Darkcyd Racing South of the Border - From WRC RallHey There - This is Allan Karl working with Robb and the Darkcyd Racing Team. I'll be posting here for the next week or so to update you on Darkcyd's latest racing updates...
On the heels of its successful showing (2nd place in class) the Darkcyd Racing Team has been busy preparing a new vehicle for entry into the legendary SCORE Baja 500 - a brutal and grueling race down the roughest terrain on the Baja California Peninsula just south of San Diego.
With a lifelong dream to race in the even more legendary Paris to Dakar Rally, which now takes place in South America and spans over three countries in 20 days, Darkcyd driver (piloto) Robb Rill has been looking for the best possible vehicle in order to compete and contend for finishing the Dakar in the future. As luck would have it, Rill found a vehicle that had been built, tested and fitted specifically for the 2007/2008 (the race takes place over New Yeaers). However, the Dakar Rally officials canceled the 2007/2008 race due to the brutal massacre of tourists in Mauritania in late 2007. Since then the Rally moved to South America.
The vehicle was shipped back to the United States (most Dakar vehicles are only available in Europe and abroad) and remained garaged into Rill found it and made the deal just after returning from WRC Rally Mexico in March.
Since March the Darkcyd team and technicians have been working on its own enhancements and modifications. Next week Darkcyd Racing Team heads to Baja California to compete and test the new vehicle as part of a pre-run for Dakar—ideally this December.
Darkcyd Racing Team's new Desert Warrior - will tackle SCORE Baja 500 in June 2011 - and ultimately Dakar in Argentina later this year.
The Baja 500 spans a couple days and races down the entire Baja Penninsua, 500 brutal miles. But the Dakar Rally? Think 3 weeks and 4,000 miles.
So as I'm writing these words, the Darkcyd Desert Warrior is en-route to Ensenada and the team of drivers, technicians and support personal will be in place for the exciting race later this week. Once again, I've been invited to be part of the team as photographer, translator and blogger. So stay tuned to these pages and the @WorldRider Twitter feed for updates on the preparation and race.
- Allan Karl
Baja 500 - Mexico - Inspection & Pre-runWhen it comes to adventure and travel spontaneity can be a friend or it can be a foe. When friend, fellow motorcyclist and rally racing car driver Robb Rill asked me to join him once again for another race in Mexico, I was excited and ready to continue to learn and explore this exciting sport. Arriving in San Diego late Wednesday night Rob and partner and wife Tara found themselves at the San Diego Airport without their luggage. This minor setback, everyone hopes, will be the only hiccup in the Darkcyd Racing Team's latest effort to finish another rally in Mexico. With a fairly new and untested vehicle, the rally team for this race includes technicians Raff McDougall, who will also aid in driving and co-driving, Tommy Cobb, Gary Grahn and Bill Young. Of course, Ben Slocum will be with Robb at the starting line as co-driver, hoping to recreate the magic that saw Darkcyd finish second place at WRC Rally Mexico in March. I had worked and spent time with both Gary and Ben with Darkcyd's in Mexico, while tte others had worked with Robb on many rally races in different vehicles in the United States. The plan was simple. I would meet Robb and Tara at their hotel in San Diego and make the short jaunt to the border in Tijuana early Thursday morning. It didn't take long for us to get lost temporarily in the maddening and crazy city of Tijuana. But soon we found the toll road which runs down the coast of the Pacific to Rosarita Beach, now lined with several shopping malls, high rise hotels and billboards hawking everything from real estate to plastic survery. The painless two hours drive brought us to the Estero Beach Campground and Resort just south of downtown Ensenada where the Darkcyd Racing Team of technicians and The Desert Warrior, the new Dakar vehicle, were waiting and already in place.
