BAJA 5B PRESS INTRODUCTION IN BAJA MEXICO
The crew at HPI set out to introduce the Baja 5B buggy to the magazines with a big impact. How to do that? Fly in the top editors from RC magazines and take a trip down to Baja Mexico to put the Baja 5B to the test. And how do you get to the test and photo sites in the Mexican desert? How about in real baja buggies on the same course as they use for the Baja 1000!
Wide Open Adventures was the perfect choice to supply the real buggies. Their 4-day Ensenada event is billed as “the experience of your life” and the specs/itinerary on their web site (www.wideopenbaja.com) back that up. The thought of three full days and 500 miles of driving wide open driving through Baja Mexico in Porsche powered buggies is enough to get the attention of any off-road racing fan. These buggies are the same ones that run in the Baja 1000 every year, equipped with Porsche engines, Bilstein shocks (22 inches of travel!), full roll cage, Lowrance GPS navigation electronics, safety equipment, car-to-car radio communication, professional race-experienced guides and a support team always nearby to keep the buggies in top condition. It’s all good!
The staff at Wide Open Adventures do this kind of thing every week of the year, so they arranged the accommodations on the trip… hotels on the beach, catered food at every stop, and even altered the standard trip route & schedule to give the magazine editors scenic locations to photograph the Baja 5B. It’s safe to say that all of the editors were fully “on board" and excited when they received the call asking if they wanted to participate in this special press event.
So the groundwork was set and the editors were amped up for the Baja 5B press introduction. The lucky guys chosen to represent the magazines were Mike Velez from Xtreme RC, Peter Vieira from RC Car Action, Greg Vogel from RC Driver, and Tim “Lumpy” Tolleson from RC Car magazine. The crew from HPI included Akira Kogawa (Baja 5B designer), Erik Shauver (Hellfire designer), Shawn Ireland (HPI President), and Kent Clausen (me…Marketing Manager).
Day 1 – Travel to Horsepower Ranch
Everyone met at the airport in San Diego and hopped on a tour bus for the trip across the border and down the coast of Mexico to the Horespower Ranch in Ensenada.
Horsepower Ranch is a 50 room facility built specifically for off-road racing fans. The Wide Open Baja team uses the ranch as their base, with a huge garage area to work on the buggies, an off-road test track, full restaurant/bar, and authentic rancho-style accommodations.
A bar-b-que dinner and introduction to the cars was on the schedule for the first night. The tour guides introduced everyone to the cars, gave a run-down of what to expect over the next 3 days of driving, went over a few important rules (you wreck it, you bought it, etc.), and provided some tips on what to watch out for when running flat-out in the desert. Tip: There’s usually a wash (river bed) at the bottom point of a gentle valley. I learned that one the hard way when bombing flat-out at 70 mph over what appeared to be a perfectly flat stretch of trail (more on that later in the story).
Akira brought out a Baja 5B to introduce it to everyone and immediately drew a crowd of editors and mechanics checking out the realistic features of the 1/5th scale buggy for the first time. The design elements inspired by real buggies that make the Baja 5B so realistic were easy to spot, from the long-stroke coilover suspension to the roll cage the extends from the front to the back of the buggy. Erik showed off one of the new HPI Hellfire trucks to the editors, and promised plenty of wheel time over the next few days.
So the anticipation was high, everyone was excited to get in the buggies to start driving. We chose 2-man teams, one driver and one co-pilot in charge of radio communication and navigation. Every hour the driver and co-driver would swap places so that everyone got a lot of time behind the wheel. The Wide Open Baja staff fitted everyone with helmets and kidney belts, then we fired up the real buggies to get acquainted with the transmission, brakes and steering. A few laps around the dirt track next to Horsepower Ranch and everyone was ready to go. The generator at the ranch shuts down early, lights off at 11 PM, so it was time to get a good night’s sleep for the day ahead.
