Smash! The windshield of the H1 cracks as a branch hits it while we tear through the Baja backcountry. I'm driving as hard as I can, trying to keep up with Rod Hall who's driving an identical H1 and is now far ahead.
This adventure started a week before when AM General called to ask if I wanted to go to Baja with Rod Hall and a few others from the factory. Rod was going to see if he liked the H1 well enough to race one. I wasted no time saying yes; I wanted to go along. We met in San Diego and then headed south to a point halfway between Mexicali and San Felipe that had been part of a Baja 500 course. We entered the course to the west of the Laguna Salada in an area that was a mixture of sandy washes, graded road, two-track, rocks, whoops, and beautiful desert backcountry.
We had four H1 Hummers. As mentioned before, Rod Hall was driving one, AM General trainers driving two others and, finally, me driving the fourth. I figured this was my big chance. I had driven for decades in the backcountry and was a pretty competent rockcrawler and Jeeper. Over the years, I had convinced myself that I was a pretty hot driver at higher speeds too. My friends had heard me say, "If I could drive the same vehicle as the racers, I could easily compete with anyone!" They usually rolled their eyes and changed the subject (but what did they know?).
So, we lined up two abreast in our Hummers, Rod and me up front. At the word, we floored the H1s, not really spewing gravel since these had normally aspirated 6.2 GM diesels in them, but we gathered speed till we were traveling at a respectable clip through the desert. Rod immediately got into the lead. I was driving as absolutely hard as I could to keep up. The H1s we were in had a tendency to launch the rear into the air when traversing whoops. Disconcerting at first, we soon learned that nothing untoward was going to happen, so we got used to it. These vehicles were also 8 feet wide, so the creosote bushes, ironwood trees, cactus, and everything else that hung over the trail slapped the vertical windshields with a resounding WHACK until the SMASH which signaled the windshield finally giving up and cracking. All four Hummers had cracked windshields by the end of the day.
Anyway, we were speeding through the desert and I was really concentrating. I don't remember seeing the other two Hummers behind us once we really got moving, but I saw Rod up front. For a few minutes, that is. Hot pilot Phil, who could wax anybody and was driving as hard as he could, lost sight of Rod after about eight minutes and could only see his dust at times. In 20 minutes, he was out of radio range! "Alone" in Baja, I had time once in a while to glance around and take in the beauty of the desert. I also had time to ponder that maybe I wasn't quite the off-road racer I thought I was. This wake-up call shook me up so much that I told one of the AM General drivers I wanted to ride with them on the way down from Mike's Sky Ranch to Valle Trinidad.
For those of you who've been there, you know the descent from Mike's is on a fairly good graded road cut into the side of the mountains. Rod immediately took off and was gone. Unfortunately, the AM General driver I was riding with decided he could keep up and was driving as fast as he could (lesson time again). As the big Hummer slid around the corners, I looked out the window over the cliffs on my side and was thinking, "Now don't worry. He doesn't want to die anymore than I do."
Whether he wanted to or not, we started into one big sweeper on the side of a cliff and started sliding toward the edge. The driver floored the throttle to pull out of the drift, but the 6.2 didn't have any more to give, so we continued our slide. I tucked my hands under me and leaned over, figuring the heavy Hummer would probably collapse the 'cage as it rolled over. The edge came, and over we went in a spray of rocks and sand.
There was a vertical ledge, then a 70-degree talus slope that ended in a wash about 70 feet below. The Hummer fell sideways down the vertical ledge and then rolled when it hit the slope. And rolled. Then rolled again, ending up on its four flat tires in the wash at the bottom. The factory rollcage in the big H1 held up fine so no one was hurt, although Rod had put a half-gallon of milk in our cooler that bounced off my head and drenched me with sticky liquid.
The Hummer's Central Tire Inflation System reinflated the tires (pretty nice, especially after an accident like this), and we drove down the wash to a point where we could get back on the road. Rod came back, looked at where we went over and said, "That's the same place Walker went off," then said, "Let's go" and was off again in a cloud of dust.
Lesson 1: Successful and famous off-road racers are that way for a reason. They're good. Better than almost everyone at what they do.
Lesson 2: I'm not as good at driving fast as they are.
Lesson 3: H1 Hummers are built really strong.
Lesson 4: No matter why you're down there, being in the backcountry of Baja California, or in any backcountry for that matter, is wonderful. Whether you're speeding through it in or on a vehicle or walking on foot, the backcountry will renew your spirit and improve your outlook so everyday problems won't seem so large.
Lesson 5: Off-roading is sweet.
Oh, by the way, most of you know that Rod Hall decided that Hummers were for him. The rest is history.