Travel

An Australian fulfils his dream to tear across north-west Mexico. By Matthew Clayfield.

Going off-road in Mexico’s Baja 1000

A lonely pit stop on the offroad Baja 1000.
Credit: MATTHEW CLAYFIELD

It’s probably the first time the waiter in Ensenada has heard these two words, but he takes them in his stride: “Ta, cobber.” In turn, Chris Western takes to the largest steak on the menu – he double-checked to make sure – with gusto.

The 40-year-old Gold Coast resident is in Ensenada, in Mexico’s Baja California state, to take on the SCORE International Baja 1000, the crowning event of off-road racing’s international calendar. It’s a massive affair, about 1820 kilometres point-to-point, Ensenada to La Paz, with few opportunities for drivers such as Chris, who will be behind the wheel the whole way –  “ironman-ing” it – to catch any shut-eye.

It’s also hugely popular. The population of Ensenada, an hour south of Tijuana and the US–Mexico border, has exploded in the lead-up. The bars and restaurants are overflowing with Americans, Mexicans, Europeans and Japanese in heavily branded T-shirts, and local children accost them at every turn for handfuls of team stickers. Chris’s Off-Road Rush Mickey Thompson Race Team – friends and family, including his parents, his wife and three kids – runs out of theirs before the race has even begun.

I have met Chris for dinner at the San Nicolas Hotel, where the 47-year history of the race lines the walls in the form of countless framed photographs. The three-time Australian national off-road champion excuses himself a moment to browse the wall and smiles when he spots the late Mickey Thompson, whose tyre company now sponsors him.

“I’ve been dreaming about this since I was 10 years old,” he says. “That’s when I first started driving VWs around my dad’s farm and reading about the race in his buggy magazines.”

It is the first time an Australian designed and built buggy has competed in the event. The class 1 buggy, the Element Prodigy, was designed by a South Australian engineer specifically for Chris’s Baja attempt and it sports a six-litre, 550-horsepower engine that can reach 210 kilometres an hour.

I ask if I need to book accommodation for our stops along the way. Chris stops chewing for a moment and looks at me like I’ve got a screw loose.

“No, mate,” he says. “The race doesn’t stop. We’ll sleep in La Paz.”

Off-roaders have been taking on Baja for nearly half a century. In 1962, American Honda enlisted a couple of motorcyclists to prove the staying power of the company’s latest model by subjecting it to an arduous, long-distance run from Tijuana to La Paz. Various others in an assortment of vehicles began attempting to break the motorcyclists’ time – recorded in those days by telegraphs wired from the start and finish lines – to the extent that it became obvious an organised event was needed. The first Mexican 1000 Rally was held in 1967, and grew in subsequent years to attract land-speed record-holders, Indy 500 winners and movie stars such as James Garner.

This year’s race will host 237 vehicles – trucks, buggies, motorcycles, all-terrain vehicles, VW bugs and everything in between. They will represent some 17 countries and 34 American states. Fewer than 60 per cent will cross the finish line.

The next day a swarm of helicopters buzzes low over the Pacific, cutting small and black through the cloudless blue of midmorning. While Chris and his father edge ever closer to the starting line – Rhyce, 65, is to be his son’s first navigator – the buggy’s designer, Rowan, is somewhere far to the south, depositing the remaining four navigators at a number of pre-arranged pit stops.

As the off-road specialist “trophy trucks” tear across the line at one-minute intervals, and the helicopters buzz off and leave the sky eerily empty, Chris quiets and his focus narrows. He inches the Element Prodigy forward for the buggy-class start, and the team’s logistics man, Nigel, turns on his heels and hightails it to the chase truck. We hit the road before Chris roars off.

After a while we’re completely lost. Chris is scheduled to be arriving at his second pit soon, but damned if we can find the thing. The radio connection between the buggy and the chase trucks is intermittent at best, and the real-time GPS fitted to the buggy – allowing team member Gary back in Sydney to provide up-to-the-second logistics support – conked out at the starting line, leaving us reliant on a system that updates everyone’s positions at whopping 10-minute intervals. When the satellite phone finally connects, we’re told to pull over until our latest position comes through.

