The Baja Races have made everything in the Baja California culture seem so fascinating and exciting. After all, the beach-oriented Mexican peninsula is rugged, adventurous and romantic, but the Baja Races make a visit there much more than a vacation destination. It is the location of the Championship Desert Racing Series.
You may know about these races, but this is overview info which avid enthusiasts or casual tourists will find interesting indeed. For me, it took a Santa Barbara antiques dealer–a family friend of mine–to introduce me to this most exciting venue! You see, Diane Norman, popular owner of the Summerland antiques store, The French Market, is Mom to a young, six-time motorcycle winner of the Baja Races, Kendall Norman, who began competitive racing when only 11! Through Kendall I learned that the Baja Races are not simply motorcycle races but they include various types of vehicles. Motorcyclists are joined by racers in “quads,” which are modified or stock 4-wheel vehicles, including cars, Trophy Trucks, all terrain vehicles (ATVs) and dune buggies. These racers compete in one of the series, such as the Baja 1000 and Baja 500, running “Off-Track” on desert trails. While there are patches of highway segments, the course is generally the natural terrain with loose approximations of 500 or 1000 miles.
The best known race is the Baja 1000, also known as the Peninsula Run, a point-to-point race that starts and ends in two different locations, traditionally between Ensenada and La Paz, following Federal Highway 1. There are shorter loop races which start and finish from the same location, which traditionally has been Ensenada, although loop races have run from Mexicali and San Felipe as well.
Now an iconic series, the Baja Races had their beginning in 1962 when American Honda wanted to prove the reliability of its CL72 Scrambler in a long-distance test on the Peninsula Run. The publications Globe, Argosy and Cycle World praised Honda and the venture. In fact, several stories included close encounters with death and dangers. Having heard accounts of banditos on the barely paved roads of 1950s-1980s Baja, and then having my own night-time incident with a wandering cow on the don’t-fence-me-in Highway 1, I can attest to the dangers of the Peninsula Run.
In 1967, the builder of the Meyers Manx buggy wanted to boost his sales and beat the 1962 Honda record. With a Road & Track journalist following, the Manx beat the record by more than 5 hours. Word spread to the media and ever since it was the Buggy versus the Bike, and the competition between four wheels and two grew.
Within the year, more record breaking attempts took place and one competitor, Ed Pearlman, organized the National Off-Road Racing Association (NORRA) to officially recognize previous record setters, establish class designations for the vehicles and produce an annual Peninsula Run. Naming the event the “Mexican 1000 Rally,” the race ran from the Fall of 1967 until 1972. Popularity grew with ABC network’s Wide World of Sports televising the 1968 event. Top racers like Mickey Thompson, Indy 500 winner Parnelli Jones, and movie actor-racer James Garner participated.
The races had a major change in 1973 when NORRA bowed out due to a US recession and oil embargo impacting participant racers. In response, the determined Baja California governor handed over the event to a non-profit Mexican group which renamed it the “Baja Mil” and, in English, the “Baja 1000” tag was born! For future races, racer-promoter Mickey Thompson was hired. His Short Course Off-Road Enterprises, known as SCORE, was born, and for 39 years SCORE’s organization of the Baja 1000 expanded to numerous off-track events, all known as the SCORE Championship Desert Racing Series.
The Baja Races have continued to attract major celebrities, as Paul Newman, who participated in 2004 at 80-years-young! The races have evolved to be a sophisticated enterprise featuring champion racers, funded by major sponsors, followed by avid enthusiasts and covered by leading sports news outlets. The events still make and break the careers and reputations of motorbikes and vehicles, as well as of racers.
Altogether, it was well-worth my meeting up with champion Baja 1000 and Baja 500 racer Kendall Norman since his achievement opened my eyes to the awesome races that add so much to Baja California’s unique character and rugged landscape–off-track and on. To see one of these races for yourself, target your Baja vacation to the events by checking SCORE’s year-round online schedule. Generally, the Baja 1000 is in November, the Baja 500 is in early June, the San Felipe 250 is in late February and the San Felipe Challenge off Champions is in early September. Experience SCORE’s Championship Desert Racing Series and the culture of the phenomenal Baja peninsula. Go and enjoy the Mexican food, the ambiance and a Baja Race adventure!
(c) 2012 Elizabeth McMillian