What started as a publicity stunt for Honda motorcycles has turned into one of the most grueling and dangerous off-road racing events.
With the Dakar Rally covering more than 5,000 miles, you might be wondering why an off-road race of a mere 1,000 would be important. There are a couple of reasons, the first being that, while Dakar is broken up into stages of no more than 560 miles each, the Baja 1000 is done all in one go. Baja is also geared more towards smaller and less expensive vehicles, and it is therefore easier for privateer teams to participate, which makes things more interesting. Almost as interesting as its history, having been created as a publicity stunt for Honda motorcycles.
In 1962, Honda had just come out with the CL72 Scrambler. And while everyone at Honda had a great deal of faith in the bike, the American public at the time largely had the view that Japanese bikes weren’t serious off-road or long distance machines. So it was decided that a widely publicized long distance off-road run was in order. Dave Ekins and Billy Robertson Jr. were picked for the run, and the long stretch of Mexico’s Baja peninsula between Tijuana and La Paz was chosen as the route. The 950-mile stretch of incredibly harsh and unforgiving terrain was just the sort of thing which only the most capable vehicles could handle.
After scouting the area first in a light aircraft, the trip was completed in 39 hours and 56 minutes. It turned out to be so successful as a publicity stunt that others wishing to test their off-road mettle soon turned up to imitate the pair from Honda. It wasn’t long before one of these off-roaders decided that a formal race would be a good idea and in 1967, the first Baja 1000, then called the Mexican 1000 Rally, was held. Formal: might be a slightly grandiose term for these early days, and real all-out racing didn’t begin until the second morning of the race, after the vehicles had passed Ensenada.
The course has been subject to a number of changes over the years, and in 2000, it was doubled to become the Baja 2000; again returning to 1000 miles the next year. But even from one hour to the next, there are all sorts of changes along the course. This is thanks to the handiwork of spectators, some of them locals, who have a tradition of their own to sabotage and booby-trap sections of the race, or to build improvised jumps in the interest of making the race more interesting. Though the intention is not to harm the racers, these hazards can be extremely dangerous under certain circumstances.
In a show of good sportsmanship, racers will generally warn one another of the presence of obstacles. Classes are primarily divided into two-wheel and four-wheel vehicles, but there are quite a lot of sub-classes as well. The oddest of these is probably Class 11, which is comprised exclusively of production Volkswagen sedans. These aren’t what you’d call purpose-built off-roaders, and it’s quite amazing that anyone ever participates in this class at all. Of course, booby traps as well as the general nature of off-road racing means that preparedness tends to be the most important thing for any race team.
Vehicles suffer quite a bit of damage, and stops for repairs are commonplace, even with good scouting. But this means that there isn’t any one type of vehicle that has an advantage. Off-road ability is obviously important, but any vehicle which can meet these basic requirements can potentially win, and all sorts have won in the past. Unlike almost any other motorsport event, there is never a clear favorite at Baja, and no team can really claim dominance. This as well as the highly challenging nature of the race itself is what makes Baja such a great race.