In 1976 off-road racing pioneer Norman T. Johnson and Gordon Grimmis wrote the essential bible of off-road racing culture titled simply “Off-Road Racer”. The book has been difficult to find because only 4,000 were made, 100 with a very special real leather cover and a personal plaque on the cover. The book immediately sold out and it has subsequently been out of print since 1979. If you are lucky enough to own one you know the treasure trove of stories it contains. Fortunately for me not only own the book but I am friends with Norm, as he is the one of the founders of The Mint 400. The book is an unabridged account of the colorful history of the birth of off-road culture, the founders, the racers, the supporters, the vehicles and the races everything that makes the culture so great.
We will be publishing excerpts from the book and eventually will re-publishing “Off-Road Racer” in it’s entirety because we think is should be accessible to the whole world!
Chapter Four: Back To Baja — The Baja 500
After the demise of the Stardust 7-11 Off-Road Race, Ed Pearlman and Don Francisco of NORRA met with officials of the Mexican Government to work out the possibilities of promoting a second event in Baja.
“They (the officials) had been after us for some time to promote another event along with our existing Baja 1000,” Pearlman explained. “When we couldn’t come to terms with the new management at the Stardust, we immediately approached the Mexican officials with our new plans.”
These plans called for a single-loop event, starting and finishing in Ensenada. The dates for the cancelled Stardust race had already been announced as June 10, 11, and 12, 1969. These dates, if acceptable to Ensenada, were to be used for the Baja race.
After several meetings, it was agreed to stage a second major off-road event. They would make it approximately 500 miles in distance, and call it “the Baja 500”. Thus, the famous race was born, third only to the Baja 1000 and the Mint 400 in Nevada.
NORRA was now a mature organization. They had Elmer Waring, one of the best technical inspectors ever to come down the pike. They had a first-rate publicity man in John Lawler and a top-drawer Chief Steward in Jack Brady. NORRA successfully had promoted the Stardust event and had two Baja 1000s “under the belt”. And, most importantly, it had a growing membership that was keen on racing off-road.
Pearlman and Francisco had another secret weapon in their hip pockets. Detroit, which had not entered into off-road racing to any great extent, was biting at the bit. A promise of full support from Detroit was implied to the promoters. American Motors, Ford and Chevrolet were anxious to use Baja as a test ground for their equipment.
As work progressed towards the ultimate goal of producing a 500-mile loop, publicity was being fed out of the NORRA office by Lawler to every media outlet in the world. “It was a big challenge to change from an already announced race in Nevada to one in Baja,” Pearlman said. “But John came through with flying colors.”
The course turned out to be a 565 mile loop, with the first 80 miles on pavement. The start/finish, as in the 1000, was located in Ensenada. There were six on-course checkpoints and three alternate fuel stops. Because of the paved road and possible crowds lining the course inside town, a time limit was imposed for the first 10 miles. Fearing possible injury to spectators from race cars speeding through town, Brady informed all competitors that they would have to keep the speed down to a crawl. Each vehicle would be given 35 minutes to arrive at the immigration station outside Ensenada.
“If any cars arrive before those 35 minutes are up, they’re going to be disqualified,” Brady announced at the drivers’ meeting. “And if you get a speeding ticket—you’re out too!” Eleven vehicles were eventually disqualified because of infractions incurred during the run on pavement.
Checkpoints, manned by experienced personnel, were established at Camalu, El Rosario, Santa Ynez, Papa Fernandez, San Felipe and Valle Trinidad. Each vehicle was given 30 hours to complete the race.
“We felt it would take about 12 hours for the winning car to cover the 565 miles,” Brady said.
“We were wrong, but we were close.”
The first of 26 motorcycles left the starting line at 12:01 p.m., June 11, 1969. Exactly one hour later the first four-wheeled vehicle was waved away. The race was on!
There were a few strange vehicles in the first Baja 500. Among them was a 1946 Ford Coupe entered by two Ensenada residents, Hector Sarabia and Villa Vincencio. Naturally, this was one of the local favorites. It looked more like a taxicab than a race car. However, the Ford did itself proud by running right with the pack until it broke a rear axle and was forced out of the race.
One of the most interesting entries was a team of three ATVs entered by ATTEX Corporation. The six-wheeled, all-terrain vehicles, the smallest and slowest vehicles in the race, were set up for a single driver. The little bathtub-like contraptions had roll cages and all the safety equipment required. Because of their limited top speed, 35 mph, they were placed in their own special class—“Class X”.
Without a minute’s hesitation or thought, one can cite the largest single entry in the field as a huge Beechwood motorhome, complete with roll cage and all. Odds of it getting beyond checkpoint one (Camalu, located at the end of the pavement) were 1000 to one.
Chevrolet had entered two of their new Blazers under the guidance of Vic Hickey. Jeep was very prominent under the colors of Brian Chuchua. The famous Vic Hickey-engineered Baja Boots, one powered by Oldsmobile and a smaller version powered by a Chevrolet V-8, were in the line. The powerful Ford Broncos, prepared by Bill Stroppe, but under different racing colors for this event, were present.
The largest contingent from Detroit was a field of 10 Rambler Scramblers entered by American Motors under the name of American International Racing. These specially built Ramblers looked formidable as the bright red, white and blue cars went through a rigid technical inspection. They had some of the best off-road drivers behind the wheels: such men as Rodney Hall, Bob Bondurant and Ed Orr given even odds of finishing in the money.
