The basic concept of unlimited desert racing is much like a bar fight in a dimly lit Mexican cantina: There are no rules and almost anything goes--and usually does.
It's that incredible sense of freedom from regulation, to try anything that might win, that makes racing in Baja so much fun. Early proponents of heavy, powerful, but generally slower four-wheel-drive vehicles, like Jeeps or Ford Broncos (which had taken five of the early non-VW Baja 1000 wins) were thoroughly convinced that their bigger-is-better school of design would eventually triumph over the myriad VW-powered entrants using "light, simple, and cheap" as their design compass. Ultimately, the big guys were right, but most of these aggressive but relatively inexperienced early innovators, experimenting with liquid-cooled power instead of following the proven VW formula, were usually surprised and disappointed that the lightweight VW-powered buggies actually functioned better and more consistently on Baja's harsh terrain.
The simple reason that VW power dominated in those early days was the combined developmental power and practical experience of the hundreds of air-cooled proponents. Their reign lasted until 1985, when veteran desert racers Steve Sourapas and Dave Richardson used a hopped-up version of the tiny, German air-cooled engine to secure the iconic design's 13th (and last) overall victory. After that, it all began to change.
Baja's new era of fame came in the early 1990s with the discovery by American truck manufacturers that victory on the rugged Mexican peninsula had tremendous marketing value. The sheer force of ultra-sophisticated, high-dollar factory racing programs, with backing from Ford, Dodge, and Jeep, finally overpowered the early innovative air-cooled privateers. American horsepower took charge and never looked back.
Volkswagen engines still dominated in the fiercely competitive smaller classes, but the value of American V-8 power wasn't lost on those few who still pursued the dream of winning the 1000 in their lightweight chassis using long-travel suspensions. The most innovative began to experiment with small water-cooled engines and went from there.
In the ensuing years, the divide between the two design philosophies--super-trucks and buggies--expanded and eventually morphed into today's two marquee categories: SCORE's full-fendered, silhouette-bodied Trophy Trucks and the Southern California sanctioning body's lighter-weight, Class 1 Unlimited open-wheel racers. Highly modified VW engines still power dozens of displacement-limited, smaller class vehicles in the annual Baja race.
Total entries for the 1000 usually number 300-plus vehicles of all types. The total number of class victories accumulated by VW power over the past 40 years still outnumbers any other competing brand, but recent overall race-winners have been American-V-8-powered. That may soon change, because VW has an all-new engine, an all-new concept Trophy Truck, and is dead serious about victory.