Ah yes, where were we?? Oh, yes...just prior to the start of the race...Did I mention I gently ran the van into a pair of stanchions in the garage underneath our hotel in Ensenada when being yelled at in Spanish that I couldn't park where I just had, denting both the side of the van and the driver's door making the window exceedingly difficult to raise or lower?? Or that we spent quite a bit of time running around Ensenada trying to find a 2GB or smaller flash card with which to download the GPS files for the race course and were finally gifted such a card by Dennis Chairez, an Ensenada resident known to our most experienced Baja racer, Paul Hartl.
So Elliott Sherwood and I are up relatively early and geared up and ready to go on race day while Paul and Tim Meunier are off in the van with the extra gas and gear and heading down the road to try and find the part of the race course where it comes back and hits Highway 1 after 100+ miles in order to provide any service we may need. We aren't in radio communication at this point as we are quickly separated by miles and terrain too large to broadcast over. We start the day near the tail end of the 130 or so "car" entries of the event. I snicker to myself as I see some other competitors in the garage still working on their cars right before the race..."Ha, at least I'm not breaking out the grinding wheel already!" Sooooo stupid....
I share a few words with Darren Skilton and David Bensadoun, both driving Dakar spec vehicles and men with whom I have little business being alongside. Within the race are other drivers I have no business sharing a race with including Walker Evans, Andy Grider, Bob Gordon, Bruce Meyers, Tim Herbst, etc., etc. Multiple time Dakar entrants, multiple time Baja 500/1000 champions...yup, I'm here...a know nothing "kid" from New Hampshire, ready to show the world what I've got...
Uhhhh, yeah, not so much...The transit out of Ensenada is simple enough and just like a really long transit in a typical Rally back home...except here Stop signs are merely a suggestion, red lights more like yield signs and the city roads strewn with dead animals (and dead people on occasion) and locals seemingly playing a game of chicken with every passing vehicle. Still, with the race started I am a lot more relaxed. This at least I am familiar with...dirt roads, rocks, trees...this I can deal with.
A quick piss on the side of the road--no way I'm making it 100+ miles without pissing my pants after drinking this much water--and we're off. The notes for the stage are a ridiculous, never ending stream of triple and double cautions. Oh and that cliff of death?? That doesn't rate even as a single caution or even a notation. Drive what you see becomes the most common direction given as you can literally go miles between notations pointing out the next intersection--all those ditches, rocks, cacti, cliffs, dropoffs, inclines, washouts?? Make up your intentions as you go....make a decision on the move, no prior notice given.
Oh, and yeah, about the course....it may be a "race" course in name but in truth its an open public road on which you are doing things you would NEVER dare think about back home. Take your dumbest moments "testing" your vehicle on your local backroad thinking "Hey, I can run this road at speed, I've run it 1000 times and there is never anyone on it except old Bob and I know old Bob goes to church at 10AM every Sunday so I know I'm not going to meet any other traffic..." Now take that and throw it out the window cause you don't know anyone here and they don't care that you are racing on their local roads and most certainly their livestock doesn't care that you are racing on their local roads. So right away Elliott and I are shaking our heads as we are rounding corners at my maximum speed into oncoming cars and trucks...after a couple times it seems somewhat normal and you give it little thought that back home they'd shut down the whole damn race if a single car was seen on stage at the same time as a racer....As they say....Its Mexico....its just different here.
The roads themselves are spectacular. Truly. Nothing back home comes close. Long flat gravel straights lasting miles followed by 180 degree turns down a 45 degree washout into a sharp uphill battle through a streambed followed by a three mile run down a single lane road paralleled by 10 foot high fence posts strung together with barbed wire (seriously?? I'm doing close to 70+ down this road where a three foot twitch of the truck would have me picking rusted steel out of my skull for the next year?? Its beautiful but I can't believe I'm doing this...)
