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.
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