Team Autofab's 2018 Norra Mexican 1000
I want to tell the story of Team Autofab’s latest running of the 2018 Norra Mexican 1000. This was the 51st anniversary of the first race down the length of the Baja Mexico peninsula and after our team’s great run last year we we’re all excited to be back in Mexico and hungry for our first class win after coming in second the last three years in a row.
Team Autofab this year consisted of John Ehmke the owner and builder of the Autofab spare parts truck and our driver of record. I shared driving duties along with Don Moss from Moss Brothers Racing. Joining us again this year were Dan Thunborg and Craig Laws pulling double duty as chase crew and navigators. Our friends Robert and Kaylyn Hudson came back for another race as chase two with Robert’s big Dodge. We also had some extra support this year from the Moss Brothers Racing team for the first two days when Gary and Dennis Dunn and they’re sons JP and Bailey along with Brain Meadows showed up to check out the happiest race on earth first hand. We once again entered John’s 75 Ford F-100 in the vintage open truck with rear leaf springs class. They’re we’re six entries registered but only four showed up to race our class.
The race would once again run from the city of Ensenada to San Jose de Cabo at the tip of the peninsula using the same five day schedule as last year. Our adventure started on Saturday for tech inspection where they close down the street in front of the Riviera Cultural center in the heart of Ensenada. It’s like one big fiesta and off road car show rolled into one. After getting everyone registered and our tracking unit installed we sailed through tech inspection with no trouble. Part of the team headed off to eat and got settled in the beach house at Punta Banda while the rest stayed in town for the drivers meeting.
Day one Ensenada to San Felipe I didn’t sleep all that well.
I felt like a little kid at Christmas. You know that feeling when you wait for something all year. The anticipation and excitement when you know you’re in for something great. Well after a long night of tossing and turning daylight finally came and we all started making final preparations for the race. John and I suited up. John is to drive the first half with me navigating and we’ll switch seats around half way.
The race starts downtown at the Cultural center and we had a short 15 mile transit section east out of town to the beginning of the first special stage. We started first in our class and John did an amazing job of driving keeping it smooth with a good pace. As we enter the small town of Ojos Negros we come to our first speed zone. The new for this year tracking system is supposed to warn us as we enter the speed zones and also let us know when they end but ours wasn’t working so we went by the road book and the GPS to try to maintain a penalty free race.
After we cross highway 3 it is the end of the speed zone and we’re off racing again. The run south out of Ojos is very familiar territory for me. This is the area I first started coming to in my Baja travels. John and I many other friends used to set up camp along this section of the course to watch other Baja races like the Score 500 and 1000. I can’t tell you how many times I’d sit out here watching the racers go by hoping someday it would be me behind the wheel.
John was making good time getting past a few others with ease until we came upon a new Ford Raptor. We closed in through the dust and got close enough to hit the push to pass feature on the new tracker unit. The way it’s supposed to work is when you send a pass request to the slower vehicle ahead they are to push the button on their unit which lets you know they have acknowledged the pass request and they move over when safe. The only problem was these guys aren’t acknowledging our request. We push the button several times while racing inches off they’re bumper but they still won’t let us by. Darn the no nerfing rule these guys deserve to get punted off the course. After maybe ten minutes of this John sees a wide spot and goes for it. We pull up alongside only to run out of room before we can get by and John has to climb on the brakes to avoid the hillside. Of course the truck stalls but quickly refires and we set off after them again. As we round the corner here they sit on the side of the course probably cleaning out they’re shorts.
The rest of the stage goes flawless and now it’s time to trade seats. It’s my turn to drive and John will handle the navigating duties. I’ve set him up for success with both an IPad running the Leadnav system and a Lowrance GPS unit with the course downloaded on it along with the road book from Norra. We had another short 16 mile transit section east on highway three where we turn off onto El Diablo dry lake bed for the last special section into San Felipe.
The first part of this section is across the dry lake bed and I dropped the hammer following familiar tracks from last year. The big block really shines here and we pass a couple slower cars with ease. After the lakebed comes the silt beds and I do my best to find a firm path around them vowing to not get stuck this year. We picked our way around the silt and get back on the course line and I’m feeling good to put the silt behind us.