“Gary says it’s back up the road a bit,” Nigel says. “Up a goat track.”

It’s only by chance we soon spot the faintest glow coming over a rise a little further to the north and eventually come to a couple of shipping containers decked out with tools and lit with floodlights running off a generator. It occurs to me now that rather than looking for the pit we should have listened for it. As each trophy truck and buggy comes down the track they are accompanied by God’s own thunder. When you sight them, their headlights are so powerful all you can make out is a ball of fire.

Chris and second navigator Aaron have already arrived and the Mexicans manning the makeshift garage are serving as a temporary pit crew. The boys are positively caked in dust: they have just driven, they tell us, some 80 kilometres of “whoops”, tightly spaced small jumps with depressions up to 1.5 metres deep – nature’s corrugated iron. The racing pack is now beginning to thin out, with waist-high desert sands beginning to claim victims. It tells you everything you need to know about the people racing Baja that Chris and Aaron interrupted their run to help tow another buggy out of the mire.

We arrive in San Ignacio at dawn. The effects of Hurricane Odile, the most intense tropical cyclone in Baja since 1967, are still evident as we drive through the town’s paradoxical surrounds – the desert suddenly gives way to a palm-fringed lagoon, licked with early-morning mist – and then through its battered centre. Kids hold up signs on each street corner: “Stickers.” What do they do with them all?

The pit is five kilometres out on the other side of town, where the desert again asserts its dominance of the peninsula.

A Hollywood stunt driver by day – he recently worked on Mad Max: Fury Road – Mick, the next navigator, has spent the night sitting alone out here with a cold. He has no idea what awaits him: we’re nearly 600 kilometres further along the course now than the team had a chance to pre-run. Rugged up in the cold morning sun, he swipes gingerly at a tablet computer, studying the terrain he is about to navigate from the bird’s-eye view of Google Earth.

By the time Chris pulls up in the shade of a 4.5-metre cactus, he has been driving for 20 hours or so. His grin seems tired now, his focus blurred at the edges, but adrenalin is playing its part. The navigators are playing theirs as well, though the part in question is beginning to change. In addition to reading the GPS, they increasingly have to read Chris as well, ensuring his concentration and quietly fanning his will to continue.

“Seeing the boys at each stop – changing navigators and having that contact with everyone – kept me going,” Chris tells me later. “When you’re driving, it’s all about you. It’s just you, the car and the terrain. Seeing everyone every eight hours or so reminded me why I was there in the first place. It stuck a Duracell up the arse.”

Thoughts of his family doubtless help, too. Indeed, when the Element Prodigy crosses the finish line in La Paz, some 32 hours after it set out, Chris’s children, along with his teammates’, welcome it with more Australian flags than I care to count. His mother, Karen, is beside herself with pride. And Rhyce is once again in the navigator’s seat.

I make it beyond the official cordon by bribing a police officer with a team sticker.

As the buggy is rolled onto the flatbed and the entire contingent clambers onto the tray of one of the chase trucks, Rowan struggles to hold back tears. The Element Prodigy has finished a race more than twice the length of the Bathurst 1000 and more than four times that of Alice Spring’s Finke Desert Race. They finished eighth in a class of 19, while eight others failed to finish. And they put Australian-built vehicles on the map in a sport that has long been dominated by the Americans.

“We were just a couple of blokes in a shed who started talking about building a car,” Rowan says. “We’ve already had people offer to buy it from us, but that’s never going to happen.” He composes himself and smiles. “It’s going straight to the pool room.”

As we turn onto the city’s malecón – the esplanade – the kids take up the chant: “Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!”

Lying in the chase truck’s tray, Chris Western doesn’t hear any of it. His finisher’s medal around his neck, he is already fast asleep.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 11, 2015 as "Baja California dreaming". Subscribe here.

Matthew Clayfield
is a freelance foreign correspondent.