartram, "we intend to win this thing next year!"

Amazingly, two first-time crews did well this year. Rock crawlers Lance Clifford, Mike Shaffer and David Halaruk bought a Jeep Cherokee JeepSpeed a month before the race, thrashed to prep the car and organize support. Then they drove to victory without ever prerunning, attending a desert race or racing in Baja before. Another rookie team of Steve Appleton, CEO of Micron Technology, and his brother Chris, beat 20 other Subaru-powered, spec-racer Baja Challengers into La Paz with a time of 25 hours and 25 minutes, proving that rookies can do it, too.

Compared to last year's 100 percent finish rate, this year only half the BC field finished, confirming yet again that this was one of the toughest 1000s ever.

CROSS-OVERS: a baja rebirth

The Baja 1000 movement that began with James Garner, Parnelli Jones, Steve McQueen, Bob Bondurant and Don "The Snake" Prudhomme in the 1960s has reemerged big time in the new millennium. It started at the Baja 2000 race when Roberto Guerrero, Mike Groff, Robbie Groff and Elliott Forbes-Robinson came to the historic peninsula to be part of the inaugural Wide Open Baja Challenge.

In 2006, the renaissance of Hollywood celebrities and professional drivers from other motorsports disciplines coming to the Tecate SCORE Baja 1000 hit an all-time high. From a purely competitive mindset, there was good and bad, triumph and failure. Making the most dedicated effort of this group was former DIRTsports cover man Jesse James, showing up in 2006 with a brand new Porter Race Cars-built Trophy-Truck and a full-blown Jimmy Weitzel-crafted prerunner. The founder of West Coast Choppers DNF'd before Valle de Trinidad but vowed a complete SCORE season in 2007. The most tragic story was that of X Games and rally star Travis Pastrana, whose stunning new HMS Class 1 car burned to the ground after a hard roll in the early morning darkness before the Bay of Los Angeles. Luckily, Pastrana, and co-driver Damen Jefferies, escaped without harm.

TOYO bags the big one

At the 2005 SEMA show in Las Vegas, the announcement that Robby Gordon–a longtime BFGoodrich stalwart–was signing an extensive three-year contract to race with upstart Toyo Tire was met with a mix of disbelief and shock. One of the sport's brightest stars was taking his toys, both desert and Dakar, into an unproven Toyo sandbox for both a confirmed amount of substantial funding and to try and gain a competitive advantage.

It looked to be a risk for both as Toyo would try and earn a Baja victory on the back of just three teams–Gordon's, Scott Steinberger's and the team of Arizona's Jesse Jones.

A little over one year later, that roll of the dice came up big for Toyo as the overall four-wheel victory by Gordon and co-driver Andy McMillin gave the company its first Baja 1000 title. The impact of that performance became clear in the daylight of a sunny La Paz morning as company officials from both tire companies realized that Toyo had broken a highly touted (and well-earned) string of 20 consecutive overall wins by BFGoodrich, stretching back to 1986.

Using 37x13.50R17 Open Country M/T™ tires, Gordon said, "I started with Toyo one year ago at the Baja 1000, and the improvements that it has made on its tires and the dedication that it has shown to the program has allowed us to be able to pull off an overall victory for the company...which I am pretty proud of. It's something that we set out to do a year ago when we built this relationship. It was to be able to win races, and we have won the [BITD] Parker 400 for Toyo, we won Terrible's Cup, and now we won the Baja 1000 overall, so the company got three great victories under its belt this year."

Reaching the NEXT LEVEL

Like it has been for some time now, the interest in the annual world-class adventure that is the Tecate SCORE Baja 1000 once again reached a record crescendo in 2006. Celebrating its 39th running, the level of entries that took the green flag in Ensenada was astonishing–especially in such high-profile categories as Trophy-Trucks (which witnessed the largest field in SCORE history with 31 starters). A record 431 starters from 38 states and 12 countries (the previous record was 333 in 1988) came to Baja to take on the tough challenge, a number that also created a record number of finishers at 234.

SCORE CEO, Sal Fish, credits this groundswell of interest to several factors, including the popularity of the Baja 500 and Baja 1000 coverage on NBC. It was also evident that there is the Dust to Glory factor, a tribute to the increasingly wide-spread viewing of Dana Brown's 2005 theatrical documentary. Proof of this phenomenon was the 37 motorcycle riders attempting to emulate the film's star Mike "Mouse" McCoy's solo run from 2004. Amazingly, 16 of the solo attempts were successful, earning each of the hearty adventurers Fish's SCORE IronRider award. But the most amazing record of all belonged to 38-year-old Anna Cody of Camarillo, Calif., who not only rode the entire distance solo, but in the process, became the first female rider in the race's history to do so.

McCoy, by the way, decided to race this year in a Ford Protruck. Older, smarter or both?