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.
Volkswagen executives in Germany were largely unaware of their hard-won heritage in the Mexican classic until top American desert racer Mark Miller was invited to Germany to drive one of VW's special, five-cylinder turbodiesel Dakar Touaregs in the famed Paris-Dakar race in Africa. Miller's prowess in the works-built VW racer and his personal accounts to VW's brass of the brand's continuing smaller-class successes in Mexico convinced the Germans that Baja might be just the place to create some instant rough-terrain credibility for their modern, luxurious turbodiesel-powered Touareg SUVs.
As a test, VW first entered four of its V-10-powered SUVs in Pikes Peak's annual hillclimb. A class win in Colorado encouraged the company to enter two of its tiny Dakar Touareg racers in last year's Baja 500. Although the African racer's comparatively low ground clearance and limited suspension travel made them rather unsuited to Baja's gnarly terrain, they still performed remarkably well, finishing 11th and 12th overall against a huge field of mighty Trophy Trucks and Class 1 Unlimiteds.
The 500 was a mind-expanding experience for the German engineers and VW's American marketing staff, who had come to Mexico for the first time. Two things convinced them that VW should have some continuing presence in SCORE's Baja racing series: the tremendous reputation and respect the VW name had established in 40 years of desert racing and the realization that Baja's proximity to the U.S. had given the Mexican race a powerful marketing credibility that no event in Europe or Africa could match. The name Baja, with all its mystery and storied reputation for incredible difficulty, had a unique power to promote the Volkswagen name in the trendy and super-competitive American SUV market. Clark Campbell, Volkswagen of America's motorsport manager, saw instantly that, as good as VW's reputation was in Baja, what was really needed was a brand-new specially built VW-powered racer that could again place the familiar VW logo in the 1000's winner's circle. With zero experience in creating this type of "unlimited" desert racing vehicle, Campbell turned to VW's expert desert racer, Mark Miller, and his equally talented driver/business partner, Ryan Arciero, for advice.
Both were experienced, successful Trophy Truck racers on the Mexican peninsula, with two overall TT wins in the 1000. Miller suggested their firm, Arciero Miller Motorsports, design and construct a special Baja Touareg Trophy Truck that would combine one of Volkswagen's clean-burning turbodiesels with a race proven American-designed TT chassis that could compete effectively with the huge field of Trophy Trucks.
After months of negotiation with VW, lead sponsor Red Bull, and SCORE (the race's sanctioning body), an unorthodox but brilliant and complex alliance of German engineers, British transmission specialists, and Southern California designers and fabricators formed the nucleus of VW's formal entry into Baja desert racing. The team's primary goal in its first outing for the three-year program, as stated by Kris Nissen, VW's director of motorsport, was simply to build a race-finishing vehicle. That's no easy task for a first year design, as proven by the abysmally high attrition rate for debut concepts. SCORE's approval of the ground-breaking project was vital, as previously there had been no provision in its rules for turbodiesels. Once Bill Savage, SCORE's technical director, was convinced that there was an equitable standard for the power, torque, and fuel efficiency of Volkswagen's turbodiesel to compete with SCORE's popular American V-8s, the project commenced.
Arciero Miller's veteran lead designer and program manager, Don Tebbe, brought in famed race-chassis specialist Trevor Harris to pen the new Baja Touareg's tubular space-frame and complex but lightweight suspension. An interesting engineering enigma surrounded the project's proposed engine and drivetrain at this early point, as only the basic outlines of the engine package could be revealed at that time. Designer Ulrich Baretzky hadn't even decided on the final configuration and specifications of the engine.
Volkswagen's racing engineers never intended for the stock Touareg's iron-block V-10 to be developed for competition; instead, they borrowed one of Audi's V-12 Le Mans-winning engines. This saved time, money and, most important, weight. Compared with a gasoline-fueled engine, the turbodiesel's optimum rev-range was rather limited, so Baretzky suggested use of a six speed sequential transmission. X-trac built a new transmission that would work with the proposed mid-engine, power-forward layout. Even though most Trophy Trucks resemble the production versions from which their engines are derived, SCORE's rules permit almost any changes to the design, provided the final race vehicle generally resembles its origins. The usual safety equipment found in any serious racing chassis is required, but after that, the possibilities are limitless.
Consequently, many TTs use reverse-mounted mid-engine designs, with power going forward through highly modified GM Hydra-Matics to a special marine-derived V-drive gearbox that sends the power back to the live rear axle through a long propeller shaft with an off-set differential. The use of solid, single-piece axles with their high unsprung weight might seem unusual in a cost-no-object TT racer, but Baja terrain demands strange compromises. Tire contact with the road is what gives any racing car its speed, so Trophy Trucks, which spend much of their time in the air, need huge amounts of suspension travel to keep their rubber in contact with the ground. Delivering power to a suspension that has three-plus feet of travel requires the use of universal joints comfortable with high angularity. Long prop shafts permit this, so reverse-mounted mid-engine designs have become the norm for Baja success. Once the basic dimensions of the new tubular space-framed chassis were determined, the body design was handed off to VW's American design studio in Santa Monica, California.
VW marketing staff wanted to make sure this Baja racer wouldn't be a grotesque caricature of the existing production version. VW's lead designer on the project, Alex Earle, had a difficult aesthetic problem: the mid-engine Tebbe/Harris chassis was some 11 percent larger than that of a standard Touareg. But Earle's final lines were so artfully executed it's hard to notice the size difference until the racer is parked next to a production version.
Construction of the special chromoly tube-framed racer would proceed in total secrecy at the Arciero Miller facility in Orange County, California, until just weeks before the race. Building the new Baja Touareg so near the terrain on which it would eventually race allowed the Arciero Miller crew to prepare and test the bare chassis in secret, far from prying eyes, on a remote dry lake in California's high desert, just hours from the shop. The build schedule was extremely tight.
Just days after completion, VW's new racer was introduced at the Los Angeles auto show and then, hours later, whisked to Ensenada, Mexico, for the Baja 1000. Starting positions are drawn by lot; out of a total field of 347 entries, the VW drew the 13th spot off the line. Ryan Arciero started the 631-mile race at 10:40 a.m. with plans for Mark Miller to take over in the late afternoon at the 232-mile mark. An unforeseen problem with a tiny crush-washer sealing the hydraulic fitting on the integral clutch mechanism--a 10-cent part--temporarily stopped Arciero at race-mile 44. Within minutes, the efficient AMR support crew was on the scene and within an hour, the entire clutch assembly was changed out and Arciero continued. Further on, he encountered deep silt and extremely rough terrain, which didn't allow enough speed, even in first gear, for the engine's turbos to spool up and develop the necessary torque to handle the terrain. This required Arciero (and Miller in the latter half of the race) to slip the clutch to gain rpm. This in turn put severe loads on the entire driveline. A second and third stop along the route to change out the complete transmission, clutch, and then the differential again slowed the team's effort. VW finished the race exactly where it started, 13th in class but 32nd overall. The team's primary goal, though, was met--the vehicle finished on its first time out, which is more than 43 percent of the Trophy Trucks could accomplish. The most important statistic was the Touareg's speed; when running, it easily matched that of the fastest TTs. (And of the cars finishing ahead of the Baja Touareg, eight were powered by air-cooled VW engines. Proven designs are hard to beat, even with the most modern technology.)
The data gathered will be analyzed, the necessary changes to improve reliability will be made, and more developmental testing will start almost immediately. The second Baja Touareg is already under construction, and the team's next outing is possibly at the San Felipe 250 in March. Knowing Arciero Miller's past record, one can bet that by next November's 1000, the Baja Touaregs will be serious threats for the overall win.