Click here for a map of our trek through Baja Mexico:
Day 2 – Hard Driving to San Felipe
Sunrise dawned and the weather was absolutely perfect, bright blue sky with morning temperatures just cool enough to require a light jacket. During the ranch-style pancake breakfast we were briefed on the reality of off-road driving. Bottom line…the cars cost around $100,000 to replace and it’s possible to cause serious damage and personal injury if you drive beyond your limits. The buggies can do almost 100 MPH flat-out, fast enough to get you in trouble if you’re not careful. A few gruesome horror stories from the veteran Wide Open Baja crew drove home the fact that if you get hurt the closest relief is to call in a rescue helicopter for the ride back to civilization. Points noted… drive hard, have fun. But stay in control.
The layout was pretty simple, the Wide Open Baja guide would be in the lead buggy, followed by a string of 7 buggies and a support buggy filled with spare tires and tools. Give the buggy in front of you a head start to clear the dust, then drive as fast as you can (safely) through the desert. It’s not a race, no passing allowed, but you can certainly get going fast enough to scar yourself…and your co-driver. An additional support van kept in touch with a spare buggy in tow, along with our duffle bags and the Baja 5B and Hellfire sample cars, ready for photo and test drive opportunities. The support van also had the lunch fixins, and would take shortcuts using paved roads to set up lunch in advance.
With everyone buckled in and fired up, the ultimate goal of the day was to drive our way from Ensenada on the Pacific coast side of Mexico all the way to the beach resort of San Felipe on the Gulf coast, a 150 mile trek that would show off the amazing variety of scenery in Baja Mexico… from scenic Pacific coastline beaches to cactus-lined deserts to pine forests. Baja Mexico is an amazing place, vast stretches of unpopulated natural terrain await those bold enough to take the challenge.
Rolling out of the Horsepower Ranch, the string of buggies kicked up a nice trail of dust as we all got accustomed to the feel of the cars. A short drive down the paved highway was necessary to get to the starting point of our off-road adventure. The buggies feel a little strange on the highway, the long suspension floats around a lot more than your family sedan and the steering requires constant attention to keep you going straight. These wheelbase of these buggies is big, about the same size as a Hummer, so keeping them in the lane on the narrow Mexican highways is a full time job. Once we got off the highway and on the dirt, the buggy was right at home soaking up bumps and very stable.
One of the great things about the Wide Open Baja system is that you’re always in touch with the other cars via the excellent radio system. Each helmet is wired with a microphone and speakers. The driver and co-driver have open mics at all times, so chatter between the driver and co-driver is constant, from little tips about the terrain to instructions about an upcoming danger zone, to adrenaline-induced screams over a huge jump... “Dude, we must have flown 20 feet over that jump, this buggy is amazing.” Beyond the driver/co-driver communication, a big red button on the dashboard allows you to broadcast a message to all of the other cars when necessary. “Car 1 to Car 2 – passing the gate, go left at the Y” or “Car 6 – be advised, there’s an 18 wheeler heading your way right after the top of the hill” are belted out in military fashion. Communication is critical out in the desert, it can mean the difference between staying in line and getting lost… and it could help you avoid being one of the horror stories told around the campfire at night. The combination of instructions and friendly chatter over the radio system adds a unique aspect to the trip, a team bonding experience that you won’t soon forget.
Suddenly, all of the prep is behind you, and you find yourself happily bombing through the desert in a buggy built just for that purpose. Thanks to the suspension and special seats, the ride is actually *almost* comfortable. At times it gets violent over big jumps, but not nearly the thrashed feeling you get in something like a go-cart. The balance of power and handling amazed all of the editors and HPI staff. It’s safe to say that the limits of these race-ready buggies are well beyond the limits of most drivers.
The first leg of the driving goes from Ensenada on the Pacific side of the Baja peninsula, over to San Felipe on the Gulf side. A 150 mile adventure that demands your attention. Testing the limits of your driving in ways that you have never experienced. One slight mistake and you could be in big trouble. Within feet of the trail is usually a cactus, sheer mountain cliff, or a barbed wire fence. 70 mph on an unknown dirt road is a lot different than cruising on the highway, and a LOT more fun as well.
