Is It Possible To Complete the World's Toughest Race ... In A Beetle?
Repeat Baja 1000 champion, Eric Solorzano, masters the legendary desert endurance race in an old VW.
In the 1960s a few hobby racers began to race along the beaches of the Mexican west coast. They often used modified Meyers Manx beach buggies that were constructed on a VW Beetle base. In 1967, an official timed event was made of the spontaneous and totally unregulated race: the now legendary Baja 1000 was born. SCORE (Southern California Off Road Enthusiasts) was set up by Mickey Thompson, and the organisation still presides over the multiple events they run today.
Often referred to as the Indy 500 of the off-road racing world, it’s meant to be one of the most challenging road, desert and off-road racing endurance events that you can ever partake in, if not the most gruelling of them all. One false move or lapse in concentration can easily see you go head first into an immovable object, animal or other road user – it’s truly lawless as spectators also line the route along every stretch of road side.
On the flipside of such ill-prepared lunacy by the spectators are the people who actually want to take part competitively. Those who do through their own free will. People just like Eric Solorzano. Now Eric is not your conventional sort of guy, he’s been taking part in this most aggressive, suspension-punishing, brutal spectacle for several decades now and has won his class on multiple occasions.
For a quarter of a century, Eric has been a part of the most famous desert race with an old VW Beetle driving in the so-called Class 11 – the most challenging of all four-wheel classes. Class 11 is the most grueling of all off-road race vehicles as they are stock Beetles with modifications limited to safety, reinforcement and ground clearance. Compared to the Trophy Trucks and Unlimited Class Buggies, the desert racers of Class 11 are hopelessly underpowered. The powerful Trophy Trucks master the relentless desert gravel of Baja in 18 to 20 hours for the fastest runners. The quickest cars of Class 11 arrive at the target after a continuous 48 hours – they have to fight to make it. It is no wonder that the Class 11 teams are viewed as the true heroes of the Baja 1000.
Eric is superhuman really, his journey to Baja superstardom has seen him win more than 20 times, he’s featured in the incredible documentary that is Dust to Glory and he’s renowned as being a font of knowledge and help to his fellow competitors. Quite simply, he’s a really nice bloke who loves pushing himself to his limits in a 1967 VW Beetle that maintains its 1600cc twin port engine with only very limited modifications allowed to drag it through the sand.
Hard As Nails
Under SCORE regs all cars must be fitted with a full roll cage and five point harnesses, the original fuel tank may be used, but only in its original mounting position. Race fuel cells are also allowed in any location and the battery must be relocated outside of the cabin space for safety reasons. The windshield and other windows are optional, but when you’re amongst the loose, soft sand known as fesh fesh there’s every chance you want to be protected from the outside world.
The engine remains a stock capacity 1600cc (85.5mm x 69mm) twin port unit with 40mm heads, a slightly higher compression ratio (9:1) thanks to skimmed heads and the use of 102 octane race gas. Most of the competitors in the class tend to see somewhere in the region of 60 – 80hp from their builds, but really skill and navigation is far more important than outright power. More impressively the transmission remains a stock four speed Beetle transaxle with a 4.12 crown and pinion wheel and an open diff, no trick locking diffs here to get Eric out of trouble if he beaches it.
Crucially, given the restrictions placed upon most of the build, the suspension technology from Bilstein is nothing short of miraculous, particularly as most of the components remain standard VW with minor allowances to increase ground clearance and strength. Using Bilstein remote reservoirs, the massive 4.5 inch reservoirs located atop the wings as taken from their Black Hawk 9300 series bypass shocks, and heavy duty torsion bars with a cut and rotated front torsion bar housing, Eric is able explore around 12 inches of total travel. The shocks themselves feature meaty 46mm pistons and have withstood ten seasons of absolute abuse without the need to be re-built, testament indeed to the robustness of the custom specified setup. They also have to remain within 2inches of the standard pickup points and unlike some of the more extreme off road sand rail vehicles, bypass shocks are not permitted under the current rules and regs in class 11.
Eric is fairly laid back and pragmatic about his amazing experiences though, as you’d expect of a true VW geek, yet he’s reverentially known in the Baja scene as the “King of Class 11.” However, the likeable Solorzano is first and foremost not in it to win it. “I don’t drive to win trophies. To get a trophy is of no benefit to me. I have a lot of trophies. To cross the finish line with a car that I have built myself, that is what gives me the greatest satisfaction,” said Eric. And as he kicks back in his Tijuana home it’s little wonder this off road racing legend feels quietly content and humble about his accomplishments. Having won no fewer than nine Baja 1000s, seven Baja 500s and twelve San Felipe 250s since starting out in 1996, he’s fully aware that he’s not competing in a trophy truck, “I’m there to eat the dust of the fast machines, but I always make it to the finish line, no matter what. It’s that kind of gung-ho, never-say-die attitude that makes him a winner and a firm favourite amongst the fans. Long may that continue as he’s racked up over 30,000 off-road racing miles now and has no intention of stopping anytime soon.