Behind the Dust: BFGoodrich Shows Us the Insane Amount of Stuff It Takes to Survive the Baja 1000

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So you want to run the legendary Baja 1000 desert race. You have money and vacation days in the bank, talked some friends into helping out, and have a vehicle that complies with one of the myriad racing classes, from Baja bug to exotic prototype. But just how much effort will it take to pull off?

While a near-stock Ford F-150 Raptor can technically complete the race, simply finishing the 1000 is a triumph for anyone. There’s a reason Mexico’s Baja California peninsula has been a pillar of off-road racing for nearly half a century. Any race there is a test of human and mechanical endurance against a desert steeped in mystique, with the occasional booby trap from overzealous fans thrown in for good measure. And the big show is the Baja 1000, the final and most grueling event in the SCORE International off-road championship.

A lot has changed since a Meyers Manx buggy won the first 1000 in 1967, recording its official time—27 hours and 38 minutes from Tijuana to La Paz—via telegraph. An alternating format has this year’s 49th running set as a loop race that starts and finishes in the seaside port of Ensenada, about 80 miles south of San Diego. Next year’s 50th running will be from Ensenada to La Paz, essentially the length of the peninsula. BFGoodrich (BFG) has championed desert racers for decades, including supplying tires for 28 overall winners at the 1000 and outfitting nearly 60 percent of this year’s 270-strong field with its rubber. To celebrate its 40th anniversary at the 1000 this past November, BFG invited us into the trenches for a front-row look at how racers would survive this year’s 855-mile race course.

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The scope of the action was evident when we toured BFG’s broad and charitable operation. This is where you come if you’re new to Baja or on a tight budget, as the company is dedicated to supplying free pit services to any BFG-shod racer that registers for them. While some bigger teams do take up the offer, grassroots participants are what BFG’s motorsports director Chris Baker calls “the heart and soul of our sport.” Teams basically drop off their supplies and indicate where they’ll be pitting, and everyone is given a detailed booklet of maps and information for the race.

With more than 240 mostly volunteer workers, along with three tractor-trailers and a fleet of smaller vehicles, BFG would be operating five full-service pit stations for more than 100 teams. Services include communications assistance, full-course navigation and notes, refueling, tire changes, and onsite fabricating—“creative engineering,” as Frank DeAngelo, BFG’s long-time off-road guru, calls it. “As long as you’re still running and keep in communication, we’ll keep the lights on,” he adds.

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BFG also supports SCORE’s Baja Challenge (BC) class of spec buggies, which we had the chance to experience on Ensenada’s jump-rich short-course dirt track with racers Brad Lovell and Andrew Comrie-Picard. A thrilling ridealong awakened us to the lightweight open-wheelers’ 18 inches of suspension travel and tight four-speed manual gearboxes, after which Lovell bravely rode shotgun as we built up the nerve to hit the track’s 12-foot-tall tabletop jump flat out. With a forgiving chassis and naturally aspirated Subaru flat-fours making only about 170 horsepower, the durable BC buggies are fun and “just powerful enough to get you into trouble,” Comrie-Picard told us. He was speaking from experience; both he and Lovell race in the BC class.

The 1000 is entirely different when seen from the fast end of the field, as we learned by tagging along with Las Vegas-based Terrible Herbst Motorsports, a team gunning for overall victory in the Trophy Truck class—the most advanced of Baja’s unlimited, tube-frame race cars with bellowing V-8s and three feet of suspension travel. One of Baja’s royal families, the Herbsts have been successfully involved in desert racing for years. We first met the BFG-supported team, including father Ed Herbst and his sons, Tim and Troy, the night before the race over dinner with the crew—all 98 of them, mostly volunteers. It was relaxed and jovial, like walking in on a family reunion sponsored by Monster Energy. The only familiar face was that of Ryan Arciero, Troy’s accomplished co-driver and another desert-racing luminary whom we’ve met before in Baja.

