True Grit: Surviving the Baja 500
Doing What it Takes to Finish the Race
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.
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.
It was at about this time that the electrical issues mysteriously vanished. Joe got the Lexus going at full speed as the whoop-dee-doos ended, and we were on straight two-lane dirt roads. This part of the drive contained smooth, sweeping turns and straight stretches where he could run flat-out. This was also where I could truly appreciate the deep growl of the exhaust, and felt the power that the 5.7-liter V-8 offered in a race truck that weighs less than the stock LX -- and the stock model gets to 60 in about 6.5 seconds. There were often times when all four wheels were off the ground, and the landings were soft and smooth. I called out directions that the dirt road was taking, often saying little more than "right" or "left" and adding details like how far ahead the turn was coming, and how sharp it appeared to be. As we sped on, spectators cheered from spots alongside the course, and the sun, which was in our eyes, grew low in the sky.
Time flew by in the race truck, and amazingly, once I felt like I was really starting to get the hang of being a co-driver, it was time for me to get out. Mike Jarboe was feeling better, so after we stopped, I got out (again, quickly) and he got in. I was exhausted, exhilarated, sad to be out of the truck, and thrilled that I was able to ride along as much as I did. From this point on, we would go back to listening to updates on the team radio and hoping for the best, but for now it seemed, the electrical gremlin was gone.
The sun went down, and we were back on Highway 3, chasing #861 in the white Lexus. We left the chase and continued on to downtown Ensenada, where we waited for updates as Joe and Mike zoomed through the last 200 miles by the light of the KC HiLites on the grille and roof.
There were some stops and starts, but by a little after 3:15 a.m., Joe and Mike had finished the race. Tacoma #779 finished at about 6:20 a.m., and as the only vehicle in its class, was the winner and received all possible points. The next big question would how the time penalties would affect the Lexus.
We found out the next morning. Even though Joe was tenacious and finished the race, the time penalties were too great, and SCORE determined that vehicle #861 DNF-ed. Despite that, Joe and the team showed tremendous determination and proved that when this Lexus is gremlin-free, it's quite an impressive vehicle.