Hammering Down on the Baja.

“Ok guys, give us about a 30-second head start, please.”

“Copy that, lead car.”

Few can fully understand this exchange, but for those who have tried Wide Open Baja, it spurs a flood of adrenaline, a narrowing of focus, and a sensation of acute awareness. It is a moment of anxious urge only satisfied by the release of the clutch and a very generous application of throttle.

Located about 90 miles south of San Diego, California, lies the epicenter of off-road desert racing—Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico. Each year, SCORE International, the governing body of off-road racing, hosts one of the world’s most prestigious off-road races here–the Baja 1000. For the last 51 years, men and women have put their skills to the ultimate test, racing in a variety of vehicles from dirt bikes to Volkswagen Beetles to trophy trucks (for those who are not familiar, these trucks can be loosely compared to Formula 1 racecars in the form of off-road vehicles). These racers put it all on the line for the ultimate glory—the chance to be part of less than 50 percent of drivers who actually finish the race.

Reid Donaldson and crew fix a tire.

Baja California is home to some of roughest, most desolate, and most unforgiving terrain on earth making the course very difficult to complete. It is full of steep mountains, deep valleys, and jagged rock formations, peppered with cactus, yuccas, and brush all littered with spines that can pierce the thickest materials. Its weather features extreme desert temperature swings, and the dry nature of the peninsula makes for silt pits, vast stretches of sand, and trails hardened by razor sharp rocks. These conditions challenge every mechanical aspect of the racecar as well as the mental and physical stamina of the driver.

The action of the sport is hard to describe to those who have not experienced it. Try to recall the most exhilarating roller coaster you have ever ridden, multiply that by 10, and then imagine that the ride does not last a few minutes but rather lasts hours, if not days. It’s almost an underground sport; hard to televise let alone watch in person, veiled by a perception about driving across the southern border, and with financial barriers to enter that can range from tens of thousands to millions of dollars in equipment and manpower. Most of that was true, minus the border crossing (don’t let the media scare you), until now. Enter Kirk Dodge, Off-road Race Consultant at Wide Open Baja, a driving experience located in Ensenada.

Wide Open Baja provides guests with the world’s most unique and adrenaline-filled opportunity. Their vision: To share the joy of high-performance off-road driving and the unspoiled beauty of the Baja peninsula, both of which were previously accessible by only an adventurous lucky few. Much more than a standard racing school, the Wide Open Baja experience pushes the envelope of an adventure-based vacation. Specially designed Desert Challenge cars, powered by 2.4-liter, 190hp Subaru Boxer motors, are provided to the guests. These 2,800-pound custom chromoly caged desert racers can handle most obstacles with their extremely wide wheel base and 18 inches of travel provided by their dual Fox shocks. Set all of that on four 33”-tall BF Goodrich Tires and Raceline Wheels, and you are riding in nothing short of a true Baja racecar–complete with the same performance and safety you would expect.

A view from the course.

“You can just show up, no experience necessary, as long as you can drive a manual, and have fun,” says Dodge. “Of course we have classes that teach drivers how to race, what to look for on the course to improve the odds of success, how to work on the mechanical aspects of the car, and all the technical training for navigation, but for the most part, we just encourage those interested in the sport to come down and enjoy. Once they experience it–they are hooked,” he says.

I can certainly attest to that. I recalled his words while I was white-knuckled, pedal to the metal and RPMs to the red line, hurtling myself through the desert at speeds in excess of 70 mph. For eight hours, my best friend and I indulged our insatiable need for speed. Like two off-road junkies we drove wide open, breaking on a dime into highly technical bone-jarring rocky drop-offs, only to floor the throttle again and again. We had tapped a vein and flooded our bodies with a highly concentrated cocktail of adrenaline and testosterone delivered in the form of horsepower. We could not get enough.

A view from outside of the Horsepower Ranch.

To quote my buddy and co-pilot, Reid, “I have done the NASCAR experiences, I have driven exotics on the Pacific Coast Highway, and even attended road course driving schools, but nothing even comes close to the thrill of driving the Baja.”

The sound of the engine revving; the RPMs steadily climbing; the shifting of gears pressing your body into the bucket seats; the hug of the 5-point harness system securing you against the firewall of the rear engine; the potent smell of exhaust; and the blur of cedar, yucca, and large rocks rushing narrowly by the side of the buggy, had us hooked. And with that, Kirk’s job was done.

“I almost don’t want to say it, but sometimes I feel like a drug dealer. Try it and you will be hooked, but for the growth of the sport, we need fresh drivers. Wide Open Baja is your gateway into one of the greatest sports on the planet,” says Dodge.

Wide Open Baja is more than a driving experience, though. It is an adventure in a truly beautiful country. That is one of the long lasting side effects. Baja becomes part of your very soul. There is just something about the welcoming nature of the people, the joy of experiencing roaming mariachi bands, never-ending Pacific vistas, and the flavors of the culture and region.

“Simply put, Baja is the best drug that money can buy.”

Simply put, Baja is the best drug that money can buy. Just ask SCORE International owner, Roger Norman. He started out at Wide Open Baja, too. A few years later entered officially into off-road racing, turned around, bought Wide Open Baja, and then ultimately bought SCORE International. I guess you can say… he is the leader of the Horsepower Cartel.

Consult Wide Open Baja when off-road cravings present themselves, such as LED light bars topping your daily driver, the appearance of mud-terrain tires, or when the sight of dirt roads trigger a need for speed. wideopenbaja.com

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