Has anyone seen my kidneys?
– Barstow, California
I’m covered in a gross mixture of sweat and dust when I hear the most important piece of advice I’ll receive all day: “Whatever you do, don’t wrap your thumbs around the steering wheel.” Cody Jeffers of Mojave Off-Road Racing Enthusiasts is the man offering these ominous words of wisdom, and the wheel he’s referring to is the four-spoke helm of an open-wheel Baja race car. Cody says the kickback through the buggy’s steering wheel is so severe, the metal spokes can break your thumbs if you hold it with a proper ten-and-two grip. And of the myriad ways this bright yellow Baja contraption can probably maim me, this one seems easiest to control. What the hell did I get myself into?
Fifty years ago, Bruce Meyers drove his Volkswagen Beetle-based Meyers Manx dune buggy from La Paz to Tijuana in just under 35 hours, along 950 miles of sand trails, rock beds, mountain passes, and rutted two-track “roads.” This effectively kicked off the race formerly known as the Mexican 1000, now the Baja 1000, and brought popularity not only to Meyers’ Manx, but to the up-and-coming class of race cars known simply as Baja Bugs. Modified Volkswagen Beetles have since dominated the Baja races, and with the 50th anniversary of the first Mexican 1000 race right around the corner, I find myself standing in the desert outside of Barstow, California with some VW reps, Jeffers, and a trio of cars at my disposal. Champagne would be more appropriate for the milestone, but considering the location, I’ll happily settle for Gatorade.
The whole thing feels like a death trap, like at any moment it’s just going to rattle itself to pieces and I’ll be stranded in the desert and vultures will eat me.
Loudly idling outside the staging tent is a Baja Bug from Volkswagen’s collection of heritage vehicles – Class 11, meaning it has a Beetle body. It really just looks like a kit car constructed by a couple of good ol’ boys in the desert, but it actually comes from Desert Dingo Racing out of Santa Cruz, California, and it’s raced in a number of events, including the Mint 400, as the sticker on its hood proudly proves. Jeffers hops in the driver’s seat while I negotiate the five-point harness. Before I know it, fresh air and radio inputs are attached to my helmet as Jeffers engages first gear and the Bug hops over the sand toward a ten-mile trail through the nothingness. This’ll be a quick recon lap, no doubt, but I’m listening to Jeffers’ course notes like they’re gospel. I’m driving the next lap, after all.
“Don’t hit any rock bigger than a basketball,” he says as we crash over a bed of stones, my internal organs all suddenly becoming very good friends. The 15-inch wheels and knobby tires bounce over the rocks and ruts. Underneath this rickety, rattly Beetle, the suspension components are largely stock, just with a bit more ground clearance up front and stronger shock towers. The 1.6-liter engine is humming along, all 75 horsepower working hard as Jeffers runs high in second gear. The spacing between second and third is so hilariously huge, it either feels like you’re going to blow the engine at 4,000 rpm in second, or like you’re going to run out of steam, too low in third. He only uses third for a moment, on a long section of gravel right at the end of the course, and he never bothers with fourth (top) gear; no way will he need to go that fast.
The whole thing feels like a death trap, like at any moment it’s just going to rattle itself to pieces and I’ll be stranded in the desert and vultures will eat me. At the end of the first recon lap, we return with one fewer light bar and one fewer headlight than when we set off. So I’m, of course, totally confident that things are going to go super well when it’s my turn to drive, which is, uh, right now.
Through loose sand and gravel, I’m having a blast, the incredibly vague steering wheel kind of shimmying between my hands, the car bounding over the small hills and curved ruts.
