Behind the Scenes: Baja 1000 In a Lexus LX 570
Proving There's More to This Cruiser Than You Think
The start of the 44th Baja 1000 was delayed for almost two hours on Friday, November 18, 2011, due a semi-trailer that jackknifed on the race course in Ensenada. After a delay to clean that up and recall the few Trophy Trucks that had already gotten past, we could hear the restarting of Trophy Trucks. After a few restarted, the radio reported that a race truck caught on fire in the arroyo leading from downtown into the hills, delaying the start again.
Joe Bacal and I started the JT Grey Racing Lexus LX 570 (#860) with the Stock Fullsize class at 2p.m., more than two hours after our expected start time. Thirty seconds ahead of us was Rod Hall in a HUMMER H1, and another half-minute ahead was points-leader Wes Bevly in a new Ford F-150.
Joe drove smooth, careful, and fast -- like a guy who knows every aspect of his Geiser-built stock truck, which he does as this is the truck he's raced since going pro in June 2009. After being directed down a cliff and rolling five times while leading the Baja 500 in June 2011, Joe had repaired the rollcage and replaced every exterior panel of the LX 570 except the left rear door skin.
The Lexus was supported by a dozen off-road Toyota and Lexus trucks and SUVs crewed by more than two dozen Toyota engineers from Toyota Motor Sales USA, the Toyota Arizona Proving Ground, Toyota Motor Corp., and Toyota Racing Development, plus the all-volunteer Long Beach Racers led by TRD senior engineer Ted Moncure. The Long Beach Racers also started their brand new TRD Baja T|X Pro Tacoma in Stock Minitruck a few minutes after us with Ted Moncure driving.
The Lexus passed numerous competitors with the Lexus before we got out of town, and even more once we out in open-range land beyond the village of Ojos Negros at race mile 40. We were passing starters in earlier, faster classes all afternoon. We were also hearing radio chatter of crew members chasing parts and supplies for the Long Beach Racers' Tacoma, but we tried not to worry about them.
Joe drove to BFGoodrich Pit #1 along Highway 3 at RM81 to top up the Lexus with 30 gallons of unleaded before turning east into a rough mountain trail as the sun fell behind us. We crested the 5000-foot summit near Cerro Grande at RM104 just before 6 p.m. in total darkness and fierce side winds. Joe had been averaging just over 28 mph -- a little above our target of 26.
Carefully picking his way around boulders and on narrow saddles near the peak, he drove down the equally rough backside of the mountain trail, descending into the river washes leading to the Laguna Salada. On the smooth, hard, dry lakebed, we enjoyed pleasantly warm evening breezes through the open cabin of the LX 570 and occasionally saw speeds topping 90 mph.
After having sketchy radio contact with our team at the summit, we heard only silence on the radio for the next couple of hours until the high-speed fun ended with more river washes and a gradual ascent of the Borrego Mountain ridge. At the stroke of 10 p.m. Friday, having averaged 25 mph, Joe and I pulled the Lexus into BFGoodrich Pit #2 at RM 199, a city of hundreds of team pits manned by thousands of desert rats at the foot of the Borrego Mountains along Highway 3.
We handed the LX 570 off to Bob Ditner of Toyota's Arizona Proving Grounds to drive the 250-mile San Felipe loop with Mike Jarboe. Long Beach Racers in Tacomas and FJ Cruisers were stationed at several points at the far southern end of the loop, with others waiting at BFG Pit #3 near the coast at RM320 south of San Felipe.
With Bob and Mike in the Lexus, Joe and I caught up with Ted Moncure on the Tacoma situation. It turned out that, before Ted had even gotten to Ojos Negros, he'd detected a problem with the right front shock absorber of the new Tacoma, and the crew had gone into the course at race mile 35 to replace the shock. Not long thereafter, he felt a problem with the left front, which turned out to be a bent suspension member. After replacing that, Ted turned the truck over to pro hot-shoe Andy Bell at the Tacoma's first planned BFGoodrich pit stop at race mile 81, about two hours behind the Lexus -- we knew from previous two-truck entries that this would complicate life for our ground crew, but were confident they'd be there for us.
Andy didn't get far before his co-driver called in regarding a driveline clunk. The Long Beach Racers on the scene thought it might be the center support bearing for the driveshaft, so they replaced it with the one from the Tacoma Ted's dad was driving -- one of the advantages of Stock Class racing. But a few miles later it became evident that the driveshaft wasn't the problem, and Ted made the tough call to halt the effort before sending the racers into the unreachable radio silence of the climb into the mountains.
With family members working shifts throughout the night following the truck's progress via its GPS transponder and sending us status report via text message every half hour, Joe, Chris Cocores, and I tried get some sleep in the "driver limo," a stock white 2008 Lexus LX 570 luxury SUV that has driven tens of thousands of miles supporting every one of Joe's Baja assaults since 2009.
Bob and Mike ran steadily and uneventfully all night, pacing the LX 570 right between the F-150 and the H1, according to the text messages. They came back into the same BFG pit, now renumbered as BFG4 at RM450, minutes before 10 a.m. on Saturday. While the BFGoodrich techs poured gas and inspected the tires, we put Joe Bacal back in with Chris Cocores co-driving, and the LX 570 continued to run like a freight train.
By RM 506 at the entrance to Valle de la Trinidad, the Lexus was within 20 miles of points leader Wes Bevly's F-150, and opening a wider gap to Rod Hall's Hummer H1. After tacos at the three-table restaurant in Valle de la Trinidad, I folded our night-shift drivers, Bob and Mike, into the back of the driver limo and headed back to Ensenada for showers and shut-eye.
The all-wheel-drive LX 570 pulled through all the obstacles of Baja: wet sloppy mud, boulders the size of basketballs, insane climbs, river washes filled with deep sand and silt. Joe could still win the SCORE season championship, but it would require the F-150 to DNF; we were all hoping for that legendary Ford durability to become apparent.
Around 5 p.m. Saturday, Bob, Mike, and I headed out to Ojos Negros to see the race truck head back into town. By RM 640, Joe was within 19 miles of the leading F-150, both trucks on schedule to finish at about 6:45 p.m. in Ensenada. We used ranch roads to get to several course access points on the way into town to cheer the boys home.
The JT Grey LX 570 finished the 2011 Baja 1000 around 7:30 p.m. at RM 702 in second place for Stock Fullsize, the H1 finishing another 45 minutes behind. All three Stock Full starters finished the entire 705-mile course within the allotted time, very unusual in a race where half the entrants don't make it to the end. Since Wes Bevly's Ford finished ahead of us to win the class, he earned the season championship.
The Lexus ran beautifully for two days and a night, all our drivers were flawless, and the Long Beach Racers were on top of everything all over the peninsula for us. That's the nature of professional international motorsports -- you can do everything superbly and still not win.