We had coordinated our chase coverage such that we would swing back to La Rumorosa in plenty of time to pit one or both of the Afraidium Racing UTVs. Making our way back by the military checkpoint and the toll road we traveled back over the mountain pass. We found even the toll booth workers liked race stickers, though it seemed they bought us no toll discount.
Once back, we settled in at a good spot in the middle of town as the trophy trucks were starting to scream through town. Race speed limits had been strictly set at 60 mph on the paved road sections and we saw a few enthusiastic drivers get a little edgy with that speed restriction.
Travel in Mexico is about the sounds, smells, and moods. Our parking spot put us right in front of a panaderia, or bakery for us gringos. Each time the wind shifted its direction putting us downwind, the sweet aroma of pastries and breads came wafting past us. We would make a number of visits inside as we waited through the afternoon for our car to arrive. Fifty-cent empanadas and pan dulce (sweet bread) along with the in-town racing action made the wait comfortable while we pondered how well our team was fairing.
We got word by satellite phone that Jess was making good time and was moving up in the UTV class. We hoped and waited as we watched more class cars come sliding into town from dirt to asphalt and pick their way down the road mingled with the local traffic, looking for their pit crew. Back to the bakery.....where's our car? Local guys on foot with a cooler selling tacos......where's our car?
Our UTV rolled into town and Jess and his navigator Thorsten Palm took a short break while we checked over the car and gave the team food and drinks. They were soon racing again and we would be too. Mark's Polaris was having some issues. The rear spring rates were set a bit too soft and they suffered a broken rear a-arm and were limping it towards town. Joe and I checked that Mark's chase team had what they needed for repairs, phoned into Flagstaff that Jess was moving again, and pointed the Isuzu back up and over the mountain again to Race Mile 146. This time when we traversed the mountain pass, the sky had turned dark.
When we arrived at the bridge crossing, it was like a big desert party. There were small camps of people lining both sides of the course. Many were setup for the night with camp fires burning, music playing, and the food and drink flowing.
I again set up a pit sign and took my place under the bridge to watch for our UTV. Some race trucks rumbled through the tight wash and a guy driving an old VW bug came bouncing down course. He was not part of the race, just a local having fun on the course. He passed by and five minutes later he bumped back by headed up-course.
Standing in the dark in the middle of Baja under a bridge while fires flickered and spectators reveled seemed a bit odd. But.....there was an ironic contrast of relaxation tinged with the adrenaline of running a fast-paced race through this beautiful piece of country, I heard the tell-tale whine of the UTVs motorcycle engine and shown my flashlight on the pit sign to direct Jess to our truck. He bounced through the wash, turned hard right, and headed to the Isuzu. We were about 1/4 of the way through the 634 mile course at this point.
The guys pulled in and told us they had a bit of a problem with one of the rear axle CVs working loose, but the car was running good for the most part, and they hadn't suffered a single flat to this point. A short repair was made and the car and crew were ready for more.
Sat phone update.....check. John was halfway through the race on his Honda CRF450X and still moving well. Mark was getting his a-arm replaced and leaving La Rumorosa. Truck packed....check. Joe accelerated toward our next interception point as we headed south down the peninsula.
The calories from the sweet breads were wearing off so we looked for a place to eat as we traveled. Joe turned off into what looked like a modern gas station complex that might serve food, but it was so new only the fuel portion was open.
Nevertheless, Joe made quick `friends' with a couple of guys with a bucket of tacos. He flashed them a 200 Peso bill and was soon back at the truck with an arm full of edibles. The score consisted of tasty fresh flour tortillas stuffed with potatoes with a hint of chorizo seasoning. It was good stuff and we gobbled some down. Our next planned pit point was to be at about Race Mile 190.
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!