The Baja Bug: 50 Years of Off-Road Racing

Synecdoche is the figure of speech in which a part comes to mean the whole. In product design, it means that you’ve created something so good that everybody agrees yours is the yardstick. You don’t ask for a tissue, you ask for a Kleenex. You don’t ask for hook and loop fasteners, you ask for Velcro. You don’t ask for diamorphine, you ask for Heroin. Okay, bad example, but when you have sand to conquer, you ask for a dune buggy. The reasons for that are many, but among the biggest is the Beetle’s early dominance of the Baja 1000, a grueling race down the Baja peninsula in Mexico that first started 50 years ago. To celebrate the race’s milestone anniversary, Volkswagen trucked some off-road Beetle-based vehicles to the high desert outside of Barstow, California to let us see all of the wonderful things that can happen when flat-fours meet sand.

The first Baja 1000 started in Tijuana and went all the way to La Paz, at the bottom of the Peninsula. The winners, Vic Wilson and Ted Mangels, took 27 hours and 38 minutes to do it and their car of choice was the Meyers Manx. While we didn’t have access to a Meyers Manx, we were handed the key (well, most of a key, anyway) to the next best thing: a Dune Runner, made by Dune Buggy Enterprises. If you’ve never wanted a Dune Buggy in your life, you’re wrong. Much like the regular Beetle in its simplicity and its controls, the Dune Runner strips away everything that doesn’t make your day brighter. With nearly nothing separating you from the sun and the air and the ground, and a suspension softer than a couch cushion, it’s a rolly polly pleasure machine. Because of this, it was mainly used to roam around the basecamp that VW had set up, but even that was impressive.

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To put things in perspective, it’s important to remember just how inappropriate a medium for cars the desert is. Despite its name, the desert is actually teeming with life, and the human contingent wants electricity. As a result, power lines run through the Mojave like they would anywhere. These must be served, so there are named roads that run along these. Although they have names that end in “Road” and although the desert looks flat, these resemble roads to about the same degree that I resemble an elephant. I mean, we both have knees and a chin and big floppy ears, but in all of the crucial details, we differ pretty substantially. In the Passat I’d driven out to basecamp in, this was a problem. Immediately the front bumper kissed the sand (sorry VW) and I was slowed to a crawl as the fear of breaking a car I didn’t own set in. In the Dune Runner, though, all was well. The soft springs and the lack of weight made it as nimble as a jackrabbit. You still couldn’t go very fast, but that was alright, too, because you were as much riding on this car as you were driving in it, so it felt fast, anyway. And since its rear wheels were the driven ones, a kick of throttle a quick yank of steering wheel had the back end loose and swinging around your hips.

The Manx was quickly passed by its competitors, though, so other ways to organize VW’s parts had to be considered. Through the ‘70s a range of highly modified VWs won the event, taking about 10 fewer hours to complete the race than the original Meyers Manx. Though not exactly the same, these are broadly similar (there’s that phrase again) to the Class 9 vehicles that still race at Baja. These open-wheel racers, despite looking crazy, are still based heavily on the Beetle. The suspension components must be stock VW (although you’re allowed to cut, rearrange, and add in some places), the brakes are still drums, and the engine must be a 1600cc Type 1 mill (though some modification is allowed). To keep things from getting out of hand, anyone can protest and buy a top-five finisher’s engine for $2,500.

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Despite essentially using the same ingredients as the Dune Runner, the Class 9 feels about as different from it as a pizza does from a plate of pasta. The single-seater must be climbed into through a roof panel that hinges forward. The seat is a tight bucket with a five-point race harness as compared to the ‘Runner’s what’s-the-point lap belt. And whereas VW pointed to the buggy and said go for it, the Class 9 came with instructions and lessons about how to restart it if I stalled it (I did), and a helmet radio in case I got lost. Like a race car (apparently) the clutch engaged about a tenth of an inch from the floor causing the uninitiated (i.e. me) to jump back on it like a novice. This was met by the equal parts embarrassing and exciting instructions to just run up the revs and not to worry about kicking up some dirt. This arrangement suited me just fine and I took off down the 10 miles off-road course set up by the head of M.O.R.E. (Mojave Off-Road Racing Enthusiasts).

