Maybe you hadn’t ever noticed, but Roadkill is basically an escalating set of dares. Freiburger, Finnegan, and the production staff may not always utter “I dare you,” but the sentiment carries over when “planning” (term used loosely) most episodes. With that in mind, we have a deep appreciation for Team Westafari. Their dare led them to the NORRA Mexico 1000 and an interminable night deep in the Baja desert. By flashlight and starlight, they crawled periodically underneath the Syncro-converted Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia that they’d turned into a desert racer from its “normal” 24 Hours of LeMons life. Smiling all the way, they limped their Vanagon to the day’s finish.
The story of Team Westafari’s seven-hour desert crossing comprises only a small part of the team’s tale. During the their struggles with the VW van at a LeMons race, team captain Lucas Valdes made an off-hand remark about a class win in LeMons. Should the team ever win Class C at a race, he said, they’d convert it to a Syncro all-wheel-drive setup and head south to the Mexico 1000. At last during the 2016 Arse-Freeze-A-Palooza, the team managed to race to a win in LeMons’ slowest and least-reliable class.
“Clearly, I didn’t think too much about [the dare],” Valdes said. “It was after a LeMons race. We had finished second or third place so we started to say, ‘What are we going to do when we win Class C?’ Without thinking too much about it, I just said ‘We’ll make this thing into a Syncro and run it in NORRA.’”
They never thought they’d win Class C so it was a running joke. Just when they thought they’d have a chance to win the class, a new car would instead run a perfect race and beat them. However, the LeMons race at Sonoma Raceway in December 2016 proved to be the fateful one for Team Westafari. No dark horses turned up and the Westfalia won Class C by a handy margin.
A Vanagon may seem like an unnatural choice for any race car, let alone one for road racing (and then desert racing). However, Team Westafari are perhaps unnatural racers. Valdes runs GoWesty Camper Products, a company that makes aftermarket and performance parts for the popular(ish) Westfalia camper versions of the Vanagon. When one of their Westfalia-enthusiast friends—NORRA and LeMons racer Ned Bacon—talked about racing in general and racing in LeMons specifically, the GoWesty employees knew exactly what to do.
Nearly a decade earlier when GoWesty did shop work, they had taken in a customer van from a florist. The repair bill for the blown clutch turned out to be more than the shop was willing to pay. GoWesty instead bought it for parts and stored it. Naturally, when it came time for a “race car”, they plucked the Westfalia from storage. Instead of swapping a clutch, they dropped in the 200-horsepower VR6 engine from a Volkswagen Golf. That weird six-cylinder engine made the Vanagon absolutely fly…until it blew up.
They returned to the next race, several years later, with the VR6 swapped out for a version of the Vanagon’s 2.1-liter Wasserboxer (“Water boxer,” the liquid-cooled VW engine found in the stock Vanagons). That 2.7-liter engine was a tuned version of one GoWesty sells for customers and it was still plenty quick.
While the van looks top-heavy, most of the weight actually resides low enough in the chassis that the center of gravity is not substantially different from a normal car. The van’s height exaggerates how much the chassis leans, but it’s otherwise a reasonably capable racevan.
“At the first race, we got wind of corner workers making bets about which turn we’d flip the van,” Valdes said. “It’s rear-engined with 50-50 weight distribution and you can really toss it around. It’s a lot more fun and capable to drive on the track than it appears to be.”
That height does no favors for top speed, however. The brick-shaped van has acres of frontal area that keep top speed to somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 miles per hour. It just won’t go faster than that, although the huge aerodynamic drag also improves the van’s ability to brake.
It’s worth noting that the Westafari team are no strangers to Baja. Like most Westfalia owners, they’ve traveled extensively and camped in the middle of the Baja desert with families and other Vanagon enthusiasts. However, taking Baja at speed with the NORRA race would require some major modifications to their two-wheel-drive Vanagon. While all Vanagons start out the same, Syncro versions had some major chassis changes that required modification after production. GoWesty had done the conversion from two-wheel drive more than a dozen times and were familiar with what that entailed. However, they didn’t begin work on it until January. That meant a compressed three-month timeframe from project beginning to the NORRA starting line in April.
The conversion’s upside, of course, is that Team Westafari were able to raid the company’s own parts bins to prep the van. Everything put on the van can be bought from the company; no waiting for shipping expedites a build like this. In addition to the whole Syncro drivetrain leached off a donor Vanagon, they needed to modify the chassis to fit the Syncro system and install a Syncro fuel tank. To that, the work list extended with the need for skid plates, knobby tires, mounting for spares, and a pile of other modifications to be done after normal business hours.
(Get a peek inside in this video below and check out the rest of the build videos here.)
The shop was able to complete most of the work, but GoWesty Vice President of Business Development Taylor Grant flew in from New Zealand to take part in the final week of preparation. While he had known the status of preparations, Grant hadn’t seen the Westy in person since the first LeMons race in 2013.
“My first thought was, ‘This thing looks hilarious.’ I burst out laughing,” Grant said. “Going down to Baja, we’re normally doing this with twice the weight with wives, girlfriends, dogs, camping gear, and all that stuff. Seeing this van lifted up with knobby tires…half of it feels pretty natural since this is what we do with our own vans. But it was also like “OK, this is really happening.’”
