At the stroke of midnight on Thursday morning, the first motorcycle roared off the starting line in Ensenada, Baja California and thus began the 50th annual running of the Baja 1000 desert race. Over a course length of 1,134 miles, stretching the entire length of the Baja California peninsula and grazing both seas, trucks, buggies, motorcycles and other assorted vehicles bashed through the cold dead of the moonless night and on into the baking heat of the day.
Motorcycles and quads started first, leaving at 30-second intervals. Four-wheeled vehicles, led by the elite trophy truck class, began launching at 10 a.m.
While the overall winners would cross the finish line on Thursday night, the race continued all day Friday and into Saturday afternoon, with the final teams barely squeaking over the finish line in the allotted 48-hour time limit.
The overall winner was father and son trophy truck team of veteran driver Juan C. Lopez and youthful superstar Carlos “Apdaly” Lopez, who finished the brutal course in 19 hours and 53 minutes at an average speed of 57 mph. The RPM Chevy Rally Racing team was only the second Mexican national team in the entire history of the Baja 1000 to take this honor, made even sweeter by taking second place in the two previous years.
Motorcycles were led by the five-rider BREMEN-Arredondo-Haines Racing team, paced by veteran Guatemalan rally racer Francisco Arrendondo. After leading much of the race through the brutal and unforgiving desert, the team was passed by the Honda of Ox Motorsports, who set the pace for the last 200 miles and crossed the finish line first.
Unfortunately, a 30-minute penalty was awarded to Ox by the race’s sanctioning body, Score International, for what it describes as a “reckless incident” at the finish line. Witnesses to the event describe it as the winning rider doing a wheelie up the ramp leading onto the podium just after the finish line, losing control of the motorcycle, and bumping into a spectator, though there is no official confirmation of this account.
A total of 405 entrants took part in this year’s event, and 205 crossed the finish line. While that number of DNFs seems quite high at first glance, Textron Offroad driver Jaime Romero insists the attrition rate is quite low. “The cars now, they’re designed and built better than ever,” he said. “More and more cross the finish line every year.”
Romero’s own vehicle, a four-wheel drive, forced induction UTV, was designed by the famed Baja racer Robbie Gordon and had its first outing at this year’s spectacle. While the unique trailing A-arm rear suspension performed admirably, the front differential let go only 100 miles into the race. With only two driving wheels on a car designed for four, handling and traction were crippled.
Shortly after that, the alternator belt let go, causing a failure of the pump that provides fresh air to the drivers’ helmets. As primary driver, Romero drove “a lot over 900” miles according to co-driver James Culp. For most of those miles, Romero was forced to keep the front of his helmet lifted to allow airflow so he could stave off heat exhaustion, but that also allowed in the nefarious Baja dust. For almost 40 hours, the Yuma, AZ native drove nearly blind, eyes weeping mud, fighting for every foot over slippery loose rocks and wrestling the vehicle into submission through turns.
In addition to the blinding heat, the endless rocks, pounding over washboard roads, and wallowing in floury silt pans, teams also have to contend with the spectators. “They want to see the race,” said Diamante Racing’s Brian Westerlund, “So they crowd the track, get too close to the vehicles. They jump out to take videos, or stand on the outside of turns” [the most dangerous place on a racecourse].
Perhaps worse, well-meaning fans will sometimes sabotage or booby trap the track, creating barriers or jumps in order to capture dramatic video for social media. Teams know the location of every dip and rise on the track and follow a carefully planned attack. Unknown obstacles can damage suspension, throw a car out of control, or wreck a motorcycle.
During this year’s event, about a kilometer from one of the last pit stops of the race, a group of three boys aged approximately 11-13 pushed enough sand onto one side of the track to create a one-wheel jump just under two feet high. One boy then placed his phone on the centerline of the track and recorded the action. The video shown after showed the suspension on one side of the vehicle speeding overhead wildly compressing and rebounding, and the then rear of the vehicle pitching to one side as it cleared the obstacle.
When asked if he feared wrecking due to one of these sabotages or another racing accident, Westerlund replied, “My biggest fear? Hitting someone. Killing someone.” Even with the high speeds and other dangers these drivers face, they almost unilaterally cite spectator death as the most horrifying thing imaginable at the Baja 1000, and it has happened, as recently as 2015. Drivers agree to the risks the moment they take the wheel; the death of a fan is senseless.
Still, at the end of every race, no matter the risks just taken, no matter the hardships that have literally just ended, teams immediately begin planning for next year. The fury and passion of the Baja 1000 gives true meaning to the old chestnut quote from the 1971 film Le Mans: “Racing is life. Everything else is just waiting.”