THE BAJA 1000 : ALONG FOR THE RIDE : One of the World’s Toughest Desert Races Yields Mostly Dirt and Disappointment

Times Staff Writer

On a cool, foggy Friday morning, more than 200 men and women from six countries awoke before dawn, secured their vital organs and prepared their bodies to be beaten, battered and fatigued.

Some would wear kidney belts, others pads and bizarre masks with hoses and filters to keep the desert dust out of their lungs. All would eventually don helmets, the final precaution for the 18th SCORE International Baja 1000, an event that requires days and, in many cases, weeks of planning.

There also were last-minute consultations between drivers and team members at breakfast tables and equipment trailers to finalize logistics. A miscalculation could result in the loss of life or limb.


Communications equipment checked and chase vehicles prepared, the participants boarded their machines--31 types in all--then lined up on the Boulevard General Lazaro Cardenas, where thousands of onlookers awaited the start of the race. Just beyond the boulevard, pre-dawn light illuminated fishing boats on the still waters of the Bahia de Todas Santos. Gulls flew overhead, searching for bits of food.

Minutes later, the sounds of revving engines pierced the silence. Some participants nervously talked and joked, wishing luck and safe return from the 24-hour, 822-mile odyssey.

At 6 a.m., the first motorcycle rider snapped the throttle back, let loose his clutch and powered his way down the boulevard and out of sight. The Western Hemisphere’s most prestigious off-road race had begun.

Weeks before, Glenn Harris, an off-road racer from Camarillo, had called to invite me to ride with him in one segment of the race. Harris is a class 7S truck driver for Mazda.

On a Thursday afternoon--one day before the race--I packed a driving suit, helmet and additional clothing and headed for Mexico. One hour, three toll gates and 100 kilometers from San Diego, I arrived in Ensenada.

The resort town was already in the throes of a foreign invasion. Thousands of Americans whooped it up from bar to bar, a preview of bigger things to come. The tourist trade has turned Ensenada’s cantinas into Mexican versions of L.A. bars, complete with American TV programs and music.


On Friday morning--race day--the restaurant at the Hotel San Nicholas was filled with an assortment of drivers, crew members, friends and relatives. The atmosphere was relatively businesslike, with final plans for the race being worked out over breakfast. Harris, dressed in his driving suit, was at a table with his wife, Gina, next to him, while members of his California Gold racing team and driver Bob Gray sat across from him.

The rough-and-tumble picture of the American racer--flashing tattoos and a can of beer--is an accurate one, especially in off-road racing.

They are tough men, and in some cases tough women, playing an even tougher game with rugged, expensive machines. Away from the dirt and mud, the drivers refer to it as a fun sport. But when they get behind the controls of anything from a $5,000 class-20 motorcycle (125cc or under) to a $100,000 class-8 truck (two-wheel drive heavyweight pickup) there is no room for fooling around.

Cussing and spitting are all part of the off-road racer’s persona. They party as loud and as hard as they drive, without thought of consequence. If an off-road driver had been a character in the Old West, he would be the one shouting to a stranger, “Leave town by sundown or I’ll fill you full of lead.”

Harris is an exception. Sure, his 5-8 frame is rock solid and he probably packs a mean punch, but he is soft-spoken and low-keyed. Harris’ idea of raising hell is limited to the competition he faces in driving. When he’s not driving, Harris is more like a businessman.

Harris is liked and trusted on the circuit. He has the reputation of being a good driver and is frequently asked to co-drive for other teams.


On this day, Harris finalized the race plans and left the table with his crew. They walked to his class 7S (stock mini- or mid-sized truck) Mazda pickup. Joey Moore led me to the chase vehicle for a ride to the Hotel Bahia, where I was to sign an injury waiver and pick up my rider identification bracelet.

Moore sped down hotel row to the Bahia, which was serving as SCORE headquarters. The vehicle, which drives crew members to a site if a driver gets in trouble, is built almost as sturdily as the racing vehicles. Elaborate radio equipment is fitted in the cab. Spare parts and tools occupy the bed.

“Riding’s a lot different than driving, because driving you’re busy all the time,” Moore said, turning down the country and western music on the radio. “Riding, you’ve got time to watch where you’re at and check out the scenery. After a while, you’ll get a rhythm down and get used to watching for stuff.”


“Well, let’s say you’re going down an open road and you look ahead and see five or six trees,” Moore said. “That five or six trees means there’s a wash there ‘cause there’s got to be water--even though there’s nothing else around.”

While passing spectators who were making their way to the start/finish line, Moore explained some dangers of the course.

“They’ll kick up so much silt you can hardly see what’s in front of you,” he said. “It’s like riding blind. If some guy breaks in front of you, just hope the guy pulls over. That’s a lot of the reason you’ll ram somebody. By the time you run up on them, it’s too late and you’ll run into them or cap them or something like that.”


At the Bahia, I filled out the waiver and picked up an entry bracelet. The only question on the form I left blank was my blood type. I hoped it wouldn’t matter.

On the way back, Moore talked about possible repairs that may be needed in the field. Most would consist of tires, but it was possible that an axle or transmission could go out. Those repairs could be made at the site and the race continued, but SCORE rules and time factors make other repairs impossible.

