Five decades ago, desert racing had already taken hold on the still-primitive landscape of Baja, with the annual National Off Road Racing Association (NORRA) Mexican 1000 in its third running after enjoying a massive boost by ABC’s Wide World of Sports” coverage of the 1968 event. Things were growing so quickly, in fact, that NORRA had added a second Mexican event to its 1969 schedule, the first annual NORRA Baja 500.
The burgeoning sport was quickly surpassing its rather primitive roots, with purpose-built machines and components replacing the simplistic Meyers Manx-style dune buggies, warmed-over production sedans, and rough riding four-wheel drive trucks and Jeeps. Leading that revolution were two vehicles at the opposite end of the mechanical and philosophical spectrum: the Vic Hickey-built Baja Boots and Ford’s tough new Broncos prepared by the legendary Bill Stroppe.
Fifty years later, history is set to repeat itself at this week’s SCORE Baja 1000 in one of the race’s most compelling storylines. A newly unveiled stepbrother to the original Ford Broncos will compete head-to-head with a rebirthed version of the iconic Baja Boot in SCORE International’s Class 2 (for unrestricted cars/trucks including turbo and superchargers).
The road to this weekend’s retro-tinged grudge match wasn’t the result of some grand scheme, but two decidedly different paths organically coming together in time and place.
A total of 265 vehicles have been processed as official entries for Friday’s BFGoodrich Tires 52nd SCORE Baja 1000. The season finale of the four-race 2019 SCORE World Desert Championship will be held over a rugged race course of 800.5 miles starting and finishing in Ensenada. The elapsed-time race will start at 3 a.m. PT on Friday for the motorcycle/quad classes, followed by the start of the car/truck/UTV classes at 10:30 a.m. PT. While the fastest finishers are expected to finish in approximately 16 hours, all vehicles will have a 34-hour time limit to become an official finisher.
A bit of history here: The original Baja Boot won the 1969 Baja 500, while a Stroppe Ford Bronco took overall honors at that year’s Mexican 1000. In many ways, 2019 in Baja will be 1969 all over again.
In the late 1960s the factory-backed team led by Stroppe represented the powerhouse of the sport, with a driver line-up that included Parnelli Jones, James Garner, Rod Hall and Larry Minor. Minor and co-driver Jack Bayer took overall four-wheel honors at the 1968 Mexican 1000, with Hall and Minor repeating that performance a year later. These victories, using race-prepared production vehicles, led Ford to release limited edition “Baja Bronco by Stroppe” machines via its dealer network in 1971, complete with the now-iconic Stroppe graphics package and race-inspired performance parts.
Fast-forward to the recent SEMA show in Las Vegas, with Ford bringing back its Bronco line-up in 2021 being all the rage. The Blue Oval gathered and displayed an all-star family reunion of famous race Broncos, including Jones’ iconic Big Oly, its golden patina still shining bright after winning the 1971 and 1972 NORRA Mexican 1000s. The underlying speculation was that Ford was going to leverage the occasion to unmask a prototype of the new production Bronco, but instead, it unveiled a well-kept secret factory race program for this year’s Baja 1000.
On a desert lake bed just outside of Vegas, a handful of select media were given the chance to see the new Bronco racer, dubbed the Ford Bronco R Prototype. An unusual combination of production components, prototype styling and Baja race quality parts, the Bronco R is a joint effort between Ford Performance, Geiser Brothers Design and Development of Phoenix, Ariz., and 2018 Baja 1000 Trophy Truck champion Cameron Steele. It features an independent front suspension with 14 inches of travel and a production-based five-link rear chassis design with 18 inches of travel, custom Fox shocks, 17-inch aluminum wheels and 37-inch BFGoodrich tires.
“Like the original Bronco, we kept Bronco R’s design authentic and simple, with a roll cage on a production-style frame, and a five-piece lightweight body on top,” explained Brian Novak, Ford Performance Off-Road Racing Supervisor. “For the endurance needs of Baja’s grueling race miles, we built in a limited number of race-focused parts. But even the twin turbos of the EcoBoost engine are representative of what the production Bronco will offer.”
The No. 2069 Ford Bronco R will be piloted by an all-star line-up of drivers, a list that includes Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame inductees Steele, Johnny Campbell and Curt LeDuc, as well as longtime Ford racer Brad Lovell, three-time King of the Hammers champion Jason Scherer, Trophy Truck racer and Ford dealer Steve Olligas, and, most appropriately considering the occasion, Rod Hall’s granddaughter, Shelby Hall.