The standard each day is to drive for about an hour, then stop to let the co-driver take over the driving duties. That system is a nice balance, giving you time to drive and time to relax. The co-driver has communication and navigation responsibilities, but it still gives you time to soak in the experience and notice the small details that are usually missed while driving.
I found the limits in my own way. Flying down a straight dirt road at full speed in top gear, everything looked safe ahead for as far as I could see. What I didn’t know is that there was a riverbed that crossed the road at a 90 degree angle ahead of us. By the time I saw the drop-off and steep face on the other side, I didn’t even have time to lift the throttle. All Tim “Lumpy” Tolleson and I could do was hang on. The next 5 seconds seemed like an eternity. The banking launched our buggy up into the air at a 45 degree angle. Suddenly we were way up in the air. The buggy kind of rotated in the air and gave me, the driver, a top-down view of cactus and bushy trees passing quickly under us. My brain processed the information, and concluded that this was “not good.” I really thought that we were going to flip sideways and roll the buggy when we landed. At that speed it would have been a major league flip, stuff you see on World of Outlaws coverage. Somehow we got lucky. Our left front tire landed first in some soft sand. The back of the buggy was kicked out at an angle due to our flight path, so the left rear was next to land, coming in at a sideways angle. The impact was so hard that it knocked the tire off the rim, but the buggy just kind of dug in to the soft sand and didn’t flip. When everything stopped moving we were way off the road, in the middle of a cactus patch. Dazed, I fired up the engine and pointed it back toward the trail, not really knowing if the buggy was still in one piece. By the time we circled back to the trail I could see the flat rear tire in my side mirror. We radioed for help, informing the lead buggy that we were off the trail with a flat tire. Within minutes the Wide Open Baja support buggy was there, taking off the flat tire and replacing it with a new one. An inspection of the suspension didn’t show any damage, so we were back on the road, tiptoeing at first to make sure the suspension was OK.
For lunch, the Wide Open Baja support van got ahead of the buggy squadron and set up an outdoor rest stop, complete with a shade canopy, tables, chairs, and chef on hand to prepare authentic Mexican food. I was still a little shaken up by my aerial adventure and being pretty quiet about it. But then the guys started firing off the lunchtime questions. “Hey Kent, that was a pretty big cloud of dust back there when you had a flat, what happened?” Full disclosure didn’t happen until that night, but it turned out to be a good story. I’m sure that Lumpy and I will never forget it and we learned a valuable lesson… watch out for washes and keep the speed down a little. 10/10ths might be good on a road course where you know exactly what’s ahead of you, but this is off-road.
After lunch Akira fired up the Baja 5B for the first time. The editors got a chance to try it out for the first time in real off-road conditions, taking turns driving and shooting photos. Several of the editors commented on how realistic the handling was, just like the real buggies.
The buggy caravan rolled out for our afternoon leg, making our way to San Felipe. Everyone was getting comfortable with driving now, and the radio communication was getting organized so that the group moved efficiently from stop to stop. By the time we made our way to the beach city of San Felipe it was getting close to sunset. Our hotel was right on the beach, and pretty soon the idea of running the Baja 5B on the sand was thrown around. Akira had it running in short time, providing some really nice photo opportunities and a chance to try the Baja 5B on the beach to see what it could do. Surprisingly, it handled even the soft sand with ease, the torquey 23cc engine delivering plenty of power to get it up to speed quickly.
Exhausted, everyone checked into their rooms, showered, and finished the evening with an excellent Mexican dinner and lots of conversation about the awesome day in the buggies.
