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Retreat, Recovery & Rescue. Baja 500. The Bizarre Outcome.

After scanning the maps and confirming with The Weatherman the Race Mile position last reported for Darkcyd Racing’s Desert Warrior, Raff led our convoy west toward Heroes de la Indenpendencia, a tiny village about halfway between Ensenada and San Felipe on Baja California’s Route 3. Without an accurate GPS position and useless GPS maps, Raff relied on a detailed map book of Baja California. Tara identified what looked like a road that led in towards Race Mile 25, but without elevation information it was hard to identify the validity of such a road, and assess whether it would be accessible in our vehicles.

While the Buick SUV rental was outfitted with 4-wheel drive its ground clearance was meager, to say the least. Raff’s pickup also was fitted with four-wheel drive, and had more ground clearance. Problem was, we had 9 total passengers. If we were to pull Robb and Ben out of the desert, we would have eleven. Raff’s truck could carry six passengers. Our crew not including Tara or me numbered five. Tara wasn’t about to stand back and wait. She’d be a nervous wreck. I was the only team member who could speak spanish, so I was essential to the extraction crew in order to communicate and locate the car and drivers.

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Raff tries to explain to Tara anything and everything. But where’s the road in to Robb & Ben?

Things were complicated. We soon found ourselves driving up and down Route 3 going west, then east and then west searching for an elusive road and a “town” that Tara saw on the map. The sun was making its descent. And tensions were flaring. A cloud of uncertainty weighed heavy on the team. We knew Robb and Ben were stuck somewhere in the desert, we were burdened with finding out where. Though Raff had been to Baja races several times before, he was bewildered too. In my gut, I knew we had to find someone who’d crewed or raced this course many times before. We needed to talk to someone. Yet we seemed bent on chasing an elusive road.

From Robb’s Journal:
We were dazed, confused and stunned. With the Desert Warrior smashed and resting hopelessly in a massive bush, we assessed the situation. Ben thought we had good fortune because his calculations indicated there was a SCORE Baja 500 hard-checkpoint about a mile from our crash site. These checkpoints are set up to ensure that each vehicle stays on course. Not that anyone would “cheat” on a race like this, but failure to check-in at these hard checkpoints would mean disqualification from the race. We figured we’d walk the mile to the checkpoint and call for help from there. Our radio had stopped working and we reasoned something happened to it in the crash. We figured best case we’d be rescued in five hours or less. Ben volunteered to walk the mile while I stayed with the car and protect it from wandering banditos with sticky hands. We’d both read the stories of these banditos robbing stranded racers and were told of racers being kidnapped and held for ransom. 


It’s no wonder the locals see the stranded vehicles as an opportunity. The average wage here in Baja is $600 monthly while some of the vehicles racing cost nearly $500,000. Other locals take a different approach to finding opportunity during Baja Races. I encountered some shortly after Ben departed for the check point. I flagged down a group of Mexicans driving a Jeep Cherokee. These enterprising locals monitor the toughest part of the course and help anyone stuck or in trouble. The offered to pull pull the Desert Warrior out of the bushes, but because of the weight of the vehicle and the soft terrain, the Jeep lacked the pulling power to move it. Though I thought it was futile to try, I was shocked when the Desert Warrior fired up after turned the ignition. Wow! I locked the differentials and pulled out of the bushes while tearing off the remainder of the quarter panel. Unfortunately, the hood (note: very expensive hood) took its toll during the crash, so I asked the locals if they’d carry it and follow me to the check point.

Taking care with the Desert Warrior, I slowly crawled toward the check point. After about a mile, I caught up with Ben who had encountered a a stack of cars stuck in Baja’s infamous silt beds — a nasty stretch of talcum-like powder, each grain weighting about a tenth of a grain of sand. Here there seemed to be about 100,000 pounds of silt stretched nearly to the horizon. Driving into the silt is like rolling into quicksand. Cars simply sink and without enough inertia, possibly disappear for good. Ben was adhering to the Baja code of ethics and was trying to push one poor soul out of the stilt. Surprised that the Desert Warrior is alive and kicking he asks me to try to push a massive F-150 pro-truck out. Though my gut tells me that this isn’t a good idea due to damage sustained in the crash, I give it a whirl. Just then the clutch gives way and blows. Damn. Now we’re stuck, too.

At that point, my new local Mexican friends realize I’m stuck again and decide that they’d rather keep my hood (replacment value: $3,000) than accept any cash that I’m going to pay them. So they drive off leaving us stranded in the silt with all the other vehicles. I find this funny, because the Desert Warrior is the only vehicle that could’ve ridden through the silt without getting stock. If the clutch hadn’t blown we might’ve been able to get closer to an accessible location. Instead we pull out shovels and the Desert Warrior’s sand slats, large rubber matsthat provide need traction in sand and silt, to help get the other guys out of the silt.

While doing my duty as a Baja participant, I cannot hide my frustration from not having a satellite phone. It was on our procurement check list and therefore should have been in the car. But chaos and confusion combined with some degree of planning snafus, we had no way to contact the outside world. One of our competitors who we pushed out of the silt agrees to send a message to our team and let’s us use his radio to relay our status to The Weatherman. Unfortunately, The Weatherman has his hands full and is busy coordinating air support for a motorcyclist who was critically injured on El Diablo. By the time I get through to him, he is annoyed and angry with me for not following proper protocol. I’m trying to give him phone numbers, but all he relays back is the wrong car number: 321 instead of 221. After the static clears and we’re finally communicating he apologizes and confirms the correct car number while promising that the information will get to my team.

At that point two more groups of enterprising local Mexicans seemingly appear out of thin air. They agree to give me a lift to the next remote Baja Pits location about 20 miles away. I figured that more support would be available there rather than the remote check point. Happy to make perhaps the best “ransom” of the race, I join Luís and his compañeros, including fellow bandito Gambino, in their Jeep Cherokee. Luis explains that they made an 8 hour trip the night before so they could come watch the race and help anyone stuck or needing help.

IMG_0401 - Version 2.jpgPerhaps I spent too much time in Miami, but I found this hard to believe. But it’s true. They give me water, food and even a Milky Way bar while we make the grueling 20 mile journey to Baja Pits. Along the way, we have to stop several times because Luis’s friend, also in a Jeep and following us, has problems with his transmission. We reconnect the transmission line and continue on our way. The fourth time we pull over

I realize the Luís has lost his muffler, requiring furhter repairs. I am amazed what these locals can do with little or no tools and how resourceful they are. To think they simply come to watch the race and look to help drivers and teams is also mind-boggling. But they want to feel part of the action. Live the dream and experience Baja off-road racing. It takes us two hours to get to Baja Pits at Race Mile 140. I believe my luck has finally changed. I’m rescued and finally free.

Feeling comfortable and happy now that I’m at Baja pits I figure my problems are over and I’I think my problems are over and I will simply radio for help, and they will send someone to pick up the car and Ben and we’ll simply need to wait 4-5 hours for our crew to pick us up.

We were still following Raff and now had passed pit stops for other racers several times. Why won’t he stop, I wondered. We need to talk to someone. Finally he pulls into a parking lot in front of little market and tiny restaurant. There are trailers, racers and locals. While I go to talk to the locals, Tara chats with the racers. We learn that the racers are part of a motorcycle team. Their rider had a crash on El Diablo and was seriously injured and had to be Medivac’d to a hospital in San Diego. “Don’t even think of it,” one of the racers told Tara. You’ll never get in. And you’ll probably never get out. Reality was setting in. I could see the pain in Tara’s face. Desperation. Raff and the others were lost for words.

 

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With the sun setting, Heroes de la Indenpendencia Turned Us Around.

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Gary was mesmerized by the glow on the mountains, and in the distance, the nasty and naughty El Diablo.

Just then Tara’s phone rings. Amazing. It’s Robb. He’s made it to one of the Baja Pits and asks us to retrieve him. The phone connection drops several times before Tara starts talking to some guy Chileco. She’s speaking so loud in the small restaurant everyone in there and the market can hear her. Frustrated due the dropped connections. She paces frantically. “It’s a blocked number,” she screams. “Why is it blocked!”

Finally the phone rings again and she’s now talking to Chileco who gives her directions to the Baja Pits. We’re several hours away he tells her. The sun is setting. She noodles out some directions on a paper, but gets cut off again. She wanted to speak to Robb one more time.

I meet Chileco who thankfully lets me use his satellite phone and I’m amazed to connect with my wife, Tara, on the first ring. She explains that the team is having difficulty trying to find us and a way to extract us. I learn she is still 100 miles on the other side of El Diablo and can’t find any road that will get her near us. I ask Luis to explain the options since he knows how to get into this god forsaken place. He looks at me sideways and agrees in theory that guiding Tara and the team in here is technically possible, but since we were losing daylight it would be close to impossible for anyone unfamiliar with the terrain and the desert to get here timely and safely. He agrees to try and explains that the team must drive completely around the mountain, some 200 miles or so, feasible but improbable.

At that point, I realized that whether or not Tara and the team could get here, I had to get back to Ben and the Desert Warrior. I knew it took us two hours to get here, so I figured it would be four hours round trip to fetch Ben and return—ideally with the Desert Warrior in tow.

I proposed the idea to Luîs. A huge request, a favor. He looked at me with a deer in headlights kind of stare. Up to this point, he’d already gone out of his way to help me, but this was asking too much. About that time a large red faced American sporting a grin that was enhanced, I figured, by the daylong consumption of many beers or alcoholic beverages, walked up to me and said he knew a guy who knew a guy that could possibly help me get Ben and the Desert Warrior to Baja Pits. His t-shirt, dirty and dusty from the day of racing, said “Los Locos Mocos”, and his demeanor, loud and slurred, sounded to me like a setup.

Tara explains to Raff the plan. We’ll ride Route 3 until it ends at Route 5, just north of San Felipe. From there we’ll head north until we find the second of two dirt roads some 50 miles from the intersection. We bid the bikers farewell and send good vibes to their buddy in the hospital and begin our search for Robb and Ben. Though we don’t know it at the time, the sun dips behind El Diablo and adjacent mountains. Now we’re traveling by twilight and losing light fast. I wondered if we’d ever find them out there.

As I’m blasting east Tara’s phone rings, so I pull over hoping to preserve the location and signal. But she gets cut off, so I take off again. The phone rings again, so we pull off and Tara now is in deep conversation. “Are you sure?,” she says with a quiver in her voice. “Is that what you want?” Next she’s explaining yet another reality. Raff and the entire crew save Allan have flights leaving San Diego early the next afternoon. “You don’t understand,” Tara is explaining. I won’t have anyone to help us tomorrow. We must do this tonight.” She’s talking to someone named Stuart. “Thank you Stuart, thank you. We’ll be there.”

She explains that Stuart warned us from trying to rescue Robb and Ben. He guaranteed that we’d get lost and stuck. He advised us to meet them the following morning at 11am with a trailer. He said there’d be plenty of help getting the Desert Warrior loaded onto the trailer. This meant that I’d be driving Raff’s massive pick-up and towing an equally massive trailer over these winding and twisting roads.

We sped up the road hoping to find Raff pulled over and waiting for us so we could explain the plan, turn around and head back to our hotel and camp in Ensendada. With each bend of the road we looked for a truck pulled over. Nothing. Tara was worried Raff might try to go into the desert without us. Gary thought he’d wait and ultimately figure it out and head back to look for us. But we motored on. All I could think about was backtracking on this road for about the fifth time today—but now in the dark. It was nearly 45 minutes when we finally found Raff pulled over at yet another Baja Pits location.

