Adventure

Chasing the Baja 1000

  • 51st SCORE Baja 1000 
  • 807-mile loop race course
  • Location: Baja California Peninsula

The unmistakable notes of a high-strung motor being pegged at full throttle jolted me awake. I rubbed my eyes and opened my tent window just in time to catch a glimpse of a race buggy drifting the corner alongside our campsite. All four tires were fighting for traction, and a rooster tail of dirt and rocks was flung upwards in its wake. His throttle was still pegged wide open as he continued along the coast, and I watched him until I could no longer see his dust trail in the distance as it faded away. This wasn’t such a bad way to wake up, I thought to myself. And I probably shouldn’t have drunk that much tequila last night. 

The SCORE Baja 1000 is one of the most prestigious off-road races in the world.  The course varies from year to year, and for its 51st iteration, it would be an 807-mile loop race starting and ending in Ensenada, Baja California. Over 30 different vehicle classes and 285 entrants would battle it out in everything from million-dollar trophy trucks to dirt bikes, buggies, and stock Volkswagen Beetles, all on the same unforgiving desert race course and within the same grueling time limits. Under half of all entrants will ever see the finish line, the rest falling victim to mechanical breakdowns, off-course excursions, or running over the allotted 36-hour time limit. 

It was the chance to experience this race firsthand that drew us across the border to the warm deserts and clear beaches of Baja in the middle of November. We chose to spend a week prior to the race camping and watching racers pre-run the course, and carefully plotted sites that would give us the best view of the action ahead. 

We made an uneventful border crossing into Tijuana early in the morning, and quickly made our way down the peninsula towards our first campsite on the tranquil waters of Gonzaga Bay. We arrived to find our campsite already occupied by several other race teams who undoubtedly had the same idea to bunker down close to the highway. We were too tired to let the fireworks being lit a few hundred yards away bother us and retreated to a first night’s sleep inside our tents. 

Thoroughly refreshed from the long drive the previous night, we woke up just in time to catch the sunrise across the Sea of Cortez. We cracked open a can of cold cerveza, chopped some bait, and cast some fishing lines while watching the sunrise. We didn’t catch anything, but with a morning so spectacular, nothing else mattered. 

We spent the next couple days exploring the Gulf coast of Baja, traveling by day and finding camp before sunset. While travelling on the various trails, we frequently found ourselves checking our rearview mirrors for approaching racers pre-running their course sections- and pulling over as quickly as possible lest we find ourselves on the wrong end of a friendly tap. Trophy trucks don’t use horns.

Much like the vehicles racing in the Baja 1000, we found that spectators drove vehicles of all types and sizes. Sure, there were the full blown race teams with chase trucks and fancy gear, but more often than not it seemed the local spectators would just pile into whoever’s car was running- or whoever was sober enough to drive. On multiple occasions we came across locals stuck in the sand or in the dirt. It was on one such occasion that we encountered two stuck cars. A passing race team chase truck also stopped to assist, and to our surprise Jessi Combs of Spike TV/Monster Garage fame popped out to help recover the vehicles. 

We eventually made our way to the opposite coast, morning sunrises over the Gulf now replaced by evening sunsets over the Pacific Ocean. The beaches here were even more secluded, and we found ourselves enjoying the big blue expanse of ocean in quiet solitude. It was along such a section of the Pacific coast late into the week that we pitched camp as dozens of racers passed us from afternoon and late into the evening. Several would stop into our campsite either to chat, ask directions, or just to tell us we had a killer campsite. We stayed up all night, probably fueled by tequila, cheering on the racers as they passed. 

It was on this fine morning, the day before the actual race that I found myself awakened by the buggy at full throttle, hitting the apex with dirt churning just a few dozen yards from where we camped. We packed up our gear, cleaned up the beer cans, and made breakfast. It was time to hit the road again. 

Sometimes the best plans often go awry. We had plotted several places to catch the actual race along Race Mile 40 and 60, away from the large crowds near Ojos Negros but still close enough to the start that we could catch most of the vehicles before they got too spread out. However, this meant that we would have to traverse the route early in the morning before the track was closed to spectator traffic. Luckily we had the foresight to attempt this section the afternoon prior to the race and scout for a viewing site. It took us almost 4 hours to travel 20 miles through these canyons, and we quickly abandoned our plans, opting for a spot further down the course at Race Mile 80 the following day.

We linked up with some friends who had flown in to watch the races for the weekend and set out early for our race viewing site not long after the motorcycles and quads started the race. The race is staggered a bit to allow motorcycles and quads to start early at 6:00am for safety reasons, with the later truck classes starting closer to 10:00am. Amongst a steady stream of tequila, cerveza, and breakfast burritos, we eagerly waited for the first vehicles to approach our section of the race. 

The unmistakable thump of churning helicopter rotors gave us our first indication that the race leaders were quickly approaching our section. Several more helicopters appeared on the horizon, chasing their race teams, followed by the distinctive sounds of race motors generated by the trophy trucks flooring it through the straightaway right before our section. Our spot couldn’t have been much better, a long straightaway allowed the trucks to hit triple digit speeds right before a banking turn and series of jumps. The air was filled with dust and the smell of race fuel. 

We watched for hours as trophy trucks passed, followed by the numerous other competing race classes. We cheered particularly hard for the stock Volkswagen Beetles, one of the toughest classes to compete in, most reaching our section at Race Mile 80 well into the evening hours. With the cool desert temperatures quickly setting in, we decided to finally call it a day. Even on our way back out to the main road, we encountered several quicker race classes still inbound to our section, no doubt slowed by mechanical or vehicle issues in the same area we’d encountered the previous day.  

We watched the battered remnants of several race vehicles reach the finish line back in Ensenada, all bearing signs of a hard-fought battle against the unforgiveable terrain. This year’s overall Baja 1000 winner, Justin Morgan, completed the course on a Honda motorcycle in just over 16 hours- 36 seconds ahead of the first trophy truck- Cameron Steele. Of the 285 starters, only 178 would complete the race. But for everyone who raced, all would agree that it was a combination of hard work and determination to propel them through this race. Or as the old racers say- it takes dirt, sweat, and gears.  

Text and Images by Victor Nguyen

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