In the air there is peace. Your tailbone stops trying to gnaw through your lower back. Your helmet quits pummeling your cheekbones, and the Coke which you really shouldn’t have had right before getting in the buggy becomes momentarily weightless in your bladder. You are free of pain and the bonds of earth. You are a bird of prey, you are glory and power. You could do this forever. Then you land. You are loose change in a tumble dryer. You have sand in your eyes. You really have to pee. You’ve gone three miles. Only 417 to go.
Rob MacCachren is an Off-Road Hall of Famer with more than 200 wins to his name, and more runner-up podiums than he can, or cares to, count. He’s on the verge of winning his fourth overall in a row in the Baja 1000 offroad race, and he’s on that famed peninsula in Mexico a week before the race to prerun the course. His sponsors, BFGoodrich, invited me to ride along for the first two days from Ensenada to Bahia de Los Angeles. It’s around 400-something miles of mostly off-road, and we’re doing it in an LS3-powered Alumicraft three-seater buggy. Rob’s driving, his codriver Wayne is in the back taking notes, and I’m in the passenger seat getting my internal organs rearranged and trying not to wet my pants.
The guys have radio communication in their helmets, which I don’t, so I try to remember all my questions for when we take breaks. I keep trying to get a timeline from Rob about his youth, how he got into off-roading, and what his team plans for this race, but it’s hard to keep him on topic. He jumps from being a kid—riding dirt bikes, getting in a buggy with his dad, liking it, winning—to telling me stories about other races and racers. I’m not going tell him to stop, because he’s as good a storyteller as he is a driver, and he’s a really good driver.
The Baja 1000 is just one of many races run through the Baja peninsula, and routes, length, and start/finish areas change with weather, permits, and construction. Sometimes it’s a loop, sometimes a long one-way stretch down the edges of the ocean. For 2017 it’s 1,134 miles starting in Ensenada, hugging the east coast along the Gulf of California, making a long diagonal across the peninsula to the Pacific, then zig-zagging back and forth to end in La Paz. Racers are allowed to start their scouting pre-runs about a month before the race and Rob, who will be splitting this year’s race with two other drivers, needs to map out the first leg, from just outside Ensenada to around the middle of Baja in San Ignacio. We’re skipping the initial pavement portion because racers aren’t allowed to pre-run the first 20 miles or so. It’s not like it matters, Rob’s plenty familiar with leaving Ensenada. We unload the buggy and jump on the course by the Ojos Junction about 25 miles out of the city.
The junction is an intersection of three paved roads and a dirt access. A smattering of other buggies and steroid-fendered trucks are parked nearby when we set off, but it’s just us heading out on the course. The pre-run paths get busier the closer it gets to race day. Make notes too early, and rain or other vehicles will move all the rocks and change all the lines. Wait too long and you’ll be stuck in pre-running traffic the day before the race, eating dust for 400 miles. Rob and Wayne just want to mark the big obstacles and advantages; the stuff that will cut a tire, and the paths around whoever hits it.
Some racers pre-run in their race machines, but Rob doesn’t want to risk smashing something up on a half-million dollar Trophy Truck. His ‘runner is a customized buggy with three seats, lots of charging ports, a refrigerator, and 20 inches of wheel travel. It keeps him low to the course, is easy to move around, and isn’t so comfortable that he bombs through and misses stuff. “It’s important to do the pre-run at a slower speed,” he told me. “I do it at about half, maybe ¾ speed of the race.” This was right before I found myself airborne over a hill at 50mph. Half race speed.
Rob’s habit of speaking with his hands makes things clear to me even though I can’t hear what he’s saying in the buggy. He points left and right, and Wayne taps an iPad, dropping markers on the Lead-Nav app for rocks. Rob takes us over a series of undulating hills, dolphining his right hand and steering with his left. Wayne writes, “Whoops,” and the autofill tries to add, “I’m sorry.” On a smooth sandy track, Rob lifts both hands and extends them forward with enthusiasm. “Accelerate.” A huge ditch gets the opposite, brakes on, hand spread wide, “Danger, warning, slow down.” There are signs for fence posts and cattle crossings, trees in the road, forks that offer a slight advantage or a possible passing zone, and washboard ruts that’ll shake the bolts and your teeth out. Occasionally Rob looks at me and makes a gesture I can’t figure out, an arm flung wide to the desert around us. Eventually I realize he’s showing me the sights. The dark blue mountain with its shawl of clouds—tallest on the Peninsula, a fishing village at the edge of water more teal than ‘80s eyeliner, a tweaky, twisting cactus topped with a candelabra of flaming red blooms. Baja tours at full throttle.
