Every November, thousands of Americans migrate down to Mexico’s Baja Peninsula for a 1000-mile off-road race through the narrow desert. This wild and furious competition, THE BAJA 1000, draws millions of dollars in sponsors’ contributions, and creates a truly unique mash-up of local tradition, tourism, and mega-dollar spending for sport and escape.
Since I was seven or eight years old, I have been hearing stories of the “Super Bowl in the Desert” from my uncle, now a 35-year veteran of the event. I took my girlfriend Simone to experience it with me last year.
text and photography by THEO ANTHONY
Fast and violent, happy hour meets the junkyard; goodbye wives, all glory for the California Good Boys, together again. A line of cars trailing down across the border, coolers and tool kits strapped fast to the bed, glossed-up metal in tow. Federales manning AKs, strippers with goose-bumped skin, radio check, dead dogs on the roadside with swollen tits.
A hundred miles south of the border, to Ensenada, the start. The Baja 1000, a thousand mile nonstop race running the entire length of the Baja Peninsula. Over 30 different race classes, from motorcycles and ATVs to buggies, all the way up to the 900-horsepower million-dollar mega-stars, the Trophy Trucks, eye candy of the sport. Thousands of Americans migrating south, clogging up deserted towns overnight with dollars to spend. It’s the start of the infinite tailgate, a weeklong procession in celebration of the off-road machine.
I’m with my girlfriend Simone. We met on the Fourth of July and haven’t spent much time apart since. She’s got long clumsy limbs and a gawky smile. It’s a good thing. Simone’s moving to Africa in a couple of weeks for work. We figure that if we have to say goodbye then Mexico is a good place to do it.
The Baja 1000 is a race that values finishing over finishing first. Only a little more than half of the participants will. The drivers usually split up the race into two or three legs, with carefully coordinated teams of chase trucks and pit crews stationed along the way. Some of them work all year for this with big-dollar sponsorships from Red Bull or BF Goodrich, while for others it’s just an expensive hobby. There are other races on the circuit — the Mint 400, the San Felipe 250 — but nothing compares to the Baja 1000. It began in 1962 when two Honda drivers made a bet to see who could make it down the peninsula faster. They started 100 miles south of San Diego, in the town of Ensenada, and finished in a small village north of Cabo called La Paz — no course markers, just a general direction. The winner was whoever sent a telegram back first. On March 22, 1962, the missive came from Dave Ekins, completing the first timed run of the Baja Peninsula in 39 hours and 56 minutes of nonstop driving.
Fifty years later the sport has ballooned into a multimillion-dollar industry fueled by energy drinks and cheap beer. What used to be the insider’s stage for field-testing new equipment has been quickly subsumed by the high-octane mega-consumer empire looking to capitalize on the rogue motor cowboys of California and the greater Southwest. It’s a generational divide that’s easy enough to spot — the new crop of racers in their clean white knee-highs and flat brims, a sharp contrast to the old guard of faded denim and Ray-Ban wraparounds.
Reverend Roy is one of the oldest of the originals, and I meet him in the bar of the Hotel San Nicolas. He’s an ex-Hell’s Angel who tore his ordinance out of a mail order catalogue in the Sixties and has done over a hundred weddings ever since. His teeth are disarmingly white and straight, and we connect over the Mexican pharmacies that are run like candy stores. Roy’s been coming down to the Baja since the beginning, but things have changed. He won’t say exactly how at first, but after two potato tacos and a few rounds of Pacificos he explains that when they used to come down here, it wasn’t just to visit. They used to run the place. Sometimes the locals would fight back, like the time his buddy got in a particularly bad spat and some drunk shot him in the back. Even if there had been a hospital around back then, they wouldn’t have taken him to it, so Reverend Roy strapped the guy to the sissy bar of his motorcycle and rode him past the border patrol just like that, bleeding and dying up the coast. Yes, Mexico is different because it’s clean now. Even Tijuana’s not that bad anymore. But it’s the same man wearing a plain sweatshirt in front of me, eating bar peanuts in conservative handfuls. He’s got a wedding in San Felipe coming up in a few weeks, and a son of his own through marriage, whom he’s turned into the fastest desert racer on two wheels.
On the day before the race the cars parade through the streets of Ensenada. People weave around the vehicles like a weak river taking course, reaching out, placing their palms on the hoods as if to siphon off their power. Monster Energy is in competition with Tecate for total brand control of the town, so the streets are a Halloween-ish mixture of orange, green, and black. The racers are strictly business, signing autographs, posing with teenage girls. How heavy their dicks must swing on a day like this one. For them it is the end of weeks of prep work — studying maps, testing equipment, pre-running in buggies up and down the peninsula. These are men who, above all else, have honed the craft of being a man.