“I know it would be a long shot in a race like this,” I said, “but if a driver were to blow a motor, would it be all over?”

“Yeah,” Moore replied. “He’d just about have to count on going home.”

We got back to a noisy starting area where engines were firing and film and rescue helicopters were hovering close overhead. Harris was waiting and in good spirits. The crews at his pit stops were ready and everyone seemed eager to begin.

“For this early in the morning, on a Friday, the adrenaline level seems to be at their upper parameters among everybody,” Harris said. “I feel real comfortable about how the whole effort is going--really smooth with everybody doing their part as expected.”

The crew demonstrated the safety and repair equipment.

“I’ll monitor the gauges and stuff unless I ask you to do anything specific,” Harris told his first rider before climbing into the truck.


The rider was California Gold crew chief Bryant Hibbs. Gina Harris, Moore and other crew members stood on a sidewalk as the truck lined up for the start.

At 8:30 a.m., Harris hit the gas and shot across the starting line.

While he went off-road, we would take the conventional route.

A Neil Young song was playing on the stereo in a friend’s Opel GT as we followed the support crew. We were scheduled to meet Harris in Santa Maria so I could ride with him. On the way, the countryside became drier after we passed through the mountains just south of Ensenada. The first rider, on a motorcycle, passed the Opel near San Quintin, a town about 10 miles north of Santa Maria.

Locals lined the streets at San Quintin. The Baja race borders on a national holiday for the people in that part of Mexico. Schools close early and shop owners step out from their stores to watch the passing vehicles. The event holds special appeal for the children. They line the streets and wave enthusiastically. The older residents, more accustomed such spectacles, sit farther back from the road and watch quietly.

Santa Maria is just a spot on the map. Nothing exists there but an abandoned hotel and gas station. The surroundings would resemble the Mojave Desert, with heavy brush and loose dirt, except for some sparse groups of trees that mark river beds in the near distance. A number of other crews and a SCORE timing station were the only signs of life this ghost town had seen since the last Baja race.

California Gold’s crew wasted no time in readying fuel and other equipment. Moore and Gina paused only a moment to talk with them, then headed back up the road in the chase truck.

In addition to crew members John Lawson, John Fascenda, George Klotz and Rod Humphreys, two representatives of Mazda were there: Carl Hooser and Mike Minor. They obviously had experience with desert racing, as evidenced by the sandwiches and acooler of iced beer in the bed of their truck. All expected a quick pit stop at Santa Maria. Harris was scheduled to arrive in about three hours. It was 10:30 a.m.


At 1 p.m., a driver approached, but it was Spencer Low of Arcadia, the class 7S overall point leader. Low stopped briefly, checked in his time, and quickly moved out. Minutes passed. No word from Harris.

Worry was etched on the face of Klotz, who sat in a support truck, waiting for a radio message. Other crew members paced around, moving gas tanks and checking equipment.

Another hour went by and two more class 7S trucks passed at 2:36. The first was the team of Mark Schwien and Donald Lehmer, both from Maryland, followed by Mark Dawson and Mark Wise, both of Escondido. No one said anything, but everyone in California Gold’s crew knew there had been a major problem with Harris’ truck.

The bad news came at 3:05. Gina called in over the radio to say that Harris was out of the race with a blown engine. It happened near Sinaloa, only 30 minutes north of Santa Maria.

It’s easy to pick up a never-say-die attitude while hanging out with off-road racers. I wanted to find another driver to ride with, so I headed out on a road that followed the coast until it veered east into the southern part of the Sierra San Pedro Martir--a rugged mountain range covered with cactus and scrub brush. In one part, there were 40-foot plants that looked as if they’d been stuffed into the ground upside down, roots showing above.

As the sun started its plunge, a plateau offering a clear look through a long valley came into view. In three separate areas, many miles in the distance, vast clouds of dust hovered above the flat surface. Vehicles were cutting through one of the easier sections of the course.


Other stretches were less forgiving. At an area called Mike’s Sky Rancho to the north, course elevations topped 4,000 feet. Just west of Punta Prieta--roughly the course’s halfway point--huge silt beds waited, ready to offer blinding dust or snare a slow-moving vehicle. Finally, there was Three Sisters--a series of rock mountains on the east side of the peninsula.

The Harris entourage arrived in La Virgen Shrine at 5:15 p.m., just as a violet and pink sunset stroked the sky. The area was a bivouac of trailers, support vehicles and racing teams. Crews busily prepared tires and spare parts while waiting for their drivers to arrive.

Despite his misfortune, Harris was thoughtful enough to try to hook me up with Class-8 driver Ron Clyborne from Washington, who was down in Punta Prieta waiting for his co-driver, Bob Gray, to arrive. Clyborne’s truck had already gone through La Virgen and was headed south.

Harris left his wife at the team motor home at La Virgen and took her place in the support truck. I joined him and we sped off down the highway into the darkness.

While driving, Harris talked about his short-lived ride in the truck.

Soon after leaving Ensenada, it became stuck in a soft part of the course. Dozens of locals crowded around and started pulling pieces off the truck for souvenirs.

