It started out as little more than a lark, an informal competition among off-road racers to see who could make it from one end of the Baja peninsula to the other the quickest. And while big sponsor dollars – and big-money race rigs – have become part and parcel of the Baja 1000 over the intervening 50 years, it still remains one of the most grueling races on the planet.
As described in the mid- to late 1960s, whatever roads ultimately connected Ensenada, about 35 miles south of the American border, and La Paz, about 50 miles from the tip of the peninsula, were little more than “cowpaths designed by the devil himself.” Much of the inland area between the two locales – about 900 miles distant – remained undeveloped wilderness, strewn with cacti, rocks, and dust. In other words, a perfect test of ruggedness and reliability.
The first adventurers to attempt the run, Dave Ekins and Billy Robertson Jr., did so in 1962 as part of a publicity stunt by Honda for its then-new Scrambler. The coverage of their run, printed in Globe and Argosy magazines, planted the seed for what became a game of one-upmanship among desert racers.
That game of one-upmanship — which included Bruce Meyers campaigning his first Meyers Manx, Old Red — reached a fever pitch in the early months of 1967 and in turn led to the National Off-Road Racing Association organizing the first official Baja 1000, then called the Mexico 1000, that October. NORRA divided the race into just four classes — motorcycle, passenger car, dune buggy, and four-wheel-drive truck — which made for an eclectic mix of Manxes, Jeeps, jacked-up sedans, and dirt bikes taking to the course all at the same time, piloted by some of off-road racing’s biggest legends: Malcolm Smith, Meyers, Vic Wilson, and Bill Stroppe.
Other than refueling stops, the race afforded no breaks. Racers had to carry their own tools, spares, supplies, food and maps, and perform their own repairs. Some sections allowed all-out speed, while others forced the racers to a crawl. That first year’s winning time of 27 hours and 38 minutes (including a leg from Tijuana to Ensenada), beat earlier records by a matter of hours, but wouldn’t last, as competition quickly became heated over the following years. The racing rigs became more sophisticated and — inspired by the famed Vic Hickey-built Baja Boot — purpose-built for the race, while factory-backed vehicles began to show up in 1969. Muscle cars even made a significant showing in the race’s early years, some of them radically altered from their original configurations.
James Garner’s Baja-modified 1969 AMC SC/Rambler.
While the oil crisis of 1973 discouraged NORRA from venturing south of the border — and thus led to the Baja Sport Committee’s ownership of the race – it was Mickey Thompson’s Southern California Off-Road Enterprises that brought the race back in 1975 after a one-year hiatus.
Since then, Ensenada and La Paz have served as starting and end point several times, though a number of races operated in a loop format starting and ending in Ensenada and several other Baja locations, including Mexicali and Cabo San Lucas, have stood in. In addition, the number of classes has expanded significantly since the mid-Seventies, these days largely favoring the trophy trucks with their tube chassis, mid-engine high-horsepower V-8s, and extremely long-travel suspensions.
Yet, as much has changed over the decades, much remains the same. The race still covers desolate wilderness, it still contains a multitude of hazards from the terrain itself to the obstacles put up by locals, and it continues to draw some of the world’s foremost desert and off-road racers.
This year’s Baja 1000, scheduled for November 14 to 18, will run from Ensenada to La Paz. Coinciding with the 50th anniversary race will be the release of Dust2Glory, the sequel to the acclaimed 2005 Baja 1000 documentary, Dust to Glory. For more information on this year’s race, visit SCORE-International.com.