When I wrote the first article DIY BAJA – Return of the PIG, I forgot so many details that I decided to tell a bit more of the story before getting into how we built the pig. When I say I forgot some details, I really mean that I forgot about all the mistakes we made. So throughout the article I decided to include some DIY Tips based on what we learned. Keep in mind that the nature of desert racing is DIY. Most teams build and prep their own vehicle and they have been doing it for years. These are just the things I learned and think will be helpful for someone attempting a large race like the 1000 for the first time.
Some are obvious tips like take a group photo before you leave. You only get to do this once. This was our group photo before we left for Baja.
As for the first mistake. We never filled the car with more than a gallon or two of gas during the build. Keep in mind we started with a bare BMW chassis and had 14 days to complete the car. We put some gas in the tank to drive it around the industrial complex, but then we loaded the trailer and went straight to the race.
So when we fired it up for tech inspection, we only made it a block before the engine died. Tech closed in 30 minutes and we pushed as fast as we could. A few people joined in to push. Then everyone came to help - we must have had 100 people pushing at one point. We made it just in time. Nothing confuses race officials more than pushing a non-running car into inspection. Yes, the picture is blurry but you get the idea.
DIY TIP: Make a list of everything that needs to be done. This sounds obvious and we all do it when we build cars, but try dividing the list into three sections. Parts still needed, work required to finish the car, and logistics required to run the race. Filling the tank with gas on the way to the race would have made the third list. The larger the race, the more important the segmented list becomes. A race like the Baja 1000 requires that you order gas far in advance of the race to be placed at your pits. Forget just one detail and you won’t finish - there isn’t a paddock full of support like you find a traditional racetrack.
We passed tech, but you could tell SCORE was just a little bit concerned. The build was heavily publicized at SEMA and they were watching the initial construction closely. Especially because our cage wasn’t really legal until we found SRD, Strategic Racing Designs, in Vista, CA. Justin and his wife Heather knew right away what needed changing and without them we might not have been allowed to race.
Keep in mind I’ve built a bunch of roll cages for numerous different sanctioning bodies, including one that passed FIA tech at the World Rally Championships, but the SCORE rulebook is complicated and difficult to decipher if you haven’t built or seen a desert racing vehicle before. Mostly because the rules need to fit buggies, trophy trucks, pickup trucks, VW beetles, and other unusual builds. SRD had us get the chassis SCORE tagged before going down to Mexico. You can do it at the race, but if something doesn’t pass, your odds of fixing it in Mexico are much tougher than back at home.
Plus, the chassis inspection is more rigorous than any race inspection I’ve seen. It took an hour or so to go through everything, and they use a little sonar deal to measure not only thickness of the tubing but also the steel density(DOM or 4130).
I always thought the FIA rally cages were the best design in the world, but if you crash in the middle of the Baja 1000 it could be hours before someone gets to you depending on the location of the accident. Keep in mind two racers died two weeks ago at the Baja 500. When was the last time you remember two unrelated fatalities in one race? It makes sense that the SCORE rules are so detailed and serious.
DIY TIP: Have a desert racing shop build your cage. We can all read a rulebook and many of us can weld and fabricate, but the Baja 1000 costs a lot of money to run. You would be foolish to take the cheap route and a have a cage built by a local road race or circle track shop. I’ve never failed a tech inspection for my cage design but I would have failed SCORE’s if we hadn’t worked with Strategic Racing Designs. I’m ok admitting my shortcomings. It’s how I learn and get better.
The next mistake we made was pretty obvious. We had zero testing time in our newly built car. Sure we drove it a few laps around a parking lot before loading the trailer but that was it. So after tech we decided to put as many miles on it as possible. It would have been better to test at speed, but the best we could do was drive around Ensenada and driving a race vehicle around town is so much fun. Only in Mexico!
Our friends were at Santo’s steakhouse, which is where a bunch of teams go the night before the race for a big meal. We really didn’t want to drink, but there was this wild party going on and the margaritas looked amazing. My friends had been working non-stop for two weeks trying to build a car from scratch, so I bought them dinner and a ton of margaritas. Eventually I gave in, and I drank some margaritas too.
A few drinks later and we decided to add a friend to the race team. Sarah Stokes was working for Local Motors who builds the Rally Fighter. She would be at their pits about half way down the course, and we knew there was no way a home built car would complete the entire 1000 miles with zero testing.
But after some margaritas we started asking ourselves “What if? What if the car kept running?” There was no way I could race for more than 24hrs after the marathon build we just went through. Sarah was sitting there like “I bet I could find a suit and helmet...” Ok Sarah, welcome to the team!
DIY TIP: Don’t drink the night before a race. I know, another obvious one. Our goal was to finish the build and make the race. We succeeded so we celebrated. We were also pretty sure the car wouldn’t last the 1000 miles, and I owed it to my friends to show them a good time for their hard work - so we decided to have fun.
We left Santos (with my friend Cameron driving...) in search of safety gear. We located some at Punto Moro which is big resort on the beach. The group went off to find the gear and left me with the car.
