Baja 1000 2012: Off-Road Race Battles Technology to Stay Extreme

Darin Pike@darinpikeContributor INovember 15, 2012

BAJA CALIFORNIA, MEXICO - NOVEMBER 9:  Robby Gordon races his BF Goodwrench off-road vehicle as he competes in the Baja 1000 Desert Race on November 9, 1990 in Baja California, Mexico.  (Photo by Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images)
Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images

Technology has changed significantly since the inaugural Baja 1000 in 1974. The advent of GPS and satellite phones, the mapping of the Baja peninsula and emergence of affordable helicopters have steadily taken their toll on the race that originally ran from Tijuana to La Paz.

The starting point for Thursday's race is Ensenada and travels 1,121 miles to La Paz. This is the 38th time Ensenada has been the starting point for the oldest and most most famous desert races.

The original course was established with Mickey Thompson, one of the race's initial organizers, dropping notes from a helicopter. Race founder Sal Fish would follow in his VW Thing, picking up directions tied to rocks, according to Bill Center of the North County Times.

Follow this gully two miles to a boulder shaped like an elephant and turn right...

Head down the trail about five miles until you cross the stream...

Follow the trail on the other side for 10 miles until you pass the adobe farmhouse.

The goal of the early races wasn't about money or fame. It was about pride and the accomplishment of finishing the most grueling one-day racing event on the planet. 

The arrival of celebrities like Jesse James has changed the makeup and perception of the race. There is a fame-factor now, and sponsorship has increased with the now internationally televised event.

Racers are competing for points and financial compensation in the overall SCORE season class point championships. There's also nearly $400,000 in cash winnings available specific to the Baja 1000.

But some participants, like NASCAR star Jimmie Johnson, know the race can quickly become about survival.

Johnson crashed during the 1995 event and spent a day atop a rock. He was sleeping under an orange tarp when he was spotted from a helicopter. "It was while I was sitting there on that boulder that I realized I needed to take my career in another direction."

NASCAR fans are glad the day turned out like it did. 

As technology has grown, Fish and his team respond accordingly.

They've found new routes to make the course more challenging. A pass across the summit of the San Pedro de Martir mountains, created by the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II, has been added to the event.

“Not even the Mexican nationals knew that trail was there,” Fish revealed, stating even the fastest trucks navigate that section at 10 miles per hour.

Other adjustments to the race that was known for not having rules include requirements to stay on the course between checkpoints. At one point all that mattered was hitting every checkpoint and arriving at the finish line within the required time.

The ability to use helicopters and satellite phones to guide participants around obstacles and rougher terrain have created the need for adjustments. 

Another requirement is maintaining a maximum speed of 60 miles per hour while on paved roads. The expansion of civilization on the peninsula has led to more of the course being covered by roads instead of desert terrain.

Fish has reduced the amount of time spent on roads for the 2012 event, though.

Racer Mark Post likes the changes. "They've roughed the course up some and I like that."

Equipment has improved, off-road vehicles get faster and have better suspensions, and celebrities bring in sponsorship money and a glitz factor to the event. Despite those changes, Fish makes sure the Baja 1000 stays true to its core.

It is as challenging as ever and will be so long as the 73-year-old founder is in charge.


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