Wide Open Baja: Dust, glory and getting back to nature
“In the center of every dust cloud is a crunchy metallic center.”
That was the first thing our Wide Open Baja guide told us when we met him at the airport in San Diego, minutes before we crossed the border into the Mexican Baja peninsula for our three-day desert racing tour. There were plenty more nuggets of info, but that was the one that stuck. It really rang true when barreling across the washboard sand surface in a Baja Challenge race buggy near Ensenada as the wind shifted, sending a thick beige cloud into my car, taking visibility to near zero.
“Never drive further than you can see.”
That was also a good one.
Wide Open is an adventure-based vacation/test of your mettle, where customers, or corporate groups like the one I was with, go out to the desert (either in Baja or Cabo San Lucas) to drive these purpose-built buggies as fast as they want. Professional guides bookend the three- to four-car groups, but they are far enough away for the drivers to get in plenty of trouble.
“After looking at 100-foot drop-offs all day, 30 feet starts looking pretty tame. But don’t run out of concentration.”
Our guide was Jeff Cummings, a BFGoodrich employee whose job it is to take tire distributors, wholesalers and dealers out to the sand to show off what these, giant, knobby, seemingly indestructible KM3 tires can do off-road. There were 11 other guys on my trip, and one wife, and it seemed like all came away impressed after rolling over 300 miles of tire-killing rocks that would flatten a normal tire in seconds. We had seven cars in the group, four tires per car, and only lost two over the three-day trip. One bounced off the beadlock wheel and the other grabbed a nail. Both will live on to see another day.
About 50 percent of Wide Open’s business is corporate groups, the other half is adventurous, enthusiast vacationers. But before you go, know that most of the three-day trek is rustic. Real rustic. No TVs, no cellphone service, no toilet paper in the toilet. But on day two, at the legendary Mike’s Sky Ranch dead smack in the middle of the peninsula, when the generators go out at 10 p.m. and the entire Milky Way is there to greet you, you’ll be happy for the lack of electricity.
The instructors all have some sort of racing pedigree. Cummings did a little circle track stuff when he was younger and manages several Baja teams for each year’s running of the 1,000- and 500-mile races. Andrea Tomba raced for the Tecate off-road team before moving to a Class 6 Ford Explorer, where he won his first Baja championship. He then switched to full-size pickups and won five more. There are a bunch more too; check out Wide Open’s page for their impressive bios.
The car you’ll be driving is a full-out, tube-chassis, six-figure Baja Challenge car. They can run in the Challenge Class of the Baja 1000. Previously, if there weren’t enough entrants, they’d be in Class 10. But Class 10, Cummings tells me, complained when they ran there, as they usually won. Because of new rules and engine regulations the cars would now be in Class 1 if the BC class doesn’t fill out.
They use a rear-mounted Subaru EJ25 boxer four engines for power, which develop somewhere between 185 and 205 hp. The power is channeled, surprisingly, only to the rear wheels through an open differential, but with 33-inch, aggressive off-road tires, I never get stuck, and neither does anyone else. Attached to the rear-mounted engine is a four-speed manual with straight-cut gears, meaning you have to match the engine speed when shifting. All it takes is a little throttle blip as you pass neutral. If you know how to drive a manual, adding this little wrinkle should be no problem. The throw is long, though, and there’s no give in any direction. I thought my back or neck would be sore; it was more my hand and elbow. If you want to save yourself some trouble, bring racing gloves. Or any gloves with a little padding in the palm. The clutch is easy to get used to, as long as you find a good driving position.
I was lucky; I was riding solo, so there were no seat adjustments at the frequent stops. Side note, no matter how empty you think your bladder is, you will have to find a spot every 30 minutes of driving or so -- more in the morning than in the afternoon. It’s a tough balance. You’re out in the desert, you want to drink as much (bottled) water as you can, but you’ll also have to stop and find a bush every 20 miles or so.
But back to driving position. Your first move is to get the seat where you need it to be to reach the pedals and shifter comfortably. The wheel doesn’t move, so you’ll have to make do. I was a little nervous I wasn’t close enough to the steering wheel once strapped in to the five-point harness, but these cars are extremely easy to steer once rolling.
You might think, like I did, that these Challenge cars would be hard to control, hard to steer over dust and sand. Nothing could be further from the truth. I wondered how these Baja guys could go THAT fast, THAT confidently for THAT long. Now I know. With off-road tires like these KM3s, it’s not like driving on ice, or even slippery snow for that matter. Once I get the hang of it, about mile 5, I can place the tires as near or as far from the edge of the road as I like. The rig is surprisingly responsive. I soon find myself cutting corners too early and being too far on the inside around some sweepers. And some of that time it puts you dangerously close to the cliff’s edge (again, 30 feet doesn’t look so bad after staring at 100-foot cliffs all day). They basically go wherever you point them, no matter the surface.
These Baja buggies are loud, but not quite race car loud. I could still hear the radio over the flat-four noise, once I trained myself to listen for it. Wide Open sets you off with a guide in front of the line of cars to look for hazards be it people, animals or rocks. Guide car relays messages back to car 1, 1 relays to 2 and so on down the line. The first time I heard a garbled transmission I thought I was going the wrong way, but as the message was relayed back to car 2 and 3 I heard it quite clearly. On this particular event, we had a chase guide car as well, keeping everyone from getting too spread out.