“I’ve got the directions!” he yelled showing the most emotion since hearing about the crash. He quickly sobered up when Tara explained the plan. At this point Raff was concerned about his trailer. “Have you ever towed a trailer?” he asked me. He explained how easy it would be to cook the brakes. I told him we’d be meeting Robb from the North and traveling a different road. He was concerned. To make the flight in the next day, the crew would need to leave Ensenada first think in the morning. There’d be no way any of them could help get Robb or drive the truck. Changing flights would cost a fortune. There were no other options. I’d have to drive the truck to meet Ben and Robb. Ben would drive the truck to Florida and Tara, Robb and I would return to San Diego as their flight departed the following day—a much better buffer after a grueling off road race.

I asked Luîs again and told him he’d earn $500 if he helped. Luîs talked in incredibly rapid spanish to his friends. And though he didn’t say no, something in the tone of their communications indicated they might counter me with a higher offer. But nothing. He is balking at the idea of going back into the desert — and at the $500. At this point I feel I must appeal to his conscience. “Luis, my wife, my wife,” I explained. “My wife is freaking out I must get Ben and my car and get to my wife to show her I’m alright.” All this was true, but I really just wanted out of this desert wasteland. Luís avoided eye contact and just mumbled while his friend tried to repair their transmission line. So I upped the offer. “Luís, I’ll give you $1,000 dollars.” I figured this would be a significant amount of money to an educated Mexican whose salary was perhaps $1,000 or $2,000 per month. Would he turn down $1,000 for a four hour extraction?

“Lo siento, Robb,” he said with a sad look on his face. “I’m sorry. But I need to stick with my friends who are desperate to get out of here.” Boy did I understand that. I asked him if he’d just take some time and think about it a little more. I spotted the buzzed American who “knows this guy, that knows this guy.” Comfortable and happy in his drunken glow, Stu finally reveals that HE is THE GUY, chuckling at his own sarcasm. He’s confident and relaxed about making the adventure to retrieve Ben and the Desert Warrior. Yet he’s aloof and not providing much more detail. Stu neither asks nor quotes a fee for such the task. I’m feeling hopeless at this point and running out of options.

Stuart shows me a map and says he can get Ben and bring the Desert Warrior back to Baja Pits. But then he gave me a dose of sober reality: it would be impossible to out of the desert at night. And the safest way to get the Desert Warrior to pavement would be across a dry lake bed which meant going a lot further than the race route, but it would safer and easier. And we could tow the Desert Warrior within just feet of pavement; Baja California Route 1 just west of Mexicali.IMG_0876 - Version 2.jpg

He explained that trying to tow it through the upcoming silt beds on the race route would be impossible. Then I remembered Chileco giving directions to Tara and knew she was on the way with the team. Stuart laughed when I told them they were on the way to get me—going against the race route and ultimately through the silt beds. He patted me on the back and with his red-faced grin just shook his head.

“They’ll never find us, Robb,” he said. “And they’ll get stuck,” I gulped and worried. “Who’s going to extract them, Robb, if that happens?”

Worrying there’d be two of us stuck in the desert , I desperately tried to connect with Tara on her mobile. Each time I tried, her phone went directly to voice mail. She was out of cell range. After fifteen minutes of frantic attempts, I finally connected and told her not to come. I gave Stuart the phone and he explained to Tara in no uncertain terms that any attempt by the team to come extract us was the equivalent of suicide. They’d certainly get stuck in the desert, and unless they had plenty of water, they’d be doomed.

Despite Tara’s pleas otherwise, I insisted that we would meet the following morning at the other side of the dry lake bed—at a mid point for both them and us—through only 60 miles of dirt and dust. I knew by the tone in Tara’s voice that she was worried. But this was the best course of action. Though he was clearly extremely buzzed by the booze, I trusted Stu because he’s been coming to this race for years and seemed to know better than anyone I’d met, just how to get out of here alive. So with that out of the way it was time to rescue Ben.

I finally handed the driving over to Gary and proceed to drive the more than two-hour jaunt back to Ensenada. The trip took even longer due to the slow moving cargo trucks on the twisting hair-pin turns. Before I dropped Tara at her hotel I asked her to call Robb or Stuart and see if we’d be able to tow The Desert Warrior with a tow bar and that way I’d be saved from pulling the heavy massive trailer over these gnarly roads.

There was no way. When he heard Raff was heading out early in the morning and wouldn’t be there to tend to the Desert Warrior he was unsettled. “Tell Raff to change his flight,” Robb insisted. “Only Raff. And let him drive the truck and trailer.” Phew. It was settled. I’d drive the Buick and Raff would follow in the pick-up with the trailer. The entire crew would leave together and we’d bid farewell in Tecate, as I suggested this border would be much easier and faster to cross than Tijuana. We agreed to meet first thing in the morning at Tara’s hotel.

Tara explained she felt weird. She couldn’t remember ever traveling with Robb and spending a night in a hotel alone. She wasn’t scared. But she said it was weird. She was worried about Robb.

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Before leaving Chileco pulled me aside and tried to warn me. He said he didn’t know Stu very well, explaining that I must be careful about going off into the desert with strangers. “He’s been drinking, Robb, a lot,” he cautioned. But I had no other option. I thanked him for his concern and jumped into the Dodge Dually with Stu and we went off toward the Dodge dually that was going to bring my co driver and the Desert Warrior home. Stuart enlisted the support of his friend Bethel, an older gentleman with a calm sense and demeanor. Stuart wasted no time drumming up conversation. Feeling like he’d been put down by a high-school football coach, Stuart was disappointed that Chileco had pulled him aside and questioned his ability and warning of the danger in the desert night, advising that there was a good chance we’d get stuck, too. Plus, Chileco had called Stu on his drinking. I admitted I was concerned too.

“Do you have Jesus in your life, Robb?” asked Stu. The question came out of nowhere. I felt things going south, and while I know that certaintopics of conversation are best set aside, I couldn’t lie. “No, Stuart, he isn’t.”

That’s when Stuart started throwing epithets of judgement at me, questioning my lifestyle choices of not drinking nor eating meat. He hypothesized that I was an atheist, like he was for thirty years until he found Jesus, who Stuart said, “saw the error of his ways.” I wondered why drinking didn’t fall under that umbrella. I imagined that perhaps the entire group back at the Baja Pits were very religious. And that’s fine. But I’m offended when it’s preached and attempts to convert me are overt and in my face. I am not buying what they’re selling. But he kept selling, explaining that Jesus WAS in my life and I just didn’t realize it. I wondered if this was a reference to the the fact he was helping me and this is the Lord’s miracle.

Under a flood of bright stars against a deep black sky, we drove along doing our best to follow the course. It wasn’t easy to see to distinguish what was the course and which were just random sandy tracks. It was clear that Stu’s advice about warding off the Tara and the crew from attempting to attempting me prudent and spot on.

We lost our way following wrong tracks requiring us to backtrack. I sensed frustration as he questioned me where Ben and the Desert Warrior were to be found. “Race Mile 125,” I said referring to the tracking system installed in the car. After about two hours his frustration was building. When I suggested that he didn’t have all the race files downloaded to his GPS, he snapped back and angrily referred to me as a used car salesman and suggested I was misleading him. I didn’t understand his point but then we finally found Race Mile 125 there was no sign of Ben nor the Desert Warrior. Stuart was fuming. I thought he was going to flip.

He accused me of lying in order to get his help and being “part of the con artist club.” At this point he realized that we were at 2,000 feet and climbing in elevation. He believed that Ben and my car were crashed on El Diablo—a location much further away and virtually impossible to recover a vehicle from. I assured Stuart I knew the deference between a large mountain and silt beds, and I was not lying or trying to con him.

He thought I was lying and I felt he was about to throw me out the car. I told him the story. I crashed at Race Mile 122 and then drove the car to some silt where the clutch failed when trying to push a truck. I told him I couldn’t have driven much more than a couple miles from the crash, but the tracking system clearly had me at Race Mile 125. He didn’t believe me and was seconds from slamming on the brakes when he spotted a campfire and what for a second seemed like an alien, but was simply Ben wandering about the wrecked car in his boxer shorts. Both directly in front of us.

Back at my hotel I download photos, scribbled notes about the day’s events and wondered what Robb and Ben we’re doing. Thinking how beautiful the desert is at night under a star-filled sky. It’s something they’ll never forget and will bond them together forever. Little did I know what they were in for!

I sensed relief and jubilation in Ben’s face as we attached a tow rope and began pulling the Desert Warrior back to Baja Pits. Sluggish but pulling steady, Stuart felt it was too heavy and that something wrong. He was sure that we were dragging because the differential lock was engaged. Twice we stopped to confirm that it wasn’t. The reality was we were dragging a 5,000lb vehicle through the nasty silt beds.

Stuart asked us to check the tire pressure and when he learned we running 40psi he beligerantly asked us “What kind of idiot runs 40psi through silt beds?” He was right. We dropped down the Desert Warrior to 28psi for more traction. If things couldn’t get worse, as we started gaining momentum a wheel flew off the Desert Warrior. At first it looked like we lost the whole left rear control arm. If that happened, I would end up surrendering the Warrior to the desert as there would be no way to pull it out. Luckily, the silt was so deep that when the wheel feel off the control arm just sunk in the sand even though we dragged it for several hundred feet. When we tried to fit one of the Warrior three spare tires, we realized there were no spare lug nuts. WE took one off each of the other wheels and found two others loose in the tool fox.

Stuart spent the next hour babbling and ridiculing me about spending too much money on the wrong race truck for Baja, suggesting I was a victim of marketing and having a “large pocketbook.” Relieved when we finally arrived at camp—and I’m using that term very loosely—but I had an awkward feeling that Stuart wouldn’t keep his promise and get us across the lake bed in the morning.

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Ben performing duites well beyond the scope of a normal co-driver. Then again, this is Baja. Anything goes.

Though I didn’t think it was possible, here I meet Phil, another of Stuart’s posse was even more combatant than Stu. He turns to Stu, points to Ben and sarcastically asks “How much am I supposed to feed this fat fuck?” There are times I might have rushed him for that, but I realized that would do nothing to help us get out of here. When he realized Ben was my teammate, he walked back to his side of camp with his tail between his legs.

As a peace offering and an effort to bury the hatchet, he offered Ben and I Tequilia, when we declined the offer he tried to push it on us. To be sure, he seemed like he’d been drinking all day and night probably consuming enough for an entire platoon. I I politely told him to phuck off. Ben acquiesced with one shot just to get him off his back. I reached Tara again via the satellite phone. She told me she could tell something was wrong, but I assured her I was fine, even though I felt Ben and I were stuck in the middle of nowhere and two banjos away from Deliverance. No point in worrying her.

We met at Tara’s hotel 7:30 am Sunday morning and began the convoy to Tecate over Baja Route 3. The events of the weekend flashed through our memories and while the crew looked tired and disappointed, we were happy that the end was in sight. I was happy Raff was driving his truck, as the bed in his pick up was filled with two motorcycles a quad and piles of other gear.

Still stewing about me allegedly misleading him, Stu kindly offered his car for Ben and I to sleep in overnight. We took him up on the offer and all I could think was to bite my tongue until we got out of here. The next morning about 6:30AM I loaded the loose parts from the Desert Warrior into Stu’s truck after they loaded up their gear. After surveying the Warrior in daylight, I realized the situation was not pretty, it was going to take quite a bit of work to get it back into shape.

