For the Baha 1000 old Story

Gary Plagman

Well-Known Member
NORRA Race Report
This is from Chris Wilson racing the #32 Bronco:
So there we are sitting in the staging area for the start of the first special stage on day two. The sun is bright and there is a nice breeze which should be good to clear the dust. It’s not cold but it’s not really very warm either. I expected Bahia de Los Angeles to be warmer at the end of April. We chat with friends and I glance into the mirror and notice the collection of vintage desert racing machinery around us. There is an AMC, an Edsel, James Garner’s Olds Banshee, Bob Gordon’s Chenoweth beam car, the Robby Gordon Hay Hauler, Dr Feldkamp and Malcolm Smith in the old high jumper, Randy Salmont in the old leaf spring Westham 8 truck, and many others. It’s quiet, the calm before the storm. Billy Robertson points out the missing screen from the front of our grill, a victim of the first day. Since we still have 30 minutes until the start, Billy recruits a local and with a combination of finger pointing and spanglish he heads off and returns shortly with an old screen door. Perfect. Billy makes quick use of his leatherman and a handful of zip ties and our trusty steed is now sporting a new Baja fix – a perfectly functional rock and stick protector for our radiator and oil coolers. The quiet morning is broken and Glen starts the engine and the little 289 barks to life. It showtime and I wonder how we ended up here.
It started about 6 months earlier when I contacted Todd Zeutcher to see if he might know of a historically significant bronco we could use for the upcoming NORRA 1000, a 3-day rally for vintage desert racers. It turns out that Todd and his partner Andrew Norton had a couple of early Stroppe racing broncos. One in particular was very intact but in need of some significant mechanical restoration. The bronco in question turns out to be the actual bronco that won the 1969 Mexican 1000 overall driven by Larry Minor and Rod Hall. The truck had a bent front axle, needed a transmission rebuild, a rewire and re-plumbing, the original fuel cell needed refurbishment and installation, there was body damage to repair and paint to apply and numerous other details details. I struck up a 4-way deal with Todd, Andrew, and my friend, ace race fabrication and prep man Glen Straightiff that Glen and I would restore and race prep the truck in exchange for Glen and I driving it in the 2010 NORRA 1000. After 6 months of weekends and nights, she was ready to race, prepped to the same standards as we do for a modern Baja 1000.
The day before the race, we trailered the bronco to Mexicali for technical inspection and registration. We met up with our crew of Bob Ham who would haul our fuel to each pit stop all the way to La Paz, Stuart Chase and Billy Robertson, friends who would shadow us in Stu’s 4wd prerunner should we need assistance, Jan Janota our cinematographer, my wife Dyanne who never misses a Baja race, and of course the team owners Todd and Andrew.
The line up for tech inspection was a real blast from the past with Parnelli Jones, Walker Evans, Rod Hall, and many others milling about. After the inspections we found a parking spot on the far side of the hotel in a quiet area. Parnelli Jones and Rod Hall hung out and talked to us for over an hour. Rod climbed in his old truck and signed the dash. Parnelli told us about his drives in the Stroppe racers. He had driven a 4x4 Stroppe but one day at Bill Stroppes shop sat a 2wd version with twin I-beams. Parnelli noted right away the advantage of having double the wheel travel and half the sprung weight and told Bill he wanted to race that one. Turns out Bill had prepared it for Dearborn and it was on its way to Detroit as the factory was considering a low cost 2wd version of the bronco in the late 60’s that never came to pass. Parnelli went on to tell us that had put the bug in him to build a 2wd super bronco. He said the screen roof on our Stroppe gave him the idea to put a wing on the top instead of just a screen. He needed a roof anyway so why not make use of it and employ some aerodynamics from his Indycar experiences. He told us he built the wing with a 5-position adjustable rear so he could flatten it out on the straights for more top speed then crank it up for downforce when he needed it for turns or big rollers. He told us of a time when he had it trimmed out and was flat out but as he came up on some big rollers he forgot to adjust the wing up and as he crested the first big roller the air got under the wing and almost blew his bronco over backwards. The bronco came back to earth on its tail and he said he never missed a wing adjustment after that!
