Behind the Scenes: Baja Series Toyota Tacoma at Baja 1000
From the Showroom Floor to Racing in the Real Deal
Last summer, when Toyota called to offer Long Beach Racers the opportunity to build a race truck from one of the new Baja Series Tacoma prototypes, we thought, "Hey, that sounds like fun. Put a rollcage in a stock Tacoma and go. Now we have something to do this summer." We should've hung up the phone and run away screaming. Taking a brand-new truck apart and modifying it with everything required to be a SCORE-legal race vehicle includes hundreds of little details, each of which is a multihour project. Plumbing the fuel cell, wiring the race radio and intercom system, installing the fresh-air system, making mounts for GPS tracking devices, hood pins, window nets, race seats, seatbelts, off-road lights, fire extinguishers, jacks, tool bags, etc. add up. Much like having a child, though, it's really rewarding to see it grow into something useful.
The birth of this particular baby came in late October when we loaded the race truck on the trailer for its debut at the SEMA show in Las Vegas. Like proud parents, we hovered over the transport driver, showing him how to turn on the battery master switch, fuel pumps, and ignition. "Don't forget the accusump!" we reminded him. Long Beach Racers is an all-volunteer army, a group of veteran desert racers who happen to be Toyota enthusiasts. Several of us used to pit for Ivan Stewart, Toyota's legendary Trophy Truck champion. When Toyota pulled out of desert racing in 2000 to focus on circle-track racing, we formed our own team and started racing off-road at the grassroots level (perhaps that should be silt, rocks, and cactus roots level).
On the way home from Vegas, we tested the truck and tuned the suspension at the Stoddard Wells OHV area in Barstow, California -- Barstow's deep whoops and rock gardens are the closest thing the U.S. has to Baja's brutal terrain. Andy Bell flew out to meet us in a helicopter, and got to drive the truck for the first time. Bell, who often destroys things for a living, turned out to be a very good driver, using his dirtbike experience to read the terrain and avoid obstacles that are better suited to Trophy Trucks than stock pickups. Bilstein sent shock Guru Joel Ward out to tune the suspension, and the LBR crew thrashed to remove and reinstall the front shocks four times until Joel was satisfied that he had wrung all the performance possible out of eight angry inches of front suspension travel.
Fast forward two more weeks -- nightly thrashing, prerunning, Andy putting our livers to the test with his new Tequila sponsor, other final preparations. We find ourselves in Ensenada, Mexico, starting point of the Baja 1000, the world's longest continuous off-road race. The truck passed tech inspection with flying colors, the team members exhaled, we had a pit meeting to make sure that everyone would be at the toughest parts of the race course in case help was needed, equipped with the tools and spare parts we had scrounged together in the last few frantic days. The race starts on a Friday morning and continues for up to 32 hours. The fast guys in Trophy Trucks can do it in 16, but they have two to three feet of wheel travel and 800 horsepower. Our Baja Series Tacoma has been modified within the rules to get 8 inches up front and 13 in the rear. Our plan is to finish in 30 hours if nothing goes wrong. In Baja, something ALWAYS goes wrong. Two hours is a narrow reserve, one that would prove fatal to our attempt this year.
We intended to break the course into four sections and change drivers at the BFGoodrich pits when we took on fuel and changed tires if necessary. I was the first driver, and Brandon Lillard from Skullcandy would navigate. Andy Bell and Zach Zwillinger would get in at the first pit to climb the Summit, a rocky mountain 5000 feet tall. They would then run through the silt beds of Laguna Salada to the Borrego pit area, where Nick Moncure and Mike Basch would take over, run the 250-mile San Felipe loop, and hand off to Doug Hood and Chris Livingston, who would bring the truck through the coastal mountains to the Pacific and then back to Ojo Negros, where Andy would climb back in for the last 30 miles to the finish. Our team elected to start last. Baja races are conducted on corrected time, with 30 seconds between competitors. Starting last makes the math easy for crew members to keep track of what place you're in when you pass them on the course. If you pass someone, you are ahead of them, period.
