the baja 1000 starts soon. here's what it's like to ride with the winner!
The smell of cut grass on the hotel lawn puts me in mind of an English summer but there’s nothing British about the Trophy Trucks in the car hotel park. Even the support trucks are bigger than anything you’d see at a European race. They make the 80 Series Toyota Land Cruiser in the corner look like a Suzuki! The Trophy Truck I am standing next to is a huge black one with a big yellow star on the front for Rockstar energy drinks. If there is such a thing as a favourite for this legendary 1250 mile (2011km) race down the full length of Mexico’s Baja peninsular it’s Rob MacCachren and his ‘Dream Team’ of support drivers Andy McMillen and Jason Voss. They qualified in 2nd behind Robby Gordon and the plan was to do the first 470 miles, roughly the first third, before handing over to McMillin and then, just before dawn the next day Voss would take over for the final stint to La Paz.
It’s an hour before the midday start in the sunny coastal town of Ensenada. Rob’s girlfriend Amber rearranges the bags in the back of the Ford F350 chase truck to make a space for me, the pre-running buggy that they have practiced the course in for the last few weeks is retired into the trailer and co-driver David Maurice paces nervously around. “There’s a lot resting on this,” he says as the million dollar truck gleams in the bright Mexican sun. WRC teams spend days making pacenotes as accurate as a computer program but desert racing seems a lot less detailed, just dangers like rocks and tight turns are pointed out… and with the 40 inch tyres and three feet of suspension travel the rest is probably not worth worrying about. The booby traps the locals dig into the course are always unmarked… David’s job is to keep his eyes fixed on the big GPS screen calling out the notes they’ve added to it in pre-running, as well as the temp gauges and relying progress and needs to the support teams.
In the service truck we drove south for a couple of hours, ploughing through thick race traffic on the single lane road until we got to the first pit in a dusty plain that is apparently a strawberry field in another season. At the end of summer the dusty land looked a bit post-apocalyptic… and so did the lines of mountain-high dust being kicked up by the leading three cars. The locals only love one man here and that’s Robby Gordon and a murmour of excitement ran through the crowd when they saw that the dot in front of the first cloud was bright orange. Incredibly, after over four hours of racing the fist three were separated by less than a minute each, basically as close as you can get before you get blinded by the dust of the car in front. A long, long straight led to a road crossing which as I understand should have been taken at 15 miles an hour. Robby hit the side of it and landed about five metres the other side. The 2nd place car pulled into the pits and Rob calmly took a sip of juice as the team changed the rear wheels and added another 60 gallons of fuel. There was a problem with a wheel though and time was lost which put him down to 3rd. It didn’t take long to catch back up with Gordon though as he was going slow. We supposed that he was either pacing himself as he was planning to drive 80% of the course himself, or was concerned about his transmission…
We carried on driving south into the darkness, some news crackling over the radios every now and again. BJ Baldwin had trouble with an axle, Bryce Menzies blew his engine, but the first three were still together… Every now and again we’d come to a crossing where the track swung from west to east. On the far side of a ridge of mountains a set of high intensity lights stabbed streaks of white into the sky like flashes of heat lightening. David’s voice came over the radio, “Race mile 385, all is good,” with the sound of the massive V8 racing in the background. Everything was going fine, apart from Amber freaking out as I was whispering along to Texas Hippie Coalition on my MP3 Player. She thought I was doing some voodoo on the back seat.
Then we got to the festival atmosphere of the first big pits nearly 500 miles in. Taco stalls in the backs of old caravans, fans with fires far to close to the track and huge support rigs ready with flood lights and service crews. I was hunting for some action shots so was up the track as Rob pulled in after his stint and in the feverish action it was hard to spot him as I was looking for the sweat-soaked red-faced guy who’d just spent 8 hours flat out at the wheel of an 860bhp Trophy Truck. He looked like he’d just driven a few blocks to the office! “If I had a phone I’d call Robby and ask him to pick up the pace,” he joked. The system runs on corrected time not road position so if you started 10th, 10 minutes after the leader off the line and then catch up to him on course you’re actually 10 minutes ahead. Robby going slow meant that the guys on the road behind were actually leading overall.
