An Introduction to Desert Racing | From Peter Brock

Photography Credit: Peter Brock

[Editor's Note: This article originally ran in the June 2008 issue of Grassroots Motorsports]

While the rest of the world’s avaricious sanctioning bodies wrangle incessantly over control of all forms of racing on pavement, the sad result is that the once spectacular American open-wheel oval and road racing scene is almost dead. NASCAR’s suffocating tentacles control the electronic and print media almost to the point of gag reflex, while Formula 1 has priced itself out of all reality. 

America’s ongoing political battle for dominance in road racing’s two top endurance series, the ALMS and Grand-Am, is still in bitter dispute. Drag racing, although still a popular spectator sport in the Top Fuel classes, long ago lost its mass appeal for the home-prepared diggers. The once powerful American auto industry, which had supported this niche, simply lost its way by forgetting that fun and quality, above all, are what sell cars.

Almost unnoticed in this miasma of popular American automotive consciousness is “off-road” desert racing. This type of competition has quietly gone from strength to strength, gathering momentum in the last four decades to emerge as one of the least media-recognized, but still most popular, forms of motorsport. 

Desert racing began as simple regional events, primarily in the Southwestern states and Baja California, but off-road competition is now hugely popular in the Midwest and South as well, with growing acceptance all over the world. It’s easy to understand why: The planet has more unpaved roads than paved ones. And racing on dirt, especially in simple, lightweight tube-chassis racers powered by production-derived engines and components, appeals to anyone with a sense of adventure and a comparatively modest budget. 

The best-known of these rally-raid events is the famed Dakar, thanks to years of worldwide TV coverage. The event spans two weeks and runs from Lisbon, Portugal, across Spain, down to and across the Mediterranean, and finally southward along the west coast of Africa to Dakar, Senegal. 

This year, unfortunately, the threat of terrorist attack in Mauritania caused the Dakar to be canceled. The French organizers have promised the event will return next year, probably in South America, with warmup events in Eastern Europe and the wealthy Middle Eastern nations around Dubai. Top teams from VW, Mitsubishi, BMW and Nissan spend millions each year to reap the promotional benefits of winning these prestigious events. Millions watch and follow the action from homes around the world.

Closer to Home

In North America, SCORE’s legendary Baja 1000, one of the biggest, most accessible racing events of all time—regardless of locale—is the longest nonstop open road race in the world. Nothing since the days of the famed Mille Miglia in Italy comes even close. And, much to the consternation of those who only see racing’s potential as a “business opportunity,” spectating in Baja is completely free.

With some 20 classes covering every type of vehicle imaginable, the cost of entry and participation can be lower than almost any other form of automotive competition. The lower cost, rules-governed Sportsman Classes—figure $20,000 can buy a decent car—allow entry-level contestants to run on the same course and at the same time as the “unlimited” million dollar, open-class racers driven by the best in the sport.

During the famed Baja 1000, hundreds of wildly enthusiastic Mexican spectators crowd the famous “Rollers” near the town of Ojos Negros. Here Scott Steinberger’s Trophy Truck gets an easy six feet of air over a blind jump into a seething sea of humanity. Note the live axle hanging well below the chassis. Although many have tried, no one has yet devised a better suspension. Photography Credit: Gayle Brock

Consider the fact that most participants in traditional sports car racing are lucky to get 20 minutes of practice on one day and 20 minutes of race time on the next. Now look at the schedule for the Baja 1000: Teams get some 18 hours of flat-out, open-road competition. This is serious seat time.

SCORE’s six-race series, three of which are held in Mexico, is considered the big time for most desert racers. Still, there are literally dozens of other smaller sanctioning bodies holding similar events all over America. Championship Off Road Racing (CORR), which pioneered short course off-road competition in the Midwest, usually has more than 40,000 spectators at spots like Crandon in Wisconsin. CORR recently moved to the West Coast, bringing all the thrills and action of real off-road competition into the white-hot Southern California market. They will soon expand nationally with full, live, major network TV coverage. 

Mark Randazzo (shown here) and Darren Hardesty defied the odds in 2006 with their super-lightweight, John Cooley-designed, Alumi Craft Class 10 single-seater. Running a Kenny Major built 1800cc air-cooled VW engine with careful attention to chassis detail and a set of skimmed Yokohama tires, the two Baja veterans split the 1000 miles of driving with a flat-out 21 hour and 34 minute run to the checker. They finished an astonishing ninth overall against the toughest and largest field ever (400-plus) in the Baja 1000. Photography Credit: Gayle Brock

Last year’s 40th running of the SCORE Tecate Baja 1000 saw some 300,000 knowledgeable and frenzied spectators lining the roads from Ensenada to La Paz, cheering on their favorites while calculating their times. (Car numbers denote classes and starting position, so they can be used to track the field.)

Many spectators come year after year from far above the border to meet with friends in spectacular, though sometimes obscure, locations along the beautiful Sea of Cortez. Some make a week of it and four-wheel far back into the cactus-fringed mountains that form Baja’s rugged spine. They get to see racing as few experience it, as the back country roads can be perilous. The fact that spectating in the Mexican outback costs nothing is one of the main reasons the big money and general media haven’t targeted off-road competition for so-called development—or screwed up the rules, either. 