Eight of the Ramblers, one equipped with an automatic transmission, were entered in Class 1 for production, two-wheel drive passenger cars. The competition in this class, besides the normal Volkswagens, would come from a SAAB V-4, a Datsun, a smattering of Corvairs and a single Plymouth Sedan.
The remaining two Ramblers were equipped with four-wheel drive and placed in Class 6 for modified four-wheel drive vehicles. This was the same class in which the two Baja Boots were competing, as well as a few modified Jeeps and Toyotas.
The start of the race went off smoothly with most racers accepting the low speed imposed on them during the first 10 miles. However, it was “balls out” racing for the remaining 70-odd miles of pavement to Camalu. This is where the first serious accident occurred.
A privately entered Ford Bronco, estimated to be going over 100 mph, lost control on a curve and flipped end over end numerous times before it came to rest. Fortunately, the roll cage was well constructed and the two drivers, James Griffin and James Duff, were uninjured—except for their pride.
From Camalu, the 149 vehicles that started the race began to find out whether or not they had prepared their equipment well. The pavement was no more. Now it was rocks, sand, dirt and goat trails until they saw the lights of Ensenada!
Curious about the fate of the huge Beechwood motorhome? It broke the odds and actually arrived at checkpoint two before it withdrew from the race and went back to Ensenada.
The three ATVs were not so fortunate. One blew a clutch as it popped away from the starting line, another broke down a few miles outside Ensenada, and the third arrived at Camalu only to fall victim to the off-road course.
Santa Ynez, officially designated as checkpoint three and one of the major fuel depots, was the scene of a near disaster when a gas drum accidentally was ignited by a member of a pit crew. Fortunately for everyone concerned, it burned itself out without igniting other drums of fuel stored there by NORRA. But it made a tremendous beacon while it burned.
Because of the dates for the Baja 500, many of the Hollywood names associated with off-road racing, and some of the big name drivers of NASCAR and USAC fame, were not on hand. Participating in his first off-road adventure, however, was Wally Dallenbach, a veteran USAC and Indy 500 driver. He was entered in a Meyers Tow’d with owner and sponsor Jack Allison of Hayward, California. The novice off-roader incurred his share of troubles. The first problem to snatch any thoughts of victory from his mind was the complete loss of an engine—it literally was ripped from the car when they hit a “whoop-de-do” a little too fast. However, with the help of a chain and some rope, they managed to replace the engine and limp into a friendly pit where it was welded back to the frame. Then they were constantly plagued by fuel line problems due to a bad load of gas. A few flat tires also helped to slow them down. However, the determined pair managed to creep home as finishers—17th in their class!
Bondurant, driving one of the Scramblers, fared much better. He scrambled to a first-place finish in Class 1 in the time of 19 hours, five minutes.
Papa Fernandez was designated to be the midway point of the race, where bikes and single seat vehicles would change drivers or riders. Leader at this point, well into darkness, was Malcolm Smith aboard a Husqvarna, with 80 minutes over his nearest rival. Bill Ydiando jumped aboard the bike and roared away toward victory, a rough 258 miles away.
Ydiando, however, never saw the checkered flag. After leaving Smith at Papa Fernandez, he encountered a Mexican cow on the course and came away the loser.
Closing the gap on the earlier starting bikes was the powerful monster of the desert—the Baja Boot, being piloted by Bud Ekins and Guy Jones. The small bikes, with limited lighting, were handicapped at night, thereby allowing the faster, night-running four-wheeled vehicles to gain on them.
Drino Miller and Vic Wilson, running in an experimental single-seat buggy, were nipping at the Boot throughout the night. It would be a race to Ensenada to see who was the fastest overall.
In all, of the 160 paid entries, 149 started. Of this number, a remarkable 73 vehicles finished the grueling race, including 12 motorcycles. There were 65 buggies, 29 of which crossed the finished line.
At 4:06 a.m., June 12, 1969, the first vehicle to finish the Baja 500 crossed the line in Ensenada. Ekins and Jones, with only minor problems slowing them down throughout the entire race, had managed to bring the Baja Boot home a finisher for the first time. It not only finished, but was the first overall and first in its class with a time of 15 hours flat.
Miller and Wilson were second overall and first in their class, two minutes behind the Boot. Third overall honors, and first in the two-seat buggy class, went to Andy DeVercelly Jr. and Tom McClelland in 15 hours, 38 minutes.
A total of $16,000 was paid by NORRA to the first five vehicles to finish in the eight classes. First place in each class earned $1,200; second, $600; third, $400; fourth, $300; and fifth, $200. This was based on a payback of 40 percent of the $275 entry fee.
The Baja 500, a replacement for NORRA’s great Stardust 7-11, in a brief three days had become a classic. It had brought out some of the best equipment ever seen at an off-road race. It also had brought Detroit to the front and made them aware of a crazy new sport called “off-road racing”.
Incidentally, of the 10 Ramblers entered, six finished the race.
Pearlman and Don Francisco now had entrenched NORRA firmly as the sanctioning “Kingpin” of off-road. Plans for branching out into new areas were afoot. The Third Annual Baja 1000 was just around the corner and the Baja 500 would be an annual event.
Everything looked “pink and rosy” for NORRA.