Off-Road Racer: The Grandfather of Off-Road Racing: BAJA 1000

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!

Off-Road Racer: The Excerpts

Chapter One: The Grandfather of Off-Road Racing:  BAJA 1000

There is no disputing one simple fact: The Baja 1000 is the “Grandfather” of this rugged sport. The first ever, the Baja 1000 remains the race everyone wants to try at least once during a racing career.

And just about everyone has—at least once. Men and women, from every walk of life and endeavor, have taken shots at winning the “big one”. They all have the same thought in mind as they start down the peninsula: “I’ve just got to finish!”

However, not too many actually finish the race. The number of finishers, on an average, falls well below the 25 percent mark. To finish is to win in the eyes of many.

Why is the Baja the important test it is? When and how did it actually come into being? Who were the first “toreadors” of the desert to navigate the rocks, sand, mountains and heat so they could brag that they had beaten the Baja?

The actual first run down the peninsula is hard to pinpoint with any authenticity, since records going back into the fifties and early sixties are non-existent. We are sure there were some bike riders and perhaps even a few Jeeps that attempted the run before anyone thought of it as a sport or kept records.

However, the first known man to set any type of record in Baja was a motorcyclist named Dave Ekins, in 1962. Aboard a Honda Scrambler, Ekins took 39 hours and 56 minutes to race from Tijuana to La Paz. Soon, a succession of other bike riders pursued Ekins’ record.

In the closing months of 1962, Chevrolet decided to make an attempt with a small fleet of specially built trucks. Bill Stroppe, a famous builder of race vehicles, was given the task of preparing and leading the project. The fleet of trucks left from Long Beach, California and arrived in La Paz intact. A blitz advertising and publicity campaign followed, using the slogan, “The Roughest Run Under The Sun”. The slogan and resultant publicity, more than anything else, gave Baja instant fame and created a challenge.

A PIONEER—Bud Ekins, one of the great motorcycle competitors who established one of the first records from Tijuana to La Paz.

The general course used by those early campaigners began in Tijuana and ran south to Ensenada, El Rosario to San Ignacio, where they turned inland towards the Gulf, hitting such villages as Santa Rosalia and Mulege. At Bahia Concepcion, they swung west again, arriving at Villa Constitucion, where they headed south to La Paz. An official map of Baja showed this route as Mexico Highway One. At that time, a highway in Mexico was like no other highway in the world. No more than 120 miles of the route was paved. The remaining 830 miles consisted of dirt, rocks, washes and mountain goat trails.

That was the course. It was the “big road” to La Paz. It was the one you traveled if you were seriously out to break a record. Motorcycles had established most of the records through 1966. In 1967, along came the dune buggies and four-wheel drive vehicles to test the Baja.

Bruce Meyers, creator of the famous Meyers Manx glass-bodied dune buggy, believed he had found a quicker and smoother way to La Paz by continuing down the west side instead of turning east towards the Gulf. In April 1967, Meyers and Ted Mangels set out to test the theory. They discovered that it was indeed quicker. On the return to Tijuana, they made a speed run in 34 hours and 45 minutes, establishing the first record for a four-wheeled vehicle. Now, everyone had something to run against.

The race was on!

Into the picture entered a businessman from Los Angeles. A white-haired, short, but stockily built florist, who owned a V-8 powered Toyota, read of Meyers’ effort. Ed Pearlman long had dreamed of challenging the Baja, and this latest news increased his desire. With his adrenalin flowing full force, Pearlman convinced Dick Cepek to try it as his teammate. To make a race out of it, Claude Dozier and Ed Orr were invited along (they piloted a second Toyota); and to make it even more interesting, a writer named John Lawlor and a young man named Drino Miller were asked to compete in a Meyers Manx.

Of course, really to add fire to the pot, a side bet was made which would go to the first vehicle to arrive in La Paz. The course to be used by the three vehicles was a combination of the best from the early runs, supplemented by some of Meyers’ new course. It was longer by 25 miles, but the racers believed it would be faster. They were wrong!

The actual run in June 1967 took longer than expected. Arriving in 41 hours and 45 minutes, after encountering many rocks, getting stuck numerous times, fixing a few flats and other mechanical troubles, Dozier and Orr sat on the outskirts of La Paz and waited. The wait turned out to be a long one. Nearly 16 hours later, 57 hours and 12 minutes after leaving Tijuana, Pearlman and Cepek pounded into La Paz. It took nearly 10 more hours before Lawlor and Miller would swallow the cerveza waiting for them in La Paz—67 hours and 55 minutes was their running time.

