Out There: Lust for dust
December 20, 2006
Aspen, CO ColoradoThree-hundred and 70 miles came and went in a blur of sand, mud, horsepower and adrenaline. When it was over, Richard Wodehouse couldn’t stop shaking.The hot morning sun was about to crawl over the horizon, underscoring the end to a relentless night spent blasting down the Baja Peninsula at speeds approaching 95 mph. All the while, Wodehouse dodged cactuses, boulders, roadside spectators, silt beds, motorcycles and cars of all sizes while trying to see through an interminable cloud of dust. But sleep would not come to his tired eyes.”I was just vibrating,” said Wodehouse, 57, of his physical state after his nine-hour run in last month’s Tecate SCORE Baja 1000 – a race unrivaled when it comes to raw excitement and eccentricity. “I almost didn’t want to give up the car at 5:30 in the morning. I loved every minute of it.”A professional builder who moved to Aspen full-time last year after nine years split between here and Telluride, Wodehouse was propositioned six months ago by a wealthy Mexican friend to run on the Baja team he was financing.In 2000, Wodehouse raced a motorcycle in the Baja 2000 – a double dose of the standard 1,000-mile race down the Peninsula that rang in the new millennium – and was instantly enamored with the event.
He loved the excitement, the strategy and the bizarre subculture, including the race’s start in Ensenada, where hordes of scantily-clad women dance on top of trailers and there is enough horsepower to drown out a space shuttle launch.”It’s unusual, just because it doesn’t stop,” he said. “Locals camp out all night and have these huge bonfires next to the course. When they can’t find dirt roads, they move [the course] onto a paved section on the highway and you’re going 80 mph while weaving between citizens. It’s just little short bursts of highway, but all the sudden you’re flying along, and then you’re stuck behind a pickup truck full of chickens, or some old guy going 20 mph.”It’s totally Mexico.”The race, which began in 1967, traditionally has run from Ensenada, on the Pacific Coast, to La Paz, the capitol city of Baja California Sur that abuts the Gulf of California.Wodehouse’s team, comprised of himself, two pals from Telluride and two Mexican drivers, was among 450 entries from 38 U.S. states and 11 countries.The five-man crew raced in the 20-team Baja Challenge Class in a custom-built car equipped with a 190-horsepower Subaru engine, 30-inch shocks and a built-in GPS unit on the ceiling. The team finished second in its class, completing the 1,037-mile course in 26 hours.
Of the other 20 BC class cars that started, only nine finished under the 48-hour time limit. Three came in after the cutoff, one slid 300 feet down an embankment and another landed in 10 feet of water. Five more cars had to be towed to the finish line.That’s about standard for the Baja, Wodehouse said.”It’s dangerous,” he said. “People die all the time. A lot of the time its spectators who are standing on the side of the road and a car loses control and runs right into them.”The BC class was the last to start Nov. 16, following motorcycles, monster trucks, mini trucks and buggies. Race officials start each vehicle 30 seconds apart to create gaps on the course, but, as is the norm, bottlenecks occur throughout the entire race.When you want to pass, you just bump the vehicle ahead of you – even when you’re going 80 mph with a cloud of dust in your face.”I did a lot of bumping and I only got bumped once,” Wodehouse said of his stretch, which began at 11:30 p.m. after co-driver Pat Brady had driven for two hours following a handoff around 9:15 p.m. from two other teammates. “It was a big truck owned by Mexicans who bumped me through a section with jagged rocks where I deliberately went slow because I didn’t want to get flat tires.”Wodehouse didn’t relinquish the driver’s wheel until 5:30 in the morning. He compared his seven hours behind the wheel to driving 80 mph in a snowstorm on a curvy mountain road. In an e-mail recounting the ride to friends, Wodehouse wrote: “Most of the night I would be driving at breakneck speed with about 20 feet of visibility with Park looking at the GPS mounted on the ceiling yelling: ‘Left turn coming up in 1/8 of a mile! Left turn in 50 yards! Left turn NOW!'”
Then, Wodehouse wrote, “I would slam on the brakes, turn the wheel, let the back end slide around, and when pointing in the new direction of the road, hit the gas to the floor so the rear tires would spin through the turn. Basically nine hours of that action.”Wodehouse was picked to drive the night stretch because he was the team’s best driver and was familiar with the terrain from his previous Baja run.”That, or I just got a bad draw,” he joked. The endless cloud of dust coming through the open windshield of the car was the hardest thing to contend with, simply because it cut down visibility, Wodehouse said. Lose your concentration for one second and you might end up stuck in a silt bed, ramming a boulder or tree, or worse, killing someone.”The whole concept is driving as fast as your mind can process the information coming at you,” said Wodehouse, who wore a fire-protective suit and helmet with a respirator connected to it to filter out dust. The helmet also came equipped with a communication system so driver and co-driver could communicate. Wodehouses’ 370-mile run was without incident. He and Brady pitted for fuel three times and didn’t flat once before handing off the car at 5:30 in the morning. The two drivers in the car that started behind Wodehouse weren’t as fortunate, getting stuck in a silt bed before an oncoming truck rammed into them at 50 mph.
“It knocked them right out of the bed and back on course,” Wodehouse said. “They were fine afterward, but it broke their radiator and they were out of it.”After he handed off his team’s car, Wodehouse was flown to La Paz to watch Brady and teammate Steve Hilbert finish the race late that afternoon. After that, the team’s sponsor – a wealthy pharmaceutical distributor – flew Wodehouse and some teammates in his Falcon jet to his oceanside villa in Ixtapa, Mexico, for a little post-race celebrating.Wodehouse said the sojourn at the villa lacked the excitement of the race. And that was more than fine with him after his harrowing drive.”A few days of pampering by 15 servants,” he wrote in his e-mail. “It was terrible. What time would you like breakfast seor? Would you like lunch on the beach seor? What would you like for dinner seor?”I tell you, a guy could get used to that kind of life.”Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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