Taking on the World's Most Difficult Off-Road Race in a VW Bug
The Baja 1000 is the longest continuous off-road race in the world and the Desert Dingoes race it in stock pre-1982 Volkswagen Beetles. That's like trying to win the America's Cup in a blowup raft.
Photos by Toby Silverman
Desert Dingo Racing has never won the Baja 1000. They've never even finished. The Baja 1000 is the longest continuous off-road race in the world and the Desert Dingoes are one of only a handful of teams that race it in Class 11—the racing term for stock pre-1982 Volkswagen Beetles. The brainchild of Burning Man spokesman Jim Graham, the Dingoes are an eclectic bunch, from weed-smoking 63-year-old Dennis "Crusty" Lange to heating and cooling man and quad enthusiast Gil Medrano. What they set out to accomplish each November is a nearly impossible task. It's like trying to win the America's Cup in a blowup raft.
When Toby Fray, my friend and the youngest Dingo, first told me about the team, I didn't know if I should believe him. Fray is the kind of wildcard who would off-road race on the side, but it was hard to believe that he went to Mexico's western peninsula every November to drive 1,000 miles in a VW Bug.
"We're so incapable of traversing this terrain, just by being Class 11, that there's definitely some insanity involved," he told me. Then why does he do it? "A little masochism maybe. But you can't experience something like this anywhere else." It didn't take much convincing before I was on my way down to Baja to stay with Fray and the team and trail their Bug during the race.
Fray had explained that the Dingoes' chances were slim—they'd raced in the Baja three times already and never come close to finishing. But as I talked to the team during the week leading up to the race, I started to believe that they could really win this year. Dingo founders Graham and Medrano were incredibly confident, and even Fray started to become hopeful as the race approached. The Bug was in great shape and the team had a bunch of new technology in the car—satellite phones, a portable hotspot, a better GPS—to make communication on the Baja's huge course less difficult. But by the time the team reached the 200-mile marker, everything had gone to shit.
We were deep in the land east of Punta Colonet—gorgeous rolling desert like much of the northern half of Baja California, all small shrubs, agave cacti, sandy peaks, and burnt-brown ranches—when Fray radioed to tell us that he and his co-driver Cyrus Roohi were stranded. They were ankle-deep in silt, halfway up a hill to the right of an antenna tower. The tower was the only landmark in what felt like an endless expanse of desert. It'd been 20 hours since the Bug left Ensenada and the Desert Dingoes were less than a sixth of the way through the 1,275-mile race. It looked like it was over.
Chuck Gianni studied the GPS in his 1990 Suburban as his brother-in-law Medrano talked to Fray on the radio. The truck raced along the bumpy dirt course, veering up onto shrubs to avoid patches of the ultra-fine, quicksand-like silt which plagues the Baja racers. Finally, we spotted the 1969 matte-black VW Bug marooned atop some cacti on the side of the hill near the antenna tower. The Bug's front left fender had been ripped off and Fray's face was half-covered with white dust. He popped the hood as we approached and hooked a black towline to the back of the Suburban. The silt was thick and the hill was steep, so the wheels of the truck sputtered for a moment before catching and hauling the Bug to the crest. But from the flat top of the hill we could see that there was a 70-degree decline and then an even steeper sandy incline to summit.
Fray's copilot Cyrus Roohi, who had flown in from Virginia to help out and take notes for his own Class 11 team, figured it was time for the Desert Dingoes to cut their losses. He thought it'd be prudent to tow the Bug out to Highway 1, meet the rest of the team there, and head home. "We're going to grind for four more hours and still end up on a trailer," he told Fray.
But Fray, blond hair rustled up and blue eyes peaking through his dusted face, would have none of quitting. "We grinded nine months to get here!"
He stared hard at Roohi and took a deep breath of the hot, dusty desert air. "I'll fucking drive it myself!"
In reality, it took way more than nine months for the Dingoes to get to that desert hill by Punta Colonet. In December of 2006, Graham—a wide-eyed and curly-haired 53-year-old—and his wife Roxanne came across the documentary Dust to Glory, a 2005 film that valorizes the Baja 1000 race. "Ten minutes in, I turned to her and said, 'I have to win this race,'" Graham told me. "And she's like, 'You don't know anything about cars.' I said, 'I don't care, I got to do it.'"