A record for four-wheel drive now had been firmly established. Soon, private individuals, as well as major automotive companies, were trying the Baja. Meanwhile, Pearlman was back at his florist’s shop, dreaming of another attempt at beating the Baja.

“I knew there was a challenge down there,” Pearlman said. “There was a mystique growing amongst the off-roaders about Baja. I was determined to do something about organizing it into a race of some kind.”

Around this time, the names of Ralph Poole and Spencer Murray entered the picture. Drawing on their respective knowledge of Baja and backed by American Motors, they designed a new route to La Paz. The course they designed consisted of nearly 220 miles of pavement and turned out to be the fastest yet.

Driving a Rambler American Sedan, the pair sped from Tijuana to La Paz in the record-smashing time of 31 hours flat. They had done the impossible. They had broken all records previously established by any type of vehicle.

VINTAGE 1967—John Lawlor, longtime motorsports writer, stands beside Meyers Manx, which carried him and Drino Miller to La Paz during early days of Baja travel.

Soon after that record-busting run, the National Off-Road Racing Association was formed by Pearlman. His dreams and plans had become reality. NORRA, as it would become known all over the world, would be the official record keeper for Baja. Records were established by the new organization for various categories and rules were set down for establishing new records. An organization was put into being with the full cooperation of the Mexican government.

In September 1967, Bob Feuerhelm, manager of Milne Brothers Jeep in Pasadena, California, decided to try to break the four-wheel drive record in a Jeep. He approached Pearlman, asking him to sanction the attempt. With approximately $25,000 and five Jeeps, Feuerhelm set out to get the best drivers in the world. He hired Murray and Poole, lured Cepek into giving it another try and convinced Chuck Coye, Byron Farnsworth, N.C. Boardman, Rod Fish, Lee Long and Bill Hardy to come along. Ensenada Chief of Police was also given a piece of the action, and actually accompanied the group down the peninsula.

Pearlman stood at the edge of Tijuana and waved them away. The vehicles, all “gussied up” with new paint jobs, roared away from the border, confident of victory.

“It started out just great,” Fish explained. “But soon after we left and got into the rough stuff, all hell broke loose.”

What happened was that a little hurricane, which had been building up out in the Gulf, decided to come inland, wiping out the coastal trails and roads. The attempt was over before it ever really got started.

“It was impossible to get through,” Fish said. “It was mud and more mud, and we couldn’t move.”

The attempt became famous as the “Race of No Finishers”.

With full cooperation from the Mexican government, which was looking ahead to a boom in tourism, NORRA began to plan a major event open to any vehicle that wanted to try to race from Tijuana to La Paz. The Mexican 1000 off-road race was born.

October 31, 1967 was designated as race day. Each vehicle would start in Tijuana and be given 90 minutes to drive the nearly 60 miles over the paved road to Ensenada, where they would be stopped and restarted at the break of dawn, November 1. At midnight, the first vehicle left the starting line and drove the leisurely route along the narrow highway to Ensenada. There was a total of 68 starters who took the green flag.

The organizers decided to name the event the “Mexican 1000”, since it sounded better than the “Mexican 950” (which was the actual mileage from Tijuana to La Paz).

There were very few markings to follow during the first event. Roughly, the rules were, “Run what you bring and run the way you want, but you have to hit each of five checkpoints situated at certain key points along the route.” It was that simple. One other rule, no longer in force, was that both driver and co-driver had to complete the race. If you got sick, injured, or just plain tired, and wanted to switch teammates, it was not allowed. In the case of motorcycles, a mandatory change was required midway through the course.

Starting every three minutes from a wash on the edge of Ensenada, the cars and bikes began the long trek down the peninsula. Very few knew what lay ahead for them. But the same thought was in everyone’s mind. Each driving team believed that they would “conquer the Baja.”

Bill Stroppe and Ray Harvick set the pace in a four-wheel drive Bronco “right off the bat”. They were the quickest into the first checkpoint at Camalu, 95 miles down the coast.

Then, as vehicles began to struggle through the rough stuff and soft sand, the motorcycles came on strong. Larry Berquist took over the lead, only to relinquish it to Malcolm Smith. Smith, after encountering a few problems, was overtaken by John Barnes and Dick Hansen.

One of the many mistakes made during the first race occurred at the final checkpoint, Villa Constitucion, when the leading bike roared into the small village, expecting to be greeted by a checkpoint crew. There was none. Barnes was frustrated. He roared up and down the rutted dirt road, looking for any “gringo” who could verify that he indeed had been through the village. He had a lead of approximately 15 minutes. Soon, J.N. Roberts, who had taken over for Smith, bounced into the village and joined in the search for the missing crew.