I got bored and found a huge party of naked women in a hot tub. Seriously. So I grabbed a beer and jumped in. I forgot to tell anyone where I went and they spent a fair amount of time tracking me down. By the time they located me, the girls in the hot tub wanted to see the Pig (yeah I know, there are ton of jokes here) so we took them out to the parking lot and Cameron gave a bunch of rides to naked women. It was hysterical.
You would think this is where we would go to bed but no, we decided we needed to put more miles on the car. So we went by Houssongs. We parked out front and caused a huge scene with the Baja Pig. Mexicans LOVE desert racing but in all these years they probably haven’t seen anything like a production BMW enter the race. Next thing I know I’m standing on the bar so I could jump across and leave a sticker on the back wall. Its still there today – I saw it during the NORRA Mexican 1000 last month.
DIY TIP: Go see a desert race before you race. When I ran the first 1000 I had never been to Baja (Cabo doesn’t count) and had never really seen a desert race or desert racing vehicle. It was a huge mistake. There is so much to learn from watching a race and talking with the other teams. If you can’t pre run or practice, you should at least try to learn through others. Entering the 1000 without ever seeing a desert race or a desert racing vehicle drops your chances of finishing to almost zero.
As much as the drinking was bad, the miles put on the car were smart. Our power steering failed, our coolant system leaked, our race radio didn’t work, and we had no idea how to use the fish finder on the dash – most teams use a Lawrence GPS thing to navigate that was originally developed for boats. They are crude and almost impossible to use without directions.
The top teams now use a product called Lead Nav which is amazing. It’s a cool piece of software developed for an iPad which uses an external GPS antenna designed for an airplane that shows your position on satellite maps. You can load tons of course notes into the map and then plug the audio into your intercom. We used it during the Norra Mexican 1000 and Baja 500 (to spectate) and can’t wait to use it for real during the 1000. Here’s a screen shot from their website which gives you an idea of how it works.
Ok, back to the Baja Pig. We started work the moment we got home. Oh yeah! We never booked a hotel and they were all sold out – like we couldn’t find one downtown. But, somewhere along the night we ran into a great group of people(I should probably leave their names out of this!) that invited us to stay at the Horsepower Ranch with them. Robby Gordon and Jesse James were staying there as well. Jesse James saw our car in the morning and was like what the hell is this? “It’s the Baja Pig!” He sort of just scratched his head and smiled. We completed more miles than he did that year so maybe he should have shown the pig some respect.
We all got our own little cabins and an awesome breakfast in the morning. I can still taste the fresh orange juice and scrambled eggs. It was one of those kinds of breakfasts. The problem was the car needed hours of work so we did the best we could but never got to certain items like the race radio. But that’s ok, we were ready for an adventure, not a race, and the adventure was awesome.
DIY TIP: Make sure you and your friends know your team’s goal for the race. Sometimes it’s to win, sometimes it to finish, sometimes it just to have a great adventure with your friends. But it’s important that everyone is on the same page.
For example, our goal for this year’s Baja 1000 is to show you how a group of regular guys can finish the largest race in North America. Our secondary goal is to involve as many people in our race that want to join the team, and hopefully crowd source as much video from the racecourse as possible. Third, we want to have fun doing it all.
Back to the mistakes we made. Our lack of testing became really obvious. The course was much faster than the desert stuff I had seen in Dust to Glory. I was ok with that, but the real problem was that the Pig was fast with the M3 motor and a 5.9 rear gear. It also handled really well and the feeling through the wheel with the stock e30 rack was very similar to my $500 rally car. We started pushing it pretty fast and then boom! We hit a little jump and everything went silent... for like 2 seconds. I don’t think I’ve ever jumped a car that far in my life.
The landing was smooth but I was like no way this chassis can do that for 48 hours and survive. (note: These pictures are from my friends and I jumping the car in front of the motel after the race.) We backed off and settled into a nice pace (for us).
DIY Tip: Run your own race. Don’t worry if other cars are passing you. You’ll see a bunch of them broken or in a ditch after leaving the course at speed. Run your pace based on your experience and the strength of the car. If you’re in a trophy truck let the war hammer rip, but most of the classes require you run below your limit to ensure a finish. Take the class 11 stock VW’s. They plug along at a slow pace but they never stop and they finish. Or the stock class trucks. The guys that push and try to go fast will snap their spindles or flip them over. The 1000 is much more about survival in the lower classes than raw speed.
Our next mistake showed up about an hour into the race. We left the exhaust wide open – well it had a home made spark arrester deal but that’s it. Actually it was more than wide open. It terminated into a pipe shaped like a megaphone. Ever listened to a BMW M3 engine at redline for a few hours? How about eight hours? Twelve? Trust me you will want to kill yourself just to make it stop. Even with helmets on and intercoms it was deafening loud.
DIY TIP: Run mufflers! The car might sound cool all straight-piped out, but the quieter and more relaxed you can be in the cockpit, the longer you’ll be able to drive. It doesn’t sounds like a big deal but after 12 hours of 7,000 rpms you’ll wish you listened to me and made your car a lot quieter.
