So Close, Yet It Doesn’t Matter

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It would take me about 32 hours of typing to fully describe the 32 hours and 26 mins it took us to race the Baja 1000 this year.  I’ll do my best to make this story short and enjoyable yet relevant and thorough.

Instead of staring at the beginning let’s start at the crux.  We get notification about 1am on Saturday morning that the truck is stopped. After a few calls on the sat phone and connecting the dots with all the chase teams a plan was hatched to get Monica moving again.  We had lost the passenger side front upper control arm (UCA) in the worst possible spot on the course to access. Yep, second year in a row we had a mechanical issue in the least ideal location.  Chase 1, with Will (fresh out of the driver’s seat) Dru and Ryan Nakaya and Topher picked up the spare UCA from Chase 4 and set off into the darkness. I’d found a route using google earth and my Baja Atlas and relayed that to Chase 1.  It would take a few hours to get there. Original thought was to pass the part to another racer at a BFG pit and send it down course but that would have taken 4-5 hours. With the crew headed back against race traffic we’d get the part there in 2-3. Seemed like a no brainer.

We carry a fair amount of spare parts on the truck but as the front UCAs are side specific we do not have them on board.  We always check the arms for wear/cracks after each race and the uppers looked good. From now on we’ll be replacing them before every major race.  Once Chase 1 got to Monica it was a 20 minute repair and Ryan and Kurt were back after it.  (After putting out their camp fire of course) Let’s go back to how we got there.

Marc started off the line with Will co-driving.  We had 6 trucks in our class and we went out second.  There were quite a few traffic jams in the first 70 miles or so and we got separated from the H1 Hummer of Rod Hall racing.  Eventually the racers spread out, our 4wd helped us get around a few of the congested areas.  The first 80ish miles went great and we swapped leads with the Hummer a few times.  Then Marc remembered he was in Baja and hadn’t gotten nauseated yet. Right on cue his pace slowed, his stomach churned, and eventually his helmet once again was filled with vomit.  Instantly he felt better and his pace picked up. At this point we were about 25 mins behind the leader.  We had a scheduled pit at RM119.  Part of our race prep for the 1000 this year was to improve our pit organization and efficiency.  We usually have 1 -2 more pits than most teams because of our team approach and number of drivers.  The plan at Pit 1 was Marc out, Will move to driver, Trent Taylor hop in to co-drive and a quick splash of fuel (about 10 gallons).  We only had Chase 2 there it was up to me, Darren and Brian Andreasen to get this all done quickly.  As Monica approached a call was received to adjust ARB Lights as well. As the locals gathered to watch we focused on the task at hand.  7 mins later Will took off up the Erendira wash and into the darkness.  With the pit stop we were now 36 mins behind the lead. Now before you go and make fun of Marc we’ve decided his inability to not get sick in Baja is our good luck charm. We are 3 for 3 in races when he gets sick. 0 for 1 in the race he didn’t get sick. Next year I’m feeding him chocolate milk and canjun trail mix at the starting line.

This was Trent’s first time in a race and he had a lot on his plate. Wil was determined to catch the leader before his leg was over at RM260 in El Rosario.  The next few hours they would be out of communication range of the chase teams so the two could just focus on making good time and reading the terrain ahead.  As the darkness settled in on the peninsula, and the fog rolled in off the ocean, min by min, mile by mile, Will and Trent closed the gap.  After a brief highway section, with some gamesmanship by the leader’s chase team Will reached the rear bumper of the H1.  As the course turned back onto dirt Will seized the moment and passed the leader on the inside of the first corner.  With dust billowing behind him he extended his lead on the H1 all the way to Pit 2.

Pit 2 was a very unique experience, especially in Baja, in that all of the chasers were there (except Chase 2 who were headed back North to rest and get ready to drive the truck in the morning) and therefore we had plenty of hands to do a full service including water in the Camelbaks and sd cards swapped out in the GoPros.  The rumor out of Pit 2 (this is Dave and I wasn’t there) is that the entire thing took less than 5 mins.  Kick ass.  The H1 also did a driver swap and full pit near El Rosario. At this point it felt like a 2 horse race. The other trucks in the class were either moving slowly or out of the race with breakage.  For those that desert race you’ll understand the significance of what I’m about to say. For those that don’t let me explain.  Unless you are racing in a Trophy Truck on the ragged edge seeking the overall victory desert racing is really about endurance and pacing yourself against yourself.  You have to know as a driver what equals a fast pace but not so fast you’ll break.  Extrapolate that over 866 miles, or 32 hours, and racing at 80% instead of the ideal 85%, is a HUGE difference. It’s part of the mental challenge of racing.  But every now and then, once every 15 races or so, you get to really race. As Ryan and Kurt pulled out of El Rosario it was on.  Kurt navigated through the dust and chaos while Ryan piloted Monica through the next 110 miles of race course, while swapping spots with the H1 for the lead 9-10 times. They even managed to pull out a fellow Toyota racer at one point.  It was exciting to watch on the web tracker so the rest of us can only imagine how much fun it was for Ryan and Kurt to be involved in such a head to head battle 8 hours into the Baja 1000. Ryan had the lead about RM364 when the upper arm let go.  By the time Monica was back rolling we were about 3.5 hours behind the H1.

