Melissa Eickhoff is embedded with the Honda Off-Road Racing Team for the Baja 1000 as they race 1227 miles down the Baja Peninsula. She and photographer Al Arena will chase the Baja Ridgeline in a 2022 production HPD Ridgeline from start to finish. The team is fielding IndyCar star Alexander Rossi, team owner/driver Jeff Proctor, Richard Glaszczak, and Baja legend, Steve Hengeveld, in a Honda Ridgeline.
There really isn’t anything like a Baja 1000 race start. How they get the vehicles lined-up in proper order remains a mystery to me. Just some more Baja magic. At nearly 300 entries, Ensenada traffic, and tons of fans, it seems impossible. And yet, pretty much on time, they left downtown Ensenada with a ceremonial parade start to the official start just outside of town. A change implemented because of COVID.
The Honda Off-Road Racing Team day started with more logistics. Who goes where and what do we do with all of navigator Evan Weller’s bags. Lucky for Evan, the 2022 HPD Ridgeline we’re chasing with, had plenty of extra space. We utilized every nook and cranny and the spacious in-bed trunk to pack our snacks, sleeping bags, cooler, more snacks, camera equipment, energy drinks, agua, and three people — all without having anything in the bed of the truck.Baja road trip rules whenever possible. Once we accomplished that task and saw them off the line, we officially started our chase.
Our driver in the 2022 HPD Ridgeline is a Baja veteran and knows how best to navigate what is arguably the most dangerous part of the Baja 1000 — chasing. Baja’s highways are more narrow than the U.S., shoulders don’t exist, they’re never-ending winding, and steep. We have to travel 830 miles to get to the finish in La Paz. Hitting every driver change along the way. It’s a long night for all of us.
The Baja racing Ridgeline started off strong. By about 30 miles in, they were leading the class. Somewhere around Valle de Trinidad, they sheared an oil pump belt and lost a bit of time but maintained the lead and even left the RM155 fuel / tires pit stop with a slight lead. Unfortunately, around RM175 they lost a serpentine belt and oil pump belt after a hard hit diving into some deep silt. It was a 30-minute fix for Evan Weller, and they lost a position. Once they were back up to speed, they had to get about the business of getting around the slower race vehicles, again.
Our first adventure in the chase Ridgeline took us down an annoying washboard dirt road to the Pacific to photograph the race Ridgeline. We made it just fine, got set up and waited. We were on the other side of those belt fixes with on/off cell service and no radio contact — a situation we will find ourselves in frequently before the finish.
Chasing requires another skill — don’t worry until you have something to worry about. We passed our first test and grabbed some great scenic shots of the Ridgeline. This stretch of playa was less sand and more mini boulders, proving a struggle for the smaller tires and putting an audible strain on transmissions and drivetrains. The Ridgeline came through the section at speed smoothly and on a mission to make up lost time. We happily reported back to the team that the No 709 was moving along nicely.
From there, we got back on the highway and headed south to the driver change at RM351. Another fun race course fact about the Baja 1000 — at times, race, chase, and the general public share stretches of highway. So yeah, even this Ridgeline was passed by a race vehicle or two.
At the driver change stop, we got a full account of the first 350 miles from driver/team principal Jeff Proctor and his navigator, Weller.
“That was one of the most eventful 350 miles of racing I’ve ever raced,” Proctor said,. “We were P1 within the first 30 miles. But then we had these little fixes to deal with, but we kept it going and stayed in the hunt for class lead. We knew the last 50 miles of our section was really silty. We were in survival mode and it was rare we were over 60mph. It was the most blinding, gnarly section I’ve raced in the decade I’ve been racing down here. I thought we were P2 when we got to the pit but somehow we passed Chamlee [No. 700] back there in the silt.”
Weller used more colorful language to describe the eventful section.
On the whole, they both sent the vehicle down the course with big smiles, pleased with the Ridgeline’s performance. Richard Glaszczak handed over the truck to Alexander Rossi at RM632 at .3:15 a.m. MT
Rossi will drive to RM883. This section is notorious for poor visibility due to thick fog and lingering dust. He says, “The early morning fog and dust can cover the headlights. That for me is my biggest concern. How it affects visibility and how much we have to stop.”
Keep following along… There’s a lot more race left.