Autoblog was invited to join HUMMER for last weekend's Baja 500 and, along with Mike Levine from PickupTrucks.com, we'd be riding shotgun – or in Mike's case, backseat driving – with Chad and Josh Hall, sons of general off-road racing guru and Baja Hall of Famer Rod Hall. Having no idea what it takes to pilot a massive lump of essentially stock machinery at high speeds over rocks, jumps, ravines and cliffside single-track, the lessons – and the dust, heat, and bouncing – would be constant. Check out the gallery of hi-res images below, and follow the jump to find out about day one: pre-running. And that white helmet in the pic above? Yes, that's us, not The Stig. We eat Stigs.
This year marked the 40th anniversary of the Baja 500 (last year was the 40th anniversary of the Baja 1000). Entries were down this year, supposedly due to incidents during last year's Baja races – kidnapping, deaths, stolen trucks, mayhem, et al – but there were still more than 300 entrants in various classes that would contest the 440-mile race. (No, it's not exactly 500 miles, but last year's Baja 1000 was more than 1,200 miles, so the math is always a little fuzzy.)
HUMMER had three trucks entered in two classes: an H3 in the stock mini class, and for mid-sized trucks an H2 SUT in the stock full class and an H3 Alpha also in stock full because of its V8 engine. The H2 SUT would be driven by Josh Hall. When people would discuss Josh's driving skill, it felt like they were talking about Iceman – either Val Kilmer's version or Kimi Raikkonen's, it didn't matter. The dude was apparently very, very fast. And he had a fast looking truck to boot: red and black and jacked way up on a set of black mags. But, being an H2 it was the biggest of the bunch and it hulked over its H3 siblings. It even had a third seat in the back where Mike Levine would be riding. Looking at it, it was like there'd be three guys piloting a house through the brush. Even though the H2 SUT is a race winning truck, we did wonder "How fast can that leviathan really do the dirty stuff?"
We would be riding shotgun in the H3 Alpha driven by Chad Hall, and like Josh and his SUT, both have won plenty of races. Chad, though, drove more like Alain Prost -- all-out speed wasn't the priority; going fast enough to finish the race first was. The H3 Alpha had been turned from a showroom truck into a race truck with these mods: interior and interior glass removed, roll cage and safety fuel cell installed, racing seats with 5-point harnesses, GPS system, B&M shifter, an aluminum racing radiator, the stock engine and transmission run through the 4:56 gearing from the 5-cylinder H3 for better low end, 4.4 Fox reservoir shocks mounted front and rear, Deaver leaf springs, Hella lights, and metallic brake pads on stock rotors. And even though it was smaller than the aforementioned H2 SUT, we still wondered: "How fast we really gonna go in this thing?"
The first day is about two things: contingency tech, where the vehicles are paraded through the streets while being checked over by oversight officials from SCORE, and pre-running, where you run recon on the course. Contingency is a giant festival, with trucks, tents, vendors, fans, music, and booze clogging the streets of central Ensenada around the start line. It was neat and all...
But the real action was during the pre-running. The race starts in the city, so to prevent a bunch of racers from tearing through the streets to practice the course, about the first 40 miles is off limits to pre-running. It's when you get down there for the weekend that you get to see what you're going to see during the race. We did the pre-run in an H3 and were followed by an H2 driven by Thad Stump, a GM engineer who usually gets the shotgun seat in Chad's car. (You'll notice that his name got top billing on the side of the truck, which we normally wouldn't stand for here at Autoblog – even if we were only 1-time guests for the first 90 miles of a 440-mile race – but Thad's a great guy, so it was all right.) The only mods on the pre-running trucks – both the H3 and H2 – were Fox bolt-on shocks. The only benefit they were claimed to provide was allowing the standard suspension to use its full travel for hours on end without complaining.
So we took off on the course, and it would be an understatement to say it was 40 miles and 90 minutes of dirty bliss. On the pre-run, you're driving to check out the course and course conditions, but you're also looking for new shortcuts, dangers and advantages. And by shortcuts, we mean that sometimes the official course makes a gentle semicircle to the left, but if you plunge straight down into a ravine and can navigate the gunk at the bottom of what could only loosely be called a "trail," you could pass a few competitors. If you make it out and can get to the trail again, that is.
And there's a mix of terrain – some tight twisty stuff, whoop-de-doos, rocky mountainside roads, wide open fire trails, silt beds, dramatically steep and rocky inclines that are the bugbears of quite a few 2-wheel-drive vehicles, ruts, giant ruts, gaping-maw-skull-and-crossbones ruts, "Oh my God you're not serious" holes in the Earth, oodles and oodles of rocks in all shapes and sizes, and a couple of stretches of terrain we think they imported from another galaxy. We didn't go crazy with the pre-run, but Chad didn't drive like a granddad, either. Like we said, 90 minutes of dirty bliss.
But a pre-run can only tell you so much – a jump at 20 MPH is going to have a somewhat different effect on driver and vehicle when it's taken at 60 MPH. You also spot on the pre-run places where booby traps – the official term – might be laid. The locals love to see trucks get big air – or more – and so they'll perform some course alteration of their own. This could be anything as rudimentary as kids digging a little hole, to adults putting tires and rock mounds in the road, or even getting backhoes – that's right, heavy machinery – to dig trenches on the far side of blind jumps. We were repeatedly told, "If you see a group of locals just sorta standing around in the middle of nowhere, that's probably a booby trap." Some booby traps mean that your vehicle gets stuck, then the locals close in and strip it, then help you get it back on its wheels and going again. Some booby traps mean you die. Which is why we were also repeatedly told: "Make no mistake, the Baja 500 is dangerous."
So before we get to the actual race – that's tomorrow – we should take a moment to get the inflammatory part of this post and series out of the way. This particular blogger loves off-roading, and once used a dearly-loved and dearly-departed 1986 Isuzu Trooper II to get dirty, followed by a short-lived and dearly-departed 1989 Toyota Landcruiser. However, I've never had anything against HUMMERS, and even had one as a company car for a while, but it never saw real dirt. And yes, HUMMER paid for our trip to Baja and we were riding with a GM supported team. So you can accuse of us Kool-Aid imbibing, but we really prefer Hi-C, and that still doesn't change what we experienced: anyone who says HUMMERS aren't badass off-road vehicles has no idea what he or she is talking about. Period. We needed to get that out of the way. Now back to our regularly scheduled program.
Stay tuned for the race day episode tomorrow, when your friendly neighborhood Autoblogger asks: "I'm supposed to pee in my pants?"
Our travel and lodging for this media event was provided by the manufacturer.