The start of the race runs through a wash in the center of Ensenada, and this year rains made it a muddy mess. On race day, a Tractor trailer jack-knifed, blocking the course and delaying the start of the race. This meant our Tacoma would be climbing the summit in the dark. All of this is par for the course in Baja, so we weren't worried. Finally, at 1:02 p.m., Andy's wife, Danielle, waved the green flag at us and we dropped the clutch. As expected, the wash was a muddy, chaotic mess, with deep holes bordered by insane spectators close enough to touch the side of the truck as we splashed by. (In fact, a spectator was run over about 15 minutes before we hit the wash by a truck trying to avoid the mud, but we didn't know this until after the race.) This is where the stock nature of our race truck paid off. We hit the windshield wipers and soldiered on, passing our competition and moving into the lead before race mile 5.
The course hits the pavement briefly after leaving the wash, allowing us to scrub the mud off of our tires and hit 100 mph on the GPS, then winds through dirt roads and hillside trails on the outskirts of town. Spectators line the course for virtually all of the first 35 miles. The Tacoma was running great, we started passing cars in faster classes, including Rod Hall's Stock Full Hummer, several Class 3 Broncos, and a Tacoma that was registered in class 2 for supercharged vehicles. Our crew relayed a message that we were 6 minutes ahead of second place as we approached the town of Ojos Negros, race mile 35 on the outbound course. The course went through a rock garden then merged into hard-packed dirt roads with giant mud holes every quarter mile or so. We skirted the edge of the holes at speed when possible, and were having a good time when disaster struck. We swerved left to miss a big mud bog and dropped the right front tire into a deep square edged hole, resulting in a pop from the front end. This happened right before the course hit the pavement where LBR chase trucks were standing by so we pulled in and asked them to take a look at the front end.
It turned out that we had broken a shock shaft. The broken shaft had damaged the outboard CV boot as well. We relayed a call to our chase crew at the BFG pit to bring a spare shock, and repaired the CV boot with some plastic from a case of water bottles and duct tape. Meanwhile our competition passed us, and, once the spare shock was installed, we got back on the race course about 45 minutes behind the leader. The truck was still running great, though, and the hours spent prerunning paid off. By the time we got to the first pit at RM 82, we were down only 11 minutes. We took on 16 gallons of fuel, made some more repairs, cleaned mud off of the lights, then Andy and Zach took off into the black Baja night.
Andy put his foot in it and made great time, once again starting to narrow the gap with the leader when Zach noticed a thumping noise from the rear of the truck. Initially he thought it was a driveshaft, perhaps having been dented on a rock, but the noise got progressively worse, eventually shaking the entire truck with each revolution of the rear tires. They got on the radio and called for a chase truck to assess the damage and see if it could be fixed. The chase crew was only a few miles away, so they arrived and promptly went to work swapping driveshafts between the race truck and the chase truck, another Tacoma.
Unfortunately this didn't help, and further driving revealed the problem to be inside the differential. Our two-hour reserve for repairs had been used up earlier with the suspension work, so there was no way we were going to finish the race in the allotted time, even if we stole the differential out of the chase truck, which had different gear ratios in any case. Bitterly we threw in the towel. Baja is tough, and no one in the Stock Mini class finished this year. Subsequent investigation showed that the shop that installed the lower gears had failed to torque the adjuster bolts, and one had vibrated out and fallen into the ring gear, breaking off several teeth.
Although it was a heartbreaking loss, the truck acquitted itself quite well for a stock Tacoma with glass and air conditioning, not to mention a vehicle built in three months of nights and weekends by an all-volunteer crew. When it was running properly, it passed a lot of purpose-built race cars. We're now in the process of rebuilding the differential and convincing our wives that there's unfinished business in Baja that requires our attention in 2012.