Desert Racing Part II: Pre-running the Baja 1000

Dec 22, 2015

*See images by clicking the annotated photo gallery below

Justin Matney owns RPM Offroad, a Bristol, Tennessee-based shop that specializes in offroad performance, accessories and customized enhancements for offroad race teams, as well as recreational motorsport enthusiasts. The following except was originally printed in the January 2015 issue of THE SHOP magazine. Catch the final installment in the March issue of THE SHOP.

Ensenada, Mexico—Pre-running in the desert presents formidable challenges that may be difficult to appreciate fully before coming to a desert race, no matter how realistic one’s expectations might be. The harsh and desolate nature of the desert environment—the heat and the cold, the sand, the wind, the merciless sun—is a huge factor when racing in the open desert.

When we begin pre-running we start at a slow pace to look out for dangers—drop offs and silt beds, to name a couple. Pre-running also makes it possible to look for different lines you wouldn’t see at race speed.

We start by wearing headsets so it makes it easier for us to communicate in the car and for getting in and out and to open gates. Several roads we race down are local roads and access roads to different towns are open to traffic during the pre-run. This makes it extremely dangerous to practice on these sections. After we have run the course multiple times, we start what we like to call “pre-racing.” When we get into this stage we put on our helmets for safety since the speeds have increased. When pre-racing we pick up the pace so we can better judge the course at about a 60 percent speed to add cautions on different corners or dips that are not dangerous at a slower speed. It’s amazing how the course changes the faster you go.

Not pre-racing has caused me before to misjudge a corner we did not mark properly and end up wrecked and out of the race. The Trophy Trucks we are racing prefer to go fast and hitting bumps too slow can be just as race ending as blowing a turn. The other key to pre-running, once you have experienced the course and are comfortable with it, is to run your section at approximately the time of day you will be racing through it. Sunset and sunrise can play a huge factor in visibility and if you aren’t expecting to have the sun in your eyes it can make the race much more difficult on you. This is especially important if you are racing a night section; the desert has a way of looking one way during the day and being an entire different beast at night.

THE PRE-RUNNER

I am using a Geiser Bros. 2011 Chevy Silverado pre-runner for this Baja 1000. The truck is a high horsepower V8 by Dougans Engines with a Rancho Drivetrain turbo 400 3-speed mated to it. To give us the suspension and comfort we are using King Shocks coilovers and bypass shocks. To put the traction to the ground we rely on BFG’s new KR2 39×13.50R17 tires to get us through the rocks, silt, sand and mountain passes for several thousand miles.

The vehicle is outfitted with the newest impact safety carbon fiber seats and seat belts to keep us safe. To light the way in the night we rely on the newest Rigid Industries LED light bars. I personally like to run a 40” curved bar with a 20” curved bar below it to help spread the light. For all intents and purposes this is a trophy truck with a windshield and air conditioning and it makes the difference between going out to win or just making dust on race day.

Pre-running allows us not only to run the course, mark dangers, alternate lines and better understand the terrain but it also allows the navigator and driver to practice their communications between each other for calling out corners and dangers. The driver relies heavily on a strong co-driver to let him know if he can go flat out over the next blind hill or if there is a danger just around the next turn.  For this race I am training a new navigator which adds to the difficulty of the overall pre-run.

THE NAVIGATOR

The Navigator/co-driver has several jobs other than just being able to read a GPS screen. A navigator must be able to understand the terrain, read gauges, know operating temperatures of the vehicle, be a mechanic, handle communications between pits—and much more.

It’s a very difficult task that takes skill and concentration. I personally believe this to be the hardest job since you are having to not only read the GPS and communicate to the driver approaching corners, hazards and other dangers, but also be able to stay calm and speak clearly at 100 plus mph—and occasionally pick cactus out of the cab and yourself without missing a beat.

Next: The Baja 1000 race that we have spent weeks pre-running and preparing ourselves for. Catch this final installment in the March issue of THE SHOP magazine.