Race day 1 awoke to high winds as the vintage collection assembled for the police escorted parade out of town. They took us from downtown Mexicali south to the bypass toll road then west out the toll road and back up north to the main Mexicali to Tijuana expressway. Along the way the Autofab El Camino stopped on the shoulder, victim of a broken crankshaft. We lined up for the start and took the green with a very sedate pace in mind. We knew we had over 1100 miles to cover and we knew we were in a 42 year old racecar. We ran about 70mph and were quickly passed by a few faster cars. About 20 miles into the first special stage we came upon a junction where we found a green road race Porsche with a huge pikes peak style rear wing parked deep into the sand bluffs, an obvious victim of a missed corner. A short while later we had some real navigational challenges and began to rethink our decision to do this event old school with no gps, no radio, no intercom and open face helmets. We could not communicate with each other except with hand signals and we really had no idea where the course went other than to follow the most worn in fresh tracks ahead of us. We knew we needed to go generally south but finding the specific route turned out to be a real challenge. The faster cars ahead left deep berms on the corners but the wind was so strong that tire tracks were completely obscured in places. We managed to hit all the corners and pressed on even when one of the trucks ahead of us did a u-turn in an area where there were no tire tracks due to the strong wind and blowing sand. About three quarters of the way though the special the engine began acting like it was starving for fuel. Instead of flat footing it across the dry lake bed, we babied it at 50-60mph to the finish of special 1 then headed down the highway on the transit section in fuel conservation mode looking for our first pit stop.
Once at the first pit stop we refueled the car and opened the hood to see zero fuel pressure. As part of our race prep we had taken the 30 year old electric fuel pump off the car and installed a new Holley fuel pump. And it was now dead. Of course we kept the old fuel pump and had it on board as a spare so we quickly swapped it in and gave the dead Holly to Bob our chaser with instruction to find another spare for us in San Felipe. The bronco was now good as new and a quick check of the stopwatch showed that if we drove fast we would just make our start time for stage 2 without a penalty. We were off to the next stage. Then as we were cruising down the highway at 85mph we suddenly lost all drive. We coasted to a stop and climbed under the truck expecting to find the driveshaft gone but could find nothing wrong. After a few seconds we put the transfer case back into gear where it remained without touching it for the duration of the 3-day event. We never locked the hubs and only used 2-hi the whole event.
We made the start with a couple minutes to spare. Our 40 minutes of transit downtime did not count against us in the timing and scoring but it did hurt us for track position as there were now about twice as many cars between us and the overall leaders. More dust but fortunately the wind was still strong. Special stage 2 was fairly uneventful. There was a serious dust storm on the El Diablo dry lake that reduced visibility and speeds but that soon passed. We made up some time with superior navigation and passed a few cars before Morelia road that had passed us on the lakebed. I’m not sure if we were on the official course or not but we took the most direct route along with a few other cars but others took a side route that was longer and slower. In San Felipe our crew had a new spare fuel pump for us and we stashed in on board. We were to never lay another tool on the race bronco the rest of the trip.
Special stage 3 on day 1 was only notable in that we passed both our fuel truck and our crewcab/trailer on the special. Both should have been well ahead with the crewcab leaving Mexicali at 5am to go directly to LA Bay. Our first fuel dump had told us we were getting better mileage than expected so we pressed on waiving our fuel goodbye as we passed. At the end of the special we bummed 5 gal from a friend and took the racecar on into LA Bay. I had driven the first two specials and transits and Glen drove the third special and transit. Once I got into the passenger seat I became chilled and noticed I was dehydrated. By the time we got to LA Bay I was beat and went straight to the hotel for a shower and bed and lots of water while the team went out to socialize and celebrate our arrival in LA Bay. If we took off the 40 minutes spent dealing with the fuel pump, our arrival in LA Bay was only 10 minutes later than what we had predicted in our race plan. We had arrived well before dark, the truck was in tip top shape, and we were running our plan.
On the morning of day 2 I felt a lot better than I had the night before but suggested to Glen that he better start. Now I’m a nervous passenger in these things and I normally keep myself occupied by barking out info from the gps. But in this case, there was nothing to do but waive my hands so I did. I know these roads very well and had cautioned Glen before the special that there were some real sneaky slippery corners and that because of how far we had yet to go and how we really did not want to take many risks in Todd and Andrews rare truck we should try hard to avoid sliding the truck and charging corners. The stage started and we ran about 80mph when we could see the road ahead. Glen did a great job of going fast when he could see and slowing early when he could not. And sure enough around one of those sneaky slippery corners we found that beautiful class 1 jimco with the red baja bug body on it sitting upside down in a ravine on the outside of the corner. We stopped and confirmed both occupants were ok but did not stop to tow them out as it would of blocked the course. The sag wagon will help them. We took off but the pause put the Old Banshee in our mirrors. Now how often do you see that? On this road there was no way anyone could come through our dust and pass us but I knew the Olds was running faster than us so we waived them by and sure enough they checked out on us. The run up through El Arco was uneventful but we did pass a car in town when we did a better job of navigating. After El Arco we blew a corner and had to do a 3-point turn to go back. No sooner did we get turned out than the Harley side car misses the same turn and comes sliding up toward our front bumper. Then the Edsel came careening in all crossed up and locked up down the same wrong way. We went around the side car but waived the Edsel on ahead of us. As we neared Vizcano our pace was slowed from 80+ to about 65mph for the last 5 miles which turned out to be a VW car. The stage ended in Vizcano and the transit took us to San Ignacio where we were happy to see Bob and our fuel. Glen and I jumped out and dumped fuel. I asked Glen to finish driving the day and I’d drive all day and day 3. We told Todd and Andrew to suit up to do the final transit so they could take it over the finish that day.
