We're racing from Ensenada, Mexico to La Paz and we're doing it the hard way, in a 1970 air-cooled Volkswagen Beetle.
Emme HallFormer 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.
Before there were drivers like Robby Gordon and Rob McCachren piloting 600-horsepower Trophy Trucks 1,000 miles down the Mexican peninsula, there were little air-cooled Volkswagen Beetles doing the same. Utilizing the analog technology from the late 1960s, this was a man-and-machine-versus-nature shootout where nature often had the upper hand. I'm talking about the SCORE Baja 1000, perhaps the most infamous off-road race in the world.
The Baja 1000 traverses the Mexican peninsula, either as a point-to-point race from Ensenada to La Paz, or as a loop with cars starting and finishing in Ensenada. Drivers must contend with the worst nature has to offer. All vehicles race over everything from sand and rocks to silt beds over a mile long. Spectators have been known to set booby traps by digging ditches or building jumps, often wreaking havoc on the smaller cars. Since 1967 many have attempted the Baja 1000; few have conquered it.
Now, here we are 50 years later and some crazy folks like me and the boys from Denver-based Project Baja are still attempting the toughest off-road race in the world in a class 11 stock Beetle. The Trophy Trucks and unlimited cars are expected to finish this year's 1,134 mile race in 19 hours, but our little No. 1137 will more than likely still be swimming through the silt while the big guys are on their way back home.
Our car, nicknamed Tope, colloquial Spanish for speed bump, has been improved as much as the rules allow. The stock shocks have been replaced by Fox racing shocks with external reservoirs, the rear trailing arms have been boxed for strength and the rear springs are stiffer and have been engineered by our Team Genius to get a bit more wheel travel. (Editors' note: Don't click on that link unless you want to seriously nerd out on fabrication, geometry and CAD.) We've fit BF Goodrich Long Trail tires on the front to help us float over the silt, but the driven rear wheels are wearing the sturdy KO2 rubber.
Safety is of course paramount and Tope sports a full cage, a 22-gallon safety fuel cell, racing seats and five-point harnesses. Plus we have a GPS, race radio, satellite phone and a redundant Garmin inReach GPS communicator.
Outside, Tope reflects her Coloradan heritage with the colors of the state flag and gets an extra five horsepower with each sponsor sticker. Just kidding! The 1,600cc engine puts out a mere 65 horsepower at the wheels. A four-speed manual transmission, along with shouts of encouragement from both driver and co-driver, gets all that insane power to to dirt.
We have three driving teams. I will be responsible for navigation from the starting line in Ensenada to just north of San Felipe at race-mile 190, and then again from San Ignacio at race-mile 609 to just north of Loreto at race-mile 784. I'll be calling out turns to driver Josh McGuckin, keeping an eye on our tail for any competitors barreling down on us and will be the primary silt-digger and Maxtrax-placer when we get stuck.
We have 48 hours to finish the race. The last class 11 driver to cross the finish line was Noe Gutierrez in 2016 in a much-easier Ensenada to Ensenada 1,000 mile loop. The last Ensenada-to-La Paz peninsula run was in 2014 where Dennis Hollenbeck crossed the finish line in 50 hours and 35 minutes. The team was officially a Did Not Finish, but they received finisher pins to recognize their heroic efforts.
In Baja, you must expect the unexpected. We have two primary chase trucks that will shadow Tope as much as possible, carrying parts that are known to fail. A back-up chase truck will be used for any parts and fuel runs if need be. We have one vehicle that will be used to shuttle driving teams down the peninsula and one vehicle that will serve as our primary parts hauler, trailer tower and communications hub. A four-person media team will be on hand as well.
The team is as prepared as we can be. Our goal is simple: JFF. Just F*#&ing Finish.
We go off the line around 3 p.m. PST on Thursday, Nov. 16 and will cross the finish line in La Paz two days later. You can follow car No. 1137 at www.score-international.com and we'll be posting pictures and video from the race as service allows on both the Roadshow and Project Baja social media pages.