Day 3 – Up To Mike’s Sky Rancho
Day 3 dawned and the weather provided another perfect day. After a quick breakfast overlooking the beach, everyone hopped into the buggies for some “dune driving” in the giant sand dunes located a few hundred yards inland from our hotel. The soft sand provided a completely different driving experience than what we had experienced the day before. Bill, our Wide Open Baja guide, set us free in the dunes and told us to have fun, drive around for a while, just watch out for buggies coming the other direction when cresting the dunes. We jumped the buggies a few times (see the video) and had a great time.
A few of the editors suggested that we test the top speed of the Baja 5B on the dunes, which sounded like a great idea to me. I quickly volunteered to drive the RC car while sitting the passenger seat of a real buggy. Shawn Ireland piloted the real buggy, making high speed passes on the sand dune so the editors could shoot photos of the Baja 5B flying by. It was so much fun that we had to make a few “extra passes” just in case they didn’t get the photos focused perfectly. I’ve done a lot of RC driving, this morning was a real RC highlight for me. The Baja 5B seemed like it was stationary in front of us, soaking up the bumps and throwing up a huge rooster tail of sand, with our onboard GPS indicating that it was going 40mph!
The driving schedule for the day had us heading South to drive in the sandy “Matomi Wash” area, then work our way back North to “Laguna Diablo” dry lake, and a stop for lunch before heading up into the mountains. At times the sandy wash driving felt like slalom skiing, the sandy trail winding its way through cactus and scrub brush, just high enough that you could only see one or two turns ahead. Point and shoot driving, keeping the buggy at redline in 2nd gear and using the sandy berms to help keep you on track.
Just before we arrived at Laguna Diablo, the lead car told us that the huge dry lake bed was flat and offered a perfect chance to try the top speed of the Wide Open Baja buggies. He didn’t need to ask us twice! Each of the buggies immediately revved up to full throttle, streaking down the lake bed with a huge cloud of dust behind. Following the dust trail of buggy ahead of us was like flying in a military jet in formation, move a few degrees to the side so that you could see what’s ahead and keep it full punched…forever! A few high speed passes in each direction and the dust became so thick that the lead buggy slowed down and tried some drifting, on the hard-packed lake bed there’s no chance to roll like you have in the sand.
At lunch time, the Wide Open Baja support team once again set up a tent and prepared fresh Mexican food for everyone. Cold drinks and driving stories flowed freely, everyone was having a great time.
After lunch our goal was to head up into the mountains for the steep climb to Mike’s Sky Rancho, a famous hotel located about 20 miles from the nearest paved road. At around 4,000 feet in elevation, the trip up to Mike’s is a technical drive with steep climbs and narrow trails that command your full attention. The terrain changes from desert scrub to mountain trees and firm-packed dirt. This is the bumpiest area of the trip and the penalty for going off the trail is often a very steep cliff. The word is that Mike (the namesake of “Mike’s Sky Rancho”) and his family died on this very trail when his vehicle went off a cliff. Serious stuff, but unbelievably fun when you attack it at a semi-safe speed.
The caravan of buggies all made it safely up to Mike’s Sky Rancho. A cold drink, a group photo, check into the circa-1960 accomodations, a quick shower and get ready for the bar-b-que dinner. Mike’s is a unique place. The bar and restaurant walls are covered with business cards from past visitors. Guys like Parnelli Jones, Mickey Thompson and Ivan “Iron Man” Stewart had left their marks, so the HPI crew decided to do the same. We broke out some giant HPI stickers and stapled a Hellfire body shell to the ceiling.
For dinner, the staff fired up a desert mesquite bar-b-que pit and prepared an excellent meal that everyone enjoyed after an exciting day of hard driving. The hotel shuts off the power generator at around 10 pm, so everyone got a spectacular view of the night stars prior to hitting the sack for the night.
Day 4 – A Dangerous Drive
After a quick breakfast the group suited up for the drive back down the mountain. Swapping drivers on the way back down allowed everyone to share the fun. On the way down, Mike Velez from Xtreme RC got going a little too fast over one of the blind downhill crests and had an “off” that left his buggy high-centered on a boulder, requiring the lead buggy to double back to help get him going again. Careful Mike!
