The Baja 500: The Wild Wild West

April 6, 2014
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“This year,” my old amigo Señor Saenz told me on the phone from La Bocana, “we’re expecting up to 45,000 folks to show up, you will be smart to show up early.”

Baja California can be spectacular in its beauty, but the port of Ensenada, where the race actually begins and ends, is just a small city of 689,000 next to Mexico’s biggest port and navy base. In a country where almost anything goes, Ensenada, despite its quiet suburban, seaside exterior is a place where truly anything goes. Rules and regulations, while not exactly null and void, are vague and malleable.

Beyond notions of the American Wild West that infiltrated our culture by cowboy shoot-em-ups in movies like Tombstone and post-modernist TV shows like Deadwood – or the story of how the Mob bought out the state of Nevada with Teamster pension money – the truth is that those days are over and it’s mostly just the Mild West now. If you want the real wild, you have to cross the border into Mexico.  Now, of course, everybody everywhere knows about the insane drug wars between the cartels themselves and the Mexican government, which is – !Qué Tonteria! – crazy! That, too, is mostly on the peripheries. Out of sight, out of mind.

The Baja 500: The Wild Wild West

Instead there’s the unique world – a kind Darwinian race and race-lover’s Utopia – built around a competition. The Baja 500 is beloved of race fans because, as the off-road racing legend Armin Schwartz told Road & Track magazine, “Racing is fun here, because there are no rules.” Strictly speaking, this statement is not altogether true, but compared to racing elsewhere, especially in the rest of North America and Europe, it’s unencumbered, albeit dangerous fun indeed. Where else would you find 850-horsepower trophy trucks, of which 350 entered the competition last year, going nonstop from sea-level to a 4,155 foot summit over a 450 mile course, with temperatures varying from the low 50s to 105 degrees Fahrenheit?

Over its short history, the Baja 500 is awash in stories of plain old reckless behavior, but also the more simple kind of unlucky fits of comedy, madness, irrationality and brainstorms brought on by exposure to the relentless heat and dust of the Baja on the part of both drivers and spectators.

The Baja 500: The Wild Wild West

A number of veteran drivers, many of whom have been involved in the race since it even became something official in 1978 tell stories about an infamously unreported incident in 1980 where 12 spectators and 2 drivers were all fatalities, killed when an out-of-control monster truck going at over 200mph hit a packed viewing cabana next to a hairpin bend at a part of the track where the desert turns into the two-lane blacktop of Highway 1. Such incidents are not ‘covered up’ so much in a conspiratorial sense as they are collectively ignored by both the drivers and the public, Mexican and American, who don’t want to mess up a good thing.

Indeed, in 2013, according to Road &Track, when a water main burst in the area around the starter’s line, which is normally a dry river bed, the race’s proprietor and main factotum, Sal Fish, was out there helping the locals and fans pumping away the water and re-marking the course so that the race could get going.

Run by very savvy people who recognize just how dangerous throngs are, enterprising officials actually force all employees associated with the race to sign waivers. Get the gist? The Baja 500 is the old frontier of racing, the undiscovered country for some – check out our article on Baja fatalities to see what we mean by that – a harsh, desert landscape where the horse has been replaced by the horse-powered engine and the stakes are as high as they get.

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