The Baja 500 Diaries III: Volunteers

June 12, 2014
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Friday, June 6, 2014

Every tourist guide in the world warns visitors about the water here in beautiful Mexico, but I guess there’s always someone who doesn’t listen or forgets. The parking lot of the Villa Marina hotel is packed as per usual like a rustling, hustling ant-farm of gear heads and geeks, mostly dirty and oily. If there’s not a tool in their hand or they aren’t doing something, they have a can of beer in hand (definitely Coors Lite or Bud Lite and no Mexican brands) and are mumbling their gear head mumblypeg.

One of the things that interests me the most is that, even though this thing turns over at least US$20m in profit twice a year, it just wouldn’t happen without 2/3rds of the workers who are all working as volunteers for nothing.

The Baja 500 Diaries III: Volunteers

So I’m talking with three volunteers from Ogden, Utah, about why they’re here. There’s sun and sin at the strip clubs, cheap drugs available at the pharmacia and on the street if you know where to look, but these three, brothers of 18, 19 and 21 – Ted, Erick and Moose the Mumbler (at least that’s the name I give him because he’s really big and I can’t understand a word that he’s saying) – are “here to learn,” according to Erick. They don’t have a particular assignment or crew, which seems to be a case of having some kind of clout and being grandfathered in as some ’newbies’ clearly are. Ideally, Erick says, they want to catch on permanently with someone.

This clearly isn’t like the Penske crew in Nascar. These kids are often doing double and triple duty. In some ways. If you’re a well-heeled organized driver, you’ve probably got a crew of eight or ten, but some drivers seem to have as few as three. Think of relying on your GPS and an old-fashioned walky-talky and then charging into the desert while always having to look out for other trucks and bikes letting it rip at up to 200 mph. Your crew is probably going at about 60 mph, if and when you’re lucky enough to locate your quarry. Like paratroopers, four or five of you leap out at the same moment and charge in front of a 7,800lb monster truck that has hopefully skidded to a quick stop, but you never know.

The Baja 500 Diaries III: Volunteers

There’s no air-powered impact wrench like in a pit stop. This means loosening five lug nuts burning wicked hot by whoever has the strongest hands. Hopefully the sand isn’t too soft or the driver’s found some bed of rock to brake by. One way or another, a group of guys is lifting the truck while the strongest guy yanks away a tire that can weigh between 80 to 120lb, rolls it away to a helping hand and grabs a new tire which already has new nuts lightly glued into place. The loosener then becomes the tightener as, simultaneously, the gasman and his catch-can man fill the truck from 90lb fuel cans.

Clearly there’s lot riding on the shoulders of these kids, especially if the crews are small. The victory money is big, so are the stakes. An improperly tightened lug nut, can cause mayhem as mild as a wheel falling off and the loss of a race, to killing somebody or killing yourself for a driver. In a perfect world, a good driver and his ideal crew are like a sensei and his samurai.

The Baja 500 Diaries III: Volunteers

Indeed, I’m talking to Erick about this and he’s well schooled, at least. Talking a very good game. At the time, I’m sure that with that lobster tan and terribly pale skin that he must be feeling awful after spending a couple of days in the desert learning how to drop deep into ditches and, learning, among a score of different chores, how to attach a drag out line. Suddenly he has to run off, his big, ungainly feet moving like pistons as he sprints for the lobby.

By the time he gets back he’s a sort of red-green color, the foul odor of puke  weighing heavily on his breath. “You’ve been drinking the water?

“I didn’t,” he says in a way that sounds high-pitched and guilty.

“Maybe the ice.” He shakes his head vehemently. What am I, his mom?

Now it’s kind of funny in a not-funny sort of way that I was talking about this very subject with the venerable Baja Nikki and she had said… “And don’t let shower water get in your open eyes or your mouth ‘cos there’s fecal matter in it.”

“You swallow water in the shower or get it in your eyes?”

Contaminated drinking water is one of the leading sources of health problems for travelers. It can cause anything from mild gastrointestinal distress to serious bacterial disease. The most common cause of water-borne illness is bacteria, such as E. coli, cholera and salmonella, but illness can also be caused by protozoa (including giardia and cryptosporidium), viruses (like hepatitis A, polio and rotavirus) and chemical pollutants.

Not usually a big deal in many cases, travelers become ill simply because the pathogens in the water are foreign to their immune systems, while locals have adapted to the water supply and can drink it without problems.

“The only water I swallowed was in the shower when I got home the desert yesterday.” The shrug he gives is sad. “I feel awful.”

“Doctors are cheap here. Ten bucks for a visit and you can get something at the pharmacy,” I say.

“I’m a Mormon, Sir. We don’t take drugs.”

Boy scouts, marines and pit crew members: You just can’t beat having a good volunteer!

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