There’s a strip club on the edge of town called Paris. In the back, men fuck glittered women under black lights, tagging nipples with team stickers. A sweaty emcee narrates onstage, a sentence in English, a quick translation in Spanish. One of the strippers leads Simone up to the stage. The room breaks out in catcalls and applause. The song starts, the stripper dips and sways. She starts removing Simone’s clothes, Simone smiles and playfully resists. But the stripper pushes on, lifting Simone’s jersey up and over her head. Simone looks at me — half-naked, vulnerable, rimmed with spotlight — a face so ready for what comes next. I love her a lot right then. She gestures for me and I jump on stage. I pull Simone away, the stripper pulls back, an obscene tug-of-war in the middle of a Mexican whorehouse. The stripper lets go and we duck off stage to a coliseum of boos.
After the song ends the stripper comes down and apologizes. She says her name is Ginger. Ginger feels bad so she takes us to the back for a private dance. The mirrored hallway is divided into stalls. She sits us down and starts to move but there’s not enough room for all of us. She asks us if we want to go to the back, motioning toward the entrance rimmed with purple bulbs. We say no. She lets us take pictures instead.
Back at the hotel Simone collapses into my arms like a puddle. Yesterday she found out that rebel forces have moved in to the small village in the Congo where she’s supposed to live. Her employers are trying to bring her over as soon as they can, before things get too bad. But we don’t talk about it, and soon we’re both asleep to the banter of American reality shows dubbed in Spanish.
Out of Ensenada we take Highway 1 down the coast, a twisting highway bordering the Pacific that cuts across into the Valle de Trinidad, a low-lying area rimmed by mountains on both sides. Our plan is to stay in San Felipe, a small fishing village two hundred miles southeast on the Sea of Cortes, and from there head 20 or 30 miles back north to watch. You’ve got to pick your spot and stick with it because once the race starts there’s no catching up.
Course negotiations are a sensitive issue in the valley, with race officials managing a complex network of landowners, politicians, and cartels that either want the biggest piece of the action they can get or none at all. Angry farmers upset over a race course running through their land have been known to flood the valley in protest, while drunk locals bored with unbroken desert straight-aways build booby-traps, or “homemade jumps,” depending on who you ask. Unsuspecting vehicles hit the obstacles going full speed and locals get their spectacle, while racers get broken axles and busted leaf springs.
Farther south the coast is lined with deserted spring break towns. Churches perched over the sea have been converted into nightclubs that lie in seasonal half-ruin, boarded up in waiting. Tired wives in studded cowboy hats do crossword puzzles, smoking Capri Slims over the morning’s second or third or fourth Bloody Maria, eyes shaded by oversized lenses. The expats talk of the States like it’s some minimum-security prison they escaped from. One hundred dollars a month for rent, shrimp the size of lobsters, it’s the living incarnation of a Corona commercial. Their dominion is asserted in generic vacation expressions printed across the backs of tucked-in T-shirts. After breakfast Simone and I chase a stray Chihuahua through the streets.
Race day is mostly spent waiting. I’m standing a quarter mile off the main road in the middle of a desert patch that runs adjacent to the course. Bits of tumbleweed actually blow around. For a mile or so there’s an unbroken stretch of campsites and team pits. It’s the continuation of the never-ending tailgate — carne asada on grills, leftover burritos heated up on engine blocks, a mixture of locals sipping Tecates in lawn chairs, and sunburned pit crews pacing through the dust, looking serious, making radio calls, waiting for the next car to break down.
The motorcycles were the first to start so they’re the first through our camp at race mile 170. After that come the ATVs, spitting little dirt devils as they pass. Then there is a lull, during which the only vehicles to come through are the stragglers, the riders who fell, who had to swap out a tire or had the back suspension go out on them before they even made it out of Ensenada proper.
A couple of hours in, the radio crackles alive with news of an accident. The frantic language of protocol bounces back and forth — coordinates, transport options, one dead for sure and the other in critical condition. Locals and tourists huddle around cars, some translate, all are tuned to the invisible chaos overhead.
Most fatalities are usually spectators, some local kids playing chicken on the back roads and jumping too late or a naive tourist getting cocky on a mountain turn. This time a chase truck took a chance passing a semi and lost when it collided head on with a local in the other lane. There’s a racer’s wife inside. He’s set to start any second, and they’re trying to radio back to headquarters in Ensenada to pull his car.
On air, they’re finally able to talk to a doctor on scene. He’s stabilized the woman, but it’s a temporary fix; her lung’s still collapsed and the airway’s swelling. The bottom line is they need to get her out of the desert. They’ve found a private plane to take the woman back north, but are having a hard time clearing it with customs. “If I was them,” someone says, “I’d just fly that plane across. What are they gonna do, shoot it down?”
One, two o’clock in the afternoon and people are getting nervous. The trophy trucks, the heavyweights that make all the headlines and full-page color spreads, should be well on their way through by now. Rumor is there’s been another crash that’s snarled up traffic, which shouldn’t be a problem for off-road racing except that a good deal of the race course intersects, and even shares, Highway 1, the only paved road that runs the entire length of the Baja Peninsula. Until a couple of years ago racers used to ride the highways fast and hard no different than the course, treating cars and civilians like sandstone and desert wash — objects to be avoided, nothing more.