Special stage 2 on day 2 started out right on the pavement in front of the La Pinta. They had us race through town turning left in front of the 300 year old mission to run alongside the park and up the narrow streets. Now our Stroppe racer may only have a 289 under the hood but it’s a racy engine with a big cam and the long tube headers dump into 3” straight pipes out through the sides of the body and when you let her rip she really wails. San Ignacio has not heard such beautiful music since she last ran here in the early seventies. The echo of the old racer had even the oldest men dancing in the streets. Now the smooth road out of San Ignacio really had the Stroppe feeling more at home as its 6-7” of wheel travel was all that was needed. 90mph was no problem and we caught and passed a few cars on the way to El Datil. The best was the Edsel we had let by on the previous stage. We had caught it up and where hanging in its dust waiting. As we got to the salt flats the course would run through some whooped out sand then race across a short salt flat before jumping back into more sand whoops. There was no dust but we could not hand with the Edsel in the whoops. So each time we would hit the salt flat, Glen would flat foot it and the little bronco would open it’s secondary's at 70-80mph, cough then spin its tires. But each time we had to shut it down before the next sand pile. Finally we found a longer slat flat and the little bronco hit its stride as we blew past the Edsel at over 100mph about a foot off its door side. I could hear our engine echoing off the side of Edsel as we passed. Finally clear air again. We ripped down the road coming into Scorpion Bay running hard at 80-100mph as conditions allowed. We had a great run going and did a nice power slide though the Scorpion bay pits roosting Raffo as payback for an earlier roost he gave us.
Now on the paved road south from Scorpion Bay I closed my eyes for a little relaxation. I thought I new the pavement would end soon and we would continue on the graded road into La Purisima. But when we got to the end of the pavement it all looked so unfamiliar. I saw a dirt road and figured that must be the route so off we went into unfamiliar trails southbound and on a mission. Well I knew we were not on course but I thought we were still north of the big La Purisima wash when we came over a rise and saw a big graded road and a town south of us. We got on the graded road and charged off into the town where we stopped the first person we saw, shut off the engine so we could speak and asked them Donde Esta La Purisima? They pointed back the way we came. Quantos Kilometers? 40. Oh chit! We thanked him and fired the bronco up. There ahead of us was a paved road. I figured this paved road must run out to the paved road that feeds La Purisima from the south so down the pavement we went. Forever it seemed. Even at 85mph we kept cresting rise after rise and still no La Purisima. Finally we crested a rise and there down below us was the graded road we should have been on. We did not feel at all guilty since we just did and extra 50 miles or more. I thought about searching for some fuel but figured we ought to make it since we had calculated a 220 mile range and with the extra 50 this would be a 225 mile run but then we had gotten better mileage than expected and besides if we ran out it would be close to the highway and we could pass a note to a competitor to come bring us some fuel. Well we made it to the highway and later fuel dumps showed we came in on fumes. Glen and I jumped out, Todd and Andrew jumped in and we all took off for Loreto. We had a good run and felt really good about our pace and the bronco. She was running like the champ she was even though our timesheets don’t show it as we got lost just like they used to do in the 60’s.
