Back in July I continued my yearly tradition of making…
The Baja 1000 is the last of the point to point endurance races. The others like the Targa Florio and Mille Miglia are gone. Even Dakar allows you to go to sleep every night between stages. The Baja is flat out for nearly 1000 miles. The course is more defined than it was years ago but it’s still non stop racing for up to 48 hours. The race is usually won by a trophy truck but there are many other classes in the Baja 1000 ranging from V8 powered buggies to old school pickup trucks, but the real men drive little VWs in the stock bug category called Class 11. Some minor changes to the car are allowed but for the most part, these are stock bugs fitted with a roll cage, a fuel cell, and other safety gear.
This is Paul Hartl’s adventure racing a Class 11 VW Bug in the 2014 Baja 1000. He originally published it on his Facebook page and when I heard today that he was returning to run this year’s Baja 1000 I asked for permission to share it. He had an amazing adventure last year and I bet this year’s race will even more exciting to follow. The other thing that’s really cool about Paul as that he raises money for charity every time he races in something like the Baja. There’s more about this in the story but it makes me love Paul’s adventure’s even more. I hope you enjoy them as much I do. His story starts below this picture of him.
I keep coming back to Baja. I know I can never lose my nervous respect for her. Every time I get there, she asks me: “Are you experienced enough to face me?” and one day I would like to answer: “I think I am, now.”
About a month ago Jim from Desert Dingo Racing told me that only the guys who worked on his car throughout the year would run this year’s Baja. I could not but feel a bit disappointed; this year’s Baja 1000 was the big one, the macho run – the Peninsula Run. The full 1,275 miles of it. I had always wanted to run the full peninsula. So, I decided to call Dennis Hollenbeck Chairez who runs another Class 11 car as Team H12:One Racing, hoping he could use another driver on his team. His response – that he could – made my day.
I met Dennis during my first Baja race and got to know him fairly well. As with all of us, he races for the pleasure of it; but there’s more to it: he also races to raise funds for Mi Casa Esperanza – a shelter for women and children in Ensenada. I’ve been to the Casa before and cannot think of any better project one could support.
Before leaving for Ensenada, I played down my wife’s expectations for the race so much that she asked me: “So why do you want to go if you don’t think that you will see the finish?” To which I responded: “I don’t think that any of the Class 11 cars will finish this one. But we might do something like 300 miles and I get to drive the bug…” I didn’t know then that I would go with the best team I have ever driven with; not the most experienced, not with the best technical gadgets, but a team of great guys with the strongest sense of camaraderie. I know now that it is not always experience or the technical aspect of the team, but rather the “human factor” that wins the race. Of course, having the little hands, which the Casa Esperanza kids imprinted on the car , helped too. They pushed us all the way to La Paz.
I landed in San Diego, drove with Kailen to Ensenada and got introduced to the team as an “experienced driver”. Who? What? Come again? I have driven with experienced drivers like King Dave and Bus Boy Bob, but “move over Robby Gordon, here comes some experience” was something our French friends from another Class 11 would possibly call “excessif”. If the experience I had was my propensity to use bad language on a team where nobody would ever swear, than it was not exactly a ticket to stardom.
The next day we went through the contingency and Dennis gave us our driving shifts. I was to get in at around midnight and drive about 200 miles first with Michael and then with Brian through Cocos Corner and Calamajue River. My second shift would be a bit over 90 miles through the hills the next night with Michael again. There were two interesting pieces of information: first, Michael is 6’8″ and I am 6’6″. Nobody will believe that we can fit into the car and the locals watching us to get out of the car might look at a beer can in their hand and say: “Oh, man, that brew is way stronger than I thought”
Also, Michael’s last name is Shomaker (pronounced the same as “schumacher”). What an absolute boast it provides: “Yep, you know, two weeks ago Michael Schumacher co-drove for me in a race…” But the second piece of information was more serious. After the last year, I had a score to settle with the Calamajue River.
The next day we got to race. There were some issues with the car (failed fuel pump, air filter issues, some electrical gremlins), but all was sorted out and the car was solid when we got in. The windshield wipers were not working, but since it was not raining this seemed to be a non-issue. And, remember, I was supposed to be an “experienced driver” for whom the wipers are only another piece of overrated accessories. For the first four to five miles I was getting used to the car and I found out that there wasn’t much space for me.
In order to downshift from the second gear to the first one I had to hit my co-driver’s ribcage with my elbow. There was simply no other way to do it. If you want to find out how many times I had to downshift, just ask my co-drivers to count the number of their ribcage bruises. After I got used to the car (and my co-driver to the elbow beating), we increased the speed. I always check the cumulative speed on the GPS and the numbers made me happy. The silt in the silt beds obscured our vision here and there, but it got blown away and there was no need for the wipers. Until the morning came.
With the morning came the fog and mist. The mist and the sand enjoyed each others’ company, got merrily together and created a nice brownish film all over the windshield. There was no way to see anything, so there was no way to drive on like this. We stopped. I used a few expletives, got out and cleaned the windshield. Surprisingly, the expletives did not fix the wipers. We drove on and in a while we had to repeat – stop, clean the windshield, expletives, drive on. Then I noticed that at the bottom of my part of the windshield is a small clean space about 1/2 inch in diameter. I loosened my belts put my head down and drove on looking through this “keyhole”. I could see about 5 feet in front of our car. We were slowing down. There was no way to speed up; if we hit a big hole we could damage the car. Moreover, it is a proven fact that the looser the safety belts are, the lighter is the driver’s right foot.
