Hear Me Out: Volkswagen Needs to Race the I.D. Buggy at the Baja 1000

Volkswagen needs to race the I.D. BUGGY at the Baja 1000 before another manufacturer does and you’re wrong for disagreeing with me!

“Waaaaah, why would VW even want to go to Baja?” You ask, ignorantly.

“Ooooooooh, an EV could never make it,” you say, incorrectly.

“Bu—bu… but why would Volkswagen spend gobs of money to race an electric dune buggy against, and possibly lose to, the gas buggy that ran 50 years ago?” You ask… actually, that’s a good point, but I think I have a loophole. Before I address that, though, I humbly submit my flawless reasoning:

The Baja 1000 is one of those timeless events that feels like it’s been going on forever. But it hasn’t, you’re wrong about that, too. The first race was run in 1967 and it was won by Vic Wilson and Ted Mangels in a Meyers Manx in a time of twenty-seven hours and thirty-eight minutes.

VWs or VW-based vehicles then won again in 1970, 1973, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, and 1985. Yes, the history of the Baja 1000 is littered with more VWs than the Silverdome parking lot. But there’s been a bit of a drought for the last 34 years.

The I.D. BUGGY could bring VW back to glory atop a timing sheet—but probably not the timing sheet. Yes, I believe VW can take the I.D. Buggy to the top of the electric timing sheets—largely because there’s nearly no one else racing electric vehicles at Baja.

“Maybe there aren’t many people racing electric vehicles at Baja because it’s a bad idea,” you say, wildly wrongly.

Raul Rodriguez Jr, who raced an electric vehicle at Baja, thinks it’s a great idea. And he isn’t some upstart hippy. Having grown up around Baja and raced it for years, he’s one of the few people brave enough to acknowledge that Baja works better if we can keep doing it.

I ran my plan past Rodriguez to confirm its genius and cover off any issues and he agreed that VW should race Baja. Crucially, though, even after running the race in his own independent EV race car, Rodriguez remains convinced that racing EVs at Baja is a great idea. He brought up a couple of advantages.

The all-electric Fenix Motors race car

First of all, there’s weight distribution. Off-road racers, especially the kind that use UTV Class 1 chassis like Rodriguez’s Fenix Motors race car, usually put their engines way out over the back wheels. Although Rodriguez uses the same 300 hp/500 ft-lb electric motor as a Koenigsegg Regera, it only weighs about 80 lbs–which is considerably less than a small block Chevy.

The major weight for an electric off-road racer is in the batteries, which are in the middle of the chassis. If you thought that was helpful on-road, it’s even more helpful off-road, says Rodriguez.

The torque of the electric motor is also a big plus.

“You can modulate with your accelerator how much you want to give it,” says Rodriguez. “You can either spin the tires a little bit more or not.”

Because there’s no transmission the torque curve is a constant, meaning you don’t have to negotiate with gears. Better yet, when you get to a hill, you don’t have to shift down.

“If you have a regular manual transmission and you shift gears 1) you lose a little bit of momentum and 2) you start spinning the tires right away because you’re going right into first or second gear,” says Rodriguez. “You don’t really have as much control as in an electric car.”

And it doesn’t just come in handy when you’re stuck. A lack of transmission is a big deal because transmissions are a frequent failure point in off-road racing. Get rid of it and that’s one less (likely) thing to go wrong.

Rodriguez admitted, though, that there are some issues to racing an EV off-road. First of all, even if you have swappable batteries like his Fenix Motors racer does, pitstops still take a long time. And because 2018 was his first crack at the race, Rodriguez’s car only had a range of 60-70 miles so the logistical challenge of getting fully charged batteries to the car every time it ran out of juice turned out to be one of his biggest challenges.

“See? It barely worked for someone with swappable batteries. How’s it going to work with a permanent battery like the BUGGY’s?” You point out, showing your severe lack of vision.

First of all, even for gas cars, about 100 miles between pitstops tends to be the most efficient strategy. And 100 miles is, oh, just a lot less than even the low-range BUGGY can manage on a charge. So the range actually isn’t the issue. But I don’t really think it is in the real world either.

What people call range anxiety is actually recharging anxiety. It’s a problem that Fenix Motors solved by using Tesla batteries and making them removable (which meant that pits only took about 4 minutes and he figures he can shave that time down by using a faster-releasing system) but, unfortunately, VW can’t do that. Fortunately, this is exactly why Baja is such a great idea for VW.

