Regardless, Herbst was a strong contender. Kaiser was confident the experimental six-speed dog-ring differential and constant-mesh transmission would help the Herbst car stay together. The clutch has an air motor for starting and a joystick to make full use of the constant-mesh gearing. In a race like Baja, where refinements must add performance and dependability, it's the latter that's most important. For Hameedi, everything he learned in Baja will translate into a better product for Ford customers.

On the other side of the two- versus four-wheel-drive debate is the TorqShift Team, whose Trophy truck has F-150 skin and a two-wheel drivetrain. Hameedi is happy with the way things are, while Kaiser seems to think Herbst's primary gear ratios have allowed for the inclusion of strong ring-and-pinion gears in the differential and isn't worried. Five hundred miles of desert would tell the tale.

At the Baja 500 last year, Ford looked hard at the TorqShift transmission; the company tried to break it to find its weak points and make it better. The TorqShift's torque converter is a hydraulic torque multiplier with a lockup clutch, which can bypass the hydraulic clutches if need be. The racing TorqShift has six internal clutches compared with five in the street model, but in all other respects is identical. The computer chooses the clutch based on a variety of circumstances, including driver behavior and road conditions. Torque requirements are customized to meet the constantly changing needs of the vehicle. The computer also controls hydraulic pressure, converting locked differentials to active, allowing the wheels to turn at different speeds to provide traction where needed.

With this complexity comes the need for intelligent, highly efficient lubrication. And this is where problems developed during the early stages of the race. At checkpoint two (Serro, Colorado), an hour into the race, the transmission was running at 290 degrees. Dave Oho, program coordinator for the Ford team, felt the TorqShift wouldn't last long above 250 degrees. "The filters and seven electric solenoids start to wilt after too long at those temps," Oho says. Hameedi and Oho were worried. At checkpoint three, the pit crew found fluid between the seals, but the transmission wasn't leaking. Hameedi was more confident, knowing he wasn't losing precious cooling to a leak. Mike Bakholdin, the crew chief, was considering taking the shroud off the transmission coolers, hoping that would lower the temperature about five degrees.