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Off-Roaders Gather for Baja’s 1,000 Mile Race

Audio

Aired 4/19/09

This past weekend Baja California residents and visitors watched as racers made their way from Ensenada to La Paz for the 39th running of the Baja 1000. The race is often called "the toughest 24 hours in motor sports." Reporter James Spring was at mile marker 177 near San Felipe, Mexico.

Hundreds of race fans camped out near pit row to watch more than 400 racers battle the desert and the dust for the SCORE-International Baja 1000. It's the world's longest point-to-point race.

The 1,000 mile race is open to motorcycles and a wide range of four-wheeled vehicles, including the crowd favorite – the Trophy Trucks. They're massive 700-horse-powered dune buggies that resemble pumped up pick-up trucks. They're known as trophy trucks because their drivers tend to take home the race's top prizes. One was driven again this year by NASCAR star Robby Gordon.  

The event attracts plenty of star power. Actor Patrick Dempsey of television's Grey's Anatomy , and Micron CEO Steve Appleton also signed on to compete in this year's contest alongside pro and amateur racers. Tim Lawrence of Baja Pits is putting his own time and sweat into this year's race. He's helping fuel and repair all sorts of vehicles. 

Tim Lawrence : It seems like… all walks of life seem to be interested in the Baja 1000. It's got that magic attraction, or that aura, and everyone's drawn to it. Everyone seems to want to conquer it.

And Lawrence says to become the King of the Desert brings a certain amount of fame.

  Lawrence: If you win the Baja 1000, it's kind of the Indianapolis 500 of off-road.

Baja Pits is a volunteer organization that provides fueling stops and repairs for independent "privateers" – riders without sponsorships. Groups like Baja Pits have kept the race true to its modest origins, and open to participants who can't afford helicopter spotters and the type of support provided to the top factory riders. Lawrence says the Baja 1000 is not about the money; it's about man versus the desert.

Lawrence: It boils down to when you're out racing in Baja you're by yourself, and it pretty much depends on you. So, a lot of times, I think the size of your heart maybe has a lot to do with it. Sometimes you've got to dig deep and go for that 2nd and 3rd wind to get through some of this stuff, but I think that's what makes it interesting, and what makes it so complex compared to other types of racing. 

This year's race was won by the relay team of Mike Childress, Quinn Cody, and Baja legend Steve Hengeveld. He piloted the Team Honda motorcycle across the finish line in La Paz with a time of just under 18 1/2 hours. This is Hengeveld's sixth Baja 1000 win. The first trophy truck to cross the finish line was the Red Bull #83 driven by Robby Gordon and Andy McMillin.

While the event was over for the front-runners, many racers still found themselves in the midst of the battle hours later, slogging through the woes that the Baja 1000 can inflict on man and machine. 

Throughout the course, spectators lined both sides of the narrow dirt roads, often no more than a few feet from flying motorcycles and the oversized and overpowered trucks moving up to ninety miles an hour. 

Lawrence: Sometimes in these races there's so many people, it's like a sea of people - and it opens as you come through, and closes behind you, because everyone wants to run out in the road and look.

Marcos Rubio, a resident of nearby San Felipe agrees. 

Marcos Rubio: They pass very fast. And we like looking at them so much that we can't make ourselves get out of the way.

The Rubio family stands close enough to the road to touch the trucks as they pass, and a sea of dust washes over their four children. They're at one of the few places where crowds gather. For the most part, the race is run in the desolate back country of the Baja Peninsula. It's a place where drivers and their machines take on an unforgiving environment with risks that far outweigh the trophy or prize money waiting for just a few at the finish line.

James Spring, KPBS Radio.

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