First gear engages with ease and the Class 11 car drives off like a normal old Beetle as I point down the road away from camp. Through loose sand and gravel, I’m having a blast, the incredibly vague steering wheel kind of shimmying between my hands, the car bounding over the small hills and curved ruts. It’s only when I reach the first seriously rocky section that I realize I’m going way too fast, and the Bug begins to thrash, my arms flailing about as I loosen my grip on the wheel and immediately let off the throttle. Through it all, this funny little Bug is absolutely killing it out here, even if it’s amateur hour behind the wheel. I give it all it’s got leading up to an abrupt crest, and all four wheels are off the ground. I manage to kick the back end out a little bit around a soft corner. The “Mile 7” sign passes by and, for a moment, I’m a little upset that I’ve only got three miles left. My spine, meanwhile, is pretty stoked about the canvas folding chairs that await in the shaded tent back at camp. But I’ve only got time for a quick break. Don’t get too comfortable, bones.
“This one’s a bit more” – Jeffers hesitates for a moment before continuing – “punishing.” He’s, of course, talking about the aforementioned Class 9 (meaning open-wheel, single- or double-seat) racer, the one that’ll rip my thumbs off if I don’t hold the steering wheel correctly. He also explains it’ll high side itself if I hit a bump too quickly, it’s a lot more punishing on the body, and has a greater tendency to roll. Oh, and he won’t be riding along with me this time – it’s a single-seat car, so I’m on my own, but don’t worry, there’s a radio. Cool.
I am laughing and hurting and speeding and smiling and I’m pretty sure my kidneys fell out long ago. And I don’t care. When my lap comes to an end, all I want to do is keep going.
This thing’s a purpose built Baja beast and nothing more. It doesn’t have a hood, and the roof is a tin flap that opens and shuts over your head (that’s how you get in and out, by the way). The engine’s right behind you: the same 1.6-liter air-cooled four as the Beetle, with the same four-speed manual transmission, though aftermarket camshafts and new cylinder heads help eke out more horsepower. The whole car is lighter. It’s got a racing clutch. It doesn’t have a windshield. There’s more rear suspension travel than the Class 11, and it uses Fox shocks, but the steering is carryover from the Beetle, and there’s no buffer between what happens at the front wheels and what comes through the tiller.
I hoist myself up onto one of the rear wheels, over onto the fuel cell, through the roll cage, and down into the single seat. It slides forward to accommodate my short stature (what luxury!), and Jeffers warns me that I have to make sure the clutch goes all the way to the floor when I shift, or it won’t work. This is, as far as I’m concerned, the heaviest clutch in the world, and my left leg is already kind of sore.
But all my internal whining stops as soon as I’m out on the course, and I’m having the time of my life. This thing is flying over the jumps, sliding around the corners, and bucking over rocks like a goddamn banshee. It is absolutely punishing in its brutality, but hilarious in its action. It’s faster than the Beetle, and much harder to drive. This car is only feedback, and over sharp rocks and deep ruts, this is where the kickback’s strength will leave you without thumbs (but probably with a really cool nickname) if you aren’t careful. I am laughing and hurting and speeding and smiling and I’m pretty sure my kidneys fell out long ago. And I don’t care. When my lap comes to an end, all I want to do is keep going.
The final drive of the day is over soft sand and through small valleys in a modified Meyers Manx – the car that started this whole thing in the first place. It’s slow and dimwitted in its action, and its relative comfort and ease-of-use compared to the Class 9 and 11 cars has me laughing the whole way. Every time the front wheels scrape in the wells, every time the steering wheel moves independently of the wheels, every time a panel shakes and I’m not sure why, it’s another cackle that helps soothe my headache. All that’s left to do after a drive in the Manx is eat a cheeseburger, drink a Coke, and head back to civilization (and take a shower).
I’m equal parts buzzing and worn out after just 30-something miles of driving. I have a newfound respect for the pros who do hundreds – no, thousands of miles in these things year after year. The Baja 1000 will run in a few weeks time, and bunches of Class 9 buggies and Class 11 Beetles will blast through the desert, their drivers enjoying every second of the torture. And for their sake, I hope the payoff is worth it. Those chiropractor bills can’t be cheap.