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Taming the Baja 1000 in a 'teched out' '69 Beetle

A team from Silicon Valley hopes to make it through the grueling 1,300-mile race, Twittering as they go.

The route for the Baja 1000 road race that begins next week in Ensenada, Baja, Mexico. One team, from San Jose, Calif., plans to run the 1,300 mile route in a 1969 Volkswagen Beetle loaded up with modern communications equipment.
Jim Graham

SAN JOSE, Calif.--If you were to see this 1969 Volkswagen Beetle, missing a couple of tires, its engine compartment and hood open, and its interior feeling very much like a work in progress, you'd probably mistake it for one of the countless automotive projects currently under way in American garages and driveways.

You certainly wouldn't think any special was afoot.

But this is no normal '69 Bug.

No, this little machine, which on a Friday afternoon still looks a lot closer to a junkyard than a highway, is actually awaiting the finishing touches that will have it ready to race in next week's Baja 1000 race, one of the world's most-grueling, and one that (hopefully) will take its owners across 1,300 miles of unforgiving roads up and down the Baja peninsula.

And it's going to be loaded down with the kind of high-tech gear that will make it possible for its owners, a team of 12 dedicated people from all over Silicon Valley known as Desert Dingo, to know precisely where they are at any moment, to know what giant pothole might be around the next bend and to Twitter every little development back to the rest of the world as it unfolds.

Desert Dingo is the brainchild of Jim Graham, a high-tech publicist; Mike Aquino, a Cisco mechanical engineer; and Cary McHugh, who repairs MRI machines for Siemens.

Their goal? Run the whole race--their car is entered in Class 11, for stock VWs--in the 53 hours they're allotted, all while staying safe, sane and having the time of their life. And counting on a passel of high-tech gear to do it all.

Graham said he got the idea for running the race while watching the racing documentary Dust to Glory earlier this year. He got on the phone with some friends, and next thing you know, they were out in search of a Beetle to run the race with.

"Class 11 is the lowest (race) class," Graham said, "but everyone roots for them because if you can get (one of the cars) across the desert, you've got something."

This VW has been specially decked out for the race. Graham explained that he called Eric Solorzano, a nine-time Baja 1000 Class 11 winner, in search of advice on how to put the car together and that, next thing he and his team knew, Solorzano had agreed to build them an engine, even though the car would be up against his own in the race.

These guys, meanwhile, are all from Silicon Valley, and so they decided that they had to gear the car up.

"Because we're all Silicon Valley geeks," Graham said, "we figured we would trick it out with as much electronics as possible."

Jim Graham, one of the leaders of the Desert Dingo Baja 1000 team, shows off the handheld GPS unit and the satellite phone his team will use to stay in touch while running the race. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

So, Graham explained, they will be carrying three GPS units and at least one satellite phone. The idea is to be able to know exactly where they are at any point and for him to be able to Twitter everything that happens almost in real time.

One innovation Desert Dingo will employ is to take the basic GPS course data provided by race organizer SCORE and add to it.

"We went a step further and bought data from a team that pre-ran the course," Graham explained, "and what they did was annotate the data with all the hazards on the course, such as big rocks, sheer cliffs, water crossings, and silt, with silt probably being the worst."

Thus, he added, "as we're driving, we'll know everything that's coming up."

Graham is also toting along a satellite phone, which he is hoping will allow him to send Twitter updates about the car's progress. He's not certain he'll be able to file the updates directly from the phone, but if not, he'll relay them via text to someone in a support vehicle who will them post them to the Internet.

"I'll (Twitter) the status of the car, or what a section of the route was like," he said. "Whatever I can fit in 140 characters."

One additional convenience Desert Dingo decided on was paying someone to handle the team's pit stops for it. So, by calculating how far they could make it on a single 15-gallon tank of gas, they've figured out exactly where to set up the pit stops along the route.

And while teams like Desert Dingo are relying on GPS for navigation, others have no choice to but to utilize the written directions provided by SCORE. Graham said his team will carry a copy of the directions in the car in case everything fails.

While many Baja 1000 teams will have high-tech navigation equipment to help them run the grueling race, some will have to rely on written directions. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

And while Desert Dingo doesn't look like its hopes to win the race, it is hoping that it can raise some money for Diabetes research. On its Web site, it is accepting donations, which will go entirely to the International Diabetes Foundation.

Ultimately, putting together a project like this, especially for first-timers like Desert Dingo, was quite the challenge. The team, many of whom are Burning Man veterans, has been working hard at it since March, has spent about $20,000 and is hoping its preparations will allow it to finish the course.

"It's all about figuring out what the variables are and managing them," Graham said. "It's like doing a theme camp at Burning Man. Except tis theme camp will be moving 25 miles an hour and it's for 1,300 miles."