Putting the Desert Warrior Back Together Again.

The Darkcyd Racing Team’s Desert Warrior, a custom-built off-road racing vehicle designed to endure perhaps the toughest race on the planet—The Dakar—sat at the team camp at Estero Beach just south of Ensenada. Unsure if the Desert Warrior, made by well-known British builder Rally Raid UK, would be able to run in the 2011 Tecate Score Baja 500, the tech’s and team manager Raff McDougall had to make the right decision. If the car couldn’t endure the rigors of the treacherous and often unforgiving and gnarly terrain of Baja, they couldn’t confidently send Robb and Ben into the race and out in the desert.

Everyone traveled from afar to work on Darkcyd Racing’s latest Mexican bid. More importrant, this was to be a shakedown and test for the vehicle for the granddaddy rally of all – The Dakar. If Robb couldn’t race the Desert Warrior, he would be ill prepared for the Dakar rally later this year unless the team arranged for shakedown at another rally or simply on an isolated solo shakedown somewhere on the west coast: on terrain that would closely miimic the Atacama Desert where much of the Dakar would be raced in South America.

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Tara, Ben and Robb review race notes and logistics hoping that the team can bring the Desert Warrior back to life.

The crew identified a few areas of concern. First, the mounting bracket for the intercooler, a radiator-like device designed to cool intake air that is charged through the Desert Warrior’s turbocharger on its 3.0 liter BMW diesel engine. Mounted to the engine compartment, the intercooler iis made of aluminum and in the accident the brackets bent and caused the intercooler to push up against the air intake hose. Should those brackets give and cause the hose to be sheared, dust, dirt and silt would be charged into the engine by the turbocharger—this would render the engine useless and blown. Plus, if this were to happen in the middle of nowhere, it would be difficult to retrieve the car.

“You could be stuck in the desert for two days,” Raff explained when asked about the potential consequences. Also complicating the air intake system was a large pinching or buckling of the snorkel, a vertical tube that rises above the roof of the car. Designed to allow the Desert Warrior to practically immerse itself underwater while the engine still can get air through the protruding snorkel above the waterline. While the snorkel might be easier to fix due to its stainless steel construction, the aluminum mounting bracket was soft and bending it could cause it to brake.

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Bill inspects rear suspension.

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Stitched up like a war wounded soldier, Desert Warrior considers a start at the 2011 Baja 500.

I felt a bit of tension between team members Gary and Raff as they disagreed as to the potential outcome or repairability of the intercooler. Though they both remained composed and worked together to try to get the Desert Warrior back into the race. There was also a problem with the Z-bar, something like a torsion bar that stabilizes the axle. It appeared to be askew and looked as if the rear wheels were off camber. This could cause stability problems and certainly premature where on the tires. We would only know after putting the car back together and testing it on the infamous test track.

As the team was burning daylight, Robb and Ben prepared to head back to town to attend the driver’s meeting, a review of the course, rules and a bit of ceremony by local government officials. Tara and I joined Robb and Ben for the ride in town. Raff tasked us with procuring clear tape and ideally a glass cutter so we could score and tape the windshield to prevent it from cracking further. We’d need to find out if we could even run the car with a broken windshield. Combing through the pages of the rule book, it wasn’t clear. So we’d stop in town and meet once again with SCORE inspectors to enquire, and then try to source the appropriate tape and glass cutter.

Back in town the inspectors told us that the windshield in its cracked condition would be okay, provided it didn’t interfere with the drivers vision and that we taped it enough to prevent potential injury. Good news. Things were already looking better.

With an hour to spare before the meeting we headed out on foot to a nearby hardware store, figuring it would be better not to get caught up in the race fan traffic and madness of a Friday afternoon in Baja’s biggest city. Our first set of directions found us walking three blocks instead of two as indicated by our ‘guide’. But this store couldn’t help us, so we were pointed another 4 blocks down the road. From there another few blocks. By now we were a bit giddy and doing the best we could to make light of the situation and lightening wiht each walk deeper into Ensenda and further from the several block area that most tourists fail to venture beyond. Then Ben noticed a store window touting ‘TAPE’ we played torreador with the traffic and found ourselves in a staitonary store. Not only did they have tape, but the ceiling was lined with a dozen or more piñatas –paper mache characterts usually filled with candies and designed to be whacked by blindfolded kids at birthday or other celebration.

