The Savage and Noble History of Baja Racing
Hats off to the last really dangerous motorsport on dry land.
Every year since 1967, Baja California hosts the Baja 1000, the single most dangerous race in North America, and one of the bloodiest in the world. Together with its still formidable warmup race, the Baja 500, the races have claimed dozens of lives.
And on the 362 or so days of the year when these two Baja races aren't running, the dusty trails and rock-strewn mountain roads that connect a scattering of villages and farms are getting bashed by every possible class of buggy, truck, car, and motorcycle. It is a free-for-all, a brazen flouting of all the rules that lawyers north of the border have been litigating over for generations.
The drivers and riders are rich Americans, poor Americans, bandits, weirdos, Christians in flipflops, flat-brim-capped Californians, private equity operators who flew into Ensenada with NetJet shares, wealthy Mexicanos from El DF. There are racing studs, hooning dweebs, celebrities, nobodies, nobodies who strap into 5-point harnesses and think they’re celebrities.
There are crazed motocross riders on suicide runs, aggro dudes in trophy trucks with plush seats and 38-inches of wheel travel. There are families in four-seaters, praying together and eating dust together. There are midwesterners hauling four Suzukis behind their F-350 with dual diesel stacks. There are drunken stag party assholes who just won’t go to sleep. In Baja, there is immorality, violence, and sabotage. There is beer.
And looming over this sun-blasted melee of dust, filth, and noise are machine gun toting federales and weary, wary vaqueros wearing impossibly clean white shirts. Their home is our brutal playground. When we pass by, we must appear desperate to experience something real.
That's me. Guilty as charged. Bring it on. I'm a guest of a company called Wide Open Baja, an outfitter that builds Baja Challenge buggies and mainlines adrenaline, fear, and risk into gringos every day of the year. The buggy I'm strapping into this morning, as the sun rises over the frigid staging area at the Horsepower Ranch, is the masterpiece machine that Wide Open has been running since it opened in 1997.
This is not my first time bashing around the Baja Peninsula. I’d even co-co-piloted a Stock Class Hummer H2 in the 2007 running of the Baja 1000. But it’s been a while, and this time I’m not part of the biggest sanctioned event of the year. So the first thing that occurs to my soft-bellied, citified mind after I pass the gates of the Horsepower Ranch, skitter on knobbly BF Goodrich KM3s for a few miles, and then turned left onto a rocky trail, is this: How is it that I’m allowed to do this?
In the US, on racetracks, where I sometimes test cars and occasionally race (sort of ), safety always comes first. In the US, the goal of amateur adventure is to maximize apparent risk while minimizing actual risk. Just because bungee jumping looks mortally dangerous belies the fact that it's much, much safer than driving a car on a public road or crossing a street in Los Angeles. Hell, driving a race car on a track is safer than all three of those things.
But in Baja, safety doesn't come first. While rules are important, they’re really defined in whatever you choose.
At Wide Open Baja, the rules are few. I'm co-driving with The Drive's Deputy Editor Kyle Cheromcha, who is younger and less scarred by misadventure than I am. He's a talented wheelman; I still don't trust him to deliver me home safely. Our guide is Miguel Sandoval, an 8-time class champion in the SCORE racing series. He leads a three-car convoy at blistering speeds that pass 80 mph, and he asks only that we keep a 45-second gap between cars—mostly to stay out of the dust. Our Baja Challenge buggy is one of the most dialed-in, race-tested chassis in any sport, on any terrain, anywhere. It is a tube-framed, rear-wheel-drive two-seater with a 200-horsepower, 2.5-liter Subaru flat-four, and a four-speed manual transmission. It has 18 inches of wheel travel and tops out at 90. Cumulatively, this design has logged well over 5 million hellish miles since Wide Open Baja started running cars 22 years ago. Last year, they ran 20 buggies in the Baja 1000; every one of them finished.
Bashing up the side of a mountain at 50 mph, this miraculous little bastard tears sideways over knife-edged rocks, across washouts and over berms that seem impossible to cross. It is built to be at one with its environment. Even so, I outraced my talent a couple of times. Playing around with snap oversteer as I negotiated some turns on the side of a mountain, I over-corrected into the rocky wall. Earlier in the day, tearing along a dangerously narrow, tree-lined path, I wallowed under brakes and flew into some bushes that could just as easily have been a tree. We broke no bones, the buggy was intact.
