Saturday. Race day. After my head had been crammed with all of the responsibilities of the co-driver (monitor the navigation system, inform driver of upcoming turns, checkpoints, etc., communicate with pits and the team, be prepared to change a tire, be ready to get out and spot on the course) and I slept as well as I could the night before, it was time to see what this race was all about. Since my time in the race truck wasn't going to be until late afternoon/early evening depending on how the Lexus was doing, I had some time to see #861 on the course. SCORE has the event set up so that race vehicles leave the start/finish line every 30 seconds, starting with the motorcycles and ATVs, then the trophy trucks, then the slower vehicles. We knew the LX probably wouldn't leave until about 11 a.m., and we'd also heard that the race would start a little further down to avoid the flooded area.
We stopped at Ojos Negros, a landmark on the way that crosses a main highway, to watch as the trucks go past. This is where I first learned that the rules are different on the Baja peninsula. On the highway and in Ensenada, we saw civilians drive past with six people in the bed. There were pickups with bucket seats mounted facing backwards in the bed (remember the ones in the Brat?). And while we waited for the LX and the Tacoma to run through, I saw several civilian vehicles drive the wrong way on the racecourse, risking head-on collisions with trophy trucks that barrel through at close to triple-digit speed. One guy driving the wrong way on the racecourse in an old M-Class even stopped and waved to the crowd, to show off. As if the race drivers didn't have enough to worry about...
Where we stood, we could see each vehicle approach on the other side of the highway. Trophy trucks would cross with a deafening roar, leaving a cloud of dust behind. We saw the Tacoma go by, and the race LX soon after. Photographer Shai Harary and I sped along on Highway 3 to get to the next spot where we could see #861 run. That was when we heard the first bit of disappointing news: The race truck was stopped at Race Mile 60. The truck had been dealing with electrical problems, and despite hours where the vehicle was running strong, Joe and Paul had to stop. They came up with possible solutions, but the clock was ticking. In SCORE races, if your vehicle doesn't pass through checkpoints in a certain amount of time, the vehicle risks being DNF-ed before the day is over. That was starting to become a possibility for the LX.
We were encouraged to hear that the truck was moving again. It was running behind the other vehicle in its class, but at this point, the team's goal was to achieve what is not a gimme in off-road racing: finishing. Joe and Paul continued to make their way along the course, but opted to change strategy. The truck would skip a remote section of the course -- one that would be difficult for the support team to get to if the electrical problems persisted -- and take the time penalties for skipping those checkpoints. The team figured that the time they would make up by skipping that would at least keep them out of range of being DNF-ed. The team continued reporting the truck's progress every five race miles (as did the Tacoma, which was moving right along), and we in the white Lexus headed to the spot where I would get into the race vehicle.
It was my time to get in -- and the goal was to be quick about it. Having already put on a race suit, driving shoes, helmet, and gloves, I climbed into the truck and connected the microphone and air system (called a Parker Pumper) to the helmet. Once the five-point harness was secured, the crew tightened the straps, fed the Camelbak hose through the hole in the racing seat, closed the door, and we were off. The Lexus didn't have a windshield, so I started with the helmet visor down and would open it a little on occasion to feel outside air.
When it comes to high-speed off-road driving, Joe was trained by Ivan Stewart. Joe started his career primarily as an on-road tester at manufacturer proving grounds, but expanded his abilities to include off-road truck and SUV testing once he was trained. His level of experience -- both as a driver and his suspension-tuning abilities -- became obvious once the truck was in motion. The LX was still dealing with electrical issues, and the first part of my stretch was at relatively low speed. This served as a good time to get used to doing several things at once: I had to adapt to the loud noise of the race truck while adjusting radio volume between me and Joe, and between both of us and the rest of the team. I also realized that the Lowrance nav system mounted to a bracket on the dash would serve not only as a source of information, but also as something I could hold on to. I also had to get used to reaching forward to push the radio button, mounted on the right side of the dash, which I did every 5 to 15 minutes. This was especially challenging as Joe was driving over tall whoop-dee-doos; it seemed like every time I needed to lean forward to radio in the vehicle's location, the truck was leaning back going over a hill. I eventually got the timing right, but the first few tries were only partial transmissions. While these whoop-dee-doos would beat up anyone in another vehicle, in the race Lexus they felt pretty good. I credit a combination of good driving and suspension design.