Herbst would be supporting four trophy trucks in the 1000: one each for Ed, Tim, and Troy, and another in the lesser TT Spec class. We’d be part of the chase crew shadowing Troy and Arciero’s #91 team truck, a custom, bare-carbon-fiber Ford F-150 that was amazingly built from scratch in less than two months this year. In contrast, the core structure of the pole-sitting #3 truck that the elder Herbst was driving had been racing for more than 20 years, although updated to modern standards.

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Herbst Smith Fabrication of Huntington Beach, California, designed the rear-wheel-drive #91 to be much lighter than traditional trophy trucks, which can weigh up to 6500 pounds. It looks purpose built for Mad Max and can charge across the open desert at up to 140 mph. A large-displacement Ford V-8 with more than 800 horsepower can shred the 39-inch-tall BFGoodrich Baja T/A KR2 racing tires to their cords in less than 200 miles. There’s no windshield or windows (because those things break), but it is studded with high-tech fixtures, beautifully fabricated engineering, and advanced GPS navigation gear. Fancy one yourself? Herbst Smith will weld one up in exchange for about $ 650,000.

Prepping trucks for the 1000 starts in August and includes testing, full teardowns, and sorting out an inventory of spare parts. The team generally limits the big items to what can be changed in 90 minutes or less; there are no spare engines or shocks, but backup transmissions, driveshafts, and other key components and tools get loaded into heavy-duty service trucks. Herbst’s effort is one of the largest at Baja, and only a few big teams can employ as many resources for a competition with relatively modest purse winnings (the casino business and owning a chain of automotive service stations afford such privilege).

The job of organizing it all falls to Sean Hoglund of YT Motorsports—a specialist in desert racing logistics in Northridge, California—with whom Herbst has worked since 2011. Part travel agent, part program manager, and part mechanic, Hoglund started his work in June, and he reckons that $ 100 per race mile is an overall baseline figure for just supporting a competitive trophy truck in the 1000, with the Herbst operation spending considerably more. Even without factoring in human labor, the basic logistics are staggering: This year, Herbst needed 55 hotel rooms; 30-plus support pickups, personal vehicles, and utility trucks; 60 mounted spare tires; 1500 gallons of race fuel (about $ 12 per gallon); 12 satellite radio/phones (about $ 10K each); 400 pounds of meat for the grill; two pallets each of beverages and snacks; one helicopter; and one private plane.

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Ensenada, with its magnificent 338-foot-tall flagpole and huge Mexican flag waving overhead, becomes vibrant and chaotic when a race comes to town. There’s time for breakfast before we meet the Herbst crew for the 10:30 a.m. start of the trucks and buggies (vehicles set off at 30-second intervals). While the #3 truck leads off with clear vision, Arciero is starting in a solid fifth, sandwiched between off-road-legend Rob MacCachren’s #11 Ford in front and the #19 Herbst sister truck behind. Once the #91 leaves the line, our long game of cat and mouse begins as we tear down the highway in a stock 2013 Ford F-150 Raptor.

The trails out of Ensenada are tight, and our driver, Travis Moores, handily beats Arciero to a roadside waypoint. Distant camera helicopters foretell the arrival of the front-runners, who are supposed to maintain a SCORE-mandated 60 mph when the course temporarily overlaps the highway. Only in Baja, one of the last wild frontiers in motorsport, can a support vehicle pull out into race traffic and tail its driver. Troy Herbst rides shotgun and feeds updates to Arciero over the radio, while Moores makes the Raptor as wide as possible on the highway. But the sixth-place truck behind us, clearly exceeding the speed limit, makes a bold pass around a blind corner before peeling off into the desert after the #91.