There’s so much to cover about the race that I’ll save some for the next article. Or, really two articles from now. The next one is a complete look at the build and the parts we used to put to 33" tires on an E30 and prep it for desert racing. Even though the chassis is tubed with long travel suspension, it still feels like an E30. You still look out of the same windshield (although without the glass). It runs a BMW S50 engine and ZF Trans from a 1995 M3 (a common e30 swap). We also kept the stock steering(a huge mistake but it allowed us to finish in time for the race which was our goal) and the stock pedals as you can see below. You also can’t see the tires when your driving so it looks and feels more like an e30 than you would ever imagine.
Now for a quick update on the DIY BAJA plan. We’re inviting everyone to come down and join us! I know so many people that want to come see the Baja 1000 but don’t know where to start. Here’s your chance.
You will need to take care of all your own details. We’ll help you and do our best to keep everyone organized but you need to manage your own trip. We’re simply providing a big group for you to join. Anyone is welcome.
If you have a truck and want to chase you’re more than welcome to! You just need a race radio to program our team’s frequency into. We could use a few guys to actually chase, but for the rest of you, it might be more fun to sort of chase and watch the race, than be fully committed to the race program.
We’ll have the Scout as our main chase vehicle plus help from some good friends I’ve met in San Diego since I moved there in 2010. We’re going to use BF Goodrich for our main pits and Mag 7 for emergency service so you won’t really need to be anywhere at any time. But the more help we get the better chance we have of finishing. As we get closer to the race will explain exactly how you work with BFG and your other options for pit support during the 1000.
Most of the people I’ve talked to just want to come down and see the race starting with contingency - it’s like a giant block party full of race cars. The trucks and buggies go through this huge line to get to tech. Along the way are tents where the various companies that have cash payouts inspect your vehicle to make sure its running their parts and required stickers. But really its a giant party with thousands of people, loud music, and a ton of beer. It’s a really good time!
Another component of our DIY BAJA program is to crowd source as much video as possible from everyone spectating the race. We’ll run in-car cameras but it would be great to match that with iPhone footage from as many people along the race course as possible. After the race we’ll assemble the footage into an awesome video that even a professional video crew couldn’t produce with a proper video crew. The key is all of you along the race course drinking beers and shooting video.
Here’s where I do need some help. I don’t know the best way to have people submit their video. I’m thinking of using a massive dropbox account but if you know of a better option, please let me know.
The other problem is that I don’t know how to keep everyone organized or how we collect everyone’s info and connect strangers before the race. We’ve launched a Teespring campaign and are selling Baja Pig/ DIY BAJA T-shirts at cost.
If you see one of these t shirts, you know they are a part of the team. The t shirts will change a little bit every three weeks as we get closer to the race. Hopefully we’ll add sponsor logos to the shirt. If you want the plain one, you should grab it now. Or if you just want a Baja Pig t shirt for a reasonable price, this is your chance. Here’s a screenshot of the back end so you know were selling them at cost. We did round up to the nearest .50 cents but you get the idea.
Like the video, I don’t know the best way to keep everyone organized. I really need some sort of database where people can enter their info directly along with their plans, what they would like to do, who their bringing, etc. I’m concerned this will become a mess, but for now send an email to DIYBAJA@gmail.com. Tell us who you are, why you’re coming down, what you want to do(hang out, watch, party, shoot video, chase, etc) and if you’re ok being on a group email or database. I’ll do my best to organize this and put together a fun group.
I would love to find a way to connect everyone so you can chat and think some sort of a forum might work best. I’ve already heard from a bunch guys that might come down solo and would love to be paired up with others to watch the race. Other friends want to fly in but don’t know how they will get around in Baja. Some are going to rent cars but others will be stuck and will need to find a ride. If you guys have an idea on how to manage this, let me know!
The final component of DIY BAJA is finding us all a place to camp and stay. I’ve been looking for a house with some property for us to camp on, but it might become to difficult to manage on top of the race logistics. Some friends suggested we stay at Estero Beach but it appears to be sold out already. It’s roughly 8 miles south of the start in Ensenada and is very secure.
It’s a little fancy for our program, but there is also an RV park and I was told there might be camping there during the 1000. As there doesn’t appear to be any rooms left, camping is probably our only option. There is also a separate beach and a short course track on the property. If anyone has a better idea of where we should all stay and camp during the 1000 please let us know. Here’s a google map screen grab of their property in case you’re curious about the hotel with the racetrack. I know I was!
I’ve been working on the complete Baja Pig build article that should go up next week with hopefully more details for those that want to come and help us race the 1000 this November.
The photo below was taken as we checked into a motel in San Felipe back in 2010. We were exhausted but so happy to not be stranded in the desert without a chase crew that could extract us. A second after the photo was taken the motel manager went back into his office and brought out three beers to celebrate. The next morning he loaned us some clothes(all we had were firesuits) and took us to breakfast where we found out his relatives(uncles I think) were leading their class in the 1000. There is nothing like the Baja 1000. Come see it with us!