The company has committed itself to fixed batteries and it would send a weird message to say that fixed is best unless you need to go far. The point of racing is to sell cars and the point of this race is to convince people that they don’t need to be afraid of range or charging. If only VW had a charging infrastructure company that it was required to use to prove that electric cars are worthwhile. Something that was looking to electrify America and needed to prove that it would be everywhere, even in remote locations…

Well-funded teams already set up their pit locations in advance of the race car getting there. So VW, a company that is famously a fan of organization, logistics, and general Germanity, could bring, say, five of those fast-charging generators it had at Pikes Peak to the event and use a few of them to chase after the BUGGY, leapfrogging around the ones that were already there. That way, they could effectively Electrify Baja (for real, though, this is a marketing slam dunk).

Charging times are still a bit of a sticky wicket. Even with that super fast-charging generator from Pikes Peak, it took about 20 minutes to charge the ID.R’s batteries. That, even by the most generous estimations, is a long time. But VW is a massive corporation working on EVs and it can shrink those times. And those carbon neutral, glycerine-powered generators are the perfect item for a Baja race–especially if you stick a couple of solar panels on them, too.

And if VW’s estimated range of 260 miles turns out to be actionable (admittedly, race speed, temperature, and the BUGGY’s diminutive size all make this a potentially difficult point for the VW Motorsport engineers) then VW could cut down how many pit stops are required.

“That doesn’t really solve the problem of speed, though,” you say, in a way that’s so wrong I don’t even feel good about it anymore. I just kinda feel bad for you about how wrong you are.

This race won’t be about speed. A marathon isn’t about winning and neither is the Baja 1000. Both are about finishing. Yes, Baja is technically a race and 20-minute charges would effectively make it impossible to win the race, but not-winning is just a problem of spin. Volkswagen has already proven that it’s happy to set electric records, not overall records, by taking the ID.R to the Nurburgring.

I am not, and I can’t stress this enough, very good at photoshop.

The brilliance of Baja is that the route changes every year, so you can’t compare it to the cars of past years, avoiding any potentially embarrassing comparisons to the original Meyers Manx. And if we use a lightly modified BUGGY (I’m talking bare minimum here, roll cage, suspension, and as many batteries as possible) VW could argue that it’s essentially running a road car. The only other “stock” cars that race at Baja are class 11 Beetles (though they’re highly modified, too), That means that the BUGGY only has to worry about beating original Beetles and most of those don’t get to the finish line before the guy with the checkered flag goes home.

Beating class 11 Beetles shouldn’t be an issue because, as the ID.R and indeed Raul Rodriguez Jr (his electric car had no issues keeping up with gas-powered cars on the same chassis) have proven, EVs are fast and without a transmission, they break down less.

(Oh, and in my plan, Rodriguez has been hired by VW, so his Fenix Motors race car isn’t racing, opening the door for a not particularly quick, but ultimately meaningful victory in the electric class.)

VW sponsored this Class 11 Beetle for the 50th running of the Baja 1000.

And while he isn’t the only person to have raced an EV at Baja, Rodriguez is one of the few. So few and far between are electric competitors, that Rodriguez was effectively allowed to write the rulebook for his class. So chances are VW can lock out the electric category. Putting it back on top at the Baja 1000 (technically) reminding us all (and, most importantly, those spend-happy baby boomers) of the Meyers Manx, and convincing us that maybe range anxiety isn’t quite the issue we thought it was.

I freely admit that I’m making quite a few INCREDIBLY difficult engineering issues seem easy to fix to make my point, but I really do believe that endurance racing and adventure are the way forward for electric cars. Circuit racing–like Formula E, is great–but it doesn’t really solve a lot of the problems facing EVs’ perception.

Formula E in Paris, keepin’ it low key

Yes, there are still dummies out there who think that EVs are slow, but that’s an untenable position when considered against the ocean of ridiculous 0-60 figures that EV manufacturers have published recently. Worse still, circuit racing is all tied up with old money. Races like the Monaco ePrix remind us that the old European elite is still at the pinnacle of track racing. And while rich people are cool or whatever, I guess, I frankly don’t believe that the world needs any more convincing that rich people like electric cars.

What people do need to be convinced of, especially the people who will be buying Volkswagen’s low-cost EVs, is that salt of the earth, muddy-faced, adventurers enjoy EVs. People need to be convinced that an electric infrastructure is possible, that it will make the freedom promised by gas cars possible in EVs, and that running out of juice won’t be the end of the world.

These are all problems of perception that the Baja 1000 addresses. And by taking a humble car to the race and setting its sites on a realistic, but impressive goal, VW can use the I.D. BUGGY to go adventuring and be free. Speed may come with time and electric cars might be able to beat gas-powered ones at Baja someday, but for now, that’s not the point. The point is that people can go adventuring in an ID.

“Wow, you’re so right. This is a brilliant, perfect plan,” you say, finally expressing something that I, a person who is exclusively correct, can agree with. Feels good, doesn’t it?