For most people, driving over bumpy desert at speeds over 200 km/h would be the definition of insanity. For Baja racers, it’s their preferred form of motorsport.
It all started in 1962, when Bud Ekins, a famous stuntman and a friend of Steve McQueen, decided to prove the reliability of a new Honda Scrambler motorcycle by taking it on a run through the desert from Tijuana on the US border to La Paz, the capital of Mexican state of Baja California. He did 1.533 km in just under 40 hours and earned awe of both the fans and the press.
Five years later, in 1967, Bruce Meyers, the owner of Meyers Manx company and the father of Volswagen-based dune buggy, decided to show the bikers that four wheels are better than two. In one of his creations, he did the same trip in 34:45, more than 5 hours faster than Ekins. And just a few months later, the race, initially called Mexican 1000 Rally, was born.
Today, we know it as Baja 1000, one of the craziest races in the world. If you never heard of it, you can imagine it as the Dakar Rally, but with more of everything. More speed, more power and, of course, more jumps.
The flagship of this kind of racing is the Trophy Truck. These beasts are built around a tubular space frame and powered by large V8 engines, typically providing around 900 horsepower. Maybe even important is the suspension with travel around 60 to 90 centimetres, which is behind the uncanny ability to cover the desert at an outrageous pace.
The surprising part? Up until recently, Trophy Trucks were almost exclusively rear-wheel drive, because it was impossible to build a 4×4 system that would be flexible enough to work with immense suspension travel and yet tough enough to withstand the conditions of Baja. In recent years, this is beginning to change slowly, but two wheel drive is still the norm.
Of course, the Baja is not just about Trophy Trucks, even though they are most visible. There is more than 20 classes for cars and trucks and several others for motorcycles and ATVs. Among the most interesting of them all are those that go back to Baja’s roots. The Beetles.
If you love old, air-cooled Volkswagens, you have several ways of competing in Baja. You can go crazy and build a Baja Bug, which is a classic Beetle turned into a sort of big-wheeled, desert jumping thing that often looks like something from Mad Max movies. Or you can go even further, remember Bruce Meyers and build a Buggy.
Or, and that’s maybe even more crazy, you can just take a Beetle and go racing through the desert. There’s whole class dedicated to stock VW Type 1s, or, as we known them, Beetles. It sure isn’t he fastest way to race in the desert, but tackling more than 1.000 km of hard desert run in what is basically a car from 1930s is quite some achievement.
Especially with the Baja being as demanding as it is. Is rough desert with bad roads or no roads at all not enough for you? What about unpredictable weather, which can even bring snow in the higher parts of the route or scorching hot temperatures in the lowlands?
Still not enough? Well, then let’s go for stuff you thought was reserved for video games. Like the fact that roads around Baja are not closed for traffic and it often happens that you encounter a civilian vehicle. Or a cow.
And what about a bunch of locals who though digging a hole in your path and covering it to trap you like you were some woolly mammoth, or build a “jump” to see you flying really high and far, no matter that you may end up crashing?
Yes, this really happens. Because Baja is a crazy race for insane people. And one of the coolest sights to watch, if you are into fast cars.