It's hard enough to finish an off-road race, especially one like this year's Baja 500, which covers 450 miles of terrain -- and only a few scant miles are paved. Throw in the challenges of trying to predict the unpredictable, and you'll be dealing with late nights long before the race starts. This year, vehicle problems, illness, and racecourse changes were only part of what Joe Bacal's team had to deal with.
This isn't the first time Joe has had to face adversity. After 20-plus years of testing vehicles for automakers (most recently and for the longest time at Toyota), he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma after doctors discovered a large tumor. While he was being treated, he realized that life was too short to not chase his dream of racing. He pledged then and there to pursue it if his health allowed. Once the treatments proved successful -- he has been cancer-free for five years -- he started off-road racing with Lexus in 2009. Since then, he's been on the podium 13 times, has been class champion twice, and has won the Toyota Milestone Award (SCORE's award for vehicles that complete every mile in an entire race series). He always serves as the sole driver in the Baja 500, and even did the Baja 1000 once as the only driver. For this Baja race, he would have three co-drivers; I would be the second of the three. This was my first time going to the Baja 500, and my first time as a co-driver.
Joe was driving an LX 570-based race truck he built to compete in the Stock Full class; for this race season, the truck has the styling cues of the 2013 LX 570. Being in this class has its advantages and disadvantages: The class has fewer entries (two this year), and the vehicles are often less expensive than the million-dollar trophy trucks that also race in Baja. However, in this category there are specific things you aren't allowed to modify, such as the powertrain, chassis, and electronics, and that would prove to be problematic.
When you think of off-road racing, Lexus isn't the first name that comes to mind, but the company can benefit from this type of exposure. Unlike other vehicles that are here that only vaguely resemble the production models on which they're based, in Stock Full, these races can verify the durability and reliability of Lexus products. It also gives engineers a chance to do severe duty testing that no proving ground can replicate.
But while most of the guys that served as vehicle #861's crew have engineering backgrounds and many work for Toyota and Lexus, they are not here as official representatives of either company. They spend their vacation days, weekends, and their own money to be a part of Joe's team. There are about 30 people here, most of whom are members of the Long Beach Racers, the race team that crews for Joe and for the Toyota Tacoma Baja T|X Pro racing in the Stock Mini class at this same race. While set up in Ensenada, the Lexus and Toyota would share the pit area, and crew chief Ted Moncure would oversee it all.
We arrived in Ensenada the Wednesday before the race, giving everyone plenty of time to set up and prepare for the week's events. The team's "pit" area was actually a cordoned-off section of the hotel's parking lot, shared by #861 and the #779 Tacoma. Some of the group arrived that day; others would get here between then and Friday.
The next day, Joe, co-driver Paul Williamsen (National Manager of the Lexus College), and I set out in a stock white Lexus LX 570 -- one of the oldest prototype LXes in the country, most of its miles spent towing or off-roading -- to prerun the first part of the race. While the rest of the Baja 500 route had already been released, this stretch, the first 35 miles or so, was the last bit to be opened up for pre-running. The Lexus did fine, going much slower than the race truck would. On the way, we saw a stranded race buggy that was also prerunning. Joe offered to help, so we towed them to a spot on the course where his team could meet the buggy and tow it back for repairs. Once we had gone through that part of the course, we headed back to Ensenada so the guys could continue fine-tuning both race trucks.
On Friday, all drivers and co-drivers had to register, and like all vehicles running Baja, the Lexus and Toyota had to go through tech inspection and contingency. This was the first time I saw how big a draw the 500 really is. Masses of people came into town to see the race vehicles -- the 500 has everything from motorcycles and ATVs to race buggies and trophy trucks, plus the vehicles in the stock classes. As we walked alongside the race LX, fans rushed the vehicle, impressed to see a Lexus set up to run the Baja. They asked for stickers and hero cards -- glossy cards covered with photos and info about Joe and the truck. JT Grey Racing, Joe and his wife Teresa's company, brought thousands of the hero cards, which were completely gone in an hour. Back to the pits, practice sessions with the co-drivers, and a team meeting to go over last-minute details. Mike Jarboe, the third co-driver, was dealing with a horrible case of the flu, so his participation would be a game-day decision. We went to the SCORE (the sanctioning body that oversees the Baja races) driver meeting, where we found out that a water main had broken, which had completely flooded the first part of the course. All of the preparation, all of the planning, and it was likely we wouldn't know what the race route would be until the next morning. There was nothing the team could do about that, so we were as ready as we could possibly be.