While people were packing up camp, I asked Stu what I could do to help get ready for the ride across the dry lake bed. He told me to siphon about 10 gallons of diesel fuel out of the Warrior and into his Dodge. Now while I was happy to pay him for the gas, this seemed excessive but I gladly obliged. However, siphoning gas from the Desert Warrior was harder than I thought. You see it was difficult to get the siphon hose because the gas tank had a foam barrier in the fill spout to protect the fuel supply from foreign elements, so sand, dirt and the like wouldn’t enter the engine or block the fuel filter. As I sucked on the end of the hose to start the flow, I just had to remind myself this was going to get me out of here. After filling the fuel can I returned it to Stu explaining I’d finished the job. He then proceeded in his obstinate way to give me a math quiz. This was his passive aggressive manner of communicating that I needed to fill the 5 gallon can twice to make 10 gallons. I smiled and went back to start the distasteful process all over again.

We connected a tow strap to the vehicles and before taking off I decided to wear my helmet and the five-point racing harness, figuring Stu would reach speeds in excess of 60mph while pulling us across the dry lake and I figured the probability of rolling was high.

As we raced across the lake the loose parts of the Desert Warrior bounced and flew up, I was worried they might fly out of the back of Stu’s truck. Then I worried that if we flipped, Stu would drag us behind his truck and ultimately just cut the strap and leave us. But Stu stopped not once but twice, first in a thoughtful gesture, he gave us respiratory masks because of the silt we’d inhale, and a the second time to offer to charge my iphone so I could call Tara when we got close to cell signal.

Was this the same guy who gave me the math quiz less than an hour earlier? The guy who accused me of lying and misleading him. It was bizarre. This Jesus loving , alcoholic with a manic temper went out of his way to make sure we wouldn’t breathe in dangerous silt and charge my iPhone so I could communicate with Tara. Yet he tower us in the Desert Warrior at near race speed risking another crash. I could not explain the dichotomy. When we hit the dry lake bed we know we’d be free in thirty minutes or less. I texted Tara the good news and hinted at our crazy experience in the night. When we arrived finally arrived to Route 1 just west of Mexicali, the capital of Baja, I didn’t care if Stu cut the strap and left us. We were close enough to civilization. But Stu kept his word and waited with us until Tara, Raff and Allan arrived. But Paul couldn’t keep quiet, constantly compaining about waiting and insisting on calling me Jerry, because I was with Ben.

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Thanks for the masks, Stuart!

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Stuart found plenty of things wrong with The Desert Warrior. But he was never absent of his beer and cigarette.

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All we asked for was a little slack. But 60mph plus without power? Maybe we were asking for too much?

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You want me to do what? Tequila? Okay. Twist my arm. But only once.

Route 3 turned out to be somewhat better going north than it did in the other direction five times the day and night before. But then we climbed a high pass, very scenic and offering incredible vistas to the desert below. It was just a little after 11am when we pulled up to find Robb, Ben and the Desert Warrior waiting patiently with Stuart and his posse from Locos Mocos.

I kept thinking that there was no ways these guys could have met in a church. I was sure it must have been the “Loony Bin”, and that’s why they call themselves the “Locos Mocos”, spanish for “Crazy Boogers!”

It was at that point Tara, Raff and Allan pulled up with our trailer. High fives, introductions and joy. Ironically, Stu ran up to my wife and gave her a big hug, as if she rescued him. Everything was surreal and bizarre. But I didn’t care. They helped load our crashed Desert Warrior into the trailer, I gave Stu a small stack of hundreds that he never even asked for, and closed that chapter of our Baja 500 adventure.

We then met up the road for tacos on me, and returned to San Diego and a little slice of Americana. Back to the real world vs. bizzaro land I lived in during the last three days!

 

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Reunited finally after a Bizarro experience in the night somewhere in the middle of the Baja desert.

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Legendary Locos Mocos from Mexicali, and on the right, Phil was never without his beer, nor his attitude.

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Robb fixes things for the ultimate ending of seeing the Desert Warrior pushed into the trailer.

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Tacos for everyone and anyone. The ordeal comes to an end.

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Stuart . Stuart. Stuart.

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Ben looks with wanton at the accompaniments to the great tacos found in the middle of nowhere.

If El Diablo Can’t Stop The Desert Warrior, What Can?

The Darkcyd Racing Team’s Rally Raid UK built Desert Warrior blasted through the Ensenada Aqueducts and onto the track heading to Ojos Negros, about 35 miles into the race where the track crosses Baja California’s Route 3. Tara, Gary and I throttled our rented Buick SUV down the pavement while Raff, Bill, Tommy and the others followed in Raff’s pick-up, our default chase vehicle should anything go wrong.

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Playing the waiting game, team members watch the highway hoping to see their drivers and cars make the next pit stop.

The plan was simple. Get to Race Mile 35 where the techs would assess the vehicle, inspect the intercooler and decide if the Desert Warrior should move on. From their, the next stop would be Race Mile 80. By the time we all made it to Race Mile 30, we learned that Robb and Ben had already passed and were headed to the next stop. The crew at Baja Pits, an organization that many teams contract with that provides pit support along the entire route of the Baja 500 with some 10 or more stops, told us they looked at the car and all looked good. Ben and Robb motored on. We had no idea or information on what they and the car went through during the first 35 miles.

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Gary and Tara hoping to see Robb, Ben and the Desert Warrior at Race Mile 35.

From Robb’s Journal:
Just outside of town and now onto the “real” section of the course, we dropped into the first deep crevasse. It was anarchy. Fans were everywhere and cars stuck in the mud could not get out. The crevasse was filled. This was only Race Mile 3. We had get past the veritable boneyard of vehicles and make sure not to get stuck ourselves. Because the Desert Warrior is equipped with locking differentials, getting traction is much easier because when activated both tires act in concert—act as one unit —instead of spinning independently. We can activate this on not only the rear wheels but the front ones, too. So Ben turned on the compressor, hit the button and locked the rear differential. I throttled up and bolted towards the carnage with intent: to motor through and get up that hill. To be honest, I thought we’d get stuck like so many other cars had. Amazingly, the Desert Warrior proved its worth and made it through with ease. Ben and I started screaming to each other with Jubilation and high-fives. We passed four cars that were going nowhere for a while. Success!

“It was the next crevasse that worried me, because I had fallen into it and got stuck on pre-run Now it was even steeper, but I figured momentum would prevail and instead of slowing down, I hit the gas. We popped out of there like a plastic ball popping out from under water after being held down. Success again! We were two for two. The next hurdle near Race Mile 30 was another steep muddy drop followed by a climb up a slippery hill,. Other cars blocked the way and a large trophy truck relentlessly, like Sisyphus pushing his rock up a hill, charged the hill and when nearly cresting, it just slid back down. I was afraid I would turn the Desert Warrior into sandwich if I charged up the hill. But again, Ben locked the differential and as I charged the hill, Sisyphus and his Trophy Truck started sliding down toward me. Damn. I stopped hoping to prevent the impending high-speed reverse collision, and tried to back up. I couldn’t do it fast enough and the Trophy Truck clipped the side of the Desert Warrior. That’s when I decided I wasn’t going to get stuck and I floored it and amazingly crested the mud slide in the first attempt. ”

Though I ran over a fence on the way and was now on the wrong side of the race course, I quickly turned the car around, made a sliding right turn and we bolted off on course leaving the Sisyphus and the bloodbath behind. Before we crossed the highway at Race Mile 35 we stopped at Baja Pits for a damage check—we were good. So we crossed and made our way to meet the Darkcyd Team at Race Mile 80. On course we saw a truck that obviously was going to fast and had rolled off the course into a crevasse. We passed a handful of other cars experiencing mechanical issues, and others that had overshot a turn. We were making good time and before we knew it , it was time to radio to the team with our ten mile countdown to Race Mile 80. Soon it would be decision time.

So we convoyed to the 80 mile marker where we waited and hoped we’d see Robb and Ben. With much trepidation and uncertainty, the techs paced about the dusty pit like nervous fathers in a hospital waiting room. Then a crackle through the VHF radio in Raff’s truck. It was Ben. “We’re ten miles out. All ok. The hood is rattling. Might need to tighten.” Smiles and excitement passed over the team like sun breaking through the sky on a cloudy day. Would they go on?

“After putting the Desert Warrior back together, the crew warned me. The said getting to race mile 80 would be a major victory and they did not recommend going further for two reasons. First, the said any more damage to the intercooler would likely lead to a blown engine. The Desert Warrior had only 800 miles—only 80 of them true Race Miles.I feared we would cause further damage, especially as I was about to climb the feared El Diablo, a gnarly rock strewn hill climb from sealvel to 4,000 feet. I recalled cresting this mountain during my 2005 Baja 1000 attempt. The non-stop rock climb is impossible to traverse, so it’s striaght up. If you fail, there is absolutely no way to retrieve the vehicle. The second reason the crew warned, was even more disconcerting. There are no roads from here, Race Mile 80, to Race Mile 230. If we broke down or crashed there was no way to extract us. With no way to climb and cross El Diablo the only way in was by traveling hundreds of miles and then back tracking across scrubby desert, sandy washes, silt beds and dry lakes. That could take a whole day, or more. This meant we could be stuck in the desert a couple of days and perhaps become ideal candidates for an episode of “I Shouldn’t Be Alive!” SCORE does have helicopters available for emergency situations, but they will only extract drivers and co-drives if there are serious injuries, never for a mechanical breakdown or minor crash. So we agreed that morning that if we made it to Race Mile 80, we would check the car but likely call it quits to preserve the it from further damage and save it for Dakar.”

Robb and Ben looked good. They felt confident and wanted to continue. “We came this far,” reasoned Robb. “We can make it to the next stop.” The hood was fine, but something else was dragging and quickly fixed. Going on from here meant there was no turning back. They’d soon be out and hundreds of miles from a paved road. It would likely be dark before we’d see them at the next stop. Robb asked Tara for the sleeping bag. The Desert Warrior was equipped with an emergency kit that included blankets, but Robb wanted the sleeping bag. The crew stuffed it behind the seats. Tara and I reasoned that Robb was abiding by the old adage that if you don’t have something you don’t think you’ll need, you’ll need it. So without the sleeping bag, he might be spending the night in the desert. With it safely stowed, they’d be good to go through the finish of the race.

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Tara flags Robb into Baja Pits at Race Mile 80.

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A little issue with the passenger side headlight. That’s about it. Will Desert Warrior Make the Next Stop?

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Ben seems fired up for the next round!

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Gary worried about the Z-Bar and checks for frame fractures at Race Mile 80.

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Robb takes off his fire safety hood and wipes the Baja dust and sweat as the crew assesses the prospect of moving on.

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The Desert Warrior exposed in Baja Pits at Race Mile 80 in the Tecate Score Baja 500 2011.

“When we made the pits I already knew my decision. I don’t like to quit, and I was going to continue unless they discovered a major mechanical fault. As they checked the car everything seemed no worse then the morning, though I lost a light from the Trophy Truck crash. I asked Tara for the sleeping bag and I stuffed it behind Bens seat knowing this was the point of no return, and we took off. We were pumped, I felt the team was pumped because there was a chance we really could make it,. Though there was another problem. The rear brakes were overheating because its master cylinder was much smaller then the front. This caused it to work harder and have nearly twice the pressure than the front. That could mean brake failure in the blazing desert causing it to have much more pressure then the front inviting break failure. It didn’t matter, Ben and I had to risk it.”

