The Baja peninsula has some of the most gnarly terrain you will ever find. With mile after mile of intense off-road tracks, it is a car racer’s dream. Each year, thousands of racers and their fans flock to the Baja to take part in some kind of car race.
The most notable of these is probably the Baja-1000, which is a 1,000 mile race typically from Ensenada to La Paz. It is organized and run by the Southern California Off-Road Enterprises (SCORE) and is one of the world’s most renowned off-road races. Unusually, it pits a huge range of vehicles in the one race, against the clock. You will find motorcycles, custom cars, trucks, ATVs, race vehicles and, of course, the famous Baja Bug. The Baja Bug is a stock Volkswagen Type One Beetle that has been modified for off-road terrain. The addition of front and rear bumpers, a roll cage for safety and an increase in suspension, all make the lightweight, traditional ‘people’s car’, the perfect racing vehicle. These vehicles tackle the terrain on different courses each year. There is the point-to-point race which traditionally starts in Ensenada, although Tijuana and Mexicali have both been hosts for the kick-off. The course winds its way 1,000 miles south through the extreme landscape to finish in the beach resort cities of La Paz or Cabo San Lucas. Other times, the race may take the form of the loop race. In this event, the race starts and finishes in the same place, most commonly Ensenada. The distance will vary depending on the route, but is typically around 600-850 miles. Long enough for some spectacular race scenes and mishaps.
The first Baja race was held in 1967 and was named the Mexican 1000. Organized by the National Off-Road Racing Association (NORRA), the race grew quickly in popularity. In 1973, NORRA abandoned the race due to threats of fuel price-hikes and accessibility. This is when SCORE took over and have hosted and promoted the event since.
There has been a resurgence in the Mexican 1000 and practically every few days you are bound to find some kind of unique racing event. These races attract big-spending, professional competitors complete with pit-crew and helicopter support. However, you will also find amateur teams with limited budgets and a few friends and family as support crew. These teams will usually pull into check points towards the later hours of the evening and remain awake until even later hours fixing the many mechanical problems that arise from this type of racing. Despite this, these competitors come back year after year for the thrill and camaraderie.
As far as spectating goes, it isn’t always easy to catch a glimpse of these incredible, bespoke racing vehicles. Your best bet is to attend the start or finish as it will give you plenty of time to peruse the line up. Equally, finding a stop along the way will ensure you are able watch the racers come in to the check point. Join them for a cold beer or, if you are mechanically minded, offer your services for the pit crew! Watching the race in the vast desert is difficult, and can be dangerous. Spectators have been known to sabotage parts of the course and create booby traps. This is not for the reason of allowing their favorite competitor to win, but for their own sheer enjoyment. Creating bumps and obstacles can add flair and intensity, and that extra-special ‘wow factor’. As you can expect, this can cause severe damage to both vehicles and drivers if they are unaware of an obstacle’s existence. So keep it safe – enjoy a few cold ones and cheers on the races in more encouraging fashion at the finish line.
When all is said and done, the Baja is in a class of its own when it comes to off-road racing. The friendly Mexican vibe is in full swing, the Baja Bug is a regional icon, and the race is a once in a lifetime opportunity you won’t ever forget. Make sure your next trip to the Baja includes a car race, but be careful, you may turn into a huge horsepower fan, and once you’re hooked, there’s no turning back.