Ah, and then there's the ocean...the racecourse runs out to the ocean and parallels it for long sections running only yards from the crashing sea. The scenery becomes so distracting that Elliott and I are spending more time oooing and ahhhing about what we are seeing that actual stage notes. Our site seeing is interrupted by other racers on occasion...we sit in the dust of a class 9 buggie for what seems like forever but what was actually only a mile or two (in Stage Rally if you get caught you kindly pull over immediately, not so much here) as we close and then back off a number of times trying to give them the hint that we'd like to pass...but our nice style of passing from back home (with the car being passed pulling over, nicely out of the way and to a near full stop) just ain't gonna happen here and we pass at full speed on what felt like a single lane road running the driverside out in the ditches and brush trying not to punt the little buggie off into the cacti. Damn this is crazy... We do our best to pull way over and out of the way whenever we are caught--those old Broncos that catch us are HUGE and all steel...no soft fiberglass there.
We settle into what feels like a nice pace and reel off the miles...my god, we've run 90 miles already?? That is as long or longer than some of our full races back home and we're not even close to 1/2 way done with the first day!
Then disaster...or as near to it as I have ever experienced in stage rally to date. At about mile 95 we turn left around a rather casual bend at a fair speed and right there is a kid on a bike riding towards me down the course. I point the kid out to Elliott and we both focus trying not to hit him and suddenly I notice what is surely his younger brother walking down the course towards us on the left hand side with seemingly no interest in jumping out of the way. We slow, but do not stop having gotten used to seeing people, animals, and vehicles on the course, now taking it a bit in stride. There is a right hander coming up and our focus is still on the kids on the left. We pass them safely but before I can feel relief, I have missed noticing the very large, very rough and rocky ditch on the inside of the right hand turn and drop the front passenger side wheel into said ditch. Before I can blink or even notice what I've done, that ditch grabs and twists that wheel sharply back and to the right. There is a large bang and the truck plows straight forward through the sand without steering response and quickly comes to a halt. A flat? Nope. The front passenger tie rod has separated at the socket (which is still attached to the steering rack) from the ball (which is still attached to the "rod" and the wheel/tire).
A few expletives and Elliott's inquiry as to if we have a spare tire rod ("Yes, Elliott, we do...its in the service van of course!") and we are left trying to figure out what to do. Ratchet straps and some manual force do not do the job of either securing the wheel into a stable position and our spirits begin sinking.
As I would find to be the case whenever and wherever we broke during the event, the locals (while the cause of some on course trouble) are more than happy to appear like ghosts out of the ether and lend a hand without fear of getting dirty or putting in hard work for little to no return. In our case here it appears that the two young boys were part of an extended family who had come to spectate at the right hand turn where we broke. Amongst them are three adult males of various ages (Grandfather, father and son?) who begin chattering away and trying to converse with Elliott in broken Spanish. One of them quickly retrieves his family SUV, drives out onto the course and backs it up against the broken tire/wheel on our race truck. The idea here being that if we can line up the ball and socket on the tie rod and exert enough force we can POP them back together in an opposite fashion to how they came apart from the ditch. Cranking the wheel as hard as I can to the right and backing the SUV up into the wheel does the trick!! It pops back together like Mel Gibson and his wonky shoulder in the Lethal Weapon movies! We're back at it! We take some photos with our new "heroes" and set off again in hopes of completing the last 16 or so miles to the highway where we can make a proper repair.
200 yards later from just a crawling speed and a bit of sand?? POP!! That same tie rod performs its magic trick again and comes apart, now leaving us separated from our heroes and buried up to the lower control arm in some very soft sand. Now we're screwed....I begin digging out the broken wheel from the sand by hand (nope, no shovel) and Elliott grabs some ratchet straps. Going forward is no longer any thought in our mind...our hopes only surround being able to get out of the desert somehow. Its about noon, very hot and very dry.
Somehow our "heroes" must have continued to watch/listen to our progress as a few minutes later as we are attaching our straps to the frame, the eldest of the three adult males and his likely grandson, show up on scene via a quad while other locals and their dogs begin arriving as if from inside the closest yucca plant and chitter away over our shoulders. The eldest male, for some reason, carries with him a big old pot of grease of some kind (huh?!?!) and he begins slathering it all over and inside the socket of the tie rod. Once stuffed like a thanksgiving turkey with grease we employ all our strength on the ratchet straps and crank on the steering wheel once again. Again the tie-rod pops back together! Now, however, we are resigned to our DNF for the day and just want to somehow limp the vehicle back along the access road this family had come in on and get in contact with our chase team with whom we have been unable to relay much of a message too. The "Weatherman" flying relay in the sky knows that we are broken and trying to limp out but we have not received a message back from Paul and Tim.