 

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It takes about six main vehicles to support one trophy truck in the 1000, some stationary, others highly mobile. Our Raptor’s overriding purpose is to get Troy to the pit near race mile 475 for the driver change. Away from the course, we can gauge the race truck’s position from a GPS app on an iPad, yet we only glimpse it occasionally as a distant, ground-level comet. Travis hustles the Raptor over desolate mountain switchbacks like we’re on the Nordschleife. We’re able to spot the #91 in the distance and put the hammer down to reach the first pit for the heavy-duty ballet of servicing a desert racer. There’s just enough time to grab a snack and watch fans dive out of the way of a trophy truck roaring by at 120 mph.

Morale is high, and to our surprise, the team actually bestows responsibility on the ridealong reporter: Help change a 135-pound rear tire/wheel once the custom pneumatic floor jack raises the rear axle. Let’s see Porsche do that at Le Mans.

Travis’s driving affords us plenty of downtime for grilled, bacon-wrapped potatoes before Arciero arrives at the driver change just off the highway. It’s late, it’s dark, and it feels like we’re camping, except for the excited locals mulling about and the two gravity-fed refueling towers. The #3 and #91 are now first and second, and a lightning-quick stop should let Troy hop in, leapfrog the leader, and stay ahead of the MacCachren #11 in third. Morale is high, and to our surprise, the team actually bestows responsibility on the ridealong reporter: Help change a 135-pound rear tire/wheel once the custom pneumatic floor jack raises the rear axle. Let’s see Porsche do that at Le Mans.

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A dozen of us pile around the truck as it pulls up in a blinding fog of dust. But as we all complete our tasks and step back, our stomachs knot while the truck just sits there, idling. Arciero’s lap belt struggles to fit around the larger Herbst, and the minute of stationary chaos allows the #11 truck to slip by on the highway, followed by a departing #3. The mood crumbles, frustration lingers, and we eventually steer the Raptor back to Ensenada with a fuming Arciero onboard. We follow Troy’s progress via the live race feed on our phones, but it takes him too long to work back up to second place, by which time MacCachren’s teammate, Jason Voss, has slipped behind the wheel and built up a solid lead in the closing miles. Despite all the preparation and supplies, Terrible Herbst had seemingly not packed enough luck.

Most of the crew are back at the start/finish line 17 hours and 12 minutes after we had left it, just in time to see the #11 truck trip the timers and snag Baja 1000 victory—Voss’s second and MacCachren’s third straight (with zero flat BFGoodrich tires, versus two for the #91). Troy Herbst rolls in 30 minutes later and will take an extra hit back to third place on corrected time. Visibly crushed but ever grateful for his crew, he apologizes for not doing his best behind the wheel. A previous Baja 1000 winner in 2004 and 2005, Troy knows how close they had come to another.

You can watch the #91 truck in action and see interviews with the Herbst team via Monster Energy’s highlight reel of this year’s race.

BC Class racers John Williams, Brad Lovell, Brian Finch, and Andrew Comrie-Picard.

#BC1 Baja Challenge racers John Williams, Brad Lovell, Brian Finch, and Andrew Comrie-Picard. (Not shown: Bob Bower and Kyle Tucker.)

The rest of the field finishes throughout the next day, with only about 60 percent of the starters completing the distance. The mood is lighter as the first Baja Challenge buggies cross the line, despite being some 11 hours behind the big guns and saddled with tremendous hardship: Virtually the entire class came down with food poisoning the night before, which put some racers in the hospital and forced others to drive hundreds of race miles more than expected—while regularly stopping on course to get sick.

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Brad Lovell and Andrew Comrie-Picard, our buggy-driving instructors, trudge through in second place, bodies beaten but spirits high as they join their teammates on the podium. The feeling of relief—and pain—makes for some watery eyes as the drivers describe their challenges and what it means to be small-time racers in such a legendary competition. BFGoodrich obviously plays a big role in that, but planning for the 1000 is an immense undertaking at any level. “The logistics [of the Baja 1000] are like coordinating a 24-hour plane crash,” Comrie-Picard says through his exhaustion. He’d suggest packing plenty of Imodium if you come, just in case.


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