HPD Blog

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Baja 1000 - Journal #1

A New Experience

The departure.

11.18.09 When I heard that an exploratory trip to Baja was being considered, I was curious to learn more. My experience of race cars away from the safe home of ovals and roads courses was limited, but not completely missing. Many, many years ago, I had been in a chase car, driving hard through Welsh forests, Yorkshire dales and Scottish mountains during what was then the RAC Rally. Following that, a season’s worth of crewing on a tarmac rally car rounded out my off-road experience. However, none of that would prepare me for Baja and Mexico….

The idea was to join up with the Honda Ridgeline Team, a low-key, American Honda-funded program that had been running for about four years out of Anaheim Hills, Calif. and operated by Clive and Gavin Skilton (a father / son team). Despite the low-key and low budget; the team had been remarkably successful, and would go to the Baja 1000 as defending class champions. In a very short time, we managed to talk AHM into giving us a Ridgeline truck – which had formerly been used as a press vehicle – for the trip, then found hotel rooms right at the starting line and been in touch with the Honda guys who would assign us to what was now "Chase [support vehicle] 4!" Matt, Allen and I left HPD at lunchtime on the Wednesday prior to the race start on Friday. The tentative plan was to collect our ‘chase vehicle’ from AHM Public Relations in Torrance, and rendezvous with Gary and John from AHM either in Long Beach, or just on the USA side of the border crossing to Mexico.

As promised, our truck was waiting for us; with just under 5,000 miles on the clock, clean and in good shape. We were then informed that the truck was "going to the crusher" as soon as it got back….did we really need that Mexican insurance? All sorts of moneymaking ideas were popping into our heads once those words were instilled! Matt, a veteran of several previous Bajas and a buggy owner himself, was prepared; tools, jacks, hardware, deck chairs, and toilet paper filled the bed of his own truck, and all of it was soon transferred to the Ridgeline. With our own cars safely secured at AHM’s long-term parking lot, we were quickly loaded up, fueled at the on-site filling station – passing two grinning AHM employees who were evaluating a Lexus IS-F (if only we made a competitor to it…) – and heading down the 405 towards San Diego. This was my first time in a Ridgeline, and from the comfort of the back seat, I was extremely impressed; I found it very unlike any other pickup truck I have ridden in – the ride in the back was very comfortable …"This might not be too bad a place to spend the next few days," I thought…but more on that later!

Off to Mexico. . .
Reaching San Diego was an uneventful experience, until we arrived at the border-crossing area, where a mixup in directions had us driving in circles, trying to locate the other AHM truck. I guess being told to turn left off the freeway can be confusing, especially when there are two freeways running parallel to each other – I mean, how many McDonald’s car parks can there be?

The first casualty of the trip happened right there at McDonald’s. In trying to feed the radio antenna cable under the seat, Matt managed to slash his finger wide open; blood was dripping everywhere…nice! Inspection revealed a razor-sharp edge on part of the seat frame; leading to some choice words about those responsible for seat design! The other Ridgeline was loaded to the gunnels with spare wheels, fuel cans, spare parts etc., and very obviously riding on the bump stops.

Crossing the border was an uneventful process; I was concerned about getting back in, being a non-US citizen, so I opted to stop and get a visa; it turns out that for a seven-day visit, there is no charge. Duly stamped and with darkness upon us, we crossed over into Mexico and the border town of Tijuana.

The run to Ensenada was uneventful and to be honest, not very exciting in the dark. Fortunately, with Matt having been down that way several times in the past and the other guys in the leading Ridgeline knowing exactly where we were going, finding the hotel was a breeze. And a great location, it turns out; right by the harbor and the collection area for the pre-race scrutineering. Parking, though, was another matter. It seems that when you book the hotel room, you also have to reserve the parking. Fortunately, the Skiltons are past masters at this, and two spots were waiting for us, although you could have only squeezed a cigarette paper between the cars once they were parked! The whole crew was waiting for our arrival, and a mixed bunch they were…the biggest thing to appreciate is that they were all volunteers, doing this for beer money and a t-shirt. And that, as I came to learn, is really the spirit of the race. The Skiltons, it turns out, are English. Clive is from a small town just a few miles from where I was living prior to emigrating to the US. The crew consisted of three AHM employees (John, Gary and Vlad), a schoolteacher (Ed), a fabricator (Kevin), a surfer (Scott) and one other person (Noel). I never knew what he did!

Hotel car park full of support vehicles

We spent that evening getting to know each other in a backstreet seafood restaurant – swapping stories of IndyCar and ALMS racing with those more relevant to the next few days of off-road racing. It appeared that both Allen and I would have a lot to learn! The evening wasn’t over until we paid a visit to one of the local bars, and as we were in Ensenada; there was only one option, Cantina Hussong’s; the oldest cantina in the Californias and home of the original Margarita! Two dollars a beer is a far cry from the prices in L.A.! And so, to bed at the end of Day One.

to be continued. . .