He called a few friends who, after seeing the documentary, were as ready as Graham to give it a shot. They bought a 1969 VW Bug rolling chassis for $300 and, 11 months later, the first incarnation of the Desert Dingoes went off the start line at the 2007 Baja 1000. "It's like saying, Why don't I take up jogging? and the first thing you do is the Olympic decathlon."
I met Graham before this year's race at his house in Felton, California, deep in the forest outside of Santa Cruz. He'd agreed to take us to Mexico in his 1985 VW Bus, and we started the crawl toward Baja early Sunday morning. We met the rest of the team at a San Diego Walmart that night and made it to the starting line in Ensenada late in the afternoon on Monday, three days before the race.
Downtown Ensenada was all done up—a Coca-Cola stage, a Monster Energy tent, and a bunch other sponsor booths set up around the Riviera del Pacifico Cultural Center—but the team's convoy of cars drove past the ritzy hotels filled with Trophy Truck drivers and up a dirt hill in the southeast side of town. We passed some rundown shacks and a few empty lots, before stopping in front of a maroon gate. The Dingoes had arrived at the compound of another Class 11 team owner.
We unloaded the cars, claimed bunk beds in the two-story boardinghouse, and then went to the empty lot across the road where Dingo crew member Crusty had parked his RV. He was perched at the edge a sharp cliff face looking down over roofless shacks, Highway 1, and finally a cobalt cove. We sat down in lawn chairs on the cliffside and Crusty lit a joint as we watched traffic fly by.
The Dingoes's eight members had spent every Saturday and Sunday for the last three months in Roseville, California, wrenching on their VW to earn the right to drive—"It's like a Marxist collective," Graham told me—and in a little less than 70 hours they'd see the fruits of their labor.
At 6 AM on the morning of the race, a crowd was gathered around the starting line downtown. Every 30 seconds for the next hour, a dirt bike exploded off the line, taking a sharp left turn and then another, before flying off a dirt hill into a dried-up canal. After the last motorcycle took off, the first of the quads began the race.
Back at the compound, the Desert Dingoes were making their final preparations. The Trophy Trucks—$750,000 vehicles with three feet of suspension and helicopter escorts—would leave at noon, followed by the UTVs, the less powerful trucks, and the Baja Bugs—like Class 11s but with suped-up engines. The Desert Dingoes would be the last to leave the starting line, setting off at 2:30 PM.
The Dingoes met for a frenzied final pre-race meeting later that morning. Graham told the group that they were the Class 11 team to beat and everyone in the room seemed to believe him. But then one Dingo laid out a thrown-together driving order and another gave an incredibly vague explanation of the chase car plan, and I started to worry. I asked Gil Medrano if this haphazard coordination was par for the course, and he broke out in a grin. "Welcome to Desert Dingo Racing. Organized chaos."
The Dingo's caravan drove down the hill to the start line. The first pair of Dingo drivers hopped into the Bug, while Romy and Jen Frederick—the Dingoes' PhD-holding high-school sweethearts—started the Suburban chase car, which they'd drive for the first leg. I hopped in back and we took off. Crusty's RV and Graham's VW Bus would meet back up with the Bug 200 miles down Highway 1.
As we left Ensenada, the one-story wood homes and storefronts began to disappear. After a few miles, it was all empty desert, save for the occasional ranch or wrecking yard. Everything we passed was for sale—it was all bone-dry and barren.
We stopped at the first place where the course crossed the highway, a little military outpost called Ojos Negros. Romy and I walked to the gas station to buy a 12-pack while my photographer and Jen went to watch the Trophy Trucks drive by. A crowd of locals gathered on a small incline above the track as ranchero music blasted from a parked SUVs stereo. It was an odd moment of tranquility before a text from the Bug on the Iridium GO—the portable satellite hotspot—evaporated any sense of calm. "Desert Dingo stuck in silt at Race Mile 60." We hurried back to the Suburban, pulled a U-turn, and jetted north back up Highway 3. We had small-talked on the way to Ojos Negros, but the drive back was silent. This was supposed to be the year that the Dingoes won their class at the Baja 1000, but things were already going wrong.
At Race Mile 50, Romy took a sharp left turn onto the course and floored it. The Suburban bounced violently over the harsh divots and skidded around blind turns. When Jen gripped her armrest, he shot her a glare—for a moment the 30-year-olds felt like an old married couple. "The Suburban's not a race car," Jen said. "Don't break it, honey." He rolled his eyes.