At first I can’t understand how he can process this much information at speed, nor how he expects me to follow, but once the initial shock of moving so quickly around so many axis wears off, I find a rhythm, and a way of bracing against the footrest and the seat mount, then I start to absorb more than just bumps. It may sound weird to wax lyrical on the beauty of nature while tearing through it in a cloud of hydrocarbons and decibels, but driving fast off-road forces an intimacy with the surroundings that you don’t get at slower speeds. You aren’t just watching the scenery like a stage show, you’re a part of it, constantly scanning and marking. It’s astounding the information you can catalog as you move your mind at 70mph. That half-buried rock on the left is sharp, also, it glitters with pyrite or quartz. There’s a substantial tree in the center of the road, and a white-vested hawk doing his own scans from its branches. The light hides and reveals holes in the ground and cows in the bushes. The mountains switch from your left to your right as the roads move beneath you. To the west, lightning flashes. Is the metal buggy the highest point in the desert?
Rob pulls off the track and loosens his belts. “I know I have rain gear in here somewhere,” he says from the top of the buggy where he’s digging through a roof box. He comes down with a crackly blue tarp, which he hands to me. “I’m fine, it’s not that wet,” I say, trying to tuck the uncooperative plastic over my belted-in body. “It will be,” says Rob, with another hand gesture. I look at the horizon, which has turned a grim dark gray in every direction. No need for any more translation. We head into the storm. At first it’s sort of thrilling, with water splashing up through the floor and thunder rolling after us in the valley but eventually it’s just cold and slippery. We reach the stage end with relief, Rob kicking it sideways and sliding through the gateposts where the chase van is waiting for us. “You cut it a little close there,” says an older guy in leathers. “You almost hit that pole.”
“What pole?” asks Rob, straightfaced. “I saw the pole,” he assures me later. Maybe if he wins five Baja overalls, he’ll finally convince people he can drive.
The rain is coming down hard, so Rob decides to skip the next section of dirt explaining that it’s so muddy and cloudy that he wouldn’t be able to get anything but a cold from running it. We make a banzai run down the highway instead and meet up at El Rancho tacos in the small town of Valle de Trinidad. If you have to wait out a thunderstorm, there are worse companions than a plate full of carne con queso in an open-deck restaurant stickered with off-road logos. Rob’s on the phone while we eat, checking the weather south of the hills. The proprietor’s young son gives Rob’s buggy a through examination and goes back to his own race paddock of model cars. Motorsports is a part of Baja everywhere you look.
Rob’s phoned-in weather report is accurate, and our next section is rough, but not wet. Wayne and Rob continue their hand-dance conversation. The emptied rain clouds sit heavy on the hills, their rounded tummies glowing pink with the setting sun. Rob turns on the light bars and the rutted whoops become deep troughs in a dirt sea. Our little buggy rides the waves like a doomed fishing ship. It is deeply uncomfortable and strangely Zen. There is no room for other thoughts, only the soft blackness of the night outside the headlights and the concentration required to not swallow your tongue. The post-rain desert smells like an aquarium store, wet moss and salt. I’m more than half asleep when we hit a tube-armed cactus, which explodes into spiked hotdogs. Most of them bounce off our helmets and roll bars, but a few wait to make their presence known many miles down the road. Baja racers must bond by picking cactus spines out of each other’s posteriors. I pluck a good chunk out of my right butt cheek and toss it backwards, where it probably hits Wayne. Sorry Wayne.
It’s fully dark when we pull into San Felipe. During the race, there is a street party up and down the main street, but it’s a ghost town as we stretch our legs and hunt for a bar that’s open. Once we find one, it’s storytime again. “One year there were all these spiderwebs on the bushes,” says Rob. “The webs were so thick you’d hit ‘em and they’d wrap around the A-pillars. I’d have to reach up and pull them down with my glove. It was dark, and there were these twinkling lights in the trees and eventually I realized, they were spider eyes!” He does a comic shiver and takes a swig of his beer. “Heebie jeebies.” Then, “Did you know I was once in a helicopter crash with Walker Evans? I was 20. He didn’t have a helicopter license, but that didn’t stop him. He’s Walker Evans. He made us drag it into a ravine and hide the wreckage so nobody knew he’d crashed. I kept that secret for like, 20 years, but now he tells everyone.” We finish the last beers and step outside.