Ben Slocum, co-driver and Bill Young, Tech
Raff McDougal, Lead Tech, driver & co-driver and Robb Rill, driver
Gary Grahn and Tommy Cobb, technicians
Tara Rill, team manager and logistics and Robb sitting behind the wheel of the vehicle built for DakarThe technicians had been working on the car for the last two days and had tuned the suspension, the engine and made a thorough inspection and several test drives on a dirt track complete with jumps just adjacent to the campground. While there was some apprehension that is normal for a team, I could see in the faces of the crew the excitement about the race and the new car. They said the car was feeling good. There would still need to be adjustments and Robb would need to get behind the wheel and truly test the handling, the power and the overall feel of driving a Dakar designed rally car. After a few spins on the test track Robb revealed that he felt funny about the suspension and the steering. Sitting behind the wheel of a massively powered race car that he never race previously perhaps was the root of uncertainty. While the car was new to Robb, he was not new to Baja. He had raced in 2005 and 2007 in different vehicles for the Baja 1000. Here in 2011 in the Baja 500 would be his first solo attempt at the legendary off-road race. The inspectors did find a problem with the clips used in the multipoint harness, an advanced seatbelt system for driver and co-driver. They said the locking fasteners were not to specification because they would possibly be compromised by the extra find powder that spews from Baja, California’s infamous silt beds. With the all of the important itesm, such as welds and durability of the tubular frame okay and up to spec, the inspectors let Robb's vehicle pass. But they insisted that for the next race the locking clips be changed to the correct specification. With inspection completed and a green light to compete in this year's race, Robb and codriver Ben Slocum took the Desert Warrior for a pre-run on the first 30 miles of the race. Meanwhile, the technicians, Tara and I took off to meet Robb and Ben outside Ojos Negros after they finished the run. We didn't learn until much later that in the first few miles Robb nearly got the car stuck on a sandy dune on the test track. However because the car is equipped with modern air-powered locking hubs, the four-wheel vehicle easily got out of the bind. But this experienced added fuel to Robb’s uneasiness. “I was taking it easy,” he said. “I thought we were going to be stuck out there with no one to help tow us out.”
SCORE Inspectors will perform a detailed check on the more than 200 trucks, cars, buggies and motorcycles that will compete in the 2011 Baja 500.Meanwhile Tara and I followed Raff hoping to meet up with Robb at the end of the 30 mile test run. However Raff was not familiar with Baja and found himself and us going north on Mexico Route 3 when we should have been going south. I thought this was funny, but since he had the map and information from SCORE, I assumed he knew where he was going. Bad assumption, however it was nice to take a little ride through Baja’s burgeoning wine region and the Valle de Guadalupe, but we didn’t take the time to taste the wine! By the time Raff realized we were going the wrong way Robb and Ben had completed the test run. While the pre-run was successful, the technicians are anxious to fix and adjust both the brakes and also the tires. In fact, during one of the test loops at the track adjacent to the campground, Robb drove the car into a power slide around a corner and the force of the slide on the sidewall of one of the tires caused it to break the bead and begin to leak. Dirt found its way between the rim and the rubber of the tire. This compromised the seal and caused the leak. The technicians quickly remedied this but wondered if they possibly could find tires with additional sidewall ply that would prevent this from happening out on the track during the race. So with these things in mind and a good meal from Sano's in Ensenada, the team and drivers rested their heads on pillows for tomorrow's contingency— a parade of all the race teams and their cars through the town of Ensenada with fans lining the streets in a pomp and circumstance that could only be described as some sort of carnival or festival atmosphere. Those that didn’t have time yesterday will go through inspection. But with Darkcyd Racing Team's inspection behind them, Robb hopes to take the car back out on the track and test it just one more time before race day Saturday.
Planning For Contingency-Countdown To Race Day
The day before a big race always creates a halo of excitement, tension and tentativeness among race teams and crews and even blogger photographers. Darkcyd Racing and driver Robb Rill had little experience with the lastest steed in its stable: The Rally Rail build Desert Warrior -- a complex and sturdy machine engineered, initially, for the sandy and rocky terrain of northern Africa and the dominant dunes of the Sahara Desert.
Here in Baja California, a scrubby desert marked by dry lake beds, rocky mountain passes, loose shale and cactus studded terrain. Considered perhaps in the toughest races on the planet, along with its brethren the Baja 1000, the Baja 500 is a straight shot. There are no stages. It's one day. And all racers, regardless of class have only 23 hours to complete this years 454.69 mile course, which changed last minute as SCORE and its leader Sal Fish negotiated with land owners for passage of the nearly 250 vehicles that would complete in the 2011 Tecate Score Baja 500.
The day before racing at any Baja race begins with "Contingency", a parade of cars that weaves through the main streets of Ensenada, northern Baja's largest city and winds up at SCORE inspection where the vehicles are scrutinized from rubber to helmet to ensure they pass the rigorous safety standards set by the SCORE rule book, a some 200 page perfect bound book crammed with information on class rules and race details.
Robb flashes the SCORE Book of Rules with a promise he'll read and memorize later this evening!
Tara befriends a stray dog wandering through contingency who is happy to power down two bottles of water and two hot dogs, sans the buns.
Because Darkcydf was able to complete inspection on Thursday, this would give Robb more time on to pre-run and test the car on part of the actual race course and more time for the crew to tweak the car pending the outcome of the pre-running. Plus, everyone would have an opportunity to check out the chaotic and often maddening scene that surrounds the parade of Baja race vehicles to contingency.
