We crossed the border around 9am and quickly pick up our tourist visas. It’s 10 miles to the bullring and our hotel in Mexicali. The Willys is already turning heads, people are stopping in the road to take pictures. I always pick up stickers before going to race in Mexico. Racing is part of Baja history and the people here love off road racing. Our crew this year will be Jeff McCullough navigating, Carlos and Lisa Campos handling the drive into Cabo and Mom will keep an eye on us all. There are over 150 entries this year, 60 more than 2012. After signing in we drive the Willys over to the bullring and get in line.
Great timing! The mayor, Mike Pearlman, and NORRA officials are getting their pictures with the 1928 Willys, hopefully for the local papers. It’s a long, hot day and the Willys has found it’s way into the Baja history books. I believe it is the oldest car to ever race off road.
We are all ready to go by 7am. There is a long line along the bullring and we are starting 1 minute apart. It’s going to be difficult to drive the Willy fast. There is a lot of bump steering and we couldn’t find room for a sway bar and asphalt roads we are hitting 70 mph that’s it I can’t control it after that.
It’s 25 miles to the restart on the dry lake bed. We are off to a great start on course. We keep pace with other cars but it’s not easy. If I hit anything at 70 mph and jump the car it would literally land turn sideways and roll over. We’ll have to be happy with finishing each day, no matter how long it takes.
It’s going to be a great race. Picture this, to my left is the Galaxy 500 hauling ass across the silt-covered lake bed. We are in the middle of doing 70 mph there are three other vehicles to my right all taking their own line. “A blast from the past.”
Each stage has new challenges the deep sand is coming up next. There are cars stuck everywhere including the Galaxy 500. The Willys handles this area very good floating across the sand.
Jeff is doing a great job keeping us on course. Also, keeping up to date with our rally book. The warning in this book can save your lives or at least your vehicle. Day One is over not very impressive finish. I think we are 78 overall at 20-30 cars are out and 20 finish after us.
Bay of L.A.
The stages are very long today. 134 miles, 50 miles in transit then 76 miles and finish in transit totaling 404 miles. We are finished in Loreto, my favorite city in Baja and staying at my favorite hotel La Luna.
We are in late, the street party is over and the buffet just closed. Mike is handing out free drink tickets, we enjoyed a couple of beers by the pool. It’s time to find the hotel and check in. Lisa, Carlos, and Mom are not far behind. The rooms are great and the A/C works. It’s around 10 pm. I am done. Just enough time left to have a quick dinner next door. Today goes down in history as my hardest day of racing ever. 13 1/2 hours. I am falling asleep at the dinner table… time to go!
We are racing on Baja Sur time now. My phone says 6am but it’s 7am.
We need to suit up quickly and get to the Pemex Station. No showers today. The start is just outside of the town at a bar called El Boracho for breakfast. Day 2 had ended with a bad accident and fatality. The start of cars was moved back 1 hour and because of our late finish we are not starting until 11:22.
We are now running our own race. Starting in the rear and it’s all I can do to keep the Willys on course the roads a narrow with sandy shoals, dry stickers, mesquite bushes on one side and 6′ tall cactus on the other. We keep moving along looking forward to day 4 and the Cabo finish line.
Day 3 is almost done as we enter La Paz something went wrong. It was very hot just over 100 the car stalls at every light but starts quickly but as we near the finish line it gets worse. Stalling on the podium we start it again and roll into the Malacon. What a great reception. Day 3 is done but what went wrong with the Willys?
As the car cools down it starts to run fine again, what’s going on?
We spent the rest of the day at Stella on the beach a couple of great margaritas the Willy starts fine and runs fine to the parking lot.
The finish of it all in Cabo San Jose. 7 am the car keeps stalling. I pulled the radiator cover and air cleaner. The manual choke is closed and won’t stay open. We wired it open and and the car starts up quickly. I hope we found the problem. And the car is running better to the start line. But something is still wrong. I spend the entire morning tracking down all the parts to install a fuel pressure regulator. It is time to start, 11am, but as the car gets hotter it runs worse. We leave the start line and the car will hardly run. The traffic is terrible and the car stalls constantly. I don’t know what to do. Finally the car stalls in front of an open auto parts store. We are going to buy a new carburetor and get back in the race. One big problem. Most auto parts store don’t sell carburetors anymore. The store manager calls around to other stores and there isn’t a Holley Carburetor anywhere. 2 hours later and he finds one Edlebrock. They want 5,800 pesos for it (yust over $500.) I don’t think it will even fit. We have removed the carb now 3 times. Checked everything. It’s all over and we’re timed out. Just over 1000 miles and we’re done.