It’s somewhere in here that John says he has a problem. The Leadnav system has shut down. I try to coach him on how to restart it as I drive but it’s not working and now somehow we are off course again. I stop and try to get the Leadnav system working again but all I could get was Siri asking how she could help me. No matter how much I yelled at her through the helmet she wouldn’t cooperate so I checked out the GPS and the road book. I showed John where we were in relationship with the course and showed him which note was coming up next in the road book hoping he could then keep us on course. We make it back on course only to get off line a few more times until we make our way onto a main road. We’re flying now making great time on the graded gravel road which suddenly turned to pavement. Oops, John missed the note to stay on parallel dirt road so we hop off the pavement and onto the graded trail alongside. It was winding back and forth and was really a lot of fun. We can see San Felipe coming up fast and now we have to be ready for the many speed zones through town. As we get to the beginning of the first speed zone our tracker once again says nothing failing again to warn us. Now we notice another problem and that’s we have no idea how fast we are going. The tracker unit is supposed to display our speed but it’s blank. The Leadnav is down and we don’t have our speed on the GPS display. So we error on the side of caution and do the best we can staying under 25 mph. When we get to the end of the first speed zone I put the hammer down only to now have the tracker say we are in a speed zone. What the heck? Oh well I say, let’s just go by the road book and forget about the darn so far useless tracker. We make our way to the finish line at the end of the first day stoked to have the physical lead in our class.
The one thing we learned that day is John can drive but he can’t navigate worth beans. Thankfully Bailey Dunn was able to get the Leadnav system back up and running and we got our speed displayed up on the GPS so we’d be ready for day 2. Well it turns out we weren’t the only ones to get a bad tracking unit which we had replaced the next morning. After dinner and refreshments we all went back to John’s San Felipe casa for some rest happy to have an almost 10 minute lead on second in the class.
Day 2 San Felipe to Bahia de Los Angles
Day two starts after a much better night of sleep for me even with the barking dogs going all night. We all enjoyed a nice breakfast and readied the truck for the day. I got the nod to drive the first stage with Dan as my navigator. We start out of San Felipe right into a special with no transit. It was only a little less than 20 miles but it was fun and then a long boring transit of over 60 miles. This is where I got out and Don Moss got behind the wheel with Dan staying in to navigate. The truck is working great but we were having intercom issues. A little tape at the helmet connection seemed to do the trick.
We could watch the race truck for a while as the course ran alongside the highway for a few miles which is always fun. The pavement ends near Coco’s corner and now we are putting along trying to keep the trailer in one piece on the bumpy dirt road so we sent Robert and Kaylyn ahead in chase 2 to try and beat the race truck to the end of the stage. We knew Don and Dan are running a good pace when we heard on the radio that they finished the second stage, the second transit and were starting the 3rd special already so we headed to the end of the third special to wait for them there. We didn’t have to wait long before the truck shows up and we followed them into town.
Don made the call to stop and refuel on the way to the finish line rather than come back afterwards and boy am I glad he did as they ran out of fuel early that evening at both stations in town. We all made our way to the tent city for some much needed chow and refreshments.
Bay of LA is the one town where there is not enough hotel rooms to accommodate all the racers and crews so we never know quite what we’ll end up with if anything at all. The last few years the town has been ravaged by hurricane force winds during the night so we are all a little concerned. After a couple hours of waiting we are following a guy that’s taking us to our Casa. We pull into the driveway and the guy goes and knocks on the door. A lady answers the door and they talk for a minute while we wait. The guy leaves and the lady and her daughter move out of the house into a little travel trailer on the property. Oh man I felt bad they gave up their house for us but John reassured me they were being compensated well. I still had to knock on the trailer door and give them a hundred dollar bill just to ease my conscience though. It was a nice clean place that even came with two friendly dogs to make you feel at home.
Day 3 Bay of LA to Loreto
It has been a close race. So far we stretched our lead out to about 14 minutes at this point and day three would be the test as it’s the longest day of the race at 438 miles total but we are still pumped and ready to go. I drove the first half of the day with Craig taking over as navigator for Dan. We had a nice breakfast and said goodbye to our chase crews so they could get a head start.
