First, let me say that Baja racing is my favorite form of automotive competition. Baja racing culture is about life, speed, the beauty of the land and enjoying everything to its fullest extent. The fact that the rules are fairly free, with minimum oversight allows lots of innovation for the competitors. As for ourselves… with no fences, an open road and no self-inflated officials blowing whistles, screaming or telling you where you can’t stand means you’re in Baja for one of the most exciting and grueling adventures on the planet; Baja is one of the last great open road races in the world.
My recommendations for experiencing Baja are:
1. Let’s start easy.
Get acquainted by watching a Baja race on TV. This Saturday, June 1st, 2019 the San Felipe 250 will air on ABC's "World of X Games" at 2:30 p.m. ET / 1:30 p.m. PT. I’ve seen a preview and I can’t wait to see more…some spectacular coverage!
2. Getting the bug and want more?
Watch the full feature movie Dust to Glory by Dana Brown.
3. If you want to go to a Baja race
first, make a plan. The Baja 500 is actually running this week starting Saturday in Ensenada. Understand it’ll never turn out the way you expect but it’ll give you a structure to start! There’s a common saying mentioned frequently when nothing goes as planned in Baja (and it never does)… “That’s Baja!” We still have the race logs and maps we created when we raced in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Be prepared but most of all be flexible.
4. Choose the “right spot” to watch the race:
This is an easy yet difficult task in Baja because there’s 1000 miles of road to choose from. Once the field goes past there’s little chance of ever seeing them again, so get comfortable and relax. One of my favorite locations is the “Rollers” just outside of Ojos Negros. Hardcore fans will have been there since the day before the start, selecting their spot and partying as only they can in Mexico. You’ll know when the Trophy Trucks are coming as their support helicopters will appear first in the distance. Within a couple of hours, the entire field will have passed and, essentially, it’s over; but you’ll never forget the day. There are literally hundreds of such places all along the course, so be sure to look at the course maps.
5. Determine a meeting point so if all fails,
you know where to go to get back with your group. Gayle and I got separated while covering the Baja 1000 in 2004. I was shooting from a helicopter and she from the ground. She was to drive to a specific helicopter refueling location to pick me up when my stint in the chopper was over. She got there but I wasn’t there. Turns out there had been an accident on course and our chopper was flagged down to help. By the time rescue personnel arrived and we were back on our way we couldn’t recover the schedule. I stayed with the chopper until it got dark at which time they had to land because no aircraft are allowed to fly at night over Baja. I then flagged down the support truck of a team I knew. They gave me a ride but they were going the wrong direction, farther south to meet their race vehicle which was down with broken wheel lugs. I tagged along and got the best night photography of my career showing the team welding lugs onto the race car’s chassis in the middle of nowhere in the dark.
Having planned in advance what should happen if we didn’t connect at the fueling spot, Gayle knew not to wait for me any longer than 1pm. Following the course map she found a couple of crossover points where she got more race shots. As darkness fell she went back to race central in Ensenada and tracked which racers would be arriving at the finish line soon. It was the year “Dust to Glory” was being filmed and she engaged in some interesting conversation with the crew and director. She got some amazing shots at 2am of the winner of the bike class taking the flag (she loves to point out the two seconds in the movie where the camera pans past her as the winner comes in. After a few more hours of shooting she went back to our ultimate meeting location (a nearby ranch used by racers). No one was there and the generators shut off at night. She found her way to a room in the dark. A few hours later I was dropped off by the crew I’d spent the night with. Even with all the downtime they experienced they never quit and won the championship with my photos to prove it. Gayle and I had great stories to share when we reconnected. And we reconnected without panic because we had a plan and a contingency plan with an if-all-else-fails meeting location (the ranch).
6. Relax and take time to enjoy
the wonders of Ensenada like the local fish market where you’ll see fish being offloaded from boats and the best $1 fish tacos at stands just outside. Drink only bottled drinks. You can also go high-end for a great dinner at the upscale Sano’s restaurant just north of town. Try the spinach salad, a ribeye medium rare with baked potato and a great glass of local Santo Tomas red. It doesn’t get much better.
7. Join a pit crew.
Really got the bug? Most Baja pit teams are made up of volunteers. Some of these contract support teams, with members from all over the world, have been meeting in Baja annually for decades, hauling in everything imaginable to service and fuel their contracted racer teams. Since many pit stops are hundreds of miles below the border and teams have to get there at least a day in advance there’s no skimping on making life a great party. Great food, people, equipment and drink plus every possible luxury imaginable (including swimming pools) can be found out there, hundreds of miles from nowhere. Sublime madness. Do an internet search on “Baja pit crews.”
Check out this interview I did for SCORE a few years ago if you want to hear more.