“They were climbing on the vehicle, trying to rip the stuff out,” Harris said. “We were trying to get them to push us so we could get unstuck. So they were pushing uphill, pushing sideways, pushing downhill--all pushing against each other and not getting anything accomplished--just having a jolly old time.


“It was just the level of being able to feel and touch the vehicle--I don’t think they were trying to do anything devious or wrong--the emotions just got carried away.”

After it was jacked up and given a good push, the truck was loose and the two sped off. Later, out of Mike’s Sky Ranch, they had a flat that took 10 minutes to fix.

And then the big problem surfaced.

“Things were going really fine,” Harris said. “Then the gauges were funny. The water temperature started dropping and that’s unusual. We pulled over to get some water from a camper and when we popped the cap we knew we were in trouble.”

The specific problem was a blown head gasket, which allowed coolant from the radiator to mix with the oil.

At Punta Prieta, a scene stranger than any in a Steven Spielberg movie was taking place. It was pitch black at 7:45 p.m., except for the brilliant lights that surrounded a SCORE checkpoint at a highway crossing. Exiting the truck, Harris walked over to where the vehicles were clocking in.

First, there were headlights searing through the distant blackness. Moments later, the high-pitch whine of a motorcycle or Volkswagen engine could be heard. Then, almost instantly, the vehicle was at the checkpoint.


What had started off as a clean, complete vehicle at Ensenada was already filthy, and the occupants themselves were covered with dirt.

After a quick check-in, the driver left, bolting across the road, and disappeared again off into the wilderness. Moments later, the process would be repeated with another vehicle.

Harris went to Clyborne’s team trailer, where his crew members were talking. Clyborne fits the off-road image quite well. He stands about 6-3 and weighs about 200. To race off-road, one either needs his own money--a lot of it--or a factory contract. Clyborne has his own money. He joked with the others, but it was easy to tell that his mind was on the tough ride back to Ensenada.

“I like being an independent,” Clyborne said. “That way I don’t have to take anything from anybody. Well, my wife gets away with it . . . sometimes.

“She’s always bugging me about it. She wants to go to Tahiti, places like that, and I want to do this.”

“Where is she now?” someone asked.

“Probably in Tahiti,” Clyborne said, sending laughter throughout the group.

Walker Evans of Riverside was leading the class 8 field. He had passed through just before our arrival. Steve Kelley of Rolling Hills was in second and passed through minutes later. Gray was third, somewhere out in the Baja wilderness west of Punta Prieta.


Another pair of headlights appeared in the distance, and soon the rumble of a V-8 engine could be heard. It was Gray. He stopped briefly for the check in, then gunned it over to the team trailer. Immediately, a dozen crew members from Clyborne’s and Harris’ team swarmed the truck. They changed tires, washed the windshield and checked the engine.

The fourth-place truck, driven by Michael Nesmith, former guitarist for the 1960s rock group, the Monkees, appeared minutes later. He checked in at the SCORE table, then sped off. Clyborne would now have to head out in fourth, but only a half hour behind the leader, Evans.

Not wanting to take chances, Clyborne decided to take one of his crew members as a co-rider instead of me. Eleven minutes after Gray had stopped, Clyborne was off--tires changed, suspension and engine checked.

Gray was covered with dirt and looked exhausted. Along with several other drivers, he had apparently gotten lost amid clouds of dust in the silt beds west of Punta Prieta.

“It’s so confusing out there,” Gray said, wiping his head and glasses. “There’s so much silt that it seemed like a whole different track than it was on the prerun.”

My last chance for a ride missed, we went back up the highway and made a brief stop at El Crucero. Harris talked to some other people, then left for La Virgen. From the road back north, one could see the headlights off to the right as the racers powered their way toward the east coast of the peninsula.


Back at Harris’ motor home in La Virgen, there was lots of joking and laughing among California Gold’s crew, yet no one seemed genuinely happy. The levity was to hide the disappointment.

Back in Ensenada at 4:30 a.m. Saturday, vehicles were already finishing, making their way up the Boulevard General Lazaro Cardenas in the opposite direction from which they left.

A number of vehicles looked pathetic. Some of the class 1 vehicles (unlimited engine single seat) and 1-2/1600 (single and two-seat, limited to 1600cc engines) had run out of proper tires. They had front tires, smaller than the back ones, mounted on rear axles. Dirt and mud caked the sides. Some had smashed fenders, others were simply missing them all together.

At least they had finished.

It was 24 hours since the race had begun and time for riders and accomplices to put trivial matters--like blown engines--to rest. There were more serious matters. Specifically, the pillage and plunder of Ensenada.

Although it was barely noon, a crowd of people--mostly Americans--crowded into the Bahia cocktail lounge. Musical equipment sat on a stage in one corner behind a large dance floor. By nightfall, every available bar and nightclub had been filled by frenzied Americans.

Sunday’s awards ceremony went pretty much as expected. It featured winning drivers accepting trophies from SCORE president Sal Fish. It was pretty much the same in every case: They thanked their crews, sponsors and SCORE.


There were no awards for the losers. Perhaps there should have been.