2017 Baja 500
“The weather is hot but the beer is cold”, ancient Chinese proverb.
That’s the way it is every year in Baja in June, the time of the annual Baja 500. And once again the snap Chase X team was there to participate with ES Motorsports.
We were supporting Rienaldo Varela, an experienced rally racer from Brazil.
Rob Otte, Mike Groth and I were slated to provide fueling support twice on this five hundred mile loop course. The route took the racers south from Ensenada to San Vicente, then over the mountains to San Matias, where we would fuel and assist with a driver change. Then the race car would go to San Felipe by way of the hot and dry Diablo Dry Lake and return to San Matias for a second fueling and driver change before returning to Ensenada.
On the Friday before the race, Rob and I met at 6:30 AM, went to the ES shop and picked up Spence Low, who was riding with us to Ensenada. We then picked up Mike Groth near Oceanside, crossed the border in San Ysidro and arrived in Ensenada at noon for tech inspection, tacos and Tecate’s.
Things have changed a lot since we started doing this. Cell phone service has improved considerably and we were able to call Eric and locate the race car, already in line. We had been asked to bring a spare (heavy) power steering pump with us, so I put it in my back pack (along with an emergency supply of beer) and went in search of our car, #1092. Several phone calls later, and after walking up and down the same street, in front of the same hotel where the team reported that they were in front of, we finally found them. Evidently we had walked right past them in the typical off-road race tech day crowd. It would appear that tech days for the SCORE races are a local holiday because there are always thousands of local people there to participate in the festivities.
Three hours later, having pushed the car through the throng and into tech, I remembered to ask Eric what to do with the power steering pump that I had been lugging around? “Oh”, he said, “you were supposed to give it to the truck in front of us in line”. I’d been carrying it for three hours when I could have pawned it off as soon as we arrived.
Slowly making our way through tech.
Our next stop was the hotel parking lot where we would receive our dump cans and fuel. But first, we had to go get the fuel. Fifty-five gallons of 112 octane racing gas (at $12.00/gallon) from the Sunoco purveyor, south of town. While we were getting the fuel, Varela wanted to pre-run and test the car. We would then return to the hotel, put five gallons in each of the three dump cans headed for the pit in San Vicente and take the remainder with us to San Matias. Each dump can was to be 50/50 race fuel/pump gas. We would mix them at the Pemex station. When Rob, Mike and I returned to the hotel, we found, to our dismay that the entire team had gone testing taking all of the dump cans with them. Now we had to wait for their return so we could distribute the fuel, ugh.
Fortunately, I was able to contact Eric by phone and the three of us drove to the last Pemex station on the east side of town, the road that leads to Ojos Negros (where they were testing) and San Matias, (our destination). Then we waited. And waited. And waited. From time to time we could hear snippets over the radio, but no real communication. The sun was going down. We waited. The sun went down. We waited. Finally, the race car passed the gas station on its way back to the hotel and the chase crew was not far behind. We mixed gas, distributed dump cans and I got hooked to the trailer. Between my pit gear, Rob, Mike and my personal gear, seventy-five gallons of gasoline and a heavy trailer, my poor truck was really loaded. Cars coming from the opposite direction were not going to be happy with my headlight alignment, but we could see the tops of the trees well.
By now it was close to 9 PM as we left for our destination. The road to Ojos is winding and slow even without a trailer, it’s very slow with one, but we made it, eased past the Federale Checkpoint and hit the flat open road to San Matias. We cruised our area for suitable pit sites, but most had been taped of by bigger pit crews. We did find a likely spot next to the road, across the street from a ‘Loncheria’, and made a note of its location. Backtracking and running up the race course to find a camp site, we found a good one, turned the rig around and parked in the race course, maybe a mile from our pit spot.
At 11 PM, it was way too late to bake potatoes, grill asparagus and bar-b-que steaks, as is our usual Friday night pre-pit dinner, so we opted for the Saturday night meal of hot-dogs and beans, cooked on the camp stove. One of the advantages of the trailer was that it provided ample space for cooking. A small campfire while we ate preceded quickly falling asleep beneath the moon and stars. At around 3 AM, the moon set and the Milky Way glowed in the night sky as only it can without the interference of civilization.
