Champion driver Tanner Foust missed the starting line of the 2021 National Off Road Racing Association Mexican 1000 off-road rally. To be fair, it wasn't his fault. He was driving the electric Volkswagen ID 4 and the official directing traffic didn't hear him coming. This silent SUV didn't look like it would survive nearly 1,000 miles of grueling terrain, but five days later it crossed the finish line with hardly a problem, even coming in on the same set of Yokohama Geolander A/T tires it started on.
Similar to the Baja 1000, the Mexican 1000 takes racers through some of the most desolate parts of Mexico's Baja Peninsula. Taking place over five days, this year's rally started in Ensenada, moved south to San Felipe and Bay of Los Angeles before coming back north for one more night in San Felipe, followed by the finish line in Ensenada. Teams weren't able to prerun the course, but everyone had a GPS track and a roadbook that called out any dangers.
Prepped by veteran fabricator and Baja racing team owner Rhys Millen, the ID 4 was upgraded with a set of rally shocks, skid plates and 18-inch wheels wrapped with those Geolanders, size 255/70. A cage was added for safety, as were Sparco racing seats and five-point harnesses. An additional screen with battery information kept the team apprised of remaining range, battery capacity and temperatures.
VW doesn't yet offer an all-wheel-drive ID 4, so car No. 134 put its power down through the rear wheels only, a risky proposition in Baja for reasons that will soon become clear. The 82-kilowatt-hour battery in the road-going Pro S ID 4 is good for 250 miles or so of range in the best conditions, while the electric motor can push out 201 horsepower and 229 pound-feet of torque.
Volkswagen wasn't really sure how far the ID 4 would go on one charge in Baja. The car's range estimator takes into account the previous few days of driving when making its calculations, and since every day of the rally is so different, it's really a crapshoot. Instead, driver Tanner Foust and Volkswagen engineer and co-driver Aldrich To kept track of consumption, trying to keep it at an average 1.6 miles per kWh. Too much speed and this figure would dip -- although that didn't stop Foust from hitting 107 mph on a dry lakebed -- but the average could be brought back up on the flatter dirt roads.
Charging came courtesy of a trailer with a 50-kW charger powered by a biofuel generator. Using a generator to charge isn't exactly the optimal procedure, but the team had to work with the infrastructure they had. Mexico has plenty of fuel stations these days, but charging stations, not so much. During the pavement transit sections of the race, the ID 4 went into its trailer, simultaneously making the journey to the next special stage while recharging the battery.
Day 1 marked the ID 4's biggest mechanical failure. During the first special stage the aftermarket rear shock mounts broke. Foust was able to complete the stage where the team swapped those aftermarket rally shocks with the stock setup, leading to a fairly bouncy rear end for the rest of the rally, slowing the car down a bit. Then again, it's not like the ID 4 was ever quick. You can only go so fast with roughly 7 inches of ground clearance and not much more wheel travel than what comes as stock.
Day 2 was where the physical limitations of the ID 4 came into play, and of course it was when I was behind the wheel. The ID 4 had its own LS-powered buggy acting as a sweep car. The idea was that if the ID 4 got stuck, the buggy could pull it out and we wouldn't have to wait for the official recovery vehicle from NORRA. The buggy, however, was having some wiring issues, leading it to overheat, so it wasn't always directly behind the ID 4.
The other thing you need to know is that the ID 4 was not carrying any recovery gear. If you've read any of my off-roading stories you'll know I don't go anywhere without a set of Maxtrax, but the team assumed the buggy would always be with the ID 4, so self-recovery wouldn't be needed.
All of this came into play as we -- Foust riding right seat and me behind the wheel -- turned a corner and encountered soft, deep sand with 2-foot-deep ruts, leading to a slight uphill. It's possible to get a rear-wheel drive vehicle through soft sand, but it requires momentum. To keep momentum you need clearance and travel, and we had neither. We managed to get off the course but got stuck. Our recovery buggy? Behind us somewhere with an overheated motor.
Foust and I did the best we could, trying to dig out with some flip flops he had stored in the car for after the race. We put rocks in front of and behind the tires, aired down, saw a few snakes... the rear-wheel drive ID 4 wasn't going anywhere without a tow or some Maxtrax.
When the recovery buggy finally got to us, it too got stuck in the sand, and then the official NORRA recovery vehicle met the same fate. Finally our large chase truck found a hard-packed dirt access road and came with some recovery boards, and we were back on the move in 15 minutes. Unfortunately, we had lost too much time and the stage closed before we could reach that day's finish line.
The rest of the rally, however, was pretty much problem-free. The ID 4 needed a tow charge to finish a 167-mile special stage; towing it behind the sweep buggy resulted in 20 kW of regenerative-energy charging. And no, there's nothing in the rules that says a vehicle can't refuel while completing an individual stage. In fact, many of the gas-powered race cars had to refuel on the longer stages. They did it with a gas can. The Volkswagen did it with a tow.
I took over driving duties for one more stage, leaning on the ID 4's regenerative braking system so that I never had to touch the mechanical brakes. Driving the ID 4 was much like piloting the Rivian R1T in the Rebelle Rally -- use the regen braking as much as possible, going smooth on the throttle, finding the best lines and try not to screw it all up. With a rally champion riding shotgun you can bet I was nervous, but Foust was gracious, offering up a free driving lesson as we guided the ID 4 across Baja.
In the end, the longest special stage the ID 4 was able to complete was 113 miles, and the car averaged 1.6 miles per kWh across the whole week. If you want to look at that number as overall range on the dirt, the Volkswagen averaged 125 miles on a charge, about half of the 250-mile range the ID 4 Pro S should get on paved roads in normal driving. (The lower-tier pro does 260 according to the EPA.)
The ID 4 didn't win the NORRA Mexican 1000. In fact, it came in 61st place out of 64 finishers, with 26 racers not finishing at all. However, the ID 4 was the only electric vehicle to complete; the fact that it's production based is just icing on the cake. Lordstown Motors recently attempted to run its Endurance pickup truck in the San Felipe 250, but only made it 38 miles. Thanks to careful planning and logistics, the Volkswagen ID 4 completed 840 miles of punishing dirt racing. Now it's up to other manufacturers, and privateers, to come down to Baja and beat it.