The lead buggy stopped at a strategic spot to swap drivers. Apparently, so many people had gone off the road in this spot that they had to modify their tour to include the stop. Winding along the side of the mountain the road suddenly goes where it doesn’t look like it does, the result were a bunch of skid marks and debris at the bottom of the ravine, some 30 feet below. Point noted…be careful!
The descent off the mountain brought us back to desert terrain. Another driver swap and we were moving swiftly through the desert as a group. About 20 minutes into that leg, we heard “Group Leader, there’s been a big crash, looks like Car 4 has flipped.” We were car 6, so we came upon the accident within a minute of when it had happened. The dust was still in the air when we spotted Mike Velez’s buggy sitting backwards…missing the complete left rear suspension and roof. My immediate thoughts were of safety, are the guys OK, neither of them was moving around. Then we saw a little movement, Mike started to unbuckle and Erik Shauver moved his arms, good news. We got out quickly and offered assistance. Mike seemed shaken, but OK. Erik was dazed, his helmet had hit the roll cage and cracked, and his knees took a hard hit on the dashboard. Slowly, both of them got out of the buggy and sat down to shake off their internal cobwebs. The other buggies started coming back to the crash scene, doubling back and following the lead buggy.
Some quick detective work concluded that Mike had seen the “double down” warning arrows that signaled danger -- the last rain storm had washed out about half of the road. The washed out side of the road was about an 18” drop-off, enough to get your attention when driving at full speed. What he didn’t see was that the road narrowed right where a giant cactus tree pinched it into a lane barely wide enough for the buggies to squeeze through. Flying along at top speed, Mike missed the ravine but clipped the tree with his left rear tire, immediately hurling the buggy into several NASCAR style flat spins, followed by a violent roll that damaged the roll cage and knocked off the roof of the buggy.
The crash was definitely a reality check. Danger is never too far away in Baja. Worried about the health of Erik and Mike, the Wide Open Baja staff loaded them into the support van and whisked them back to Horsepower Ranch. The rest of the buggies got back going with subdued energy, wondering if those guys were going to be OK and not wanting to create a similar incident.
The next few legs of driving took us up another mountain into an area that surprised everyone. Tall pine groves and mountain air in Baja Mexico? Yep. The trails were lined with pine trees, sometimes on both sides. The lead buggy reminded us that pine trees don’t move if you hit them, so everyone was extra careful. The ride down the mountain provided everyone with a memorable roller-coaster drive, getting to very high speeds on smooth and well-groomed downhill fire trails.
A few driver swaps later we got back on the paved highway for a short drive back to Horsepower Ranch. Our buggy once again felt wobbly and out of place on the pavement, it was actually more difficult to drive on the highway than it was in the dirt. We rolled into the ranch in one piece (well, if you don’t count the tire that we knocked off) so it was with relief that we unbuckled our helmets and reflected on the past 3 days of off-road driving. What an experience!
Mike and Erik were already at the ranch, cleaned up and acknowledging that they were a little more banged up than they thought, but they survived. The assessment from the Wide Open Baja mechanics was that it was one of their bigger crashes in recent memory, and that the car would need about a week’s worth of repairs to be back in operation. Mike signed a few of the insurance forms (always get maximum coverage in advance!) and chalked up the cost of the insurance deductible to a unique learning experience!
A quick shower, lunch, and then everyone loaded back into the bus for the ride from Horsepower Ranch back to civilization. With all of the strict American regulations, it’s probably not possible for this kind of event to happen in the States these days. But hey, it’s still available in Baja Mexico, so if you ever get the chance to try Wide Open Baja…do it! It is, truly, an event that you will never forget.
Thanks go out to everyone involved…Wide Open Baja, the mechanics, the editors from Car Action, RC Driver, Xtreme RC, RC Car… and of course to HPI for making the trip possible.
Click here to see some video action from the event:
Read the magazine articles here:
For more information on Wide Open Baja: