I've got the gas pedal pegged to the floor. My co-driver Rich Bellofatto, a finance guy from Long Island, is screaming above the din of the high-torque 240-horsepower engine: "Punch it! Punch it!" Our 3000-pound Baja racer jerks into the tracks of the fine Mexican silt like a spastic slot car. My chest slams against a five-point harness that keeps me from getting jettisoned. Finally, we lurch out the other side of this talcum pit, our rig covered in what our guide describes as "liquid dirt." My heart is pounding like a jackhammer. Bellofatto flashes a mega-watt smile. "Nicely done," he says.
This, in the world of Wide Open Baja, is what passes for a day at the office. And that office is found right along the route of the famed Baja 1000 race. Legendary racer Rufus "Parnelli" Jones once described this south-of-the-border demolition derby, held every November, as a "24-hour plane crash." Jones, a two-time Baja 1000 winner, wasn't kidding. This crazed mix of high-octane fuel, rubber and corrugated dirt roads through one of the world's most diverse desert environments is an eye-popping experience. And it's no "reality show" – it's real.
"Wide Open Baja is the only company I've worked with that gives you enough rope to hang yourself," says guide Andrea Tomba, warning against overconfidence. "It's easy to go from really fun to really wrong at 60 miles an hour. Baja is the temptress. She'll seduce you, and then she'll spurn you."
Seduction comes easily behind the wheel of a full-blown Baja racer boasting almost two feet of suspension per wheel. But unlike schools based on NASCAR or even drag racing, we're motoring along public roads (though the term "road" is applied rather loosely), not a racetrack. The terrain is spectacular but rugged, with hidden dangers, ranging from precipitous ravines and toe-curling switchbacks to suicide cattle, lurking around each corner or rise. We even took these burly buggies on the highways, and into cities like La Paz (when "ordinary" vehicles were forced to stop at speed bumps, our 20-inches of suspension allowed us to hit them at 40 mph). As Tomba said: "There aren't many places that will let a bunch of lunatics like us drive on public roads in race cars."
Talk about immersion. After a brief walk-through of the cockpit, I slid into the driver's seat, not with an instructor beside me, but with another Baja neophyte. In short, the driver is immediately and completely accountable for a $120,000 racing rig (each accident – flat tire, ruined transmission, dead cow – comes with a $3000 deductible).
The co-pilot is no idle passenger, but a vested partner. The racecars are equipped with GPS units and radios, and the co-pilot is responsible, when he's not hanging on for dear life, for alerting the car behind about upcoming hazards (which have been sent down from the lead, or guide, car). It's a high-stakes version of the old telephone game, where incorrect instructions can send cars hurtling off the road. Key facts must be conveyed precisely and quickly. It doesn't take long to learn who in the group is a good communicator, and who can get you hurt, says Todd Clement, Wide Open's founder and a Baja veteran.
The driver, meanwhile, is trying to process all this information while keeping a 3,000-pound beast under control barreling along at breakneck speed. The most comical comment, in hindsight, was Tomba telling us: "It's not a race. We'll see some beautiful areas. Look around. Enjoy it." Those words came back to me again and again as I desperately tried to keep up with the wicked pace set by Tomba, especially after several mechanical problems put our group behind schedule. One leisurely glance to take in the surroundings could have been disastrous.
Still, once comfortable with the pitch and sway that comes with plenty of suspension on these washed-out "roads," you can really open up these rigs. Chasing the car in front of us, Bellofatto and I spent as much time in the air as we did on terra firma. "You just can't describe the feeling you get while you're screaming through the desert at 80 miles an hour, surrounded by walls of killer cactus 15 feet high, and hitting jumps that would crack a Hummer in half," says Mike Dillard of Austin, TX
The next day we all jabbed the gas pedal a bit harder, trusting the cars to do what they were designed to do. At the end of Day Two, when we motored into Scorpion Bay under the cover of darkness, I was spent. My helmet and clothes sported a thick layer of grime. My shoulders throbbed from smashing against the harness, and my right knee had a big purple welt where it repeatedly smacked a T-bar handle designed to provide the co-pilot some stability. My midsection was battered. No, this is not a pastime for the faint of heart, or faint of wallet (tour prices vary; plan on spending $1,000 per day). But the price of admission, whether financial or physical, is well worth it. When a Wide Open staffer handed me an ice-cold Pacifico, I was grinning like a kid.
For details on Wide Open Baja, visit wideopenbaja.com or call 949-635-2292.