Hotdogs and beans at midnight
As usual, Rob was up before 5:30 and Mike and I were not far behind. We quickly packed up. In this case, packing up consisted of piling everything loosely on the trailer for the short trip to the pit site. The site actually ended up being quite acceptable. There was easy turn around for the trailer, additional parking space for the rest of the chase team, level room for the race car to stop, easy ingress and egress and a supply of fire wood. While we set up, we watched a multitude of other pit crews slowly drive by looking for pit sites. We added additional flagging to prevent encroachment. We also observed lots of pit crews stopping at the loncheria across the street. Now that we had time, I went to make our breakfast of pancakes and corned beef hash while we watched the parade of frustrated pit crews. (That’s the reason Rob and I like to go out the night before the race.)
Well, what’s this? Hmm? I forgot the pancake mix. Well, not to worry, there’s a loncheria across the street. We ended up eating there and had a delicious breakfast. I had machaca, Rob and Mike had eggs, potatoes and we all had FRESH, did I say fresh, flour tortillas. It was a great way to start the day. After breakfast, we went back to our pit and waited. And waited.
The plan was to move the pit after the first fueling to the other side of the road and a couple of miles back down the road. (Per the rules, pitting has to be performed on the right hand side only. This is the result of a fatal head on collision between two race vehicles last year while each was crossing to the other side for pitting.) Because towing the trailer had decreased my fuel mileage and since we didn’t know what would happen during the race, we decided to refuel the truck before the big pit crowds arrived later. Mike and I drove back to Valle Trinidad for fuel and ice (always get more ice, even with a Yeti). We toured the town, locating an additional Pemex station and a wonderful grocery, hardware, general store that had everything from ice to meat to fresh vegetables, tools and even guns. We picked up ice, charcoal (for tonight’s dinner of steak) and sandwich bread for the racers. Since we had cell service in town, I was able to text Eric with our exact pit location.
We waited some more. We built a small fire and killed time picking up and burning the considerable amount of trash that can be found along Mexican highways. We allowed a motorcycle pit crew to uses our area for their bike when it came through.
All this time we were listening to Weatherman on the radio. This year, Scott Steinberger was acting Weatherman as Bob is very ill with throat cancer. Scott, unlike his Dad, maintained his cool throughout the race, even during a severe “Code Red” for a motorcyclist that was injured. From the radio we were able to determine that the first eighty or so miles were extremely difficult, the bikes only averaging 30 miles per hour or so. It would be a long day. The trucks and cars started at 10, we would start about 11.
The race plan was as follows: we were to be the eighth class ten off the line, driven by Arribe, an experienced racer connected to King Shocks and friend of Varela, the driver of record. Arribe would drive to San Vicente, fuel and hand the car to Varela who would drive to us at San Matias. Eric would then get in and drive the San Felipe loop, back to us and Varela would get back in and finish the race. Eric would watch the car pass Ojos Ready for action, or waiting. Negros, then meet up with us and get ready to take over driving chores. Another chase crew would pit the car in San Vicente, then try to get up to us, by a back road, before Eric returned.
Rob killing time while waiting.
Eric finally joined us, we discussed the plans and then he went back to Valle T. where there was phone service and he could monitor our cars progress. We were able to discuss the after race plans with him and decided that we would hand over the trailer to the team after the return pit, and then Mike Rob and I could head home by way of Highway 5 and Mexicali or Tecate border crossings. There are camping sites available on that side of the peninsula, whereas there are none in the Ensenada area.
After a while, Eric came back to the pit and reported that our car had pitted in San Vicente and was now in second place in class. We began preparing the pit. This included repositioning the truck for easy access to parts and tools, pruning the adjacent tree with a dull axe for easy access to the truck, setting out fire extinguishers, spare tires, jacks and putting on fire suits (drivers wear them as well as the fuel dump man, me). Duties were assigned. Rob was on safety/fire extinguisher, Mike would help me dump three cans of fuel, then check the lug nuts with a breaker bar. Spence would look over the car. Shaggy was on the tire changing team. We were a well-oiled machine and ready for action.
We waited. The first class ten came by, then another, then another. We waited. Another class ten. Finally, over the radio, they were coming out of the mountains from Mike’s Sky Ranch. Eric and the co-driver stood around in the heat, suited up, roasting. I sprayed them down with water from the Hudson sprayer.
In a flash, the car pulled into the pit. The rear tires were examined and found to be in need of replacement. Impact guns chattered, the co-driver was assisted out of his seat and I began dumping gas. One can in, start the next, and suddenly it would take no more, only thirteen gallons in? We checked the overflow and it appeared full. Quickly I checked the lugs on the passenger side – all tight; run around to the driver side, Eric’s getting in, and the new tire is on – lugs checked. One light had broken and was wobbling around and had to be removed. Pour water down Eric’s back. Rob checks for traffic and sends them on their way! A very intense couple of minutes!