You won’t be close though, to those other cars. We kept about 45 seconds of space between us, which ranged from about a mile to about a quarter mile. There were times when I would go 20 minutes without seeing even a dirty cloud in the distance, that’s when you can have real “Dust to Glory” moments about winning the 1000 in a car just like this.
Wide Open has a fleet of about 30 of these vehicles, many of which were actually raced in the Baja 1000 or 500. The orange-chassis cars you see in the pictures were campaigned in the 50th running, the blue-chassis in the 49th. Potentially, you could be driving an actual car that won its class. The roads too, have provenance. About 80 percent were run in the Baja last year. About 95 percent in the past five years. You could -- and people do -- use this three-day adventure for Baja pre-running practice. Some people also do it on a lark and then come back to Wide Open for its turnkey race program to run in the big race. It’s also sent quite a few celebrities and race car drivers through its ranks in including Dr. McDreamy (Patrick Dempsey), Tanner Foust, Ben Stiller, Paul Newman and many others.
Wide Open also offers turnkey programs, if you’re ready to race the Baja NOW. They range from $85K for the 1000 to $21K for the San Felipe 250. That includes a full crew and support, prepped race car, race entries and driver registration plus hotels. The Baja 1000 package adds a few extras. The three-day trip like we did was much more reasonable $3,995.
The first night we stayed at Horsepower Ranch, a sort of central off-road enthusiast meetup spot a few miles outside the center of Ensenada. We sign about four pages of waivers. Surprise, there’s a lot of liability in bringing a bunch amateurs to Mexico for a week. Coffee at 6:30 a.m., breakfast at 7 a.m., so keep the drinking to a minimum, if possible. From there we travel about 150 miles -- rarely in straight line, watching out for those dust clouds, 100-foot drop-offs and oncoming traffic and livestock – with frequent bathroom breaks, and set up camp at Mike’s Sky Ranch, or Rancho, as the locals call it.
The trip is a taste of real Mexico, the good and the bad. Some of villages we go through are unbelievably poor. We’re talking corrugated roofs and cinderblock walls. No glass in the window holes. Lots of garbage, lots of stray animals, lots of broke-down cars baking in the sun. At this point I feel a little guilty. A bunch of (relatively) rich Americans, slumming it for fun in rural, lawless Mexico. However, the local kids love it. In almost every town we went through, little kids came out to the road to watch us pass, waiving and smiling. The adults? A little less so.
Wide Open is diligent about how it takes care of the land and the people. First, the company, and Baja races in general, bring a ton of money to the area. Hundreds of racers, thousands of support people and vehicles, the fuel, the food, the lodging. Wide Open also pays for anything it affects. That includes crashing into fences, livestock and other vehicles. We’re also instructed to keep it cool through towns so as not to kick up a bunch of dust and pass other cars slowly, so we don’t spit rocks into windshields. The guides and crew love the area, and the people.
The food is delectable, if you like meats, salsa, cheeses and tortillas, which I do. Eggs and meat in a tortilla for breakfast, steak tacos for lunch, chicken for dinner. Most of it is cooked up by Wide Open’s jacks-of-all-trades repairmen, cooks and drivers.
At the end of day one, we take stock of what just happened, compare cars (and bruises) and Wide Open fixes anything that’s broken. Like the real Baja races, you have to bring everything you might need, unless you have a support truck. That means a spare tire on the back deck, obviously, but also spare lug nuts and belts ziptied to the tube frame. When one of the cars was making noise, the Wide Open crew took the entire front suspension apart and replaced the control arms and bushings. And, since they’ve done it a few hundred times, we’re talking an hour or two, not a weekend.
By day two I’m comfortably rolling, fast. I’m picking out apexes -- even though our guide Cummings tells us that’s not how to be fast our here -- and calling out radio instructions. “When road course guys get out here, they try to shave 100ths of a second. The real challenge is keeping the car in one piece and finishing the race. It’s a marathon,” says Cummings, who’s also the Grand Puba/crew chief of a few Baja teams each year.
The thing about these roads is that even if you knew them last year, last week, they change. That’s why it takes even road course ringers time to get acclimated. Lime Rock doesn’t change from year to year. Baja does.
Late in the day, as we’re approaching the resort -- a good break from the rustic conditions -- we make our way to the Pacific Ocean, pointed straight at a good 50-foot hill with steep sides. I think, “man that would be cool to perch the cars up there,” as I pull up to the line of cars. About a second later the radio clicks on, “alright, first guy up.” Car 1 takes off towards the two tire tracks pointed straight into the sky. Next, and next and next, and before you know it, we have about 10 cars parked on a flat spot overlooking the some of the bluest water you’ll ever see. It’s October, so no one jumps in, but do this trip in July and I’d bet there would be some bathing suits in tow.
Looking back, what sticks with me now are the people that I did it with. RJ, Mike and Mike, Sal, Buck, the guides and everyone else, a group of about 20, all there to have fun, learn a new skill and push themselves into territory that’s a little dangerous, coming out on the other side as a better…person? Maybe. A better driver? Definitely.
And all those dust clouds? Even with helmets that have air hoses attached, you’ll still be breathing in most of it. The day before we left I blew a rock, not a pebble, a full-on rock, out of my sinus cavity. I also developed a small cough that I dubbed “The Baja Hack.” It went away in a few days. The memories of the trip will last much longer than that.
Check out wideopenbaja.com for more information.