Night falls hard and fast in the desert. One moment the sun is broiling alive anything too stupid to find shade and the next moment it’s simply gone, leaving the hundreds of desert racing fans camping around the last pit stops of the 2017 Baja 1000 cold and in the dark. It’s barely after six p.m. on Thursday, November 16, but it feels like midnight.
- Glory, tears and sabotage at the 50th Baja 1000
This pop-up community sits at the crossroads of a sandy track running endlessly north and south through the scrub and a thin slice of shoulder-less highway cutting a line between the Pacific and the Sea of Cortez. Food stands offer gorditas, tacos, and sweets, while travelling musicians tune their instruments next to a mobile bar specializing in micheladas with an added kick of vodka. A celery stalk and oversized straw pasted with tamarind give the liter-sized drinks an air of festivity, though by eight o’clock everyone loitering around the stand fairly reeks of booze.
Just a few yards up the road, though, the sobriety of purposeful activity reigns. The Ruffo Racing team out of La Paz, Baja California Sur arrived early in the morning to begin constructing their pit. While they are not running their own vehicles in this year’s 1000, they will be servicing the prestigious Jimco Racing team.
The area is staked out and a service lane outlined with illuminated cones. Acres of Astroturf are laid down on over the dirt to reduce dust and catch parts should serious repairs be required. A fuel tower goes up, fed by endless drums of racing fuel pumped from a separate truck-mounted high pressure fuel delivery tank. Tires are lined up with the tools and compressors needed to change them, welders are powered on and tested, and spare parts are catalogued and arranged to be easy to find in a hurry when needed.
Ruffo is expecting five vehicles in all, two smaller trophy truck spec vehicles and three top-flight trophy trucks, the ones most fans are here to see. There are still 200 miles left to go, and this will be the last fuel stop, the last wheel change, and the last time the trucks will have a chance for repairs before the finish line in La Paz.
The tires are huge, 39 inches tall on 17-inch lightweight alloy wheels. While the fronts will last the entire race, just over 1,300 miles this year, the rears need to be changed at every pit stop. While more than 850 horsepower and gnarled, jagged terrain to contend with, the tires are chewed ragged in just 200 miles.
As the evening drags on, a cold mist comes in off the Pacific, only five miles away. It clings to all surfaces—tents, cacti, and people—soaking though jackets and making the sand stick to everything. Campfires come alight to ward off the chill. Some burn fragrant mesquite scrounged out of the surrounding scrub, but others burn cactus wood that fills the wet air with a stench like a burning plastic outhouse. The air soon becomes a thick miasma of 1970’s-era smog.
Finally, around eight, far off in the distance, an engine is heard. The police guarding the intersection with red and blue flashers ablaze shoo people off the road as the fans line up to see the action. A yellow light appears far out in the desert, bobbing in and out of view with the whims and whoops of the sandy track. Cell phones come out and every other hand is raised in mock salute to record the action for social media. The engine revs up and down with the rhythm of the headlight, then mellows to a growl as the rider sees the fans and slows to avoid incident. The video recording lights pop on one by one, and suddenly there’s the bike, and just like that, it hits the asphalt and accelerates down the highway. The lights pop back off, and the crowd dissipates back into the waiting pattern.
About twenty minutes later, the scene is repeated, only this bike stops in the pit to take on fuel. Unlike NASCAR or Formula 1, the fans swarm the rider, cell lights literally inches from his face. He gives a report to his crew and takes notes, then kickstarts the bike. On cue, the fans pull back and give him room to get away as he starts on the last leg of the race, 200 miles of sand bleeding into infernal silty powder, dirt, sand, and bulky rocks.
Motorcycles come and go for a while, but eventually thin out as the last world-class unlimited entries clear the checkpoint. The crowd settles in to wait for the main event, the trophy trucks, the first of which is expected about three a.m.
Some quiet down to nap for a few hours, but others plan, and do, drink through the night. Light Mexican beer is the drink of choice, not for the lower calorie content, but for the relatively lower alcohol it contains. This is only the first night after all; there is yet another day and night to go in the race.
Horribly for the revelers, the tarantulas begin to wake up around this time. Last night the furry arachnids owned the desert as far as their eight eyes could see, but tonight they have to contend with lights, noise, and trampling feet.
Every beer-inspired bathroom break into the cactus field begs the question of how much light is strictly necessary for the operation at hand. Is it worse to risk drunkenly tripping into a murderous spiked bush or is it worse to actually see what’s crawling on the ground. There are at least eight kinds of scorpions out here, several species of lightning-fast giant hunting spiders, multiple smaller poisonous spiders, and five kinds of rattlesnake, one of which doesn’t even have the courtesy to rattle.
As the night wears on, party central grows around the liquor stand. A Jeep owned by a media team is soon surrounded by empty beer cans and has a reporter sleeping on the roof. The party is eventually shushed out of existence by the pit crews who really do need a few hours rest before the next day’s work begins.
The Ruffo team is back up just a few short hours later, making final preparations. The camp comes alive shortly thereafter to reports of the leading trophy truck nearing the area.
Overnight, the smog has congealed into a thick, soupy mass. Cigarette smoke only makes it worse as last night’s drunks light new smokes off the burning butts of the last ones. Every breath feels like a tire fire.
It’s all worth it, though. Off in the distance is the unmistakable bellow of an 850+ horsepower trophy truck tearing through the utter blackness of the night. Fans rub the sleep from their eyes and get their phones ready to record. As the truck’s yellow lights shout into the camp, scores of recording lights answer back.