After loading up Ben and Robb with the sleeping bag, water, snacks and good luck, Tara, Raff and the crew headed to the next Baja Pitts location on a paved road, at about Race Mile 135. As we dropped into the Trinidad Valley we lost contact with both Robb and Ben on the VHF and our mobile telephone cell service. The Baja Pitts were set up road side just outside a family owned “loncheria” a café of sorts called Loncheria Abigail. With the high afternoon desert sun beating down, we watched several racers fly by. All varioius classes from Class 2 Buggies, to a quad and a motorcycle and even a bug and Trophy Truck. Raff figured that since he’d seen a few cars in the class just before the Desert Warrior, that we’d see Robb and Ben flying through the pits in 30 minutes or so. Something wasn’t right though. After Gary and I convinced Abigail to cook us up a few machaca burritos and a couple cold ‘mexican cokes’ (real sugar) and the rest of the team taking shelter from the sun and sample the delicious authentic mexican cooking (yes, grandma in the kitchen and the real kitchen of this home), I cruised over to the Baja Pits. As a couple more vehicles rode in for inspection, fluids and repairs, I was told that only 5 of the Baja Pits customers (out of approximately 40), had shown up. What’s more, Baja Pits counted every car that drove by: only 15 of the nearly 250 cars entered into this year’s race had been by.

“As we started to climb El Diablo, I was reminded of why I hated Baja. No roads. Just one large hill climb— 0 to 4,000 feet. The mountain was strewn with boulders as large as cars and littered with smaller rocks the size of small farm animals. Thankfully the Desert Warrior is high centered making it easy to clear most rocks, as long as I navigate them properly. It was slow going. Ten miles an hour or slower. With each rock we toppled, I feared the steering rack would break and put us out of the race. Stress and anxiety ensured because I knew there could be no rescue, no AAA free towing and the possibility of being forced to abandon the expensive Desert Warrior and leaving it to the banditos who would strip its carcass like a vulture to its prey. It took an hour to climb and crest the El Diablo.”

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The perennial winning McMillan team changes drivers and pits hours before any other team. And this at Race Mile 135.

“At the top, instead of relief I felt fear. The brakes weren’t holding. We were forced to traverse down the mountain over the same car-breaking boulders we encountered on the way up. As gravity pulled us back to earth, we couldn’t control our speed easily. As we did the best to tackle each boulder, we were again reminded how dangerous and tough this mountain can be. Other dejected drivers and their now beat up cars lined the mountain side having failed the test of the mountain gods. About an hour later, as the terrain leveled we toppled the last set of boulders and then chased down a Class 11 buggy driven by a local who seemed hell bent on passing us just 15 minutes before. So as the rocks morphed into silt we started the chase taking advantage of the Desert Warrior 4-wheel drive and locking differentials. With El Diablo now behind us, it occurred to me that the last 20 miles and two hours of driving were the hardest of teh race. I felt now we were home free. So i put the pedal to the metal and picked up race speed.

“At about Race Mile 120 Ben and I were in a groove. He was calling the turns and I was attacking them like we were passing the baton back and forth. I have done many rallies with Ben as codriver and we understand each other very well and there is a level of comfort between us. As our flow and groove continued we picked up the pace and settled in around 45 miles an hour—not a bad pace considering the fastest racers and winners typically average only about 60 mph because of the brutal terrain. Than the unthinkable happened for the second time in two days. ”

Several hours had passed and I was nervous. Trying to hid my uncertainty I asked Raff if he’d been in touch with The Weatherman. The Weatherman is legendary in Baja Races. With a high powered radio atop some distant mountain, he is the center of communication for all of Baja. Serving as the relayer and armed with clipboards of information, check-ins and status, staying in tune with the Weatherman is essential for Baja race teams. Raff indicated he was having problems with the radio. Though I thought this had been checked prior to launch, I reasoned that perhaps because of putting Desert Warrior back together, this had fallen in the cracks. Bummer. I suggested a temporary fix and soon Raff was on the Radio with The Weatherman. By now it was nearly 5:30pm.

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If you find your self on Ruta 3 between San Felipe and Ensenada, you owe it to yourself and your tastebuds to stop at Loncheria Abigail.

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Who can resist a 10 month old kid. I kept on eye on junior while momma and grandma cooked up our burritos.

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Perhaps the best machaca in Baja. The Abigail family treated us well and fed us good.

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Darkcyd Racing Team in Trinidad Valley at Baja Pits waiting, and waiting, and waiting for Robb and Ben to show up.

“Everything seemed to be going in slow motion. I saw the earth turn as I was upside down. Where was up? Where’s down? I could not believe this was happening. It had to be a dream—or a nightmare—perhaps I was sleeping. Thinking abut the race the next day. But reality prevailed as the loud explosion of glass and the massive rush of dirt and dusty erupted like a volcano inside the cockpit of the Desert Warrior smothering and choking us as the crushing sound of body panels reverberated as we hit the ground again and continued to roll. And then like a flying marlin returning to sea, the Desert Warrior landed right side up—on its four still good wheels. We completely rolled the Desert Warrior and landed in a large craggily bush.


“I looked over to see if I still had a co-driver. “Are you okay?” I asked as I checked myself. “We’re done,” Well, I thought, thanks for the insight Captain Obvious. We got out of the car and assessed the carnage. It was pretty bad. No hood. No quarter panels. No windshield. Fluid was everywhere. I tuned off all the switches to avoid a fire. I was in disbelief as I looked around. There was no large crevasse, no El Diablo, no mud pit to slide into a cactus, no silt bed to explode into as I did in in 2005 during the Baja 1000. There was nothing but a small 12 inch rut in a slight turn. I thought about the test track and remembered complaining about how much lighter the rear of the car felt compared to the front. I reasoned that’s why the Desert Warrior nosedived wherever it was airborne. We must’ve nosedived with the wheels slightly turned and rolled on the driver side hood first. So in the span of 2 minutes the Baja 500 turned from a race into a extraction challenge. Just how would be get out of the desert? We were almost a hundred miles to the nearest road in any direction. And our radio was rendered useless, I guess due to the accident. We needed a plan.”

Raff grabbed the microphone. “Chase 221 to The Weatherman, Chase 221 to Weatherman, status please,” Raff barked into the microphone. “221 Chase, please hold.” Then we heard what we feared most: “Chase 221, your vehicle has rolled.Passengers okay. They request extraction from their team. they’re at Race Mile 125.” Raff sat there with the microphone still in his hand as he gazed out the windshield. The race had ended for Darkcyd Racing. They only made it 45 miles since the last stop.

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The Desert Warrior. Made it past El Diablo, but it was the rut that wouldn’t relent that did her in.

We pulled out the course map and tried to identify just where Robb and Ben had crashed. And how we could get to them. I thought about El Diablo. If they were on the mountain, we’d be silly to try to get there. Raff and Tara insisted we could get there. I wondered how long it would take. We were losing daylight. And we had no real idea of where the were. And no communication. Tara was frightened and worried. Raff seemed calm and cool Gary was disappointed, as was everyone else on the team.

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Now. Can we find Robb and Ben and pull them out before nightfall? With only two hours before dark, the tension ran high.

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.

Always Plan With Contingency In Mind: Tecate Score Baja 500

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The day before a big race always creates a halo of excitement, tension and tentativeness among race teams and crews and even blogger photographers. Darkcyd Racing and driver Robb Rill had little experience with the lastest steed in its stable: The Rally Raid UK built Desert Warrior — a complex and sturdy machine engineered, initially, for the sandy and rocky terrain of northern Africa and the dominant dunes of the Sahara Desert.

Here in Baja California, a scrubby desert marked by dry lake beds, rocky mountain passes, loose shale and cactus studded terrain, we’re about to compete in what’s considered perhaps in the toughest races on the planet, along with its brethren the Baja 1000. Unlike WRC and other rallies the team has competed, the Baja 500 is a straight shot. There are no stages. It’s one day. And all racers, regardless of class, have only 23 hours to complete this year’s 454.69 mile course, which changed last minute as SCORE and its leader Sal Fish negotiated with land owners for passage of the nearly 250 vehicles that would complete in the 2011 Tecate Score Baja 500.

The day before racing at any Baja race begins with “Contingency”, a parade of cars that weaves through the main streets of Ensenada, northern Baja’s largest city and winds up at SCORE inspection where the vehicles are scrutinized from rubber to helmet to ensure they pass the rigorous safety standards set by the SCORE rule book, a some 200 page perfect bound book crammed with information on class rules and race details.

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Robb flashes the SCORE Book of Rules with a promise he’ll read and memorize later this evening!

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Tara befriends a stray dog wandering through contingency who is happy to power down two bottles of water and two hot dogs, sans the buns.

Because Darkcydf was able to complete inspection on Thursday, this would give Robb more time on to pre-run and test the car on part of the actual race course and more time for the crew to tweak the car pending the outcome of the pre-running. Plus, everyone would have an opportunity to check out the chaotic and often maddening scene that surrounds the parade of Baja race vehicles to contingency.

The diversity of vehicles that races the grueling terrain of Baja is mind-boggling. I know of no other race with such a wide range of classes. From motorcycles to quads to million dollar “trophy trucks,” Score Baja races have something for everyone. There’s even a class for a completely stock old-school VW bug — and most everything between. As the cars rolled down the main drag the team members walk beside handing out stickers, brochures and sponsor swag. Fans rush the vehicles and the drivers and techs toss stickers and swag into the air creating a frenzy as fans dive to get just a piece. Others armed with devices from cell phone cameras to professional digital cinematic devices like the RED, the rush to document the impressive array of vehicles is topped only by the aggressive and passionate fans.

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After the team had its fill of contingency madness, Robb and Ben prepared to take the Desert Warrior out onto the course while Raff set out on a hunt to secure a back-up battery, SAT phones and other gear in preparation for race day tomorrow. Robb took the Desert Warrior around the test track before gearing up for the 35 mile pre-run on a section of the actual Baja 500 course.

With the car warmed up and Robb’s confidence on high he turned to me and asked “Do you want to go for a few loops on the test track?” Before I could pull my camera pack from my back, I was buckling the 5-point harness and settling into the co-driver seat. What an opportunity, I thought. To take it around the careening corners, massive jumps, whoop-dee-do’s of the Estero Beach test track. I was excited. Even taking it easy, while testing sliding turns, jumps and the responsiveness of the suspension, we flew high in the air and pushed dirt around as if it was powder. Three laps later I was grinning ear to ear and imagining the next thing: riding a bike out on that track.

After my wild ride on the test run, Robb took off for the pre-run. Joining him and Ben on their pre-run was team technician Bill Young, aboard his 2002 Yamaha WR426. Not officially registered as a chase vehicle, but certainly loosely capable, Bill was eager to ride a portion of the course. By the time the gang returned from the morning test run, Bill was grinning ear-to-ear while picking dust from his teeth. Ben and Robb were happy with the pre-run, but hoped to make a few adjustments to the car and take it out once more later in the afternoon.

Tara, Gary and I stood by at our camp at Estero Beach and contemplated the next race — looming around year end: the legendary Dakar. Wildlife was abundant around camp, gophers poking their heads through the grass, hummingbirds fluttering about and squirrels surreptitiously trying to scarf any remains around camp. Gentle waves lapped the shore just 100 feet from camp. Neighbors clanked wrenches and the whirr of motorcycle engines startled the wildlife. Above the fluttering of air and roar of a helicopter approaching broke the serene scene as it landed. Two such helicopters made temporary home at Estero. One for Bobby Gordon and the other for the Red Bull Trophy Truck team.

