Monday, May 21, 2018
Human Interest

Off-road thrills: Course in Ocala offers a taste of the Baja 1000

Ocala

The fog still covered the dirt trails of an abandoned rock quarry when Mark Townsend pulled up in a modified four-wheel-drive to welcome us to the Florida branch of his off-road racing school. • The former professional tennis player turned desert auto racer had a few words of advice: "Don't drive further than you can see." • He had seen his share of daredevil wanna-bes wreck far too many vehicles. • "The horsepower-to-weight ratio of these cars is insane," he said. "Don't get carried away. I know it's hard, but try to take it easy."

The Baja 1000, one of the most grueling motor races in the world, runs through the inhospitable desert of Mexico's Baja peninsula. The dirt bikes and dune buggies that enter this contest seldom go the distance, which is why most competitors take several of each if they even dream of finishing.

"It can cost up to $80,000 by the time you pay all the expenses," Townsend said. "Obviously that much money for a few days of fun is out of reach for most people."

That is why Townsend, a veteran of numerous Baja races, decided to offer weekend warriors a taste of the action at facilities in California, Pennsylvania and now Florida.

Race fans can take a spin in the 2,500-pound, 200-horsepower car favored by Baja racers and the elite U.S. Navy SEALs operating in the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan. The "U Drive Experience" starts at $349, but you can get a taste of the action for as little as $49.

The $140,000 Baja Challenge cars are a motorhead's dream. They're powered by a Subaru EJ25 racing engine and equipped with four-speed synchromesh manual transmission, chromoly chassis and double-arm 20-inch racing suspensions.

"Bet you never even get it out of third gear," Cliff White said as he handed me the keys. Townsend, knowing what his cars can do, thought it would be wise to send a mechanic along with this reporter for the test drive. "This ain't like driving on the freeway."

The military version of this machine, the Desert Patrol Vehicle, can accelerate from 0 to 30 miles per hour in just four seconds and reach a top speed of 80 mph.

The original Baja vehicles were developed in the late 1960s specifically for the legendary run across the Mexican Outback. The first few races, which skyrocketed in popularity in 1968 after Jim McKay covered it on ABC's Wide World of Sports, drew the likes of Indy 500 winner Parnelli Jones, Rockford Files star James Garner, and the "King of Cool," Steve McQueen.

It felt a little intimidating getting strapped into the racing seat with a five-point harness and then slipping on the helmet, which provides minimal visibility. But once I hit the course, I was thankful for the safety gear.

"I'd hate to drive off one of these cliffs," I told White as I nursed it along in second gear. "I bet it would hurt when we landed."

That's when White, my co-pilot, reminded me of Rule No. 1: "Don't drive where you can't see."

I thought about it as I whipped around a blind curve, then eased back on the gas pedal. White did a good job of coaching: "First, second, back down to first . . . now give it a little gas."

After one lap of driving like a teenager in my old man's car, I decided to open it up a bit and see what this machine could really to do — running the red line, shifting hard, foot off the brake, wide open on the straightaways. Finally I got up the nerve to go for a little air.

Flying up an incline in second gear, pedal to the metal, I came to the crest of the hill and saw nothing but blue sky. That's when I remembered what Townsend and White had said about driving where you can't see.

Whoops.

The car was airborne for only a couple of seconds, but it seemed like an eternity. I saw Townsend at the bottom of the hill, looking like my daddy waiting to take the car keys away.

Fun while it lasted. I flew by Townsend, hit the brakes and spun out in the gravel. That's when I heard a thump!

I unbuckled, scampered out of the cage and saw a tire, sheared off at the bolts, on the ground next to the car. This one's going to be hard to hide on an expense report, I thought to myself.

"Sorry," I told Townsend.

"Don't worry about it," he said. "That's racing. Happens all the time."

Terry Tomalin is the Times' outdoors/fitness editor.

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