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Photo: Art Eugenio/GetSomePhoto

DiZinno: Baja 1000 an authentic, amazing test of the human race

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“So, this one time, at Baja…”

Most stories about the Baja 1000 begin with this phrase or a variation of it. And yes, sometimes it does take a turn down a road you don’t expect, similar to Alyson Hannigan’s “Michelle” character goes in the teenage cult classic American Pie.

But what makes Baja great is not necessarily the racing, or the cars. It is more the stories; the experience; the perseverance; the triumph of human emotion and the human spirit over the elements that make this race unlike any other in the world.

Forget the tired “man vs. machine” cliché when describing Baja. When you think about this race, think of it as an immaculate Mexican dinner combination. In this case, the quesadilla, taco, rice and beans are the people, the cars, the elements, and the race against time.

The 49th edition of the SCORE International Off-Road Racing-sanctioned event at Baja from November 16 through 20, and the 40th year for one of the race’s iconic tire partners in BFGoodrich Tires, was all of that and then some.

PRE-RACE PREP WORK

Baja is not unlike the 24 Hours of Le Mans, arguably the greatest endurance race on the planet, certainly for sports car racing if not overall.

The Mexican peninsula city transforms from a quiet town drawing tourists by boat into a metropolis featuring huge displays, passionate fans, cars and teams of all shapes and sizes, into a party zone.

The preparation work begins with the previous year’s race, and transitions into the pre-runs on this year’s course.

Baja is either a loop race or a point-to-point, with the point-to-point from Ensenada in Baja California further south a significantly tougher logistical challenge. This year’s race was a loop, so it was “only” 854 miles and change, over 1,000 kilometers.

While this behemoth of a race starts on Friday morning, just two days before, the mood is a relaxed one at La Fonda restaurant, about halfway down from the U.S. border just south of San Diego to Ensenada and the race’s starting point.

The first meal. It set the stage nicely. Photo: Tony DiZinno
The first meal: Lobster, rice and beans. It set the stage nicely. Photo: Tony DiZinno

You’re in Mexico? Kick it off with margaritas, beer and fresh lobster. And then talk tires.

The introduction of engineering to this race has changed the game. Figuring out what tires will be best over the punishing terrain is the challenge for the overall win contenders, the SCORE Trophy Trucks. Meanwhile for cars as aging and decrepit as old Volkswagen Beetles, surviving is the only goal.

Competitors young and old, experienced and rookies, are all brought together a few hours later at the BFGoodrich pit meeting. There’s more than 100 vehicles of the 260-odd entries that are running on BFGoodrich. All are treated equally, with as much dedication provided to the two-man team as there is the top Trophy Truck entrants (the full post-race release and details is linked here).

“The crowd in here is the heart and soul of this sport,” says Chris Baker, motorsports director, Michelin North America and BFGoodrich. “Without the people in this room, where would we be?”

Frank DeAngelo is the company’s longtime off-road leading man, having probably forgotten more about Baja than most of us will ever know. If you had to describe him, he’s the off-road version of “Moonlight” Graham from Field of Dreams – short cut white hair, a perfect mustache, and a twinkle in his eye emerging beyond his glasses.

For the first time, DeAngelo isn’t just heading up the pits and explaining to all those competitors how to keep in contact. He’s driving in the race, himself, in the Full Stock class (lightly modified full-size pickups/4x4s).

Prep work on Wednesday night. Photo: Tony DiZinno
Prep work on Wednesday night. Photo: Tony DiZinno

Once the meeting is over and the first round of discussion exchanged, we then see the full set-up operation outside the room.

There’s at least three full rigs. The crew – most of them volunteers – will do anything they can to weld and fix broken, battered machinery as they hit the pits… within reason.

“There’s some, shall we say, ‘creative engineering,’ that goes on,” I overhear from one of the crew guys.

A dinner that night was meant to feature a race team, although that fell through at the last minute. But a couple videos that highlighted BFG’s contributions to the race, and a mariachi band that I still can’t get out of my head weeks later, made up for it.

YOU WANT ME TO DRIVE?

The Baja Challenge vehicles.
The Baja Challenge vehicles.

The immersion experience continued Thursday morning. Forget the fact we’re racing in not even 24 hours; we’re instead at the Hotel Estero once again, on the dirt short course used for off-road trucks.

The Baja Challenge vehicles are here, ready for the BFG contest winners to take hot laps with the BFG crew who’s on site and some of whom will be racing this weekend. These vehicles will also be raced as one of the many classes in the race itself.