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Kurt took over driving shortly after sunrise as fatigue was causing Ryan’s pace to slow. Fatigue is much better than a helmet full of vomit.  An energized Kurt began to mow down the miles. However, all was not great at this point. We had 15 mins to cover 40 miles to make the Check Point cut off time.  Bryson and I chatted on the phone and the decision was made to just keep racing even if we miss the checkpoint but also do our best to persuade the CP to stay open for a bit longer.  Bryson must be one charming kat because his next call to me was that the CP would stay open for 2 more hours and we’d easily make the cutoff time. Darren and I had already prepared ourselves to not drive for the second straight year in the 1000. Needless to say we were elated about the news and rolled out to Pit 5 to prepared to get in the truck. Another crazy efficient pit at RM520 to fill the tank full and they were back into the desert, through the mountains and over to the other side of the peninsula.  Kurt was fast, hitting 97 mph at one point,  but keeping the truck in one piece.  We were about 2.5 hours behind first and 3 hours ahead of third. Finishing was our goal at this point.  At RM590 Kurt and Ryan turned over the reins to me and Darren. Our friend Andy was down in Baja on a moto trip and his group arrived at this single chase truck pit to lend a hand and they were a huge help.

A sub-5min pit and I was driving Monica down Highway 3 for about 10 mins of pavement before hopping into the whoops near Borrego.  Darren and I settled in with a similar focus to Kurt. Get the truck to the finish.  A worthwhile goal in any desert race. Even more so in a loop 1000.  Then something interesting happened. We passed the H1 going the other way on the loop back up Highway 3.  After some quick math we realized we were only about 80 miles behind them.  We hopped on the radio to confirm they were still racing and sure enough they were.  I decided to drive slightly faster than ‘just finish speed’ but the terrain didn’t allow for much. There were one or two sections where I could push the speeds but for the most part it was just about eating up miles and covering ground. Darren had an easy job navigating in that our speeds were usually so slow that he just had to call out rocks and not turns.  Fortunately it was a beautiful section of the race and the evening light made a not very fun section somewhat enjoyable. By the time we rolled into our final pit at RM 730 we’d made up another 30 mins on the leader but as night settled over the course we thought our chances slim of catching the Hummer.

Darren took the helm and after a few more miles of pavement we took off up the goat trail outside of Valle de Trinidad.  After a half dozen rough miles we hit the high speed farm roads we’d been hearing about all week.  Sirens blaring to scare off cattle and our lights creating a hallucinating effect of shadows and reflections Darren blasted through this section at 85 mph. I was full concentration on race notes and navigation. No time to for a break or to look up at those speeds. It was good practice for what would happen later on.  The terrain worsened and we slowed. We stopped to pull out another racer, got passed by a Class 1, then ate his dust for a while. As we rolled into Ojos Negros we were told we were now only 30 miles behind the leader. Sounds close but with the terrain in front of us that would be an hour.  They were only 30 miles from the finish.  Then about 15 mins later Ryan came over the radio. I don’t remember the exact communication but it was something along the lines of “Rod Hall is stopped. Do whatever you can to catch them.”  My reply was “we’ll do our best but we’re not in the best section for making up ground.” Finishing pace was 13mph.  All out was 16mph. Not much we could do at that point. Then we crested the mountain and could see Ensenada. The terrain opened up and Darren was in full race mode. Finishing was no longer the priority. We were going for the win.  Forget 85%. We were now 100%. Darren didn’t speak for the next hour. I just read out turns and called out obstacles. Concentration and focus. It was scary. It was fast. I missed a turn or two with the pace we were going but we were closing ground. The H1 was now moving but slowly. 6 mph. 11 mph. 9 mph. We were closing. We heard over the radio the rumor was electrical problems.  About 15 miles from the finish line we passed a support truck for Rod Hall coming down to the course to track us down.  Within seconds we were told over the radio that the Hummer was now going 31 mph and were only a few miles from the finish. We slowed down for a bit, relaxed and accepted that we’d done our best and that we’d come up short.  Moments later it dawned on us they might have time penalties and like that we were back at 100%.  We crossed the finish line 14 mins behind first place.  My first reaction was dejection. We were so close. We’d pushed so hard. Darren and I were both completely exhausted.  It took about 5 mins to realize that we’d just taken 2nd place in a race we didn’t even think we’d finish 12 hours earlier. Our team was ecstatic and we joined them in the reverie.  Finishing a Baja 1000 is a special experience. Having a chance to race for 1st on the podium is just gravy.

We have an incredible chase crew and getting better every year. Finishing 3 out of the 4 Baja 1000s is something to be damn proud of as a team. We keep proving that for a bunch of homegrown racers, figuring it out as we go, that our processes work.  Prep, logistics, execution, crew, driver skill etc are always improving.  Next year we return to a peninsula run and we have First Place in our sights.  I would be remiss if I didn’t give props to our web racers. For 32 hours they update our entire chase crew on the status of the race. It goes unsung but they are integral to our success in Mexico.  We’ve given a lot of shout outs on social media to our sponsors over the last week but I’m not sure it’s possible to thank them enough.  This adventure that we chase is not cheap, nor is it easy.  From the tools, to the parts, to the manpower and the money we are extremely grateful for all they do for Canguro Racing.  2017 is right around the corner and the Mint 400 looms.

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