That last week of preparation entailed sleepless nights for the whole crew, but the Vanagon ran well enough that they were able to complete 10 hours of off-road testing before heading south. It worked so well, in fact, that instead of trailering it, they drove the RaceVanagon from San Luis Obispo, California, to Ensenada for the race start. When they set off, the Vanagon hardly looked like a breakneck-speed desert rat.
“We didn’t try to make this van pretty, unlike every other vehicle in this race,” Grant said. “We built this Baja racer in the spirit of LeMons. Everything looks ghetto-fabulous, held together with zip-ties, duct tape, and hot glue.”
The Vanagon would compete in the Recreational Vehicles (RV) class, which was an original NORRA class that was revived in 2017 for them. The RVclass is subject to the organizers’ discretion and the main qualifier requires a bed inside the car. Team Westafari scavenged an original-equipment hammock to meet the rulebook minimums and then set off to race.
For the unfamiliar, NORRA dreamed up the idea of long-distance desert racing in Baja with the Mexico 1000 in 1967. SCORE cropped up a few years later with the Baja 1000, which became the more famous of the two until the NORRA race disappeared altogether. In 2010, however, NORRA reformed to run the Mexico 1000 once again with an emphasis on vintage desert vehicles.
Where the Baja 1000 is renowned for its grueling, highly competitive nature, NORRA puts emphasis on the experience and cameraderie in the Mexico 1000 over a pure result. That appealed to the LeMons-experienced Team Westafari, but the scope of the desert event proved immense. Managing the logistics and moving pieces was a new, difficult challenge; LeMons racing offered little preparation for long runs through the desert.
“The only time any of us were totally relaxed and having fun was when it was our time to be behind the wheel and drive in the desert,” Valdes said. “That felt completely natural. We were driving a van with twice the power of a factory vehicle and half the weight. The rest of it—getting from town to town with the tow rig and trailer, communications, and feeding yourself—is a monumental task. A weekend at a LeMons race is going to seem like we just interrupted lunch. This was tough.”
The Syncro proved capable off-road, as Team Westafari had expected. Although the top speed was still limited to about 75 miles per hour, the independent-locking front and rear differentials allowed it to crawl through silt beds and over rock piles better than many NORRA competitors. Like LeMons, they knew that success depended on finishing the race trouble-free. They started dead-last of 190 entries, but by the end of two trouble-free days, they were running more than halfway up the standings.
However, the third day would put Team Westafari through the grinder. That day’s itinerary included a 400-mile slog in two long stages. Taylor Grant drew the straw for the opening run.
“The plan was that I was going to drive the first stage and then our co-driver Bryan Lutz would take over the wheel for the second half of that day,” Grant said. “My first stage went flawlessly, a beautiful drive. Once I was behind the wheel, all the stresses that go along with running this race just fade away and you start having fun. By far, the best day on four wheels I’ve had in my life.”
However, during the day’s second stage, the Vanagon’s shift linkage broke near the rear-mounted transaxle. Despite six races and countless years of driving Vanagons, none of the crew had ever seen that part of the linkage break. With no spares and a long way to go until the stage’s end, things got interesting as daylight faded. It was all quite a bit different from those #vanlife Instagram accounts.
“We spent about seven-plus hours rolling under the van and manually selecting each gear one by one to get us out of there,” Grant said. “We would drive a section in a gear appropriate for that particular piece of terrain. When we ran out of gearing for that section, we’d have to roll under and either grab first or third if we were going down a hill. We nursed it out of there, but we didn’t finish that stage before the stage closed.”
Grant and Lutz rolled into service at around 4:30 a.m. after a brutal 19-hour day with the next day’s start looming. The team made some basic repairs and push-started the Vanagon to reach the starting line around 8 a.m. to begin the stage. They then drove it back to the service area, where they needed four more hours to weld up the broken shift rod. Since they’d technically not finished the previous stage, they got a maximum time penalty that set them well back in the standings. However, the experience had hardly dampened their spirits.
“We were still having a ball,” Grant said. “We were with a fun vehicle in the middle of the desert. There were amazing starry skies and we were having a ton of fun even though we were dead-tired. We were living the dream and loving it, just running on adrenaline and good Team Westafari vibes.”
They finished the remainder of the race unfazed and came home in 127th place of 190 entries. For a race full of misadventure and an ungainly platform that proved popular everywhere they went, Team Westafari will take it.
(Back) To LeMons and Beyond
Part of the dare entailed returning the Westfalia to LeMons duty. Because we talked to them pretty soon after they’d returned from Mexico, they weren’t quite sure what the next step was. The easy way is probably racing a Syncro, but that still comes with a number of hurdles to solve regarding suspension. However, you can bet the chaps from GoWesty will be back at LeMons and they’ll likely be happy for a racetrack that is a closed loop from a logistical standpoint.
So what about the future for the Vanagon at future NORRA Mexico 1000s?
“As for the logistics are concerned, we had this great big trailer that we pulled along and that made everything several orders of magnitude more difficult,” Valdes said. “What we learned is what not to bring and to slim it down. One of the ideas we’re tossing around is building three of these vans and no support vehicles, just supporting each other. Basically, we take a [fourth Vanagon], split it into three and put the spares across each van.”
Will that work? Team Westafari and Valdes seem to think so.
“Our motto when we go to the desert is: ‘The most reliable Vanagon is two Vanagons.’”
Team Westafari at the Mexico 1000 included drivers Lucas Valdes, Taylor Grant, Bryan Lutz, and Segis Valdes as well as cinematographers Chris Collard and Aidan Klimenko.