Wide Open Baja Off-Road Buggy Racing Experience
Instead of asking, “Would you like to experience Baja 1000-style driving,” the guys at Wide Open Baja should have posed the question thusly; “How would you like to know what repeated piledrivers from The Undertaker feel like, but at 60 mph strapped onto Hell’s moon buggy and with a thick layer of dirt in your mouth?” Regardless of how the question was asked, the answer was exactly the same. Hell, yeah.
The guys at Wide Open Baja, a pay-to-drive company that offers tours of Baja California, Mexico, from the driver’s seat of their purpose built Baja Challenge (BC) off-road racecars, asked us this exact question. A one-third day driving experience around the dirt roads of Baja starts at $595. Their mega four-day excursion from Cabo to Loreto will set you back $6,295. However, they’ll customize any trip you can imagine in your thick skull. We signed up for a two-day loop from Ensenada heading southeast into the wilds of Baja figuring this might end up being the most fun chiropractic adjustment we’d ever have.
We get offered a lot of trucks to drive, so when it came to the question of how to get from Los Angeles to Ensenada for the bone-rattling Baja experience, we had our pick. But the choice was another no-brainer. The ’17 Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro was at the top of the list because, well, Toyota is no stranger to Baja. The Japanese automaker’s Toyota Racing Development division proudly owns two overall wins in the SCORE Baja 1000, and seven in the 500. Let the brain scrambling commence.
We started off early on Saturday morning of a three-day weekend, and planned on taking our time over some back roads off the Ortega Highway and through Lake Elsinore to get us in the Baja dirt-driving mood. Getting into and out of ruts and deeper crevasses, where lower range is necessary, is little challenge for the gutsy 4Runner that made its first appearance in 1984. It is the last body-on-frame mid-sized player in its class, and this stalwart SUV has truly kept the utility plus in sport utility vehicle. This isn’t merely a garden-variety grocery-getting crossover.
As we crossed the border and neared Ensenada, a massive dark cloud loomed heavy over us. No, not a figurative one, this was literally billowing black smoke pouring over the foothills and toward the ocean. We’d anticipated a storm, just not the ash-raining variety. We hoped this wasn’t a bad omen.
Tempted as we were to try out the 4Runner on the Baja trail, with its additional TRD Pro hardware, including 2.5-inch TRD Bilstein shocks and retuned springs, raised height, and all-terrain tires, we didn’t think our Mexican insurance policy would cover the forthcoming absurdity we’ve, until now, only seen in YouTube videos. So we put away the keys to our $43,794 press truck and strapped ourselves into Wide Open Baja’s capable hands.
When the rules start with, “Don’t drive when you can’t see,” as our guide told us the night before we set out, we both thought, “What the hell kind of idiots are they talking to?” But when you maneuver into the spring-suspended racing seat of a custom-made Chromoly chassis, open-wheel, Snug Top fiberglass-bodied buggy with Bilstein shocks longer than your arm, and a steel tube roll cage that could survive a nuclear zombie apocalypse plus Biblical floods and pigs flying, you realize how invincible it might make some speed-demons feel. Start driving one, and the do-stupid-things switch immediately turns on inside your head. Rules, shmules.
The next morning the remnants of tropical storm Lidia finally made their way to us. The firestorm now over, the rainstorm arrived. We slipped into our sunshine yellow BC-2 vehicle, put our earplugs in and helmets on, and headed out of the ranch and into the wild back roads of Baja California. Within a minute the low-grinding hum of the 175 horsepower Subaru four-cylinder engine imprinted itself on our nervous systems. We were warned the gearbox, without modern synchros, would take patience, but ours felt Porsche-911SC-ish, circa 1983, smooth, if a little dated, but quick enough, as we barreled toward Ojos Negros in central Baja.
Out of the gate the dirt road doled out its punishments. This was going to be a long two days, especially when it became clear my foot didn’t touch the gas pedal while my heel was on the floor. But this was Mexico, and after I mentioned the problem to our guide, he duct taped an old log to the floor panel beneath the throttle to prop up my foot. Problemo solved.
Intermittent rain came down through the windshield-less buggy, making wiping ones helmet visor as much a part of driving the BC vehicle as shifting gears or depressing the brakes over ruts and rocks. At least there was no dust. That was our silver lining as the metal of the five-point safety harness burrowed itself into our collarbones. I looked at my photographer, holding her expensive camera in this rubber band of a car, and we gave each other a tentative thumbs up. Did we even mean it?
