During the 30 years that off-roaders have participated in sanctioned races south of the border, there haven't been too many changes to the rugged, rocky peninsula called Baja. The stately cacti are probably an inch or two taller now, and all the rural dwellings seem to have sprouted satellite dishes. But for the most part, the land has remained unchanged; dusty, barren, and punishing, it's just about one of the most exciting and challenging courses on the planet.
The drivers who come to Mexico to accept its dare haven't changed much from those early days either. Mostly from Southern California and other southwestern states, the participants in this annual rite compete for the same homegrown glory and personal sense of fulfillment as their predecessors. After all, this type of lonely desert competition doesn't bring out a stadium full of screaming fans, nor does it attract primetime television coverage. Of course, such names as Hall, Stewart, Jones, Ragland, Smith, and Gordon are synonymous with the Baja tourney today, just as they were a decade or, in some cases, two decades ago. But these well-known hall-of-famers are the exceptions. Thousands more have raced--and sometimes won--in virtual obscurity.
However, one aspect of the Baja 1000 that has changed radically is in the area of technology. Whereas some of the early efforts included successful runs in a near-stock '67 Rambler, the rigors of Baja have necessitated new developments in every component of the vehicles that compete there, from air filters to valve stems. Described by one writer as "a stronghold against progress," the Baja race challenges engineers to unsheath their slide rules and join the dusty chic.
The very first Mexican 1000 Rally featured a purpose-built racer dubbed the Hurst Baja Boot, brought to life by designer Vic Hickey. A General Motors engineer and desert racing fan, Hickey transformed his preliminary sketches into an actual vehicle in less than a month. Fabricated from SAE- 1010 13/4-inch steel tubing, the 3,450-pound vehicle boasted zero front and rear overhang and 9 inches of vertical wheel travel. At 112 inches in length, this hybrid four-wheel-drive buggy relied on a suspension system that included parts from Corvette rear drive assemblies, Olds Toronado axleshafts, and a Dana transfer case. Inverted from their normal positions, the drive assemblies allowed the driver to disengage the transfer case so the Boot could be operated in front-wheel drive only. A collapsible steering column, 11-inch Hurst-Airheart disc brakes, and a 20-inch-diameter, six-blade fan with reversed pitch (to blow air away through a Chevy truck radiator) were among the vehicle's most innovative features. Even the 350ci V-8 was used in a unique manner: Hickey installed it backward in the chassis, in front of the rear axleshafts.
In the early days, competitors would venture into the backroads of Baja in near-stock Ramb
Other radical designs were not far behind. The Meyers Manx, Pete Condo's Con-Ferr Thing, and the Big Oly Bronco were among the most significant pioneers. The Boot's present-day equivalent comes in the form of the "Truggy." Powered by a 430ci Ford V-8, this recent mishmash of technology is highlighted by its innovative suspension design. The vehicle, developed by the Terrible Herbst team of Huntington Beach, California, sports 32 inches of suspension travel in the rear and 30 inches up front. Such massive articulation is achieved by front coil-overs and rear inverted springs. Last November, the Truggy swept the 1997 Class 1 points battle.
While it will be a while before you see any of the Truggy's science applied to mainstream cars and trucks, some of the technology developed for the Baja has found its way into most of the vehicles Americans drive today. Over the years, Ford has used the race to aid in the creation of its all-wheel-drive systems, and GM engineers had the advantage of 20 years of experience down south before building their most-recent independent front suspension. Even more recently, Ivan "Ironman" Stewart's Toyota T100 received the company's much-anticipated V-8 before the first production model rolled off the assembly line.
Although high-profile racers have often relied on mega-buck factory sponsorships to finance their rides, Baja has remained fairly accessible to low-budget efforts. These teams rely more on baling wire than computer-aided designs. This, as much as any other factor of history or lore, is how the Baja continues to retain its old-fashioned charm and dangerous allure.