From Humble Origins

The sport of desert racing was created some 40 years ago by the late Ted Mangels along with Dune Buggy inventor Bruce Meyers. Mangels, one of the sport’s earliest disciples, and Meyers shared a passion for the rugged Mexican peninsula and an appreciation for the simple, inexpensive VW components that had formed the basis of those first buggies. They were trying to figure out how to penetrate deeper into the mysterious Mexican outback; in time they finally made it to La Paz, a small fishing village at the southern tip of Baja, setting a “record” that soon attracted others. The unofficial race for the fastest time was on.

Most early Baja buggies used VW components simply because of the air-cooled simplicity of the standard Bug engine and transmission. These components lent themselves to fairly inexpensive modifications and, more important, rapid repair below the border. These characteristics were extremely important—phones were hard to come by and clever solutions and innovation were worth far more than money.

NASCAR star Robby Gordon brings his own mid-engined, 900-horsepower Trophy Trucks twice each year. He comes to the Baja just to run in the 500 and 1000 for the pure, gonzo pleasure of racing with no rules and restrictions. Hardcore Robby fans often arrive a day early to travel hours into the desert and over some of the most difficult portions of the course. Their goal? Just to watch him traverse some “impossible” section for 30 seconds at speeds most others just dream about. Photography Credit: Gayle Brock

What makes desert racing so fascinating for designers and competitors alike is that the competition is just as much about understanding the terrain as it is about knowing how to drive fast. Most modern pavement racers run on billiard table-smooth circuits to which aerodynamics and suspension technology can be refined in adjustments of a thousandth of an inch. A modern desert racer’s chassis has to deal with suspension travel measured in feet and traction problems that include every possibility of sand, rock, dirt and even water.

The term “off-road” is really a misnomer, as real desert racing goes down on narrow back country roads. Horsepower in the most powerful, high-dollar Trophy Trucks and Unlimited open-wheel, Class 1 racers is pretty much unregulated. Imagine driving a classic, front-engined sprint car on dirt roads—for hours.

Run what ya’ brung and hangin’ it out sideways is the rule of the day, so innovative design runs rampant. Chassis layouts can be front-, mid- or even rear-engined; it doesn’t matter where you place the engine or what kind of transmission you use. The terrain is the limiting factor—surprisingly, the average speeds of all these types of vehicles are almost identical. 

Those desert racing trucks and buggies aren’t going to fix themselves, right? That’s where you come in. The Baja route is lined with volunteer teams, and they need able bodies—welders, mechanics, chefs and just guys and gals who can lug a gas can—to join them. Photography Credit: Gayle Brock

Shock and suspension technology, however, are light years ahead of what’s being done on pavement. Every major shock absorber company now has a department dedicated solely to off-road development because that’s where their best engineers are most challenged. 

When wheel travel exceeding two and sometimes three feet meets up with 37-inch-tall rubber plus tire and wheel combinations that sometimes exceed 130 pounds per corner, the problems of volume displacement and heat become quite a challenge. Add in 600 to 900 horsepower with about 600 lb.-ft. of torque, and you begin to realize that desert racing cars are some of the most sophisticated competition machines in the world. 

The aesthetics of a modern desert racer are difficult to understand until you’ve seen one in action streaking across terrain that would disassemble a modern SUV in a quarter-mile. Instead of swoopy, curved bodies, the top desert racers from chassis builders like Jimco, Kreger and Porter are essentially exoskeleton works of fabrication art—beautifully welded structures of 4130 steel and simply formed, easily removable alloy and composite panels that provide instant access to all components. 

One of the joys of working on pure desert racing equipment is that no time is wasted on stripping away nonessential parts for service; everything is at hand instantly so that it can be repaired under the most primitive conditions if necessary. 

You Can Play, Too

And here’s where you come in: Looking for an interesting vacation this fall? If you’ve got any mechanical skills and a sense of adventure, think about joining a Baja 1000 pit crew. Hundreds of people from all over the world gather in Ensenada each year to join volunteer crews. Some crews, like Locos Mocos, Baja Pits and Mag 7, have become world famous in their own right. These groups offer free services—welding, fueling, food, mechanical repairs and more—to the dozens of teams who know their own crews can’t cover every contingency. 

If you can get yourself to San Diego in mid-November and have a week’s time to offer, most other expenses and travel are usually covered. You’ll be able to travel hundreds of miles deep into the Mexican outback with veteran Baja hands and participate in one of the world’s great automotive adventures. 

Check out the Web pages in our source box or Google “Baja pit crews” to make an initial contact. BFGoodrich will also accept mechanic’s resumes. They bring about 20 big rigs each year to service the race, and it’s an honor to crew with them. 

If you’re interested in trying this, rent the “Dust to Glory” DVD for an easy primer. Even if you never get to Ojos Negros or Scorpion Bay, you’ll enjoy one of the best racing movies of all time.

Mexican pride in the Baja races equals the most fervent support for WRC events in Europe. Photography Credit: Peter Brock

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thatsnowinnebago (Forum Supporter)
thatsnowinnebago (Forum Supporter) UltraDork
10/9/20 2:02 p.m.

Love me some trophy trucks. Seeing videos of those things blasting through 3' whoops at 100 mph is mind blowing. 

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