Baja 500 – Mexico – Inspection & Pre-run

When it comes to adventure and travel spontaneity can be a friend or it can be a foe. When friend, fellow motorcyclist and rally racing car driver Robb Rill asked me to join him once again for another race in Mexico, I was excited and ready to continue to learn and explore this exciting sport.

Arriving in San Diego late Wednesday night Rob and partner and wife Tara found themselves at the San Diego Airport without their luggage. This minor setback, everyone hopes, will be the only hiccup in the Darkcyd Racing Team’s latest effort to finish another rally in Mexico.

With a fairly new and untested vehicle, the rally team for this race includes technicians Raff McDougall, who will also aid in driving and co-driving, Tommy Cobb, Gary Grahn and Bill Young. Of course, Ben Slocum will be with Robb at the starting line as co-driver, hoping to recreate the magic that saw Darkcyd finish second place at WRC Rally Mexico in March. I had worked and spent time with both Gary and Ben with Darkcyd’s in Mexico, while tte others had worked with Robb on many rally races in different vehicles in the United States.

The plan was simple. I would meet Robb and Tara at their hotel in San Diego and make the short jaunt to the border in Tijuana early Thursday morning. It didn’t take long for us to get lost temporarily in the maddening and crazy city of Tijuana. But soon we found the toll road which runs down the coast of the Pacific to Rosarita Beach, now lined with several shopping malls, high rise hotels and billboards hawking everything from real estate to plastic survery. The painless two hours drive brought us to the Estero Beach Campground and Resort just south of downtown Ensenada where the Darkcyd Racing Team of technicians and The Desert Warrior, the new Dakar vehicle, were waiting and already in place.

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Ben Slocum, co-driver and Bill Young, Tech

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Raff McDougal, Lead Tech, driver & co-driver and Robb Rill, driver

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Gary Grahn and Tommy Cobb, technicians

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Tara Rill, team manager and logistics and Robb sitting behind the wheel of the vehicle built for Dakar

The technicians had been working on the car for the last two days and had tuned the suspension, the engine and made a thorough inspection and several test drives on a dirt track complete with jumps just adjacent to the campground. While there was some apprehension that is normal for a team, I could see in the faces of the crew the excitement about the race and the new car. They said the car was feeling good. There would still need to be adjustments and Robb would need to get behind the wheel and truly test the handling, the power and the overall feel of driving a Dakar designed rally car.

After a few spins on the test track Robb revealed that he felt funny about the suspension and the steering. Sitting behind the wheel of a massively powered race car that he never race previously perhaps was the root of uncertainty. While the car was new to Robb, he was not new to Baja. He had raced in 2005 and 2007 in different vehicles for the Baja 1000. Here in 2011 in the Baja 500 would be his first solo attempt at the legendary off-road race.

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After making adjustments to the steering, brakes and even the little antenna that connects a VHF two-way radio for communication with the technicians while on the race course in the middle of nowhere in Baja, California, Robb was ready to take the car to be inspected by SCORE officials in downtown Ensenada. At SCORE, a different organizational entity that manages the Baja races, inspection worked somewhat different than at rallies in America and at the WRC level, but the goal is the sam: ensure that the car is safe for the driver and for the spectators and to make sure it complies with all the rules and regulations of SCORE International. The two inspectors, both men comfortable in their jeans and teeshirts, were casual, unassuming and hardly intimidating used more advanced equipment than the team had seen in an inspection in the past. A device that operated like an ultrasound was used to test and verify the thickness of the tubular roll cage fitted in the Darkcyd rally car. Another device used a magnetic field and an activated metallic powder of sorts in order to ensure that all the welds in the roll cage frame were solid and not cracked, weak or showing any other sign of damage.IMG_0232.jpg

The inspectors did find a problem with the clips used in the multipoint harness, an advanced seatbelt system for driver and co-driver. They said the locking fasteners were not to specification because they would possibly be compromised by the extra find powder that spews from Baja, California’s infamous silt beds. With the all of the important itesm, such as welds and durability of the tubular frame okay and up to spec, the inspectors let Robb’s vehicle pass. But they insisted that for the next race the locking clips be changed to the correct specification.

With inspection completed and a green light to compete in this year’s race, Robb and codriver Ben Slocum took the Desert Warrior for a pre-run on the first 30 miles of the race. Meanwhile, the technicians, Tara and I took off to meet Robb and Ben outside Ojos Negros after they finished the run. We didn’t learn until much later that in the first few miles Robb nearly got the car stuck on a sandy dune on the test track. However because the car is equipped with modern air-powered locking hubs, the four-wheel vehicle easily got out of the bind. But this experienced added fuel to Robb’s uneasiness. “I was taking it easy,” he said. “I thought we were going to be stuck out there with no one to help tow us out.”

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SCORE Inspectors will perform a detailed check on the more than 200 trucks, cars, buggies and motorcycles that will compete in the 2011 Baja 500.

Meanwhile Tara and I followed Raff hoping to meet up with Robb at the end of the 30 mile test run. However Raff was not familiar with Baja and found himself and us going north on Mexico Route 3 when we should have been going south. I thought this was funny, but since he had the map and information from SCORE, I assumed he knew where he was going. Bad assumption, however it was nice to take a little ride through Baja’s burgeoning wine region and the Valle de Guadalupe, but we didn’t take the time to taste the wine! By the time Raff realized we were going the wrong way Robb and Ben had completed the test run.

While the pre-run was successful, the technicians are anxious to fix and adjust both the brakes and also the tires. In fact, during one of the test loops at the track adjacent to the campground, Robb drove the car into a power slide around a corner and the force of the slide on the sidewall of one of the tires caused it to break the bead and begin to leak. Dirt found its way between the rim and the rubber of the tire. This compromised the seal and caused the leak. The technicians quickly remedied this but wondered if they possibly could find tires with additional sidewall ply that would prevent this from happening out on the track during the race.

So with these things in mind and a good meal from Sano’s in Ensenada, the team and drivers rested their heads on pillows for tomorrow’s contingency— a parade of all the race teams and their cars through the town of Ensenada with fans lining the streets in a pomp and circumstance that could only be described as some sort of carnival or festival atmosphere. Those that didn’t have time yesterday will go through inspection. But with Darkcyd Racing Team’s inspection behind them, Robb hopes to take the car back out on the track and test it just one more time before race day Saturday.

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