2011 Baja 500 Trip Report (Living Vicariously Through the Experiences of Others)

MagicMtnDan

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A couple friends went to this year's Baja 500 (they go every year and I post their stories because I don't take time off of work to go with them).

Here's this year's report with the name changed to protect the guilty:


I land at San Diego Airport at 7:45pm Fri. Call (my friend John) John’s Baja Taxi, which promptly arrives curbside. We cross the border around 9pm. Arrive at Ensenada approximately 10:30pm. Ensenada continues to be built up, with ever more big box stores along the main road south of town. Traffic is heavy.

Dinner is late-night tacos at a roadside stand in Maneadero, a few km’s south of Ensenada. We are both hungry and though we start slow, we end up eating ten tacos between us.

From Maneadero, the population thins dramatically. The first 10 miles there is new road construction, which has taJohn place since we were last through this area in November ’10. They haven’t built a freeway, though. The road is smooth with a little bit wider shoulders, but still twisty two-lane.

Further south just before reaching Santo Tomas there is one straight section of highway. We are passed by a tour bus and an 18-wheeler. We aren’t toodling; probably driving about 55mph. Mexican truck drivers are mucho loco!

Finally we arrive in San Vicente. Our destination is a neat / secret spot out on the coast that we discovered while exploring after last year’s 500—at that time, we’d entered it into John’s GPS as a waypoint. According to my earlier review of the (paper) map, the best access is via a dirt road angling SSW from San Vicente. We turn on the GPS, call up our destination waypoint, and tell the GPS-chicky, who for the purposes of this report I’ll call Jane, to take us there. Jane seems to know what she’s talking about when she tells us to turn right in the middle of “town”. I assume she’s correct because her right turn is at the only stoplight, suggesting the cross-road is a “major” one. Within two blocks she has us heading down dirt alleys past stray dogs and trucks on blocks. And then “turn left here” when there is no road to the left. We end up dead-reckoning our way through the maze of dirt streets and out of town. Once into the hinterlands, the GPS’ route does seem like it is tracking the road we are actually on, so we agree to give Jane another chance.

Soon our road and the GPS’ route begin diverging. Our road is heading too directly south. We aren’t angling west to the coast. However, Jane hasn’t told us to turn anywhere. And the GPS map has never been tracking the on-the-ground situation exactly. So we figure eventually our road will start wending westward, to realign with the GPS route.

We reach a dead end at a big locked gate. The GPS’ track is off to our right, west, a few miles. We turn around, going back northbound, and start looking for lefts. Hopefully one of them will take us over to the road that the GPS is highlighting.

The first left dead ends at a farm-worker-housing facility. Squalor. No electricity, so completely dark. The second left peters out in something resembling a grassy field. We must be really close to intersecting the GPS line, so we continue mad-dogging straight across the field. The grass gets deeper. No road.

Eventually we see a ridgeline up ahead. Driving through tall grass in a completely flat area is one thing, but if the topography becomes varied we might easily drive into a ditch or hole that we never saw. Still, John suggests maybe we can bull our way through, figure out some way to wind around the ridge. We must be so close! But its 130AM, a pitch black night, and I think retracing our steps and finding a real road to the west is the best approach. When we turn around we realize that our tracks through the grass are not apparent. I thought we’d just follow our own tracks out, but there are no tracks. Which way did we come in? How do we go back? For a few moments we are truly lost. After a ½ - ¾ mile of cross-country driving, during which we debate whether we should angle left or right, we succeed in finding the faint road out.

The third left does the trick. Soon we are on a road coinciding with the GPS line, and heading due west. The GPS counts down: destination in 4 miles, 2 miles, 1 mile, 200’...and then “you have arrived at your destination”. Except, no, we haven’t. WTF is Jane talking about? We are sitting at a random intersection in the middle of nowhere. All of our choices are little-used dirt roads. Driving a short distance south doesn’t look familiar. Neither does a little way north.

It’s after 2AM. Let’s just call it here and we’ll figure it out in the morning. Then, through the rolled down window, I hear waves. So we aren’t where we thought we were, or are supposed to be, but at least we can camp at the beach rather than here by the side of an unknown dirt road. Down a rough trail to a shelf above a beach and...home sweet home. Some snacks and a glass of wine and we turn in about 3:15AM.

We are exhausted and sleep in till almost 9AM, despite that the day breaks clear and sunny at around 630. (This part of the coast is often socked in because the adjacent ocean water is very cold). After rising we realize that we are, at most, 3 miles north of the spot we were looking for last night. And that our present location is about race mile 328, which is where we had originally intended to watch the race on Sat, after a Fri night camping at the secret spot.