Now we’re in eighth place. Per Varela, they got stuck in a silt bed for fifteen to twenty minutes. Another car stopped to pull them out and it too became stuck. Well, that’s racing in Baja.
Shaggy and Spence took off after the car to chase along. Varela and the co-driver stripped off their fire suits and walked across to street to the café that had an internet connection. Rob Mike and I packed up the pit in preparation of moving.
Twenty minutes later were ready to move. Bikes were already coming back the other way and we knew that pit space would be at a premium. I wandered over to the café to get the guys, but they still had another five minutes on their internet time, so “please wait”. The co-driver, I think his name is Giuseppe, was the only one of the two that spoke English. Finally he came over to the truck and we waited in the air conditioned cab for another twenty minutes. Finally I walked back over to find Varela. He wasn’t on the porch, I looked inside, nope, not sitting at a table; try the other restaurant, no, not here either. Walk through all of the pits, no sign. What the heck? Wait another ten minutes. Giuseppe started wandering about until finally, inside the first café (internet), there was Varela, lying on the floor behind the tables.
Well, we got him out of the cool, internet connected loncheria and told him it was time to move down the road to our next pit location. “What’s wrong with right here, where we are, on this side of the road?” he asked. “Nothing really except we told Eric we would be further along “. “We’re staying here”, he commanded as only the money man of the team can order. Varela then directed us to the spot that he wanted, between another team and a power pole. I was instructed to back the trailer in to this narrow spot with Varela directing me, passenger door open, him looking backwards and waving his arm to tell me which way to turn the wheel and telling me commands in Portuguese. I had a flashback to 1960’s and my Dad teaching me how to back-up the tractor and trailer, waving his arms and shouting commands. As it turned out, the team next to us left and we had a nice spot. Varela went back inside the loncheria.
We set up the pit and waited. In the meantime, the crew from San Vicente arrived. Now we had 15 to 20 people milling aimlessly about. Uncle Guy was cooking hotdogs, I was getting into my fire-suit and setting up lighting. Varela came out and put on his suit as he was to finish the race. Spence had called and told us that Eric was twenty minutes out. Chaos ensued in the pit as to who was to do what, there appeared to be 12 chiefs and 3 to 5 Indians. Out of the blue Arribe arrived and like a boot camp drill instructor, took charge, assigning duties, keeping unnecessary folks out of the way. He added another guy named Mike to help fuel, so it was the Mike, Mike and Mike fueling team. Arribe’s wife and son were assigned the task of cleaning the car numbers, one guy was to clean the lights.
Eric radioed in that he possibly had a bad right rear tire and the steering was acting up, it seemed wobbly and needed to be. The Jack was set up and duties assigned.
The car roared into the pit and everyone jumped to their tasks. Within a couple of minutes the tire was changed, 25 gallons of fuel dumped, lights removed or cleaned, numbers wiped off and the driver and co-driver were changed. The steering was checked, but nothing appeared to be wrong. Another Class 10 car zoomed past while we were working, but soon Varela was on his way. We thought that possibly we were in fourth place and that by passing the previous car we could move to third. Alas, it was not to be. We ended up finishing a respectable fifth place, about thirty minutes behind fourth and an hour behind the leader.
After they left, everyone but Mike, Rob and I raced off into the night, chasing the race car and taking the trailer with them. We finished our packing and turned east, down to Diablo, through the checkpoint and north on Highway 5. We had a short delay as the food box blew of off the top of the truck, spreading its contents all over the highway. But there was no traffic, so we gathered it all up and went on our merry way. We turned off on the road to Tres Posas, parked behind a sand dune and baked our potatoes and grilled our steaks. Yes it was 11 PM but they tasted great and the stars were bright. Ahh, Baja.
Awake at 5ish and on the road before 6, we turned west towards Tecate and up the La Rumerosa grade, once traveled, never forgotten. The line at Tecate was longer than I had hoped, but it moved quickly and we crossed in an hour and fifteen minutes. As it turned out, Eric and company must have been just in front of us and out of sight in the Tecate line, because, when we gassed up in Escondido, Eric had just gassed up and he saw us at a different gas station.
We dropped Mike of at his truck, I dropped Rob off at his car and was home at about noon. Plenty of time to get chores done and begin planning the next trip – the Baja 1000, Ensenada to La Paz. It’s only five months away so we need to begin our preparations.
2017 Baja 500