My Baja 1000 experience was far different from years past, and unique compared to my teammates. To put this in perspective some numbers are in order:
- 12,000 miles flown, 27 ½ hours on 5 different airplanes, 9 hours waiting in airports.
- 1,880 miles driven in chase trucks
- 180 miles driving Monica
- 6 border crossings
- Not enough tacos, Mexican coke or time spent with friends!
Since I moved to Japan I wasn’t sure I would be able to race the 50th anniversary Baja 1000. With a new job and demanding schedule, it was going to be difficult to make it work. On top of that I would be the freeloader this year. The guy who flew in, jumped in the truck to race and went home. I devoted little time in the shop turning wrenches or arduously cleaning the dirt, dust and muck that finds its way into every nook and cranny of Monica. I did what I could during my short time in Utah this summer and helped with the limited paperwork I could from Japan. On top of all that, I missed one of the best parts of the Baja 1000 – contingency. I arrived in Ensenada at 1 AM the day the race started, and would be driving about 15 hours later.
I got a little sleep but was up early. It was nice to see the new wrap on Monica and see all my friends that I haven’t seen for many months. The race nerves and jitters began to set in as Ensenada is surrounded by the sights, sounds and smells of desert racing. Chase 1 and chase 3 were responsible for getting Monica off the line. We had time to watch some trophy trucks start, but it was pretty uneventful with a speed zone through town and in the beginning of the wash. With about 250 trucks starting before us we had plenty of time to relax a little and chat with other racers as we staged for the start. We helped Marc and Ryan Nakaya get in the truck and before long our Baja 1000 had officially started.
Having arrived late the night before, I had to get a turista and some pesos before heading South. Once that was done we made the trek towards Ojos Negros to keep in contact with the race truck and get prepared for me to get in the truck. Monica was running great and Marc was making great time. We were able to watch Monica pass a couple times and were in almost constant radio contact. Chase 1 and 3 made our way to RM 130, our first driver change and where I would get in. The sun was just about to set and night was beginning to fall. However, since I was still on Japan time, it was just about time to wake up.
The truck arrived and it was a quick and efficient swap with Marc getting out of the driver’s seat and me getting in. Ryan Nakaya would stay in the co-driver seat until we handed the truck over to Dave and Darren. The first few miles were rough, with large rocks, whoops and plenty of corners to keep it interesting. It’s been one year since I have driven Monica so I wanted to get comfortable and familiar before I turned the speed up too high. I knew the Rod Hall Hummer was about three minutes behind us as well and I certainly didn’t want to get passed. On top of that I have been driving on the right hand side for the last year and this left hand drive stuff took a second to get used to.
By mile 140 I was feeling great, Ryan and I were connecting well and Monica was operating perfectly. There was still plenty of competition on the course and it was fun to pass and be passed often. We hit the dry lakebed and it was flat out up to 105 miles per hour. The night was dark and I was driving faster than we could see; it required constant communication with Ryan to know when a turn may come up and when the high-speed lakebed would end. We passed a few more competitors on the lakebed and it was back to the whoops and rocks. The race course was pretty brutal but we were making good time and Monica continued to work flawlessly. It was still early and there were lots of people cheering us on as we passed their small campfires.
I apologize for the next paragraph as it may be a little too much information, but not all of racing is glamorous. Since you will be in the truck for a long time and you need to stay hydrated you have to be prepared to relieve yourself without stopping. We all wear an external catheter, and although its difficult to pee sitting down, I have never had any problem with my catheter staying put and the plumbing working as it should. Well about race mile 160 my luck changed. We were on a relatively smooth and fast section and it was a perfect time to focus my attention and muscles to releasing the build-up in my bladder. It always takes effort to “go” but this was different. Once I started I could tell I was building pressure, instead of the unique feeling of urine flowing down your leg and exiting the tube near your shoe. This pressure built until an explosion occurred as the catheter came off and filled my suit with my own urine. Too late now, the rest of the race would be spent peeing my pants!
One of the things Monica excels at is powering through the deep sand and silt beds so common on the Baja peninsula. Somewhere near race mile 295 we hit a huge sand/silt bed, it was pure chaos with trucks stuck everywhere. We zig zagged our way through and past at least 10 trucks all stuck within 200 yards of each other. Shortly after it was pure mayhem as the race course and highway traffic were both heading South on highway 5, which is under construction and poorly marked at best. It was not a speed controlled zone, so we were trying to go race speed in the dust and passing semi-trucks, cars and other teams chase trucks. Luckily, we made it through that mess and into checkpoint 1 at Coco’s Corner.
Shortly after checkpoint 1, things got ugly. We crested a small rise and as the suspension compressed slightly on the other side things went South. The truck lurched down and then skyward, and suddenly we were skidding off the right side of the race course as we watched our right front tire pass us and roll off into the darkness. The truck came to a stop leaning badly to the right. It was off camber enough I was slightly worried it was going to roll onto its side as the weight shifted with us moving around. That moment seemed to last forever, I was devastated that such a great run had ended with me behind the wheel. Thoughts raced through my mind: was I driving too hard? Are we out of the race? Where is the hummer? Are we going to get hit by another race truck? Can we get this fixed?
Ryan and I got out of the truck and began to assess the situation. All five lug studs had sheared off, our brake rotor had broken out large pieces, the CV axle boot was torn open, our wheel had disappeared somewhere into the desert and I was completely soaked in my own urine. I quickly realized there was no place I would rather be. We sprang into action. Communicating with chase crews to find the parts and rifling through the truck finding anything we could to patch the truck back together and keep it moving. Once we got the rotor off we found the root cause of the problem. The four bolts that hold the wheel bearing housing to the spindle had come loose and damaged the rotor and lug studs. It was a relief it wasn’t my driving, but I knew we still had to get this thing back together and get to a chase crew where we could fix it properly. We found some bolts to hold the bearing in place, had spare lug studs and decided the rotor would hold up for a few miles to get back to a pit. Just as we put the truck back on the ground, chase 8 showed up to escort us the quickest way back to Coco’s corner where an army of chase crew was ready and waiting to fix the truck. It was a slow ride back to coco’s but our team made quick work on the repair and before long we were bombing down course again. The 35 miles from Coco’s to the next driver swap was incredible. High speed, whoops and an incredibly cool narrow rock canyon with plenty of water crossings. Before I knew it we had reached the next pit and it was time to hand the truck over to Dave and Darren. My adventure behind the wheel of Monica was over and it was time to clean myself up and help chase another 800 miles down the peninsula.
The rest of the race really is a blur. Little sleep combined with jet lag and a race high left me completely exhausted. A type of exhausted that can’t be described or compared unless you have experienced it. If you are reading this, you already know how our race went. The repairs held up perfectly, and the rest of the race went perfectly. Dave, Darren, Ryan and Kurt all made heroic efforts to catch the hummer. Unfortunately, we just ran out of road and finished in second place a mere 16 minutes from 1st place. I will take a second place versus a DNF anyday!!!