The day began with a short speed zone out of the Bay of LA where we hit the dirt heading for Viscaino. We started out with a good pace but we were soon in the dust trying to overtake slower racers. I made it past a few without problems only to catch more dust. As I’m pushing through the dust mostly blind I blew a slight corner to the left. We tagged a big rock with the right front tire and came to a stop straddling a large sandy berm. I tried to back out but we were soon stuck. A large cactus blocked us from going forward so some shovel time was called for. We both hopped out and I started digging while Craig got our tow strap out in case a Good Samaritan came along. A little digging and I climbed back in and sure enough with a little rocking we were free again. We got strapped back in and took off determined to keep it clean and make no more mistakes. We might have gone maybe 10 more miles and POW the right front tire blows out. Geez just great my first flat tire racing in Baja. Well that big sandy berm was still lining both sides of the course and we continued on with the flat looking for a wide spot to get off the course. Seeing what I thought was a decent spot I tried to get over the berm but as soon as the flat tire hit the berm we just dug in and lost our momentum. Dang it stuck again and with a flat tire to boot. We climb out again and I start digging this time a racer in a Porsche 911 stops to help. Well I’m doubtful but happy to try it and Craig hooks up the strap. Well as predicted the little car can’t even budge the big truck so we set him off with thanks for trying and I’m back on the shovel. A few minutes later one of our competitors in the 1010 truck stops and quickly free us from the berm. What a classy thing to do. Thanks Dan and Joe. We finally get to a wide spot free from sand berms and get the tire changed and we are back on our way in last place on the road.
We finished the rest of that section without any more trouble and made it to the highway where our chase crews were waiting with another spare tire and a cold drink. We had a short speed zone down the highway and then it was back in the dirt heading west and eating more dust due to the down time. While still being extra careful in the dust we managed to get by a few racers that got by us while we were stuck. Now the section I’ve been dreading. The silt beds. They warned us about this the night before in the drivers meeting so I was keeping a sharp look out. At the first sign of silt I peel off the course to the right following some other tracks but they soon lead right into the silt again so I started blazing a new trial through the bushes. Craig did a good job letting me know which way the course was heading and we avoided all the drama seeing dozens of stuck racers sitting in the silt along the way. Once we cleared that mess we were giving high fives so happy to make it through without getting stuck and we were back to first in class on the road.
The rest of this stage was fast and fun with lots of clean air due to all the stuck racers back in the silt. We only had a few guys that gave us a hard time getting around them and we put over 20 minutes on second place. We stopped to refuel in Viscaino and swap drivers. John is driving the second leg and Craig is staying in to navigate as we head for San Ignacio.
We hear Craig’s voice on the radio that they just started the second special stage as we roll out of San Ignacio with the chase trucks heading for the end of the special section at El Rosarito. This section of the race course has no chase access at all. The guys are on their own now. Cell service is spotty in this part of Baja so tracker updates were hard to come by. As we passed through Santa Rosalia I checked the tracker to see the truck stopped at race mile 302 somewhere north of San Juanico. Dang it, the not knowing is the worst part. As we drive through Mulege we again see the truck still stopped at race mile 302. All we can do is keep heading south to the end of the special stage and wait.
When we reached El Rosarito I checked in with the Norra crew and they again checked the tracker for us but they had the worst news possible. The truck is still stopped at race mile 302. All kinds of things go through your head. Did the truck break? Did they crash? Are they stuck? We waited for what felt like eternity until finally the sat phone rings. It’s Craig to tell us they are stuck on a sandy hill and can’t get out. There are two other racers there stuck too and they are trying to work together to get free without much luck. The Norra crew told us the last cars had left San Ignacio at this point and that the sweep crews would be on the way to help them out.
We decided to head into Loreto and get checked in to our house while we waited for news. After over four hours stuck they finally got free after hiking to find some willing locals to help them out. Sweep never did come. The boys made it in around 3 am but at least they were safe and tomorrow would be another day.
Day 4 Loreto to La Paz
Happy to have the whole team together again we woke up early to check out the truck. Don found a bad rear spring bolt and we lost an exhaust hanger, both easy fixes. We replaced the air cleaner and we we’re ready for day four.
Don is back behind the wheel and I’m doing the navigation duties and the plan was to swap seats at the end of the second special. We got held up getting fuel and had very little time to wait before we hit the start. We are down more than four hours now to first place with the Townsend truck number 803 making it through the second special the day before without getting stuck and I can think of no better driver to make up the time than Don “The Boss” Moss. We took off the start and reached the wash that leads us out of town. Don didn’t disappoint when we passed probably 6 or 8 racers before we even got out of the wash and then at least another dozen or more on the road section. While the paved portion is a 60 mph speed zone The Autofab spare parts truck is like a Ferrari on the pavement. Once the BF Goodrich “project” tires get a little heat in them it’s a blast riding with Don drifting around the turns blowing past the slower guys all with no speeding penalties. Don kept up the good pace for the rest of the stage getting by a few more racers before the end of the stage.
