From Marketing Stunt to Legend: The Baja 1000
If you count yourself among the millions that are interested in off-road racing, then there's no doubt you know of the legendary Baja 1000.
This unique race through some of the harshest terrain on Earth has been run on a yearly basis since 1967 (skipping one year due to the oil crisis). From dune buggies to hardcore motorcycle riders; anyone who wants to gain notoriety in the world of off-road racing competes in the Baja 1000. It’s drawn in celebrities like James Garner, to racing legends like F1 World Champion Jenson Button and T.V. personality/racer extraordinaire Tanner Foust.
Like many things in motorsport, it has a complicated and thoroughly fascinating history. Let's get into the dirt and explore this incredibly unique race that captures the hearts and minds of millions.
A Marketing Stunt Gone Horribly Right
The impetus of the Baja 1000 came from none other than Honda American.
In the early 1960s, motorcycle riding and specifically dirt bike riding were seeing a massive surge in popularity. Honda American was at the forefront of this movement and was doing everything they could to convince riders that their bikes were not only the most capable but also the most reliable. Anyone who knows motorcycles today knows that this is what Honda bikes are really known for, and this branding started early on.
To prove the reliability of their brand new CL72 Scrambler, brand geniuses Jack McCormick and Walt Fulton of Honda American wanted to push the scrambler on a long-distance run across terrain that included everything from rocks and sand to mountain passes and dried out washes. An amalgamation of what dirt bike riders would encounter on their own riding days. Northwest Mexico would be the perfect environment to test out the overall durability of Honda's plucky CL72 Scrambler.
Jack and Walt turn to local off-roading legend Bud Elkins, who also happened to be a Hollywood stuntman, for suggestions on how to set up this route through Mexico. Bud suggested a 950 mi route from Tijuana to La Paz, down the Baja peninsula, and suggested that his brother Dave Elkins be the first to ride it in full. On March 22nd, 1962, Dave Elkins performed the first Baja run and completed it in 39 hours and 56 minutes. The incredibly unique event received coverage from magazines like Cycle World, putting the CL72 Scrambler in the right kind of spotlight.
Over the next several years, riders and engineers on both two and four wheels set continuously faster times in everything from AMC Rambler sedans to Meyers Manx dune buggies. In 1967, the unofficial timed events turned into an organized yearly event that at the time was known as the Mexican 1000.
NORRA and The Mexican 1000
NORRA or the National Off-Roading Racing Association was created for the sole purpose of managing and promoting the Mexican 1000, officially titled the Mexican 1000 Rally. In October of 1967, a race of 849 miles was completed in 27 hours and 38 minutes by Vic Wilson and Ted Mangels who were driving a Meyers Max buggy.
Although the event had had some local lore, especially in Southern California, ABC's "Wide World of Sports" send Jim McKay down to cover the 1968 event. Such legends as Mickey Thompson and Parnelli Jones participated in the 1968 event, along with movie stars like James Garner.
By 1971 huge sponsors like Olympia Brewing Company and Minolta Cameras began to sponsor the legendary Parnelli Jones and his race-prepped "Big Oly" Bronco, prepared by the equally legendary Bill Stroppe.
The event was legit and more popular than anyone could have ever imagined!
Baja Mil & SCORE
Once the oil crisis became a reality in 1973, all forms of Motorsport effectively ground to a halt. NORRA wanted to move the Mexican 1000 to Arizona and commence the event there due to unstable fuel prices, but Baja California governor Milton Castellanos had other ideas for getting the race done in Baja. He created a non-profit known as the Baja Sports Committee, whose sole purpose was to successfully run the rally. To differentiate the event, it was named the Baja Mil (1000).
Although NORRA did run a competing event in Arizona, so did the Baja Sports Committee, and on the very same weekend. Unfortunately, the Baja Sports Committee was short-lived because they didn't have the experience to properly promote and run the event. Rather than cave, the Mexican government reached out to SCORE International, run by the legendary Mickey Thompson for help with getting the rally back to Mexico. Once SCORE took over, the race was skipped to 1974 due to the oil embargo crisis but was back on in 1975 with off-roading expert Sal Fish at the helm.
Sal brought a level of innovation that was lacking from the early organized Baja 1000 races by creating classes of vehicles, implementing safety procedures, and completely legitimizing the entire event. Sal was inducted into the Off-road Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2006 due to his long-standing work with the Baja 1000.
Legacy and Impact On Off-Roading Culture
Today, the Baja 1000 continues to run on a yearly basis with a staggeringly long list of classes and entrants. Factory sponsored teams from huge manufacturers like Ford, Chevrolet, and Honda duke it out year over year for dominance of this incredibly challenging race. The Baja 1000 has become a proving ground for some of the best-designed off-roading vehicles for sale to the general public.
Honda American is one of the great success stories from the Baja 1000 and has dominated the race since 1997. They take what they learn on this incredibly difficult course, and apply it to the bikes that consumers can buy in showrooms all over the country.
Every year, there are stories about the trials and tribulations of running through this formidable landscape, including challenges from both mother nature and mischievous spectators who set booby traps to keep things just a little more interesting. To conquer this managed insanity, It takes a tough person, and a tough machine to make it through the Baja 1000 in one piece.
There’s no doubt that this unique race will continue to be the ultimate proving ground for vehicles with either two or four wheels.