Breathing dust and hanging on for dear life at this year’s Baja 1000

The 50th running of the BFGoodrich Tires SCORE Baja 1000 is about to get underway.That’s a big deal, even if you’re not one of the hundreds of racers leaving Ensenada, Mexico and racing to La Paz on November 14. This race is one of the toughest motorsports events on Earth, and in its 50-year history, the Baja 1000 has become something of a legend – a bucket list event for amateur and professional racers alike.

50 Years of the Baja 1000

The first Baja 1000 race happened in 1967, running from Tijuana near the U.S. border in Baja California Norte to La Paz, near the southern tip of the peninsula in Baja California Sur. The route has shifted over the years, and the event now starts in Ensenada and finishes in La Paz in some years, while in others the route loops around and finishes back in Ensenada.

The Baja 1000 has become something of a legend – a bucket list event for amateur and professional racers alike.

From the beginning, the event has featured both off-road cars and motorcycles. Four-wheeled  vehicles in the event range from the Meyers Manx dune buggies that won the first races in the 1960s to the purpose-built 900 horsepower Trophy Trucks that dominate the event today. All-wheel-drive classes for UTVs like the Polaris RZR are already popular and continue to grow because of the affordable and durable nature of the vehicles.

Over the years, many notable enthusiasts have competed in the Baja 1000, including Paul Newman, James Garner, and Steve McQueen. Indy Car driver Robby Gordon was born into this kind of racing as the son of “Baja Bob” Gordon, and his career in Indy, NASCAR, Trans-Am, and IMSA can be seen as a sidelight to his off-road racing. Gordon won five consecutive SCORE championships from 1986-1990, and took the overall Baja 1000 win in 1987, 1989, and 2009.

Racing in Baja

According to Roger Norman, CEO and President of SCORE International, the Baja 1000 event brings about $30 million to the cash-strapped Baja California states each year. So it’s no surprise that the Governors and tourism heads of both Baja California Norte and Sur (North and South) were on hand for this year’s Off Road Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, held in conjunction with the stadium-based qualifying event for Trophy Trucks running the race. The event is now a solid partnership between SCORE and the Mexican state governments.

“SCORE has been building the operational and marketing assets for the past few years preparing for this historic 2017 global event,” Norman said. “Mexican races are the cornerstone of SCORE.”

This year’s Baja 1000 has drawn 363 entries from 42 U.S. states and two territories, as well as 25 nations around the world, making it a truly internationally significant race. The course will cover 1,134.40 miles over every kind of desert terrain, including rocks, beach sand, and deep arroyo silt. Teams must be prepared to traverse every kind of challenge.

Speed is your friend; you’re basically just skipping across the tops. The truck just eats it up.

The qualifying event for the Trophy Trucks was held at the off-road course at Las Vegas Motor Speedway during SEMA week. Trucks ran individual qualifying laps on the course. Banked turns, jumps, and speed sections were all part of the event. Robby Gordon set the fast time and won the pole position, driving his Team Gordon c truck around the course in 2:52.26 with an average speed of 37.46 miles per hour. He’ll go a lot faster than that in the actual race.

Second was Rob MacCachren of Las Vegas, who covered the three-lap course in 2:52.73 in the Rockstar MacCachren Motorsports Ford F-150. MacCachren has five overall victories in the Baja 1000, and has won the last three consecutive Baja 1000 races riding on special 40-inch BFGoodrich Baja T/A KR3 tires. In addition to being the new title sponsor of the race, competitors racing on BFGoodrich tires have claimed 28 overall Baja 1000 wins over the years.

Playing in the desert with Rob MacCachren

Prior to qualifying, Digital Trends was invited out to the Nevada desert for some ride & drive time with MacCachren in his V8-powered pre-runner buggy. This is a purpose-built UTV powered by a 400-horsepower Chevrolet LS3 engine, designed to allow MacCachren to preview the course in the days leading up to the actual race. In pre-running, MacCachren and his co-drivers will drive the course at lower speeds (but still fast) to take notes for both safety and strategic reasons.

Baja 1000
Jeff Zurschmeide/Digital Trends

“The Trophy Truck has a top speed of 142 miles per hour,” MacCachren says. “When we’re in a rough section in the buggy, we’re going to be doing about 40 to 50 miles per hour. It’s not capable of doing what the Trophy Truck will do. The truck will do 110 or 115 through that. Speed is your friend; you’re basically just skipping across the tops. The truck just eats it up.”

Driving the Polaris on a section of the Mint 400 off-road course is an education. The UTV has 110 horsepower and all-wheel-drive, running on BFGoodrich all-terrain tires. With about 18 inches of suspension travel, the Polaris has no trouble navigating the rocks, loose dirt, and uneven terrain at speeds of 25-35 mph. When we hit the dry lakebed, I can get the Polaris up to about 70 mph. The 15-mile test track takes us about half an hour to complete.

Go as slow as you can and still win. There’s a huge strategy in this kind of racing.

Riding next to MacCachren in his buggy is a whole different experience. He’s hitting 70 on the rough stuff, bouncing along the crests as he described. We are well into triple digits on the flat silt of the lakebed, and the acceleration is instant. The buggy is lightweight, and the V8 engine will throw you back in the seat. Our 15-mile circuit takes less than 15 minutes with MacCachren at the wheel – and that’s the introductory “don’t puke in my car” ride he gives to journalists. When the chips are down and he’s behind the wheel of his Trophy Truck, it’ll be a different game yet again.

MacCachren is the winningest driver in off-road history, with over 300 wins including four Baja 1000s, and he was inducted into the Off Road Hall of Fame in 2011. Although he qualified second behind Gordon, he’s the prohibitive favorite to win this year.

“I’d rather qualify second, third, or even fifth,” he says. “You don’t want to open the road. All the stress and pressure is on you. In Baja, you have to worry about what’s on the road. A motto I have is: Go as slow as you can and still win. There’s a huge strategy in this kind of racing.”

Bigger prize money from BFGoodrich

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Baja 1000, BFGoodrich is offering a contingency prize of $50,000 to the overall winning team, if they are riding exclusively on BFGoodrich tires, of course.

“Desert racing is in our DNA, and this race is of particular significance. In 1986 we had our first overall Baja 1000 win. In total, our tires have seen 28 overall wins in this race,” said Chris Baker, Motorsports Director, BFGoodrich and Michelin North America. “We increased the amount of the contingency prize from last year to show our teams how important the Baja 1000 is to us.”

In addition to the contingency for the overall winner, the company is heavily supporting every team running their tires in the race. The BFGoodrich pit and radio relay network set up at every SCORE desert race provides teams free support including fueling, vehicle welding, tire changes, mechanical repair, bottled water and other services. For this year’s race, more than 100 teams, or about a third of the field, have registered to receive pit support from BFG.

How to follow the race

You can follow the BFGoodrich Tires SCORE Baja 1000 race online at SCORE’s website or with the SCORE Off-Road Racing app. A two-hour TV show will be produced on the El Rey Network in the United States. The El Rey Network is available through many cable providers and via satellite, as well as streaming on the Internet.

If you’re interested in the Baja 1000, (and if you’re not, what’s wrong with you?) you will want to catch the film Dust to Glory, which covers all the action of the 2003 race. It’s available on Amazon video, or on DVD through Netflix. A sequel film, Dust 2 Glory, covering last year’s race and the whole SCORE season, is due out on December 6.  Tickets for the special, one-night Dec. 6 nationwide premiere are now on sale.