But all that stopped a few years back, in 2004, right near race mile 100, when the Federales pulled over the top 10 Trophy Truck contenders and hit them with speeding tickets. The aerial footage of the massive traffic seems like a bizarre joke, like stopping a boxing match in the first round to cite the athletes for assault. But that was exactly what happened, and a whole chain of the field’s top competitors were escorted at safe cruising speed until course and highway diverged once more. The next year the rules were changed, and racers had to obey local speed limits. That explains the strained-but-polite presence of these jacked-up beasts on the coastal highway, voluntarily putting along beside beat-up Celicas and Ford Rangers loaded with scrap bundles of wood.
But there’s motion up ahead. People lined all up and down the mile-long stretch spring from their chairs, eyes fixed on a 50-foot rooster tail of dirt that’s approaching. It’s like the spotting of the whale. A distant whine turns to rumble turns to deafening roar — through the dried desert brush it appears, a rabid pit bull pulling the earth away before it, a roaring singularity sliding all over the slick desert dust. The chassis rides on 42-inch tires, each rigged to a custom-built independent suspension system with over three feet of wheel travel so that even when the tires bounce violently the body stays smooth, floating, hovering down the line. And now it’s on top of us; in clusters people jump off the course, as if being zipped away, running even when the car’s long past, swallowed whole by that after-fury of dust and falling dirt. And that vacuumed silence trailing in wake, sweeping through, unbroken until that first whooping call, joined by more, not just the California Good Boys but the locals, too, running and jumping and clanking Tecates in celebration of that sudden, all-revealing purpose — we are here, we are here, we are here.
Night comes a full hour earlier out here than on the coast, the sun retreating west behind the mountain line as fewer and fewer cars come through. They go a little slower at night but not much, their headlights bobbing like little orbs on the horizon, coming closer, tearing through and back out again, disappearing into the dark. People aren’t even really watching anymore, most of them huddle over campfires passing bottles of tequila. Horn-soaked folk music blares from tinny speakers, vegetables are grilled in silence.
Strange things happen in the desert at night. Things appear and disappear. Drivers will swerve off-course to avoid a body on the track, but when they stop there’s no one there. Once there was a driver who swore he had someone on his tail; his high beams were right there. I got to let him through, signal him to go ahead, he told himself. This went on for an hour. Finally the co-pilot made him stop just so he could see. Look, he said. There’s no one there but the moon.
We take the bus back from San Felipe to Mexicali. Old TV sets strapped to the ceiling play a dubbed Cowboys and Aliens, starring Daniel Craig and Olivia Wilde. The seats smell like a fresh urinal puck. Though the race is over no official winner has been announced — something involving a missed checkpoint, some contested amount of time docked as a penalty.
At the border there’s a line a quarter mile long to get back into the country. Someone tells us to go to the front, to the American line. On our way up people give us scornful looks, mutter curses beneath their breath. Once we get to the front we realize there’s only one line. A toothless man named Juan lets us step in with him. Don’t worry, he says. They’re just angry because they’re tired of the waiting.
The entrance to America is a rotating stall, the kind they use in subway stations. Every couple of seconds the stall clicks and someone else goes through. On the American side of the room are two pictures, one of Barack Obama and the other of Joe Biden. They’re smiling. Above them both is a single mute surveillance camera, rounded and black in the way I’ve heard the eyeballs of a water buffalo described to me. A symbol of simultaneous presence and invisibility, it’s this installation — a perfect trinity — that hangs the highest above all the people shuffling through the line with their heads down and passports out.
No one knows how much longer the Baja 1000 will last. They say league president Sal Fish is going to walk away any year now, maybe even this one, and there’s not another person alive who could keep it all together. But the biggest threat of all is that Mexico is growing up, fighting back against its status as America’s lawless weekend playground. More specifically the Baja is being paved, the desert penned in by highways and crossroads growing and thickening like vines. Yes, the future for the rogue motor cowboys is bleak. It’s a problematic nostalgia for the thing whose existence has depended on the sustained underdevelopment of a nation.
Getting back to America, a sadness descends over Simone and me. Sitting in traffic on the Los Angeles Expressway, it’s impossible to pretend otherwise. We’re back and the countdown has begun. One morning, Simone wakes up crying. I really thought we were going to stay, she says, and for the first time it feels like I’ve failed her. This girl would have really done it and I’ve tricked her, she’s seen my hand, I’ve led her on into some twisted Mexican fantasy that now just feels like a smokescreen.
Paradise is an unstable construction. A dream realized, which becomes something else entirely. And what’s worse, it haunts the everyday, reminding you that this isn’t it — that you’re not there. I missed my chance. I fucked up. The girl is gone and a continent away. If only love were more a car I could stand on top of and wave from, a cast-iron dick between my legs. Fast and violent, slick and shiny, this machine is mastered, all glory. Scream fast for days, nothing but unbroken desert out here, boys.
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