For those possessing a sense of adventure, a love of the outdoors, a joy for driving and a desire to go somewhere a little off the beaten path, we suggest something completely off that path — a visit to the Baja Peninsula in Mexico. Located south of the California-Mexico border, the peninsula beckons like-minded adventurers to engage in various sun-soaked activities, one of which is taking off across the desert in purpose-built Baja Challenge race cars to tackle some tough terrain while enjoying the beauty of the peninsula. We recently did that, checking off a bucket-list item that we never even realized was on our list.
VIDEO: Baja Highlights
Wide Open Baja
Granted, this isn’t simply a random “rent a car, head into the desert” type of adventure. The way to experience the desert properly is with Wide Open Baja, an adventure company that takes care of all trip details, making certain that a run through the peninsula is both fun and safe.
Wide Open has been providing the means for true desert-driving adventures since 1997. Their vision is “To share the joy of high-performance off-road driving and the unspoiled beauty of the Baja Peninsula, which were previously accessible only for the adventurous lucky few.” The company offers a range of tours — based either in Ensenada or Cabo San Lucas — designed to let people experience the thrills and excitement typically reserved for professionals racing across the Baja.
Open to All Drivers
The company caters to visitors with varied levels of driving skill — some have never left pavement, while others may have extensive time driving off-road. The only stipulations are that participants who drive must have a valid license, be over 18 (16-year-old drivers are allowed when accompanied by a parent or guardian) and have some experience operating a manual transmission. The guides at Wide Open provide the rest of the training to properly take on the varied terrain of the Baja Peninsula.
Since my day job as an auto journalist gets me behind the wheel of some pretty amazing machines, I was invited to Ensenada, Mexico, to experience a Wide Open tour firsthand, and came away extremely impressed. Once folks arrive, Wide Open takes care of everything, including lodging and meals as well as providing instruction and, most importantly, the vehicle — a custom-built Baja Challenge car.
Wide Open builds and maintains a fleet of special Baja Challenge race cars. Designed to handle the extremely varied terrain of the Baja desert, tour vehicles are basically the same ones the company uses when competing in any of the grueling desert races. The vehicles feature a custom-made Chromoly tube chassis, a full roll cage, suspended racing seats, a 5-point safety harness, radio and GPS. Drivers wear full-face helmets with fresh-air intakes (it does get dusty) as well as integrated radio headphones and microphone.
Power comes from a rear-mounted Subaru 4-cylinder engine producing about 175 horsepower, teamed with a 4-speed manual gearbox. Although a high-compression engine could provide more power, my guide explained that would require special fuel, which can be difficult to obtain when out in the middle of nowhere. The Subaru motor uses regular fuel, so we simply filled up at local gas stations when necessary. And since these vehicles only weigh about 2,000 pounds, the power is more then adequate.
Extreme Off-Road Capability
The key to the vehicle’s ability to handle what the desert serves up are Fox shocks and Eibach springs that allow for an impressive 18 inches of ground clearance and 21 inches of wheel travel. Providing traction are BF Goodrich T/A K02 all-terrain truck tires. We were surprised that the cars are rear-wheel drive (rather than 4WD); however, we never had an occasion where the rear-wheel power wasn’t sufficient.
In a Baja racer there are no doors or glass — a net gets locked in place where the side windows would be, while the windshield is simply an open frame. This explains why a full-face helmet must be worn at all times — the terrain can make drivers great candidates for clothing detergent commercials. We did make the mistake of crossing a small creek too quickly — but it only took about an hour to fully dry out in the warm Mexican sun.
Equally important as the cars are the Wide Open guides. Most have many years of experience. Our guide Miguel started with the company almost 20 years ago and has competed in many of the Baja races. These guides know the Baja Peninsula intimately, which means they have the expertise to maximize each tour’s enjoyment and experience.
Tours beginning in Ensenada start at the famed Horsepower Ranch, which has played host to hundreds of Baja 500 and Baja 1000 racing teams over the years. Guides brief all guests prior to departure about navigation (no one wants to be lost in the desert), radio and basic operation of the vehicles. In addition, a guide will take each guest out for a familiarization drive in the desert just outside the Horsepower Ranch. Thanks to the professional guidance, drivers quickly get a feel for the extensive capabilities of these custom Baja race cars.
On Our Own
Once the tour begins, guides drive their own vehicle while guests pair up or drive on their own. The GPS system in each vehicle displays mileage since the start — this and a two-way radio are the tools for navigation. Trying to follow directly behind the lead car isn’t a viable option — the dust cloud that blooms behind each vehicle can completely obscure both vehicle and intended path. Drivers must try and stay at least 30 seconds behind the vehicle in front, which allows time for the dust to settle.
Drivers and passengers are secured with a 5-point racing harness. Not only do the multiple belts keep occupants safe in case of an accident or rollover, they also help keep occupants in their seats when the ride gets bouncy — which happens a lot. The harness also worked quite well to secure my luggage during our run through the desert.
Don’t Get Lost
To ensure no one gets lost, the guides in lead vehicles will call out turns on the radio based on mileage. For example, they may say “take left fork at mile 10.23.” When following drivers sees 10.23 on their GPS device, they know to head to the left. The guide will also call out potential hazards such as oncoming traffic or animals in the road. The system works well and keeps everyone in communication, even if they’re not within sight.
There’s always additional Wide Open staff that follow the group in another Baja car. These specialists carry a variety of spare parts and can make repairs on the fly as needed. Although field repairs are occasionally required, these vehicles hold up amazingly well given the abuse they take. At each stop staff members inspect the cars, making certain they remain in good working order. Over three days we drove more than 400 chassis-shaking miles with no mechanical issues whatsoever.
Baja 500 Racecourse
The Baja 500 race was scheduled to run a week after my visit to Wide Open, so most of our route took place on the actual racecourse. The variety of terrain encountered was wide-ranging and gave a whole new appreciation for racers who tackle 500-plus miles of this tough route in one day at considerably higher speeds.
Over the course of three days, we experienced soft sand, gravel, dirt and large boulders as well as steep grades and quick descents. Tougher sections were extremely rough and rocky, where anything over 10 mph felt like the whole vehicle would shake apart, while in other areas we were flying along the dirt at more than 60 mph. There are humps that make the car feel like a bucking bronco, and it’s not unusual to literally fly through the air after hitting a crest at speed. Drifting around a corner at high speed or getting the car airborne is usually followed by wild laughter — it is simply so much fun.
A True Adventure
What really makes this adventure exciting is the solitude of desert driving. Although group members are in contact by radio, drivers are typically by themselves while careening through the desert, conquering whatever terrain or obstacles may come their way. And there may be first-gear climbs over rocks or 60-mph drifts through the dirt, but either way drivers feel as if they are out on their own. And as the miles tick off, I discovered that my skills continued to increase to the point that I could immediately recognize the road conditions and react appropriately. By the time the tour is over, attendees will feel like they could run the Baja 500 on their own.
Tours for Everyone
Wide Open offers a number of different tour packages, ranging from single-day experiences to a four-day adventure that takes drivers to a new location each night. The company can customize tours, and also offers programs that help drivers prepare for upcoming races.
A large percentage of Wide Open guests are return customers, and it’s easy to see why. The excitement and fun of venturing through the desert in a proper off-road race car is addicting.
The Desert Awaits
For those interested in experiencing the thrill of off-road racing in a safe and fun environment, Wide Open Baja can be reached via their website: www.wideopenbaja.com.?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss