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!

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