“If you relax yourself, you’re going to love it. If you tense up, you’re going to hate it,” I hear when I get my ride-along with Brian Finch, out of Hermitage, Tenn.

Of course, me thinking I’m going to get tossed around like peppers in a scalding hot dish of fajitas does me no favors going into it, and naturally, I tensed up. Then a lap passed, I relaxed myself, and I loved it. It was almost like Finch knew what he was talking about…

Following that though, the other journalist along for the ride (Mike Sutton of Car & Driver) and I had debriefed with Baker and a couple others. The words that followed next – “You’re going to have a drive in these buggies” – were utterly terrifying.

The reason motorsports journalists are motorsports journalists is because we’re failed racing drivers. For me, my sign I knew I wasn’t making it was when I damn near killed myself in a church parking lot in a go-kart. Of course, that’s when I thought to myself, “There has to be another way…”

TDZ attempts to drive... and eventually gets going.
TDZ attempts to drive… and eventually gets going.

Anyway, inspired by at least a slight bit of confidence from my first real race driving experience earlier in November (more on that to come in another piece), I guess I figured “How bad can I be?” Finch was braver being in the passenger’s seat.

The clunky bit first: I stalled the car twice leaving while adapting to the BTC-Subaru’s standard 4-speed, H-pattern. That produced expletives from the driver’s seat, laughter from the peanut gallery. But third time being the charm, I got it going, and then took Finch’s earlier advice.

The first two laps were about getting comfortable; the third is when I finally got the hang of it. Hitting those jumps at speed was pure bliss – and that mere taste gave me a glimpse at what warriors these drivers are doing this for the entirety of a race.

Once I pitted, I actually got applause and plaudits from the crew… I’m not sure whether it was because of my lap three improvement or because I hadn’t barrel rolled. Either way, mission accomplished.

It was at that point I learned more about the soul of Baja from a race veteran named Bob Bower, a 38-year veteran of the race. Co-driving with Robby Gordon, he won the race in a Ford Pickup in 1989.

“Here’s the thing about Baja,” he said. “If I had a memory then, I’d have remembered all the incredible things I saw. You’re young enough to where take a minute to breathe, pause, and soak this thing in.”

It was almost as though Bob had been hand delivered to me in that moment as my personal Baja Sherpa. It’s not that I hadn’t been taking things in before, but I was determined to do even more from there.

THE ENDURANCE RACE BEFORE THE ENDURANCE RACE

Pro tip: If you don't have to be in the press conference, don't. Photo: Tony DiZinno
Pro tip: If you don’t have to be in the press conference, don’t. Photo: Tony DiZinno

What they don’t tell you about Baja is that the Thursday press conference might be more of a marathon than the race itself. And I say that having covered more than 10 series this year, none having put on a press conference as painfully long, arduous and repetitive as this one.

It’s the mix of dignitaries, key event officials, drivers and the event race girls – now Bud Light girls owing to a change in beer sponsorship from Tecate – and none of them look happy to be up there.

My press conference experience was at least made easier by the fact I was seated next to Mark McMillin, the de facto “godfather” of his McMillin Racing team, who have made a tremendous impact on Baja over 40 years. For reference, these guys are the Team Penske or Hendrick Motorsports of Baja, leaving no stone unturned and no detail uncovered in their preparation for the race. A seemingly endless array of folks came by to say hi to McMillin and thank him for his contributions, and see how he was doing. As I’d later see first hand with the team from Friday, the plaudits were deserved in every facet.

CONTINGENCY – SPANISH FOR CRAZY TECH LINES AND FAN TURNOUT

Contingency is a massive event. Photo: Tony DiZinno
Contingency is a massive event. Photo: Tony DiZinno

Le Mans has scrutineering. Baja has contingency.

Both are downtown technical inspections where race officials examine all vehicles, thus giving the fans – and competitors – an open look at every car in the race.

The scene is mental. For blocks upon blocks it’s people surrounding cars, loud music playing in the background, street vendors coming at you with either food, souvenirs, or food souvenirs. There is no escape; you’re just swallowed, and yet you wouldn’t want it any other way.

A lunch break took us to El Corralito afterwards. This place is another one of those, “Only in Baja” type of joints. Populated in large part by visiting Americans, the décor is filled with dollar bills that have been put on the walls over the years. There’s race pictures and tires in the restaurant.

