One Mile At A Time... Character Building In The Sands Of Baja

December 11, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

It's just passed 4am on November 16th in Baja California. Our team, bedded down around a small crackling campfire, recharges it's weary batteries as the grim news comes in over the radio... Race number 842 is at zero miles per hour just shy of race mile 600. No radio contact from the race truck, just a blip from the spot tracker, an on board gps transmitter that pings a vehicle's location and speed amidst the expanse of the Baja Peninsula. This disheartening information is accompanied by somber reports that just hours before, factory KTM rider and baja legend, Kurt Caselli was mortally injured while leading the very race we were chasing. Both bits of news serve a crushing blow to the moral of a team that just 18 hours prior predicted certain victory at this year's Score Baja 1000... Why do we do it?


Many have said that the Baja 1000 is less of a race and more of an adventure and that is fitting considering the humble beginnings of the event. In 1962 representatives of American Honda elected to attempt a timed run from Tijuana to La Paz to prove to the world the reliability of Honda motorcycles. Shortly after midnight on March 22nd, 1962, Dave Ekins, brother of stuntman Bud Ekins, telegraphed his departure from Tijuana and set out to accomplish the first timed attempt at covering the entire Baja Peninsula. 39 hours and 56 minutes, and 952 miles later, off-road history had been made. A story came out shortly after in several magazines that recounted the adventure and it's danger to the rest of the globe, setting in motion the imaginations of countless thrill seekers the world over.

Anytime you place an elapsed time on a distance traveled you set the stage for competition and soon it was Bruce Meyers to put his Meyers Manx buggy to the test to see if four wheels could best two on the trip down the point. Meyers was successful, logging a total time of 34:45 a full five hours faster than the motorcycle effort. The die was cast and the race was on from that day forward.

There were no TV crews or social media back in those days to document this kind of excursion. The only way that the account of these accomplishments made it back to main stream America was by way of the stories written by journalists that embedded themselves with these teams. It is in much the same tradition that I became involved with Mills Motorsports and their campaign for the 2013 Score Baja 1000. The last time I chased a race team in Baja was 2004, the same year Dana Brown filmed his epic documentary, "Dust To Glory". Ever since then I have wanted to return to the birthplace of desert racing with my cameras and document the whole race. With that in mind, and ample time on my hands in November, I contacted Nick Mills of the Mills Motorsports race team and driver of the #842 Trophy Truck Spec. Nick invited me to tag along to capture the race from the perspective of a race team. I jumped at the chance to check this deal off my bucket list. The Mills team was in contention for the class championship in the Trophy Truck Spec class, so this would be a perfect opportunity to follow a first class outfit on their bid for glory in the unrelenting landscape of Baja.

Interestingly enough, it was the, aforementioned, film "Dust To Glory" that was the catalyst for Nick and Taylor Mills and Tony MacNeil of Corpus Christi, Texas to get involved in desert racing. After seeing the film and getting caught up in the romance and mystique of the Baja, the Mills boys and Tony decided this was just the kind of adventure they needed and TNT Racing was born. TNT, which stood for Taylor, Nick, and Tony, was a small team effort that the boys pulled together by pooling their funds and enlisting the help of friends and family in order to go racing in, what was then, the Super 8 class.

Toward the end of the 2012 season the Texans ran into or, more literally, were run into by veteran desert racer Kent Kroeker of KORE Performance at the Best In The Desert "Vegas to Reno" race. During the race when Kroeker attempted to make a pass on the TNT truck, piloted my Nick Mills and Tony MacNeil, he made enough contact to spark controversy throughout the desert racing community. In doing so he also sparked a lifelong friendship with the young Mills team and would soon be tasked with helping the team with logistics and driving duties for the Baja 1000 later that year.

After nearly burning their only race truck to the ground at the "Bluewater 250", in Parker, AZ, only one month prior to the 2012 "Baja 1000", the TNT team decided to put the truck back together and race the granddaddy of all desert races. But, the Baja 1000 by it's very nature is not a race to be taken lightly and by no stretch of the imagination is it something one should enter into without months of preparation and planning. In no way should you even think about running Baja with only one month to prepare... Tell that to a Texan!

With Kent Kroeker in charge of race operations and one little Trophy Lite, the TNT team set out for unlikely victory on the sands of Baja. The Super 8 class only had one race that season and it was the Score Baja 1000. This meant a victory would bring with it a championship trophy to set on the mantle back home in Corpus Christi. So, with little support and overwhelming odds, the team started the 2012 Baja 1000. More than 1100 miles later the humble, but determined, team from Texas stood atop the podium as class winners in their first ever Baja 1000.

