Words by Matt Kartozian
Baja is a mystical place. A place of natural beauty, unique wildlife and generous people. Once outside the major cities, it’s a quiet tranquil place where life is lived at a slower pace, without all the hassle of life in the big city. Several times a year the soft sounds of lapping waves and local wildlife is replaced with the sounds of hundreds of high strung race engines at full song and hundreds of thousands of screaming fans. On June 7th the hushed silence was destroyed by the 46th running of the SCORE Baja 500.
Gerard de Rooy races in the truck class at Dakar. He won the race in 2012. While his ride may look like an industrial transport truck, make no mistake, this 20,000 pound behemoth Iveco truck is a purpose built race vehicle. Its rolls on Michelin 14.00R20 tires which measure a staggering 49.5 inches tall and 15 inches wide. The 12.9 liter, 6 cylinder turbo diesel engine is built by Iveco and is race tuned. ” The engine has 1000 horsepower, but if we built an engine that only needs to last for a one day race we can go up to 1400. De Rooy said before the race. ” For us the engine has to last the entire Dakar. We also have 3800 pound feet of torque. Again if building for a one day race we could go to 4500. We have only one setting and it’s tuned by Iveco for the long Dakar race. The engine is built to do 10,000 miles between rebuilds so this race, even driving across the US to get here is no problem for the engine.”
With that kind of clearance, traction and power, not many obstacles can stop the giant truck. With a 50/50 weight distribution and relatively low center of gravity (just above the midpoint of the engine) the rocks, hill climbs and extreme off camber of Baja would present no problem for the team. ” In the rocky and uphill sections we have a lot of torque and grip.” The 700 Liter (185 gallon) fuel tank is the rear also aids with traction and stability with almost 1400 pounds of fuel when full. “I can do everything in first gear, the truck will just climb up no problem. The place I like the best is in the dunes. We are one of the only trucks that can take the dunes sideways, a normal truck has to go straight up. In the sand we have a lot of traction, we can deflate the tires and we have a lot of power too. The dunes are much better for us than for the cars. All the cars get stuck in the fesh fesh (silt). We have a lot of ground clearance and we never get stuck in fesh fesh. If we get stuck it is in the dunes, when you crest one dune and there is a small one behind we can get pinned. ”
Despite all the capability, the truck is built to ASO rules for the Dakar rally and not perfectly suited to the rough terrain of Baja. De Rooy has already thought about building a truck just for Baja. ” It is a different way of building your car. I need to build a special truck for Baja racing, I need more travel. I only have 12 inches of travel now, and the Trophy Trucks have up to 30 inches. In the whoops we need a lot more suspension. I would like to build a Baja truck but it would be completely different than the truck for Dakar. I’d change the weight distribution and have the engine more to the rear. The European regulations that we use for Dakar really limit the truck and make it not ideal for Baja racing.”
Gerard de Rooy spends about 9 weeks a year away from home racing and testing for Dakar. “Our main goal is to have fun. Dakar is also fun but it’s the biggest race of the year. The rest are all testing and training. We need to test anyway, and we can go to Morocco or a lot of different places and we thought, why not Baja?”
Truck racing is huge in de Rooy’s home country of the Netherlands. His father, Jan de Rooy won the Dakar in a truck in 1987 and finished an impressive 11th overall 4 wheeled vehicle. Gerard gave us some insight on why truck racing is so big there. ” Of 70 trucks in the Dakar, 30 are from Holland. From a country only 300KM (186 miles) long. My father started all the shit I think. The Dutch guys really love the trucks. To go to Dakar with a truck or a good car, it’s the same price. With a truck I get more exposure and everybody likes trucks.
Some of the Dutch guys have bought Minis and other cars to race in Dakar so now people pay attention to the car class. Before you had zero Dutch guys in cars in the top 20 and in trucks you had up to 10, though it depends on the race.”
De Rooy has raced all over the world and he was impressed with the party atmosphere and fans of Baja. ” The fans are great. You find crazy people in Argentina, Peru, Chile only a select group. Here in Baja they all really like the racing and the show. You can say what you want about Americans, but they can throw a party, make big grandstands, they can blow everything up, with the sponsors and everything. In Europe they are very reserved and downsized compared to this. For the people selling all the goods and merchandise, if they did it in the Dakar for sure they could make a lot of money, but it’s not the European style .”
De Rooy was particularly impressed with the interview ramp in the middle of Contingency. Dakar has similar ramps for the cars but the trucks are not allowed to drive onto them as they won’t support the weight of the trucks. At the 500, many watched to see if the ramps would hold when de Rooy drove the 20,000 pound green monster up onto the stage. The stage was fine and de Rooy commented that he would like to get the same ramps at Dakar.
