San Felipe 250

 

   

   

   It started ominously.

   The 16-year-olds in our group, Maya and Angel were nursing hangovers from a night of stolen tequila sips and a hidden bottle of rum.

   The rest of the adults engaged in a vociferous duel over which part of the course would be best to pitch camp and watch the racing carnage of the San Felipe 250—a brutal test of man and machine in the Sonoran desert Saturday.

   But the true signs of impending doom were signaled by a lack of bottled water for our drug of choice—espresso roast coffee. We needed caffeine to boost our morale and jump-start a photographic odyssey and journalistic excellence.

   I had been assigned at the last minute, of course, to cover all facets of the race for a little known magazine in Yuma, Arizona. “It’s the usual fee, “ the e-mail read. The last lines of the short, urgent missive implored, “Keep the expenses to a minimum. Get the story. Get photos. Lot’s of ‘em. You’ve got 72 hours.”

   At least that's how I had wished it read. It was less and email and more of a phone call from my editor saying, "Hey some of the guys are headed to San Felipe for this race-thing. You wanna go and maybe get a story and some pictures?" 

   But we still felt time had become the enemy. And every minute wasted in our cabin meant the work was going to be harder for our team. Our “cabin” was an un-elegantly decorated rental above the beach. Our host, Steve, had spent years dragging old, mismatched furniture from Arizona to outfit the place and make it hospitable for large sleepovers.

   Our assembled group was best described as a mixture of beauty and brawn. And we were spread all over the cabin. Some in cots, some in a bedroom and others sleeping outside—despite cold desert temperatures. It’s February and San Felipe lies in an unusual ecosystem where the Sea of Cortez meets the Sonoran desert in the Baja California Peninsula. This means warm days and cold nights.

   Keith, an erstwhile Denali tour-bus driver from the Ohio Appalachian mountains stoked the fire in the pot-bellied stove that warmed our beach-front rental. No one else seemed anxious enough or interested enough for the task.

   Our 16-year-olds had overslept and were now scrounging for hair of the dog.

   Marilyn, Maya’s mother and careful guardian over Angel, could only watch and try to contain the girls while her boyfriend, Steve, planned the day’s agenda—a task he shared with John.

   John had brought his girlfriend, Roseanne, and a 40-foot-long combo of Chevy Suburban hauling a flatbed trailer loaded with two golf carts, fuel, booze, food and a portable grill—all necessary equipment for what would become a twisted day. It took one look at the traveling show and knew the day would not be all rainbows and unicorns.

   A beautifully bronzed Peruvian-born model, Audrey, had tagged along for the ride and planned to be my model for an international swimsuit contest after the race was over. She was Steve’s friend and fairly ambivalent about the race as were Maya and Angel. Their priority was subverting the adult protection and finding male companionship and booze. In their mind, once you cross the border, it’s spring break, baby!

   I briefly listened to Steve and John plot the race course. I was out of my element. I didn’t know the course. I didn’t know the town. And my Spanish was only good enough to order tacos and tell police “Don’t shoot. I’m a journalist.” So I let the brawn and the experienced figure out the details.

   I set about doing what I do best and the only thing that seemed constructive besides griping--scrounging for half-emptied water bottles and guessing how many coffee scoops to pour into the ‘70s-style Corning Ware percolator. Marilyn and I are coffee devotees. We’re not snobs, we’ll drink just about anything that’s coffee flavored, but it’s got to be hot and it’s got to be caffeinated.

   Finally things were moving forward but we were already behind. The variety of peoples lodged under one roof--different agendas, different priorities; plus one tiny bathroom--simply made logistics and hurrying impossible.

   By the time our caravan hit the streets of San Felipe, the madness had already begun.

   Thousands of gear heads had descended on this quiet fishing village to test their mettle in a race of grit and determination across sand, rock and cactus.

   As we aimed for the course, racers had already started across the desert and we were cursing the traffic.

   Spectator traffic clogged the only road in and out of town. Mexican and American spectators all jockeyed for a spot to watch NASCAR-like motors wrapped in fragile, metal skins sprint through Baja California.

   Taking pictures would be challenging enough, but getting the facts involved a whole other element.

Our plan was to engage the racers along a notorious stretch of the course known as “Zoo Road.”

   This menacing strip of sand and rock was also the destination for thousands of fans aching to get close to the action—really close. There are no modern safety measures in the desert. The only thing standing between man and machine was a grain of sand and one’s own determination of what is a safe viewing distance.

   This was unfortunate for our crew. The crowds were wildly enthusiastic and Zoo Road promised a great vantage point for pictures of trucks and buggies bouncing into the air with crowds cheering them on. However, since everyone else wanted to be on Zoo Road we had already missed the trophy trucks—high-powered pickups loaded with 700-plus horsepower engines and rock-hard suspensions.

   We watched briefly as the buggies, dirt bikes and quads blasted past the assembled throngs.