The diversity of vehicles that races the grueling terrain of Baja is mind-boggling. I know of no other race with such a wide range of classes. From motorcycles to quads to million dollar "trophy trucks," Score Baja races have something for everyone. There's even a class for a completely stock old-school VW bug -- and most everything between. As the cars rolled down the main drag the team members walk beside handing out stickers, brochures and sponsor swag. Fans rush the vehicles and the drivers and techs toss stickers and swag into the air creating a frenzy as fans dive to get just a piece. Others armed with devices from cell phone cameras to professional digital cinematic devices like the RED, the rush to document the impressive array of vehicles is topped only by the aggressive and passionate fans.
After the team had its fill of contingency madness, Robb and Ben prepared to take the Desert Warrior out onto the course while Raff set out on a hunt to secure a back-up battery, SAT phones and other gear in preparation for race day tomorrow. Robb took the Desert Warrior around the test track before gearing up for the 35 mile pre-run on a section of the actual Baja 500 course.
With the car warmed up and Robb's confidence on high he turned to me and asked "Do you want to go for a few loops on the test track?" Before I could pull my camera pack from my back, I was buckling the 5-point harness and settling into the co-driver seat. What an opportunity, I thought. To take it around the careening corners, massive jumps, whoop-dee-do's of the Estero Beach test track. I was excited. Even taking it easy, while testing sliding turns, jumps and the responsiveness of the suspension, we flew high in the air and pushed dirt around as if it was powder. Three laps later I was grinning ear to ear and imagining the next thing: riding a bike out on that track.
After my wild ride on the test run, Robb took off for the pre-run. Joining him and Ben on their pre-run was team technician Bill Young, aboard his 2002 Yamaha WR426. Not officially registered as a chase vehicle, but certainly loosely capable, Bill was eager to ride a portion of the course. By the time the gang returned from the morning test run, Bill was grinning ear-to-ear while picking dust from his teeth. Ben and Robb were happy with the pre-run, but hoped to make a few adjustments to the car and take it out once more later in the afternoon.
Tara, Gary and I stood by at our camp at Estero Beach and contemplated the next race -- looming around year end: the legendary Dakar. Wildlife was abundant around camp, gophers poking their heads through the grass, hummingbirds fluttering about and squirrels surreptitiously trying to scarf any remains around camp. Gentle waves lapped the shore just 100 feet from camp. Neighbors clanked wrenches and the whirr of motorcycle engines startled the wildlife. Above the fluttering of air and roar of a helicopter approaching broke the serene scene as it landed. Two such helicopters made temporary home at Estero. One for Bobby Gordon and the other for the Red Bull Trophy Truck team.
After Robb and Ben returned from their successful pre-run, and before putting the car down for the evening, Robb offered to take his wife Tara for a loop or two around the track, as he done for me just a few hours earlier.
As the team strapped Tara into the car, fitter her helmet and communication system, I attached my camera to the dash mount just in front of the co-driver and showed Tara how she could position the camera at different angles as they flew around the track. I then grabbed my camera gear and ran to a nearby fence that provided a good view of a couple jumps, but the view of the remaining part of the course was obstructed by large jumps, foliage and a line of trees. Bill mounted his Yamaha and followed Robb around the track in pursuit.
As my shutter fired away and I focused and zoomed my lens, I tried to follow Robb as he sped around the nearly two mile test track. But after he zoomed past me, I lost site of the car as it went through a series of "S" turns and then through a few hairpins before heading down a straight away toward me. The first lap was excellent. The car sounded good, was jumping and landing nicely, except for a slight kick of the rear on the largest jump. I'd felt that slightly during my quick run earlier in the day, but didn't seem to be a problem. After Robb spun past me going into the second lap, a Trophy Truck from camp launched onto the course. As I watched and shot pictures of the Trophy Truck I noticed he slowed down and came to a top. I couldn't see clearly to where he stopped, some 500 feet away. I zoomed my lens and could see just a portion of the orange color of the Desert Warrior. I realized it too was stopped. Then I focused more, it appeared that the spare tires were stacked vertical. Shit. The Desert Warrior was on its side, though all I could see was a small portion of the car. I screamed to the others in the camp, "We've rolled. We've rolled. Come here quickly." Gary and Tommy fired up the Quad we had in camp and raced onto the track. I scrambled to get around the fence and ran in the same direction.
Tara and Robb before the final test run of Friday.
As I ran through the gate the rest of the car came into view. I saw Bill, then Tara and Robb. Thankfully they were alright. But what about the car? It was too far to see, so I picked up the pace. Others from camp hopped into chase vehicles or quads to see if they could help.
When I finally arrived at the vehicle the crew and good samaritans were just pushing it back onto its wheels. Seemed like a lot of cosmetic damage. Windshield cracked, snorkel pinched, hood off its hinge and body panels torn. So I reasoned that structurally and mechanically, the Desert Warrior would be fine. Though the leaking fluids are normal in this kind of a roll, but still raised questions. Would the car be able to run the race tomorrow morning?