In case something were to go wrong, Miguel had us pack our passports into the buggy. The grimmest scenario? We skid off the washboard at speed and scream a local farmer. We drive over a chicken coop. We kill livestock. True story: In one particularly psychedelic moment, as Kyle and I were crossing through a ranching town, a 1,500-pound escaped thoroughbred crossed our path in full fucking gallop. If we'd hit it, we'd probably have been killed. Had we survived, but the horse was dead, there is a plan in place: Miguel and his team will pile the paying gringos with their passports into another buggy and tear-ass to the border before the dust settles. Let the federales sort out the details.
For all its beauty, Baja has a lot of dangerous details to sort through. Every one of the 1,009 miles of this long, crooked peninsula, which jabs southward into the Pacific like a distorted mirror-image of Florida, has an element of danger. And that's why we love it. To an American, that realization—How is it possible that I'm allowed to do something this dangerous?—is the jolt we seek.
Baja's Glorious History of Carnage
After a long and ridiculously enjoyable day, Miguel guides us up to Mike’s Sky Ranch. Mike’s is a sort of Ritz Hotel for the desert racing scene. It is guarded by a moat that entering guests can choose to splash through or—if you have the balls and the horsepower—jump over. A generator keeps the lights on until 10 pm, there’s not a whiff of a cell signal, and if you ask for the WiFi password they’ll laugh in your face and hand you a cold Pacifico. In case of an emergency, there’s a satellite phone.
Inside Mike’s lounge, the windows are darkened by racing stickers and the ceiling is draped with hundreds of ratty t-shirts from race teams, riding clubs, performance parts makers, tuner shops, bachelor parties—each one signed by drunken guests.
There’s a TV that somehow receives a signal from San Diego. A group of Bay Area motorcycle riders rolled in from Tecate with the sun setting over their right shoulders. After washing off 185 miles of desert grime, they are drinking beer and watching a Clippers/Warriors game. One of them, a towering guy named Seth, is cleaning a deep wound on his elbow. At some point in the ride, his bike went out from under him and he landed elbows first.
“Did your armor slide up when you hit?”
“No,” Seth replied. “I don’t wear armor. It just gets in the way.”
Then someone else in the group tells the story of a ride they took a couple years back. They were on a flat, coming down out of the hills not far from Mike’s when one of their friends took a tumble. He hit the ground in exactly the wrong way, got snagged between the ground and the bike. Then, in a single hideous and life-altering moment, his arm was ripped clear off at the elbow.
Let that sink in: His arm was ripped off at the elbow. The guys were 200 very long miles from the US border. The closest Level 1 trauma center is in San Diego. His friends radioed for help, did their best to stop the bleeding, and eventually put the injured rider in the back of a truck. As they raced for the border, their friend's heart stopped twice. Each time, they revived him. Someone radioed ahead to a hospital in a US town close to the border. When the truck reached the border wall, they scrambled through the brush to the lowest section and tossed him over to a waiting ambulance.
This is the stuff of nightmares, and yet the outcome of his injury was, as they say in Silicon Valley, optimal: Having had his arm shorn off, his heart stopping twice bouncing along a washboard dirt road, he survived. Eventually, he returned to race with a prosthetic arm.
While the riders at Mike’s Sky Ranch sat in the lounge telling this story, posters of Jeff “Ox” Kargola line one wall. Ox was a professional Freestyle Motocross rider, veteran driver of SuperLite trucks in the Lucas Off-Road Racing Series, and a Baja fixture. In 2011, on the second day of a grueling 8-day, 1,376-mile race called the Rip to the Tip, Ox wrecked. His injuries were serious: a head injury and broken ribs, one of which punctured and collapsed a lung. Help arrived, but not in time. Eventually, after he was trucked out of the sand, Ox died surrounded by his friends.
If You Get Hurt, the Prognosis Ain't Great
Death by adventure is common in Baja. During the 2016 Baja 1000, pro racer Mark Luhtala was steering a trophy truck through a silt bed when he collided with another race vehicle. The impact was huge, and it sheared off the front left quarter of Luhtala’s truck, and that in turn destroyed Luhtala’s left leg and crushed much of the left side of his torso. Paramedics were quick to the scene, and a Life Flight helicopter delivered him to UC San Diego Medical Center. Luhtala’s heart stopped as surgeons were removing his left leg. That he held on for two days after the crash is a testament to Luhtala’s strength.
2016 was a particularly bloody year. Three people were killed during the running of the 2016 Baja 500, including an 8-year-old boy who was hit by a race truck swerving to avoid other spectators. Later that day, two motorcycle racers were killed. Noah Evermann, a Sportsman Moto rider from Alaska, died alone on a remote stretch near mile-marker 180—not all that far from Mike's Sky Ranch. His body was discovered by another race team. The race continued. That same weekend, two riders were killed in the running of the notoriously bloody Isle of Mann TT, and Luis Salom was killed for Moto2 practice in Spain.
