For most of the year, the Baja California peninsula is an unrelenting landscape of sand, rocks, malnourished creosote bushes, and the occasional dehydrated cactus. But if it weren't for the hot airborne dust desiccating your nostrils, you just might be able to smell the residue of exhaust fumes and raging testosterone.
The Baja 1000 desert race is run in what passes around here as the fall season. Bikes, trucks, and various specialized vehicles will descend upon the port town of Ensenada, then torture their drivers or riders for hours on end, sometimes catching six feet of air at 90 mph. Only about half the field will finish.
At the flag, there's the acclaim, the trophies, and prize money ranging from $600 to $15,000, depending on the number of entrants in up to 26 classes. And 200,000 or so spectators gather to witness it all.
Amid the miles of ruts, calamity could strike at any second. Some of the locals might decide to spice up the route and improvise a "jump" or dig a ditch, a sandy surface could conceal jagged rocks, a flash flood might wash a racer out toward the sea. There are stretches of silt that have to be attacked no slower than 80 mph or they react like quicksand. Or there may simply be a stricken contestant just around that blind corner at the same moment when extreme fatigue is kicking in big.
In other words, it requires the kind of heroic madness that makes it one of the best darn motorsport events ever. After racing in the Baja 1000, dust will come out of your eyes, ears, nose, and who knows where else for the next two weeks.
True to human nature, the Baja 1000 has never been exactly 1000 miles long. Sometimes it's been 650 miles and sometimes even 1121 miles. But by the time the first third of the race has been completed, with bikers squatting on their pegs and drivers having their spines pummeled, it sure feels like 1000. Once, in the year 2000, it was 1726 miles; it was called the Baja 2000 on that occasion.
It all started back in 1962 when two guys working for Honda, Walt Fulton and Jack McCormack, wanted to promote the off-roading abilities of the then-new CL72 Scrambler, a 250cc machine. They brought in Bud Ekins, movie stuntman and driving specialist on two wheels or four, who had the idea of going from Tijuana to La Paz (not the city in Bolivia, obviously; the one north of Cabo San Lucas). Bud would do it with kid brother Dave on a second CL72.
But being connected to Triumph motorcycles at the time, Bud was obliged to bail out, so Dave approached Bill Robertson Jr, son of a Honda dealer and an experienced desert racer. After an aerial reconnaissance trip and a plan that involved leaving fuel and food in pre-determined locations, the two men covered the 952.7 miles in 39 hours and 56 minutes.
It was a record of sorts, so naturally other people wanted to break it. Like Bruce Meyers with his VW-based dune buggy, who took five hours off the time in April 1967. Auto companies and racers alike began to pay more attention. Later that year, on Halloween, an organized event became the first proper Baja race. Called the Mexican 1000, the Mexican government was involved along with the National Off Road Racing Association (NORRA). But by 1975, Short Course Off-Road Enterprises (SCORE) took the reins and have held them ever since.
Walker Evans took his first win in 1979, driving a Dodge pickup, but Ford, Chevrolet, and Toyota have also tasted victory at Baja. Four-wheeled racers have evolved into trophy trucks, searingly expensive custom-built creations with high-power engines and long-travel suspensions. To see these and the bikes in action, check out the 2005 documentary "Dust to Glory."
The Baja 1000 has attracted famous people. And not just from the racing world. James Garner, Steve McQueen, Mike Nesmith (of The Monkees), Paul Newman (at 80, the oldest participant; he drove in 2004), and Patrick Dempsey have all been involved.
Let's also give props to two guys who will forever be linked with this race. Rod Hall won his class in that first-ever Baja 1000 in '67 and has competed in every meeting since, even beating the motorbikes with a four-wheel-drive vehicle for an overall win in 1969. The other man is Ron Bishop, who raced a motorcycle at every Baja 1000 for 40 years straight.
For several meets now, the most-used route is a long loop that begins and ends in Ensenada. But every so often the organizers will go all the way down to La Paz. As in 2010 and 2012, for example. When describing the men and women who take part in this annual blast through the brittle Mexican terrain, this is one time where using the word "cojones" really is appropriate.
Written by Colin Ryan