Baja 1000 - Road Trip

Race Trucks, Mexican Diesel, Helicopter Crashes-Good Thing We Brought Our Jeep

David KennedyMar 1, 2008
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If The Wild West Has, In Fact, Been Won, Nobody's Bothered To tell baja Mexico. The famous peninsula south of San Diego has got to be the last untamed stretch of land in America, and as close to the Old West as you can still get. It's the perfect place for adventure, the only place that could contain the famous baja 1000 off-road race, and the ideal terrain for us to shake down our newly built diesel-powered Jeep Grand Cherokee.
CROSSING THE BORDER
Crossing into baja Mexico for the baja 1000 race is a lot like launching a sneak attack on another country. We wanted to be completely self-sufficient on our trip, so we brought our own food, water, tires, tools, and even some fuel. Sampling the local flavor is always nice, but we didn't want to be in need of anything we didn't bring with us.
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The food and water supplies were easy enough to track down, but bringing extra fuel was a little trickier. We're not proud of it, but we ended up filling a 5-gallon fuel container with ultra-low-sulfur American diesel and stashing it on the floor in the back seat. We don't recommend this to anyone, and it's probably illegal to do it in the U.S., but as you'll read later we're sure glad we took the risk.
As we headed south toward tijuana, we could tell that we were getting closer to baja when we saw the enormous Mexican flag waving from the other side of the border. Actually driving into Mexico required no fanfare or vehicle inspection. We didn't even have to speak to the federales that man the Mexican side of the fence with machine guns and Dodge Ram pickups.
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Driving through tijuana can be confusing, but we made our way smoothly through the city and onto Highway 1. The start of the 40th anniversary baja 1000 was in Ensenada, about an hour south of the border. We made it in to town without a hitch and caught the end of SCORE International's contingency and tech inspection event that always takes place the day before the race. Contingency at the baja 1000 is part carnival and part Mardi Gras, except with off-road race vehicles (not half-dressed girls) as the center of attention. It's truly a site to see quarter-million-dollar race vehicles being pushed through a parade of locals and spectators.
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THE NIGHT BEFORE THE RACE
Things were quiet before the race, and rightfully so. The serious competitors send their chase teams south down the course to have them in position hours, or days, before the race begins. The race drivers themselves went to bed early because they'd need all the energy they could get come race day. We, on the other hand, were at the race strictly as spectators. So we went out on the town with a group of publishers from our company's off-road magazines. And that's about all we can print about that.
BROKEN KEY
On the morning of the race, we were in the parking lot of the villa Marina hotel, wiring up a set of Holder Off-Road LED driving lights on the roof of our diesel Grand Cherokee. We were just about to leave when our friend Warren Ellis mentioned to Jeff nasi, publisher of Petersen's 4-Wheel & Off-Road, that the Warn recovery shackle Jeff had in the hitch of his Commander was loose. Jeff tried to tighten it by hand, and then decided to use the ignition key from the Commander to get some leverage on the screw-in pin. Well, you know what happened next. We all heard the pink-tink-tink-tink of the Commander's key breaking in half and falling on the ground. Then, we saw the look of horror on Jeff's face that only a man who has brought one key into Mexico could have.
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To make a long story short, Jeff found a Chrysler dealership in town (miracle) that had a new key blank for a Chrysler 300 in stock. The dealer couldn't reprogram the key, or cut it to work with the Jeep, but agreed to sell it to Jeff for $185. We drove Jeff to a local locksmith in a grocery store parking lot to get the new key cut, using the two pieces of the original key as the master. When we got back to the Commander, Jeff taped what was left of the broken Jeep key to the new Chrysler key and fired the Commander up. The Commander was back in business, as long as Jeff kept the factory theft deterrent systems happy by stashing the old Jeep key in close proximity to the dash.
CATCHING THE TROPHY TRUCKS
Our diesel-powered '08 Jeep Grand Cherokee lead the way and Jeff nasi, Steve vonseggern (publisher of Diesel Power, four Wheeler, and 8-Lug), and Jeff Dahlin (publisher of Off-Road and 4-Wheel Drive & Sport Utility) all followed us in 4-Wheel & Off-Road's Jeep Commander. The buddy system is critical down in baja, so our plan was to take both Jeeps and head south out of Ensenada on Highway 1.
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Over the race radio came reports that a helicopter had crashed outside of Ojos negros after hitting a power line. Many of the highdollar race teams use helicopters as support vehicles to follow their race trucks, and it sounded as though one of the teams had suffered a terrible loss. Days later we read in the local paper that the helicopter may have been a drug trafficker using the baja 1000 race as a cover story for his operations. We know that sounds crazy but the rest of the story reads like a Hollywood movie script and involves an armed militia stealing one of the bodies recovered from the local morgue!
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We were able to hopscotch our way down the racecourse by running the Jeeps on the highway as much as possible. We caught up to the race leaders near race mile 180 at Santa Domingo and watched the first trophy trucks and Class 1 unlimited buggies go by. After an hour of spectating, we hopped back in the Jeeps and raced down toward El Rosario.
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BUMPING INTO IVAN STEWART
We made it into El Rosario at sunset and fueled up both Jeeps. We took on our first dose of Mexican diesel fuel and dreaded what the sulfur content might have been, or what it may do to our Jeep's emissions system.