We built the oldest car to ever run the NORRA 1000. It wasn’t perfect. It took over 1 year to finish. We learned a lot about fabricating the hard way. A big thanks to everyone at our Lost Boys Shop that built the 1928 Willys: Stewart, Derek, and Butch thanks for all your hard work! And a special thanks to Tony at General Tires, he has helped on every vehicle we own and we greatly appreciate all their support.
Although Dirt Sports Magazine would not allow us to be part of the bullring. We’re proud of our contribution to the NORRA 1000. 1 1/2 years of work over in 4 days of racing. Did we restore a moment in history? Maybe not. But we sure did forge the future with a 1928 Willys Whippet.
To see a car this old running down the Baja Peninsula certainly took spectators by surprise. This is what racing could have looked like 90 years ago. I could rewrite history with this car even if only in my book: “The First Car to Win the Mexican 1000 in 1928!” (It only went to La Paz then!)
What does it take to finish a race like this?
• Attention to detail
• Concentration for hours at a time
• Automotive background
• Friends & family
• Luck, prayer, and determination
• Overcome change quickly
• Navigational skills
• Logistics: Food, water, gas, tires, radio, etc.
• Faith in vehicle and knowledge of what it can handle.
You can rearrange this anyway you what but if you’re missing one item you are not going to finish.
Click on the photo above to see a full slideshow.
After leaving the bullring in Mexicali I knew we were in for a long four days. The steering was terrible on the asphalt, changing lanes without notice. The motor was branch new, only three hours and the break in oil was still in it. Jeff is going to keep the RPM’s down to day. But the car is running great. Already, I notice the noise from the body is driving me crazy. I keep looking back to see is the rear of the car is still there. We are headed to the Bay of LA and would like to be there before dark.
I will drive today giving Jeff a brake, I soon realize that this car is not going to handle one mistake. A zero tolerance driving is now in effect, I will keep it under 80 mph and on the road at all times. I need to complete 408 miles today. We arrive in Loreto Bay around 6pm. The taco bar is open, the pool looks great, and Sarah Palin is upstairs in the suite we had last year (no kidding.) This year we are staying at La Luna behind the Mission Inn, the owner here takes good care of us.
I am up at 5am taking pictures again then some maintenance on the AMC. Change the air cleaner and fix the door locks and we are ready to do it again. Today will be the hardest day. 400 more miles to go. I ask Jeff is he wanted me to drive again today and he could drive across the finish line tomorrow. Just after the start, both latches break on the rear hatch. We are not stopping, maybe we can make it through the stage. 30 miles later, the hinge breaks and the hatch is in my rearview mirror, swinging. It is now a General Tire monument on top of a 3000’ mountain in Baja. We should have left the hatch at the start line. The car feels lighter now and it’s cooler inside. It’s a long day but we pull into La Paz on time with no penalties. We are staying at the Marina Bay Inn in La Paz. After a quick swim and a great Bloody Mary we are off to dinner with Mom, Tony, Jeff, and I.
I am up at 3am, the Edsel is pulling into the parking lot. I think they broke down yesterday. Today starts with a 56 mile transit section then a 140 mile race to the finish in Cabo. At the end of every day people ask what’s in our car. Today my answer is a grenade and I already pulled the pin. Jeff is driving today, it is a very difficult course, no mistakes allowed. We drift wide and there is a ditch in front of the car. I started yelling, “stop!“ and the car stalls and won’t turn over, the starter is hot. Jeff probably would have missed the ditch, I was being overcautious. Ten minutes later, it starts and we’re off again 50 miles to go. Where is the fuel stop? The GPS isn’t tracking mileage and I don’t know where we are, Mag 7 has 22 gallons of fuel for us but they are not here. We eventually run out of the gas just past checkpoint 12. I am going to run back to the road for gas one mile. There is no gas here but someone will drive me into town to pick up five gallons of fuel. By the time I return Jeff has the car at the road and a motorcycle also needs gas. We both fuel up but because we don’t have a GPS with mileage we have to drive back into town again and top off the fuel cell. One hour later, we are back in the race. We soon realize we are only miles to the finish line. Police on every corner and we are here. Three trips in the AMC Hornet and three finishes. 2nd in class. 19th overall.
Trying to race three cars wasn’t the best idea. We ended up going in too many directions. Since two of the cars were in the morning race we were up early getting Derek and Jeff started then we were off to pit #2 but we also needed people at the main pit to prep the 7200 truck, It worked out fine but some things were sacrificed.
Derek completed the race in 14th overall and 1st in class. The class 9 prep by Doug, Stewart, and Butch paid off. Derek drove at a conservative pace which paid off and still finished 14th. Jeff and the AMC Hornet were off to a bad start, leaking through a bad oil cooler behind the seats. I think they could have finished the race but would have probably finished the car. We weren’t aware of it but the motor was seizing. 1 ½ laps or 150 miles and they are out. The car lived to race another day.
