Eating Everyone Else’s Dirt at the Baja 500

Dirty, sweaty, hot—and last.

byChris Cantle| PUBLISHED Jun 6, 2016 9:54 PM
Eating Everyone Else’s Dirt at the Baja 500

Watch enough videos of a Baja start and you can play them back in your head. The drop of the flag; fans cheering and gesturing for more throttle, more noise; the first hard left, where big trucks and buggies carry a tire. Then, a straight chute under trees, away from the beach. Another left. The plunge into Arroyo Ensenada. The Wash. Jumps. Water crossings. Cheering crowds. In my head it’s a fever dream mixed with a highlight reel. An ecstasy of old-school racing and machismo and gall that teeters constantly on the verge of breaking into a party.

But that's not the real world. In the real world, it’s so much better.

We were the last off the line. It's not a privileged position, sucking on every other racer's dust and fiberglass shards. Behind the UTV's and even the Class 11 Beetles. The last of the long thread of trucks winding through town, the last to hit the dirt.

Of course it was madness. The local population of Ensenada, turned out by the thousands, noticed the slowing trickle of race traffic, and headed home. Into the wash. Onto the roads. Straight at us.

The steady mantra of a race start—take it easy, take it easy—changed immediately to a long string of laughed expletives. Out of the river bottom, onto suburban streets. Every blind rise has a school bus trundling up the middle of the road, every tight corner an ice cream vendor pushing a cart across the racing line.

Forget race pace. We're tiptoeing, trying to keep respectable momentum in the face of the stomach-turning knowledge that this broad, ungainly truck is spinning 35-inches of knurled rubber just inches away from fragile human bodies.

But still, we're picking up spots. Early engine failures and flats, buggy crews out of Ensenada working feverishly to get their vehicles back into the race. The course swings up into the mountains, the dirt goes red and the ruts start. We pass a big-league buggy, twenty feet down a ravine, upside down. We pass another VORE truck with a flat tire and we celebrate over the intercom. When you start in last place, even attrition feels like a victory.

Co-driver Tony is killing it. His patter over the intercom is a blend of directions and observations. His eyes sweep from the GPS to the road, looking for dangers and opportunities alike. "Get in that rut." "Look for a 90-degree left." "Stay in the throttle." We’ve just met, and he’s only seen me at my worst—ragged and brittle from nervous, sleepless nights and a stomach bug. I’ve had half a plate of chilaquiles, some beans, and an egg since I hit Ensenada. His affability and confidence are better than the gallons of Mexican electrolytes and and handfuls of pills I’ve downed since crossing the border. Climbing up into the mountains, I couldn’t feel better.

Traffic thins and our pace picks up. So does my confidence in the truck. We’re clipping along ridge roads east of Ensenada in no time. It’s beautiful country. Arid, tough and unforgiving, but absolutely mesmerizing. Our path is marked by red-orange silt, sprayed wildly into the sagebrush by everyone ahead of us. Every shrub in ten feet of the trail is coated in Cheeto dust. It’s rough driving, challenging, and completely enjoyable. By mile-marker 20 we’re in a rhythm. My next 80 miles, the rest of my stint before handing off the truck to Victor, seems very doable.

The silt thickens.

VORE trucks are great little things. They have serious suspension, they look tough as hell. They’re rear-engined and tube-framed like a buggy, and they’re powered by little 4.0-liter Ford V6’s. Bone stock motors good for about 200 hp. Nothing fancy. “More than enough power for a Baja rookie!” I thought confidently, back in Vegas, while soaring over VORE’s 40-ft tabletop. That’s before I met Baja’s silt.

The first time all four tires meet the stuff, the truck just goes flaccid. I’ve heard the stories. “It’s like talcum.” "No, it's powdered sugar." Whatever description you get, if it’s uncharitable, it’s accurate. In the VORE truck, silt is like thick mud without the chance of fun.

We surf through our first waves of the stuff, my confidence only slightly dented, and come upon the pile-up. Cars are stretched for a mile ahead of us, stopped dead in the middle of the track. Baja’s infamous silt has selected its first victims, and we’re among them.