On the road to Baja

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A resurgence of interest in extreme-condition road rallies is attracting sponsors to what's being touted as the longest off-road auto race ever, slated for Mexico's Baja California peninsula.

The "Tecate Score Baja 2000" will be run Nov. 12-16 and is billed as the first and last time the annual off-road race will extend beyond its traditional length of 1,000 miles. The competition is expected to lure more than 400 competitors, twice the usual number; the prize purse will be $200,000 in cash.

The Baja races precede by decades the current craze for extreme sports. Score International has been staging the competitions for 32 years.

Although desert racing's popularity waned somewhat over the past several years, it's suddenly enjoying new popularity among extreme-sport enthusiasts and the growing niche for adventure travel, thanks to the diversity of vehicles and driving skills needed to compete.

CHASE TRUCKS, AIRCRAFT

This year's race will span about 2,000 miles of the Baja peninsula, from Ensenada to Cabo San Lucas, and will involve more than 1,000 support personnel, hundreds of chase trucks and several aircraft.

One of the race's unique twists is the fact that amateurs are allowed to compete alongside professional drivers in an official motorsports event.

This year, a new event within the event, the "Ultimate Baja Challenge 2000," allows first-time racers the chance to compete for their own prize: money for their favorite charity.

The "Baja 2000" gives sponsors the chance to showcase their products under extreme conditions, as teams of drivers take turns propelling each vehicle on a course studded with obstacles, sand pits, high temperatures and winds. It will take an estimated 80 hours for each vehicle to reach the finish line, with team members taking turns at the wheel throughout the race.

BF Goodrich, a longtime sponsor of the traditional "Baja 1000" off-road race, will provide complete pit stop services for the entire race, including tires, fuel and engine service plus welding and fabrication services to repair race vehicles. The "Baja 2000" will represent the tire marketer's single largest commitment ever to any event in its motorsports history, said Frank DeAngelo, director of off-road motorsports programs.

Other marketers involved include returning title sponsor Tecate beer, marketed by Labatt USA; auto parts retailer AutoZone and its private-label Duralast car battery, recently named the official battery of the national Desert Racing Series of off-road races; Johnson Controls; and France-based Elf Oil.

PRIZE OF UP TO $50,000

The "Ultimate Baja Challenge" will utilize specially designed two-seat dune racing vehicles from Wide Open Baja Offroad Adventures, allowing amateur drivers to travel at speeds topping 100 mph. The fastest dune buggy in the "Challenge" wins a prize of up to $50,000 to be donated to the winning team's favorite charity.

Yokohama Tire Corp. will be a key sponsor of the "Ultimate Baja Challenge," showcasing its growing role in off-road racing in the U.S.

Last spring, Yokohama tallied its highest-ever level of consumer and dealer participation in a sweepstakes to win a grand prize of a five-day, expenses-paid Baja trip with Wide Open Baja Offroad Adventures, said Chris Miller, Yokohama's motorsports manager.

"Baja road racing appeals to a very adventurous audience interested in performance for off-road and high-speed driving, and we've found an excellent target here for our products in this group," Mr. Miller said.

In addition to Yokohama, the tour company is in discussions with potential sponsors including American Racing Wheels, Valvoline Co., Unocal Corp. and suspension spring maker Eibach. Yokohama will sponsor several pit stops for drivers of Wide Open's fleet of 10 dune buggies, expected to include a mix of professional drivers, professional athletes, celebrities and extreme adventure enthusiasts.

`ALMOST ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN'

"Desert racing has become the last great form of classic auto racing, where anyone can compete and almost anything can happen," said Marty Fiolka, president of Rennsport Group, Long Beach, Calif., which is helping to execute the "Ultimate Baja Challenge."

Because each driver in the "Ultimate Baja Challenge" must undergo a brief training session beforehand with Wide Open's dune buggies, Mr. Fiolka said the event is being marketed as "a mix of a driv-ing school, a high-speed adventure and a tour of the wilds of Baja."

The "Baja 2000" and the "Ultimate Baja Challenge" are being promoted at the point of purchase wherever sponsors' products are sold; magazines including GQ, Maxim, Men's Journal and Road & Track plan to cover them, and plans are being laid for a 1-hour cable TV special and a video of the race.

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