Mexico Point to Point, 2004
The Land of Rain, Snow and Ice?
This desert racing stuff is what my dreams have been made of for years. I've wanted to play out in the desert since I first saw some footage of the Baja 1000 on ESPN some 25 years ago. I can't put my finger on it, but for some strange reason it drew me in and held tight for the majority of my adolescence and right up through the present. Six years ago, I got my first taste of off road racing (four wheels) in the Pace Stadium Series. It was magic. I also got to play around on a couple large outdoor tracks - very cool, but it made me realize that I wanted open course stuff - yea, out in the desert, just the world around you, your car and yourself (and hopeful a huge amount of luck). I didn't want to be stuck on a short course, I wanted an ungroomed, unknown track that lead you to where ever and hopefully to a finish line off in the unseen distance.
Four years ago my dream took life and I went a whole 10 miles (out of 120) at the Snowflake Race - but oh what miles they were. I was hooked. Hell, you'd have to be hooked to drive from Cincinnati, Ohio to Phoenix, Arizona five to six times a year just to race! It's only 1867 miles and 27 hours of drive time. The chance to rage through the desert in the Dez as fast as possible is something that just over rules common sense and the realization that it's a TWO DAY drive just to get there. I can't wait for the next race. I don't mind the drive. I'm always ready for the next adventure over the horizon - after all, this sort of racing IS an adventure and I love it!
Yup, I've been trying this stuff for four years now. Sure doesn't seem that long. What's strange about it is that each time I roll up to the starting line, I still feel like I'm a total novice - it's completely new and exciting. But, I've learned so much in these past four years! And it's all finally paid off.
The learning curve has been quite steep. You have to learn to drive the desert. It's not just pin the throttle and go flying down the road - even though it may look like that's what's going on when you watch a desert race. You have to learn how to push as hard as possible, but at the same time you have to learn how to be careful and not hurt the car. You have to learn how to adapt when you blow a rear tire out and the first pit stop it 17 miles away. You have to learn how to avoid big, nasty down hills. Each and every time I get behind the wheel at a race, I learn something new; something that makes me go faster, farther or more with less damage. The key to success in desert racing is to finish. Plain and simple - making it to the finish line is 90% of the battle.
The big key to this (finishing) is having a vehicle that is capable of making it there and NOT tearing it up on the way to the checkered flag. It's taken four years of testing, crashing, destroying, fixing and making the Dez race worthy. It's finally paid off - and paid off quite well!
I got out to Phoenix a couple days before Thanksgiving. We did dinner and on Friday James, Jay & his daughter and I loaded up the Dez, a single seat Tazcar and one of Jay's Coyotes and headed to Ogilby in the Imperial Sand Dunes (Glamis). The Dez worked FLAWLESSLY all weekend. I must admit, after the last race I was a bit paranoid about running out of fuel, but other than a constant worry about making it back to camp, the weekend was picture perfect and the Dez never missed a beat. I saw that as good news for the coming weekend.
Upon returning from Glamis, I set forth to make sure the Dez was prepped from the ground up. I spent four days at ATV Racing going over everything on the Dez - I wanted to win this race. Each and every fastener was checked. The transmission had all the gears replaced - I'd snapped an output shaft at a short course race this summer and decided to make sure all was good inside the RPM box. The engine and clutches were fresh and the rear brakes FINALLY worked like they were supposed to. Thursday, after lunch, I loaded the Dez up and headed to my favorite Northern Phoenix off road location - Happy Valley.
Time to burn some fuel and see how the Dez felt. I headed out on a little 5 mile loop that I've sort of pieced together over the past couple years and started running laps. The Dez just flat ripped. I've finally tuned the car and my driving style in together and I'm totally comfortable in the car. I know what it's gonna do in just about any situation. I know how hard I can push it and I think I finally know how to drive it like a race car - which I've found is quite different than just going out and playing. Pretty surprising... With everything working this well, I HAD to do well at this next race - I was due! (sounds good, at least...)
Friday night Jay's step-brother Jimmy, Jay, James and his boy Chase, (yea, Jay, James, Jimmy - I just point and grunt instead of trying to get the name right!) and I pack up and head south to Old Mexico.
