Wednesday, November 12, 2008

What happened on the Devils Dry Lake?

What really happened during the Baja 1000 2006 on the Devils Dry Lake!

A great story about off-road racing in Baja Mexico, what REALLY happens down here. Rory Ward has not denied the facts in this story. In fact, he has promoted the story.

"I think Rory Ward and his crew took my stuff", said Jim Mihal. In an interview shortly after the incident. "He (Rory) was building a Class 1 at the time and the sawzalled work, looked too good to be, 'by chance'".

In another interview a year after the incident Rory said, "yeah, the Collins Motorsports Team doesn't respect me anymore over this incident".

Sal Fish called Jim Mihal to "tap down talk about what happened", considering it involved Rory Ward and the Collins Motorsports crew that was on site at the time of crash and they talked the dazed co-driver to walk away from the equipment. Left the hulk worth over $45 K out on the desert floor as the sun disappeared behind Devil Spirit Mountain, deep in Baja, Mexico. And into the night...

Another report: From 'Harleys Dad':

I remember seeing the car when I went past it in my class 11 car, their were a few people around it when I fully lit it up with my lights, and remember commenting to my co driver that I hope nobody died in it because so many things looked to be off the car. I thought it shed the parts, later I herd some body used a saws all.

This same kind of thing happend to a class 11 racer in the Baja 500 in 1976, they broke in the pine forest, hitched a ride, leaving the car, and when they went back to get the car it was a shell. Engine-trans-lights, about 8 Cibi oscars, the seats, shocks, all 5 tires and wheels and all most any thing else you could think of. They did not cut things, just unbolted everything next to the trail. The only thing left was the front beam and windows. True story!!, I saw the shell when they were crossing the border. As far as this situation, I dont know any of the people involved, but after heiring what happend to the car, which was a wile after the race was done, I often wonder If we came across the car when they were cutting parts off, at the time I thought it was all crash damage(ouch) with people there recovering the car."

Editorial Comments:

This piece was one of our first works that we had some of our own people call and interview the combatants. I use 'combatant' on purpose. At the time of the interviews, Jim Mihal was very upset, "I just spent three years of my life on that race car, and in one accident, it was gone!". Ward wasn't upset until he found out what Mihal was saying, then our story was published, the stuff hit the fan. Sal Fish of SCORE was calling Mihal on damage control and Ward went sideways hearing about Mihals accusations.

Ward was very defensive about every part of the story. First, that he and his crew had positioned the 'debris' in such a way, that several race cars had hit it. Second, he was proud of the medical assistance he had provided on site, after the crash. Third, he thought it was a good idea to remove the co-driver from the scene, even though Mihal faulted him for this very pro-active move.

More than anything else, Mihal felt that one action and giving the co-driver beers in camp (why, if he was really injured?) made Ward culpable of the thousands of dollars of damage on his race car. The missing parts and the stories Ward tells to this day, of the bad support plan Mihal had wadded together for this 2006, Baja 1000 run to La Paz.

Mihal reportedly did not have a chase crew in communication near San Felipe. Ward contends, the captain of the team, Mihal, was all the way in San Ignacio, waiting for the first driver to bring it in. Without keeping in close contact with a chase crew that, was supposed to be in San Felipe. Ward later contended that Mihal crew only found out about the crash after Wards crew radioed out the incident. And even then, didn't immediately respond.

It would be hours later, that Mihals chase team met up with the co-driver, in San Felipe...


UPDATED November 12, 2008

Check out the photos. 1. The #105 in Ensenada. 2. On the Baja 1000 course, 2006. 3. The vaunted "Devils Dry Lake", El Diablo Dry Lake just outside San Felipe, Baja Mexico. (Notice the drag marks to the West of the hulk that claimed the #105). 4. The #105 on the dry lake. 5. The hulk that claimed the #105 and caused other racers damage.

