As we waited in the dark inside the truck, the day's events started to sink in until our race radio broke silence and we heard Thorsten on the airwaves. They were at about Race Mile 188. Fortunately, they were quite close. Unfortunately, they wouldn't make it to the pit under their own power. The clutch plates in the Honda RC51 motor gave it all they could until the abrasive friction material was stripped from their steel rings.
A companion truck on our team showed up to swap drivers and service the UTV as needed. Plans changed and they unhooked their trailer, locked the hubs in 4WD and ventured towards the course a few miles away to retrieve the UTV for repair. I waited the while at the Isuzu, once again in the deep dark of Baja, in the middle of nowhere. I passed the time eating potato tacos and updating our status over the satellite phone. The time was ticking away.
From the darkness, the F-250 returned, pulling the UTV and minutes later the generator on the Isuzu was fired up and bright lights bathed our work area. In a whirl of wrenches, repair of the car began as soon as it was pulled back to our impromptu repair shop in the desert.
Joe found some spare clutch components and began the painstaking task of swapping the plates in the motor in the snug area just behind the seats. Jess and Thorsten crawled under the rear of the car and began assessing the rear driveline problem. It was going to take swapping out the transaxle to remedy the problem with the CV joint working loose every so often. I kicked in to help, working the lighting in the dark, finding and fetching spare parts and tools, and pitching in with simple tasks where I could.
Joe worked in cramped confines doing a contortion act to replace clutch parts. The other guys lay in the dirt wrenching a situation they'd have preferred to do in the comfort of a garage. But, this is desert racing. Things wear. Things break. Mechanical issues don't always make sense in the moment, but you persevere to keep the car in the running. Those spectators that confine their viewing to Indy or NASCAR racing don't often comprehend the crueler realities of what it takes to complete a lengthy desert race. Off-road terrain beats on vehicles and breaks them in the dark, in the cold, and in the toughest of places.
It probably only seemed like about an hour and a half the team worked to get the car repaired and back together. A look at a watch later with sleepier eyes would show that 4 1/2 hours had elapsed when the tools were put down and the challenge was over. The replacement transaxle was in the car and the drivetrain all assembled, but there were still internal problems with the clutch and the engine power could not hook up. With checkpoints closing along the race course, it was too late in the game to make up for lost time. The team had worked hard and played hard, but Baja had won this time.
We loaded the UTV on our trailer and relinquished race control to the desert. Meanwhile, Mark had caught up with us, swapped out the shocks on his Polaris with the help of his chase team and continued on in the night. We were on the opposite side of the peninsula from Ensenada and headed further south to try to intercept Mark at his next stop if needed. He was making steady progress at this point.
It was almost 5:00 a.m. and we chose a spot alongside the course to stop and catch a nap as we'd been driving, racing, and chasing for nearly 24 hours. As the sun rose an hour or two later, we continued our journey towards San Felipe then steered back west thinking we could be somewhat nearby if Mark required any further backup to supplement his chase team.
We stopped at a little backcountry store along with other chase crews and grabbed some snacks and energy drinks from the clerk kid who looked to be maybe 12 years old. We were still moving and at this point we knew John was getting close to the finish line on his bike. As it turned out, he would finish in 21st place with a time of about 25 hours.
We spent the next half day working our way back to camp in Ensenada, too early or late to see Mark or John at the finish. We saw and heard stories about other broken, rolled, or stuck cars and trucks, and knew we weren't alone. We passed another military checkpoint or two and it was clear the troops were pretty used to the racing traffic by this time.
John was back at camp when we arrived and had a deep look of satisfied accomplishment on his face. He was pretty toasted though, having just stayed up about 28 hours and bucked over 600 miles on his dirt bike.
Mark was still moving and on track to finish the race, but still had some miles ahead of him, He made a driver swap at about Race Mile 220 and got back in the car at Race Mile 405 to complete the race, finishing 3rd place in 29 1/2 hours.
As everyone trickled into camp from all points, we found everyone made it back ok and plenty of kick-back time (or sleep) followed the rest of Saturday.
I caught a ride back north with one of the chase guys and we tried to make it back across the border at Tecate before dark. We didn't quite make it, but we were close. We idled in line, waiting our turn to meet the U. S. Border Patrol and sipped miniature Cokes from glass bottles that the walking vendors sell. The patrolman eyed our passports and waved us through the brightly lit gateway to our homeland. Looking behind us, the borderline divides a sharp contrast between the two countries.
We'll be back. They say there's something captivating about Baja. Many have seen it and I have as well.
Thanks guys for letting me tag along!