Sadly the Desert Warrior had to be towed back to camp where the team assessed the damage and begin the torturous process of deciding whether the Desert Warrior wasn't compromised during the crash and could still enter the race the following morning. With just a few hours of daylight left, Gary crawled under the car, Raff buried his head under the hood, Bill combed the cockpit for clues and Tommy checked the tubing of the frame for signs of cracks or bends.
Would the Desert Warrior race? Ben and Robb slumped into chairs under the tents and buried their faces in their hands, while Tara, still shaken from the accident, but physically okay, blamed herself for the accident, thinking if she hadn't gone for that ride…
But this is Baja, and there's no second guessing and often no second choices. The crew hammered away hoping we'd race tomorrow.
Note: Video of the roll over and more will be posted soon. Watch for it!
Putting the Desert Warrior Back Together Again.The Darkcyd Racing Team's Desert Warrior, a custom-built off-road racing vehicle designed to endure perhaps the toughest race on the planet—The Dakar—sat at the team camp at Estero Beach just south of Ensenada. Unsure if the Desert Warrior, made by well-known British builder Rally Raid UK, would be able to run in the 2011 Tecate Score Baja 500, the tech's and team manager Raff McDougall had to make the right decision. If the car couldn't endure the rigors of the treacherous and often unforgiving and gnarly terrain of Baja, they couldn't confidently send Robb and Ben into the race and out in the desert.
Everyone traveled from afar to work on Darkcyd Racing's latest Mexican bid. More importrant, this was to be a shakedown and test for the vehicle for the granddaddy rally of all - The Dakar. If Robb couldn't race the Desert Warrior, he would be ill prepared for the Dakar rally later this year unless the team arranged for shakedown at another rally or simply on an isolated solo shakedown somewhere on the west coast: on terrain that would closely miimic the Atacama Desert where much of the Dakar would be raced in South America.
Tara, Ben and Robb review race notes and logistics hoping that the team can bring the Desert Warrior back to life.
The crew identified a few areas of concern. First, the mounting bracket for the intercooler, a radiator-like device designed to cool intake air that is charged through the Desert Warrior's turbocharger on its 3.0 liter BMW diesel engine. Mounted to the engine compartment, the intercooler iis made of aluminum and in the accident the brackets bent and caused the intercooler to push up against the air intake hose. Should those brackets give and cause the hose to be sheared, dust, dirt and silt would be charged into the engine by the turbocharger—this would render the engine useless and blown. Plus, if this were to happen in the middle of nowhere, it would be difficult to retrieve the car.
"You could be stuck in the desert for two days," Raff explained when asked about the potential consequences. Also complicating the air intake system was a large pinching or buckling of the snorkel, a vertical tube that rises above the roof of the car. Designed to allow the Desert Warrior to practically immerse itself underwater while the engine still can get air through the protruding snorkel above the waterline. While the snorkel might be easier to fix due to its stainless steel construction, the aluminum mounting bracket was soft and bending it could cause it to brake.
Bill inspects rear suspension.
Stitched up like a war wounded soldier, Desert Warrior considers a start at the 2011 Baja 500.
I felt a bit of tension between team members Gary and Raff as they disagreed as to the potential outcome or repairability of the intercooler. Though they both remained composed and worked together to try to get the Desert Warrior back into the race. There was also a problem with the Z-bar, something like a torsion bar that stabilizes the axle. It appeared to be askew and looked as if the rear wheels were off camber. This could cause stability problems and certainly premature where on the tires. We would only know after putting the car back together and testing it on the infamous test track.
As the team was burning daylight, Robb and Ben prepared to head back to town to attend the driver's meeting, a review of the course, rules and a bit of ceremony by local government officials. Tara and I joined Robb and Ben for the ride in town. Raff tasked us with procuring clear tape and ideally a glass cutter so we could score and tape the windshield to prevent it from cracking further. We'd need to find out if we could even run the car with a broken windshield. Combing through the pages of the rule book, it wasn't clear. So we'd stop in town and meet once again with SCORE inspectors to enquire, and then try to source the appropriate tape and glass cutter.
Back in town the inspectors told us that the windshield in its cracked condition would be okay, provided it didn't interfere with the drivers vision and that we taped it enough to prevent potential injury. Good news. Things were already looking better.
With an hour to spare before the meeting we headed out on foot to a nearby hardware store, figuring it would be better not to get caught up in the race fan traffic and madness of a Friday afternoon in Baja's biggest city. Our first set of directions found us walking three blocks instead of two as indicated by our 'guide'. But this store couldn't help us, so we were pointed another 4 blocks down the road. From there another few blocks. By now we were a bit giddy and doing the best we could to make light of the situation and lightening wiht each walk deeper into Ensenda and further from the several block area that most tourists fail to venture beyond. Then Ben noticed a store window touting 'TAPE' we played torreador with the traffic and found ourselves in a staitonary store. Not only did they have tape, but the ceiling was lined with a dozen or more piñatas --paper mache characterts usually filled with candies and designed to be whacked by blindfolded kids at birthday or other celebration.