The trophy trucks were now a few hours behind us so we had time for a dinner break. Diesel Power publisher Steve vonseggern said that he knew of a good restaurant in town, so we killed some time by grabbing a bite to eat. When we went inside the restaurant, we immediately noted that the famous off-road race car driver Ivan "the Ironman" Stewart was there, eating with some friends. That was all we needed to see to know that Steve had brought us to the right place.
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After dinner, we finished wiring up our roofmounted Holder LED lights while Jeff picked up the tab for the meal. To show you just how random and unpredictable baja can be, we ran into Diesel Power's old Web site producer Jason Gonderman, who was down there racing a Mitsubishi Raider.
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CITY IN THE DESERT
This year's racecourse jumped up on to Highway 1 at race mile 400, and the race vehicles had to share the pavement with local traffic for 41 miles. We got there around 8:30 p.m. Just as the trophy trucks were coming through. As we arrived, the scene looked like the city of Las Vegas had sprouted up in the middle of the Mexican desert. Hundreds of race teams had chosen that road crossing as a pit stop. There were tractor- trailers, chase vehicles, box trucks, halogen lights, and more Honda generators running to power the place than you could imagine. The size and scope of the mega pit would have rivaled the infield at the Indy 500.
We spent a few hours there watching the race trucks go by. We ended up working out a trade with the locals for some food and drinks in exchange for some posters and stickers we brought down with us. We even ended up talking with the helicopter pilot from nascar driver Robby Gordon's trophy truck team who had to land on the side of the course because helicopters aren't allowed to fly at night in baja.
Around midnight, the publishers chose to head north back toward San Diego while we took the diesel Grand Cherokee south on the racecourse toward race mile 519.
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SOUTH TO BAY OF L.A.
Driving on the highways in baja can be very dangerous during the day. At night, it can be suicide. Race traffic and chase vehicles were speeding all over the peninsula, the roads were narrow and twisty, and the local tractor-trailer drivers operate as if they owned the road. We were relieved when we made it off Highway 1 and cut over toward the bahia De Los Angeles (bay of L.A.).
The two-lane road to the bay of L.A. was eerily quiet. We drove east into the night for hours and saw almost no traffic. We thought that was odd until we came across a makeshift police checkpoint that was only allowing race traffic to pass through. They waved our Jeep by without even questioning the fact that we didn't have helmets on, or a race number on our vehicle.
SLEEPING IN THE FRONT SEAT
By 1:30 a.m., we'd made it to the bay of L.A. and were ready to crash. We'll pass along one tip we learned while sleeping in our Jeep: Don't go to bed facing the road. If and when you wake up in the middle of the night in the driver seat, it can be a terrifying experience trying to drive the vehicle-until you realize you're not moving.
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HEADING NORTH
We woke up on the second day of the race as soon as the sun rose over the Gulf of California. We managed to sneak in about four hours of shuteye before the sun warmed up the Jeep so much that we had to fire up the 3.0L diesel just to get the A/C going.
Through the night, race vehicles blasted past us on their way to a glorious finish-or limped their way into the bfgoodrich pit we were camped at. A large percentage of the race vehicles didn't even make it to where we were. In order for us to head any further south on the racecourse, we needed visas to cross over the 28th parallel south of El Arco. We didn't have them, sowe had to turn around and head back north. That didn't mean our road trip was over though.
Our plan was to make it back across the border and home to L.A. that night. Our Lowrance GPS estimated that we would cross into the U.S. at around 5:00 p.m. That evening, and if the border traffic was light we could have been home by 9:00 p.m. At the latest.
As we picked our way back up Highway 1, we began running low on diesel and couldn't find a local Pemex fuel station that was open. We literally could have been dead on the side of the road if our co-driver, Warren Ellis, hadn't insisted on bringing the extra fuel. A lot of the chase teams bring extra race gas for the competitors, but not everyone has extra diesel on hand. We're guessing that's a trend that will change now that '07-and-newer diesel trucks need ultra-low-sulfur fuel.
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CHECKPOINT CHARLIE
Crossing the U.S. border to get home is a lot different than entering Mexico. According to the local Chamber of Commerce, the San ysidro port of entry is home to the world's busiest land border crossing. On a good day, it takes roughly an hour to make it across the border going north. We didn't have one of those good days.
We snuck our way up through tijuana just as we had planned, but missed the final turn off for the border and got routed east toward tecate. It was almost as if baja didn't want us to leave. We spent an hour and half skimming along our country's southern border, trying to find our way back across. Using both the Jeep and Lowrance GPS to poke our way through northern tijuana, we finally stumbled upon a commerce checkpoint that turned out to be illegal to access unless we had the proper permits (we didn't). Using a very persuasive argument of "we're lost and just trying to get home," the U.S. border of-ficials let us pass after running our information and making us stay in the Jeep for 45 minutes while they verified our paperwork.
HOME AT 2:30AM
Traveling outside of the U.S. always makes us appreciate coming home again. The city of San Diego seemed like a golden metropolis compared to where we'd been. Driving on freeways that were five lanes wide felt shocking, and being able to find fuel, food, and a hotel wherever we looked seemed far too civilized. We pulled in to the first texaco gas station we found and topped off the fuel tank with a dose of ultralow- sulfur diesel. The Jeep had made it, we had made it, and it was good to be home.

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