At the first sign of the phone lights, the nose of the truck dives to the earth. The driver brakes hard, afraid as they all are of hitting and possibly killing a spectator. Previous years’ deaths depress the mind like anvils, the most recent an eight-year old boy killed at the Baja 500 in 2016. While the drivers know why they’re there and what they’re up against, the fans are seemingly clueless. Sometimes, unknowingly, they place themselves far inside the wild, unpredictable path of the onrushing vehicle. There are no rules for the spectators of this race, and they are the biggest hazard the teams face.
The truck’s siren bleats and squalls the vehicle roars into the crowd like a trained tiger, whipped into submission but still unbelievably dangerous. Fans film away and think of nothing but social media posts as the vehicles begins a long sweeping arc, leaps up from sand onto pavement in the middle of the turn, and heads out down the highway. At no point do any of the spectators on the outside of the turn realize the immense danger they would have been in if the truck had broken traction, even for an instant. A loss of control, even at slow speeds, could send 5,400 pounds of vehicle rolling into dozens of people.
The phone lights pop off one by one, and the crowd dissipates once again.
Finally, around four, the first Jimco truck radios in. The Ruffo team has a final quick meeting, silvery safety suits are donned, and the team members move into their positions. The replacement co-driver appears in his racing gear, looking forcibly calm, nerves perhaps eaten away by the waiting.
After a wait, the radio blasts again and everything hushes to silence. Both the pit crew and the spectators strain to hear the truck in the distance. The orange traffic cones on either side of the lane glow quietly in the mist. Finally, after enough time passes for the crowd to wonder if the truck rolled into a ditch, a distant V8 can be heard. The sound comes and goes as the truck bobs up and down the track, but finally settles into a happy roar muffled by the fog.
And then suddenly the truck rounds the final corner, clearly lost. The driver is trying to pick out the cones in the confusion of police flashers, cellphones and fan headlights. He almost overshoots the pit, but the frantic waving of the crew grabs his attention and he quickly corrects. The big truck lunges into the lane but stop surgically in the pit box.
Compared to the fury of a NASCAR pit crew, the Ruffo team seems almost lackadaisical. They have done this before, year after year, decade after decade. Their actions are deliberate and precise, and everything surrounding the thundering truck is the epitome of calm.
Speed is necessary, but what really matters to this crew is getting it right. There can be no mistakes. There are no mistakes. Every motion has been planned and rehearsed. The tires come off as the fuel hose is connected. The driver gives his report while the co-driver is replaced. No issues are reported, so the truck is staged to leave the pit as the last lugs are tightened on the fresh meats. The mechanics step away and the truck is waved out. And that’s it.
Over the course of the morning, as the sun rises over the horizon, the Ruffo team repeats the service four more times with the same calm mastery as a troupe of butoh dancers. The only issue encountered is a stripped and stubborn lug nut. The veteran mechanic in charge appears with a smaller socket size and pounds it on with a big hammer, allowing the wheel to be removed. The unorthodox method adds less than ten seconds to the total tire change.
The sandy track leading out into the morning desert is lined on both sides by tents and campsites for about a half a mile, then slowly thins into cacti, scrub, and flowering vines. At the two mile mark there is no sign that civilization ever existed save the occasional beer can so old it has a vacancy for a pull tab. Spiders nest everywhere, webs like cotton on the ground or hanging more traditionally between branches about head height.
The sand is surprisingly deep and loose in the track, hard to walk through. The motorcycles that roar by appear to be struggling to stay pointed firmly in the right direction, while the powerful trucks and buggies whoosh by in a spray of stinging particles but, surprisingly, no dust.
Even all the way out here there are fans, mostly pubescent boys escaping their families back at camp. Unsupervised and unwitnessed, they place their phones in the middle of the track to record trucks roaring overhead. The stand in the middle of the road recording the buggies until the horn blares for them to get the hell out of way. They hide behind bushes and leap out at the last possible moment, hoping to startle a driver into dramatic mistake perfect for social media. Even worse, they dig hidden pits and construct rudimentary jumps strategically placed to be unavoidable, and live stream the action.
The next day in La Paz, Saturday, November 18 sees the stragglers cross the line. Some barely squeak through the tape in the allotted 48 hours. Others cross the line only to be DNFed for taking too long, but by God they finished. Every vehicle, no matter what, is surrounded by its triumphant crew and well wishers, down to the last one over the line.
Every team is videotaped and photographed on the podium as they are told by an official, “You just finished the Baja 1000!” They’re then asked, “What hardships did you face?” The teams reply with broken struts and faulty differentials, errant cows and unfortunately placed boulders.
At no point does anyone ask, “Why the hell did you just put yourself through that?” There’s certainly no money in it. A trophy truck costs over $500,000, and actually racing the thing costs tens of thousands more. There are support vehicles to pay for, enough spares to rebuild almost the entire truck, pit crews, fuel, tires, and hotels and food for the entire entourage. There’s prize money, but it’s paltry in comparison to the overhead and only for the winners anyway. Yes, sponsorship does help to defray costs, but only for the top teams. There are over 400 entries this year, and unlike elementary school baseball, not everyone gets a trophy.
The answer to that question is found in the parking lot after the race. Teams pull off sweaty race suits, pour water over their heads, and crack beers. They answer questions for the fans and discuss mechanical failures. They load the truck onto the trailer and strap it down. Gear is loaded next and goodbyes are said.
At the end, there’s nothing left but an empty parking lot and a vacuous ache where the race used to be. The months and years of preparation, the camaraderie of hardship, the speed, the roar, the triumph . . . is over. It’s an unfillable void, lonely and boring.
Until next year.
2018 Baja 1000: in pictures