Every November, Mexico hosts the Baja 1000 and the peninsula becomes the toughest race course on the planet. Competitors can prep for years, only to find their hopes dashed at race mile 75 with a blown motor, a trashed transmission, or any other myriad of roll overs or endos.
Off-road racing is one of the only forms of motorsports where anyone, regardless of experience, can enter any race. The Baja 1000 is no exception. First time racers find themselves sharing the same course as Rod Hall, who has competed in every Baja 1000 since it’s inception in 1967, or other living legends like Robby Gordon, BJ Baldwin, Bryce Menzies, and Heidi Steele.
While the Trophy Trucks get much of the media attention, there were 24 classes that participated this year, and they all raced on the exact same course. 800hp trucks share the same track as 200 hp class 10s who share the same track as the 70 hp underdogs of the Baja 1000, class 11.
Class 11 is essentially a stock VW bug. The vehicle must maintain the full stock VW Type 1 chassis and body with no modifications. Only one shock per wheel is allowed and no air shocks, coil overs, or bypass shocks are allowed. Disc brakes are not allowed. Steering components must remain stock.
The only large modifications allowed are a roll cage, a fuel cell, an external oil cooler, and a skid plate. Other than that, a class 11 is pretty much what came off the line in Wolfsburg in the late 1960s.
And there are people crazy enough to race them 1,000 miles over the roughest terrain on earth.
One such crazy racer is Dennis Hollenbeck and Team H12:One. Dennis is a missionary living in Ensenada, Mexico. He loves racing class 11 precisely because it’s so difficult. He enjoys the challenge of making the impossible possible.
They attempted the Baja for the first time in 2013. Unfortunately, they DNFed (did not finish) at race mile 69 with a blown side plate on their transmission. They didn’t have a spare so they were out of the race.
This year Dennis and his team gave the Baja a second shot. And what a shot it was.
This year the Baja 1000 was a peninsula run, 1275 miles from Ensenada to La Paz. Logistically this is much more difficult than a loop. More chase vehicles, more people, and more money is involved to support the car all the way to La Paz. H12:One received professional support from BF Goodrich, who had 8 pits set up. Still, 8 pits for a class 11 is not enough, and Dennis had arranged for emergency pit support through Baja Pits. Additionally the team had a Rubicon, a Cherokee with a winch, two 4×4 trucks, and van and trailer, all helping to get 1121 across the finish line.
Having capable chase vehicles is a must in Baja, especially with a class 11. The course is notorious for its silt beds; a deep, fine powder that can easily swallow up a slow moving class 11 and keep them stuck for hours. Since there is no rule about other cars on the race course (in fact some parts of the course are regularly trafficked dirt roads), often H12:One chase vehicles followed 1121 into the silt beds, just to make sure they got through.
The team had a great first few hundred miles. Only a failed fuel pump, a clogged air filter, and some electrical gremlins bothered them, and these were easily sorted out.
Real trouble did not arrive until the early morning hours, over 36 hours from when they started.
1121 was making its way through some sharp, silty turns. One strategy to get through these kinds of turns is to keep the revs high and lean the car into the berm. It helps push the car around the turn, albeit often on two wheels.
But the only constant in Baja is constant change, and while this strategy worked for 1121 for a bit, the berm suddenly disappeared, the road changed into an off camber turn, and 1121 dumped over on its right side.
Creative use of the jack can right a class 11 when it’s on its side, but the car had rolled on its right side where the jack was mounted. The driving team did their best to right the little bug to no avail. Even worse, the driver had hurt himself while crawling out of the rolled car and could only use one hand. At this point they could not reach their chase vehicles over the radio, but BFG was able to relay their position to the rest of the team. Soon, one of the Jeeps came to the rescue and they were on their way.
But this turned out to be the easy part of their journey.
Around race mile 1100 they broke their left front shock tower. But they were so close to finishing, to winning, that they decided to press on. At this point they were the only class 11 car still running. Everyone else had broken down. All the team had to do was get 1121 across the finish line under the time limit of 49 hours and they would win the whole thing. So even though there was now a lot of stress on their left front spindle, stopping to change the front beam would take that win away from them.
Fans who were watching back home on the SCORE tracker had now realized that this little bug could finish, but all they could see was a little blip on the screen. 1121 was a mere 10 miles from the finish line and they had an hour left.
Of course, this is Baja. Anything can happen. And then it did. Dennis was in the co-driver seat and he described the scene:
“We were so close. We could see La Paz! But first we had to head down The Stairs, a down hill section that is literally like going down a set of stairs, but like 2’-3’ drop offs. We were creeping down the stairs, and of course we could see where it finally bottoms out and we took one drop off and hugged the left side. 1121 kind of came down odd and I think we felt something odd, then it kind of bottomed out and you could feel the difference and that’s when Nick Sandez said, ”Something is wrong with the front end!”
“I knew we most likely lost a wheel and where it was. So I said “Go! Just Go! Keep going!!”
“As Nick was moving I stuck my head out and I could see the spindle just dragging away. I struggle with this as in some way, I would have stopped, ran up the hill, got the tire and tried to fix it, but the other side still says, “Go, just go man, it’s all or nothing!”
“Then there’s calling out on the radio. You call out, but not reply, and you call out more and more just hoping that someone hears you. We eventually made it to a hill and we just couldn’t get the traction to get up it. Next move was to jam a large branch under the spindle to try to get traction back on the rear wheels. That is when finally Dave Forrest showed up in his Rubicon, and just behind him was Mario Sandez with the spare drum. We knew the ‘Big Win’ was now behind us, but we had a race to finish!”
The team took about an hour and a half to get the car moving again, and with legions of off road fans cheering them on from both the side of the course and at home via the computer, they crossed the finish line after 50:35:04 hours of racing, missing the 49 hour time limit by just over an hour and a half.
Just for comparison, the overall winner, Rob MacCachren, finished in 22:31:27. hours.
While Team H12:One officially did not win their class, sanctioning body SCORE gave them all finisher medallions and an honorary 1st place trophy for their valiant effort.
Team H12:One races for Mi Casa de Esperanza, a shelter for women and children in Ensenada. The team assists in construction projects at the center, everything from fixing infrastructure to building a bike ramp, or just playing a game of four square with the kids. Before the Baja 1000 the team visited the center to give away some toys, t-shirts, and the very popular race stickers. In return, the kids all put their painted hand prints on the car, to help push them the full 1,275 miles of the 2014 Baja 1000.
Dennis is not without his sense of humor. When asked if he had any advice for anyone wanting to run the Baja in a class 11, he said, “Yeah, stay on the side lines with your BBQ!”
But he offers real advice as well, “Try to hook up with another team first. Race a year or two with them, and hope they do a peninsula run. And you have to understand that class 11 is a different kind of racing. You might start out racing other cars in your class, but eventually you realize that you are racing the course and the clock, and both of them couldn’t care less who you are or what your cause is. They’ll crush you and your hopes, so be ready for that. Talk to everyone you can and don’t try to be like this team or that team. Find out what works best for you.”
His parting wisdom: “For us, well yeah, we’re a bunch of Jesus Freaks, so lots of prayer.”
Watch the team get their good luck hand prints at Mi Casa Esperanza. You can help Dennis help the shelter www.teamh12one.com.