The Baja Peninsula curves down the Pacific coast of Mexico like a resting trigger finger. From the ocean, where generations of big-break surfers and sport fishing enthusiasts have come to play, the terrain withers and changes quickly as you drive east, toward the Sea of Cortez. Ahead, the right-side tires of my husband Mike Jams’ 2012 Ford Raptor dangle partway off a trail etched at the top of a 250-foot canyon. Mike rounds the bend in a whoosh of dust. I’m not far behind, riding shotgun in the Raptor of his teammate, Ron Stobaugh.
We bounce back down through fields streaked with scrub brush and ranch fencing, and Ron points to where, invisible beyond the next rise, allegedly, members of a Danish cult wanted by Interpol have built a spaceship-shaped compound, guarded by armed thugs who’ve taken over a nearby local road. The sky darkens into thick fog, which just as suddenly lifts. We reach a deserted beach and drive the whole length of it — where can you do that anymore? Oh, right. Here, in Baja – where anything seems possible.
The SCORE Baja 1000, the world’s longest nonstop point-to-point race, began its 49th edition last Friday from the northern border town of Ensenada. Mike will line up at the start. In preparation, we’ve come to “pre-run” (practice) the racecourse. We’ve been dodging crazy obstacles all day — rocks hidden behind cacti, beds of dunes known as “whoops” (short for “whoop-de-do’s”), talcum-powder sand called “silt” that can sink a truck up to its axles.
This region’s infinite variations on the desert theme have been a proving ground for driver and machine since 1962, when Honda, wanting to drum up publicity for its new two-stroke motorcycles, sent a pair zipping down to La Paz. That established a start-finish line and a time to beat. And for a few years, people like Rod Hall and his fishing buddies drove the route on four wheels, punching out at the telegraph office in La Paz. By 1967, a legendary race was officially up and running.
Today, the Baja 1000, despite its name, runs anywhere from 850 to 1,200 miles depending on the itinerary, which changes yearly. The fastest Trophy Trucks, 800-horsepower beasts, can top out at 145 mph on flats, and finish the race in 12 hours. They’re driven by a dozen bona fide off-road stars – well-sponsored guys like Bryce Menzies, BJ Baldwin or Rob MacCachren.
But speed isn’t everything — there are precious few straightaways in the desert. What makes the Baja 1000 special is that it’s Everyman’s race to win. This year, there are 257 entries from 17 countries, mostly running souped-up Volkswagens, UTVs, dune-buggies, bikes and various purpose-built race trucks. There are 13 Canadians in the race, including a group of Vancouver firefighters calling themselves Yolo Racing, who are riding for charity in their 1,600cc VW Baja Bug.
Mike’s team is a rare Canadian-led effort to win the Baja in a midsize truck. Three sets of drivers and co-drivers will alternate for up to 34 hours at the wheel of his Class 3000 BajaLite (designed by a popular racer sporting a signature mullet who goes by “Pistol Pete”). The truck vaguely resembles a pickup, with a tubular chassis, long-travel suspension, King racing shocks, KMC Wheels and 35-inch Nitto Ridge Grappler tires that can climb two-foot rocks.
Mike was the kind of little kid who would climb into empty cardboard boxes pretending they had steering wheels. In his teens, he drove a second-hand Renault in ice races over Lac Tremblant, north of Montreal. He enjoyed early success in Karting and Formula Ford, but had to set racing aside after his dad died young, and later to focus on his own growing family. He never gave up the dream, though.
Two years ago, I watched Mike Google “learn off-road racing” on a whim, which is how he hooked up with Ron, the owner of Desert Race School, and a Californian with six Baja wins in over 35 years of desert racing. Ron’s driven against all the greats: Robby Gordon, Parnelli Jones, “Ironman” Ivan Stewart, Bob Bower (who was Gordon’s co-driver), and many others. Now, Mike and Ron have built a full-fledged race team with room for more drivers. From frozen Quebec lakes to the craziest, most revered desert course in the world.
“There’s always a point where you say, ‘This isn’t the most fun I’ve had but I’ve just got to keep the truck moving and hope the bumps end,’” says Stobaugh, ever the optimist, as fist-sized pebbles give way to a section of bone-jarring “big whoops.” I’m reminded of Hillary clawing without oxygen to the summit of Everest.
The point of the pre-run is to mark tricky turns and lethal obstacles that GPS would miss. Drivers and co-drivers are also getting their mental game on, preparing for those infamous Baja booby-traps — ditches or sometimes homemade jumps dug by over-enthusiastic spectators — the exhaustion of racing overnight, the relentless heat. Racers have died almost every year, succumbing to anything from heatstroke to stray cows.
Pre-running is done at a far slower speed than race pace. We’ve driven the switchbacks, for instance, at 30 mph; a trophy truck would drive the same section during the race at around 110 mph. Mike’s BajaLite can clear them at 80 mph, driving in total darkness and semi-blinded by the dust clouds of competitors.
The Raptors are 700-horsepower, extremely off-road-capable rides that have been heavily modified with Icon long-travel suspension and those Nitto Ridge Grappler tires. The combination allows high flotation for silt and sand, with aggressive sidewalls to avoid flats. There are highway sections to this race, and true to the Baja 1000’s role as a test bed, Nitto is using the team’s Raptors and race truck to assess its new hybrid tire’s balance of off- and on-road performance.
In the late afternoon, the ocean comes in and out of view, revealing many tattered, abandoned RVs that have been taken over by homesteaders. We pass several small towns that are more like collections of taco stands with an OXXO station, where children swarm the Raptors asking for “steekers” (race team stickers), a Baja 1000 tradition. And we carry on.
As the sun sets, I switch to join Mike and co-driver Robby Hartman, pre-running for a while in the moonless dark. We all end up later at Jardines’ for steaks, and spend the night at Don Eddie’s, an old sport fishing camp turned one-ish-star stay; you can always identify restaurants and motels that have become classic pre-run pit stops because they’re covered in racing stickers.
The next morning, Shannon Boothe steps in as co-driver. He’s another multiple Baja champion, a 66-year-old Vietnam veteran originally from West Virginia. Quiet, plainspoken, rock-steady — that’s Shannon. He keeps his war record close to the vest, but I know he was drafted into a military police investigative unit and sent undercover in a high-stakes operation that’s still classified. He turned 21 in “that shithole.” As Ron puts it, he’s earned the right to be Shannon Boothe. This will be his 23rd Baja race and he’s more than up to the task.
In a dried riverbed (a “wash”), we pause to photograph a sandslide that’s unusually steep, soft white and ribboned by wind — it would make a perfect extreme ski run, Shannon says, admiringly. Then the Raptor resumes weaving like a snake. By now I’ve concluded there isn’t “a desert,” just mile after mile of shifting threats and opportunities.
In 1995, Jimmie Johnson crashed out during the race and was stranded overnight beside an explosion of parts and metal that had been his Trophy Truck, evidently giving him time to reconsider his options. Johnson never raced off-road again — NASCAR’s tidy ovals must be a breeze compared to what’s at stake in the Baja 1000.
“No one knows what you’ve really done, more than you know yourself,” Shannon explains. It’s easy enough to die in the desert, or disappear if you wanted to. But you can also find yourself here. Beat the Baja, and that’s proof you can do anything.