"Dust,” warned Darrin Graham in his signature dramatic style, “is the enemy.” I remember his caution now, seconds too late. The wiry Wide Open Baja guide was prepping us for three days of tearing through some of the most remote areas of Baja California in over-powered race buggies, yet I thought he was speaking theoretically. You know, of hypothetical threats like plaque or communism. Illusory tricks pulled by the powers-that-be into getting you to brush your teeth, or vote Republican.
But what was purely theoretical only hours ago is now acutely practical, as a wall of yellow sand swallows me whole and clobbers my goggles, blinding me like a heart attack. I’m following another race-prepped buggy at over 70 mph as it rips through some of the most pristine desert I have ever had the grace of laying eyes upon, but I may have gotten too close. Suddenly a towering cardón—the giant saguaro-like cactus that calls this land home—materializes through the golden haze, necessitating a brake stand and emergency detour left.
Thank god for the superb Fox suspension and Wilwood brakes; the buggy recovers, and the cardón—not to mention my driving record—lives another day. Heart pounding, I ease on the throttle and again recall Graham’s cocked warning: Dust is the enemy.
As the last man on this five-buggy caravan I stop to let the dust fog settle. I’ve never seen so many cacti before, like a virtual forest of cardones, the largest cactus species in the world, peppered with chollas: twisted, branchlike plants with vicious, barb-like needles. Yellow butterflies flitter across my helmet’s restricted field of view. The sun is hot on my exposed skin, the Subaru Boxer engine idling impatiently behind me.
After about a minute the coast is clear: it’s go time. Flooring the throttle the flat-four hits redline before I upshift, second, third. It’s a hell of a ride, this thing. Squeezed into the fivepoint harness the vibrations course through me, utterly visceral. The cacophony of the exposed 200-horsepower powerplant, the clanging of suspension as dampers test their limits, the intermittent whirring of a fan powering up to desperately cool off the torrid engine.
These moments at speed are a petrolhead’s night emission. You don’t go full-bore all the time during these expeditions—you wouldn’t want to, or probably even have the stamina to—but when you choose to engage in high-focus driving these spaces will fill you with vast, childlike, almost delirious joy.
On straights… pure combustion, slamming through gears at speeds reaching 80-mph blurs… into corners. Down shifting, feeling the rear-axle slide out from under you, releasing throttle, recovering—and doing it all over and over again. Rhythm, hypnosis. I’ve experienced this kind of trance before, a weird conflation of acute hyper-attention with the calming effect of repetition.
Except usually it’s on looping racetracks with grandstands and Pirelli signs cluttering my vision. Now it’s through landscapes so spectacular Ansel Adams could spend a season here trying to capture it on film. It’s profoundly beautiful and strangely meditative, apart from the braaaaaap! of hammering pistons filling the hot Mexican air.
“This terrain really puts an exclamation point on the fact that smooth is fast,” Sam Cummings will tell me later over a tub filled with Dos Equis. “Because of the soft sand, the slickness of the rocks, the slippery hard surfaces, it really lowers the speeds at which the car’s limits can be reached. You really gotta focus because if you lose your concentration for a second you’ll overcook the turn.”
Sam is one of a dozen guys from Michigan I’ve joined this week, a private group of old friends that convenes every other year or so to experience Wide Open Baja in all its harebrained glory. While some are amateurs, Sam is one of the more experienced racers; he’s had his competition license since 1996, and races three or four times a year in one of four vintage Alfa Romeo track cars.
“There are a lot of similarities to the vintage racing experience: it’s one part camaraderie, one part history and one part racing. But here the history is perhaps replaced by scenery, right? I mean look at the settings—they’re extraordinary!” Sam recalls our first lunch stop on a gorgeous expanse of empty white beach, where while staring out into the Pacific he witnessed a whale breaching. “Think about that juxtaposition,” he sighs. “I mean that’s just cool shit.”
Wide Open Baja was created in 1997 to offer plebeians a chance to taste the Baja experience in race-prepped, action-ready buggies. Co-founder Bill Savage designed the innovative tubular space frame that forms the architecture of these buggies in 2002, and since then they have slowly evolved into the bristling off-road gladiators they are today.
Make no mistake: these are the actual cars that compete in the Baja 1000—the longest non-stop race in the world, and what many consider the most brutal motorsport anywhere. Fittingly in 2012 WOB was purchased by Roger Norman of SCORE International, the sanctioning body for the Baja 1000.
But as much as motorsports informs WOB’s DNA, this thing isn’t just about speed. Sure velocity, aggression, dexterity are all part of the fun. They are the meat of the Wide Open Baja adventure, but they don’t really capture its soul—and that is exploration. Simple discovery, the type that launched ships across oceans and covered wagons across the Continental Divide.
You will rumble into swathes of desert almost no other humans will ever see. Zion-like monoliths, stratified and colored, rising from the sand. You will ride jagged roads hugging the ocean, on one side verdigris green cliffs, the other brick red boulders tumbling into the sea. You pass shipwrecked fishing boats pushed into the craggy shores, broken and rusted, waves crashing against them so close ocean sprays our visors as we drive past.
Nowhere does it feel quite like this—as primitive, wild, lawless, divorced from time and modern civilization. Occasionally you have to slam the brakes into a sideways skid as a bull bigger than a Sprinter van wanders onto your path. Other times it’s a herd of wild horses startled by your approach, skittish and anxious and running full fleet along the road, black manes flowing.
But don’t fool yourself: this is a dangerous sport. Respect it. Spend too much time sightseeing and disaster strikes like a scorpion. Most rolls are little more than thrilling mistakes, exclamation points to punctuate the trip. High-speed flips happen; a broken arm or ankle seem possible. In the event of an emergency, WOB has contracted a service to medevac you out of these endless tracts of badlands. I ask one of the guides when the last flip was, and he thinks for all of a second. “Ummmm… last week,” he says flatly. “But we just rolled it over and kept driving.”
Staying within your limits is absolutely key to a successful venture. Personally I can admit to maybe a half-dozen turns during our three days of mischief where I superseded my skill set. Where had anything unexpected popped up—a single gash in the road, a missed tree trunk, an itinerant goat—I would have rolled my buggy like Vegas dice across the arroyo.
“Not knowing exactly what’s coming up around every corner or up every hill, that uncertainty keeps you on your toes,” agrees Dan DeVos, the hub of the Michigan crew and owner of the Gulfstream private jet that brought them all down here.
A dyed-in-the-wool car nut like Sam, Dan thoroughly understands the critical balance of speed and caution that Baja demands. “On the race track you know what’s coming: you go around and around and around the same thing every time. Here you don’t have a second to take your mind off of what you’re doing because everything changes so quickly and so, so dramatically.”
As principal owner of the NBA’s Orlando Magic and 30-something car dealerships across the Midwest, DeVos could choose anywhere to spend this precious week of downtime, and yet he chooses to be here—in Baja, racing these deranged buggies across the Mexican desert.
“There’s nothing like it,” he declares, explaining how his endless quest for the interesting and unique brought him here for the first time back in 2003. “I’ve never seen an organization put on an event like this where normal guys can go drive race-prepared buggies through the desert.… As long as you’re not stupid, the thrill is there.” He pauses. “It’s all about the camaraderie. It’s about friendship.”
When I ask he and Sam if they would do it again, Sam jumps in. “In a heartbeat,” he asserts instantly. “Definitely doing it again. Right now we’re on sort of every two years, but I’m starting to get older— maybe we should do it every year."