Feb. 27 (Bloomberg) — This year Rod Hall will celebrate his 70th birthday just as he has for the past four decades: racing almost a thousand miles through the Mexican desert, braving crashes, rollovers and countless other catastrophes with no sleep. That’s the Baja 1000, the wildest, woolliest motor sports event in all of the Americas.
One of off-road racing’s heroes and granddaddies, Hall won the inaugural 1000, from Tijuana to La Paz, in 1967, and hasn’t missed one since, winning his class an astounding 18 times.
Any doubts about the state of his abilities are dispelled as the (almost) septuagenarian casually sends his Hummer H3 pounding over Arizona dirt roads pockmarked by craters the size of foxholes — at about 40 mph. I’m belted in tightly next to him.
I’ve met up with Hall and his crew in order to get a firsthand, if rather dusty, taste of the sport. One of off-road racing’s attractions is that it is open to mortals: If you have the inclination, you can buy a vehicle, outfit it with the required safety equipment, register with one of the sanctioned bodies, and enter a race.
Unlike Nascar, off-road racing series such as Score International and Best in the Desert are open to amateurs. Competitions take place mostly in the West, on a pre-set course over gravel and dirt roads, up dry washes, and in many cases through sand dunes.
So who better than Hall to give pointers? Plus he’s agreed to let me drive his race-prepared Hummer H3.
The GM-produced H3 is nearly all stock, meaning that most parts are the same as you’d find in a showroom model. GM sponsors Hall’s Reno-based team, which includes his two sons, who also race the other two Hummer models, the H1 and H2. The upside for GM is visibility and cachet, as well as the chance to see how well the product performs under extreme conditions.
First released in 2005 as a midsize SUV, the H3 is small compared with its supersized brother, the AM General-built H1 Alpha. The standard 3.7-liter, 5-cylinder engine puts out 242 hp and gets around 20 miles per gallon on the highway — comparable to most midsize SUVs. While Hummers are widely vilified, and do seem ridiculous on city streets, the H3’s sturdy, boxy build is fitting out here in the rough desert.
Hall’s H3 has had many man-hours of custom work done on it, including installation of a roll-cage and racing seats and the addition of a fuel cell and interior fire-dousing equipment. It also has special shocks and massive 35-inch tires. (Other vehicles that compete in the H3’s Stock Production Mini SUV class include the Honda Ridgeline and Toyota FJ.)
Today we are about 120 miles northwest of Phoenix, near the blink-and-you’ve-missed-it town of Bouse. We’re negotiating the same paths covered two weeks earlier in a 425-mile Best in the Desert race. We buckle ourselves into the five-point safety harnesses and put on our helmets. Hall steps on the gas and launches us into the desert.
We fly into the air, crash back down, then shoot back up again. Sky, road, sky, road. The so-called road is rife with closely spaced dirt bumps. It’s mad fun and an absolute departure from standard off-road motoring, where one creeps along bumpy rock-and-dirt roads. Same terrain — at three times the speed.
After a series of exhilarating, if hair-raising miles, Hall turns the wheel over to me. I’ve been watching his technique closely, and I feel lucky to have raced on dirt roads in rally cars before — at least this isn’t entirely new to me. Still, we’re riding up very high and a poorly judged move at speed could send Hall’s truck rolling.
“Look for the smoothest path,” Hall instructs. I don’t bother to point out that the track is anything but.
Patience a Virtue
At first I go too fast before realizing that all the bouncing around is actually slowing me down. “Be patient in the rough stuff, and keep the throttle even,” says Hall calmly through our radio headset. We rumble over a huge dirt embankment and into a dry wash gutted with thick sand. There’s no stopping the H3 though. The big tires are especially effective at plowing over holes and rocks. I feel as though I’m piloting a fast, thrashing tank.
Back on a slightly smoother dirt road, I begin to get a finer feel of the truck. I navigate a bad patch at speed, and I can almost hear Hall grinning. “Exactly like I would have done,” he says.
Racing forces you to focus all your concentration: The clatter of everyday life is tuned out. Surprisingly, it is all very Zen.
Three hours and some 100 miles later, I feel like I’ve driven the entire desert. My legs are a bit weak, and I can only wonder at Hall’s ability to endure such a thrashing across a thousand miles. I’m beaming, though. It has been the most fun I’ve had in a vehicle in a very long time.
Hall smiles at me. “Not bad, right?”
For more information on Rod Hall and his team, see http://www.rodhallracing.com. For more information on off-road racing, see Best in the Desert at http://www.bitd.com and Score International at http://www.score-international.com.
(Jason Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)