The NORRA Mexican 1000 Rally has become on of the most waited for and favorite races of the year, thanks to the huge efforts of Mike and Jenifer Perlman end Eliseo Garcia, always striving to improve the event each season. The race is not only growing with the number of entries, but with the professionalism and organization that it represents, as each year the organizers making a huge effort to attack past issues and foresee new ones. The true success of the race can be measured by the number of racers that are sourcing older, classic race trucks and buggies, with the idea of restoring them or simply improving for the use of this race alone. The concept of a Classic off-road race has seen numerous great vehicles being brought back to light, to shine again and bring owners, racers and fans the delight of seeing the great cars race down in the Baja dirt once again, as they were meant to be, not sitting in some garage or museum. The fact that several Classic Car owner and Drivers also form part of the list and the main attraction is yet another draw to this great event. Where else do you find the first-time racer, discovering and drawing the limits of the vehicles that they have brought to the fight, rubbing shoulders over a taco and a cold Tecate with the likes of Walker Evan, Ryan Arciero, Mike Lund, Ryan Thomas, Larry Ragland to name but a few, all sharing laughs, battle scars and stories.
The other categories that have been growing greatly in number of participants of the race is the “Evolution Class” , which allows for newer pre-runners and Trophy Trucks to also take part in the fun. This, however, is very much a double edged sword, as it is very healthy for the event to have the larger number of competitors, however, the larger horsepower, fire breathing trucks and buggies with up to 42 inch tires, make the course much more difficult, if not sometimes impossible for the racers that are trying to stick to the original ideology of the race, racing in cars which are often kept to reflect the difficulties and challenges that drivers had to face in the times of the original racing of the twenty year plus old vehicles. It is great to see people bringing in Rally Porsches, the two famous VW Vans that competed this year, mustangs, Subarus etc, with their 32 inch tires or so, however, tackling ruts and holes left by the modern monsters sometimes makes the challenge to tough even for the best willed and most hard core contender…
It was truly wonderful to see that the event is also growing in the form of bigger and more important sponsors, which, as always, gives the event not only more coverage which in turn gives the racers’ sponsors additional coverage and target market, but also lays down the ground work for teams to approach bigger brands. To see for example one of the best-established suspension brands, BILSTEIN Shocks, whom coveted several of the trucks and buggies racing in their original status, continue with the tradition of being part of the winning formula once again, sometime almost 4 decades down the line, is simply… poetic! On the other scale, to find a tire heavy hitter such as YOKOHAMA choosing NORRA as its platform to truly introduce its new range of off road tires and linking itself to proven Champion and Off Road Ambassadors such as Boyd James, 6 time NORRA Champion, is truly refreshing.
The 20 & 21st of April saw the festivities start in Ensenada, with contingency, as well as navigation training, especially on the compulsory device RacerTRax that all vehicles had to carry, improving safety by advising other cars of cars wanting to pass, broken down or emergencies. The party atmosphere is always present, with back slapping, smile exchanges and clinking beer bottles being shared everywhere, as everyone starts getting into the mode of all being in one place for one shared interest: to be part of the happiest race in the world! The fact that there was standing room only at the racers meeting was perfect proof to the success of the event, and as always it was a pleasure to see Marty Fiolka as MC, and legends such a Lynn Chenoweth talk about his role in the sport, also sporting a team of two great vehicles, 30 years after he “retired” from the sport, and still today, Lynn is proving to be a game changer!
The race itself divides the 1,369 miles over 5 days, rally style, with liaison and stages, giving the teams the opportunity to work on the cars in between stages, as well as an excuse to mingle with the other teams, whether to share a taco and a beer, or to borrow some part or to join in an effort to get a car with problems through yet another day. It is a big, tight, family, where everyone knows far too well the trials and tribulations needed to face such a challenge, and everyone always gives their best effort to help other teams, even their fiercest competitor, because, everyone here is totally passionate of not only the sport, but the way of life that is Off Road Racing, but also because, let’s face it, you never know when the shoe is going to be on the other foot!
For our team of ATRacing & Tjeenk Racing, it was our return to NORRA after a three-year break, three years when every first week of May is torture, when you have to sit by as a bystander instead of living and being part of the passion. The return was not without its challenges for sure.
