The 2012 edition of the Baja 1000 ended with the Vildosola's rolling across the finish line in 19 hours and 45 minutes. A truly amazing feat, as it takes most teams twice as long to reach the finish. Some people (like the Vildosola’s who won it last year as well) are just born to race in events like these—they make it look easy. I know first hand that it's not that easy. When you sit down and watch movies like Dust to Glory it doesn’t look all that bad. The movies make it seem like there are helicopters and support trucks virtually everywhere, how hard could it really be?
What they don’t tell you is how alone you’ll feel attempting to fix your car by a campfire late at night. Or how frustrated you’ll be when you lose an important wrench in the sand, or when you realize your radio isn't working and you have no way to contact anyone. But doesn’t everyone competing in the Baja 1000 have satellite phones? No. The top third of the field are the ones who have their act together. They have full support— even small airplanes to shuttle drivers ahead of the race so they're fully rested and waiting for the truck when it pulls in for a pitstop and a driver change. They all have satellite phones...and spare satellite phones...and redundant radios in the trucks. Their vehicles even have heaters.
It’s usually a beautiful and sunny 75 degrees on race day as the teams start the race, but the instant that the sun goes down you remember that you’re in the desert. A desert that has mile high mountains you need to climb over which means temperatures can get down to the 30's at some places along the course. You have no windshield and fireproof racing suits are generally designed to keep you cool in hot vehicles, not warm in cold deserts. For all the glory the winners and finishers get, there’s another side to this race.
The other side is the bottom third—the guys having fun, and doing their best to compete in one of the roughest, longest off-road races on the planet. These guys enter the race to have fun with their friends and to see just how far they'll make it before their world unravels. This is the category I fall into.
My truck, or buggy, which is really just a BMW 325, often affectionately referred to as the Baja Pig, is monstrosity of a race car hastily assembled in less than 14 days to compete in the 2010 Baja 1000. We knew that we had no chance of finishing. We didn't have any spare parts other than steering racks as we knew that they would break. We just wanted to give it a try, and we wanted to do in a vehicle of our own creation.
What I didn't know was how alone we would soon be.
The race starts in a sea of people. Even after the washes of Ensenada there are people camping and lining the course. But as the sun disappears behind the mountains, so does just about everyone else. The problem with the Baja 1000 is that it's like a giant Blitzkrieg assaulting south down the peninsula. Everything gets picked up and moved as the racers go by. Fall behind and there is nothing. Break your car and you'll hear engines spinning tires in attempt to free the stuck rigs for an hour at best, but if you're not repaired by then, you're really on your own.
Trust me, there’s no worse feeling than being alone in a foreign country with a broken truck, zero communication with the outside world, and being horribly prepared for the climate around you. I just remember thinking we had 4 hours till the sun comes up and it would be warm again...that 4 hours wouldn’t be that long. I remember wishing I had brought something...anything to keep the cold desert sand from sucking the heat from body as I lay on the ground repairing the Baja Pig. I finally resorted to starting the engine back up so I would have some radiant heat as I worked—even if it meant working around the spinning belts and fans.
My co-driver, Cameron Adams, gathered up as much wood as he could find—which is way harder than it sounds in Baja. Some places are strangely devoid of anything that will burn and parts of Baja are included. We were smart enough to bring a lighter and resulting fire was amazing once we found wood. At the time it was one of the greatest feelings on earth.
It took me 2 or 3 hours to swap the rack because most of the tools I planned on taking with us inside the race vehicle were stolen when our tow vehicle was broken into the night before the race. It's amazing what you can with some basic adjustable crescent wrenches.
We swapped in the spare rack but as we pulled away we realized the used rack we had just installed was sloppy as well—and we were really afraid of braking it a second time. Then we would be stranded for real. On the horizon was the glow of a city that we were pretty sure was San Felipe. We made the choice to leave the race course and follow a little trail that would eventually hit a dirt road that led us to pavement. A few miles down the pavement we came across a motel, parked the Baja Pig, and got a room for the night. A hot shower and a cold beer never felt so good in my entire life.
When we start sat on that starting ramp in a hastily built 20 year old BMW off-road thing that we knew would break. We knew we were short on food, had limited water, no real chase crew, and that bad things might happen. We both smiled at the absurdity of the whole thing but man we were on the start line of the Baja 1000! Something I've only ever read about or watched on TV—and I was there with my friends having the time of my life.
This is the best part about the Baja 1000. It’s open to anyone and almost any vehicle that has the proper safety gear. Most races this large are restricted to professionals running special vehicles that can only be purchased if you’re willing to part with a small fortune.
But not the Baja 1000. SCORE, the sanctioning body for the Baja 1000 has a Sportsman class that allows you compete in odd vehicles just like my 1989 BMW 325—which apparently is the first BMW to run the Baja 1000. Looking back, maybe that should have told me something, but I didn’t listen.
I've run it the Baja 1000 twice now and both times we shattered the steering rack and had to replace them in the sand so we could drive out and find a place to sleep. I'm way faster at swapping racks now but it's getting old. I skipped this year and I’m making revisions to the Baja Pig that should make her far more reliable and durable for the Baja 1000 next year along with some of the Best in the Desert races over the summer. So while not perfect, it was our race to run how we wanted. Which was in a vehicle built by friends for the sole purpose of having fun on one of life's great adventures.
Bill Caswell is a self-taught racing driver, mechanic, and fabricator, that rose to internet fame by taking a $500 Craigslist BMW to a World Rally Championship event in Mexico in March of 2010. His exploits have featured in places like ESPN Magazine, Grassroots Motorsports, NPR Radio, Wired.com and Jalopnik.com.