The course went SW between two (2) burned-out cars. The wind would have been east-to-west (the typical direction for the dry lake at that time of day). Moving further and further to the east, to escape to RH-moving dust clouds, would have put #105 on a interception course … as evidenced by that collision.
RORY WARD OF 'RACERS ONLY', who was working with Collins Motorsports, WROTE THIS:
– "One of the guys from our crew, Ed Crawford of Collins Motorsports, moved the “whatever it is”. Rory Ward AKA "Wardy"" —
pulled the hulk off to the west side of the marked/GPSed trail.
“They” say that Todd Wyllie, #85 hit it, then so did Quinn in #76! Followed by #105.

Why did they move the obstruction? Did they move the obstruction onto more of the course exposure without GPS?

Clearly, after they touched - moved the obstruction, they DID NOT mark the obstruction. They also placed the obstruction in a place where three racers hit it, which they admit to. No matter how well they think they moved this hulk, three racers struck it, with one having severe medical injuries and ultimately, thousands of dollars of loss.

What happened?
Downsouth it was reported that a "1" car hit a spectator vehicle on the dry lake and it burst into flames and all pax in spectator car were killed. I said: "Possibly one of the the junkers past Jose's Tienda?"Or the truck with the quad in back that rolled on the P'citos road, which was reported as the truck hitting a race quad. SMD crews fanned out along side the road to find the rider (who was IN the truck ... originally. He was ejected and DOA)

Instead, the #105, at full speed, 120 MPH plus plus was behind a slower vehicle and was passing on the right, when Andres Ruffo, the driver until San Ignacio, struck the unmarked obstruction and rolled the rig.

Direct report from the team: "Thanks for all the concern, during my last converstations with Andres and Betim on the weekend, they are both still shook up. Andres was diagnosed with a severe concussion and a soft tissue leg injury. Betim, the co-driver, did not recieve any professional medical attention as he stated he was fine. Priority one when a crash takes place is to secure your driver and co-driver. In our case, the driver was air lifted by our rented chopper and the co-driver and photographer stayed with the car, as the co-driver was shook up but not injured.Priority 2 is to remove the wreckage from the course to safeguard the other participants, which is precisely what was done by our guys and with the help of Rory Ward and their crew. Thank You Rory Ward. Priority 3 is to secure the car until it is retrieved.These are important issues to discuss with your team prior to the race at your team meeting. Sometimes the things we take for granted are not 100% understood throughout the whole team...and it is really important everyone is there for the same reason and that they work together to accomplish the mission.

Notice I mentioned "opportunists" took the parts. The parts are very very specific and the class 1 group is pretty small. I can't see using the parts on a pre-runner...they would stand out big time, especially the shocks, unless a buggy, and even that crowd is very small. The radio and Motec dash have serial numbers, the radiator uses wiggens clamps at really odd angles and mounts very different, integrated fans...a few of the wheels were steel stamped. The 35 spline axle is for a certain length and not that common, directional too...if they use it in the wrong direction...he he he. The new Pro-Am hub was modified...a 2" hole in the cap with an aluminum plug retained by o-rings. Not too many 35x13.5x15 TOYO's out there yet...these should stick out big time too. The six 90 mm Hella Zenon lights are not available in the USA...a German part, and the waterjet bracketry was made and designed in house...not available in stores near you. The floor jack was a blue harbor freight unit with an aluminum slider-pan on the bottom, the handle had a welded boss on it to help remove the tires...very custom with lightening holes etc. About the only thing worth anything to someone else is the GPS, the electrical panel with circuit breakers and switches, pumpers, tow straps, etc. The other parts can easily be identified and Will surface. These opportunists don't even know what they have, and when they start asking questions, those in the know will know where the parts came from. Mexicans, Americans, chasers or organized is dangerous racing knowing that these type of people have the capacity to do this. The dollars they stole would feed a family for several years in Baja, or feed a tweeker some junk for 6 months. Be sure that this type of thing will continue to happen, and happen more frequently. Consider carrying some means to protect yourselves in your race cars...who knows what the co-driver and photographer would have been faced with after night fell? A CO2 cartridge connected to a inconspicious pipe/jack handle with some rock salt might not be a bad idea to time the race car will be Go down kicking, don't ever lay down or walk away.
The car was pillaged at the crash site. As for staying with the car...that is the $45,000.00 question. I don't think we were predestined to have this happen, I do believe that whoever stripped the car was there to do so. The way the parts were sawzalled off tells me that these have done this before...or at least planned to do this. I figure it was at least 2 guys, probably 3. There must be someone that saw a truck cart off 6x 35" tires from El Diablo dry lake bed, or in San Felipe, Mexicali, or ???...must have been at least one full size truck, maybe 2 involved.