And then there was the size of the tortas, the Mexican sandwich. That thing weighed as much as one of my past colleagues at Michelin did, and when he started eating it for lunch, we wondered whether he’d finish first or the race would. My chicken mole, meanwhile, was dynamic…

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THE FINAL NIGHT OF PREP

Much like other endurance races, you’re not doing a ton in the day before the race, but resting up early knowing that you’re likely going to be up north of 24 hours from Friday morning. So my BFG colleagues Alex (torta man) and Tom and I went to a taco stand within walking distance from the hotel. This was just what I was craving. And, weeks later, I think my mouth is no longer on fire from the salsa…

The mole and the tacos were freaking amazing. Photos: Tony DiZinno
The mole and the tacos were freaking amazing. Photos: Tony DiZinno

RACE DAY

I’ll break this out into a separate post, as I was embedded with the McMillin team in a chase truck from start to finish. But a few Cliff notes of what to expect in that are below:

  • The first message of inspiration from the team: “Get where you need to go first, then dick around.” So much of off-road racing and Baja in particular is “hurry up and wait,” and in this case, it’s important you’re ahead of the curve before your vehicle arrives.
  • The fans are INTENSE. This could be where kids come running up to your truck looking for stickers; you’d better come prepared. Or, it could be when someone decides to flash or moon the cars… heavy concentration is required. We only stopped at one checkpoint where there were a ton of fans before the pits. But in that checkpoint, we saw how insane it is and what fans are doing when cars come through.
  • The contrast between towns where there’s people and isolation is mammoth. When you’re surrounded by people, you’re inspired to race faster and harder for them. When you’re out in the middle of nowhere, which you are for way more of the race, you’re thinking about one thing and one thing only: survival.
  • Finishing isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. If you aren’t the overall winner, or within the overall top 10, then the only thing that matters is finishing. Standing by the checkered flag, waiting for other teams to finish, provides that sign of relief as you’re just so happy they made it. For the teams and drivers that fail to finish, the allure of trying again next year is the drug they inhale.
Finishing is everything. Photo: Art Eugenio/GetSomePhoto
Finishing is everything. Photo: Art Eugenio/GetSomePhoto

The BFGoodrich setup. Photo: Art Eugenio/GetSomePhoto

The BFGoodrich setup. Photo: Art Eugenio/GetSomePhoto

THE EXPERIENCE AS A WHOLE

The word that I couldn’t get out of my head all week in Baja to describe the experience is authentic.

Authentic sums up the care BFG has for all its competitors and the race itself.

Authentic describes the food at every opportunity, and the people who are so dedicated to making it.

Authentic nails the passion the fans have for every vehicle in line, whether in contingency, at the starting line, around the 854-mile circuit, or back at the finish line anywhere from 17 to 36 hours later after starting.

Authentic hits the surroundings. You know you’re in Mexico when you’re down there. When you see McDonald’s and Starbucks, you’re offering quizzical looks because it’s not a Pemex, a taqueria or a llanteria (tire store). The ambiance is quintessentially Mexico.

And authentic summarizes the fact that no matter how many times you go to Baja, you will learn something new every year. There will be no two Bajas exactly the same.

A parting shot from Baja. Photo: Tony DiZinno
A parting shot from Baja. Photo: Tony DiZinno

Vettel, Raikkonen complete hot laps in Ferrari F1 cars at Daytona

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Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen enjoyed their final Formula 1 run-outs of 2016 on Sunday at Daytona International Speedway, taking part in a special demonstration for the Ferrari Finali Mondiali.

The Finali Mondiali acts as the world final for the continental Ferrari Challenge series, bringing together competitors from the North America, Europe and Asia Pacific championships.

As part of the weekend’s running, Vettel and Raikkonen were on hand to complete demonstration laps behind the wheel of recent Ferrari F1 cars, with Vettel also completing some donuts in front of the main granstand at Daytona.

Here are some of the videos and pictures from the event.

Sebastian Vettel dismisses suggestion he could replace Rosberg at Mercedes

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 27: Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP is congratulated by Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Ferrari on the podium during the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Sebastian Vettel has brushed off suggestions that he could take Nico Rosberg’s vacant Formula 1 seat at Mercedes next year, saying his focus lies on working with Ferrari to improve on their 2016 season.

Rosberg sensationally announced on Friday that he would be retiring from F1 with immediate effect, just five days after winning his maiden World Championship.

Rosberg’s move has sent the driver market into a late flux, with Mercedes’ Niki Lauda claiming that half of the F1 grid has been in touch regarding the seat despite many of them having contracts.