We’d see no racers before noon, so we decide to go find the planned Fri night spot and figure out why the GPS so screwed us up. We do this, and I still don’t know why Jane couldn’t get us there. But we decide to mark every turn as a waypoint, so in the future we can, hopefully, just follow the string of waypoints.

Returning to RM 328, it is a lovely sunny day with just a little breeze off the ocean. We pick a spot on the windward side of the course (less dust) and set up a table and chairs to have a little lunch. First motorcycles arrive at noon. The Honda A-Team rider is in the lead as usual.

At some point a couple of local families arrive to watch, parking next to us. Mariachi music on the radio and lots of little kids running around. On our other side, three guys from Ventura in a big chase-truck F350 who are pitting for a Class 1 buggy.

Motorcycle racers continue through 4pm, when the first trophy truck arrives. Bryce Menzies is in the lead, no damage to the truck, engine sounding good, he doesn’t even really look like he is working very hard. And, as we wait for racer number two, it becomes evident Menzies has a substantial lead on everyone else. Almost 20 minutes. John and I agree Menzies looked strong...he had about 130 miles to go but unless he crashed or broke the truck, he was going to win. And, in fact, Menzies won overall for four-wheeled vehicles in a bit over 9 hrs, 49mph avg. [The fastest competitor, the Honda motorcycle A team, finished in 8:47, 51.7mph avg].

Robby Gordon, arguably Baja’s most famous current competitor, drew 22 in the starting position lottery, which is way back of the field. Such a starting position would mean that Gordon would have to pass a lot of competitors to get up to the front. Gordon’s solution was to use his Dakar-Rally-spec Hummer H3 instead of his trophy truck. Since he could drive the whole race in the H3 without refueling he would be able to pass other racers when they stopped for fuel. As well, the H3, running “uncorked” (i.e., without the intake restrictor plate required under the Dakar rules) tested to a 165mph top speed, 30-35mph faster than Gordon’s trophy truck. Alas, in the end the plan didn’t work. When he went by us Gordon I calculated his position and ascertained that he had moved up 17 places from the start, an impressive performance. But it wasn’t enough. He wouldn’t catch Menzies. Gordon finished about 10th (for four wheeled vehicles) nearly an hour off Menzies’ pace.

Before dinnertime a Class 1 buggy comes in pretty hot and slides to a halt in front of our camp. Over the deafening engine, the driver asks if his right rear tire is flat. Which, yeah, it is shredded. Fortunately the guys from Ventura have their pit gear all set up so they quickly install the driver’s spare. They offer to slap one of their buggy’s wheels on as they have several extras on the F350’s rack, but the driver says no, just put the shredded tire in the spare location, and he takes off.

A bit before sundown John starts the campfire so the charcoal will burn down hot. Once the fire is ready, he cooks up a wonderful dinner of tri-tip, corn and baked potato. We wash it down with a bottle of nice red wine, finishing with chocolate chip cookies.

At 9PM the cars are still passing by, but the intervals are getting longer. 130 miles to the north in Ensenada most of the motorcycles have finished. Many four-wheel vehicles too, including race-winner Menzies. In fact, the top racers have probably had time to load their race trucks on transporters, get cleaned up and are just now finishing nice dinners at the Estero Beach Hotel. But if you have a low-budget race effort, you’re still out here in the middle of nowhere, banging your way up the coast, trying to finish, now in the dark of night.

If you are racing a motorcycle and are still out there at 9PM, you are having a very long day. At some time between 9 and 10pm, as John and I were setting up our bedrolls, a motorcycle competitor stopped at our camp and asked me if we had a banana.

“I don’t know...hey John, do we have a banana”?

“What?...What does he need?”

“A banana”.

“No bananas, but we have cookies and sandwiches”.

“Uh, sorry guy, we don’t have any bananas...do you want cookies or a sandwich?”

“No, I need a banana. My hands are gripped, can’t feel them, need some potassium”.

“Well, sorry, we don’t have any bananas”.

“Ok, thanks”.

The guy rides off, slowly and a little wobbly. John and I discuss the wisdom of rejecting our cookie offer. Sure a banana may have been ideal, but under the circumstances, wouldn’t some food be better than nothing? Then John remembers, we have some tomatoes, and they also have potassium. But by then it’s too late, the rider has disappeared into the darkness.

At 11pm we’re both pretty tired, having not turned in the night before until after 3AM. So, although usually we stay up well through the night on race-day, we decide to have one last glass of wine, bank the fire and call it. Contributing to our decision is a chilly wind rising off the ocean bringing increasing dampness to the air.

From my sleeping bag I hear a few vehicles go by—they are noisy and the lights are bright. But, I must have drifted off to sleep pretty quickly, because I only recall hearing that handful of vehicles.