We met the crew in Ciudad Insurgentes for fuel and a quick sandwich. We finished the short transit and began the day’s second special. These are some fast farm roads but we were in a lot of dust making passes that much harder but Don did a great job of making good clean passes still trying to make up some more time. I think it was somewhere in this section that we got by the 803 Townsend truck while they were fixing a flat. Okay were back to first on the road but we are still way down on the clock. I was in this section that I let Don know he’s driving the whole day. Let’s face it Don’s a much better driver than I am and I’m a much better navigator than Don is so I gave up my wheel time to try and close the time gap even more. Hey anything to get the win, right?
Don killed it through the second special keeping up a good pace but not taking any chances in the dust. We cruised down highway one for the second transit and even had time for another sandwich and a cold drink.
The third special of the day starts out super-fast with some nice graded gravel roads that lead you up into the hills that soon deteriorate into not much more than a goat path. This is super rocky, slow, technical stuff through some amazing scenery. Our carburetor is really acting up now. While it has stumbled some on the previous days in the really rough stuff it is now dying constantly through this rough area. Somewhere with around fifty miles to go in the stage Don is complaining about the brakes. He says we have no pedal so we just cruise to the end of the special trying to save what little brakes we have.
We hit the pavement and begin the transit into La Paz. A quick little detour for some new paving work and we are soon on the Malicon taking the checkers. What a ride. Don sure didn’t disappoint and I’m eager to see how the times shake out.
La Paz is like the capitol of off road racing and the fans never disappoint. This year we were greeted by the Baja Sur early Bronco club who were excited to see Don. They love the old black Bronco Don has been racing for almost twenty years in Mexico and he was awarded two glass mugs engraved with their clubs logo. Very cool indeed Mr. Moss. I got to sign a few autographs and take some pictures with the fans. I then start taking with a young man about the race and he was showing me pictures of the Ford Ranger he races in Baja Sur. Next thing I know we are following him to his friends shop to fix our brakes. A rock had somehow broken the rear brake caliper off the mount on the right rear and was stuck between the rotor and the wheel. While it was too late to find a new caliper we were able to cap off the line and bleed the air out and we are to finish on three brakes. Oh boy.
We finished our night in La Paz at our favorite restaurant Rancho Viejo with dinner and margaritas and then it was off to bed for a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow is the last day and we are just under an hour out of first and John tells me at dinner that I’m driving the whole way to San Jose del Cabo. No pressure right?
Day 5 La Paz to San Jose Del Cabo
I’m up early on the last day so I get some breakfast in the lobby of the hotel and start getting the truck ready. Don did awesome the day before and now it’s my turn to make up some more ground. We left La Paz on the transit out of town with Craig back in the right seat navigating and I’m feeling good. One last prayer for our safety and off we roared into the desert for one last day. This was another fun, fast section but there were a few gotcha’s if you weren’t paying attention. Craig did a great job of calling out the hazards and we had a good pace going.
Somewhere in the first 10 miles though we came into a dust cloud only to see a race car on its side and the driver standing next to her car. Another racer got there ahead of us and the course is blocked. We made sure she was okay and then plowed through some cactus to make a route around the wreck. Off again still trying to make up time while keeping it clean as well. We even had a small dry lake bed to let the big block leg out and before we knew it we were in Todos Santos and the end of the special stage.
We had a short transit down the highway where we got back into the dirt. This was a short 60 miles special through the rolling hills between Todos Santos and Cabo San Lucas. We had a great pace going but then our carburetor issues resurfaced with a vengeance. The truck was constantly dying on me in the rougher areas but we just kept pressing on until it finally happened. The truck died and now it won’t restart. Damn it we were doing so well. Well off with the belts and out of the truck to find the problem. We lift off the hood checking for anything obvious and nothing is jumping out as the problem.
Next the tool bags come out and I break the fuel line at the pump and I have Craig hit the switch. Nothing, Nada, no fuel at all. Okay we don’t have a spare fuel pump on the race truck but the crew has one in the chase truck. We get them on the sat phone and they stop to find the pump. They call us back within minutes with more bad news. There is no spare fuel pump in the boxes. Okay now what. So the crew head off to find a replacement which turns out is not so easy in Cabo San Lucas.