Father & Son team Bert and Cos Tjeenk had the TANOM Racing shop in La Paz, BCS, Mexico, prepare the 1983 Bronco that they last raced in 2014. Originally a 4×4 pre-runner, it was decided to leave it as a stock cab truck with three PYROTECT race seats, however to get rid of the front differential and swap out for a wider, classic, I-Beam configuration with cross over steering, and four linked rear suspension, maintaining a fairly stock FORD 351W and C6 Transmission. The idea was to build a truck for them that didn’t exude power or performance, but would give them a stable, reliable platform with which to attack all 1,350 miles of the race, at a comfortable pace. As an added bonus, Marty Seefried, experienced solo B1K motorcycle racer and co-driver, joined them to bring his expertise and calm to the recipe, as they entered their mild FORD Bronco to the highly competitive class of VINTAGE OPEN TRUCKS.
The team’s second truck was a “newly” purchased 1978 Jeep Honcho, originally purchased from the Chrysler agency in La Paz by renown local Baja Racer Rodimiro Amaya, whom after a few years of owning the truck converted into a 4×4 prerunner with which to scout his Baja 1000 efforts for several years. The truck had been abandoned for several years, perhaps decades when Andrea Tomba came across it, and he bought it with the intent to build a classic 4×4 NORRA truck, leaving the original leaf spring suspension set up. Unfortunately, the drivetrain was pretty much shot, so work started on rebuilding the truck, and Andrea teamed up with Class 8 Open racer Tony Wille 307 Baja Racing from Wyoming to share this year’s NORRA adventure together. They located a new motor, and decided to build a new, more modern race transmission and transfer case, drive shaft etc, so that all would be new and ready to simply bolt on to the truck. Tony had a friend who was willing to drive all the parts down to La Paz in a motor home that was to be used as support for the race effort, and all was going fantastic until a fuel line in the RV’s engine bay caught fire just north of Loreto, which literally burnt the whole RV down to the ground. When Andrea got the call about the fire, and he asked if he could send someone up to try to salvage engine and transmission for the race car at least, he was sent photographs of aluminum puddles on the asphalt, where the drive train parts had been. Indeed, no words necessary…
So, now only a few weeks away from the race, there was insufficient time to source another drive train for the Honcho, so it was back to a last-minute drawing board… In the Tanom Racing shop sat the 1989 Toyota Pick Up, last raced, and worked on, at the 2014 NORRA. The NORRA Rules had changed, so it meant that the very stock truck, with a full stock engine and transmission, 33 inch tires, 2” smooth bodied shocks, full chassis had to participate in the VINTAGE Class, due to the fact that the body was 1989 body. Due to the lack of time to find another alternative, the team decide to enter this underdog, racing against vehicles that could run up to 37” tires, half backed rear 4 linked suspension and modern shocks. Andrea called their friends at BILSTEIN shocks whom provided them with new 2” smooth bodied shocks so that at least they had a hope in hell against full on modern by-pass shocks and such, as they entered the VINTAGE 6-cylinder trucks class.
This is probably something that would never happen in other off-road races. Why would somebody spend a fair bit of change to participate in a race with a vehicle that is far below what a class dictate? Why would anyone be interested in going against all odds in a race such as this?
Because even though it is a race, and even though we are all competitive at heart by nature, racing almost takes second place in this “race” en-lieu of being part of an adventure and an experience. Secondly, it is also a tough and long enough race that a cool head and dependable vehicle can sometimes bring home the trophy. This is one of those races that often, the tortoise stands a good chance against the hare!
Both trucks and team get prepped, and have all the add-ons as thankfully sent to them by their loyal sponsors, such as BILSTEIN Shocks, VISION-X Race lights, RACELINE Wheels, QUAKER STATE Lubricants, PYROTECT Race Equipment, Optima Batteries, K&N Race Filters, PCI RACE RADIOS and, as always, all the logistical help from ARNIAN Freight Logistics. Being able to count on some of the best, most recognized brands in the industry is not only an honor, but also give the team an edge when continuity and reliability means the difference between success and getting left in the desert in the middle of nowhere…
So, as the start sets off in Ensenada for the first of five days of tackling the Baja Desert, Bert, Cost & Marty, have decided to take a steady, fairly easy and comfortable pace, yet using most of the new improvements on their Bronco, a steady pace which puts them in 3rd place finish against some heavy hitters on day one! The Bronco is starting to get some attention, and the drivers are standing by their story that they are just holding a good, but comfortable pace.
