**photo courtesy of Chema Gonzalez There aren't many races left where crowds are not tightly marshaled by race organizers. The Tecate Score Baja 1000 is a real exception with people standing inches from your car as you careen past Gruppe B style. With alcohol in abundance, legions of locals come out to see what is their Super Bowl, their World Series and their running of the bulls all wrapped into one day of delightful, inebriated mayhem. Its refreshing to be in a country where the hoopla factor outweighs accountability and liability. We salute you Mexico.
As we pull up to the start line I feel strangely serene. I keep the rev's of the engine at 3500 (our max with this small engine being 5000) and pulse the throttle. These cars don't like to idle and I would rather perform a sex act on myself than stall the car on this startline. The flag drops and off we go. The first turn is a hard left. Already we are sideways and Alex is waving girlishly at the droves instead of focusing on the task at hand. The first mile is through the crowd lined streets of Ensenada. Its overcast and I think to myself for a moment how different this is to what I imagined it would be. Perhaps its the lack of sunshine that is removing the glamour from this moment but it feels like a gloomy monday.
We snake our way through a mile of paved streets before dipping down, through the inflatable Redbull arch, into the man made Ensenada river. Suddenly it becomes real as we get very sideways with a lot of people in close proximity. We approach the first patch of sitting water surrounded by hundreds of people. I reflect back on all the warning we had about the first 5 miles of the race.
The start section of the course is only open for pre-running two days before the start. We were behind in our preparations and left the practice start for last. Everyone was very strongly recommending we not miss this crucial experience but the last day before the race was so busy with drivers meetings, pit supplies drop offs and general race prep that when it started to pour with rain around 4pm and get dark we decided to skip it. We were gonna have to go "organic".
Another thing that makes the BAJA 1000 unique is the boobietraps. Man made obstacles, holes, jumps, wires added to the course for the amusement of the crowd. As the racers get more savvy, the locals become more creative. One of the things we were warned about was people digging deep holes in the water so that when you come through you think its going to be clear coasting until your suddenly lying on your roof.
NOTE: As a general rule its best to slow down for any stretches of the course that have a lot of people gathered around it. Its possible that they are all there waiting for their trap to snare you. Often if the earth before a jump is darker its safe to assume that someones been digging there the night before with dastardly intentions.
I approached the lake of yecchy water with caution. In all our pre running and practice we hadn't hit water at speed but I have to say the crowd being there did the one thing everyone warned us about- amping us up so much that we over reach on our ability. We hit the water doing about 40. Instantly we are soaked. The mud covers our visors so we are now driving at the periphery of control with 10% visibility. NOTE: all drivers and navigators should tuck a fresh rag under their leg at the start of the race and at each pitstop for occasions like this one. With one hand controlling the car you have to be quick to smear away the mud and get back to driving. Another note- If your running GoPro's be sure to have them mounted in a way you can reach them with at least a finger so that you can wipe the lens.
I wipe the visor and stay focused. Again my Team O'Neil Rally school experience comes into play as I stay on the throttle every time we get sideways and just look where I want to go- In short the basics of rally driving.
I have to remind myself about every five seconds not to go all out and just survive the first five miles but every time you pass a cluster of cheering Mexican's you cannot help but want to drift the car sideways and just get on the gas so that the sound of your engine gives them what they really came here for.
We have yet to see the back of the car that left 30 seconds before us and no one has crept up on us so I'm feeling confident that we are pushing as hard as we need to be this early on . As we come up and out of the river bed and back onto a piece of paved road for a long, fast straight away we have our first opportunity to breath it all in. Alex and I shake hands as though what lay behind us was already a major achievement. We approach a gap in an old town wall that leads us back down into the dirt. My navigators instructions were "right five". When we came through the gap and over the crest it was a three at best. (higher numbers usually fast. Every driver has thier own version) I turned hard but we we now sliding sideways over the embankment.
We've done it! Like predicted, the rookies had wrecked it in the first five miles... but the angel that is Tim O'Neil came to me as a vision and I pressed down hard on the accelerator instead of going for the brake. I kept my eyes focused on where we wanted to be and allowed myself to be "saved".
The last thing you think of doing when everything is going wrong is accelerate but thats the key. Braking just extends the slide your currently a participant of. Acceleration means the tires are digging for grip, tearing away at loose stuff on top to get grip underneath and trying to push the car in the direction of the steer. It works and we emerge from the depths to loud cheers from the crowd. In the excitement we pull back onto the track just in time to have a slight collide with 1608, the car that started behind us but nothing breaks and we both keep racing.
We tuck in behind 1608 and give pursuit. It's clear he/ she is a seasoned driver as they are diving into corners very hot and surviving so I just stick to them. This form of racing means that to be behind someone means to tie a blindfold over your eyes as the dust is overwhelming. The crowd loves it that they actually get to see some head to head racing and are cheering us on but ultimately I decide against attempting a pass this early on. I'm still a little red faced from our off and don't want to risk to much this early in the game.
**photo courtesy of Francisco Aguiar
Thirty miles into the race the crowds thin as we get into the rhythm that will continue for at least the next six hours. I remember reflecting back on how scared I had been about killing a bystander. Pre race lunacy left me few opportunities to catalog my fears but driving into a crowd was probably at the top of my list closely followed by driving off a cliff.
If I had to give anyone advice on how to cope with this part of the experience I would say that once the race starts you gain an intense focus and a tunnel vision. Keep the car in that tunnel and stay on the gas. As Tim, Wyatt and Michael used to say up at the Team O"Neil school in New Hampshire "blah blah blah accelerate"...