This report from a Trophy Truck driver after the race, "We passed by roughly 45 minutes to one hour after the crash, there were many people in the area of the 105 after the crash, many"".

UPDATE: This issue became so important that Sal Fish of SCORE himself, called Jim Mihal about the "incident". About the public story.

Another teams report, by Terry L.:

""Baja 1000, 2006. On the 9th of November I head to Baja Mexico to race in what has been called "the world's most dangerous point to point motorsports race"...

In the early morning hours of November 15th, Mike Quade and I will strap ourselves into our Jimco Class 10 desert race car and begin the 1,047 mile journey from Ensenada to La Paz, Baja Mexico. After 378 miles, we will hand the car off to Jay Manning and Roberto Zavala to race the nighttime portion of the race. After another 400 miles, I'll crawl back in and finish the last 270 or miles. We should finish the race in about 20 hours or so...nonstop. The average speed works out because in addition to doing 145mph is the open desert, there are points where you are only doing 10 or 15mph negotiating heavy terrain in the mountains.

I'm nervous, excited and confident all at once...I haven't done anything this exciting since jumping out of airplanes in the military, and haven't done any desert racing since my high school motocross racing days (almost 20 years ago). Hopefully my physical preparation will be enough...I've been drinking tons of tequila and smoking cheap Mexican cigarettes to prepare. Anyhow...should be fun. In that nervous laughter "I almost died doing that" sort of fun way.

Well, it was epic...

From meeting Roberto Zavala in LA to getting into a traffic accident in Santee within the first 5 minutes of driving with Jay until the vehicle recovery 700 miles in the middle of the Baja was EPIC.

We did very well considering two competitors were killed during the race, one airlifted to a hospital and only 20% of the starting field finished.

The pre-race was as much of a whirlwind as the race itself...our team consisted of myself, Jay Manning, Roberto Zavala, Mike Quade and our "Pit Bitch": Blaine Cooner, as well as our trusty chase driver "Carlos"...don't ask me his last name...we struggled with the Espanola-English thing for a week...great friend, great guy, but I usually had zero idea what he was saying.

Ensenada was the starting point for the 1,041 mile race...also the point where we had our car inspected, participated in "contingency" and drank ourselves silly! Contingency is a portion of the festivities where all the racers (around 400) push their vehicles down the main thoroughfare in Ensenada for the spectators to see, touch, get autographs (a big hit with the kids), pick up knicknacks,etc....picture Mardis Gras in Mexico for about 8 hours. Its main purpose is for sponsors to get their stickers or decals on the race vehicles with a promise of cash or product awards if the racer finishes in one of the top spots. Its end result is a bunch of drunken racers, scantily clad endorsement models and about 20 million dollars of race cars mixed in with every street type and tourist within 100's a true experience and a blast!

After contingency, everyone headed home (back to Eddie Fisher's garage in Bufadora) to finish prepping the cars and get ready for the race in the morning. It was at this point that I realized there was no getting out of it...not that I wanted to, but just a realization of the inevitable adrenaline surge I was going to get within 12 hours.

