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Braving Baja

Shaun Tolson

The vultures are already circling.

It’s an inauspicious omen, especially considering that my compatriots and I are less than 20 minutes into a four-day, off-road driving adventure that will take us through the Mexican desert and over mountainous passes in the southernmost portion of the Baja Peninsula. The tour is offered by Wide Open Excursions (www.wideopenbaja.com) and our guide, Mike Lund, was forthright the night before while reflecting on his more than two decades of Baja off-road racing experience. “It’s just you and the desert out there,” he told us, “and the desert usually wins.”

 I’ve come to Cabo San Lucas in an attempt to even the score. Truth be told, Wide Open’s racing division—and its performance record—lays waste to the notion that the desert is the overwhelming favorite in the annual Baja 1000. The race usually runs from Ensenada to La Paz, though sometimes the course is laid out as a loop. Most often, the event encompasses roughly 1,000 miles, however, there are times when the race can be much longer. While the statistics vary from report to report, the typical finishing rate for the Baja 1000 each November is slightly less than 50 percent. By contrast, Wide Open Excursions has boasted a 100 percent completion rate for the last six seasons. That streak includes all 21 vehicles that the company entered in 2007, when the race spanned the entire length of the peninsula (more than 1,300 miles in total). Over the company’s 14-year history of racing in the famed Baja event, it has achieved a perfect completion record nine times. “We finish what we start,” says Nick Johnson, the company’s director of tour and race operations.

With no competitive element to speak of, the dangers associated with the company’s multiday driving tours, which range in price from $3,200 to $5,500 depending on location, are significantly less than those faced by serious racers. However, the general lack of experience that characterizes most driving tour participants balances the scale, especially when one considers that the participant-driven vehicles are the same class-one, unlimited open-wheel racecars that sprint toward the Baja 1000’s checkered flag each fall. Whether under the control of an experienced Baja racer or in the hands of a novice tour participant, the custom-built, fiberglass vehicles churn out 175 hp and can reach top speeds in excess of 90 mph.

That amount of power, when applied to unpredictable and unsteady terrain, is more than enough to put the car (and its driver) in precarious situations. “It’ll go wherever you want it to go,” Lund says of the car, “so if it goes off the road it’s because you pointed it off the road.”

If a participant remembers only one rule when behind the wheel of one of these racing vehicles, it should be this: Drive only what you can see. When secured by the vehicle’s five-point safety harness and when listening to Lund’s notifications of upcoming road conditions through a helmet-fitted radio transmitter, a novice driver can easily grow overconfident as his foot firmly presses the accelerator. After all, the suspension system provides 22 inches of wheel travel, which allows a Baja Challenge car to climb over sizable obstacles with little difficulty. Therein lies the danger.

My first encounter with Baja’s unpredictable trails occurs early on the first day. Accelerating up a steep and rocky mountain road, I ease off the gas as the car approaches the summit, only to find that the road drops off just as sharply on the other side. For what feels like an eternity, all I can see beyond the grille is the azure water of the Pacific Ocean in the distance. Finally the car pitches forward enough to reveal the portentous road snaking its way down the embankment ahead, and I’m back in control, piloting the car deeper into the desert and farther away from civilization.

I’ve passed my first test behind the wheel, but there are still more than 100 miles to drive in the day and more than 600 miles to go before we finish the tour. The desert is vast, and plenty of harder challenges await.

Wide open excursions first offered off-road driving tours in 1999, the same year that the company made its debut in the Baja 1000. At the time, Wide Open operated only out of Ensenada, a coastal community slightly more than 50 miles south of Tijuana, and where the Baja 1000 starts each year. (The company now has three locations.) At that time, the company’s fleet of vehicles was significantly smaller and slower. The class-one cars were powered by an outdated Volkswagen engine that propelled the vehicles to a top speed of 75 mph. Over time, however, the powerplant improved; currently it’s a rear-mounted, water-cooled, 4-cylinder Subaru engine capable of slightly more than 90 mph.

Participants flock to Wide Open Excursions for a surge of adrenaline, a sense of adventure, and a generous helping of fun, and while the company aims to deliver on all counts, its first commitment is to safety. As Lund explains, “If you have to put on $1,000 worth of safety equipment before you start, that should tell you all you need to know about this being a dangerous sport.” Safety measures extend to other aspects of a tour, as well. Guides lead groups of no more than five cars and relay important information about what participants can expect to encounter on the roads up ahead. Mileage markers taken from the cars’ GPS systems are used to pinpoint causes of concern, which typically include water crossings, sharp turns, deep holes, and oncoming traffic; other impediments, such as livestock in the road, are almost guaranteed. The guides employ progressive stops and other tactics to regroup the cars regularly, and according to Johnson, all of these actions have evolved based on prior experiences, “whether it’s a car upside down or a car pretty far off the road and into the cactus.”

While that may sound unsettling, it’s an indictment on past participants and their reckless actions behind the wheel, not the vehicles, the terrain, or the company’s guided tours. “Not only are we giving you a racecar, but we’re also giving you the responsibility of caring for this car and also caring for yourself,” Johnson says. “We’re taking you out to the desert and we’re going to give you a great adventure, but we’re also giving you enough rope to hang yourself. It’s up to you if you use it all or not.”

