Saturday, November 20, 2010

Baja Mille!

One of the biggest events in the Baja every year is the 1,000 mile Off Road race –
the famous Baja 1000. This year, the 43rd annual, started on the Pacific Ocean-side of Baja California in Ensenada about 65 miles south of the border and headed southeast to San Felipe on the Sea of Cortez before heading south through Coco’s Corner, Bahia de Los Angeles, San Ignacio, back to the Pacific at San Juanico, then back to the Sea of Cortez at Loreto, back to the Pacific at Ciudad Insurgentes heading down along the Pacific through Santa Rita before turning back east and down into La Paz for the finish.

For the past week there have been an increasing number of racing teams staying at the INN, across from my Office, these were the “pre-runners” whose job it is to test drive stretches of the course to develop strategies (which they record on GPS) for the actual race drivers who will use this intelligence during the race. The highway has been busy with support trucks carrying stacks of tires and 20 gallon jugs of fuel along with enough tools to satisfy the fantasy of any backyard mechanic.

There are dozens of classes of vehicles from small displacement dirt bikes and quads
through many variations of dune buggies and small trucks all the way up to quarter of a million dollar “Trophy Trucks” with 850 horsepower engines. Factory teams have dozens of support and pit crew staged at various places on the course, some even have their own helicopter air support, while at the other end of the food chain there are modest private teams, perhaps a family or small group of individuals racing their home built VW bug - and everything in between.

The motorcycles started the race at 6:30 am on Thursday at 30 second intervals and the power and speed of the vehicles increase through the different classes until the Cars and Trucks started their intervals at 11:30 am. This year there were over 300 entries from 37 U.S. States, and 19 countries, competing in 33 Pro and 7 Sportsman classes for cars, trucks, motorcycles and ATVs. To qualify the race must be completed within 45 hours, but the top finishers do so in about half that time while up to half of the entrants do not finish. Most of the teams had multiple drivers taking different stages of the race, but there is a special group of drivers who solo the entire 1,000 miles – truly a test of endurance by any standard of sports.

My first experience of this race was a couple of years ago when I joined a couple of other Homeowners and we went out to a spot on the north side of town where the course came near the highway. That year we waited from about 10:30 pm until 1:30 in the morning before the first dirt bike blasted out of the pitch black night and through the dusty pit area before plunging back into the Baja night. Then we waited around again for almost another hour for the next bike to appear before I finally gave up and went home to bed.

This year I had another plan. Rather than spend the night waiting in the dark for
the front runners to appear, I decided to get up just before dawn and, along with several others from Loreto Bay, we headed to this year’s pit area, half a mile west of the Highway Pemex at the entrance to town. The sun still hadn’t risen when we arrived but we didn’t have to wait long before we heard the high performance engine and then saw the multiple blinding headlights of the first vehicle come charging out of the dusty dark and do a four wheel drift into the pit area next to where we were standing.

The most amazing thing about this scene was the fact that we were standing at the side of a dirt road that was part of the course separated from the “pits” by a stretch of plastic tape and vehicles were passing on both sides of us, some in the race, others were private vehicles, support trucks even fully loaded dump trucks carrying gravel. In the midst of which, spectators including a number of small kids, were standing around watching or moving from place to place with little or no apparent concern with the fact that they were essentially in the middle of a race track! When I considered how a similar situation would have been handled anywhere in North America we would have been kept at a “safe” distance, probably behind an appropriately sturdy security fence, to try to observe the action. But this is the Baja Mexico, where the “Nanny State” concept has not yet taken root and people are responsible for the consequences of their own behaviour – a refreshing, if somewhat sobering reality.

So, as the sun rose and the chill in the air quickly disappeared, we were kept
entertained by the arrivals and departures of various sizes and shapes of vehicles. Some stopped for fuel, some changed drivers, others had mechanical problems that were quickly resolved right there in the dirt by their resourceful pit crews and yet others motored right through the stop and carried on back into the desert – engines growling and tires throwing dust and dirt behind them as they went. During lapses in the action the crowd shifted from one vantage point to another, talked about the vehicles and waited for the sound of the next visitor approaching.

At one point during the morning, a young girl wandered up the road carrying a plastic box lined with towels and when I saw her stop and talk to several Mexicans and then reach into the box and start pulling out large flat donut shaped pastries sprinkled with sugar I stepped up and bought my breakfast – for 5 pesos (or about 3 cents!) and still warm from the fryer!

After several hours of being spectators we regrouped and made our way back to the car to return to Loreto Bay – impressed with our morning’s experience, Seeing hundred’s of thousands of dollars of state of the art vehicles, competing more with the terrain than each other, surrounded by kids and adults, Mexicans and Gringos, without the structure and limits that would be expected anywhere but here. The combination of freedom coupled with responsibility for oneself that could only happen in a place like this – where one of the premiere off-road races in the world can be held with little or no restrictions, free for all to attend – indeed this event was another amazing chapter in the experience that is “Living Loreto”!

P.S. If you want to see more of this truly “amazing race” there will be a broadcast on NBC TV December 19th at 3:00 pm EST, mark your calendar – you won’t be disappointed!