After Robb and Ben returned from their successful pre-run, and before putting the car down for the evening, Robb offered to take his wife Tara for a loop or two around the track, as he done for me just a few hours earlier.

“I wanted to take Tara for a well deserved ride for putting up with all my adventures and before the Desert Warrior was prepped and put away until the race. We chose to set up camp and team headquarters at Estero Beach because it had a two mile test track with jumps, ditches and uneven sections—essentially mimicking the variety of the actual course terrain— so we could test the Desert Warrior before the race. I had already had taken Allan Karl out to show him what this Baja race was about from inside the cockpit. He could not stop from smiling and laughing as we jumped sometimes almost 10 feet in the air, slid sideways around a corners and attacked the whoops at speed. All proving the suspension was solid. Now I wanted to do the same for Tara. I only had time for three laps before our team manager Raff Mcdougal would do a final checklist for the race the following morning.”

As the team strapped Tara into the car, fitted her helmet and communication system, I attached my camera to the dash mount just in front of the co-driver and showed Tara how she could position the camera at different angles as they flew around the track. I then grabbed my camera gear and ran to a nearby fence that provided a good view of a couple jumps, but the view of the remaining part of the course was obstructed by large jumps, foliage and a line of trees. Bill mounted his Yamaha and followed Robb around the track in pursuit.

“As we took off and launched onto the test track Tara asked that I drive so not to scare her. I assured her that I would only give her a taste of what it is like and I wouldn’t do anything to frighten her. When we hit the first jump, I sensed fear in her voice and the few gasps she made as we came into a soft landing after jumping the Desert Warrior only two or three feet into the air. Then as I pulled the car into a power slide around the next corner, Tara’s gasps turned to audible whoaaaaas as she thought the car would roll and tip over. I assured her it only felt that way and we would be fine. And as I powered out of the corner she realized I was right and told the truth. But this only reassured her temporarily because when I hit the next jump she closed her eyes — preferring not to see and hoping that it would feel better and send her fear away.”

As my shutter fired away and I focused and zoomed my lens, I tried to follow Robb as he sped around the nearly two mile test track. But after he zoomed past me, I lost site of the car as it went through a series of “S” turns and then through a few hairpins before heading down a straight away toward me. The first lap was excellent. The car sounded good, was jumping and landing nicely, except for a slight kick of the rear on the largest jump. I’d felt that slightly during my quick run earlier in the day, but didn’t seem to be a problem. After Robb spun past me going into the second lap, a Trophy Truck from camp launched onto the course. As I watched and shot pictures of the Trophy Truck I noticed he slowed down and came to a top. I couldn’t see clearly to where he stopped, some 500 feet away. I zoomed my lens and could see just a portion of the orange color of the Desert Warrior. I realized it too was stopped. Then I focused more, it appeared that the spare tires were stacked vertical. Shit. The Desert Warrior was on its side, though all I could see was a small portion of the car. I screamed to the others in the camp, “We’ve rolled. We’ve rolled. Come here quickly.” Gary and Tommy fired up the Quad we had in camp and raced onto the track. I scrambled to get around the fence and ran in the same direction.

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Tara and Robb before the final test run of Friday.

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“By the time we started on the second lap, I could tell Tara was more comfortable. I picked up the pace enough to show her how great the car handled the rough and rutted track explaining that it was specifically built for this type of racing across the desert. Incessantly reminding Tara that the sliding and tipping sensation was normal, I crested the next jump and started to power-slide into the next left hand corner when BOOM—we caught a rut and I saw the world spun upside down as we came crashing down onto the hard packed dirt continuing to roll until the Desret Warrior landed on its side—with me on the bottom and Tara on the top side, hanging in the air like a cosmonaut. ”

As I ran through the gate the rest of the car came into view. I saw Bill, then Tara and Robb. Thankfully they were alright. But what about the car? It was too far to see, so I picked up the pace. Others from camp hopped into chase vehicles or quads to see if they could help.

“Tara was panicked, so I tried to calm her down. I made sure she did not move until I knew she was not injured and waited for assistance so I could safely extrack her from the car. Bill was the first on the scene and with the calm and collected orderly behaviour of a military officer, he made sure she avoided the neophyte mistake of prematurely unclipping the safety harness—a common move by people panicked in crisis. Unleashing the harness would cause Tara to fall onto me and risk injury to both of us. Fortunately, Tara was fine. Yet I just learned a very expensive lesson in how a short and narrow wheel-based vehicle can react when catching a rut on a slide, which in this case was more than a foot deep.”

When I finally arrived at the vehicle the crew and good samaritans were just pushing it back onto its wheels. Seemed like a lot of cosmetic damage. Windshield cracked, snorkel pinched, hood off its hinge and body panels torn. So I reasoned that structurally and mechanically, the Desert Warrior would be fine. Though the leaking fluids are normal in this kind of a roll, but still raised questions. Would the car be able to run the race tomorrow morning?

“The UK-built Desert Warrior is designed to maneuver massive sand dunes—not necessarily for jumping hard mounds of rock and dirt. Nor is the suspension tuned for the hard packed, and rutted terrain of Baja. As a prep run for the 2012 Dakar rally, the Baja 500 was the best proxy for that race we could enter without going to Morroco or the Middle east— either would cost two weeks out of our already hectic schedules. During the first test run in Florida, before shipping the Desert Warrior to Baja, I noted the fact the vehicle seemed to be prone to potentially rolling at high speed. I reasoned this was due to its high center of gravity and ground clearance—both necessary for clearing rocks and crossing deep veined crevasses. But I figured in high speed situations I must be mindful of the terrain where oversteer could take m easily to the point of no return—or on its side or roof. Clearly, the short wheel base is designed so the vehicle can cross soft and silty sand dunes which require maneuverability at low speeds. And it works as designed. I never got stuck in sand or otherwise during any pre-running. ”

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So far away and hardly sharp, but this is my view when I realized what happened. Bill is on top of the DW and hearing to help Tara get out.

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Sadly the Desert Warrior had to be towed back to camp where the team assessed the damage and began the torturous process of deciding whether the Desert Warrior wasn’t compromised during the crash and could still enter the race the following morning. With just a few hours of daylight left, Gary crawled under the car, Raff buried his head under the hood, Bill combed the cockpit for clues and Tommy checked the tubing of the frame for signs of cracks or bends.

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Would the Desert Warrior race? Ben and Robb slumped into chairs under the tents and buried their faces in their hands, while Tara, still shaken from the accident, but physically okay, blamed herself for the accident, thinking if she hadn’t gone for that ride…

But this is Baja, and there’s no second guessing and often no second choices. The crew hammered away hoping we’d race tomorrow.

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Note: Video of the roll over and more will be posted soon. Watch for it!

Darkcyd Racing Documentary Film Now Online

To Finish Is To Win – WRC Rally Mexico

As a reader of this blog, you’ll remember the trials and tribulations of the Darkcyd Racing Team and its bid to finish at the World Rally Championship (WRC) in León Mexico. During the race several photographers and videographers contributed pictures and footage that has now been turned into a 30-minute documentary on Darkcyd’d efforts and ultimately and surprising second-place finish.

You can watch the video here. The file is large. So please be patient as it downloads! Soon we hope to post it to Vimeo, as well.

Click here to watch the Darkcyd WRC Rally Mexico Documentary.

The Last Day is the Best Day — WRC Rally Mexico With Darkcyd Racing

With the team feeling better about Saturday’s successes, rolling into Sunday with less apprehension and the level excitement seen on everyone’s faces. Though the crew knew that lurking above was the harbinger of doom: will the brakes last another day of racing?IMG_0713 - Version 2.jpg

Trailing just a few minutes behind Fricke and his Rally Team of Dreams and a few minutes ahead of Mexican American Guillermo Sánchez and his Mitsubishi Lancer. Yet failing to complete a stage because of accident, mechanical failure, or getting lost on the complex maze or roads that wind through León and the surrounding mountains would mean not finishing WRC Rally Mexico.

Darkcyd Racing Team technicians (as they’re called in WRC lingo) would have fifteen minutes to inspect, clean and lubricate brake rotors and pads. No further problems with the power steering and alternator belt, though the mud, dirt and dust of the harsh terrain meant the windows of Darkcyd’s venerable Subaru would need a cleaning. At least they’d be clean for 10 minutes.

Robb and Ben contained their excitement, with Ben falling into classic co-driver mode: time is everything and focus is key. But the hordes of fans pushing past the yellow border tape were hard to resist. Though the hard work and challenges of the last three days had taken its toll on the crew. This is a long rally and it tests (and taxes) the endurance of everyone.

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Our guide and former rally team manager José Fredo cheers on Petter Solberg as he cranks around a tight turn at Comanjilla on Sunday at WRC Rally Mexico.

To make sure I could get good position for photos and viewing, and with the advice of José Fredo, decided to head directly to the second stage of the day: Comanjilla. The Comanjilla stage is about 18km and extremely difficult with a steep uphill start, through a series of hairpins until breaking into an open flowing road. But this doesn’t last long as it turns twisty while adding the challenge of deep drainage channels through the road and a series of jumps. The first state of the day, one of the longest of the rally, was cancelled due to safety conditions before Darkcyd’s Rill and Slocum could start.

This meant that Darkcyd needed to not only complete the Comanjilla stage, it would try to make time to maintain its second place position among the Rally America class of vehicles still in the race.

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Nassar Al-Attiyah would later learn that a minor technicality would cost him from qualifying his score for this race

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Pedestrian risk is high as these high-speed rally cars spew dust and big rocks.

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Rill and Slocum pilot the Darkcyd Racing Team Subaru through the gnarly and tough Comanjilla stage effortlessly and take the team to it’s first Mexican rally finish—and in second place!

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There’s nothing like crossing the finish line.

While the sun beat down, and several more WRC drivers falling victim to the treacherous conditions of Rally Mexico, Team Darkcyd cruised through the final stages successfully while gaining valuable time and ultimately finishing second—a trophyposition on the WRC Rally Mexico podium. As one of only six cars out of more than 30 competitors to claim this position, Mexico finally belonged to Robb Rill, Ben Slocum and the entire Darkcyd Racing Team.

Before they could retried their trophies, Rill and Slocum had to weave the Darkcyd Subaru around the Poliforum and Explora park to the podium where thousands of fans cheered, begged for autographs and jockeyed to get a photograph with the winners. the team grabbed team boss and his Robb’s wife and set her on the back of the car as the WRC Rally Mexico Turntable spun the car around and ultimately launched it into another crowd of frenzied fans just hoping to see the winning Rally Mexico teams.

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Darkcyd driver, Robb Rill, signs the shoulder of a rally fan before marching to the winner’s circle.

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On the podium the entire Darkcyd Racing Team basks in the glory of its 2nd place win at WRC Rally Mexico 2011.

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At the trophy presentation in the Poliforum, nothing can hold back the happiness and smiles of driver and co-driver.

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Team boss is happy to see that Robb not only finished a mexican rally, but this time they take home an impressive second place trophy!

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Victory splash as lead technician Ken Anctin and driver Robb Rill pour the chilling water from the team water cooler over co-driver Ben Slocum.