Day 2 see the Bronco team follow exactly the same tactic, textbook, keeping the truck in perfect conditions without any scares or mechanical issues, and again the truck rolls into the Bay of Los Angeles in third place.
Day three, the longest and toughest day of the rally, sees the now confident and efficient team tackle the heavy silts without any problems, and the pace seems to just naturally improve, as does the truck’s standing, until, at El Arco, the transmission unfortunately produces a crack which in turn also breaks the torque converter. The Chase team make their way to truck, and the crew try changing the transmission, however they chase truck on hand doesn’t have a torque converter that can fit, and the repair goes late into the night, with the trails still having to cover a lot of ground to Scorpion Bay before crossing the whole Peninsula to Loreto. The truck is put on the trailer and rolls into Loreto around 3.00 am.
The following morning another torque converter is located, and after 2 hours of sleep, the team again take transmission off and put all back together trying to make the start time allowed in order not to get disqualified. However, the “spare” torque converter doesn’t do the trick either, and the TJEENK Racing team must unfortunately withdraw from an excellent race, and excellent standing, already talking about how they will try again in 2019!
For the last-minute ATR/307 Racing Toyota effort, the first day goes well, probably better than expected, as the basic truck can hold its own in the class as it finishes in third place. Andrea comments that as no real testing was done to the truck, due to lack of time, there are some “smaller” issues, such as a slightly off caster and camber that is making the truck pretty difficult to steer, eliminating a more aggressive drive style, so the team pre-runs, taking in the view and just simply enjoying the race.
Towards the end of Day 2, the Toyota’s radiator breaks just before Matomi Wash, and Andrea & Tony have to stop several times to refill the radiator, and are leaping out towards Highway 1, and one of their chase trucks is making their way into the desert to get closer to them, when the chase trucks front engine cage breaks, and collapses, not only leaving the truck without a front shock, but also pressing the electrical cables and causing havoc in the electrical circuit. This leads to the Toyota and the Chase truck reaching the Bay of LA and Highway junction around midnight, and the decision is taken that Tony takes over driving the Toyota Race truck with Felipe “Pio” Alvarez as co-driver, the team’s crew chief, to help get the truck to Bay of LA and fixed in the early hours of the morning, whilst Andrea takes the Chase truck to Vizcaino to set up a semi to take the truck down to La Paz, as the team cannot be without an empty support trailer in case the truck has problems further down the road.
Pio, Kawa and the rest of the crew get the Toyota fixed, and off they go on day three. However, whilst tackling a very heavy silt, and paying the penalty for the difficult steering issue, Tony suffers a roll over in the silt. They get the truck right way up again, and get going, meeting the pit for a quick look over and except for some bent parts and cab, and some bruised egos, the truck is on the run again. Howeve,r the team decide to make the call not to race the Pacific loop stage via Scorpion Bay in order to give them team the time to go over the truck, and make sure that there isn’t any more serious damage. The team is conscious that this will stick them with some significant penalty time, however they prefer to take the penalty than risk the truck getting stuck in a difficult to get-to place. And, they decide to take the stance of wanting to finish, even if that means not placing, rather than not finishing at all.
Unbeknown to the team, the other contenders in the class are all also struggling, some battling with break downs, other with engine problems and multiple rebuilds. You have to give it to the NORRA competitors, they for sure don’t give up lightly.
Keeping a steady pace for the last two days, allowed the team not only to finish, but to finish in first place in Class. There are very few better feelings than being asked to receive an award at the impressive awards Ceremony held at El Campestre Beach Club, with excellent food and drinks provided by Rogelio Ampudia and the rest of the STELLA clan, amidst a group of racing legends, friends and organizers.
Competing in NORRA is a privilege, winning is an honor, however being part of the forever growing NORRA extended family is a pleasure that forms memories that are impossible to forget, and, simply, as we wipe of the silt and mud off our visors at the finish line, our minds are already drifting to the next event.
NORRA…. The happiest race in the world!