The owner of the simple store, a woman in her late 30’s with a smile and who giggled as we asked about the piñatas and pulled them from the ceiling to inspect. Then it hit us. As silly as it seemed, we wanted a couple piñatas. We figured that with tensions rising among the team in the pit, the possiblility of no racing and the resulting downer among the team, the best way to cheer up the team was with one of these classic mexican piñatas. Ben was ecxited more because he relished the idea of wlaking into the Baja 500 drivers meeting with a piñata. But which one’s should we get. Robb chose the purple dinasaur, a poor representation of Barney, and Ben was torn but in the end chose the Hello Kitty – complete with her skirt.

We marched the streets of Ensenada carrying the piñatas. From one auto parts place to the next hardware store, we relentless pursued the illusive glass cutter. As the clock ticked closer to 7pm and the driver’s meeting, we faced the reality: no glass cutter. Not to worry, though, we had two piñatas.

Locals walking cheered the piñata as we walked by. Young kids pointed to them from the windows of cars and busses. And when we arrived at the driver’s meeting, heads turned. Some laughed and gave the thumbs up, while others chided — especially at the site of Hello Kitty. There’s no question that we made an impression and added to the color of what is perhaps the most colorful and exciting off-road race in the world.

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The store owner wishes us luck in the race and let’s us walk away with her prized piñatas.

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The back streets of Ensenada.

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Ben and Robb making the best of what was a tough break for the Darkcyd Racing Team here at 2011 Tecate Score Baja 500.

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The quest for the illusive glass cutter on the streets of Ensenada, Slocum searches with his friend close by.

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More than 250 people show up for the Driver’s meeting the night before racing. None of them expecting to be joined by Slocum’s “Hello Kitty” piñata.

Back at camp and Estero Beach the crew was hard at work repairing the car. A few tech’s from nearby teams joined in the project of putting the Desert Warrior back together. Matt a Kiwi and a mechanic on a Class 2 buggy team worked hard to bring the snorkel back to life. Raff and Tommy worked on the intercooler while Gary and Bill set about the address body panels, the hood and further examination of the frame.

It was 9pm the night before race day. Darkcyd Racing would race the Baja 500. The crew ordered Ben and Robb to bed as they would need the energy for what would be a tough and long day tomorrow. Food first, Ben insisted. We ate at the restaurant onsite at Estero Beach where we found Robby Gordon and his crew of more than 30 eating and reviewing race plans for the following day. We all wondered who would be piloting the helicopter.

Early the next morning we arrived back at camp to find a clean and though scarred Desert Warrior, it appeared to be ready for racing.

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Making light of a tough and serious situation, the Barney piñata oversees the team as they put the Desert Warrior back together.

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Robby Gordon addresses his team the night before the Baja 500 at the Estero Beach restaurant.

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Team Technician Gary Grahn, feeling a big dejected but doing his part to get the Desert Warrior ready for racing.

From Robb’s journal:

When I arrived at camp at Estero Beach the next morning and saw our Desert Warrior put back together for the first time, I was encouraged. Despite the fact that the whole outer shell would have to be replaced before Dakar—at considerable expense—and the right rear wheel was pushed about an inch further back than the left causing the car to track askew, the Desert Warrior was in one piece and running! Though to be honest, it looked like it had been through many battles and the scars served more as badges of honor than rather than sitting pretty and pristine like someone’s garage queen for showing off at car shows .

The team warned me that the structural integrity of the intercooler for the turbo had indeed been compromised and one significant landing would likely break it causing silt to come into the intake and blow the engine. I thanked them for their realistic sentiment as they set my expectations accordingly. They thought the best case scenario would be about 35-80 miles of racing. That would be max so to prevent further damage or destruction to the car prior to taking the time to make proper repairs and procuring parts that needed replacement. I was happy just to have the ability to start the race. I agreed to take it one checkpoint at a time— the first sitting at race mile 35 and the second at race mile 80. To show my thanks and reward the hard work of the team, I asked Bill to take the vehicle to Ensenada to the start of the race where we’d meet the rest of the team in front of the tens of thousands of fans gathered at the start to watch the cards take off.