Johnson explains that it usually takes novice drivers a day or so to acclimate to the vehicle and how it handles. Once they begin feeling all aspects of the car’s performance, they can start to coax more out of it. “You start to really use the weight transfer with the car and then you start hitting the corners properly and having a lot of fun,” he says. “You get that comfort and a little bit of skill going and then you start to relax. Once you start to relax and your adrenaline comes down, then you can focus on what’s really going on. That’s when you can start to use the car for what it is. It’s progressive happiness.”

The alternative outcome—cars flipped over or buried in a sea of cactus off the side of the road—often materializes when someone with prior track experience gets behind the wheel and thinks they know what they’re doing, even with no off-road training. It all comes back to driving only what you can see. “Driving fast is easy,” says Lund. “What’s hard and what takes the most time is learning when to drive slow.”

Lund learned those lessons quickly—almost as quickly as he fell in love with the sport and the adrenaline rush that comes from high-speed, off-road driving.

In 1971, Lund wasn’t quite old enough to legally drink, at least not in any of the bars or restaurants near his hometown of Huntington Beach, Calif. However, he and his friends had heard stories of a bar in Ensenada where the bartenders cracked open beers and poured shots of tequila all through the night. So one weekend, Lund and a buddy made the three-hour drive into Mexico and eagerly arrived at the seedy establishment. They weren’t in the bar more than 10 minutes before a major fight broke out and the bouncer threw everyone out. Undeterred, the young men hopped back in their car and headed east across the peninsula to San Felipe, an even smaller coastal town on the shore of the Sea of Cortés, where an equally infamous watering hole was located.

As Lund recalls, they drove all through the night, occasionally on seldom-traveled dirt roads through the desert. It wasn’t long before Lund noticed reflective orange ribbons and directional signs nailed into the cacti along the road. He later discovered that they were driving on roads that made up part of the course for the Baja 500. Eventually the two boys found their way to the bar and, after drinking the rest of the night, they slept off their drunken stupors on the beach. But Lund came away from the trip with more than a hangover. He also discovered a new passion. “We had so much fun, and it got addicting,” he says of the off-road driving. “I went home from San Felipe and a week later I was building my own racecar.”

It took Lund four years to finish that vehicle. Once it was complete, he entered his first race, the Baja 500, in 1975. These days newcomers to off-road racing don’t have to spend years building their own vehicles; they can simply pay for the opportunity through Wide Open Excursions, though some prior off-road driving experience is preferred. While the majority of the company’s clients invest in either one-day or multiday off-road tours originating from Cabo San Lucas, Ensenada, or Reno, Nev., the company also offers arrive-and-drive race packages, complete with a pit crew, chase teams, driver training, communications, meals, and accommodations. An entry-level racing package includes a spot in a race of about 200 or 250 miles and costs about $9,000, while participation in the Baja 1000 typically runs about $80,000. “If that’s on your bucket list, we can provide it,” Johnson says.

By the third and final day of driving, I feel like I’m ready to chase down that checkered flag. With almost 600 miles under my belt, I’ve grown accustomed to how the car behaves. I’m powering through the straightaways, drifting through the corners, and slaloming through continuous S-shaped turns that snake their way through the hillsides. I’ve survived a violently undulating section of road that still bore the markings from a recent Baja 500 race. I’ve even taken the car airborne off a handful of small rises that peppered long and otherwise unobstructed dirt trails.

About 100 miles out from Cabo San Lucas and the finish line for this multiday tour, I’m attacking the roads with fervor, eager to squeeze out as much power and performance from the Subaru engine as I can. Speeding into a turn, I let the car drift, but it soon slides too far. I get back on the throttle to correct the drift and to push it through the corner, but immediately I realize my mistake—I’ve failed to downshift into third. Suddenly the car lunges forward and up over the embankment on the inside of the turn. All at once I find myself in the scrub of the desert and staring down a cactus as the car rushes toward it. There’s not enough time to react, and in a cloud of dust, chunks of cactus ping off my helmet’s visor and shower the inside of the car.

I’m back on the road a moment later and, after a brief survey of the car and myself, I realize that the cactus got the worst of the encounter. Taking a deep breath, I let my heart rate come down before getting back up to speed, but when I do, my perspective changes. I may not be ready for race day after all. “There’s a point in these cars where if you get it out of shape enough or if you make a correction that the cars don’t like, they’re eventually going to take you for a ride,” Johnson says. “As long as people are able to grasp that moment and say, ‘I’m getting a little above my head here,’ they’re fine for the rest of the trip.  But it’s the guy that has that moment and says, ‘Wow, I made it through!’ and then gets back on the throttle again . . . that guy, unfortunately, is going to end up talking to me after the trip about the damage bill that I’m sending him for the car.

“You’re going to get different emotions over the 72 hours of your life with us,” he continues. “You’ll get the highs and the lows and everything in between. There’s so much that you go through in those cars.”

As long as participants keep their egos in check and can acknowledge that they’re not invincible, that their previous driving experiences won’t translate to Mexico’s off-road conditions, and that the desert often wins, they’ll come away from a Wide Open driving tour with a series of memorable moments. As Lund acknowledges, they’ll also get a unique glimpse of Mexico’s landscape. “You’re going to see some terrain that 99 percent of people who come down to Baja never see,” he says.

Just watch out for the cactus.

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