Tearing Through Mexico In Someone Else's Baja Challenge Buggy Is the Only Way to Travel
Want to see what it's like to race in the epic Baja 1000? Wide Open Baja is happy to oblige.
"You want to hit the jump at around 3500 RPM, ok?" the voice crackles through the radio.
I look down at my tachometer, broken since I climbed into the Baja Challenge buggy 24 hours prior, as I line up in the middle of a long, sandy straight surrounded by desert grasses somewhere in western Mexico. A half mile ahead, the rest of the group waits around an angry little ridge our guide and desert racing champion Miguel Sandoval swears will provide the extended airtime we've been seeking. Over dinner last night, I made a point to ask him if we'd get a chance to really jump these purpose-built machines—not a fun little whoop, not a cattle guard, but an honest-to-goodness, I'm-flying-Jack jump. Wish, granted. Gulp.
There's no time to dwell on the fact that, like most of this trip with the adventure tourism specialists at Wide Open Baja, this is going to be a brand-new sensory experience for me. I've never jumped anything, never charged at an obvious mistake and told myself to keep the throttle pinned. Miguel doesn't care. I asked for a jump, so a jump is what I've got. I radio back a confirmation on the useless RPM advice and elect not to tell him that I'll be flying blind. Then I floor it.
That half-mile run-up is covered in an instant. I can hear the unmuffled Subaru flat-four engine spinning faster and faster behind me—What does 3,500 sound like again?—as the jump comes into focus, Miguel and the others standing off to the sides. I don't look at them. Instead, as every fiber in my body screams for me to slow down, I lock onto the rise and hit the sucker dead-on.
The peace that settles on the cabin in that moment is almost transcendental. One moment you're clawing and thrashing along a rocky arroyo with the noise and heat and dust, and the next there is just you, in the air, flying. I can no longer hear the scream of Boxer engine or the clatter of those BFGoodrich tires. It's sublimation, essentially—what was a grounded solid is now a free-floating gas. There is no takeoff sensation serving a more abrupt state change than a jump in Baja.
Of course, there's the matter of returning to Earth. It turns out I am going too fast, and I fly a good fifty feet past the landing zone, touching down as the trail again drops into another arroyo. The buggy fishtails wildly as I struggle to bring it to heel; finally, after a few oscillations that feel like the start of a bona fide rollover, man and machine come to a creaking stop in the billowing silt. I exhale in celebration—I just jumped a Baja buggy! In Baja!—before a strange wistfulness washes over me. I tasted the air, and now all I want in this world is more.
Baja Is as Baja Does
Wide Open Baja knows that feeling. Owner and American desert racer Roger Norman also holds the keys to SCORE International, the sanctioning body that controls the premier quartet of annual off-road races in this corner of Mexico: the San Felipe 250, Baja 400, Baja 500, and the big mac Baja 1000. The modern incarnations of these historic contests are lionized for their authenticity to the original form, their raw risk, their utterly transportive nature. Drive three hours south of San Diego to the coastal city of Ensenada and suddenly you're at the edge of the apeiron, standing before an entirely different, seemingly limitless world of dusty hijinks.
Running mostly unchanged since 1967, the Baja 1000 is incredibly hostile to inexperienced racers and spectators alike, a stygian, multi-day slog crossed with a rolling cookout seasoned with the very real possibility of death. Still, tens of thousands of people flock to the various spectator zones along its 1000-mile route every year; other, richer folks buy spots on race teams, or perhaps entire race teams themselves to get at the action. Wide Open Baja reckons it can grab thrill seekers both groups with a whole suite of off-road tours and experiences that range from a casual half-day jaunt to a very real driver's seat in the Baja 1000, with the car, support crew, and logistics all covered. Notable notables who've taken part include Tanner Foust, Ben Stiller, and even the late, great Paul Newman.
In between those options are one-, three-, and four-day guided tours departing from both Ensenada and Cabo San Lucas at the Baja peninsula's southern tip that blur the line between rugged luxury and pure backwoods fun. It's like one of those corporate team-building events where a company pays a former Navy SEAL to terrorize its employees, if the SEAL then put everyone on a C-17 to Kandahar. Even if you opt for the cheapest Wide Open package, there is no separation between your experience and that of a real Baja racer. You're charging over the same terrain in the same Challenge buggy, breaking the same parts, probably, and staring down the same very real danger.
The Weapons of Wide Open Baja
By this point, you might have some questions about how such a thing is possible in 2019—and how it all works exactly. For the Ensenada adventures, all you have to do is get yourself to San Diego, where a waiting van whisks you over the border and a couple of hours down the coast to Horsepower Ranch, a semi-luxe rustic inn perched on a gently sloping hillside that doubles as Wide Open Baja's headquarters. The small rooms are artfully decorated with stone sinks, handmade wood furniture, and photos of jumping trucks absolutely everywhere. Another clue that this isn't your average retreat is parked in the fancy circular driveway—instead of a line of black cars, there's a group of custom-built Baja Challenge-class buggies in all their knobby-tired, long-travel glory.
These miraculous vehicles are built on a thick tube-steel chassis, a custom design perfected over millions of miles of hard-fought Baja experience since it debuted in 1997. Nearly 200 horsepower is drawn from a rear-mounted EJ25 Subaru boxer engine, which bolts up to a rigid four-speed manual transmission and powers the rear wheels. Stick shift experience is a must. Four-corner independent suspension with remote reservoir shocks offer a flexible 18 inches of wheel travel all around, and 33-inch BFGoodrich KM3 shoes are one of the few tires capable of everything Baja will throw at you—deep silt beds, miles of dagger-sharp rocks, the occasional water crossing, and of course, high-speed jumps. There are no sway bars. They're literally the cars that Wide Open sends into the real Baja 1000. And they usually finish—no small feat for a race that sees more forced retirements every year than a round of corporate layoffs.
It's one thing to read all the specs and watch videos of the buggies doing impossible things. It's quite another to slide behind the wheel, cinch that five-point harness up tight, slap on your helmet, and effortlessly charge full speed through a rut that would destroy the suspension of any production car, even something with legit off-road abilities like the Ford F-150 Raptor. It might be physically impossible to see a knobby front tire rise into view as the suspension runs through its full range without bursting into laughter. That astounding capability doubles as a wide margin of error. Overcorrect that slide into a massive cactus? No problem. Hit a whoop way too hard? Peachy. Roll it? The engine might smoke a bit when they get it right side up again, but it'll be ok.
As Safe—or as Dangerous—as You
The first night consists of a safety talk—more of a "It's up to you to not kill yourself out there" than anything else—and a brief shakedown run around the ranch to get acclimated to the car's floaty handling. Wide Open does take your personal safety seriously, recording no serious injuries over its 20-plus-year history, but there's only so much the company can do if you drive off a cliff fifty miles from the nearest paved road. There's also a recognition that yes, this is not the United States anymore. You're required to keep your passport with you at all times; should trouble arrive in the form of something like a bad crash with local traffic, your guide will throw you in another buggy and race to the border while Wide Open helps clean up the mess, financially or otherwise.
The simple reality that it is actually up to you to keep yourself and your driving partner alive snaps into focus when setting out for real the next morning. Led by a guide in their own buggy, the convoy follows the very same dirt "roads" often used in the Baja 1000 (its exact route changes yearly), ostensibly public tracks that seem impassible for everything but Baja vehicles and the occasional overloaded Ford F100. You're instructed to leave a 45-second gap between you and the car in front when setting off from an intersection to avoid choking on the blinding dust, which generally translates to at least a half a mile. That makes for large stretches of the trip where you feel—and are—completely alone.
Well, almost. There's near-constant radio contact from the guide as they call out mile markers for specific turns and hazards, along with a chase buggy carrying two talented field mechanics and a mobile garage of spare parts. There's a support truck hauling even more backups, including two whole buggies on a trailer, along whatever paved road runs closest to the action. Something will break out there, it's just a question of where and when.
For the three-day Ensenada tour, that second day takes you from the outskirts of the city to a remote outpost deep in a national park called Mike's Sky Ranch. It's a combination motel-dive bar-Baja racer hangout, an unlikely off-road Mecca plopped along the side of a stunning valley like it fell out of the sky whole cloth.
The inside of the dark bar is completely plastered with racing team stickers and T-shirts, as well as multiple memorials to the fallen competitors Baja has claimed over the years. The doors have no locks. There's no cell service or WiFi; the entire place runs on a generator that shuts off at 10 p.m. sharp, revealing an endless canopy of stars stretching from horizon to horizon.
That brilliant night sky is just one of Baja's wonders. The final day, a long sprint back up the coast to Ensenada, traverses thorny mountains, high-speed flats, coastal hills, and a dramatic rocky beach to showcase the peninsula's true topographical range. The roads themselves also shape-shift with the terrain—tightly kinked and strewn with debris at elevation, smoothing out to long, sandy stretches not unlike a rally stage closer to the Pacific Ocean. It's obvious the previous day was a warmup to this. How else do you explain the newfound comfort in drifting the buggy along the edge of a 200-foot cliff?
It's a little unfortunate that the most exciting part of the trip peters out into a final push into Ensenada on pavement, where that same van awaits to shuttle you back across the border to San Diego. But there are a couple more highlights to be found at the end of the road. One, the buggies get dropped off at Wide Open Baja's massive garage for a quick reconditioning following every adventure, and the warehouse is wide open for the curious to poke around and observe these mighty steeds at various stages of disassembly. Miguel's Pro Stock Ford Ranger is there, too, plus a few classic desert toys dating back decades.
The final surprise is the feeling—and reactions—that comes with rolling into town in a dusty buggy and a full-face helmet. You might think the region's residents are tired of all this racing, tired of playact desert racers blasting down their streets, tired of all the talk of dust and glory. The reality couldn't be more different. Small children come running at the sound of that flat-four engine. People on the street stare and nod approvingly. Even the ranchers who actually use those far-out trails for work give a friendly wave when you pass each other out there in the desert.
It helps that Wide Open Baja is mostly a good neighbor; the guides hold drivers to a strict speed limit anywhere near a house or village, the company helps bring a lot of money into the region, and it's staffed mostly by locals who care deeply about maintaining Mexican acceptance of the weird and wild world of off-road racing.
Wide Open's turnkey racing option and celebrity clients may get all the attention. But to see and experience a bit of the real Baja, it helps to slow down.
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