Loreto was beautiful, the bronco was perfect, and we were feeling good. We checked the fluids and added gas then had dinner drinks and told lies about how fast we were. Good times. Day 3 started out with great weather and I felt much better than the day before and was eager to get back behind the wheel. The first special started in the sand wash under hwy 1 and ran up the switchback to San Javier then out to Insurgentes. Right off the bat we saw the Javelin and Edsel stuck in the sand and another car that we could not identify. I turned right to jump out of the wash and did a little wheelie up and out of the wash and into the cactus. Once we passed the blockage I went to jump back into the wash but the bank was about 5ft high so we bashed through a few more cactus then jumped back in when the bank was only 2ft high. We ended up jumping in right behind Parnelli who had started about 4 positions ahead of us and this was only race mile 2. We had passed Parnelli shortly after San Ignacio the day before but our 1+ hour detour had us finishing well behind him. The wash was rocky and there were several either or’s. On the second try we were able to get by Parnelli (who in all fairness was not racing anyone). We hit the pavement up towards San Javier can caught up to fellow Checker Matt Crowley in his full size bronco. We watched as he blew a tire in front of us on a corner and we charged off to the next guy. A short while later we closed up on the old Datsun of Fantelli. Glen laid on the horn and I down shifted and made lots of loud engine noises and he immediately pulled over. Perfect. Now we hit the dirt and the only guys ahead of us were fast guys. We were finally running up with the leaders and made the most of the free air. The last 10 miles slowed us as we caught another underpowered VW on the fast graded road and had no choice but to follow him in.
We made haste to our fuel stop just before the start of the final special, a 175mile monster that included the SCORE course though the whoops and siltbeds. We wanted to keep our track position and lined up right on the money for our start. We had clear air and ran good passing a few disabled fast guys including Kupiec in the super-bronco that Glen built, Steinberger who tossed and transmission, and Collins down for unknown reasons. The run started by taking us to the east side of Hwy 1 where it wound around and jumped onto the Cabo 500 and Baja 1000 course. The fast graded road west toward Hwy 1 had some terrible vados, the worst I’ve ever seen but we did see them and whoa’d down in time for each. A quick jog south on Hwy 1 where we blew the exit and had to turn around then out to the coast where we got lost for the first time this day. We ended up on a trail that looked like the race course but kept getting fainter until it was just a cow trail. We finally got onto a ridge and saw dust trails in the valley below so we bushwhacked and followed cow trails until we hit a road to the west that put us back on track. I don’t think we lost a whole lot of time since we were going in generally the right direction and probably not much slower than the whooped race course. By the time we finally found the race course, we were alone again with no dust to be seen. The going was slow in the 42-year old with whoops and rocks that seemed to go on forever. This slow going culminated in the Santa Rita silt beds where our open face helmets gave us the full old school treatment. We had mud in our mouths for 15 miles after that. The full blackout you get in a sitlbed is even more intense when you have nothing but a pair of goggles. It’s the same deal as today, you point and you stand on the gas and you don’t lift until you are clear. One thing the old Stroppe is not lacking is horsepower, especially given it’s light weight. I’ve always felt that a proper desert racer should have more horsepower than you can use in most situations so that it’s just enough when you really want it. This truck delivers in that regard. After the siltbeds the course smoothes out into rolling terrain with some ruts and a few washes. The Stroppe really loves this terrain and we let her rip touching 100mph on a couple of the straights. In the process we caught up to the Swellenger Jeep of Greg Adler and passed him when he pitted for fuel. Then to our horror I realized that while I knew we had to take a Y junction to the left to end up in La Paz instead of Todos Santos and Cabo, I really had no idea where it was or what it looked like. I’ve grown too dependent upon my gps and we had none. We gapped the Jeep in a big way then had to stop on a hill top and wait until we saw a dust trail so we knew we were going the right way. I took off again but then came to a checkpoint and decided to wait for the Jeep so we could follow it in. We stayed with it to the end. On the final run up to the end of the final special there were some rollers and a couple of bad ones with some tire tracks that did not look good. But we did not see any carnage. We flew one and landed in the bottom. The final special ended without issue.
The final transit had us run into La Paz where the ceremonial finish was on the malecon. We finished well and early and with some of the fast guys. I backed the Stroppe into a spot where everyone could check it out and did the post race interviews and autographs. We climbed out and looked the truck over and it was in as perfect a condition as possible and we did run it hard. My most memorable moment here was an older Mexican (same age as me) who spoke not a lick of English but came up to me and for a good 15 minutes told me how as a boy of 10 years he had seen this same Stroppe bronco finish in La Paz in 1968 and 1969. He had a tear in his eye and was overjoyed like seeing a long lost friend after so many years. And for so many in Baja as well as racers from all over, seeing the 1968 Rod Hall Jim Fricker Stroppe Racing Bronco take to the baja at speed again brings back similar memories. After all these years I can say that this truck is still a real racecar. It’s a real sweetheart of a racer. It has heart and has that something special that makes it a true champion. Glen and I are humbled to have been given custody of this champ to let her run again as she was designed to do so many years ago by Bill Stroppe.
Thanks Todd and Andrew.