The owner of the simple store, a woman in her late 30's with a smile and who giggled as we asked about the piñatas and pulled them from the ceiling to inspect. Then it hit us. As silly as it seemed, we wanted a couple piñatas. We figured that with tensions rising among the team in the pit, the possiblility of no racing and the resulting downer among the team, the best way to cheer up the team was with one of these classic mexican piñatas. Ben was ecxited more because he relished the idea of wlaking into the Baja 500 drivers meeting with a piñata. But which one's should we get. Robb chose the purple dinasaur, a poor representation of Barney, and Ben was torn but in the end chose the Hello Kitty - complete with her skirt.
We marched the streets of Ensenada carrying the piñatas. From one auto parts place to the next hardware store, we relentless pursued the illusive glass cutter. As the clock ticked closer to 7pm and the driver's meeting, we faced the reality: no glass cutter. Not to worry, though, we had two piñatas.
Locals walking cheered the piñata as we walked by. Young kids pointed to them from the windows of cars and busses. And when we arrived at the driver's meeting, heads turned. Some laughed and gave the thumbs up, while others chided -- especially at the site of Hello Kitty. There's no question that we made an impression and added to the color of what is perhaps the most colorful and exciting off-road race in the world.
The store owner wishes us luck in the race and let's us walk away with her prized piñatas.
The back streets of Ensenada.
Ben and Robb making the best of what was a tough break for the Darkcyd Racing Team here at 2011 Tecate Score Baja 500.
The quest for the illusive glass cutter on the streets of Ensenada, Slocum searches with his friend close by.
More than 250 people show up for the Driver's meeting the night before racing. None of them expecting to be joined by Slocum's "Hello Kitty" piñata.
Back at camp and Estero Beach the crew was hard at work repairing the car. A few tech's from nearby teams joined in the project of putting the Desert Warrior back together. Matt a Kiwi and a mechanic on a Class 2 buggy team worked hard to bring the snorkel back to life. Raff and Tommy worked on the intercooler while Gary and Bill set about the address body panels, the hood and further examination of the frame.
It was 9pm the night before race day. Darkcyd Racing would race the Baja 500. The crew ordered Ben and Robb to bed as they would need the energy for what would be a tough and long day tomorrow. Food first, Ben insisted. We ate at the restaurant onsite at Estero Beach where we found Robby Gordon and his crew of more than 30 eating and reviewing race plans for the following day. We all wondered who would be piloting the helicopter.
Early the next morning we arrived back at camp to find a clean and though scarred Desert Warrior, it appeared to be ready for racing.
Making light of a tough and serious situation, the Barney piñata oversees the team as they put the Desert Warrior back together.
Robby Gordon addresses his team the night before the Baja 500 at the Estero Beach restaurant.
Team Technician Gary Grahn, feeling a big dejected but doing his part to get the Desert Warrior ready for racing.
From Robb's journal:
The start of any SCORE Baja Race is a challenge and test of coordination, execution, organization, sychronization and human behaviour. With 250 cars set to launch over a 5 hour period, that means about 50 cars every hour. Or nearly one ever 60 seconds. The race start is staggered so that each car can be timed accurately and so each class of cars is racing in the same proximity around the same time. Motorcycles take off first starting at 5:30am. Then Trophy Trucks, buggies and so on. Many of the teams comprised of men in their 20's tend to stay out late and take in the best of Mexico's unique flavors of which Tequila and Cerveza are quite prevalent. So getting ever car in line so that the coordinated start happens without a hitch is not like herding cats. This morning it seemed to go smooth as the SCORE officials worked with drivers and teams to have them launch on time.
Drivers and co-drivers gear up for the race.
Score Organizers Herd the Various Teams to Queue for the Starting LIne
The starter and the ever so sweet Tecate girls at the start of the 2011 Tecate Score Baja 500
With the slightly bruised but ready to race Desert Warrior, Darkcyd Racing principals Tara and Robb Rill await the start.
Ben Slocum, co-driver contemplates a tough day, while SCORE promoter Sal Fish greets and wishes the racers good luck at the starting line.
Darkcyd Racing Team Baja 500 Gary Grahn, Robb & Tara Rill, Ben Slocum, Tommy Cobb Rill Young, Gabe & Raff McDougall, Allison Joiner and Kiera McDougall
The Flag Waver and Tecate Girls Await Robb to pull up to the gate.
Robb & Ben pull out of the starting gate and onto the track for the 2011 Tecate Score Baja 500
Yes! We're racing today.