Sunday morning again dawns bright and clear. What luck! This section of coast is so often cloudy. Also, my left eye, which has felt like there was something in it since Friday evening, and was especially uncomfortable on Saturday, is a bit better. So it looks like it’s going to be a good day. We have a couple of cinnamon rolls and start packing up. A few minutes before 730AM the last competitor we will see goes by, a VW-based buggy.

We are at RM 328. Checkpoint No. 3, down the coast at RM318, just closed at 7AM. The buggy might have made that. But Checkpoint No. 4, 90 miles distant at RM418, closes at 9AM. There is no way the buggy is going to make it in time. He’s timed out, a non-finisher. Technically speaking it hasn’t happened yet, not until 9AM, but he knows it. He could turn inland the 10 miles to San Vicente and drive the pavement to Ensenada. But he carries on. You have to admire the never say die attitude.

After we finish packing John’s jeep, we consult the maps to decide where we should explore. John assures me that although the gas gauge in his jeep is sitting at the top of the red, we have sufficient fuel to take the coast trail down to Colonet. So off we go. This trail is the race course and it is rough. 3-5mph and bouncy. I can’t imagine going any faster.

Slowly we make it to Johnson Ranch and then turn east out to the highway at Colonet, where there is a Pemex. The attendant fills the jeep, John does the dollars/pesos math so we can pay, and we depart northbound on the highway.

Approximately 25 miles later we take the turnoff out to the coast at Erendira. The road to Erendira is newly paved and fast. From Erendira we travel north on the coast road, which is bumpy dirt and rocks but still ok at 15-20mph. After passing over the scenic high point at Punta Cabras we angle inland, eventually reaching the highway at Santo Tomas. At the Pemex in Santo Tomas the attendant airs us up, John tips him $2 which he is cheerfully accepts, and we head on north to Ensenada.

Getting through Ensenada on a Sunday afternoon is an exercise in patience. It’s a busy time with many locals out and about. You have to zen out and accept that it takes as long as it takes.

North of Ensenada we elect to take the two-lane to Tecate and cross the border there. Our reasoning is three-fold: we’ve never gone this way, Tecate is usually a shorter wait, and the 4-lane between Tijuana and Ensenada is under heavy construction so we anticipate delays if we take the toll road to TJ. I punch our destination (“Tecate, California”) into the GPS and Jane tells us to turn right and follow Mexico 3. It is about 50 miles and at first it is straight and flat so we’re making good time. Then we begin climbing the mountains and things slow down. Still, it’s a scenic ride, much like traveling through eastern San Diego County.

At Tecate, Jane tells us to roll right through town and up to the crossing point. I know this isn’t right. But I humor her. Of course, she’s wrong. So we drive, like we knew we were going to have to, a few blocks east over to the end of the line. I make a left turn from the main drag at the “Border Crossing ->” sign. This is in front of perhaps 3 other cars that are coming into line from the east. The Mex-American girls in the car next to us are so rude that you’d think we just pissed on their heads. “You’re cutting, go to the back of the line” etc. Well, first of all, we pretty much all got there at the same time. And, second, we are THREE CARS from the end of the line!

The border wait is 2 hrs. John tries to put a positive spin on this, pointing out that it will be the litmus test for his recent cooling system repairs. But really, it sucks. Another zen exercise. I planned to use my last pesos to buy a bag of churros while in line but for the first hour of wait there are no churros vendors so John is plying me with cookies. By the time we finally see a churros vendor I’ve filled up on cookies. No sale, and I still have the 25 pesos.

As usual, the immigration guy at the border is a jerk. But he lets us in and we head west to San Diego. My flight isn’t till 9:45pm, but I want to get John on the road back to LA, so we go straight to the airport. John drops me at the Southwest curb, quick goodbyes and he departs for his house. I’m filthy so I try to clean up in the men’s room. I have a clean pair of jeans but, rummaging through my backpack, I discover I did not reserve a clean t-shirt. So I just put on my fleece jacket over the grubby t-shirt I’m wearing. Through security and to the gate, I have an hour to wait for the flight. The rush of the weekend starts to wear off and suddenly I find myself really tired.
 
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MagicMtnDan

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His pics are on his FB page. I'll see about copying them and pasting them here.

Next year? I'd like to. It's taking time off from work that's an issue...
 

FordFanStan

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Neat story.

Not having known who this is coming from, it sounded like it was a couple until the end and he said in the men's room lol.

I've been to the Baja's before, but never camped out over night and I have always wanted to. But my ex-boss, who was born and raised in TJ and goes with me down to the races, still warns me of doing so in Mexico. FFS
 
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