Off-Road Adventure at the 2007 Baja 1000

I had always heard about the Baja 1000 off-road race, but knew very little other than the fact that it took place in Mexico and covered about 1,000 miles. I'm a city girl, and off-roading has never been my forte. I'll take a Mustang over an F-150, or a Corvette over an Avalanche. ATVs? As foreign to me as Indian cars. So I was a good pick to cover the race in November 2007 from a novice's perspective.

Viva Mexico!

The setup: Two other journalists, a PR representative and I would share a ride in a 2006 Mitsubishi Montero SUV and follow a 2006 Mitsubishi Raider, competing in the Baja 1000 off-road race. The route, in spite of the race's name, was approximately 1,300 miles, from Ensenada down to the finish in Cabo San Lucas. Competitors must finish the race in 53 hours or less, which meant we would have to drive nonstop for two days to keep up. Ouch.

Our Montero was equipped with a 3.8-liter V6 engine rated at 215 horsepower. (That is, while running on gasoline from the U.S. After filling up at Mexican gas stations, we struggled to get past 65 mph on the highway.) Designed on a unique unibody chassis specifically for off-roading, the Montero remains "old school," as it still uses a low-range transfer case but lacks modern-day electronics like a navigation system. Even so, it was surprisingly comfortable. The leather seats were plush and supportive, and trunk space was ample for our road trip necessities, like toilet paper, flashlights, bottled water and Imodium.

The Baja 1000 event kicked off on a Monday with a mandatory tech inspection in Ensenada. Race officials went through their checklists for the hundreds of cars, trucks, buggies, motorcycles and ATVs that were competing. Because the race is vital to the local economy, the whole city comes out to show its support in this festive atmosphere, which features live music and scantily clad dancers. There are no hospitality tents or supermodels in attendance. It is decidedly unglamorous, yet there is nothing cheap or second-rate about these competitors' race efforts. Teams may spend as little as $10,000 or as much as $2 million; call it beer taste, champagne budget. Actor Patrick Dempsey competed this year, as did West Coast Choppers owner Jesse James.

Can Your Raider Do This? The Answer Is Yes

Our mission was to keep up with the Raider, which hasn't garnered much attention from customers, let alone hard-core racing fans. But in 2006, to everyone's surprise but perhaps his own, DXR Racing's Dan Fresh piloted a Raider and finished 1st in his class by a scant 33 seconds. He competes in the highly contested Stock Mini truck class, which includes the Hummer H3, Toyota FJ Cruiser and Honda Ridgeline. As per the rules, the Raider can't stray far from what you see on the showroom floor. Therefore, Dan's greatest challenge is building the suspension setup to improve speed over the rough terrain and accommodate larger tires. His truck's engine is rated at about 235 hp.

Dan is a jovial, handsome man with a great sense of humor, who is relaxed enough to enjoy a few beers the night before his race. He has been competing for 10 years, and has logged more than 20,000 race miles. He also does the fabrication work on his own race trucks. His chase crew is headed up by his best friend from high school and includes his family and in-laws. There is an incredible chemistry and camaraderie with Dan's crew that I hope will rub off on our Montero group. Dan has a co-driver, but prefers to drive most of the race by himself. "I figure I'll probably stay awake for about 50 straight hours," he told us. Last year, he finished the entire race in just over 34 hours and 36 minutes. "The funny thing is, the night before the race, I usually can't even sleep."

40 Years and Going Strong

The concept of a timed race through the Mexican desert was originally designed to showcase the reliability of motorcycles. In 1962, Dave Ekins rode from Tijuana to La Paz in a Honda CL72 Scrambler, in the first official timed run of 39 hours and 56 minutes across 956.7 miles. The trip made headlines in adventure and motorcycle enthusiast publications. In 1967, entrepreneur Bruce Meyers completed the course in his own Meyers Manx dune buggy and beat Ekins' time by 5 hours. Meyers was trailed by an automotive journalist, who returned home and began a media blitz of photographs and a press release titled "Buggy Beats Bike in Baja." As Meyers' tales of death-defying racing across the desert became widely circulated, it instantly created a competition between motorcycles and four-wheelers.

The first official Mexican 1000 race from Tijuana to La Paz took place on November 1, 1967. It was renamed the Baja Mil (Baja 1000) in 1973. That year, more than 424 people from 44 states and 20 countries entered and started the race; just over 50 percent crossed the finish line. In 1978, only 25.6 percent finished.

How Do They Make It Look So Easy?

During our drive, we communicated with Dan's crew by radio and they would give us directions to each pit stop. Some of the stops were several miles off the highway in the middle of the desert. The pit crews performed emergency welding jobs to repair and replace parts that were damaged by the rough terrain, and refueled with amazing speed. One of our stops was at midnight in the frigid cold; the next stop was hours later in the middle of a dust storm. At one point, my driver actually started to hallucinate from exhaustion while he drove. How do these racers do it?

This year, Baja racing legend Rod Hall, age 70, finished 1st in the Stock Mini class in the H3, followed by the FJ Cruiser in 2nd and the Raider in 3rd (out of six trucks). It was a very competitive race; the Raider came in less than an hour after the H3. In this race, it is victorious merely to finish the race, which puts Dan Fresh in an elite group of super-humans. I'll leave the racing to folks like Dan, but the Baja 1000 has given me a new appreciation for off-roading. I'm looking forward to next year's race already, but maybe this time someone will offer me a lift in a helicopter instead.