If El Diablo Can't Stop The Desert Warrior, What CIf El Diablo Can't Stop The Desert Warrior, What Can?
The Darkcyd Racing Team's Rally Raid UK built Desert Warrior blasted through the Ensenada Aqueducts and onto the track heading to Ojos Negros, about 35 miles into the race where the track crosses Baja California's Route 3. Tara, Gary and I throttled our rented Buick SUV down the pavement while Raff, Bill, Tommy and the others followed in Raff's pick-up, our default chase vehicle should anything go wrong.
Playing the waiting game, team members watch the highway hoping to see their drivers and cars make the next pit stop.
The plan was simple. Get to Race Mile 35 where the techs would assess the vehicle, inspect the intercooler and decide if the Desert Warrior should move on. From their, the next stop would be Race Mile 80. By the time we all made it to Race Mile 30, we learned that Robb and Ben had already passed and were headed to the next stop. The crew at Baja Pits, an organization that many teams contract with that provides pit support along the entire route of the Baja 500 with some 10 or more stops, told us they looked at the car and all looked good. Ben and Robb motored on. We had no idea or information on what they and the car went through during the first 35 miles.
Gary and Tara hoping to see Robb, Ben and the Desert Warrior at Race Mile 35.
Though I ran over a fence on the way and was now on the wrong side of the race course, I quickly turned the car around, made a sliding right turn and we bolted off on course leaving the Sisyphus and the bloodbath behind. Before we crossed the highway at Race Mile 35 we stopped at Baja Pits for a damage check—we were good. So we crossed and made our way to meet the Darkcyd Team at Race Mile 80. On course we saw a truck that obviously was going to fast and had rolled off the course into a crevasse. We passed a handful of other cars experiencing mechanical issues, and others that had overshot a turn. We were making good time and before we knew it , it was time to radio to the team with our ten mile countdown to Race Mile 80. Soon it would be decision time.
So we convoyed to the 80 mile marker where we waited and hoped we'd see Robb and Ben. With much trepidation and uncertainty, the techs paced about the dusty pit like nervous fathers in a hospital waiting room. Then a crackle through the VHF radio in Raff's truck. It was Ben. "We're ten miles out. All ok. The hood is rattling. Might need to tighten." Smiles and excitement passed over the team like sun breaking through the sky on a cloudy day. Would they go on?
Robb and Ben looked good. They felt confident and wanted to continue. "We came this far," reasoned Robb. "We can make it to the next stop." The hood was fine, but something else was dragging and quickly fixed. Going on from here meant there was no turning back. They'd soon be out and hundreds of miles from a paved road. It would likely be dark before we'd see them at the next stop. Robb asked Tara for the sleeping bag. The Desert Warrior was equipped with an emergency kit that included blankets, but Robb wanted the sleeping bag. The crew stuffed it behind the seats. Tara and I reasoned that Robb was abiding by the old adage that if you don't have something you don't think you'll need, you'll need it. So without the sleeping bag, he might be spending the night in the desert. With it safely stowed, they'd be good to go through the finish of the race.
Tara flags Robb into Baja Pits at Race Mile 80.
A little issue with the passenger side headlight. That's about it. Will Desert Warrior Make the Next Stop?
Ben seems fired up for the next round!
Gary worried about the Z-Bar and checks for frame fractures at Race Mile 80.
Robb takes off his fire safety hood and wipes the Baja dust and sweat as the crew assesses the prospect of moving on.
The Desert Warrior exposed in Baja Pits at Race Mile 80 in the Tecate Score Baja 500 2011.
After loading up Ben and Robb with the sleeping bag, water, snacks and good luck, Tara, Raff and the crew headed to the next Baja Pitts location on a paved road, at about Race Mile 135. As we dropped into the Trinidad Valley we lost contact with both Robb and Ben on the VHF and our mobile telephone cell service. The Baja Pitts were set up road side just outside a family owned "loncheria" a café of sorts called Loncheria Abigail. With the high afternoon desert sun beating down, we watched several racers fly by. All varioius classes from Class 2 Buggies, to a quad and a motorcycle and even a bug and Trophy Truck. Raff figured that since he'd seen a few cars in the class just before the Desert Warrior, that we'd see Robb and Ben flying through the pits in 30 minutes or so. Something wasn't right though. After Gary and I convinced Abigail to cook us up a few machaca burritos and a couple cold 'mexican cokes' (real sugar) and the rest of the team taking shelter from the sun and sample the delicious authentic mexican cooking (yes, grandma in the kitchen and the real kitchen of this home), I cruised over to the Baja Pits. As a couple more vehicles rode in for inspection, fluids and repairs, I was told that only 5 of the Baja Pits customers (out of approximately 40), had shown up. What's more, Baja Pits counted every car that drove by: only 15 of the nearly 250 cars entered into this year's race had been by.