Baja California has no suburban hospitals. It is remote, arid, sparsely populated, and backwards enough to let offroad racers and amateur idiots like me risk life and limb in search of noise, dust, mayhem, heat, tacos, and Pure Uncut Freedom. But the lack of rules comes with dire consequences. If you stuff your buggy into a berm at 80 mph or tumble end-over-end off a ledge, there are no Jaws of Life to extract you from the mess. Unlike Luhtala, you will not get a Life Flight helicopter to lift you to a surgical theater. There’s will likely not be an ambulance.
If you sustain an injury, in best case scenario you’re going to spend some time in the bed of a pickup truck, bouncing in agony down the same trail you were just tearing down while screaming “Freedom!” at the top of your lungs. If you’re tossed from your motorcycle and into a tree and a rib punctures your lung, don’t expect a chopper ride.
Baja Has a Mind of its Own
All the fun stuff starts in Ensenada, just a few miles south of Tijuana. This city is like a seedier version of Albuquerque, with less urban sprawl and more public urination. The streets are crowded with Chevy Tornados, new old Ford Rangers, VW Beetles and CrossFoxes, and even the occasional Peugeot—all cars we don’t get or want north of the Border. The big events here all revolve around desert racing. There are the SCORE races, the NORRA. Everything begins in Ensenada.
Ensenada is where my first Baja experience began a decade ago. I was embedded with the Rod Hall Race Team in Josh Hall’s full stock Hummer H2. From the co-driver’s seat, I watched as we tore off the starting line in downtown Ensenada, drifted through a few turns as the crowds of fans pressed into us with camera phones. Like WRC spectators, Baja fans tend to watch the race with zero regard for their safety or the forces of physics. I saw someone reaching a laptop into our path—presumably to record our passing on FaceTime. It exploded on out quarter panel in a cloud of plastic shards. Sometimes, Baja racers get to the finish line in La Paz or Cabo San Lucas and find severed fingers or even hands holding cell phones jammed in air intakes and wheel wells.
About three hours south of the starting line, tearing across an arroyo, my peripheral vision caught a floating object. A helicopter. In stop-motion, I watched the chopper spin, caterwaul, crash into the ground. A flash and then gone. We were going 110 mph past a cattle fence as the desert dismantled the helicopter.
“Did that thing just crash?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Josh.
Conversation over. Josh never lifted.
At the Baja 1000, it’s a point of pride for the big-money teams to have their own chase helicopter as a camera rig and quasi spotter. The sky is dotted with choppers, hovering over the dust as the trophy trucks pound their way south. But this helicopter’s only affiliation was with the Arellano-Felix drug cartel, which is based in Tijuana. It flew low enough to clip a high tension, sending the area around San Felipe into a seven-hour blackout.
By the time paramedics arrived at the crash scene, I was long gone, and past caring. But the drug cartel cared. The crash injured two and killed two, including a cartel member important enough to have a nickname: El Abulon, named after the tasty shellfish we know as abalone. The cartel cared so much that as we were crossing the finish line in Cabo San Lucas 30 hours later, a convoy of 15 Chevy Suburbans carrying dozens of cartel members carrying AK-47s and AR-15s stormed the morgue in Ensenada, grabbed the body of El Abulon (as well as two prisoners), and blasted their way northeast in a grim exposition of what crime has been like in Mexico’s border regions.
Why Do We Do it, Anyway?
Wide Open Baja paid for my flight to San Diego. They fed me, gave me and Kyle a two-day racing experience worth well over $9000. That's what allowed us to come to Baja and tear apart the peninsula in a Baja Challenge buggy. As Editor-in-Chief of The Drive, I get to do a lot of cool things for work. I fly all over the world tearing around FIA-certified race tracks in pricey cars owned by someone else—someone who generally doesn't mind if you stuff it into a SAFR barrier or slide it into a gravel trap. But nothing has ever come close to what I did with Wide Open Baja. If the big complaint about modern racetracks is that they have no character, no soul. The runoff areas are so generous that a driver can without consequence commit to any idiotic move he wants to.
I'm in my 40s. I'm a father of two young children. Granted, I'm not tearing down Baja on a Suzuki with a red mist in my eyes. The Baja Challenge buggy is built like a rock and I'm always harnessed in. But Baja has no runoff. Wide Open's safety record aside ("no major injuries," says a publicist; I'm somewhat incredulous), the beauty of Baja is that it is dangerous. There are consequences. You can choose to take the risk, and that choice could be your last. But at least you did it.