We very gently back the race truck backwards down the course to the access road at some 5-10 mph and begin the slow ride toward the highway where we hope to figure out just where we are and what to do. Oh! Hey!! Look! The temp gauge on the truck is spiking and there is steam coming from the engine!!
Quickly we kill the engine and exit the vehicle to the sound and smell of superheated coolant spraying all over the engine bay and a pool of green in the dirt. Well, well, well, now that went from bad to worse...So now we can only go a couple hundred yards at a time before the engine begins overheating and has to be shut down to cool. We are quite crippled and are both wishing we had packed more personal water...
In the middle of this slow process up drives the 18 going on 50 boy who had assisted us twice already that day on his quad again. This time he is alone but carries with him a large hammer and chisel (what?) which he immediately runs to the tie-rod with and promptly proceeds to smash down the socket around the ball. Now we have a margin of comfort around the ability of this suspension component to stay together for the last few miles to pavement. He and his grandfather make out with a handful of (unasked for) pesos, and a pair of (unoffered) vice grips and wire snips but its a small price to pay for their assistance.
Hope rising further still as a group of Idaho surfers driving a 4Runner and heading for town in search of some tacos for lunch come sweeping by our pathetic scene... Using full surfer lingo "We were mobbing this and mobbing that!", they kindly offer to tow our vehicle to the highway where they remember a small auto repair garage being present. Huzzah!
These searchers of the Endless Summer pull our vehicle in front of said garage and leave to find their tacos and waves. Here we pull the hood and diagnose the coolant system with a large crack in a plastic fitting as the cause of our heating issues. A hack saw and some metal tubing scavenged from unknown source in the garage proprietor's backyard along with a couple small hose clamps and purchased coolant solves this issue in full.
And look! Its our chase team! They got the relayed message that we were heading out to the highway and given there is only one highway they figured they were bound to find us and so they have. The garage owner kindly allows us to pull the race truck into his shady outdoor facility and get to work on our suspension repairs. A bit of work later and we have the new tie-rod installed and the truck looks like it can stand on its own...turning the wheel however reveals a problem as it binds and will not turn to the left hardly at all. I immediately know what the issue is as I had the same problem when I tore the same suspension and tie-rod from the vehicle during a hill climb event a few years back. The upper control arm on that same side has taken the full force of the ditch impact once the tie rod gave way and twisted badly causing the bind.
Our race for the day however is over as its now late afternoon and we have hundreds of miles to our hotel in Bahia de Los Angeles that need to now be covered in dusk and dark. We stop at a roadside taco stand run by a great little family (seriously, why don't we have these every other block here in the States?) and have a great meal, well deserved all around.
Covering the remaining hours to Bahia de Los Angeles is no easy feat however, even with the trailer unloaded and the race truck driving separately. This first experience with driving Highway 1 at night while being completely exhausted is something that will never leave me. Multiple times I thought I would die from oncoming tractor trailers moving at 60+ mph and passing so close to the van or race truck that their compression wave would lift the windshield wipers right off the glass and audibly compress the driver's side window pane. Somehow we made it to Bay of LA by about 1AM and some of the NORRA staff including Ed Pearlman were still awake tracking down missing race vehicles (of which I am glad we are no longer one). We get some directions to Larry and Raquel's beach camp and arrive to a place where we can hear the waves crashing on the beach and feel the soft sand under our feet as we exit our vehicles. We never do meet Larry or Raquel (who I learned had been gunned down in a highway driveby some years earlier) and merely crash into the first room we find with an open door and no one inside. I feel fairly safe however as some other big teams (Aldo Racing for instance) are here and their crew are still working at this hour (sweeping sand from their tarps underneath their giant EZ Ups at 2AM...)
While the rudimentary room we have acquired has air conditioning and beds, I ask myself if I will ever again find myself on the Sea of Cortez under such a sea of stars as I find overhead. I find that the answer is unlikely and proceed to grab a pillow and a blanket and head to the beach to sleep on the sand, the sound of waves in my ears. I would return to my "hotel" room at about 5:30, my body now bereft of adrenaline and the air quite chilly...but glad I had fallen asleep staring up (literally, no joke) at some shooting stars and constellation patterns not quite where I am used to...