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The 2nd Place Winning Darkcyd Racing Team, (clockwise from top left) Ben Slocum, co-driver; Robb Rill, driver; Ed Stockline, technician, Kenny Thorstenson, technician; Tara Rill, team Boss; Gary Grahn, technician; Ken Actin, lead technician.

Inside the Poliforum the lucky fans with tickets who not only could hover around the pits of the pros and the Rally America teams, but could get front row access to the trophy presentation where Robb thanked the Mexican fans and tipped his hat in accolades to the technicians and team that helped him achieve his dream: a win in Mexico.

That evening after a long awaited victory dinner at one of León’s best restaurants, Me Come No, the team headed to the closing party where many of the pros, now freed from the intense pressure of high-speed racing, could let loose and relax. We met several drivers and lead technicians including Petter Solberg and his co-driver.

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The victory dinner wasn’t just for Darkcyd Racing Team, the tenacious Recon Rally as well as first place winners Rally Team for Dreams joined the celebration as Rally America teams completed aggressively against the top-notch pros of WRC.

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Tara posing with WRC finishing team Petter Solberg (r) and Chris Patterson at the WRC Rally Mexico finale party!

Robb, Tara and the team couldn’t hide their excitement and joy from finally finishing—second place—at one of the toughest rallies in the WRC schedule. I am just happy to be a part of it. I must admit, I’m now addicted. Don’t be suprised if you’ll be reading more about rally racing here on worldrider.com.

Darkcyd Deserves A Brake: Day 2 WRC Rally Mexico

By the time the second day of WRC Rally Mexico started, only 5 Rally America group cars were still in the race. The rough roads, intense heat and constant beating of cars had whittled the pack in half. The Darkcyd Racing Team strategy was simple: finish the race.

Around the pit there was apprehension about the brakes. Yesterday the calipers had seized. Lead technician Ken Anctil had exhausted every possible angle to find suitable replacements for brake rotors, pads and lines. But it was useless. This is Mexico, so we have to work with what we’ve got. If the brakes seize on a competitive stage or in transit to one of the stages, Robb and Ben would be stuck in the high desert and the car would have to be towed back to the pit area at the Poliforum. If this happened, the crew and Robb would be devastated.IMG_0437 - Version 2.jpg

Darkcyd has made two previous attempts in competitive Rally Races in Mexico—both the Baja 1,000. Though Robb competed using different vehicles, due to a number of difficulties, the team never finished those races. Bring the team deep into Mexico for this WRC event is a big risk. We’re days from a US border, and this race is much different.

After last nights second place finish in the Super Special, Robb was feeling okay with the brakes. The technicians weren’t so sure, especially since Day two is the longest of the rally where Darkcyd would take on nearly 160km (96miles) of competitive racing over nine stages. These include repeats for the Leon Street Stage and last night’s Super Stages at the Leon Autodrome.

As we climbed the scrubby landscape to the first stage of the day at Ibarilla, we hiked up the dirt road to the first hairpin turn, I thought this would be perfect for photography. With the sun behind me and a long straight away the launches into a tight hairpin, but the local police and WRC officials wouldn’t let us stay: safety reasons. So we continued hiking and found a spot on a ledge about 4 feet above the road surface.

Ibarilla is a 30km run that loops from Ibarrilla to Mesa de Reyes, just north of Leon. The road is narrow and riddled with a number of gate posts and culverts, so drivers must be careful. Seven-time winner Loeb and teammate Olgier blasted by us in blazing speed spewing dust, rocks and spitting gravel and those on the road surface. Fearless, José Fredo stood by the side of the run and in true racing fan form, twirled his arm around like a windmill each time a car blasted by us.IMG_0555 - Version 2.jpg

Though several Rally America cars fell out yesterday, Bill Caswell managed to get his car running and rejoined the pack. By the time Darkcyd’s Rill and Slocum fired up the gravel road, pedestrians had already started to make their way down. Hearing the sound of the cars, one young boy dove between two fence posts under sharp barbed wire, only later trying to rub his wounds but couldn’t reach his back with his short limbs.

Several of the pros took their toll on Ibarilla this morning. The Citroen team’s Dani Sordo went off the road and broke the wishbone part of his suspension taking him out of the race. He will fix the car, but the service will take more than the time allocated and he will miss several stages and therefore he will finish the race in what is called “SuperRally” status. SuperRally simply means that only driver/teams that complete each stage of the rally can appear in the final classification. This means that they can still race, but their results will not be counted.

What happened on Ibarrilla stage this morning is a testament to focusing on strategy: to finish, is to win. Not only did Sordo have problems but both Matthew Wilson and Ken Block faced doom on one of the longest stages of the rally. Wilson slipped on loose gravel while braking and went off the road and beached his Ford on some big rocks where he couldn’t get off. And American hopeful and GYMKHANA legend, Ken Block lost traction under braking and went into a rock face which busted his suspension and broke a wheel. Both drivers will fix their cars and compete again tomorrow under SuperRally.

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The rough twisting and loose rocks of the Duarte stage took Ken Block out for the day after he ran off the road.

A bit tepid due to the brake issue and follow the strategy “to finish” Robb and Ben took it easy on the first stage, placing fourth out of five cars running the stage in 28:18.1, nearly a minute behind the winner in the Rally America group, Rally Team for Dreams. To put this into perspective, the winner of the WRC group, Sebastien Loeb ran the 29km same stage in 18:25.8.

Back in Service Anctil, Grahn, Thorstenson and Stockline were busy trying to do the impossible. Figuring that while replacing the rotors was out of the question and finding brake pads to fit the custom aftermarket brakes was impossible, they set out to do the impossible: make new brake pads. Kenny was able to download a schematic of the brake pads from the manufacturers website. With basic specs in hand they found pads that were as close to the specs as possible and proceeded to grind, cut and drill holes to match the aftermarket pads. They spent the whole morning pulling this together so that when Robb rolled into service, it would be an easy swap.

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It’s a team effort. Ken Anctil, Gary Grahn, Ed Stockline and Tara Rill work to turn lemons into lemonade by using schematic diagrams from the aftermarket brake manufacturer to convert standard off-the-shelf brake pads into pads that will fit Robb Rill’s Darkcyd Racing Team’s rally car.

After Ibarrilla Robb and Ben still had another 50km of racing in two stages, Duarte and Derrmadero. These stages were so far out in the mountains, we’d never make it before the pros would start and the road would close. So we headed back to the Poliforum so we could watch the teams second run at the León Street stage and then meet them for the 30 minute afternoon service break. By the time the cars showed up for the short 1.5km run on asphalt, only three Rally America cars remained in the competition, Caswell and Campos both were saddled with mechanical problems. On the street stage, and without the baggage of a broken power steering belt and a loose battery flopping around the Rally Car, Robb and Ben jammed through the stage in 1:38.2, just .8 seconds behind Andrew Frick and his Rally Team for Dreams Ford Focus.

The team had the brakes ready when Robb pulled into the pits. “The brakes feel fine,” Robb insisted to Gary, who felt they should use the service time to fit the brakes. “They’re fine,” Robb repeated, “I don’t think we should change them. I haven’t had a problem all day.” After some of the most grueling stages of the rally, Robb’s attitude was simple, if it isn’t broken, let’s not try to fix it. So the team cleaned and lubricated the rotors and inspected the vehicle before sending it out for the afternoon stages, which would be a repeat of those run in the morning.

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Kenny Thorstenson, Ken Anctil and Gary Grahn shove Rill and Slocum out of the pit and on time so they can continue Day 2 of the WRC Rally Mexico in León, Mexico.

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Petter Solberg passes me in heavy Saturday traffic on his way to the Pemex gas station up the road where we meet him and other WRC pros (below) who take a minute, even in the heat of the race, to sign fan autographs.

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Up the road a bit we run into Solberg again, where Darkcyd Racing Team boss, Tara Rill, tries to convince Petter to step out of the race, insisting that Rill/Slocum got it covered. In the end, Solberg convinces Tara to accept his autograph on the Team pit pass before heading to the tough Duarte stage here at WRC Rally Mexico.
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Solberg puts the pedal through the floorboards as he jams out of the starting gate at Duarte stage in WRC Rally Mexico.

While racing through traffic to get to Duarte 2, one of the stages we couldn’t make as spectators this morning, I looked in my rearview mirror and saw WRC pro racer Petter Solberg. He was on my ass, so I pulled over and let him pass. He jumped onto the shoulder and starting passing other cars. Without hesitation I cranked the wheel of my VW Jetta to the right and followed him. Cars started splitting away and Tara pulled out her camera and started to video the chase. Obviously in a transit stage, but Solberg was trying to make it his next fuel stop. By the time we rolled into the Pemex station crowds were jammed and two other WRC cars were already there. Petter was fueling. We find Petter and Argentinian Villagra pulled over up the road checking their vehicles before proceeding to the Duarte start gate.

We raced with WRC cars ahead and behind to the Duarte 2 stage, parked and hiked to the best vantage point looking down on the cars. Duarte is about 23km and probably the twistiest stage of the event, though has a long straight in the middle where the cars can get up to speeds of 100+ mph. But there are a number of steep climbs, and hairpins, so it’s one of the more dangerous, too. The end of the stage, the course climbs to nearly 8,000 feet in elevation. Thankfully, Robb and Ben faced no problems and the brakes held out, finishing where several pros didn’t.

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Robb Rill and Ben Slocum power up a steep incline on the twisty and tough Duarte stage.

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Locals join in and cheer for Darkcyd Racing as Robb and Ben twist through another hairpin.

Darkcyd Racing Robb Rill and Ben Slocum powering up Duarte Stage at WRC Rally Mexico 2011

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Fans of all age turn out here in León, Mexico to cheer Darkcyd Racing and the others who just hope to finish one of the most grueling races in the WRC Rally Racing series in 2011.

The day ended with the 2.2km Super Special stage which each team must run twice and head to head with the closest competitor. Tonight we faced Frick and Rally Team for Dreams, and going over one of the jumps we watched a piece fly off the Darkcyd Subaru. Yet that didn’t impact our performance, as we beat Frick in both runs.

With only three Rally America cars left competing in our group, we ended the day in 2nd place, and 6:23.3 behind Frick, this includes a two-minutes in penalties due to the longer service from yesterdays near disatarous brake seizure.

Feeling much better the crew crashed knowing that if we can just complete all the stages tomorrow, in the finally day of the rally, we will place and celebrate by being on the winner’s podium tomorrow afternoon.

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Before jamming out of the pits, fans convince Robb to sign more autographs. Don’t have any paper? Don’t worry, Robb is happy to sign a shirt–or whatever!

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Darkcyd cruises to a first place finish in both Super Special 1 and 2 on Saturday night at WRC Rally Mexico. A beautiful end to a hard day of Rally here in León, Mexico.

Facing Challenges: WRC Mexico Rally

With the first day of real rally racing ahead, the team was up early and ready to send Rob and Ben off to the first Alfaro stage, a 26km (15.6 miles) of wide and sweeping turns on a fairly good gravelly surface which gets tighter and more twisty in the last 5km. . In rally racing, for the most part, there are pre-set times when the team can service the vehicle. So at the end of each day all vehicles are parked in an area called Park Ferme. A secure parking lot watched by WRC officials. Entering Park Ferme any time other than when when the vehicle is brought in, or when it’s scheduled to exit.

