Baja 1000 is an off-road race that takes place on Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula in the fall. The event includes various types of vehicle classes such as small and large bore motorcycles, stock VW, production vehicles, buggies, trucks, and custom fabricated race vehicles. The course has remained relatively the same over the years with the majority of events being either a point to point race from Ensenada to La Paz, or a loop race starting and finishing in Ensenada. The name of the event is misleading as the mileage varies for the type of event (loop or point to point) and has represented kilometers in the past.
The first official race started in Tijuana, Baja California, on October 31, 1967, and was named the NORRA Mexican 1000 Rally. The course length that year was 849 miles (1,366 km) and ended in La Paz, Baja California Sur, with the overall winning time of 27 hours 38 minutes (27:38) set by Vic Wilson and Ted Mangels while driving a Meyers Manx buggy.
From 1967 to 1972, the race was organized by the National Off Road Racing Association (NORRA). In 1973, Baja California governor Milton Castellanos handed over sanctioning of the event to a non-profit Mexican corporation called Baja Sports Committee (BSC). BSC renamed the event to Baja Mil (Baja 1000) and scheduled the race to run on the original dates chosen by NORRA. Though NORRA held a competing event in the United States that same weekend, BSC successfully ran the race from Ensenada to La Paz like the years prior. Unaware of the challenges, BSC found promoting Baja races more difficult than anticipated. Instead of giving up the race, the Mexican government requested help from Short Course Off-Road Enterprises (SCORE) in hosting and promoting future Baja races. Through negotiations with Mickey Thompson and his SCORE organization, the Government agreed to give exclusive rights to SCORE to hold Baja races and also reluctantly allowed SCORE to cancel the event for 1974. SCORE hired Sal Fish as president and took control of the Baja 1000 from that year on with the Baja 1000 race resuming under new control in 1975.
1962: The first timed run
When Jack McCormack and Walt Fulton of American Honda decided to hold a long distance run to prove the reliability of Honda’s new CL72 Scrambler, they approached well known off-road dirt biker and local Honda dealer Bud Ekins for suggestions. Bud suggested the Tijuana to La Paz route (Federal Highway 1) which was 950 miles (1,530 km) of rocks, sand washes, dry lake beds, cattle crossing, mountain passes, and paved road. Bud Ekins declined to perform the run because of Triumph Motorcycles ties, but Dave Ekins (Bud’s brother) and Billy Robertson Jr. agreed to perform the trip for American Honda. After pre-running the peninsula in Fulton’s Cessna 180, they began the journey to La Paz just after midnight on March 22, 1962. While being followed by two journalists in an airplane and using telegraph offices at the Mexican border and in La Paz, Dave Ekins recorded the first official timed run in 39 hours 56 minutes (39:56) with a total distance of 952.7 miles (1,533.2 km). The event received coverage in the Globe, Argosy, and Cycle World magazines, earning awe and respect for Honda and the Baja run. The Globe and Argosy accounts also included close encounters with death and other dangers which Ekins claims were “colorful additions”.
Four wheels vs two
Wanting to beat the existing motorcycle record and to help fuel sales of the Meyers Manx, Bruce Meyers used his original prototype buggy called “Old Red” for an attempt at breaking the record set by Ekins. After pre-running a course south to La Paz, Ted Mangels and Bruce Meyers started the record breaking attempt back to Tijuana from La Paz at 10:00pm on April 19, 1967. With journalist from Road & Track magazine following the two to witness the attempt, the final official time was 34:45 beating Ekins run by more than 5 hours. Upon returning back to the United States, the journalist documenting the run sent out press kits with photographs and a news release with the headline “Buggy Beats Bike in Baja.” to hundreds of magazines and newspapers. Soon, more stories of adventure, close calls, and broken speed records flooded media coverage around the world. Following the event, Bruce Meyers and his Meyers Manx became an overnight sensation and the competition between four wheels and motorcycles for the fastest Baja run began.
In the following months, more attempts at breaking the record would continue. One of the attempts included a multiple vehicle run organized by Ed Pearlman (Mexican 1000 founder) that ended in an official four-wheel drive record being recorded but with the overall time falling short of the record set by Meyers. On July 4, 1967, an American Motors Rambler American sedan would leave Tijuana at 9:00am to successfully break the record set by Meyers with an overall time of 31 hours.
As the timed runs recorded via telegraph became popular, a need for an organized event to compete for the quickest Baja run was starting to grab the attention of other competitors. Once Ed Pearlman caught word of Meyers run, Ed convinced Dick Cepek, Claude Dozier, Ed Orr, Drino Miller and journalist John Lawlor to give a run to La Paz a try. In June 1967, Ed Pearlman and group left Tijuana and immediately ran into mechanical troubles. This trip provided much downtime for Ed Pearlman to brainstorm the idea of the National Off-road Racing Association (NORRA). After Pete Condos and Perlman put up the funds to incorporate NORRA, the group announced an official recognition of the previous record setters and created classes that related to the type of vehicle used to break the record. During the later part of summer, NORRA named the event the “Mexican 1000 Rally” and announced the first official race from Tijuana to La Paz was to be held on November 1, 1967.
Although motorcyclists participate and are often the overall winners, many competitors drive modified or stock 4-wheel vehicles such as cars, trucks, ATVs and dune buggies. Race teams consist of factory supported groups that build custom fabricated vehicles and provide chase vehicles via helicopter, to the much smaller and less glamorized sportsman teams competing in an all-stock vehicle with no chase vehicle support at all. Stock Volkswagen Type One Beetles are modified for use in off road terrain, known as Baja Bugs, have been a common sight throughout the event duration, but the factory-supported all-spaceframe Trophy Truck entries are the most visible.
In contrast to the current factory EX supported modern race vehicles that overall the car and truck classes, Erik Carlsson drove a basically stock front wheel drive Saab 96 V4, finishing third in 1969 and fifth in 1970.