The first motorcyclist flashes past in an explosion of dirt. A chase helicopter swoops overhead. The hordes spring from their campfires toward the action. Despite speeds of up to 100 miles per hour, bystanders jam the roadside, leaving bikers and drivers millimeters for error.
"Have you ever been startled or scared, really scared?" asks Dave Ashley, a truck racer who's been competing here since the '80s. "Imagine that happening for a full four, five hours . You get this incredible adrenaline pump, and it just lasts the whole time."
And it's not only drivers who feel the buzz. A thrill-seeking teenager dashes out of the crowd and across the course like a bull-dodger at Pamplona, winning an ovation. Then a civilian cycle takes the dare, lurching across the track. Then a car.This is no traffic cop's nightmare; it all materialized last June, at the running of the 2004 Tecate Score Baja 500. There will be more of the same Thursday, when another 280 kidney-thumping devotees line up for the Baja 1,000, a.k.a. the Tecate Score Baja 1000, a.k.a. the Baja Mil, a.k.a. the granddaddy of desert racing.
For 37 years, these races have endured despite deaths and injuries, despite prize money that's pocket change next to NASCAR's winnings, and despite perpetually dodgy local politics.
Along the way, the races have grown into a sort of a brand name for manly challenge. Steve McQueen, George Plimpton, James Garner, Ted Nugent — all have skidded here. It was Parnelli Jones, Baja repeater and Indianapolis champion, who called the Baja Mil "a 24-hour plane crash."
But as Baja's population grows and environmentalist sensibilities edge south across the border, the future of these races looks about as clear as the dust-choked route.
"These races have little to no environmental oversight, and the maximum speeds they encourage result in maximum damage to the landscape and wildlife just so gringo motorheads can rip it up," says Daniel Patterson, a biologist at the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity.
"The environmental matter is becoming very, very touchy," acknowledges Oscar Ramos, the Tijuana attorney who serves as race promoter Sal Fish's right-hand man in Mexico. "They want to put tougher conditions on us."
Still, the roster of starters for this year's Baja 500 was the longest in 15 years. And within its first hour, the race had slipped into the usual chaos.
At mile 50, 28-year-old Ricardo Flores of Tijuana and a dozen buddies pulled their truck up to a creek and built a little dam. They are among perhaps 100,000 spectators out today, and their dam has converted a little trickle into a 3-foot-deep water hazard.
With Metallica blasting on the stereo and many, many empties scattered on the dirt, they wait for new arrivals. Every time a racer hits the water, a great wave of mud leaps toward the crowd. Flores and company bellow their approval.
Meanwhile, farther up the hill on the south side of the water hazard, a barrel-chested 34-year-old named Sam Navar wears a Yankees hat and an evil grin.
"I have a trick," he says. "You'll see."
If you ever need to talk somebody out of entering a Baja race, you can start with the motion sickness and the money.
Dave Ashley once ran Baja wired up to a machine that measures lateral and vertical G-forces. The results showed G-loads that shifted from positive 9 — nine times the usual pull of gravity — to a heart-in-throat negative 5.
"And sometimes those reversals happen in less than a second," he says. "It's enough to where it knocks the air out of you sometimes." Vomit happens.
Then there's the cost. The richest teams, the ones fueled by personal fortunes and big-time sponsors, bring scores of crew members and hire helicopters to trail overhead in case of trouble. Some will spend $1 million on a vehicle. Many will spend $100,000 on one race. And even the teams with the thinnest wallets have to pay $400 or so to fill a truck's 65-gallon tank.
Yet even when you add up purse money and contingency prizes that manufacturers give the winners who used their products, the winner winds up with less than $20,000. So why put your cervical vertebrae in peril?