Friday morning marks the first service during the three day race: 15 minutes. Team Darkcyd had a few simple goals. Fifteen minutes doesn’t leave much time for anything. However, the team had the car for nearly two days before the start of the race. First, they needed to change the tires from those used on the short 1.5km tarmac Ceremonial Stage to newer tires better suited to the rocky and gravel surfaces for Friday. Adjustments were made to the in cockpit camera system and overall inspection of the vehicle.

When the WRC officals came by our pit, we reviewed the results of the cermonnial stage the night before. Good news: our team was not penalized for an early start. Phew!

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Ken Anctil changes tires and Gary Grahn inspects the engine compartment.

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The starting line for the Alfaro Stage at WRC Rally Mexico 2011.

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Spectators try to find safe viewing areas, but the craggy terrain challenges them.

WRC Rally Mexico 2011 is essentially made up of 2 different groups—not exactly classes, because in each group there are several vehicle classes. There are the WRC professionals, which, for 2011, included 24 vehicles in 4 different classes and the Rally America group which included 10 vehicles from both the United States and Mexico.

While there are a huge number of differences between the two groups, the most interesting is how the starting order is set. With WRC, the fastest cars go first in ascending order, based on the run time from the previous stage. With Rally America cars, the cars start in descending order with the fastest cars starting last. Plus, the Rally America group is split by those entrants from North America and those from Mexico.

The racing takes part in stages, and each stage is set either in the surrounding hills of León or in the city limits. Because this is Mexico, Tara and I decided it would be best to find a local race fan who could guide us to the stages to makes sure that we found them and got there before the stage starts.

José Fredo (Fredo), thin, handsome and with salt and pepper hair in his late 50’s, is a bit of a renaissance man. He’s written several books including one on the history of the La Carrera Panamicana, the Pan Am—now infamous, but only run for 5 years between 1950 and 1954. José Fredo speaks several languages, including French, Italian and English. For us unfortunately, he is less literate in English. No problem, I am able to speak to him in Spanish and translate as needed.

Also joining us for the day was Lonnie Watson, the father of two young boys from another Rally America team, Recon Rally Team USA. Armed with a video camera and a bag of gear, Lonnie didn’t want to miss an opportunity to see his boys race their first international rally in their VW Rabbit. Driver Brian Watson and one of his mechanics drove three days straight from Seattle, without stopping, sleeping and switching drivers along the way.

By the time we got near start of the race, WRC officials and local police had closed the race to the starting line. Because we’re driving the same vehicle that Robb and Ben used to do the “recce” on the stages, we had a large official sticker adhered to the passenger side of the windshield. Plus, we were sporting lanyards with official “back stage” passes allowing us access to places others could not go.

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José Fredo, our guide; Lonny Watson and Tara Rill haning in the heat waiting for Darkcyd Racing’s inaugural run at 2011 WRC Rally Mexico.

With some 65,000 miles of international driving experience, I know how to quickly adapt to the local driving style. And in Mexico, it may as well as be rally racing. Yet, when Fredo instructed me to keep driving past two police officers on a dusty gravel road, I hesitate. “Go. Go. Go, Allan,” he yelled as I rolled down the window to talk to one of the officers.

“No talk, Allan,” he’s saying while tapping my shoulder from the back seat. I say good bye to the officer and slowly pull forward. The officer puts his hand on his holster and unfastens the button holding his gun. Hmmmm. Maybe we should stay. I would learn later that Fredo can easily talk his way nearly anywhere. He seems to know everyone working the rally, and that combined with our credentials would later serve us well and save many miles of tough high-altitude climbing.

However here at the Alfaro 1 stage, we had to hike up a rocky road, often instructed to walk on the other side of yellow and red tape that delineated the course and its pedestrian danger zones. Climbing through sandy, thorny and craggy terrain of the Sierra de Lobos mountains we positioned ourselves just outside the first turn and waited. Helicopters hovered about, and soon a WRC truck flew by with sirens and lights spewing dust over the spectators gathered to watch the race. Race officials, worried about pedestrian safety, cleared the area on the outside of the left-hand sweeping turn.

When seven-time and current world champion Sébastien Loeb, took that first turn I got my first taste of WRC Rally Racing, as well as an eyeful of the dust that trailed him as he blasted through the curve going side ways and then powered up the straight away from us. Wow. Loeb, who turned 37 years old just a few days before the start of “recce” here in Mexico, as well as his teamate Sébastien Olgier are French and drive French-made Citroen DS3 WRC vehicles with 1.6 litre turbocharged engines.

While dusty and hot as the morning sun grew hotter, I was energized by the adrenaline of a motorsport I’d long knew about and briefly tasted in 2004 when I happened to be in Monoco during the WRC Monte-Carlo Rally. The speed at which these cars travel over roads that twist, turn, climb, descend, switchback and pass through remote villages and desolate landscapes is impressive. And with three days of nonstop driving in 90+ degree temperatures tests the endurance, focus and abilities of both man and machine—cars, drivers, co-drivers and teams.

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Sébastien Loeb tears up the first turn in WRC Rally Mexico 2011.

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Nassar al-Attiyah dusts the crowd as he aims to place in this years Rally Mexico.

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Norwegian Petter Solberg grinds the dirt coming out of turn 1 at the Alfaro stage at WRC Rally Mexico 2011.

In Rally Racing the strategy isn’t simply to have the fastest time. Because the dangerous terrain, extreme temperatures and constant acceleration, braking and shifting, to win a rally like this is to finish. Finishing faster and on time is certainly the goal, but one mustn’t lose sight that if a driver or car is pushed to or even beyond its limits the likelihood of mistakes increases exponetially. While this kind of racing is always as risk, the best drivers know how to keep that risk in check and do what’s needed to survive the grueling days of racing.

With the WRC drivers powering through and then the Mexican representatives of the Rally America, it’s clear why the professional WRC racers are the top in the world, because even the slowest of the cars are driving much faster than most people reading this blog will ever drive on these kind of roads.

The danger in rally racing isn’t always confined to those in the cockpit of the cars, it’s the pedestrians who, after watching the pros and not aware of the time gap between groups, start walking, riding their bicycles or walking their dogs down the dusty track. Fortunately, the other spectators are quick to scream, yell and often make fun, all in an effort to clear the road for the drivers and the safety of the people. Though, due to the ignorance or stupidity of some, accidents do happen.

When Robb and Ben, the last of 34 cars, came careening through the corner we cheered and watched him face into the dust trail he left behind the Darkcyd Racing Team’s ’05 Subaru. The start of a long weekend of racing.

Tara, Lonnie and I headed back to the Poliforum, where the pits and the afternoon León street stage, Super Special, would be run later this afternoon. Due to the distances between stages, and the rough roads required to get there, we decided best not to try to make it before the street stage and the next pit stop, an official 30 minute service just after the street stage.

The short Street Stage is 1.5km and winds around the León Explora Science Center, an interactive and museum and park, which sits just behind the pit and service area. The entire stage is on asphalt with several flat out corners then turning into a rapid succession of haiprins and 90 degree turns. While watching the pros at speed then slam on the brakes as they wind through the hairpins and corners, I receive a text message from Robb. It’s urgent. The power steering and alternator belt has snapped. I get word to the team and though we didn’t have a spare, they find one in record time. Soon after, the car lost power and they had to summon a passing car on the street who was happy to help Robb out with a battery. Problem is, now Robb must ride through this winding, twisting, albeit short, stage without power steering. To be sure, not all race cars have power steering. But when fitted with such, losing power steering actually makes turning harder than if the car never had it fitted. Plus, since the Subaru is four-wheel drive, powering it through these types of corners is tough. Plus, with the old battery in the rear of the cockpit, it will roll around and make for an uncomfortable stage.

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Recon Rally and Rally Team for Dreams launch their bid at the 2011 WRC Rally Mexico under the Rally America group.

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Rally racing brings out fans of all ages. I enjoyed talking with the kids who found balance watching the race from a fence nearby.

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Robb Rill pulls out of turn one and guns it around the corner on the first day of racing in the dirt at WRC Rally Mexico.

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Spectators sometimes make no sense. With many more cars to run, they risk getting gunned down by a speeding rally car. But the kids still hang and wait for the next competitor.

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Running the Alfaro Stage, Robb Rill and co-driver Ben Slocum compete in 90+ degree temperatures.

Yet watching Robb take the corners as I snapped dozens of photos, I wouldn’t have guessed he was tasked with these challenges. After winding through the stage, the Subaru battery fails and the car has to be pushed through the Poliforum, past all the pit areas for the professionals. When it finally arrives in the pit for service, co-driver Ben Slocum nearly collapses from heat exhaustion. The team moves to recharge the battery, replace the broken belt and check the car for damage and potential problems. As Ben regains composure and is hydrated he goes back into form.

We learn that the Recon Rally team piloted by Lonnie’s sons has fallen out of the race. They’ve blown an engine. Another Rally America car in a Dodge Neon ran into a tree. And Bill Caswell, the 2010 Rally America winner at WRC Mexico suffered mechanical problems and would be towed back to the pits. Still another, one of the Mexican cars, rolled and would show up later on a flatbed. Fortunately, nobody is hurt. But that takes the pack down to six cars.

“Three minutes,” he yells while telling me that I shouldn’t bother Robb with another interview, they must focus and get suited and in the car. Ed and Kenny recheck the torque on all the lug nuts while Ken and Gary examine brake and fuel lines.

“Thirty seconds,” Ben’s voice louder and with conviction and authority of a football coach. They fire the engine and back out of the tent.

But there’s a problem.

The car doesn’t move smoothly and sparks are flying out of the wheels as Robb back and then pulls the car back into the tent. He tries again. It’s seized. More sparks. The team jacks the car up and pulls the wheels off. Now they’re going to be penalized. Taking more time in service will cost us time. But the car can’t go. Gary discovers the brake calipers are seized. With some hammering, WD-40 and a little bit of luck they get them released. But will they last?

After Ben and Robb blast out of the pit, the team moves to solve the problem. After a team meeting and many phone calls it’s impossible to get new brake calipers and pads because those fitted on the Subaru are specially designed aftermarket products that are not sold in Mexico. Contacting the US supplier yields the answer I already know: it will take at least 4 or 5 days to get parts shipped due to customs holds. Alternatively, the team could replace the entire brake system with original stock parts, but finding these in Mexico in time is impossible. We try to convince a Mexican team who’s bad luck that day took them out of the race. But they’re convinced they can fix the car and get back in the race after many repairs. Our team doesn’t think so. But there’s no convincing them.

An hour later I receive another update from Robb and Ben. They say the next stage has been cancelled due to a “red cross” situation. We imagine the worst: someone badly injured, or even killed. Some time later they roll the Subaru into Park Ferme. The brakes worked for the transit to the beginning of the stage, but since they never got to run the stage, which is a second stab at the first stage of the day, there’s no way of knowing how the brakes will perform under stress of racing.

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Though the street stage is 100% pavement, the WRC brought in a little dirt to add some excitement.

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Thousands of people come to watch Rally Mexico, sponsors like Coca-Cola and Corona do its best to capture their attention and make and impression.

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Then again, Monster energy drinks perhaps makes an even better impression with the only American driver in the WRC pro class, DC shoe founder, Ken Block. Though his Ford is plagued with electrical issues throughout the race.

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Robb Rill of Darkcyd Racing challenged with a broken power steering belt and a loose battery bouncing around the cockpit, but still scores good time on the WRC Rally Mexico Street Stage.

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The battery dies after the street stage, so the team and more have to push Darkcyd’s Subaru through the Poliforum pro pit area and out to the Darkcyd service area.

