Later this week they will gather again at the most unlikely of epicenters in all of global motorsports. Like it was at the inaugural Mexican 1000 in 1967, an eclectic hodgepodge of men and women, young and old, will cross the busiest international border in the world. As it has been for 50 long years, they will leave behind the anchor of daily existence that fades from urgent to meaningless with every mile that brings them closer to Ensenada, Baja, Mexico.
It must have been unfathomable to those 68 teams gathered in Baja five decades ago to think what the next few days would bring them. They would try and survive a 1,000-mile headfirst dive into a harsh, churning reality most had even seen before. – let alone comprehend that the trail they blazed would be burned back into the Mexican deserts each November for the next 50 years.
None of them would recognize the seaside town of Ensenada, which has blossomed and evolved to the gateway of new culinary hotbed of nearby Valle de Guadalupe. Just a two-hour jaunt south of downtown San Diego, the town will celebrate the desert racing’s golden anniversary BFGoodrich Tires SCORE Baja 1000 with a cultural kaleidoscope of street tacos and cold beer, over-modulated techno music and strolling mariachis coupled with the sensory sweetness of vats of $12.00 a gallon, 110 octane race fuel being burned in throttle blips by full blown race vehicles cruising through street traffic without escort or worry.
Baja’s unbridled freedom is a beautiful thing, man.
It has been said the SCORE Baja 1000 has almost as much international recognition as the world’s most prestigious races. That may well be true, but the only absolute about the Baja 1000 is that it remains an evergreen locomotive that continues to spearhead the entire sport of off-road competition. History tells us that every form of top-level motorsports must have its own version of Le Mans or Indy or Monaco to survive – a singular event defines the genre to the greater population. In recent years the Mint 400, the King of the Hammers and even the new Crandon World Cup have raised their stature as “must win” races, but all are essentially coupled behind the Baja 1000’s still powerful leadership.
For members of the great racing familia looking at the Baja “Mil” from the perspective of other top-tier motorsports, the entire narrative of this still-classic endurance event makes no sense at all. Over 400 teams from around the world will fork over around $3,500 to race 1,134.4 miles from Ensenada to the finish line in La Paz. The payback? Nothing much more than bragging rights, a trophy and maybe enough gas money to get equipment back home before carving turkey on Thanksgiving Day. Television coverage? Maybe to the top teams. International media coverage? Not really. Manufacturer support? Outside of tire companies like BFGoodrich, Toyo, General and Yokohama not much to speak of since desert racing’s factory heyday in the late 1980s. Scratch that last point. BFGoodrich just threw down a $50,000 cash bonus to the overall four-wheel winner if they coming rolling into La Paz on the brand’s Baja-proven rubber.
However, each team making the trek to the upcoming Baja 1000 can expect just one thing – heaping scoops of a time-proven recipe with primary ingredients of world-class adventure and surprising self-discovery. Even in the best years, the romance of the entire experience comes into focus only weeks after the last sprinkles of Baja dust is cleansed from man and machine.
Despite that lack of tangible reward, the real secret to the Baja 1000’s evergreen attraction to even the youngest of fourth generation racers is its unflappable access to the everyman. Yes, the race’s history books are filled with racing royalty like Parnelli Jones [below], Steve McQueen, James Garner, Sam Posey, Bob Bondurant, Paul Newman, Roberto Guerrero, Sebastian Bourdais, Danny Sullivan, Jimmy Vasser, Patrick Dempsey and countless others. Out of that group, however, only Parnelli can be counted among Baja greats alongside the McMillin family, Larry Ragland, Walker Evans, Roger Mears, Johnny Johnson, Larry Roeseler, Bob and Robby Gordon, Rob MacCachren, Rod Hall or Ivan Stewart.
Nope, the true heroes – and the Baja 1000’s greatest asset – are the countless names nobody has ever heard of, those that take on one of the world’s greatest races with passion and just enough money, friends and resources to get there. As Baja pioneer and fiberglass dune buggy inventor Bruce Meyers once observed, “The beauty of this whole thing is that fact that no matter what nobody can go and race in the Indianapolis 500. But, everybody can come and fulfill that little boy or girl that has always wanted to slide sideways in the dirt and be Parnelli Jones out in the Baja wilderness.”
In the 50 years since the first groundbreaking NORRA Mexican 1000 in 1967, the core relevance and romance of this special race hasn’t changed. This Thursday morning Robby Gordon will lead the Trophy-Truck field out of Ensenada like inaugural winners Vic Wilson and Ted Mangels did way back when. Sure, the equipment and the technology have changed, but certainly the appeal of all this has only grown. Wide-open spaces, very few rules and not a single body template or spec motor in sight.
Nobody there will be concerned with an uncertain future that faces other forms of motorsport. If anything, the magical Baja 1000 has proven that it is indeed an evergreen locomotive with a long colorful past as well as a future that is chugging along full speed ahead.