Unlike the Dune Runner, the Class 9 felt as stiff as a good drink. This, explains the car’s owner, is okay because you’re really only skipping over the bumps, which is not a particularly reassuring comment, especially when it’s followed by the instructions to not wrap your thumbs around the steering wheel because you might lose them if you hit a big bump. Still, from behind a pair of aviators and the wheel of a dusty off-road racer, it’s hard not to feel like Steve McQueen. Along the first two miles or so of silty straights, my foot pushed closer and closer to the floor as the essentially unmuffled flat-four went from familiar throaty rumble to surprisingly sonorous shriek. The sensation of speed is unbelievable, and even though I was likely only doing about 45 mph, it was a filterless 45 mph. A full fat, honestly a little bit dangerous, truly exciting 45 mph. This is the point at which I started seeing myself on the podium of the Baja 1000 (not the top step, I’m not deluded, but maybe the second step) imagining that I’d found my calling and that all those years of playing Dirt and Sega Rally had paid off in true, natural talent. Then I found myself facing 90 mph in the passenger seat of a Class 5 Beetle, terror reaching up my spine as a heavyset, bored-looking desert racer brought me back to reality.

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Amazingly still based on the VW boxer, Class 5 Baja Bug is another step up from Class 9. Although the Beetle I’m in still looks… a little like a Beetle and the basic shape is defined by a real Beetle body, pretty much everything else is new or improved. Displacement is open and the wheelbase can be stretched. We’ll go into much more detail about the construction of this particular racer in a coming article but for now the privately-owned Baja Bug races in California and Nevada. Like the Class 9 racer, this ‘Bug has five-point harnesses and sends air to your brain bucket. Darrell, who built this car, is an unassuming kind of guy who spends his days plumbing. That’s mostly a way to fund his addiction to racing, though. Generous with his time and very affable, I had to no way to prepare myself for the torture he would subject me to.

Once firmly in my seat, he looked at me searchingly, nodded and crawled gingerly around the base camp. As soon as we cleared the camp, he kicked the throttle like a mule and we took off. Remember how I said that the first mile or two were a silty straight? They weren’t. Now running twice as fast as I had in the Class 9, corners and braking zones began to appear. The rocky sections that I’d crawled over before were leveled out, and that wavy section that had injured the Passat were now like the surface of a lake on a calm day. In fact, anyone who’s gone fast in a speedboat has a pretty good idea of what the Baja Bug feels like. The car dances along the surface occasionally finding purchase and pulling your helmeted head harshly to one side or the other. Then Darrell jumped onto the brakes and my head shot forward as he heel-and-toed into second and shot us off around another corner. Before I knew it, we were onto what had even been a jump in the other cars and I prepared myself for kidney-crushing pain. We shot into the air and time slowed and I clenched, fearing the worst, and as we touched down I felt… nearly nothing? Turns out that when you aren’t dancing on rippling desert sand, the Baja Bug is actually nearly as soft as the Dune Runner, absorbing the blows like they weren’t there. Before I knew it, the camp hove into view and not a moment too soon because my head felt like it was about to fall off, yet another reminder that my earlier fantasy was just that.

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And yet, of all the cars I drove and drove in that day, the one that impressed me the most was the least modified of them all. Among the wild Baja Bugs, the Class 9 Dune Buggies, and the even crazier Trophy Trucks, every year a group of dreamers heads down to Baja in what look (by comparison) like stock Beetles to try their luck. These people race in what’s called Class 11. As suggested above, these are effectively stock Beetles, and though they’ve been hollowed out, shod with big, tough tires, and allowed some leeway with the suspension, the drivetrain is essntially as it was when it left the factory. Although the winners of last year’s Baja 1000 took only 17 hours to complete the distance, the race will officially welcome finishers for a full 48 hours (this is, after all, a marathon). An average year sees no Class 11 competitors crossing the finish line in that time. The time is possible, entrants have finished in the past, but more often than not, the Class 11s can’t complete the distance in 48 hours.

It’s tempting to say that speed is what racing is all about. It certainly is intoxicating, but speed is like sex: it’s great, but it ain’t what it’s all about. The Class 11 cars might be slow, but that’s their charm. They wander around the desert like donkeys, and if it’s good enough God’s mom, it’s good enough for me. What the dearth of official Baja finishers doesn’t tell you about the Class 11s is that although they don’t finish in the allotted time, they do finish. They’re a testament to slow and steady. An ode to easy does it. The course is impressive from the seat of a class 5, but it seems all but impossible from the seat of a Class 11. And yet, before you know it, you’re at the top of a hill you thought was too steep, around a rock you thought was too big, and down a hill you couldn’t see the bottom of. All along you’re going slowly, listening to pistons revolving so slowly you’d swear you could count every blow, but you’re moving. You’re getting there. And maybe that’s the secret to why, for 50 years, VW has been a fixture at Baja. Maybe that’s why the bug bears its name and why from 1973 to 1985 a VW won every Baja but one. And maybe that’s why we love VW, because it’s so over-engineered, and so well put together that with only a few modification it’ll go anywhere, do anything, and get you home.

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