Turns out that the next three stages are cancelled. Not because anyone got hurt. But because of the attrition of cars falling out of the race, the gap between cars has expanded. You see, officials must wait for the official start time for all cars who started the day at first stage. However, with four cars out of the race the space between the last car to actually run and the time Robb is scheduled to start is too big. Fans, thinking the stage is over, start walking down the track. The danger and risk is too high. To avoid an accident and focus on safety, they won’t let Robb run.

Since Robb was the fastest, he goes last. Perhaps it’s a blessing given the brake situation, but it still means not completing the stage. Though Robb and Ben ran the same three stages in the morning, there’s a bit of disappointment in the air. As far as scoring, the team will still be saddled with the service delay penalty, but race rules dictate that we will be assigned a time equal to the slowest time of the last car to complete the stage. Ben assures Robb and the team that this is fair and normal.

The last stage of the day is called Super Special 1 and Super Special 2. It’s a paved tracked at a racing track and complex outside the city of León. At 2.2km, two drivers compete and race at the same time. They race the course twice. This is perhaps draws the densest crowd of the rally because it’s close to town, offers spectator viewing from bleachers and has a number of high speed sections, twists and turns and two jumps. The good news is that the team has another 45 minute service which gives them time to look at the brakes. The car should be fitted with a light bar that contains four high-intensity halogen beams, but there are problems hooking it up due to damage to the undercarriage where the light bar should be bolted. Robb must run without lights.

Even with questionable brakes, Robb pilots the Subaru to second place, just 2.5 seconds behind Guillermo Sánchez and his Mitsubishi Lancer.

Back at the pits the team tries to solve the brake issue. Robb remembers that Petter Solberg used a Subaru during the Recce stage and so did Nassar al-Attiyah, the 2011 Dakar winner. But so late and with no real connection to these teams, we can’t find anyone willing to listen to our plight.

The team heads to bed exhausted, if not a bit dejected. But tomorrow is another day. This is rally racing and in many ways, to win is to finish.

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Tara makes sure security is on top of their job while Gary tries to fit the light bar for the Super Special nighttime stage.

We’ve set our strategy. You never know, tthings change by the stage.

Scrutineering Finds Problems With Darkcyd Racing’s Rally Car

Word on the street from WRC/FIA scrutineering inspectors that if all safety equipment was in order, the Rally America teams competing in WRC Rally Mexico would pass inspection quickly and without hassle. But for the more than six teams that were sent back due to bad welds, the story was much different.

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Ken Block and Henning Solberg exiting the pit area before shakedown stage at WRC Rally Mexico

Darkcyd Racing’s roll cage had 10 weld spots that were not up to the standards demanded by WRC officials. At about 8pm last night we learn that the Subaru to be piloted by Robb Rill and Ben Slocum would require new welds for its roll cage. Problem is, that to get to the weld spots would require either lowering the cage through the bottom of the car, or cutting through the roof so the welder could access those problem areas. To be sure, this is a safety issue. Without a securely welded roll cage any accident could compromise the safety of the driver and co-driver.

Where do you find a a tic welder and someone who knows how to operate it at 10pm in León Mexico. The welding would have to be redone before 9am and completely enough to satisfy the inspectors in scrutineering. Fortunately, a few teams within the outside pit area also were sent back due to questionable welds. The Darkcyd Team worked fast and thanks to another Rally America team, Recon Racing, a tic welder and operator were found and by 2AM this morning the welds were complete.

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Scrutinnering inspectors check to make sure Darkcyd’s roll cage is welded sufficiently to the frame.

But would this late night welding job satisfy the WRC inspectors? After a tentative and stressful run through inspection at 9:30 am this morning, the Darkcyd Team passed. The scrutineering inspectors crawled into every crevice of the cockpit of the Subaru, and armed with mirrors that reminded me of going to a dentist, they painfully inspect each joint. The late night work by co-operating teams paid off. Darkcyd was ready to run.

With a few loose items to handle on the car and what would turn out to be a monumental task to find spare parts for the Subaru, Darkcyd would be ready for opening ceremonies at the 8th Annual WRC Rally Mexico. Technician Ed Stockline and I spent some three hours sourcing new axles, tie-rod ends, ball joints, a radiator and other consumables, we were able to arrange to have parts shipped in from no less than 3 Mexican cities by 2pm Friday. For the previous two days the team was repeatedly told that it would take a minimum of 5 days to get these parts. With tenacity and perseverance I was unable to accept such information. Sure. It took time, but we’ll have the parts tomorrow. Ideally we hope we won’t need them. But with the rough terrain, intense heat and harsh conditions, the team will rest easier knowing that in the event of a problem, we’ll have the parts we need.

While I was sourcing spare parts, Robb and Ben took the rally car through a shakedown stage. This is run just like a normal race stage except that the times are only used to establish the starting order for the official opening ceremonies. it also lets’ the teams run their vehicles on the closest thing they can to a real stage.

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Locals working three phones to find spare parts for Darkcyd’s rally car — anywhere in Mexico!

Darkcyd performed exceptionally during the shake down stage by logging the fastest score in its class. While this is impressive for a first time international rally by the team, it does have its drawback: the fastest car runs last.

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Darkcyd Racing Team with all systems go awaits the ceremonial open of the 8th Annual WRC Rally Mexico.

Meanwhile the streets of nearby cities of Silao and Guanajuato filled with eager fans, excited locals and hundreds of police and federal officers with guns. As the rally cars winded through León and Silao fans crammed the roads, thrusted rally programs into the windows of the cars hoping for an autograph. Still others offered babies for signing, kisses and huge smiles. This is the day the racers get their glory. Like rockstars, thousands try just to get a glimpse, perchance touch a driver or co-driver.

But the drivers must remain focused. While the first “street stage” is ceremonial in purpose and only 1.5km in length, it can set the tempo for the 3 harsh days ahead.

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Ken & Tara Rill celebrating a moment before the start of WRC Rally Mexico on Thursday night. And Robb signs autographs for young fans eager to meet and talk to a rally race car driver.

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Darkcyd Racing Team taking the Subaru out on the shakedown stage here at WRC Rally Mexico.

Last might be a drawback, but Robb and Ben performed fantastic for the first real “street stage” of the WRC Rally Mexico by once again logging the fastest time. However, there is a question that they might have jumped the gun at the start by a second. If so, this could mean a serious time penalty. But as it sits now, the leader board shows Darkcyd Racing in the lead. Let’s hope it stay that way.

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Night driving during the first opening street stage of WRC Rally Mexico. Rill and Slocum pilot the 2005 Subaru around the cermonial circle under the lights in Guanajuato Mexico. Darkcyd logged the fastest time in its class, but questions loom regarding a possible quick start.

From Reconnaissance to Scrutineering—Final Countdown to Racing.


WRC_rally_mexico  1222.jpgThe preparation, logistics and communication required to participate in a professional world class rally competition is enormous. The task is compounded when importing a vehicle, spare parts, tools and additional equipment into a foreign country, in this case Mexico.

DarkCyd Racing has compiled a competent technical team, most arriving late yesterday, including lead technician, Ken Anctil from Rochester, New Hampshire, and technicians Gary Grahan from Seattle, Ed Stockline from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania and, of course, Kenny Thorstenson from Muskegon, Michigan.

Today Robb and Ben took another ‘recce’ (pronounced ‘wreck key’ and meaning reconnaissance) tour of most of the 13 stages. With only the first stage on pavement, the 3-day rally will take them from the cities of Silao and Guanajuato to high in the mountains. Most of the terrain is dirt, sand and loose gravelly rock. With a number of switchbacks and very rural road conditions, the teams pacenotes must be detailed and during the actual race stage, Ben and Robb must be in sync so that there are no problems or mistakes.

While Robb and Ben were on “recce” the technicians prepared the car for the first stage of the rally which starts tomorrow evening in the town of Guanajuato. In addition to checking all the mechanical functions of the vehicle, the team ensures the car is fitted with the safety equipment required by the event organizers, WRC.

Darksyd Racing Team – WRC Rally Mexico – 2011

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Robb Rill, driver; Ben Slocum, co-driver; Ken Anctil, lead technicial


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Gary Grahan, technician; Ed Stockline, technician; Kenny Thorstenson, technician

With the temperatures pushing 90° and the sun beating down on the car, it was clear that the pit area needed additional shade and the technicians clamoring for cold beverages and snacks. Also, the hydraulic lift the technicians were using wasn’t sufficient for working on the car—especially for later in the week when pit stops need to be efficient and quick. We needed a heavier duty lift. So Tara and I headed into town looking for provisions.

Now I’m sure many reading this blog, and who have not been to this part of Mexico may think that such provisioning might be difficult. Not to worry. At times I feel like I’m in the states. The main road through town, Boulevard Lopez Mateos, is linked with retailers one would likely fine in big box America, including Office Depot, Home Depot, Sam’s Club, WalMart, Costco and even a Starbux. So Tara and I stocked up on supplies at Costco, including a 3.5 ton hydraulic lift for the technicians, and a pop-up canopy to keep tools and refreshments ready and cool. In doing so, we feel we might have broken the record for packing a Mexican-built chevy Malibu.

Make no mistake, León has its charm. And it doesn’t come from the nearly 200 shoes stores that seem to be on every corner of the city. True, León IS the shoe capital of Mexico—and maybe North America, but beneath the veneer of retail and US-based big-box brands there’s a charming and historical feel to the city. Though nearby Guanajuato may get all the attention do to its UNESCO World Heritage Site status, but León also contributed to the start of the Mexican revolution in 1810.

As we walk the streets of the central historic district we’re treated to the neo-classical cathedral with baroque influence build in 1765, it features four secondary chapels, one dedicated to Saint Joseph includes eight domes and one central cupola through which natural sunlight passes during the day. A large arch marks the entrance to the city, built in 1910 to celebrate the centennial of the Mexican revolution, atop there is the symbol of the city—a golden lion.

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The people of León take pride in their city. We noticed many renovation and maintenace projects on classic and historical buildings and sites.

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However odd, there is something endearing about the sculpted ficus trees on Plaza Principal in Historic Downtown León.

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While neighboring Guanajuato gets the attention for historic sites, León has its charm.

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New concept in promotion and marketing — public bathrooms and walking billboards. Wow!

The people of León take price in their city. The Plaza Principal is lined with benches that sit under ficus trees meticulously groomed in geometric shapes. We spot scaffolding around many historic buildings including the post office, churches around the plaza and religious statues outside the cathedral. And the people of the city, like most in Latin America, are genuinely interested to help foreigners and will go out of their way to do so.

By the time Robb and Ben return to the pit after their day of “recce”, all that’s left is do on the car is to fit the WRC-suppied GPS unit to the car. This allows the judges and timekeepers to track each car, ensuring it follows all the rules. Once this is fitted, the car is ready to complete a final inspection by the organizers. This inspection, called “scrutineering” is the final phase before the car is approved to compete and drive on the rally course. Failure to successfully complete “scrutineering” means modifications, repairs or otherwise must be made to the car or else it is disqualified from competition.

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Kenny and Gary making final adjustments to get the car ready for scrutineering and racing!

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Final touches before scrutineering — the official race logo and assigned car number.

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Gary, Ed and Ken go over technical details and specifications for Darkcyd’s Subaru before scrutineering.

The technicians assure Robb and Ben that all will pass the inspection, scheduled for 8PM tonight. So the two return to the hotel for much-needed showers and a good meal before the start of the intense 3-day competition.