When the daylight came in full force and the fog and mist started to disappear, I stopped again, cleaned the window, hit the wipers with the last portion of profanities and started to get back to a decent speed. We had service, got the wipers fixed and drove to a time control. That last part to the time control was a real race. The demons of missing the time control last year by a few minutes kept me pushing the gas pedal all the way down. We made the control, Michel got out and Brian got in.
There is a fast section from the road to the Cocos corner – wide gravel track and a lot of it downhill. I knew that the road could only get worse and I tried to make as much time as possible. We were moving at high 50 to low 60 miles per hour and the cumulative speed on the GPS smiled at me with nice numbers. But I knew what was coming: Calamajue River. Like some Greek goddess she can show you her furry – endless mud that does not allow you to take your foot off the gas pedal, grass so tall that you do not see anything, deep water that floods the floor of the car, rocks that take the car apart and, worst of all, your will to fight. And the river showed me all of it in the last year. So it was personal now.
We entered the river and there was nothing to be afraid of. A lot of gravel, bits of mud, shallow streams and just a few pieces of really rocky track. Just your average Baja road, perhaps with a bit of spice here and there. We were moving through Calamajue at a good pace. And then, suddenly we were in the narrows out of the river and into miles of solid Baja whoops. The Calamajue was behind us and I was happy. Brian knew about my struggle last year and he turned to me and said: “Nice driving. Why don’t you ask her: ‘Who is your bitch now, Calamajue?’ ” and I kind of liked it…no, not kind of, I liked it a lot. To which Calamajue probably just smiled. Because the river was in a very good mood that day.
We drove through the whoops and silt and the sun was up and the GPS average speed looked good and so did life. We came to the service and I expected Brian to get into the driver’s seat. But he did not, we were both getting out. He was supposed to tell me and change the seat with me, but he never did. He could see that we were moving well and decided to stay as a co-driver. I do not know how many people would give up their chance to drive for the chance to help the team, but on our team, Brian was not the only one who put the team ahead of himself. And that, I think, was why we were moving ahead in the race.
The team drove on and dug its way from the silt, fought mud and rocks, fixed the car here and there, suffered a decline in the engine power, but drove on. Those little hand of children from La Casa Esperanza were still pushing us forward. Then at about 2 am I got in again. This time it was the silt and rocks in the hills full of sharp corners. Expecting that the worse might come, I was trying to keep the average speed at about 30 miles per hour. I believe that the way to drive sharp silty corners is to stay in the berms, slowly accelerate from the beginning of the turn and lean into the berm wall. Which means that often you drive on two wheels. I did just that. After a while I thought that I heard something like “Um” from Michael. So, I gave him an explanation why the car cannot roll even if you drive on two wheels leaning against the high side of the berm. Less than five minutes later we rolled.
As Mike described it later, it was a “perfect storm of a curve”. The berm was nice and deep, but at the very end the curve tightened, the berm wall suddenly disappeared and the road changed to an off camber. The car danced on the two wheels and then slowly descended on its right side, allowing me to say; “Now we are going…” It has been over 30 years since my last roll in a car, but, suddenly, I could vividly see it again. Michael was calmly saying: “Let’s get out of here, I smell gas.” I got out of the belts and tried to open the doors. They did not open, so I had to rip off the net and open them from the inside and outside at the same time while pushing them up with my head. At the same time Michael also got from the belts and I was stepping all over his body – obviously, he did not have enough bruises on his rib cage from the previous elbow beating.
I got out and held the door open for Michael. At that moment another car drove by without even slowing down. Why they did not stop I will never know. Michael got out, I let the door go and the door remained open. I turned over and the door closed. There was no sound of the door closing, for my thumb provided the silencer between the door frame and the door. For those of you who want to get a real Baja experience, please raise a mid sized hammer above your head and let it fall on the base of your thumb. Then you might understand that the cadence and quality of the stream of profanities I was using right after the roll now got way more interesting.
We wanted to put the car back on the wheels, but it was resting on the co-driver’s side where the jack is mounted and it was impossible to get the jack out. We also did not have any winch. Michael was working like a madman to get the car on all four wheels and I, the one-handed roll-master was trying to help here and there with my one good hand. There was no one behind us to roll us back on all four wheels. After a while of trying everything, Michael tried to contact the crew but as we were not able to reach them, so he asked the BFG pit to relay the news to our chasers. Pretty soon we saw our Jeep and in no time the car was on all four again. Since I could not drive with only one hand, Armando jumped in and drove the 15 remaining miles to the service. The Baja was over for me but the team pushed on.
Photo courtesy of Paul Massey
As the race continued, the top shock tower exploded and other problems, both large and small, came our way. We were narrowing the distance to the finish, but the car was through more than 1,000 hard miles and it was showing. Then about 10 miles from the end we busted the spindle and broke the wheel off. We were not going to make it on time. But we were going to finish this race.
After 50.5 hour we crossed the finish line. We were 1.5 hrs late and the only Class 11 to finish. I felt so much happiness and pride to be a part of this team.
So the big one, the macho run, the Peninsula Run was over and all of us were a bit more experienced; perhaps way more. But experienced or not, we raced to raise money for Mi Casa Esperanza. So if you liked to read my personal reflections read also a little about Esperanza (here and donation link) and, if you can, please send them some money. And if you did not like my write-up, throw some profanities my way, but donate anyway 🙂 !
This is where the money collected from our team’s Baja 1000 raceathon went – to build a boy’s bathroom at Mi Casa Esperanza (a shelter for women and children in Ensenada Mexico). Note that all the money goes to buy the material – nothing is used for salaries, wages or any administrative expenses.
And here’s a brief video at Mi Casa Esperanza. Not only did they donate money but they brought all the kids team t-shirts! You have to love Paul Hartl. You can follow his adventures in the year’s 1000 through his Facebook page here.