Five miles onto the course, Gianni, the Bug's current co-driver, texted us back on the satellite phone. They were at Mag 1—the first of the pits to refuel—and the Bug was dumping oil. Romy told him to check the valve cover gasket and after changing it, they got the car going. A few minutes later, Gianni radioed: "We're having trouble getting into second."
"Is it grinding?" Romy asked.
"A little," Gianni said.
Romy turned to me. "That's not good."
At 8 PM, Romy finally got through to Graham on the satellite phone and they agreed to wait and change the transmission at Mag 3, where the rest of the chase vehicles were parked. We pulled to the side of the highway to wait for our Bug, watching racers pass. The Desert Dingoes were already close to last place.
Finally, we saw the Bug fly past and started after it. Gianni radioed to say that they still couldn't get the car into first gear, which meant they couldn't slow down. The Bug flew down the highway and then took a sharp left back onto the course. The road was a dirt path that cut between farms and shacks in the small town. There were no streetlights, only the wide starry sky and the Desert Dingo's red-and-blue flashing roof lights. It was beautiful to watch the Bug fly at 70 MPH over the bumpy course as we tried to keep up. For the first time, I really believed that the Dingoes had a chance—maybe not to win, but to at least finally finish the cource.
The race car rattled its way over a few more divots before hitting a larger bump and going airborne. We watched as the Bug's wheels lifted from the ground and then everything went dark—the harsh landing had completely stalled it out. Gianni radioed: "It's a booby trap!" Romy backed off the Suburban's gas and took it slow over the bootlegged ramp.
Booby traps are an interesting look into the Baja locals' relationship with the race. In small towns throughout the peninsula, Mexicans will build makeshift jumps on the course. The Trophy Trucks and the motorcycles hit them and fly in the air, which makes for great theater for the spectators, who camp out with beers and grills to watch the race. There are YouTube videos showing the best way to build a jump and some that show locals lying under the jump as trucks soar over them.
Unfortunately, VW Beetles aren't built to fly through the air, and a booby trap can mean the end of their race. But it's worth noting that there is no malice toward the Class 11s. Every local we met wanted pictures with the old Bugs and respected the Dingoes' crazy decision to try to finish the race.
The Bug could not start in the loose sand on the other side of the booby trap, so we hooked it to the Suburban and towed it 100 yards to solid ground. Gianni and I walked after the car. Hopelessness was setting back in, but the night was warm and the stars were out. We didn't say much as we walked.
We push-started the Bug and it set off again, limping the last 20 miles into Mag 2. When we arrived, the pit crew fueled it up while Jen talked to Graham on the phone. We were 40 miles from Mag 3, where we'd planned to change the transmission, and the Bug was in bad shape. Romy and I stood behind the car, trying to push-start it, but it was stuck in second gear and wouldn't budge. Jen tried in vain to convince the rest of the team to drive backward on the course and fix the transmission right there. Romy turned to her and shouted, "Tell them to get back here or we're out!"
Right then, we started to rock the Bug and finally it rumbled back to life. If the Bug could make it to Mag 3, the Dingoes' race wasn't over. We hopped in the Suburban to trail it down the road.
Twenty minutes later, Gianni radioed to tell us they'd lost all power. They glided almost a half-mile like a soapbox derby car, but eventually, a gradual incline halted their progress. We hopped out of the Suburban and strapped the Bug's towline to the back of the truck. We were 25 miles from Mag 3 with a curvy drive over an unlit mountain pass between the Dingo and the rest of the team and the Bug was completely dead. We'd have to tow it the rest of the way.
I was silent in the back of the Suburban, having visions of the Bug slipping off the edge of the cliff, pulling the truck down with it. But Romy was relaxed up front. He took each turn at 30 MPH, confidently keeping the wide truck on the road with the towline taut. I tried to picture the knot that connected the Dingo to the back of the Suburban and prayed he had tied it right.
The tow, more than anything all week, illuminated the odd blend that makes up the Desert Dingo Racing Team. Gianni and his co-pilot Medrano are from Northern California, but have drawls, conservative ideals, and a love affair with their trucks. Romy and Jen are the opposite—they're Burning Man regulars with advanced degrees from Berkeley. But on that desolate mountain road, strapped tightly into their powerless Bug, Gianni, and Medrano had absolute trust in Romy and Jen to drag them to safety.
