Driving a Classic Baja Bug is a Scary, Heavenly Experience Everyone Needs to Try Once
It was about 44 degrees, and nearly freezing rain and unnecessary amounts of wind were pelting me from every angle. I was exposed to the elements, and the only thing between me and the pavement was a dented up 1969 Beetle so high off the ground I could nearly see the Vegas strip from the middle of the desert. But I wasn’t driving just any ratty old Bug—it was a car that had more than a few notches on its belt; Baja 1000, Mint 400, impromptu road trips. Owner Jim Graham of Desert Dingo Racing got together a talented team of racers and engineers a few years back, and developed this amazing machine. And for reasons unknown, he decided he wanted us to drive it (even if it was just for 15 minutes). RELATED: Read Our Full Review of the Volkswagen Beetle Dune
It was a very “holy crap!” moment when I first laid eyes on this thing. You see bugs like this online, but can never really comprehend just how awe-inspiring they are in person. This car was stripped to the bone. No windows, no seat cushions, no floor mats—nothing, nada, zilch. And it was a beautiful thing all the same.
Pop your butt in over the roll cage—cushioned by a few pool noodles—and a six-point harness awaits you. You’ll need it, because if it rolls, it shows no mercy, as Jim explained to me and my co-driver:
“Make sure it’s tight, I rolled it once and there was just enough room in between my body and the belt that I broke two ribs.”
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With Jim’s words of encouragement swirling around in my head, we took off, only to immediately make a wrong turn and get stuck at a dead end. Thankfully, it’s a freakin’ baja bug, so it just climbs over curbs and shrubbery that decide they want to be in the way at that moment in time.
The 1600cc engine roars behind you—it’s the closest sound you’ll get to a go-kart, though, that’s about where the go-kart comparisons end. The four-speed manual gearbox clunks into position with every gear change, and the body roll is something similar to an elephant standing on top of a fridge. Flat out, this baby cranks all the way up to 75 mph…downhill…with a tailwind. But 75 nonetheless.
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We didn’t get anywhere near 75. The planned community we were driving in and adjacent dirt road weren’t really conducive to that type of speed. But even at 30 mph or so, with a roaring wind and a cold, cold rain, it was one of the most fun cars you could imagine driving.
Screw modern electronics, forget power steering—this was the ultimate feeling of driving a real vehicle built for Baja. One can only imagine the absolute rush you feel behind the wheel of this thing in the desert for 10 hours, trying damn near your hardest to not only make it to the finish line, but just survive the brutality of it all.
But as bare bones as this car is, it’s surprisingly tech-focused.
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The car is outfitted with an HDS-5m Gen2 GPS system. It’s programmed with the race course on the screen to allow driver and co-driver know exactly where they are and what’s around the next corner. The team also uses Iridium Go! Units that create satellite-based WiFi hotspots inside the actual race car and five chase vehicles, which allows the team manager to relay information like race car location, speed, and any fan-built booby traps on the race course. (Not as outlandish as it sounds.)
The Dingoes also experimented with drones for the first time at the 2015 race, using them to scout alternate race lines through the more challenging sections of the course. You can get an idea of exactly how that works watching the video below:
Desert Dingo Racing from ZM Interactive on Vimeo.
The end result is a car that, while very much bare bones, is also one of the most technologically advanced vehicles in its class. It’s just a fun, fantastic vehicle—and one that should get everyone excited about off-road racing.