“We used to race the trucks right up the beach to the main square,” Rob says, pointing out at the moonlit water. A single motorcycle with two riders is tearing through the surf, scattering the reflections. A few minutes later the same bike comes to a halt in front of Rob. Its riders, two teenage boys, ask for a picture, “Mckraken!” they say. MacCachren’s surname is not friendly to the native Spanish speaker. Rob says he’ll pose in return for a go on the bike, and the owner leaps off to offer him the seat. “I’m kidding, kidding,” Rob says, hands up in surrender. “I don’t want to wreck your bike.” Judging by the smile on the kid’s face as he stands next to Rob, he’d be honored to rock body damage by the famous Mckraken. It’s a reminder of how well-known winners of the Baja races are on the peninsula. Out in the desert, the cactus wants to kill you, but in town, you’re a hero.
Of course, even heroes have their off moments. As we load up the next morning for the next section’s run, Rob backs up the buggy into a cruddy Nissan parked behind it. Its owner is not as keen to consider the resulting scuff as a trophy as the motorcycle kids might have been. Rob apologizes. Cash changes hands. Disaster is averted. “How much was that, $100?” I ask. “That car couldn’t be worth more than twice that. Are you annoyed?”
“It was my fault, it could have been much more complicated,” says Rob. “Honestly, I’m glad to get off so easy.” All the same, he seems a little flustered as we weave through the construction zones leaving San Felipe. The road in and out goes right past a garbage dump, so along with the expected obstacles, Rob has to dart around screen doors and dead washing machines. San Felipe is not a jewel in Baja’s crown, although that may change with the completion of a new highway that’s in the works. That highway isn’t done yet though, so our next section of race course runs in the dirt around the construction zones and back and forth from coast to desert. Rob’s mood lifts when we leave the pavement and by the time we’re out of sight of town he’s grinning at me and pointing again at the scenery. lf the Gulf waters were an unreal shade in the previous day’s cloudy weather, in the bright sun they defy description. Sapphire, lapis, bluer than the eyes in a Willie Nelson song, bluer than a Bessie Smith album, a turquoise horizon so tempting I can’t understand how Rob doesn’t just drive the buggy straight into the sea. This section of race is fast and smooth, which is a shame because it’s so dang pretty. The overhanging bushes look soft, and smell of strawberry lemonade when their leaves crush against the sides of the buggy. I want it to keep going forever. Rob is making a shrugging gesture I hadn’t seen before, and I ask him about it when we come to a stop. He starts laughing. “Wayne told me the iPad was acting up and I was saying, ‘I don’t know what the hell you did to it.’” Oh. The new technology of the tablet and app make pre-running a lot easier in some ways, as there’s no need for hours of tedious transcribing of audio notes or written scrawls, but Wayne says high tech comes with its own issues. “It gets dusty and doesn’t recognize my touch on the screen.”
Our first day was never too far from civilization, but between San Felipe and our eventual destination of Bay of LA is pretty much nothing but sand and rocks, with one remarkable exception. Coco’s corner rises out of the sand like a shipwreck. Indeed, there is a boat half buried beneath a hanging sign made of empty beer cans and Rob parks the buggy beside it. Inside a barbed wire fence, also hung with cans, is a well-swept patch of land dotted with detritus-turned-sculptures and leading over to a two-room shack whose decorative banners turn out to be underpants of various sizes and styles hung like streamers from wall to wall. The Coco of Coco’s Corner is an electric shock in human form. He is tan and tough and it isn’t until he comes out from behind his retail counter with Cokes in glass bottles for us and beers for a couple of local bikers that I realize his legs have been amputated below the knees. Diabetes. It’s not what he wants to talk about. No, he wants us all to sign his guest book. He’s filled nearly a dozen volumes with the signatures and birthplaces of everyone who has come past.
He asks Rob about the race plans. He asks me what I think of his AMC Eagle outside in the yard. “It needs a front axle,” he says. “Very rare. Very hard to find.” He taps my hip and holds up a pair of binoculars, then directs my heightened vision towards a dark spot at the base of the hills. “Many trees, I’m going to build a house there, and live with the deer.” I ask if he’ll miss the visitors at Coco’s Corner. “Maybe I visit,” he says. Coco’s life will change with the completed highway too. Only the dedicated off-roaders will pass his way.