The perennial winning McMillan team changes drivers and pits hours before any other team. And this at Race Mile 135.
Raff grabbed the microphone. "Chase 221 to The Weatherman, Chase 221 to Weatherman, status please," Raff barked into the microphone. "221 Chase, please hold." Then we heard what we feared most: "Chase 221, your vehicle has rolled.Passengers okay. They request extraction from their team. they're at Race Mile 125." Raff sat there with the microphone still in his hand as he gazed out the windshield. The race had ended for Darkcyd Racing. They only made it 45 miles since the last stop.
The Desert Warrior. Made it past El Diablo, but it was the rut that wouldn't relent that did her in.
Now. Can we find Robb and Ben and pull them out before nightfall. With only two hours before dark, the tension ran high.
Retreat, Recovery & Rescue. Baja 500. The Bizarre
Retreat, Recovery & Rescue. Baja 500. The Bizarre Outcome.
After scanning the maps and confirming with The Weatherman the Race Mile position last reported for Darkcyd Racing's Desert Warrior, Raff led our convoy west toward Heroes de la Indenpendencia, a tiny village about halfway between Ensenada and San Felipe on Baja California's Route 3. Without an accurate GPS position and useless GPS maps, Raff relied on a detailed map book of Baja California. Tara identified what looked like a road that led in towards Race Mile 25, but without elevation information it was hard to identify the validity of such a road, and assess whether it would be accessible in our vehicles.
While the Buick SUV rental was outfitted with 4-wheel drive its ground clearance was meager, to say the least. Raff's pickup also was fitted with four-wheel drive, and had more ground clearance. Problem was, we had 9 total passengers. If we were to pull Robb and Ben out of the desert, we would have eleven. Raff's truck could carry six passengers. Our crew not including Tara or me numbered five. Tara wasn't about to stand back and wait. She'd be a nervous wreck. I was the only team member who could speak spanish, so I was essential to the extraction crew in order to communicate and locate the car and drivers.
Raff tries to explain to Tara anything and everything. But where's the road in to Robb & Ben?
Things were complicated. We soon found ourselves driving up and down Route 3 going west, then east and then west searching for an elusive road and a "town" that Tara saw on the map. The sun was making its descent. And tensions were flaring. A cloud of uncertainty weighed heavy on the team. We knew Robb and Ben were stuck somewhere in the desert, we were burdened with finding out where. Though Raff had been to Baja races several times before, he was bewildered too. In my gut, I knew we had to find someone who'd crewed or raced this course many times before. We needed to talk to someone. Yet we seemed bent on chasing an elusive road.
We were still following Raff and now had passed pit stops for other racers several times. Why won't he stop, I wondered. We need to talk to someone. Finally he pulls into a parking lot in front of little market and tiny restaurant. There are trailers, racers and locals. While I go to talk to the locals, Tara chats with the racers. We learn that the racers are part of a motorcycle team. Their rider had a crash on El Diablo and was seriously injured and had to be Medivac'd to a hospital in San Diego. "Don't even think of it," one of the racers told Tara. You'll never get in. And you'll probably never get out. Reality was setting in. I could see the pain in Tara's face. Desperation. Raff and the others were lost for words.
With the sun setting, Heroes de la Indenpendencia Turned Us Around.
Gary was mesmerized by the glow on the mountains, and in the distance, the nasty and naughty El Diablo.
Just then Tara's phone rings. Amazing. It's Robb. He's made it to one of the Baja Pits and asks us to retrieve him. The phone connection drops several times before Tara starts talking to some guy Chileco. She's speaking so loud in the small restaurant everyone in there and the market can hear her. Frustrated due the dropped connections. She paces frantically. "It's a blocked number," she screams. "Why is it blocked!"
Finally the phone rings again and she's now talking to Chileco who gives her directions to the Baja Pits. We're several hours away he tells her. The sun is setting. She noodles out some directions on a paper, but gets cut off again. She wanted to speak to Robb one more time.
Tara explains to Raff the plan. We'll ride Route 3 until it ends at Route 5, just north of San Felipe. From there we'll head north until we find the second of two dirt roads some 50 miles from the intersection. We bid the bikers farewell and send good vibes to their buddy in the hospital and begin our search for Robb and Ben. Though we don't know it at the time, the sun dips behind El Diablo and adjacent mountains. Now we're traveling by twilight and losing light fast. I wondered if we'd ever find them out there.
As I'm blasting east Tara's phone rings, so I pull over hoping to preserve the location and signal. But she gets cut off, so I take off again. The phone rings again, so we pull off and Tara now is in deep conversation. "Are you sure?," she says with a quiver in her voice. "Is that what you want?" Next she's explaining yet another reality. Raff and the entire crew save Allan have flights leaving San Diego early the next afternoon. "You don't understand," Tara is explaining. I won't have anyone to help us tomorrow. We must do this tonight." She's talking to someone named Stuart. "Thank you Stuart, thank you. We'll be there."