Vettel has been named as a possible candidate for Rosberg’s seat despite having one year remaining on his Ferrari deal, but when speaking at the Finali Mondiali at Daytona International Speedway, the German stressed he is focused on his current commitments at Maranello.

“I think it’s no secret the fact that me and Kimi Raikkonen have a contract for next season,” Vettel is quoted as saying by La Gazzetta dello Sport.

“Kimi and I are already committed. In 2017 we will be competitive.

“We have not reached the goal this year, but now it will be important to do the job at the factory in the next two months.

“I am confident that we will definitely present an improved package.”

Vettel signed off with a message to Rosberg, wishing the retiring champion “happy holidays!”

Vettel finished 2016 fourth in the drivers’ championship without a win to his name as Ferrari struggled to keep up with Mercedes and Red Bull in the pecking order.

Mercedes is set to begin its search for a replacement on Monday, with the other big-name driver besides Vettel linked to the seat being McLaren’s Fernando Alonso.

Should Mercedes want to promote one of its junior drivers, Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon are both also available, although neither has more than a season of F1 experience.

Hamilton not chasing number one status at Mercedes after Rosberg exit

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 25: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP walks in the Paddock during practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 25, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton says he is not chasing number one driver status at Mercedes as the team begins its search for a replacement for Formula 1 World Champion Nico Rosberg.

Rosberg edged out Hamilton for the F1 drivers’ championship in Abu Dhabi last Sunday before sensationally announcing his immediate retirement from the sport five days later.

Mercedes has said it will take its time when looking for a replacement for Rosberg, with the majority of the F1 grid tied up contractually for 2017.

Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel have both been linked with the Mercedes drive in the wake of Rosberg’s departure, leading to questions about whether Hamilton would want another big-name star alongside him.

Mercedes has always stressed that it does not have a number one driver, and Hamilton said that he would not insist on that changing when his new teammate arrives.

“I’ve never been a driver to ever request that,” Hamilton said when asked about number one status.

“I know a lot of the other drivers Sebastian, Fernando make sure that’s in their contract.

“I’ve just always asked to have equal rights. As long as we’re treated fairly, it doesn’t really matter who’s alongside you.

“But of course, we’ve got great team bosses, who I’m sure will choose the right people to be representing the brand.”

Whoever replaces Rosberg will become Hamilton’s fifth teammate in F1, the Briton having previously worked with Alonso, Heikki Kovalainen and Jenson Button during his time at McLaren before joining Mercedes in 2013.

Rosberg: Hamilton’s late-season form ‘the best Lewis I’ve ever seen’

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 27: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo neads Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track  during the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg believes that Lewis Hamilton produced some of the best performances of his career towards the end of the 2016 Formula 1 season when the Briton had nothing to lose in the championship fight.

Rosberg clinched his maiden F1 drivers’ championship by five points in Abu Dhabi last Sunday, defeating Hamilton for the first time during their time as teammates.

Rosberg closed out the season with four straight second place finishes, with Hamilton’s run of victories in the same period not being enough to catch up in the standings.

Speaking in a video produced by Mercedes after his championship win, Rosberg said that he felt the most pressure after his final win of the season in Japan, the result that meant he could wrap up the title without taking another victory.

“The changing moment was Suzuka for me, when all of a sudden I had the 33-point lead and that meant it was in my hands, and it’s mine to lose, because it was enough to do second-second-second and third,” Rosberg said.

“That’s when really the pressure started for me because it became real, the chance to win the championship and to beat Lewis. It was real.”

Rosberg was only assured of the title when he crossed the finish line in Abu Dhabi, with Hamilton going deliberately slow in a bid to back the German into the chasing pack.

“Abu Dhabi was intense. It was the most intense experience I’ve ever had in a race car,” Rosberg said.

“Even qualifying, the laps in qualifying, not easy really. And for sure it has an impact on your performance. It’s not possible that you do the same performance as if you’re in Lewis’ position where he has nothing to lose.”

Rosberg believes that the lack of pressure brought the very best out of Hamilton, as he closed out the campaign with four consecutive victories from pole position.

“That’s why he got the pole positions and why I was second in the last couple of races because he’s free, has no weight and nothing to lose,” Rosberg said.

“It was the best Lewis I’ve ever seen, the last few races, because not only was he completely free, but also the most determined and motivated ever, working as hard as ever.

“[It was] massively difficult to beat him in those circumstances.”

Rosberg announced on Friday that he would be retiring from racing with immediate effect, meaning we have likely seen the last of his rivalry with Hamilton in F1.