We thank Coco for the drinks and the tour, and after making sandwiches on Rob’s trailer, pile back in to complete the day’s pre-run. After a fast section of wide road, we enter a green slate canyon with a marsh at its heart. It’s beautiful, but smells of stale water and danger. It’s easy to get stuck going too slow, but going fast can get you lost in a labyrinth of rushes, not to mention covered in stinking mud. The guys are glad to get through it. Traveling down the finger of Baja is like going through god’s showroom of environmental design. There are California-like vineyards, white sand beaches, empty dry lakebeds, rocky swamps, red-tinged deserts and a Baja exclusive, the Boojam forests. After the intimidating slate walls, entering the next section of course is like leaving a funeral for a dance party. The Boojam tree is so nonsensical its name comes from a poem by Alice in Wonderland author, Lewis Carroll. I feel very much like Alice shrunk small as we glide beneath the Boojams’ towering curlicues.
The course through them runs in a deep channel, making the trees—which can grow to 70ft tall—seem even taller. In some places they lean over the road, curious to see who’s making so much noise in their garden. The road is rutted, but fast and Rob takes the buggy in leaps from crest to crest. There are elevation changes here too, with climbs and switchbacks taken at top speed. I’m sorry when it drops us back on the pavement looking down into Bahia de Los Angeles (Bay of LA). This is where I head home, and Rob and Wayne do the whole thing again, only this time on race day. The time in the buggy has been a physical punishment, but a psychic balm. It isn’t hard for me to understand why so many people run the Baja 1000 just to say that they did.
I say something like this to Rob and he looks sad. “I feel bad saying this, but I’m here to win. Not finish, not place second. Win. Maybe someday I’ll be in a place to just come down here and camp, hang out, but this year, there’s only one thing. There’s only the overall.”
Everything about Rob’s prep for the race was careful and accurate, with an eye on victory, yet Baja chooses its champions with the whims and loyalty of one of the yellow butterflies you’ll see flitting around the cactus flowers. At mile 550, just where the team planned a driver’s change, the Rockstar BFGoodrich trophy truck quit forward motion. It wasn’t a sharp rock taking out a tire or a misstep in the silt. None of the things Rob had prepared for cost him his win. The engine just said, no more. Juan Carlos and Apdaly Lopez took the finish line in the 2017 Baja 1000. Disappointed, but not destroyed, Rob Mac’s already making plans to win whatever he races next.
Buggy Vs. Trophy
Some teams pre-run in their race vehicles, or in exact replicas of their race vehicles. Rob says he thinks that’s overkill, and overexpensive. “The truck is actually easier than the buggy,” he told me, “So if I get all the nuances in the buggy, in the truck half the time I’ll just plow right over things I had to slow down or mark in the buggy. Mostly I prerun in the buggy because it costs about $150,000 and the truck is a $450,000 machine.” Here’s how the two stack up.
– The Ford F150-based Trophy Truck boasts 850 horsepower from a Ford V8. The Alumicraft buggy has 450hp from a Chevy LS3
– The truck weighs in at 6500 lbs compared to the buggy’s 3500 lbs. Even with me and Wayne in it after a lot of tacos.
– One of the most important choices on an off-road racer is tires. Those little rubber donuts have to contend with slippery rocks, pointy rocks, sand, silt, pavement, mud, and those death sausage cacti. The truck rolls on 40-inch tall x12.50x 17″ BFGoodrich KR3 tires, while the buggy has a slightly smaller 37-inch tall x12.50×17″ BFG KR.
– When Rob says the truck can go over things that bounce the buggy off the road, he means it. The Trophy Truck has 24-inches of travel in the front and an astounding 32-inches in the rear. The buggy is no slouch though, with 20-inches of front travel and 22 in the rear.
– The truck has the obvious roadtrip advantage, with 110 gallons of fuel capacity compared to the buggy’s 35. That said, the truck spends more time wide open, and gets 2.2 mpg as opposed to the buggy’s downright economical 6.5 mpg.
– One of the most thrilling moments of our pre-run was the flat-out assault on the dry lake bed south of Ojos Negros. I saw about 113 on the speedo, but Rob says the buggy can do 130. The trophy truck has a top speed of 142 mph, limited only by the gearing that allows it to climb the mountains that ring the flats.