She explains that Stuart warned us from trying to rescue Robb and Ben. He guaranteed that we'd get lost and stuck. He advised us to meet them the following morning at 11am with a trailer. He said there'd be plenty of help getting the Desert Warrior loaded onto the trailer. This meant that I'd be driving Raff's massive pick-up and towing an equally massive trailer over these winding and twisting roads.
We sped up the road hoping to find Raff pulled over and waiting for us so we could explain the plan, turn around and head back to our hotel and camp in Ensendada. With each bend of the road we looked for a truck pulled over. Nothing. Tara was worried Raff might try to go into the desert without us. Gary thought he'd wait and ultimately figure it out and head back to look for us. But we motored on. All I could think about was backtracking on this road for about the fifth time today—but now in the dark. It was nearly 45 minutes when we finally found Raff pulled over at yet another Baja Pits location.
"I've got the directions!" he yelled showing the most emotion since hearing about the crash. He quickly sobered up when Tara explained the plan. At this point Raff was concerned about his trailer. "Have you ever towed a trailer?" he asked me. He explained how easy it would be to cook the brakes. I told him we'd be meeting Robb from the North and traveling a different road. He was concerned. To make the flight in the next day, the crew would need to leave Ensenada first think in the morning. There'd be no way any of them could help get Robb or drive the truck. Changing flights would cost a fortune. There were no other options. I'd have to drive the truck to meet Ben and Robb. Ben would drive the truck to Florida and Tara, Robb and I would return to San Diego as their flight departed the following day—a much better buffer after a grueling off road race.
I finally handed the driving over to Gary and proceed to drive the more than two-hour jaunt back to Ensenada. The trip took even longer due to the slow moving cargo trucks on the twisting hair-pin turns. Before I dropped Tara at her hotel I asked her to call Robb or Stuart and see if we'd be able to tow The Desert Warrior with a tow bar and that way I'd be saved from pulling the heavy massive trailer over these gnarly roads.
There was no way. When he heard Raff was heading out early in the morning and wouldn't be there to tend to the Desert Warrior he was unsettled. "Tell Raff to change his flight," Robb insisted. "Only Raff. And let him drive the truck and trailer." Phew. It was settled. I'd drive the Buick and Raff would follow in the pick-up with the trailer. The entire crew would leave together and we'd bid farewell in Tecate, as I suggested this border would be much easier and faster to cross than Tijuana. We agreed to meet first thing in the morning at Tara's hotel.
Tara explained she felt weird. She couldn't remember ever traveling with Robb and spending a night in a hotel alone. She wasn't scared. But she said it was weird. She was worried about Robb.
Back at my hotel I download photos, scribbled notes about the day's events and wondered what Robb and Ben we're doing. Thinking how beautiful the desert is at night under a star-filled sky. It's something they'll never forget and will bond them together forever. Little did I know what they were in for!
We met at Tara's hotel 7:30 am Sunday morning and began the convoy to Tecate over Baja Route 3. The events of the weekend flashed through our memories and while the crew looked tired and disappointed, we were happy that the end was in sight. I was happy Raff was driving his truck, as the bed in his pick up was filled with two motorcycles a quad and piles of other gear.
Thanks for the masks, Stuart!
Stuart found plenty of things wrong with The Desert Warrior. But he was never absent of his beer and cigarette.
You want me to do what? Tequila? Okay. Twist my arm. But only once.
Route 3 turned out to be somewhat better going north than it did in the other direction five times the day and night before. But then we climbed a high pass, very scenic and offering incredible vistas to the desert below. It was just a little after 11am when we pulled up to find Robb, Ben and the Desert Warrior waiting patiently with Stuart and his posse from Locos Mocos.
Live Video of Desert Warrior Rolling at Baja 500
It was just by a quirk of luck or maybe bad luck, that I mounted my Canon S95 inside Darkcyd Racing Team's Desert Warrior before team manager Tara Rill strapped herself in for her inaugural ride in their new desert rally vehicle. But what was supposed to be a quick loop or two around the test track at Estero Beach Campground turned out to be fateful mishap that tested the entire team.
As driver and team owner Robb Rill slid into a 70 or 80 degree turn, one that had been rutted and dug deep on the outside, the outside wheels caught a lip and the new Desert Warrior went into a slow motion roll and landed on the drivers side.
This video captures that crash from the point of view of the driver and co-driver, in this case Robb's wife, partner and team manager Tara. I shot the other footage of the vehicle as it ran around the test track. What you see is surprising if not, in hindsight, a true test of endurance.