But we wanted photos of those trophy trucks. NASCAR’s Robbie Gordon was in the field driving one, giving the event a touch of celebrity.

   We had to find a better position.

   So we packed up the whole production. All nine of us --whining 16-year olds, anxious photographers, uninterested bystanders and desert rats--reconfigured our caravan and set off for the south end of the course.

   So did everyone else.

   The entire Zoo Road crowd seemed to be one step ahead of us. They too wanted a second taste of flying dirt and debris.

   Because the race course winds through the desert, the San Felipe 250 is one of the few desert races that afford spectators the opportunity to follow the flow of racing and to see competition on different parts of the course. That is, if you’re ambitious enough and determined enough.

     So again we achingly followed a miserably slow logjam of traffic southward.

By now nerves were becoming frayed. Marilyn had taken to stepping out of my car for smoking breaks.    While puffing on Marlboros she actually strolled faster than traffic could travel. The grousing inside our caravan had begun.

   We counted our mistakes leading to this frustratingly slow crawl in traffic: We should have left earlier, we should have just headed south in the first place; why didn’t we pick up the two-way radios so we could communicate between cars. Why didn’t we pack instant coffee?

   None of our moaning was moving the traffic.

   We watched as a Mexican police car was struck by another pickup belonging to a construction company when it tried to break into the line of traffic. As the occupants bailed out of their respective vehicles, we only shook our heads and realized that the truck driver’s day had just become much worse than ours.

   Finally the drudgingly slow traffic began to split apart and we were able to make our way to another part of the course known as “Airport Road”.

   Our sighs of relief to the easing of traffic gave way to gasps and trepidation when the narrow dirt road we bounced along to turned into precipice-like conditions.

   Much of the mile-long stretch was only as wide as our car with banks that were giving way to erosion. We were glued to our rearview mirrors watching John behind us guide his Suburban and trailer deftly across any dip and twist the land could throw at him.

Secure in his driving ability we relaxed a little.

   We were able to eventually reach Airport Road that gave us no jump sites but a wicked 90-degree turn that we decided would be a reasonable place to end this odyssey and get down to the business of getting some pictures and telling a story.

   John, Roseanne and Keith set about making camp. They unloaded the golf carts which the 16-year-olds immediately confiscated to vanish themselves into the desert brush. Steve and I began the business of photographing the race in earnest. Marilyn and Audrey just sat back and soaked up the view.

   We were disappointed we couldn’t get photos of cars jumping but getting close to the action and watching the trophy trucks take the turn at nerve-wracking speed was plenty good for us. Flying dirt, blue skies, loud trucks and plenty of sunshine created a happy place that had been missing for a long time.

   We encountered a crew for Stiffrod Motorsports from Lake Havasu. They were waiting for their buggies to pass by. In between smokes and glances at the competition, they offered my first real insight into the race.

   Rusty Lee, a pit crew member for Stiffrod said the race was a good excuse to “come out get ****ed up and break stuff.” His son, David, the other half of the crew, clarified his dad’s sentiment by offering that “If you finish a Mexican race, you’ve accomplished something. It’s so hard on the cars.”

   “There’ll be cars scattered all over this desert,” the elder Lee said. We just hope we’re not one of them.”

   Indeed. Only about half of the 260 entries actually finished the race under the nine-hour time limit.

   The big winner in the trophy-truck division was the Riviera Racing team.

They destroyed the course, devouring it in just over three hours and breaking the course speed record by averaging more than 63 m.p.h.

   Scott McFeely a pit support member for Riviera explained his team’s success came about because they had no mechanical failures and completed the race stopping only once for the scheduled pit stop.

He almost seemed surprised the team made it through the race without a failure.

   “Man, you should see the terrain out there,” he said after the race. “It’s miles of the most gnarly terrain you’d ever see. There’s knee-deep sand, microwave-sized rock. It’s like a lunar landscape.”

   And as the moon set on San Felipe, McFeely and his team basked in the glow of street lights. They watched the Tecate beer models dance the electric glide on the awards stage just above the water’s edge near downtown San Felipe.

   Our crew was finally at peace for a little while.

We strolled the malecon--a concrete walkway above the beach--lined with pharmacies, restaurants and vendors hawking jewelry and gum.

   Our crew had shaken the dust of the day and were primed for an evening of relaxation.

We reflected on the events of the last 12 hours and decided we may have started out poorly, but we fought through the race mania and the elements and even had a little fun doing it. We ordered fish tacos, lots of salsa, chips, fresh limes, cold beers and margaritas. Mariachis provided plenty of background noise mixing with ocean waves and crowds prowling outside our tiny restaurant haven.

   We laughed about the day’s events and remembered watching Angel, Maya, Marilyn and Audrey dancing in the dust as the last few racers whizzed through Airport Road. The girls’ weariness and boredom propelled them to dance with an inebriated local to the tunes of Men at Work’s “It’s a Mistake.” All’s we could do was watch as the bored and disenfranchised danced on the edge of darkness--dust settling and our cameras still clicking.