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Race Report: We take the checkered flag and a special trophy

The McKenzie's 250 off-road race in Lucerne Valley, California, was full of silt, rocks and a little bit of high-speed nerfing.

Emme Hall Former editor for CNET Cars
I love two-seater, RWD convertibles and own a 2004 Mazdaspeed Miata for pavement fun and a lifted 2001 Miata for pre-running. I race air-cooled Volkswagens in desert races like the Mint 400 and the Baja 1000. I have won the Rebelle Rally, seven-day navigational challenge, twice and I am the only driver to compete in an EV, the Rivian R1T.
Emme Hall
5 min read

I am a buggy dork. In fact, I love air-cooled Volkswagens so much I race one in desert endurance races in California and Nevada.

My car, 1617, runs a 1600cc engine and has a stock VW beam front end. The transmission is a 4-speed manual out of a VW bus and we run 3.0 bypass Fox Shox on all four corners. Stopping power is provided by Jamar disc brakes and when we need illumination we have an LED light bar by Sierra LED Lights. The car makes less than 90 horsepower and even less torque, and I love it with all my heart and soul.

This past weekend we had a, let's say, "eventful" time at the Mojave Off-Road Enthusiasts McKenzie's 250 race in Lucerne Valley, California.

Class 1600

Yes sir, that's my baby.

RnR Photos

The trouble started a few days before the race. I was down 15 gallons of race fuel and my regular supplier would not be out at the race. I was on my own to find 113 octane fuel for my 2-seat 1600cc buggy to get me through the rough and tumble 250-mile course.

Fortunately a fellow competitor, Meehan Motorsports, had 11 extra gallons that I could buy. My car gets 9 miles per gallon, and with the fuel I already had the math worked out, but we would just be eking by.


A smoother section of the race course.

Kaylee Guildford

In off-road racing, all classes share the same track, but they don't all do the same amount of laps. Class 1600 is the slowest of the fast cars, so we were required to do six 40-mile laps. We were sharing the course with 800 horsepower trophy trucks, class 10 cars running 2-liter ecotec engines, and even a UTV or two.

I drove the first three laps had a few issues. I blew a corner in a sandy wash and ended up stuck on the berm. It took careful throttle control and a bit of back and forth to get 1617 off the berm and safely out of the turn without getting the tires buried, all the while praying no other car came upon us and ended our day.

I missed a tight downhill right turn in the dust and nearly drove off a 10-foot cliff. Fortunately my brakes were on point, and I stopped just in time. My co-driver, JR, already has a heart condition and this was his first race so I was worried about his heart exploding from all the excitement.

Class 1600

Good Lord I hope someone catches me!

Martha Lee Motorsports

We also got a flat rear tire, which JR got out and changed in about 7 minutes. We only carry a smaller front tire as a spare since you can run a front on the rear but not a rear on the front. When I say "run a front on the rear," I mean that careful driving can get you safely around the track. I took it down about 5 miles per hour for the rest of the lap until we reached main pits. We swapped both rear tires for our spares and JR and I climbed out.

Mark is my clean-up driver. As part of Martha Lee Motorsports he works on the car and stores the car for me in the high desert. He and co-dawg Matt got in for the final three laps. At this point we knew we were in the top 5 in our class, but this is desert racing and anything can happen.

It happened quickly. I had barely opened my Diet Dr Pepper when Matt called over the radio, "We got tangled up with a trophy truck. Stand by."

Tangled up? Was he broken down and Mark hit him in the dust? Was Mark stopped on the course for some reason got hit? Is everyone okay? The minutes ticked by as we waited for a radio transmission.

Finally, Matt's voice over the radio, "He ran up our rear and got stuck. We are separated and back on the move."


Dust, dirt and fun: A day in the life of an off-road race car (Pictures)

See all photos

The story we got later was truck No. 84 hit us from behind and got his driver's front tire stuck between our exhaust manifold and the passenger rear tire. Giving a little "nerf" is not uncommon in off-road racing. When high-powered trophy trucks with 36-inches of travel share the course with 85-horsepower Volkswagens with 10-inches of wheel travel, it's inevitable. It's tough to hear anything and rear visibility is very compromised. A nerf, when done correctly, is a nice way to say, "We caught you. Move over."

The boys got the two trucks unhooked but our rear trailing arm and spring plate were rattling and barely hanging on. A quick stop at remote pits fixed the problem, but everything was loose again very quickly.

For the remainder of the race we had to stop every 20 miles to tighten everything back down. The love tap also forced an air bubble into the power steering line, forcing Mark to manhandle 1617 through the course until the bubble worked itself out.


Look closely. Can you see 1617 getting the checkered flag?

Emme Hall/Roadshow

The extra time it took to make those five extra pit stops meant we were the last car on the course, but we were moving and we knew many of the other 1,600 cars had broken and were out of the race. We knew we were in at least fourth place, possibly third.

1617 hasn't gotten a checkered flag since last February, when I rolled the car and still managed to get second place. Every race since then we've had some kind of problem. Wiring and electrical issues, carburetor issues, you name it, it's happened.

Our race motto is JFF: Just F---ing Finish. We don't have the money for the alternative "Checkers or Wreckers" philosophy, so we try to JFF and have fun. Watching 1617 take the checkered flag, running on fumes, with the rest of my team and knowing that we all had a hand in getting her across the finish line, I realized how lucky I am to have these people and this car in my life. Racing teaches me so much. It gives me confidence, it teaches me good sportsmanship and it shows me that it may take awhile but if you put in enough work, you'll eventually reach your goal.

A podium finish remained just out of reach for us this weekend, but we received a 20-inch LED lightbar for being the last car to cross the finish line and we received the Sabina Motorsports True Grit trophy for soldiering through and finishing, even though we:

  • Barely had enough fuel
  • Had one new co-driver with a known heart condition
  • Almost drove off a cliff
  • Nearly got stuck on a sandy berm in the middle of the race course
  • Got a flat tire
  • Ran 15 miles with a front tire on the rear
  • Got gnarly nerfed by a trophy truck
  • Lost power steering
  • Stopped every 20 miles for 160 miles to tighten up the trailing arm and spring plate bolts lest we break the axle and CV joints
  • Crossed the finish line last

Still, I think I'm more proud of the True Grit trophy than any podium trophy I've ever gotten.

If money allows it, we'll be running a night race in July. I'm petrified of driving in the dark, but at least I've got a new light bar!