Over the years we have all heard stories of people that drive their race cars to Ensenada for the start of the race, complete the course, then drive the same vehicle home. Dakar champion Gerard de Rooy took this form of transport and race to an entirely new level for this year’s 500. About a month before the race, the team wrapped up a test session in Morocco, before heading back to the race shop for a full prep before being loaded on a boat bound for Charleston, South Carolina. After being unloaded from the boat two crew members began a cross country voyage in the bright green Iveco land barge that eventually saw them arrive in Ensenada, Mexico. The team had some extra time on their journey and decided to take in some of the famous sights of the United States.
In addition to other stops, the team made stops at Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley, the Grand Canyon in Arizona, and Roger Norman’s race shop in California. All along the route the truck attracted attention with curious onlookers poking their heads under the truck at every stop on the 2600 mile journey.
It seemed everyone at the Baja 500 was excited at the prospect of a Dakar truck racing in our backyard for the first time. In 2007 Volkswagen brought two of their Dakar winning Touareg SUVs piloted by Mark Miller and Giniel de Villiers to race the Baja 500. But de Rooy is the to first race a massive Dakar truck in the Baja 500.
Despite the enthusiasm for de Rooy racing the 500, there were also many skeptics. The team was the talk of the town in the week leading up to the race. Many thought the sheer size of the truck would be an issue. At 22 feet long they thought it would not be able to make the tight corners, or even fit on the trails due to its 100 inch width. At over 10 feet tall they thought it would just tip over on the extreme off camber sections of the course.
This, however, is a race vehicle piloted by seasoned veterans. The team preran from Ojos Negros at race mile 35 to Melling Ranch at race mile 225. The 20+ degrees of off camber in the Urapan section was no issue for the team, though they did break in a new chainsaw they purchased to widen the course in a couple of spots. “From Ojos to Urapan was tricky with all the trees, the forest was tough. It’s narrow, the height of the truck is a problem, so we are not so fast. We have to slow down and maneuver around. But we did not have to back up, and we made every turn.” De Rooy said before the race.
Heading into the race the team was confident the truck could handle the terrain. the only unknown was the super rocky and technical 12 mile section from El Coyote to Mike’s Sky Rancho, but they felt if they took their time it could be done. From Mike’s to the finish was all terrain the truck could handle. There were, however, two obstacles on the course that the truck could not physically go through due to its size. The first was the wash section at the start of the race in Ensenada. The low bridges in the wash would hit the truck mid way down the windshield so they detoured through the city streets with a police escort. The other problem was the big rock on the corner of the Goat Trail just outside Valle De Trinidad. They felt they could not make the corner so they planned to detour up the chase road to Jamau to rejoin the course.
If the terrain of Baja and the size of the truck were not enough, Gerard de Rooy had his own physical problems to deal with on race day. The week prior to the race, de Rooy’s appendix flared up and he had to undergo surgery to have it removed. He was also showing signs of having kidney stones, an incredibly painful affliction. Despite the issues de Rooy was upbeat when we spoke to him at Contingency. ” I had to take some pain killers during the prerun and I also have the symptoms for kidney stones. In two weeks I have all the shit coming at me. The first day was not so bad, but yesterday it was. The bumps are not so bad but the side force in the cab is killing my kidneys. We will see tomorrow. My doctor who normally goes with us to Dakar, told me that 9 days after the surgery, with some good medication I can make it. So we will see. I know my limits, I have broken my back twice and been through a lot of shit, so I know what my body can take and think it will be OK.”
Because of the pain de Rooy was in the team discussed an alternate driver but relief drivers are not allowed in Dakar so it seemed like a bit of a crazy idea and de Rooy decided to push on driving himself.
The truck would run in M Truck class, one that was created for them similar to what SCORE did with the VW Dakar cars in 2007. De Rooy started behind the Class 3000 trucks and in front of the 1/2 1600 buggies.
Once in the dirt, de Rooy made good progress working through the field and had passed 6 cars and was mixing it up with the Class 10s at Ojos Negros. Unfortunately that is where the team’s race ended. De Rooy was in extreme pain from the kidney stones and knowing the course only got rougher from that point on he decided to call it day.
After all the build up and excitement before the race, de Rooy’s withdrawal was definitely a disappointment but I personally cannot imagine the pain of kidney stones just sitting at home, let alone bouncing around in a race car so I cannot fault his decision, nor should anyone else.
The day after the race the team drove back to the US with a stop at Robby Gordon’s race shop before driving the truck to Houston for shipment back to Europe.
Will Gerard de Rooy return to Baja, perhaps with a purpose built truck better suited to the whoops and terrain? Only time will tell, but I know that if he does, the fans will welcome him back with open arms and loud yells of support all along the race course.
Photography by Durka Durka Photo