The next morning, Jay, Roberto, Carlos and Cooner headed out at 430am to meet us at our first driver change in the Bahia de Los Angeles (Bay of LA) about 10 hours drive time on the highway. Mike and I slept for another few hours until the butterflies in my stomach couldn't take it any longer and forced me up. I had about 4 cigarettes, 4 cups of DECAF coffee ( I don't need to explain the ramifications of having to make a potty stop while screaming at 120mph across the just don't happen.) and a double serving of oatmeal to get started. We strapped in around 9 am, fired the beast up and headed into town. We actually had to drive the race car down the highway about 15 miles to Ensenada...good place to warm it up and get in the zone.

Once we got to Ensenada we got in line and waited. Because we were in Class 10, we had about 80 vehicles starting in front of us...40 trophy trucks and 40 Class 1 cars, not including all the motorcycles and 4 wheelers that started at 630am...

The race starts the fastest vehicles first to keep the passing down to a minimum. While passing and "nerfing" are part of the fun and challenge, it's dangerous enough without having to lap 40 or so cars in the process...

Anyhow...after signing a few last autographs, and yes I will admit I felt a little bit like a rock star, Mike and I strapped in and rolled to our 5th starting position at the start line.

It was here that I started to realize the whole thing was taking on a very dreamlike quality:

I'm sitting in a $150,000.00 race car, strapped in as tight as can be....helmet on, engine screaming behind me, doing my last bit of GPS data verification when Mike says over the intercom "hey, Sal's here"...I look up and it's Sal Fish, the director of SCORE International and the guy who has been running the Baja 1000 since 1973. Now I've seen Sal in movies, books, documentaries...but here he is, leaning in through the front of the car shaking my hand...I faintly hear "good luck guys!" and then he's gone. Mike says "are you ready?"...I think I mumbled something like "yes" and then we moved into the starting position. 10 or 12 leather clad "Tecate Girls" were on both sides of the car (these are the Mexican equivalent to the "Budweiser Girls") with one of them holding a green flag...she signals "five seconds" and then we were off.

Now, the Baja 1000 has long been billed as the "the world's most dangerous race"...of course this is subjective; there's no doubt that it is the longest non-stop point to point race in the world. The danger comes from a myriad of places, crashing, going off cliffs, fuel name it, but the most dangerous thing I saw was within the first 2 miles. It seems every single person within 100 miles is standing within two feet of the car as we were racing 100 mph down the road. I've seen all this in videos, but you really can't understand the ludacrisy of it until you are there...I could have sworn we were going to hit at least a dozen people. I'm not sure if they are thrill seeking or just want to be that close to a racing vehicle...but it is insane.

Somehow, Mike avoided killing several families on the main road and we dropped into the first section of dirt. SCORE had set up several grandstands on both sides of the first dirt section and built two large dirt "jumps" in a row for the racers to get airborne over. This is solely for the fans...there was really no other purpose; wait I take that was also a whole lot of fun! Mike and I had scouted the jumps the day before and he told me he was going to "take it easy" over them...sure. Sure Mike. If "taking it easy" means gunning it to 80 mph and launching us 15 feet in the air in front of 20,000 screaming people...then that is exactly what he did.

Once we got over the jumps, the real meat and potatoes of the race hit...

OK, so meat and potatoes….what I mean is dirt and rocks…

Once we got outside of Ensenada proper things started getting weird…we had people cheering us on, people hucking rocks at us, people flipping us off, women flashing us…it was unreal.

The desert is a strange place to begin with, so when you add in 400 racers, $20 million dollars worth of cars and twice that in support vehicles and logistics, mix in 500,000 Mexicans and spectators, add just a splash of alcohol…wait, make that "drench in alcohol", and you have the strangest party and motorsports event on the planet. How strange?

OK, we are in the middle of the desert, probably 100 miles from the nearest village, and we come around a corner to find two topless blondes cheering us on with beers in hand. It went by pretty fast, but I'm positive they were tailgating; I caught a glimpse of a couple of guys standing by a barbeque grilling something. In the middle of the desert. With their girlfriends topless and rooting the racers on. Did I mention we were in the MIDDLE of a desert? Mike says over the intercom as we pass them doing about 80 "now that's why we race!!"