The deeper into Baja you get, it is decidedly Southern California-esque, with red buckwheat popping up dramatically among the soft green chaparral. Though it’s tough to notice any of it doing 60 mph on unfamiliar road with rocks intermittently skipping up off the beefy BF Goodrich treads and through the open windscreen at our bodies. “Big water!” Miguel Sandoval, a 17-year veteran of Wide Open Baja and our guide, warned us as he took point, calling out obstacles in his own BC car. Our GPS wasn’t working that first morning, so we weren’t exactly sure where said water was, but we found it quickly enough. Even at 15 mph a massive tsunami of brown, fishy ooze soaked us. Oh, that’s right, no windshield. No amount of apologizing seemed appropriate both for the doused camera equipment and the smell of our shirts for the rest of the day. Lesson learned. When Miguel talks, listen!
The first day was almost 200 miles of loose, rocky terrain, long, earthy straightaways, and steep, jagged inclines, with a stop for lunch in a middle-of-nowhere field. Those might have been the best quesadillas we’d ever eaten, or maybe we were just that hungry from our bodies flexing and tensing almost involuntarily after the first couple of hours. Baja driving is physical driving of the first order.
As the afternoon shadows grew longer, we crawled our way up to Mike’s Sky Rancho, the legendary pit stop for the off-road glitterati that overlooks the Arroyo San Rafael. We wondered out loud if we thought our 4Runner could have survived the first day. In 2015, the Toyota Tundra TRD Pro won the Full Size Stock class at the Baja 1000, so our assumption was that in a more capable insane driver’s hands that answer is an unequivocal who knows. We saw pictures of that winning Tundra at the finish line, its sheet metal ripped open like an old beer can, so we’re glad we weren’t dumb enough to try it with our press loaner.
We were the only guests at Mike’s that night, so it felt as if we were visiting Jack Torrance at the Overlook Hotel—too quiet for our tastes. But we were assured on a regular weekend night the bar is chock full of off-roading’s elite. Everyone from Walker Evans to Robbie Gordon to Ken Block have stayed, as well as celebrity enthusiasts like Paul Newman and Tim McGraw. Every inch of wall space from baseboard to light fixtures is covered with the business cards, dollar bills and T-shirts of visitors past. We’re sure if these walls could talk they’d need a team of lawyers better than O.J. Simpson’s because of the trouble they’d cause.
The next morning we woke to a cloudless Cerulean blue sky. The day would be hot, the mercy of the storm passed. No matter how sore every muscle was, that five-point harness dug deeper into our collarbones, and we headed out for another demanding day. Even depressing the clutch felt labored now with every shift. Patella tendons don’t usually work this hard in our age of automatic nine-speed transmissions.
After 100-plus mind-scrambling miles we circled up through San Vicente, close to the last section of our two-day loop. We were exhausted, but still not near our final destination. The dirt was all starting to look the same, like a hypnotic, russet blur careening past. Mental focus is just as much a part of Baja as is driving skill. Nineteen inches of suspension travel will get you out of a lot of trouble, except a 200-foot cliff sans guardrail if you’re not paying attention.
We both felt the sea air at the same time, my co-pilot and I. Our course had finally lead us to the Pacific coast and the ocean waved us toward it, beckoning. Salt air rushed through our pores and cooled our nerves. Because it’s Mexico, you can drive a buggy on the beach, and once over the dry, lose bits, the wet sand was firm but infinitely more forgiving than the vengeful terra firma we’d been driving over the past 300 miles.
Chasing seagulls while wet sand flew off our tires was giggle inducing. We made it. We thought about Ivan “Ironman” Stewart, legendary Toyota off-road racer and 22-time Baja 500 and 1000 champion and how he must have felt after crossing the finish line all those times. He probably wasn’t giggling, but we like to think he might have been, if only to himself.
Nothing can prepare you for Baja driving. It feels as though every cell of your body has been served notice. The bumps you think will be spine shattering, so you tense up in preparation, are cushiony amusements. While innocuous looking ruts are the vicious ones that catch you off guard and devastate your solar plexus. Utterly merciless fun is the best way to describe it.
Goodbyes said, we got back into the 4Runner and headed for the border. Here’s where we talk about how comfortable the seats in the TRD Pro are. We sank into the contrast-stitched leather, eased the seats back and waited out our three and a half hours to cross back into the States.
Over three days we covered almost 1,000 miles, some of those crueler than others. While we may never again have the back-breaking experience of Baja, rest assured when there’s a 4Runner offered up, we’ll drive it every time. Despite the fact that this model name is 34 years old, it’s still a laudable rig for anyone looking for some outstanding off-road adventure. If it’s something more spine-crushing you’re after, might we recommend Wide Open Baja?