The scene at the seaside pool at the Las Misiones hotel in Loreto, Baja, Mexico boiled that inaugural NORRA Mexican 1000 reboot to its very essence. Whiffs of smoke from sizzling asada mixed with the deep bass of a questionable Mexican cover band singing Cool and the Gang’s “Celebrate” in less questionable Spanglish. The circular bar decorated with an impromptu formation of empty glass soldiers, racers proudly shared stories of their day’s adventure behind the wheel; dusty driving suits and old ball caps the occasion’s mandatory dress code.
With a satisfying swig of well-earned beer, a wily veteran of the desert racing wars looked around, smiled, and proclaimed to all within earshot; “this is the happiest race on earth!”
It was April of 2010. Unbeknownst to event organizers, Baja off-road racing had been redefined – and in a strikingly surprising way.
Nearly 250 teams will gather this weekend for the 2018 Yokohama NORRA Mexican 1000, and the five-day, 1369-mile jaunt now better known as “Happiest Race on Earth” will light up the rugged Baja peninsula from Ensenada to San Jose Del Cabo with laughter, brotherhood and very real competition. Vintage racecars, motorcycles and UTVs will tackle that time-proven magic elixir of dust and primitive beauty, mixed with more modern machinery.
A majority of racers make the annual NORRA trek a once-a-year return to the past, but without the cost, sacrifice and danger demanded by their Baja 1000 efforts of old. There is no need for expensive pre-runners or pre-running, no massive chase crews or even $14.00 a gallon race fuel (most of the cars are set up to run gas right from the pump). The Dakar-style stage rally format that mixes timed sections with on-highway transit sections means super rough terrain or car swallowing silt beds are, by and large, a non-factor. Drivers and co-drivers are handed a cold beer and shot of tequila when they cross each afternoon’s finish line.
That’s maybe where all this happiness comes from.
Best of all, there are five days to get from the finish instead of a non-stop, 30 hour run, which means there are five nights to hang out with friends and family. As one entrant recently observed; this is a man’s ultimate version of ‘me time.”
To be sure, women, young adults and off-road newbies are also in the mix, creating an inclusive motorsports counterculture that was the foundation of the sport in the first place. It’s always been there, but the genius of creating a new niche via vintage off-road race cars has many searching out a fond but rusting piece of their past and restoring them to their former glory. Like the first historic sport car races, the NORRA phenomenon has also saved some special parts of the larger motorsports legacy to be enjoyed in the future.
Like the old Cannonball Run or today’s 24 Hours LeMons, irreverence to current stoic motorsports protocol isn’t welcome here, it’s at the core of what makes the Mexican 1000 so enjoyable to so many. For every off-road legend like Larry Ragland, Walker Evans or Frank and Ryan Arcero that are present, so too are the Caballo Del Diablo (Devil Horse) team of Boyd Jaynes and Brian Godfrey [above] who have won their class a record five times in a 1968 Ford Bronco dressed in custom driving suits made to resemble Mexican mariachi outfits. Or the Go Westy team that stunned everyone when they finished last year’s rally piloting an old 1987 Volkswagen Vanagon with its glass removed.
All of them will be will be back in 2018.
The long tow home serves as extended windshield time for next year, as most of the teams and drivers seem perfectly content to park their machines for 12 months and return to everyday life with that deeply addictive itch finally scratched.
NORRA President Mike Pearlman wanted to bring an untapped group of racers – both old and new – together with retro style rally for the people. The event’s reputation is spreading, with no signs of slowing down or getting diluted by success. Everyone in off-roading now has a run at the Mexican 1000 on his or her life’s checklist. This year that includes drag racing pioneer and four-time NHRA Top Fuel champion Don Prudhomme, who is teaming with former Toyota IMSA GTP racer P.J. Jones (son of Baja led Parnelli Jones) and 24 Hours of LeMans champion Bill Wittington in Jones-built Polaris RZRs. That’s some recognizable historic bucket list inspiration right there.
Truth be told, the event’s success didn’t follow some premeditated marketing strategy, but rather taking a different look at the sport’s old traditions. In this case, the NORRA Mexican 1000 formula is winning by format, attitude and irreverence.
Oh, and a three letter word. FUN.