At noon it was time to race the 7200 truck pre-stage behind the railroad tracks. We were set to race around 1:30 pm. It was a side by side start. Our truck locked up quickly by the 1st turn and we were out front by three truck lengths. As we made the last turn to go out into the desert we hit the soft sand and our 5700 lb truck turns into a bulldozer. 540 HP going to waste in a truck that is too heavy for this part of the course. We were passed up quickly.
Back on the hard pack we were picking up speed but something is different about the truck. What is this? At the top of every roller there is a sharp jolt going right through our backs. What is this? Never mind, just man up and race. Sort the same mentality as not asking for directions when you’re lost.
The truck is fast and we passed vehicles already while making our 5th pass in 20 miles. We clipped one of the trucks with the front end. It mostly filled the engine compartment with rocks because it rolled the power steering belt off the pulley and turned the belt inside out.
We needed to change the belts on a very hot engine including the alternator belt which was in the way. It took 30-45 minutes to fix then we are back up to speed again behind a white truck at 40-50 MPH. The truck in front of us clips a large rock and spun it under us taking out two tires only 10 minutes later. You can see where this day is going.
Changed two tires and were off. This was still lap one and three more to go. The truck tops out at about 115 MPH and the adjustment Stewart made to our cooling system is working great full throttle and we are hitting 210 degrees on lap two.
Something was still wrong with our set up and my back felt it. But I hadn’t figured it out. The rear end lets go on lap two. We snapped the locating arm bolt. To fix this under load we needed to lift the rear end of the truck off the ground. We stacked up two tires under the rear bumper and placed our jack under that to raise up the whole rear end and put in a new bolt. We were going to drive into pit one and fix it again. After asking everyone for parts fixed again with the right bolts and misaligned cams.
At this point Stewart was already done keeping this truck together, it’s becoming a full time job and without any finishes no one cares if we go.
We are off to the main pit to finish lap two and the rear end breaks again for the same reason. We rolled into the main pit and got out. We are done now, the arm is also almost through the fuel cell this time.
What did we change this race? The compression on all four corners too loosen up the suspension and use every inch of travel we have. It was the wrong choice for the track and both the truck and I paid the price- my back locked up on me and I couldn’t stand up straight for two days.
Why didn’t we stop and fix this during the race??
Our next race is the NORRA 1000 in Baja.
I have always liked racing the Mint 400, it’s a chance to meet real off road race fans. Thousands of people came out Wednesday before the event to watch the pit crew change on Fremont St. On Thursday afternoon 10,000 fans walked down Fremont Plaza to see every race vehicle up close and to meet the drivers and crew. There was standing room only and we handed out 600 posters—what a hit with the kids. Check it out:
On Friday afternoon it was time to tech our vehicles. The AMC Hornet is center stage at the General Tire press conference where they announced that they will now be the official sponsor of the Mexican 1000 (NORRA 1000.) Jeff McCullough’s AMC is the only vintage car to race the Mint 400.
We entered tech at 9th St. and head towards the Plaza Hotel. We started pushing at 6th St. uphill. There were plenty of people to help since the Plaza was still full of people. There were vendors on both sides of the street, there must have been 80 different companies there.
It’s a lot of work getting three vehicles through the tech inspection but we finished around 4pm. But we weren’t done yet we needed to pick up race fuel at the race track 45 minutes away. Chris and Larry volunteered to pick it up.
I could write an entire story on the helmet we gave to Casey (owner of Best in the Desert) but not today. It arrived in Vegas at 8pm and the driver’s meeting was almost over. I really didn’t think it was going to make it. Derek walked in with the helmet and we took it out of the box where no one else could see. I think there were 2,000 racers at the meeting. The helmet was perfect. Eric Wilmer pulled it off. It was a totally custom helmet to commemorate the first Mint 400 to be led by Best in the Desert and Casey Folks. Eric, thanks for all your hard work. You should have seen the surprised look on Casey’s face.
Wait a minute, I almost forgot the party! Now on to the hot laps with General Tires’ VIP’s. The details on this party are a little… fuzzy. You may be able to piece together the whole night by getting each crew members’ account of the evening. It was held upstairs in the Gold Digger Bar. We spent the night with our own table overlooking Fremont Plaza with free drinks all night and off road videos playing. Last call was at 1:30am and it was time for bed.
Race Day- Started at 4am. BLM’s estimate for spectators was over 25,000 for Saturday alone.
It’s a long drive to Primm and the traffic starts as soon as we hit the dirt going to the Start. Derek and Jeff were in the first race with a 6am start in the dark.
Jeff Marciano and I got fuel for everyone. The AMC gets only 4 or 5 miles per gallon but the 9 car can run all day. We didn’t get to see the start but were getting reports back saying the track is full of large rocks like someone placed them there. But after one lap they’re gone.
Stay tuned for part 2.