The start of any SCORE Baja Race is a challenge and test of coordination, execution, organization, sychronization and human behaviour. With 250 cars set to launch over a 5 hour period, that means about 50 cars every hour. Or nearly one ever 60 seconds. The race start is staggered so that each car can be timed accurately and so each class of cars is racing in the same proximity around the same time. Motorcycles take off first starting at 5:30am. Then Trophy Trucks, buggies and so on. Many of the teams comprised of men in their 20’s tend to stay out late and take in the best of Mexico’s unique flavors of which Tequila and Cerveza are quite prevalent. So getting ever car in line so that the coordinated start happens without a hitch is not like herding cats. This morning it seemed to go smooth as the SCORE officials worked with drivers and teams to have them launch on time.

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Drivers and co-drivers gear up for the race.

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Score Organizers Herd the Various Teams to Queue for the Starting LIne

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The starter and the ever so sweet Tecate girls at the start of the 2011 Tecate Score Baja 500

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With the slightly bruised but ready to race Desert Warrior, Darkcyd Racing principals Tara and Robb Rill await the start.

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Ben Slocum, co-driver contemplates a tough day, while SCORE promoter Sal Fish greets and wishes the racers good luck at the starting line.

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Darkcyd Racing Team Baja 500 Gary Grahn, Robb & Tara Rill, Ben Slocum, Tommy Cobb Rill Young, Gabe & Raff McDougall, Allison Joiner and Kiera McDougall

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The Flag Waver and Tecate Girls Await Robb to pull up to the gate.

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Robb & Ben pull out of the starting gate and onto the track for the 2011 Tecate Score Baja 500

Because we were running in a newly created class called 2D—open Turbo diesels with no restrictions—we would start about 2 hours after the trophy trucks which normally garner all of the attention and sponsorship dollars. So trophy truck team helicopters circled like vultures overhead, music blared, and the crowds and race scene carnival atmosphere continued, we had took advantage of the lag to watch some of the launching ourselves while Bill and Ben stayed with the car, slowly snaking it up to the start.

Some of the vehicles jump of fthe starting line full throttle with 600 HP and it is quite a spectacle to see. Tens of thousands of fans lined up on either side to watch the action. After watching some of the Class 1 buggies launch, we walked back to check on the status of our car in the line and realized we were only about 15 minutes from launch ourselves and I was not quite suited up nor in the car yet. So we took the obligatory team picture and I jumped in to start strapping the 5 point harnesses which almost seem like putting on a straight jacket voluntarily—was this a message, are those that drive Baja 500 candidates for straightjackets? I don’t think so.

When we got up to the start where scantily clad Tecate girls strutted their stuff and score promoter and organizer Sal Fish came up to shake my hand and wish us good luck, I was happy to learn that because I was the start of the next class, I had more time to settle into the Desert Warrior: 5 minutes instead of the normal 30 seconds between each car. When the flag waver showed me the FIVE, I thought I had FIVE MINUTES. But then he did his countdown to 4-3-2 , “OH SHIT” It was at that moment I realized that I had less then FIVE SECONDS! I quickly revved the engine and launched the clutch right at the time the flag girl dropped the starter flag. As we darted out in front of the screaming and mostly drunk Mexican fans—that’s what Baja fans do (drink a lot of beer)—the adrenaline rushed to my head and I focused hard and concentrated so not to crash into them. When we made the first major turn into the mud-filled Ensenada Aquaducts and hit the first big jump, I felt us flying in mid-air. At that moment I worried about landing, as Mexican fans were literally all over the course. One wrong move and I could wipe out a dozen of them tossing them aside like bowling pins. Fortunately I didn’t, and Ben and I fired up the course with the 35 mile check point as our next goal.

Yes! We’re racing today.

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