Southern California (and especially Orange County outside of Los Angeles) is littered with people that, for a price, will build or alter your vehicle to travel off-road, in relative comfort, at a high rate of speed. One of the shops, Specialty Race Prep, makes a year round living preparing trucks and buggies to race through some of the world's most grueling dirtscapes. Of course there are purists that think piloting a 1970’s VW bug a thousand miles through Mexico is where the fun is at. I’m under no such illusion. I am with the other 99 percentile that believe the car must be designed to hit a two foot deep hole in the road at 80mph and be able to carry on as though nothing happened. One must be able to reach the party and satisfaction of the finish line in Cabo San Lucas. Our high hopes for the Lincoln Capri being such a flop, I decided to call Travis, SRP's owner and all around trustworthy “off-road dude”, to enquire about a car for the least gentlemanly race on earth - The Score BAJA 1000. Why not start at the bottom...where men still enjoy little snacks directly from their noses and the locals sabotage the course for bemusement? We shall work our way up to where a Pink Gin is a perfectly accepted refreshment during a refueling stop. Alas, for the immediate future it's going to be cans of Tecate.
Travis made a few calls and located a car he had worked on in the past. The beauty of these types of cars is that, like race horses, there is a pedigree. You know who built it, who drove it, and how much life it's still got in it if you're not having the car built to your specification from scratch (which is also easily arranged - but not three months before a race).
There are over 20 separate classes of vehicles one can enter, but there are two very competitive classes. There are Class 1/Trophy Trucks which are million-dollar 600 horsepower extreme energy drink billboards, and then there are the class 16’s, a.k.a. the 1600cc VW-engined open-wheeled one-or-two seaters. I have decided on the latter.
As with all racing, you must get on at the bottom of the ladder. In rally it’s front wheel drive, in track racing its Miatas or Go-Karts. In Baja, it’s Class 16, and with the car weighing only 1500 pounds (with only 90 horsepower) it’s just enough to keep a steady gait for 30 hours. There is a long tradition of VW’s in Mexico, and most of the VW’s in America were never touched by a Ayran craftsman, but rather by a heavily Tecate’d, steady-handed Mexican. The beauty of the 1600cc engine is its simplicity. If anything goes wrong during the race, there is always a strong likelihood that either you (or said local) may be able to get you back on the road. Kevin Ward, an old friend and former Baja and Panamericana winner, told me that on one Baja he and his friend drove through a river that "lacked shallowness". Totally submerged, they managed to drag the car out, unbolt four screws, lift the engine over their heads, shake out the water, screw everything back on, fill it with oil...and take off.
To be honest, I trust Travis empirically, and our going to the desert is more a test of my newly signed-up and slightly overweight co-pilot. The Baja 1000 is a truly punishing race that you must train for, and it’s not for the tender. I mounted a camera in the car to capture my co-pilots virginal reactions. Link forthcoming...!