The dream of conquering the Baja 1000 in a 1969 VW Bug had brought these completely incongruent characters onto that highway, with their lives in each other's hands. After 45 minutes, the Suburban pulled into the BF Goodrich pit by Mag 3 with the Desert Dingo in tow.
The guys at the BF Goodrich tent—and really, every other driver and pit worker at the Baja 1000—were much more similar to Gianni and Medrano than Romy and Jen. Fray, a San Francisco native, had told me: "You go to these races and in the pits, there're fucking 'Impeach Gore' flags, and you're like, What does that even mean? " So when Romy and Fray—who met us at the pit—started the arduous task of switching out the engine, there were some wary eyes upon them.
Medrano and Gianni tried to help, but were too delirious to do productive mechanical work. They'd been in the car for ten hours, fighting hard for every one of the 156 miles they'd traveled. So instead, they told anyone and everyone their race stories. Off-road racing is a team sport, but is also a hugely personal endeavor. For much of the race, the driver and co-driver are confronting pulse-raising action away from their team. Most of what happens out on the course is experienced in hearsay, and Medrano and Gianni's account of their initial breakdown changed each time they told it. At first, they got stuck in the silt because of an unfortunate mistake trying to pass another Class 11. By the 20th telling, there was nothing they could have done to avoid it.
Finally, the engine was installed and Dingo partners Roohi and Fray climbed in. The message all week had been "Smooth is fast, deliver the car," but the Dingoes needed more than that to have any chance to finish before the time limit ran out. Fray stepped on the gas and the Bug flew out of the BF Goodrich pit.
Romy bummed a cigarette and we all cracked beers. After eight hours of ups and downs, the transmission was repaired and we could finally exhale. It was 1 AM.
The rest of the chase vehicles were gathered around a small dirt patch close to Mag 3. I got out a sleeping bag and lay down on the edge of the trailer, trying to get warm in the frigid desert night. After a couple hours of shivering, I passed out. I woke up at 6:15, chugged an energy drink, and watched the sunrise.
In my exhaustion the night before, I hadn't noticed where we parked, but in the morning light, it was clearly a bizarre stopping point. The barren lot was strewn with trash and burnt shrubs and there was a big crater about ten yards to our left. A teenager walked past with a plastic shopping bag full of clams, offering to sell us some. We were miles from the ocean.
That's when we got the call from Roohi, saying that they were stuck for good halfway up a sandy hill by Punta Colonet. The only landmark as far as the eye could see was an antenna tower. We climbed back into the Suburban and headed off to save the Bug again.
"I'll fucking drive it myself!" Fray shouted at Roohi, under the shadow of the radio antenna. He climbed into the Bug's driver's seat and sped recklessly for half a mile before finally admitting the futility of continuing. He met up with us in the Suburban by Highway 1. "Well, we already fucking lost," Fray said to me. "You want to go for a ride?"
I got into Roohi's racing suit and strapped into the co-driving seat as the Suburban trailed us to a gas station in Punta Colonet. Even on the paved highway, you can feel every single bump. And there is no windshield, so specks of dirt and concrete flew right into my race helmet's visor. During the ride, I started to understand why the Dingoes do what they do. The Baja 1000 in a Class 11 is truly an adventure. It exists on another plane—the boyhood world of fort building, color wars, and double-dog dares. I was buzzing on adrenaline as we pulled in front of a little taco shop next to the gas station.
Roohi went to buy a 12-pack while we stood by the car. Little kids ran up from the town, asking for Hero Cards—small posters with the team's logo and picture on it—and autographs. Fray took the kids on drives around the lot while I tried to explain in broken Spanish that the Dingoes had stopped because their wheel flew right off the car. The Dingoes had lost the race, but to these kids, they were absolutely heroes. Their excitement was infectious.
Joseph Bien-Kahn is a freelance reporter, part-time café worker, and roving intern in San Francisco. He's had articles published in the Rumpus and the Believer. He's also editor-in-chief of the literary mag OTHERWHERES. Follow him on Twitter.
Toby Silverman is fine-art photographer based in San Francisco. You can see more of his work here.