Baja Off Road Adventure

by Michael Satterfield 

When it comes to the world of off-road racing, Baja is globally recognized as one of the most challenging and storied landscapes. Since the first run by Dave Ekins back in 1962 to prove that the Honda CL72 was tough enough to get from Tijuana to La Paz, racing legends like Bruce Meyers, Parnelli Jones, Steve McQueen, Mickey Thompson, Paul Newman, and many more have taken part in the challenge. From 1967 onward the race has been one of the ultimate tests of endurance for both vehicles and competitors, an elite class of racer that is known for their bravado and daring.

As a fan of motorsports, I have often daydreamed of ripping across the deserts of Baja California in a Trophy Truck or Buggy, racing against the clock and terrain. However, buying a $120,000 buggy and driving across Mexico is a big commitment and like many, I had no idea where I could even attempt to experience the thrills and speed of Baja without committing to buying or building a specialty off-road race car. That is until I learned about Wide Open Baja.

Wide Open Baja is a unique adventure vacation for those of us who want to try Baja racing for the first time. With one to four day tours that put you behind the wheel of an actual race proven Baja Challenge Car. My adventure started with myself and James from being picked up at the San Diego airport by the team from Wide Open Baja, followed by a two-hour drive down the coast to Ensenada.

Our first stop was Horsepower Ranch, after getting settled into my room, our tour guide James took each of the members of our group out for a walkaround of the cars and a quick familiarization lap around the short track at Horsepower Ranch. The cars are Sportsman Level 4 spec class open-wheel racer that has raced in a SCORE sanctioned race like the Baja 1000, or San Felipe 250. Some of the cars in our group I even recognized from the last Baja 1000, as they still had their team liveries.

Powered by a 175-hp Subaru engine, the two-wheel drive buggies are capable of hitting 90 miles-per-hour. Each car is equipped with a GPS trip computer that helps keep you on track as you drive as fast as you dare through the wilds of Mexico. In the pre-drive meeting, each driver is issued a helmet, dust guard, and a small bag for your "must have" items. The rest of your luggage is going ahead to the next location so you won't be seeing it for hours.

Shortly after dawn the drivers assemble, we load into our assigned car, and the driving begins. This isn't like a race school where you ride along with an instructor, it's just you, your co-driver, and the car. The co-drive isn't just a passenger, they have their own responsibilities, like assisting with navigation and operating the radios. As soon as we pulled out of Horsepower Ranch, the adventure began.

Each car is assigned radio call sign number and we are encouraged to space ourselves out so we can enjoy the drive with less dust. Just like in the race many of the roads we are driving are publicly accessible and the route can range from well-trafficked farm roads to nearly indiscernible desert washes to mountaintop trails along 100-foot cliffs. Needless to say, this is not a closed course and hazards can be anything from oncoming traffic to a heard of cows.

It took me a few hours to really get used to the car, the rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive, lightweight buggy was very different than most of the cars I have driven. But it was similar to the Trophy-Lite trucks I had raced a few months before. Once I was confident with the car my speeds began to creep up until we had regular stretches flat out with the pedal to the ground. Just a few hours in and our group was already ripping across the desert towards to opposite coast of Baja, with a destination of the coastal town of San Felipe.

Our first night on the road we stayed at George's just across from the beach, I had felt my clutch pedal was fading so while we headed to dinner the support team pulled and replaced the master cylinder. The team travels with full support staff, mechanic, electronics expert, technicians, as well as chase trucks loaded with spares, and even a backup car in case we needed it.

The next morning we left the beaches of San Felipe and headed back inland towards a legendary Baja hotel, Mike's Sky Ranch. From the San Dunes of the coast, we worked our way across the desert towards the mountains. The terrain went from soft sand washes to a massive dry lake, to rocky canyons, and eventually to a well-graded road that would take us to Mike's.

After climbing up 4,000 feet on rocky trails and across streams, Mike's Sky Ranch is a welcome refuge and our home for the second night. This secluded backcountry hotel has been around since 1967 and has been a checkpoint for many of the races throughout the year. As you wander around you see stickers from racing teams, brands, and travelers covering most of the windows and doors.

Up bright and early for day three and our long trip back to Ensenada, it's cold up in the mountains at Mike's Sky Ranch, ice is on all the cars and they take a long time to warm up. Even with gloves on my hands are numb from the cold, but we are still having a blast. A warning comes out over the radio that the next stretch of road will be hazards and that this section has claimed many a car on past trips. Our guide wasn't kidding, the narrow dirt road snaked down the mountain and at points was hardly wider than the car. After about 20 minutes of slow, stress-filled driving, we were back on wider roads with more forgiving shoulders.

Cresting the last hill from the highlands we can see the Pacific Ocean, these last few hours would provide some of the most beautiful sights of the trip. Turning north we hug the coastline, blasting across beaches, dirt roads, through coastal farms and small villages. The blue sky, the smell of the sea, the wind rushing around you from the speed, it is about as perfect a day as I can think of.

We made our way back to Wide Open Baja's Ensenada workshop, where we were greeted with a cold beer and met by our driver who would take us back to San Diego. Over the course of four days, we had an amazing adventure, I learned a lot about what it takes to race in Baja, and I made memories that will stick with me for the rest of my life. It was cold, hot, dirty, grimy, loud, exactly like I hoped it would be.

If you would like to find out more about going on your own Baja adventure check out Wide Open Baja's official website HERE. Also, enjoy more photos from the trip on our Facebook Page.