Not strange enough?

Fast forward 150 miles to Bahia de Los Angeles…we are working our way up the side of this mountain and I see two people up ahead standing on a rock, probably 15 feet above us. It's a guy and a girl, and she is wearing nothing but a bikini bottom. Her long blonde hair is covering her breasts and as we go by she turns around and shakes her ass at us. Great, right? No. When she turned around and shook her thang at us, I noticed a little "junk" poking out the back. By "junk" I mean a penis and some nuts. Yeah. So Mike misses that part and as we go by he says "Yeah baby, shake it! Shake it!" At this point, as his navigator, co-pilot and fellow man, I feel the need to find out how hot he thought she was. T: "yeah, she's pretty hot huh?" M: "oh yeah, man, she was shaking it good!" T:"yeah, dude, I guess you didn't notice the balls and pecker hanging out the back huh?" M: "What!!??" T:"yeah, you homo, you probably did see it!" M:"no I didn't!!" T:"sure you did, you pillow biter!" M:"hey, up yours!!!"

I was laughing so hard I could barely breathe…it got quiet after awhile and Mike just let's this long "EEEEEEWWWWWWWWWW!!" out …I started laughing again; he obviously was obsessing over the whole incident. Classic.

So back to the race…

It was physically the toughest thing I have done in awhile. Take 2 to 3 foot bumps and make them constant for 40 miles. Now drive over them at 80 mph. The car is built to take that sort of stuff in stride…it's actually not that bad of a ride, but there are sections where we where getting whipped around and shaken so hard I LITERALLY thought my guts were going to come out of me…I'm not sure which end, but they were in a serious wash cycle. Our high speeds were between 80 and 120 mph, and the technical stuff we hit at about 15 – 20 mph. It all works out to about an overall speed of 50 – 60 mph for the winning vehicles.

We hit Laguna Diablo, which is a dry lake bed in between two mountain ranges. It's about 60 miles across and completely flat, so everybody just goes flat out. We were screaming along at about 120 with about 20 feet of visibility…there was a car somewhere in front of us kicking up dust. That's the thing about The Baja…if you aren't in the lead, you usually are eating dust and silt for 1000 miles. So this is a part that I found so surreal:

We are zipping along at 120 with no forward visibility and I hear this roar out my side…I look over and it's a Trophy Truck passing us doing about 165 mph….just raging. I look above him and it's his chase helicopter...flying above him at about 40 feet. This is the stuff I've seen in dozens of videos and books, the thing I've dreamed about since I was a kid. And here I am right in the thick of it. The hair was standing up on my arms and I had the biggest grin imaginable on my face…my face hurt I was smiling so hard. Just incredible.

So 10 or 15 minutes later we roll over something big and hard, Mike let's off the gas and turns to the right pretty quickly. We still can't see in front of us, but we pass by the NAPA sponsored Pro-Truck in pieces…it look like it had hit a brick wall at 150 and was burning pretty good. We passed it doing about 100, so we couldn't see much. Mike told me to call "The Weatherman" on the radio and tell him what we had seen and at what race mile it was. I switched the frequency over to the Weatherman and hear him already coordinating LifeFlight and requesting emergency traffic only on the channel. He's pretty vital, and in this case, probably saved the NAPA driver's life. Turns out he was in pretty bad shape, but lived through it. From the look of the truck, it's a miracle that he lived at all. The other miracle is that Mike had the intuition to turn our car at just the right time to keep us from slamming into the wreckage at 120 mph. The race definitely took on a more serious tone for me at that point. It went from being a great joy ride to being a very serious endeavor that could very well kill us both if we didn't keep our head in the game. That doesn't mean my grin went away…in fact, I'm still wearing it!""

Gary Newsome
Baja Racing

Photo & Content Credit: Tony T.