It’s a few minutes later that an early Bronco racer stops to check on us. We tell them what’s up and they say they have a spare pump but it’s bolted on the truck. You guys can have it if you want it. So I grab some tools and start wrenching. It was in a tight spot to get at but I kept at it a quarter of a turn at a time all the while jagged zip ties were shredding my arm. It seemed like forever but I’ve got the pump off and I run over to bolt it onto our truck. Ah crap our fittings are too small for the borrowed pump. Now what? I’m looking over the entire truck there’s got to be a way to somehow to make this work. I’m lying on my back under the truck praying for some help when I notice the fuel filter has large fittings. Heck yeah this will work. So I undo the lines off the fuel filter and connect them to the borrowed pump. We had to cut a few zip ties to get the lines connected but it works. I throw on a bunch of zip ties to hold the pump in place along the frame rail. Let’s give it a try and I hit the starter. Heck yeah she fires right up so we shut it down put the tools away and got belted back in. I can’t thank these guys enough for stopping and giving us your spare fuel pump. You guys have some good off road karma coming to you for sure.
So we get all belted in and I hit the starter and we are back in business. We go maybe 50 feet and the truck dies. What the heck? I start cranking on the starter and it roars back to life only to die right away. What the heck this is really starting to get old. I hold my foot to the floor and crank it over without the fuel pump on. Its acting like its flooded then roars back to life and then dies. I turn on the fuel and hit the starter and it comes back again only to die a few seconds later. So now the little light bulb comes on over my head. We are getting too much fuel. Turns out we only run a 10 psi fuel pump. The borrowed pump is a 50 psi pump. Okay we got this. So I get the engine running and turn off the pump. It will go for 10 seconds or so and then start sputtering. So that’s it two seconds on the pump ten seconds off all while driving a steep twisty section with one hand and shifting and cycling the pump on and off with the other.
I was never so glad to finish a section in my life. Just one more short transit and then it’s on to the last super, secret special where we have no GPS trail for navigation just an odometer and the road book. This will be interesting.
So Craig and I are off again and we are doing well even with the fuel issues and then we make the hard left under the bridge into a dry wash. We pass one water tower and get to the second one where I think we are supposed to turn left but the course markers are missing and there is no burned in line to follow. We tried to ask for help from some locals but we couldn’t communicate so we headed off to try and find the course. We get to another intersection and we try a right. We went a mile or two and it just didn’t feel right so we went back out to where we lost the course. I pulled off the packed down line to talk to another local looking for some help and I get us stuck. While I’m trying to restart the truck I see flames coming up the door. Holy crap, were on fire, I yell and we both bail out only to see raw fuel burning in the exhaust pipes. All I could think of was the zip ties broke and its spewing gas everywhere.
My frustration level is at 99.99 percent at this point I’m telling Craig to call the crew and they’ll get us out of here. The locals are trying to dig us out and we are begging them to use their truck to yank us out. After a few more minutes they get the little 2 wheel drive S-10 lined up for a pull but it’s a no go. The little truck can’t move us even a little. Again I’m telling Craig to just call the crew, I’m done. About this time another local shows up with a 4x4 Ford and he gets us out and pointed in the right direction this time.
The rest of the stage we just followed two other racers in not wanting to get lost or stuck again until we finally make the finish line. I was never so happy to finish a race in my whole life. Thanks Craig for not listening to me and not letting me throw in the towel.
We didn’t get the finish we were looking for this year. In fact it was quite the opposite but I have never been prouder of Team Autofab. We had more problems in this race than all the previous years combined but we didn’t give up and we found a way to keep going and finished in 100th place overall and third in our class.
I have a ton of people to thank that make this all possible. First and foremost I want to thank John Ehmke for trusting me with his baby. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for the opportunity. Next are Darin and Ryan and the rest of the crew at Autofab. Thank you all so much for all your hard work in prepping the truck each year. Then there is Don Moss. Don you have taught me so much through the years racing with you and your team and I can’t thank you enough for taking the time out of your busy life to help me live my dream. You’re a great friend. To Dan Thunborg I wouldn’t even want to attempt this without you. Your experience is invaluable Dan. To Craig Laws again thanks for not listening to me in last special and doing one hell of a job navigating. It’s a little different than a Score race with the road book but you’ve picked it up well and did a great job again this year. And to Robert and Kaylyn thanks again for coming back again this year. Your dedication to the team is much appreciated and the extra level of safety you provide is huge.
Team Autofab will be back again next year better and faster than ever.