The Baja 500 Diaries VI: Race Morning

June 15, 2014
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Saturday, June 7, 2014. 7:45 a.m.

It’s the morning of the race and everybody is very, very tense. The whole energetic. joyful fun-in-the-sun vibe that has surrounded everything has evaporated. It’s not so much quiet outside Team BaDoink’s hotel as muted. It’s got nothing to do with the newbies, per sé. If anything, Chuck Dempsey and his Optimum Logistics guys are even dourer than the Team BaDoink crew.

The Baja 500 Diaries VI: Race Morning

This is a very serious business. Folks can get killed. A lot of time and money has been invested and spent on people and machinery. Humans may make mistakes—drivers and crews alike—but no matter how well prepared you are, there’s just no telling when it comes to the capricious moods that the fates, like the Greek Gods, may or may not be in. No matter what brilliant game-plan Chuck and his brains’ trust may come up with, you still ultimately end up crossing your fingers like a superstitious old lady praying for no surprises from the weather and that the engine will run perfectly for 500 miles.

As a writer I’m trying to think of comparatives, but there really aren’t any. As a teenage boy I excelled at soccer with Prestwich Heys in the old Cheshire League and we made the nation’s final eight in the F.A. Amateur Cup. Player errors, coaching mistakes and bad weather can conspire, together or apart, to hurt you and make you lose. We lost because we weren’t good enough. This off-road racing game, however, can be fatal.

Charlene the P.R. lady works hard at choreographing matters. She moves folks around, takes endless photographs, runs her splayed fingers through her custard-color tresses. The weather—it rained early so I put on a jacket before I got a taxi to their hotel—is now doing its Baja somersault and I’m starting to sweat.

The Baja 500 Diaries VI: Race Morning

Then along comes my boss dude. Like a cyclone chilled with librium, Mark Hoashi, clad in his white driving suit, is burning off anxiety using a semi-crouched walk like Grouch Marx’s Rufus T. Firefly in Duck Soup. He winks at me, so I wink back.

“Can we do a quick Q & A, Mark?”

“Yeah. Yeah. Why not?” He smoothes out an imaginary wrinkle off his racing suit. I hold out the little recorder.

Have you got butterflies, or are you, deep down, calm and collected?

I’m actually pumped. Really, really pumped.

(He pauses.)

A few things are really bumming me out, but I guess this is my first time so, I don’t really know how it goes. I’m believing in the, umm, system. I haven’t actually driven this truck yet. So that’s where my nerves are coming from, I think.

The Baja 500 Diaries VI: Race Morning

Gonna take a while to get comfortable and get a feel for it?

Yeah, Tim and I have been practicing with other ones, the school trucks. The other thing is my stint is at night. You know, Tim is going to drive the first shift and my stint is at night. We’re gonna start together but he drives the first half and I race the second half which is around 7 p.m.

So you’ve got a lot of waiting around? 

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I get to sleep in that thing over there. (He points at a truck and trailer). Sleep. I dunno.

So you think you can? (Laugh) Really?

I don’t know. Won’t be easy to crash (Pause). My anxiety is to do with the truck. I never got to practice. Never actually had lights on them, so I’ve never actually driven at night.

So it’s all new to you?

Yeah, that light bar’s not even been installed yet. I don’t even know where the light switch is. I really wish they’d have given me some seat time at night. That would have built my confidence.

We do the soul shake and I am impressed with his honesty. “Only fools and horses!” my beloved grandma used to say about the anxiety-free.

Mark gets pulled away by Chuck Dempsey, who commences squeezing at his neck with educated fingers, like a latter-day Angelo Dundee. “Let’s go over some things again,” he coos.

The Baja 500 Diaries VI: Race Morning

Meanwhile, Tim Whale is going about it in a different way. The tall, wiry Midlander doesn’t have much to say to me this morning other than that he was “quietly confident.” Basically, I’ve been watching him commune with himself and his wife for an hour.  They don’t talk to each other a lot… instead they stroke one another.

Tim and Mark get inside their vehicle. After a whispered chat with Chuck, Tim turns on the engine. It growls like someone large who is very, very hungry.

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