The hook was set and Mills Motorsports was born. With new team ownership in Gary Mills and not one, but two, Trophy Truck Spec rigs, the Mills Motorsports team was ready to become a real threat for title contention in 2013. What had started as a small family team funded by three brothers, out for a good time, had become a full blown race effort with a proper race shop, capable vehicles, and a full time race team comprised of Baja veterans. With any high dollar race effort, however, comes high expectations. Where formerly the team was just out for some fun, now it was expected that everyone handled themselves professionally and put the team first in all situations. It was a game changer for all those involved. This meant being in proper shape to handle the rigors of off-road racing and the physical challenges it presents. Getting out of the truck in the middle of a cold desert night to change a tire or free the truck from a rut is a very physical endeavor and everyone on the team is expected to be able to man up and get the job done. Additionally, the team and it's drivers are expected to know the course and it's perils intimately. As such, a painstaking pre-run schedule was outlined so that each driver would know his section of race course cold by race day.

In light of this new schedule, pre-running was split up into two teams, the same as it would be for race day. One team would cover the west side of the peninsula and the other would be tasked with the east side. By doing this Kent Kroeker was able to minimize the amount of driving that chase trucks would have to do on race day, a safety precaution designed to save lives. During the race the biggest danger isn't to the race drivers themselves but to the countless team chase vehicles traversing the Baja Peninsula. The Baja 1000 is a national event for the people of Baja and as such it is common for locals to be on the road intoxicated or worse. Add to that the legions of race team members in a hurry to get to the next pit and you have a recipe for carnage. Head on collisions have become commonplace at the 1000 and result in fatalities every year. If a team can manage to keep static pits, meaning the pit crew stays put throughout the race, their chances of avoiding mishaps increases exponentially. With decades of experience in Baja Kent Kroeker knows this and takes every precaution to keep his team members safe.

By the time race day rolled around the Mills Motorsports team had been in Baja for a week working on logistics and relentlessly pre-running the course. Victory, it seemed, was a forgone conclusion. Some of the chase crews, which included race drivers Kent Kroeker and Allen Roach of Baja Designs Lights and co-drivers Josh Huff and Bart Parker, had left for their post the night before and were bedded down in the desert to the south. Chase truck 2 and 2 Alpha, which was my assignment, departed from Ensenada at 6am on race day. Chase 2 is a lumbering Dodge Mega Cab which was used as a fuel truck and included a trailer that also carried 300 gallons of Jet A for the team's helicopter which would carry team owner, Gary Mills and Shaun Ochsner, the team's head of media. Chase truck 2 Alpha, is a Ford Raptor which was loaded also with fuel and a spare tire in case there was a need for a more nimble vehicle to tend the the race truck. Our task was to meet the race truck at highway kilometer 77 and splash them with fuel then backtrack to a place called "The Meadow", which would be at race mile 840. There we would hunker down to wait for the truck to return and would serve as the final pit before the truck made it's last push to the finish back in Ensenada. If all went to plan we should see the truck in the Meadow the following morning.

At KM 77 we waited as a flurry of Trophy Trucks and Class 1 cars, of the rockstar unlimited classes of Baja, came crashing through the desert. Some would stop for fuel, while others would charge on toward their first pit further down the course. As you wait for your vehicle to come through you are constantly doing time calculations in your head to try to pinpoint the exact time your truck would arrive. These calculations are useless, of course, as the desert has the only real say as to when your truck will appear. Fortunately for us the desert was merciful and #842 came through in great shape. We gave her some fuel and watched as the blue race truck disappeared down highway 3. We wouldn't see it again for nearly 800 race miles... Or so we thought.

Shortly after we sent the truck on it's way we were reminded via radio that we were carrying fuel for the Mills chopper. The bird had planned to refuel in San Felipe until the waning daylight became an issue. In Mexico, single engine aircraft must be on the ground by dusk, and in order for the Bell Long Ranger to make it back to Ensenada we would need to fuel them in a dry lake bed just east of San Matias.

You see, the Baja has a way of rendering the best laid plans useless. While Kroeker had organized the logistics of race day with military precision, the desert always has a plan of it's own and it's at these times that the lessons of Baja begin to forge, in all those involved... Character.

As we awaited radio transmission from the helo in the lake bed we received another message from the race truck. They were at about race mile 185 when they suffered a flat tire. Tony was able to replace the tire in short order, but they would need another spare at the road crossing at race mile 192. This is exactly why we doubled up chase vehicles. We loaded another spare into the Raptor and made haste for the road crossing. As we departed to meet the race truck someone in the truck said to no one in particular... "Now we're racing!" The Baja 1000 had just begun.

