Day -45 – Thirty Six Hours of Racing Baja

bajaHave you ever gotten confused when someone said they were going to Baja California? You know that is in Mexico, right?  The little spit of land referred to as Baja, is the peninsula, it runs south from San Diego for about a thousand miles.  Baja has two states, the northernmost one is Baja California; the one south is Baja Sur.  We spent the last week in Baja California, the wild, wild west.

When you think Mexico, most people think of Cabo or Cozumel with the beautiful beaches; Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta with the ruins and lush green…when I think Baja, I think paradise – but that is for an offroader, the predominant color is brown, or better described as dust.  Baja is home to the SCORE 1000 race, the final event of each year for Score International.  It is an epic event that has been captured on film, think Dust to Glory, and has captured the hearts of many.

Each year we attend as part of a Chase team.  Our race team is the 1066 of Shaffer Motorsports.  This year there were about 20 people on the team.  We have six drivers that move the car forward, this year through 888 miles of course, starting at Ensenada and ending there as well.  It took 35 hours and 57 minutes, not our best showing, but we finished within the timeline of 36 hours; and a finish is almost as good as a win.  The attrition rate at the thousand is horrendous.

The other dozen of us were chase teams; our goals were to be where the race car would pass through sometime during that 36 hours to provide support.  There were three teams on the Sea of Cortez side; Chase 10 – that’s us, we run communications; Chase 2 – Shawn and Bror were stationed towards San Felipe; Chase 1 – Hector and friends (locals to Ensenada).  Our first challenge came providing an additional tire to the 1066 after they had to change one in the first leg of the race, Chase 1 met them at Pit 1 and dropped the tire; the second challenge came when we ran out of gas thirty miles from Pit 2.  All of us on the Cortez side got involved in that one, strapping down extra fuel cans we were carrying and sending them off with Chase 1 to find the car at race mile (rm) 173.  By rm 340, our team had moved away from the Cortez side and was running strong but we wouldn’t see them for what we estimated would be another 14 hours, they had moved to the Pacific side.

Driver change occurred at Coco’s Corner.  Coco is a legend in Baja, he lives in the middle of nowhere on a road that crosses the peninsula from east to west.   Coco has been a host to thousands over the years with a cold beer and many stories, all of the legends have been a part of that history.  San Felipe to Gonzaga has been almost completely paved; then there is another 30 miles of dirt until you get to Coco’s, this is race course in this event.  After Coco’s is another 20 miles of dirt to get to Highway 1, this year that 20 miles was slow going, so no easy task to get in there.  Chase 3 was waiting at the driver’s change, new drivers in, old one’s out, it had taken our team about 14 hours to this point. 

So at midnight, the 1066 was on its way headed to the infamous silt beds.  The silt this year was unbelievable, a 100 mile section of deep ruts with sand washing over the car; it wasn’t until daybreak that we started having an easier time of it.  Stuck in the silt at least nine times, because we had issues earlier in the race, we got the worst of it since it had all been run to death and powdered up even more than we had seen in prerunning.  The team forged on, Chase 4, 5 and 6 were on the Pacific side, since there are no roads that cross the peninsula easily, it is important to stage people on both sides.

No significant issues arose outside of the silt, but it was still very slow going.  Another driver change at rm 567 put the last of our drivers in the car.  We anticipated seeing the team at rm 750 when they finally made it out of the Mike’s Sky Ranch road around noon.  Chase 2 and Chase 10 were staged and ready.  It wasn’t until almost 6 p.m. that we saw them.  Chase 5 had helped with a change of GPS some miles back and then we hit a logjam at rm 735.  It took hours to clear the logjam with various race vehicles helping each other get through.  It doesn’t matter what team or what class you were in, everyone pitches in. 

By the time our car was cruising through, we had transferred Bror from Chase 1 in with us and Chase 2 had gone home, we were the last bastion of support on our side of the peninsula with 100+ miles to go.  Our concern now was time, SCORE checkpoints have very specific closing times.  Checkpoint six was set to close at 6:38; at one point, that time had been moved to 5:38 pm, but thankfully Weatherman fought for the time to move back to the six mark and he won.  Our car would have missed the checkpoint.  Checkpoint seven was set to close at 7:09, we were the last car through the checkpoint on time at 6:37.  The last checkpoint was crossed with plenty of time, but now we had to meet the 36 hour deadline, and we still had plenty of mileage to cover. 

We saw the car go past us three different times, after checkpoint 8, there was nothing further we would be able to do for them, so we headed to town, through the twisty mountain pass to meet them at the finish line.  By this time, we had added over 500 pounds to our vehicle and she wasn’t handling beautifully.  It wasn’t a good day to die, so we slowed down and took our time.  Pulling in to Ensenada, we parked and ran for the finish line, and there we waited anxiously for the racecar.  Watching our clocks, we knew that we just had a short window, we hoped our drivers knew that as well.  With a scant three minutes left, they crossed the line.  All of the team was there to greet them.  Finisher pins handed out by SCORE, pictures taken, this is what it is about.  The first finishers in the fastest trucks had finished before dawn that day in less than 24 hours; we were done an hour before the finish line closed, but within our 36 hour time limit.  So proud of our team, it takes everyone to make this kind of effort happen.

While all of our team arrived safely, we listened to Weatherman, the communications guru of the offroad community throughout the race and heard many Code Reds called.  Code Red is the radiospeak for an emergency is in progress.  Our first night out, just after dusk, Code Red had been called for a bike down; the KTM 2X rider was within 100 miles of the finish; he was leading the race; he died that night.  Kurt Caselli was a 30 year old legendary rider, he lost his life in the pursuit of his passion.

It happens every year, someone will die in Baja at the 1000; not often is it a competitor, it usually is a chase crew or spectator, but it happens every year without fail.  All of us going in country know the risk, but we do it anyway.  There is something to be said for being part of an event as epic as the SCORE 1000, for being part of something bigger than yourself, for being surrounded by people who push themselves so hard in pursuit of a goal, for living with that passion.  I can’t wait for next year.

 

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