Then the riders heard a strange noise in the distance.

“We knew it wasn’t a bike,” Roberts reported later. “It had too many cylinders.”

The Meyers Manx of Vic Wilson and Ted Mangels sped into town.

“I felt sick inside,” Barnes said. “Here I had this lead and all of a sudden, because of a checkpoint crew, I’m in third place.”

IS THIS TRIP REALLY NECESSARY?—Willis Hamilton, somewhere in Baja, continuing to motor on despite losing front spindle. Buggy will drive on three wheels, but not at competition speed. (Photo by Bob Neth)
IS THIS TRIP REALLY NECESSARY?—Willis Hamilton, somewhere in Baja, continuing to motor on despite losing front spindle. Buggy will drive on three wheels, but not at competition speed. (Photo by Bob Neth)

Where was the missing crew? They were in a local cantina having a bite to eat. “We didn’t expect anyone for at least another hour,” one of the workers explained to Pearlman after the race. One must remember in those early days of off-road racing, times between checkpoints were determined by guesswork. Unfortunately for Barnes and Roberts, those early estimates usually proved to be in error.

The race from Villa Constitucion to La Paz was no contest, since the buggy was able to pull away from the bikes on the pavement. Wilson and Mangels completed the 950 miles, and thereby gained instant fame as the first “toreadors” to win the Mexican 1000. Their time was 27 hours and 38 minutes from Tijuana, including the 90 minutes of mandatory time. That shattered all existing records.

Roberts managed to bring his Husqvarna 400 across the finish line for second overall and first motorcycle with an elapsed time of 28 hours and 48 minutes from Tijuana. 26 minutes later, the frustrated and disappointed Barnes, on a Triumph, was given the checkered flag.

Pearlman and his associates listened to the long list of complaints and recorded every one of them into a book. Once back in Los Angeles, the promoters reviewed these and decided on certain changes for the second running of the Mexican 1000.

“If the race was going to grow, we had to eliminate the mistakes,” Pearlman said. “I was determined to correct as many as possible and to try and eliminate any new ones from cropping up the next time.”

Total amount of the purse was $6,800. This represented 40 percent of the entry fee paid by each contestant.

History had been made. Records had been established for every type of vehicle. From a little germ of an idea by a young motorcyclist named Bud Ekins, nurtured by such men as Feuerhelm, Stroppe and Meyers, and brought to maturity by Pearlman, a race had been hewn out of the rocks, desert and mountains of Baja. It would become famous as the roughest, toughest, longest and most heart-breaking off-road race in the world.

The Mexican 1000 off-road race was the challenge of challenges.

  • M
  • December 21, 2014
Awesome story ! Love the historical stuff .
interesante historia dela bajja 1000 y 500
  • M
    Mad Max
  • December 22, 2014
This is excellent, can't wait for the next installment!
and they always said over history that Malcolm and J.N had an eight hour lead over the nearest competitor wrong the triumph of Dick Hansen and John Barnes was ahead of them go figure!
  • N
    Norm Johnson
  • December 27, 2014
I am still amazed that I was able to talk to some of those early competitors and that I actually spent more than two years compiling the true history of a sport I love to this very day. Norm
  • R
    Richard Bell
  • December 27, 2014
It was JOHN CREAN ( Fleetwood RV ) who was the first 4 wheel person to achieve a recorded record run in a MANX in the winter of 1967 ...... His story is not very well known but was written about by John Lawlor in an old article in Hot VW's ....... It was this run in a buggy which had a lot to do with the BAJA 1000 eventually getting organized later the same year.
  • N
    Norm Johnson
  • December 27, 2014
Interesting to know...when I did my research in 1975-76 no one mentioned his name at all. Had I known that as a fact, I would have gladly used it in the story...sorry about that
What about Dave Rogalia and Tom Spiel?
  • R
    rodney fish
  • January 30, 2016
my name is rod fish i was one of drivers in the jeeps that that tried to set the record in baja in 1967.i have pictures and news clippings of the run.
If you're looking for a good reply then check out Bruce Myers new book due to be produce soon and you'll find out the real story of the Mexican 1000 thank you this is Jim Chamberlain and I built that first car that one but it came from Meyers Manx.
  • J
    John Barnes
  • July 31, 2020
I was on the first bike at Constitution. Me and my partner Dick Hansen rode in the 40th 1000 and finished. I don't think anyone ever asked us what happened in.1967.