Just as the desert will throw a wrench in your pristine logistics, so will it throw you a bone as well. Because I was assigned to the Raptor for race day, I was privileged to witness the most efficient pit stop in the history of Baja itself. Chase Laven, a venerable wrench, gentle giant, and all around good dude piloted the Raptor as we careened toward race mile 192 where we would rendezvous with our race vehicle to swap their tattered spare for a brand new General Grabber. Keeping his cool and not exceeding the predetermined team speed limit we arrived at the pit with just moments to spare before our truck arrived. Chase took command and wheeled the spare into position and made sure the crew knew their duties. We broke from our huddle just as the truck came screaming into the pits as rowdy as caged chupacabra. Mike Meeks, a good friend of the Mills family, and a hell of a driver in his own right, was in charge of communicating to Nick in the drivers seat who was chomping at the bit to get back on the gas. While Mike held Nick at bay, Chase and Joe, our team medic, swapped the spare tires. The whole thing took mere seconds and #842 went storming into the desert toward San Felipe where Nick and Tony would hand the truck off to Kent Kroeker and Josh Huff. We left as swiftly as we had arrived and the surrounding teams must have been left scratching their heads as to how we had our pits scheduled with such precision. It was a work of art to be sure!
In Baja, just as in life, it's how you deal with the challenges before you that will determine your outcome.

With the race truck in good shape and running strong we got back on highway 3 and headed back to the dry lake bed to link back up with Chase 2 and assist with fueling the helicopter. By the time we arrived the chopper was gone, but our crew was a little excited from a run in with some rather jovial locals. It seems that a few truck loads of locals spotted our helicopter landing and wanted to get involved in the action. As our helicopter crew chief, Efren, tried to explain in Spanish why they couldn't get close to the bird while the blades were spinning one of the local boys started getting a bit aggressive. Unsure of the intentions of the local crew our boys packed it up and made tracks to higher ground where we found them. Just as they were recounting the episode to us, the three Mexican vehicles pulled up to our chase trucks. By this time they were friendly enough and were more concerned with getting their picture taken than with any shenanigans. Just the same though, one of them figured it wouldn't be too much to ask to take up residence in the Raptor. Enter Joe the Medic... Joe is one of those guys that you want to invite over to the house for dinner with the family. He's a big friendly, funny character with a story for every occasion and he kept us in stitches for the majority of the trip. One other thing about Joe, though... He is, highly trained, Army Special Forces with 6 tours in Iraq and Afghanistan under his belt... Joe is not to be trifled with. Our boy Joe snatched Jose Public out of the seat of the Raptor before he could say 'Ole' and politely explained to him that he was out of his element. Jose obliged and opted instead for a photo with his buddies. Even in a dry lake bed, Baja is always entertaining.

By this time we had successfully fueled and pitted both the race truck and the helicopter and made friends with the locals. It was now time to make our way to the Meadow at race mile 840 to set up camp, establish communication, and bunk down to wait the arrival of our race truck as it made it's way to the finish. It had been a long day, but it wasn't even close to being over.

On our way to the Meadow we stopped at Ojos Negros to buy some firewood and last minute supplies. The highway that connects the coasts of the Baja is littered with little stores and lancherias that are eager for your business. For $20 we were able to fill the bed of the Raptor with firewood. Enough to keep us warm through the bitter cold desert night. It was time for a little rest before the tornado that is the Baja 1000 descended upon us once more.

Campfires are good for a couple of things. Yes, if properly constructed, they provide warmth on even the coldest of nights, but they are great for something else... Conversation. Our chase crew joined by the crew from Mad Media, a PR company that works with many of the race teams, gathered round the fire to recap the days events and get to know one another a bit more. While Joe the Medic cooked up some gourmet (seriously) burgers we all talked racing, work, relationships, and got to the bottom of why we are all here. It's these moments that you suddenly realize that the world is full of friends that you have never met. Just days prior to the race I couldn't have picked these guys out of a crowd. These men that I now consider friends. We all come from wildly different backgrounds, yet somehow the Baja has shaped friendships out of thin desert air. We talked about Joe the Medic's family, how he met his wife, and how he came to find himself in the U.S. Special Forces. We talked about Joe Mac's time flying planes for survey crews and how a born Canadian came to be a red blooded Texan right down to his Lone Star boots. We talked about how Chase found himself living in Texas with Tony after working for such outfits as Tatum Motorsports and Geiser Brothers. Sometimes a simple campfire can be just the thing to bring a team together.

As the rest of the crew settled down in their sleeping bags, I was left to monitor the radio and keep watch over our camp. While these pits are made up of mostly race teams, it is not uncommon for items to walk off under the night sky. On this cold night firewood was currency and one eye was always trained on our little stack of flammable gold.