Mexico: The name conjures thoughts of tropical forests, sandy beaches, soothing breezes, sunshine, the desert, warmth & tequila. (no, I don't drink that stuff - anymore. yikes! - but Dos-XX beer is pretty damn good.) Boy what a nice little vision. Too bad it's COMPLETELY WRONG!!! Can you say COLD, OVERCAST, WINDY, RAINY Mexico? Cold - yea, how about reports of SNOW on sections of the track? We didn't see the sun - not even a peak of it. Gray, low, drizzling clouds and a wind that went right through you. I felt like I was back in Cincinnati! How can this be? We're in Mexico for heaven's sake! We pulled into the Oasis Resort (where the races are run from), parked the Big Blue Beast next to a light pole, plugged in the RV cord and started to get ready to bed down for the night. Nothing ever works right - poof - there goes the circuit breaker! Can't find another open plug either. No prob - just let the BBB run all night - diesel works great for this. We stayed nice and toasty and listened to the rain start to fall. Oh boy, this is gonna be interesting in the morning.
We were all up and moving by 8:00. We had some breakfast and then we got ready - all fluids topped, pressures checked, supplies readied, through tech, blah, blah and headed on to staging. The wind was gusty - guessing up to 20 or so at times. Right after we got in line, here came the rains. Not drizzle, but rain! It's not supposed to rain in the desert! I've never been so glad my fire suit is three layers. It was COLD! Jay pulls out a green tarp and we throw it over the roof of the Dez. We chased little rivers down the tarp, trying to keep them off our legs and out of the car. After about 10 minutes of this we both realize it's just easier to put the tarp over us, inside the car. Worked like a charm - kept us dry and the wind off too. The waiting game had begun. Move forward a car length every 30 seconds, heading for the starting line.
Jay and I had a plan - FINISH. We had 112 miles ahead of us in some of the worst conditions I've ever driven in on a track that's known for eating vehicles. The Dez was prepped to the best of my ability and we hoped it was ready for the race. We got up to the starting line, they waved the flag and we were off.
The conditions were horrible. The rain would get heavy, the rain would go away, we saw some fog, we saw some drizzle, we never saw any sunshine. Never gone so far, so fast with such limited vision. My helmet's shield was either covered in mud, rain or fogged up about 90% of the time. When it wasn't raining, I'd try to run w/the visor open but the wind kept making my eyes tear up.
Mexico is MILES of whoops connected with long high speed runs and some tight, twisties thrown in just for fun. From little stutter whoops that the Dez just ignores to 6' deep monsters that required just driving up, down and over, the course throws out all the stops and tries to kill the car. It can go from being very technical to almost a Sunday drive at times. There was one cool wash section full of rocks, many high speed fire roads, some tight twisty stuff through the scrub brush and the dreaded silt section - it's a really cool course.
Within two minutes of leaving the line, we passed a car. He was struggling with the two to three foot deep whoops. Not that we weren't effected by them but nowhere near as much as this poor guy! I had to get my rhythm down with the whoops and the throttle. Burp the pedal just after the back end sinks to the bottom of the whoop to drive the car up the face of the next one, let off just before it starts back down the back side of the next one, repeat for miles. By doing this I was able to keep from pounding the back of the chassis into the ground. The second the whoops would change in depth or distance between them, I'd have to adapt - and smack the back end of the car on occasion. Kept me on my toes!
About five miles or so after we leave the pit area, the course crosses a road, turns right and then runs along side the road. I remember running along, bearing down on a car out in front thinking "Either these guys are going slow or we're hauling." I didn't think I was pushing the Dez at all - I've always had issues with loosing the belt on long high speed runs, so I was trying to stay easy and take my time. Long term high speed runs seem to be the Dez's Achilles heel. If I let the belt ride in a particular position on the clutch long enough it seems to overheat and then let go. I guess the deep sand and the constant engine RPM warmed up the belt and poof. We lost a belt about 8 - 10 miles into the race - right after making our third pass for position. Jay hopped out, replaced it and we ran the rest of the race on one belt.
When the belt got tossed I thought we were screwed at first. The engine died and I thought it had tossed a cylinder, but Jay gave the pull starter a yank and the good ol' Arctic Cat fired right up. Apparently the belt wadded up between the clutch and engine cases, so the starter didn't have enough to turn it over. The belt may have been stuck in the starter bendix for all I know. One bullet dodged, but I had to figure out how to deal with the belt overheating problem.