Something interesting I discovered in these pits is a group of predominantly overweight guys with interesting arrangements of facial hair who drive themselves half way down the peninsular, a 4000 mile round trip for one of them, just to change a wheel on a car. One minute and twenty seconds. And then they go home. They are called the Desert Fools and I will be doing a story on them in the near future because the two I met were such cool guys! Rob’s team actually has nearly a hundred guys racing ahead with spare tyres, top ups of fuel and spare parts waiting at intersections and pits. One guy in need of a little pit work was Gordon as young secondary driver Sheldon Creed did what many teenagers do when they get to hoon around in a powerful and expensive car… he had a big accident with a cactus. Or a normal accident with a big cactus, depending on which way you look at it. The front nerf bars were snapped off and he’d also managed to strip off the rear bodywork before he gave the car back to the boss. The Speed driver was still in the lead though, kicking up a thick dust screen that lingered in the still air for those behind to struggle through.
With McMillin in the car Rob calmly walked over to the F350 and pulled out of the pits. I don’t personally know what he’s like as race truck driver but from my experience he’s a pretty good chauffer driver… apart from when he missed a speed bump a couple of times and Amber had to cry out, “Mind your butts!” The night is long and I dozed on the back seat and as dawn crept over the jagged desert mountains, it started to make weird silhouettes with the crazy cacti… and as McMillin handed over to Voss the Superstar car was in the lead as Gordon had stopped on a stretch of beach somewhere. A couple of punctures had cost them a few minutes but some team members were on point monitoring the time between the next few cars. Gordon six and a half minutes behind, Luke McMillin in the 86 car, 10 mins… but at the next count Voss had pulled out another six minutes and at the next stop was 26 in front as Gordon free-wheeled along the road behind us, suffering some sort of transmission problems. With such a lead with five hours to go Voss could take it easy and look after the car… but the radio communication had failed and Voss was still going as fast as he could! Even the plane the team had circling at 33,000 feet to better relay transmissions couldn’t help.
Rob was nervous. With 200 career wins since he started off-road racing in 1982 this was the biggest one of them all for him. “In my time I’ve broken down in the first mile of a race and also in the last mile, so it’s not over until you see the flag.” He won this grand-daddy of all off-road races in 2007 but wasn’t the main driver, the ‘driver of record’. It’s his team this time and there’s just a couple of hours to go to the biggest win of his life. The podium designers had definitely got the pretty girls right but I’m not sure why they chose the Irish, Finnish or Korean flags to adorn the stage with. Rob was pacing up and down looking through the giant inflated cans of Tecate beer for any sign of the car and then Amber was shouting, “They’re here! They’re here!” They started at one minute past midday on the Thursday and had got to the line in La Paz at 11 on Friday morning.
It was a press of press as Voss pulled up and then the six guys who’d powered the car through the gruelling 1275 miles got on its roof and sprayed the champagne. “We had a good strategy. Each time a new driver got in he was fresh and focused. When you’re driving all night you don’t feel like you’ve slowed down but the times show something different. That’s why we were able to pull away in the last stint when others were tired.” The official time was 22: 31: 28 with an average speed of 56.64 mph. 2nd placed Luke McMillin came in some 28 minutes behind with the popular Desert Assassins coming in 3rd with Cameron Steele at the wheel. The car broke down and had to be towed away, but seeing as it died on the podium all was well. In the end, and this will seem an incredible statement to 99% of the teams in the race, it felt easy. Apart from two punctures and a top-up of oil everything worked like clockwork. We pulled up to every pits so Rob could oversee everything 5 or 10 minutes before the car came through every single time and the miles were just rolled off, one after the other. I guess that is what experience and having the ability to build up the best team you can around you is worth! I am so grateful for Rob for allowing me to tag along and to have the absolute privilege of being with the winning team for the whole way. I didn’t get to see too much action but I certainly had the full experience and I have to say that the win couldn’t have gone to a nicer guy!