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BAJA : It's Really a Big Pain Disguised as Big Party, but It Keeps Running

November 10, 1987|JULIE CART | Times Staff Writer

ENSENADA, Mexico — Geologically, the Baja peninsula began breaking away from mainland Mexico about 20 million years ago. Currently, the peninsula breaks a little farther away each time they allow hundreds of motorcycles, trucks and cars to race its length.

Last weekend, the 20th anniversary Baja 1,000 endurance race was run.

The Baja 1,000 is the race that launched the sport of off-road racing. It spawned in deserts around the world. It used to be a longer race, 1,000 miles from Ensenada to La Paz. This year, the course was a 689-mile loop beginning and ending in Ensenada.

Although the race was shorter, though, the name was longer. It now is called the Presidente-Sauza SCORE Baja 1,000--perhaps a sign of its hard-earned affluence.

No matter. To those involved, this race will forever be known simply as the Baja.

True nightmare for a Californian: To be in a place where AAA doesn't provide service.

This is it. Almost anything goes in the Baja. When it comes to rules of racing, there aren't many. A vehicle must cross the finish line with the same transmission and engine that started. Everything else may be changed, and often is.

A vehicle may be towed any distance during the race, but not within one mile of the finish line. Assistance takes many forms. A few years ago, Roger Mears wheeled around a corner and found himself stuck in a large pit.

Before Mears had time to consider what he would do, two ranch hands happened along, looped lassos around the cage of his car, and pulled him out. "I never knew where they came came from," Mears said. "And they just rode off."

Help from the locals can be a mixed blessing, though.

Last year, Bryan Staasta took off out of town and followed the course as laid out for him by waving spectators. He flew off a ramp and into an open sewer.

In the old days of the race, the first drivers on the course would get out and change road signs, turning arrows in opposite directions or erasing their own tracks.

Markings on the course have changed over the years. Race officials used to use a sign system to warn drivers of danger ahead. For example, a sign with I meant a hole, II meant a big hole, and III meant a cliff dead ahead.

Now, more often it is the residents of Baja who alter the course, all in good fun. A common hazard is what's known to the drivers as Mexican speed bumps.

"Kids will take a tree and bury it a bit on the course," Walker Evans said. "Then they sit up and wait for us to come by. They enjoy watching the trucks jump. It can't make you mad. I can picture myself as a 10-year-old kid, laughing my head off."

Mears said that awareness of potential course alterations helps keep the drivers alert.

"You have the constant terrain change anyway," he said. "I've glanced down at my gauges and hit a boulder and blown a tire. I've seen the people lay telephone poles across the road, or dig holes. You can't see anybody, but you know they are in the bushes, laughing."

Drivers can get angry at this, at the capriciousness and lack of concern for their safety, or they can shrug and accept it. "What's 10 more obstacles out of 10,000?" said Corky McMillen of San Diego.

Obviously, the spectators come to see the racers overcome the obstacles. Why stand out in the desert for hours just to watch as a truck roars by at 120 m.p.h. in a cloud of dust? Old Baja hands will tell you that the sure sign that there's trouble ahead is the presence of a crowd or a knot of photographers.

"You see a bunch of people standing on a small rise, and you can be sure that there's a ditch over the hill," said one driver.

Most of the drivers run the course a few times in the weeks before the race. That allows the drivers to become somewhat familiar with the course and literally map out the terrain.

These test drives are often fraught with adventure, though. During a pre-run for this year's race, Spencer Low was involved in a head-on collision with a cattle truck. His truck was towed in and repaired. When Low returned for another try, he got stuck in a wash. It took four hours to dry out the truck's engine.

Sometimes, as with this year's race, heavy rains can obliterate landmarks drivers use to keep their bearings. Ranchers may cut down a grove of mesquite trees that drivers are using as a sign to turn left. That is why drivers sometimes get lost for hours. They drive around until they see a house or a ranch hand, then ask for directions, "Donde esta el camino?"

Most years, the drivers are grateful for the meager signs. In the early years of the Baja, drivers were given a rudimentary map with an X for the start at Ensenada and an X for the finish in La Paz. The drivers were invited to get there any way they could.

This roughhousing with the land eventually led to a long-standing range war between the racers and the ranchers of Baja. Drivers drove across grazing land that ranchers lease from the government, often neglecting to close the range gates and freeing livestock to wander around.

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