The night was deathly quite until just after 3am. The silence was pierced by the sound of 8 eight angry cylinders stampeding through the night as the Trophy Truck of BJ Baldwin came thundering through our little tent city just outside of Ensenada. It seemed too early! We didn't expect to see any trucks until near daylight, yet here was BJ storming through the granite that surrounded the camp. Add to that, the truck of Rob Maccachren barreling through just seconds later and we instantly knew why we were there. At 840 miles into, arguably, the roughest Baja 1000 to date, these guys were just seconds apart! In an event where anything can happen at any time a race had broken out for first place just miles from the finish. Baja constantly delivers!

The excitement of the lead trucks smashing through the Meadow had temporarily perked the team up and brought some movement to the camp. We all wondered aloud how long it would be until we saw the blue #842 Geiser truck. Since we weren't able to raise the rest of the team or the truck itself on the radio we were left to guess as to when the truck would be along. We were estimating sometime around late morning, but there was no way to be sure. We had radioed Weatherman, which was the channel for race information and emergency, but had heard nothing in response to our request for our truck's location. Then we heard it... "842 Chase this is Weatherman... Race 842... mile..." That was it. Too broken up to decipher... We called for a repeat... "842 Chase, this is Weatherman... Race 842 at race mile 546... Zero miles per hour at 4:10am" That's all we had to go from. Our truck was stopped at race mile 546. Was our race over? Would the truck be able to continue? How long would it take to get to our pit? Would we even finish before the time cut-off? Lot's of questions and no way to get answers. It was now a waiting game until we could make communication with the rest of the team.

Just about the same time, we received the horrible news that KTM factory rider Kurt Caselli had been killed in a crash as he was leading the Baja 1000.

Baja is such an incredible experience, and one that can't be explained without being there. Part of what makes the race so amazing is the risk of the unknown and the adventure of conquering the challenge with the folks around you. Sadly those same elements that make the Baja wonderful can also snatch someone away from you in the blink of an eye. Kurt Caselli was, by any standards, a hero of Baja, and an amazing rider. R.I.P. KC, you will be sorely missed... Godspeed

With no radio communication with the rest of the team and no possible way for the truck to show up any time soon, the crew decided to knock off for a while and catch some sleep. The rest was well deserved. This crew had been running on pure adrenaline for 24 hours straight.

A few short hours later the rattle and cadence of the pits around us stirred the crew awake. Everyone went about getting prepared for the day, not knowing when exactly their abilities would be called upon by our weary race drivers. Coffee was made, gear checked, and a call was sent out on the race radio. Finally, word came in that our truck had been stranded for several hours with two simultaneous flat tires. The truck had been in the capable hands of race driver Allen Roach, owner of Baja Designs, and no stranger to racing in Baja. Allen would later recount the event and say that while he and co-driver Bart Parker were unsure what they hit, he had never had two flats at the same time in all of his experience racing in the desert. Baja is constantly teaching you lessons.

Shortly after word of our truck came in, the 844 of RPM Offroad came blazing through the Meadow. RPM was our class competitor and the team that Mills Motorsports had to beat to clinch the title. Our truck wouldn't arrive till later that evening some 11 hours after the first place truck of 844. It was a harsh reminder that you can never predict the outcome when racing in Baja.

When the blue Mills Motorsports 842 truck did finally arrive, it was in the midst of a battle for second place in class. The 845 truck of Hedrick Racing, running second, had left the pit a mere six minutes prior to 842 and had been losing ground to the Mills crew of Taylor Mills and Mike Kerr for the past hundred miles. The race for second was on, eleven hours after the first place truck had left the Meadow. In Baja, you can never quit.

At the finish line in Ensenada the Mills Motorsports, Gieser Brothers truck crossed the line three minutes ahead of the 845 of Hedrick Racing and second in class. The Mills team had succeeded in finishing on the podium for the second time in two years at the toughest race on earth. A feat that has escaped the grasp of teams with decades more experience. While penalties acquired in the speed zones scattered throughout the course would later put the Mills Motorsports team in third place in class, nothing could take the accomplishment of perseverance away from this crew of dedicated racers and volunteers.

So at the end of the day, why do we do it? We do it because Baja is the foundry in which character is forged. Life will constantly place soul crushing challenges in your path and dare you to defy the odds. It's the way you tackle these challenges of life that builds your character and it's that same character by which we, as humans, are judged. So, go out there and find your Baja... You may be surprised by what you are capable of.

Gary Mills would like to dedicate the great accomplishment of his team to his wife Vickey who is battling cancer.

I would like to personally thank Gary Mills and the entire Mills Motorsports organization for allowing me to experience this wonderful race through their eyes. It was, truly, the thrill of a lifetime!

See you at the races,

Tom Leigh
aka PinkTaco

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