Baja Buzzards Watch Off-Road Racers Flip $100,000 Dune Buggies

Dune Buggy
A racing buggy alongside the Sea of Cortez. Photographer: Jason H. Harper/Bloomberg

I’m blinking sand from my eyes, rocketing down a dirt road off the Sea of Cortez in Mexico.

A hill looms ahead and my co-driver yells for me to gun it. I do, and all four of our dune buggy’s wheels quit the ground.

Now we are in the air, flying -- control ceded to gravity -- then snap back to earth.

“Do it again!” my buddy Boyd shouts. That went okay, so why not?

We’re in a $100,000 dune buggy, a race-built machine without doors or windshields, on a driving tour through the Baja California peninsula. Every few minutes the surreal beauty alternates with “am-I-gonna-survive-this?” adrenaline.

The trip is a two-day event from Wide Open Excursions, an Irvine, California-based company which gives guests a taste of off-road racing.

The sport is typically an endurance test in deserts or isolated regions, covering hundreds or even thousands of miles. Races take place over dirt roads, mountain ridges and dry washes. Vehicles range from million-dollar trucks to motorcycles, dune buggies and ancient VW Beetles.

One of the most famous is the Baja 1000, from Ensenada to La Paz. Wide Open’s mandate is to give clients a tamer taste of this madness.

Ten clients and four guides started from the tequila-slammin’, tourist town of Cabo San Lucas, in the southern tip of Baja. Now we’re traveling along the eastern cape. Cost: $3,900, including limited liability insurance, food and hotels.

Let’s back up to the beginning.

Day 1

8 a.m.: “You’re responsible for your own actions,” says our head guide, Andrea Tomba. “Don’t drive over your head. You can get hurt or hurt somebody else.” Tomba, an Italian who drives 1,500 miles off-road weekly, is smart and experienced.

My co-driver is Boyd Jaynes, a veteran off-roader and professional car photographer. He’ll be my voice of reason -- a scary thought.

11:30: Getting comfortable behind the wheel. With massive shocks, a 190-horsepower Subaru Outback rear engine and huge, nubby tires, the buggy runs over rubble like a toy Tonka truck through Cheerios. Fast, controllable, mind-popping fun.

1 p.m.: Buzzards everywhere. Circling and roosting on three-armed Saguaro cactuses. Outside a small village, a sad-eyed burro noses disconsolately into the buggy. Spaghetti-Western filmmaker Sergio Leone had nothing on Baja.

‘Fast Guy’

2 p.m.: “Feeling kinda racey, aren’t ya?” Boyd asks. Maybe, I acknowledge, trees flashing by our bumpers. My stomach is full of tacos. “Most accidents happen right after lunch on the first day,” Boyd notes. “Not that I’m telling you to slow down.”

I slow down. I don’t want to be the “fast guy.” There’s always one. On this trip it’s a client from northern California who never quiets -- dropping opinions like pesos and braying that “You guys are holding me up!”

3:20: A group of boys appear from behind the cactuses, as if laying in wait. Actually they were. Everywhere we drive, children appear like mirages, yelling and windmilling arms and pogo-ing into the air. For no reason at all, I feel like a hero.

4:30: We putt-putt slowly past a ranchero after being told by Tomba on the radio not to raise dust -- the family has wet laundry on the line. Fascinating to pass through hamlets you’d never see from asphalt. And certainly never from a cruise ship.

4:34: Driving fast, wind buffeting my full-face helmet, blood pounding. The engine screams: Rup-rup-ruppp!

6:31: The Sea of Cortez peeks out from behind the khaki-colored hills, water glittering blue diamonds. Minutes later the palm trees silhouette into fuzzy cutouts against the sea as the sun drops -- we’re at our gulfside hotel with beers in hand.

Day 2

6:26 a.m.: Most brilliant pre-dawn I’ve ever seen. Hand-pulled taffy clouds, iridescent pink.

8:20: Back on the road. Can’t wait.

10:25: Irritated by fast guy, who’s complaining on the radio that he should be first behind Tomba.

11:48: Call on the radio -- “We’re off the road! We’ve had a wreck!” Tomba radios back: “Are you okay?” Reply: “Yes, but we’re on our roof.” The buggy has launched off a 20-foot cliff, rolling end-over-end through a barbed-wire fence and ending up in a dry wash lodged under a tree. Amazingly, both driver and co-driver are unharmed.

11:50: We identify the driver. The fast guy, clearly.

1:26 p.m.: Finally dislodge the wrecked buggy and get it turned onto crushed wheels to be lugged home. Estimated damage: $15,000. (Insurance liability: $3,000.)

1:45: Transit to late lunch. Everyone driving very slowly.

7:02: Pull back to Wide Open’s property on the Pacific as the sun is dipping. Shut off engine and accept cold beer. Whales breaching just offshore. Admire sunset. Words fail.

7:40: On shuttle bus back to Cabo. Give fast guy a hard time. Call him “Crash.”

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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