After changing the belt, Jay and I started talking about what causes them to blow and after we figured the problem out, I kept making sure that I varied the throttle on the long speed runs so that the belt would keep moving in the clutches and not overheat things. I was able to cruise along with two other buggies at about 75 mph (off GPS) while feathering the throttle, so this new technique appears to work pretty well - speed plus reliability is a good thing. Learn something new each race.
A couple miles after the belt change the course turned back out into the desert. Single track, rain, slick sand (I'd never seen slick sand before - what a trip!) and stuck behind another sled powered car. The guy was running a Mini-Mag chassis with an 800 twin in it. He had just enough hp to make it tough to get around and each time we'd come into a corner, he'd throw the car sideways, breaking through the wet sand/dirt kicking up a cloud of dust. This stuff would hit my visor and instantly turn into a thick brown blanket of mud. I'd go from looking out through the rain drops and streaks to not being able to see squat. I had to run with the shield cracked open otherwise it would instantly fog up (whoops were so much fun - drive with one hand, wipe and hold the visor open with the other). It made seeing where we were going almost impossible at times. I finally got around the Mini-Mag and we never saw him again. Right after the we passed the Mini-Mag the course came to a fairly tame section - pretty high speed, few or small whoops, two lanes wide.
It was in this same section that Ty Loyd in car 1275 (Sportsman Class 10) first came into view. Because he had "12" numbers on his car, I figured he was in our class. (I found out later that Class 10 runs numbers 1275 to 1299) I knew he'd started behind us and I wasn't happy to see the white car coming up behind us, but oh well. I wasn't going to push the Dez much harder than I was - yet. Out in the open, he slowly gained on us and I pulled out of his way. Damn, second place now... The course started to get rough again. First smaller whoops - say a foot deep or so. No big deal to the Dez. Keep the throttle pedal pressed down and hang on. The whoops got deeper and meaner as we got farther into this particular section of the course. To my surprise, 1275 didn't seem like he was running away. In fact, it looked like we were gaining on him pretty quickly! Cool! We passed him back and put some distance between us and him. Interesting...
Ty and I played this game for the majority of the first half of the race. He'd run past me on the faster, smoother sections and I'd come right back by him in the rough. Soon the two of us had another buggy with us and I started pressing, trying to keep running with them on the fire roads. They were running about 75 to 80 and it was here that I developed my new high speed driving technique. I could stick right with them as long as I feathered the throttle, keeping the belt from riding in one spot and cooking. Very nice indeed. I'm not sure where I lost Ty, but the last time I saw him was 10 miles or so from our pit stop. I don't know what it was that caused him to drop out of site, but I sure was glad he did.
Our pit stop was just about the 70 mile mark. We had just finished running down the infamous "Whoop-de-doo Alley" and Jay and I were extremely happy to be out of that section. It's about 10 miles of deep, rutted, mean whoops. They range from the smaller 2 footers to some that have to be close to 6' deep. You can't see what's over the next rise at times because of the size of these things. There's no edge that you can run on either. No place to put two wheels and get a bit of a reprieve, just miles of whoops that beat you down. Still, I was able to control the Dez's attitude through these nasty things with the go pedal for the most part. Wasn't until the pit stop that I realized why it was working so well, though.
We pulled in and there stood our Crew Chief James, Jimmy and Chase. Jimmy dumped 10 gallons of fuel in the car ("Wow, you weren't kidding that it only takes 6 seconds to empty the can!" - Jimmy after the race - he stood there for 20 seconds or so waiting on the can to empty while he and I were talking and realized that it had gotten light quickly.), the guys did a quick walk around to make sure nothing was coming off and no small furry animals were stuck anywhere on the car. We left the pits and headed down a long, straight whooped out section. Did I mention that this course is full of whoops??
Interesting. These whoops are only 1 to 2 feet deep, but man, I'm having a horrible time keeping the back of the car from smacking the ground. What in the world? Then it hit me - we'd just taken on 10 gallons of fuel - 70+ pounds of extra weight in 6 seconds. The extra weight was making a HUGE difference in the way the Dez worked through the whoops. I had to adapt and try not to smack the car. Pretty wild that it made that much of a change.
This section of the track was new to Mexico. For the first few miles it was a fairly straight course that had whoops that would come and go. The elevation also would rise and fall - Nice big rollers with whoops down in the lower sections. We'd rip along, drop over the back of the roller and then slow and get beaten by whoops. Was nice to have a bit of relief, but those big down hills, where you can't see the other side, still make me nervous. Jay kept saying "Quit slowing down!" as we'd crest the ridges and after about the third time I just casually said "Snow Flake" - he never said another word!
Not long after the faster section, we came into a level area that ran through the thicker brush - down in some sandy flats, fairly close to the coast line. We came up on one car, made the pass and then got into some heavy rain. Water was standing all over and made for some really interesting corners. The Dez bounces off the smaller trees pretty nicely... We came up on a white Trophy Truck in this stuff. I reeled him in like he was standing still - quite surprised by this, actually. We followed for 3-4 minutes, trying to find a place to pass and I finally gave up, ran right up on his rear bumper and gave him a small tap. To my surprise, he pulled right over and waved us by. Thanks!
Not long after this, we were funneled down into a really killer wash. Big sweeping corners, small canyon walls on both sides, good traction - fun stuff. I'm guessing it was 5-6 miles of it and then it brought us back into the flat section of the land and then up by the railroad tracks where we'd made our pit stop. It was about a 20 mile loop and was the most fun part of the course.
The last section of the course was the most brutal. We ran along the highway in some of the deepest nastiest whoops I've ever seen. Up & over a ridge, down into the whoops, back up over a ridge, down into the whoops. This is also where the silt field started.
Silt is interesting stuff. It's as fine as powdered sugar and deep. We dragged the chassis of the Dez along the course for much of the silt bed. I was stuck in the ruts left by the other racers and there wasn't much I could do other than just keep the throttle pressed down. We ended up coming up behind another Trophy Truck in this stuff - fortunately, in one of the more shallow sections. We were stuck in a cloud of this fine dust boiling off the back of the truck, I couldn't see squat through my face shield and I wanted around him. Wipe the shield, try to duck to the side to see if it was clear. Wipe, check, wipe, check. I finally saw an area that looked decent and we made an attempt at the pass. Just as I got up along side the truck, I notice that Mr. Creosote tree was in my line. This was going to be interesting. It was a smaller tree - 4' tall, maybe, so I just lined the middle of the Dez up with the tree. Wish I'd noticed the large mound of sand the tree was growing in! We hit it, the tree exploded (creosote trees shatter like they're made of glass when you nail them) and we were suddenly up in the air in a huge cloud of dust. The pit crew was running along side us on the hiway and said it looked like we'd hit a land mine. We still managed to pull off the pass.
We followed the rail road tracks a bit longer, crossed the highway and started down that side of it. Here is where we found the deepest whoops of all. We had to just plod along, driving up and down these things. Nothing was going to go quickly through here. It lasted for what seemed like forever and Jay and I were tired of them! It only got worse as we got closer to the finish line. You leave the hiway and head back into the desert. The ground is hard, packed sand, it's still raining and the whoops just seem to get bigger and nastier. 20 miles or so of this and we finally came back to the Oasis and reprieve from the beating. We'd finished Mexico! That's only the second time I've finished in 5 attempts. It's a brutal course.
Other than the belt issue, the Dez ran perfectly. The engine never gave a single hint of problems or concerns for the entire 112 miles, the belt looked brand new and we ended the race with fuel in the tank. We did loose the two inner CV boots sometime during the last 40 miles of the race (I'm pretty sure we lost them in the silt field - that stuff's deep and like talcum powder), but 930 CVs in a 200 hp car that weighs 1300 lbs would probably make a full Baja 1000 race w/o grease and boots. Tough things...
Off my GPS, here are the stats: (we'll see how they compare to Whiplash's)
Course Length: 112.4 miles
2:39:40 moving time - includes time in the pits, both before and after the race
42.5 mph average moving speed
80.1 mph top speed - (never have really tried to see just how fast the Dez will go. Haven't found anyplace with enough room during testing w/o being in a race, but we still figure right around 95 - the belt issue has me a tad spooked and I didn't want to have to change a second one)
From Whiplash's results:
|Sportsman Unlimited||Car Number||Laps||Time|
|MYERS/ MASK RACING TEAM, BOB||1200||0|
|FELDMAN/ HARDEN TEAM, GIL||1244||0|
|MCM MOTORSPORTS RACING, RUSS FLORANCE||1207||0|
|Sportsman Class 10||Car Number||Laps||Time|