The Baja 1000 - Journal #2

HPD Stickermania

11.19.09 The silence of the night hours was shattered at around 4 a.m. with the sound of a race car being fired up in the car park below my room. We had been warned that cars would start lining up in the pre-dawn hours; unlike in IndyCar, there is not an allotted "Tech [inspection] time"; it is first-come, first-served. And no one wants to be last! The cars lined up right outside the front door of our hotel. Even though it was only 7 a.m., there were plenty of people about, walking around between the cars, taking pictures, and asking questions. Nothing is covered and everyone seems happy to show off their creations. It seems that the schools know that there is no point in holding classes when the racers are in town; so, as no one would show up, they don’t even try. The kids were running round asking for stickers, posters, hats, etc. It seemed to be a game among them. We soon learned that once one or two got their hands on a sticker, you’d soon be inundated with hands asking for more…. />

We’d brought some of the new "Honda Racing/HPD" stickers with us with the intent of decaling the race truck. After gaining permission to do so, I began to question the wisdom of "stickering" the truck in front of everyone. Sure enough, as soon as I began to apply the first decal, the kids were there. Unfortunately, they left disappointed, as we had only enough for the race truck and our support vehicle. But the result was worth it; HPD now had a presence on the Baja!

Sporting the Honda Racing HPD sticker.

to be continued. . .

The Baja 1000 - Journal #3

Tech line and hatmania

11.19.09 American Honda raided its stockroom and came up with several boxes of Honda championship hats, circa 1998! While these would be our giveaways, I wondered if eBay might be a better place for them, as these were now, no doubt, collector’s items! The team decided that the thing to do would be to wait until the truck was moving along in the tech line and then, with a couple of guys sitting in the bed of the truck, to break out the hats – and so they did. Pandemonium broke out almost immediately! The truck disappeared amongst a complete sea of people, all scrabbling for a hat or two.

Crazy hat giveaway!

Tech inspection itself was a fairly basic affair; most of the entries were already known to the inspection people, so they were primarily concerned with checking seat belts, helmets and race suits. Needless to say, no issues arose with the Ridgeline. We took the opportunity to speak directly with technical representatives from SCORE, the sanctioning body, about an increased Honda presence; perhaps offering an alternative engine package or even a new class alternative engine. This was met with a lot of general enthusiasm and needs further follow-up to see what is truly possible.

Ridgeline race truck going through Tech

to be continued. . .

The Baja 1000 - Journal #4

A visit with a Honda motorcycle team, then final prep.

11.19.09 The next stop was to call in and see the Honda motorcycle paddock setup. Run by a longtime Honda campaigner, T.J., this was impressive. Operated as JCR, or Johnny Campbell Racing, and once an AHM Honda motorcycle offshoot under the supervision of the late Bruce Ogilvie, it had since relocated to San Clemente, Calif., but still bore the same enthusiasm and spirit of the original Honda race team. Nothing would indicate to you that this was a semi-factory- (if at all) supported affair. From the immaculate preparation of the bikes to the clean and tidy workshop environment, complete with Honda-embossed Eazy-Ups – they represented Honda well. In fact, one mechanic was a car guy (a Japanese associate) from Torrance that just had a love of dirt-bike racing and had been coming down for years. But a similar story followed to that we had heard earlier from the Ridgeline team; despite the low-key presence of anything remotely official from Honda, they were crying out for help. A quote from T.J. sticks in my mind: ‘We could race yellow bikes, or blue ones or green ones or orange ones, but we don’t want to, we want to race red ones’. He asked if we were at Baja of our own doing, or if this was an official visit. On hearing that, yes, it was official, but we were just gathering information, this brought some gratification that at least somewhere in Honda there was some interest. T.J. told a story of how for 12 years, they had held a room for a senior individual from AHM, and for 12 years, he had never come. It left you feeling a little helpless for their immediate future, but lit the fire inside to try to do something to help. Once again, the spirit of Baja was showing.

JCR Honda Pit and race bikes

By now, it was lunchtime, and the start of the "Tale of Tacos!" Tacos #1 – a somewhat fancy Mexican joint, was to be the first stop. Rating probably a 5 or 6.

Then followed the serious business of loading up the chase trucks and getting ready to head out in the morning. Somehow, we had to find room for the spares, the human essentials (food, water, toilet roll, etc.) and the people in the back of the Ridgeline. Believe it or not, we managed to make it fit; carrying two spare tires for our own truck, a race spare for the race truck, fuel for both trucks (race and normal varieties); plus tools, jacks, etc., etc. One word of advice given to us was to put anything that was not already in a sealed box into bin liners, as sand and dust just gets everywhere! Then, most importantly, we ‘stickered up’ our own trucks. We had a two of the large ‘Honda Racing/HPD’ stickers remaining and a bag full of the ‘giveaway’ ones. We did HPD proud, and I don’t think anyone was in any doubt of the origin of our truck!

I assume it will all fit.

A team meeting was scheduled for 5 p.m.; the first order of business was swapping mobile and sat phone numbers (as we would soon learn, good communication is crucial to a successful Baja). As Gavin (the driver) talked through the race route, he provided direction to each of the chase trucks (four in total) as to time and expected location of each. Creating overlap was key to the event, ensuring at all times that the race truck was covered, with help at least nearby. Our role to some extent was to be a "floating" truck, backing up everyone else. The team members understood that we were there to learn and to see as much of the event as possible, but we also let them know we were there for them, and that they should put us to work! In the end, our instructions were to head out prior to the race start and be in a position to rendezvous around Km35. As things transpired, we ended up being a very good "radio relay" between the other chase vehicles and the race truck.

to be continued. . .

The Baja 1000 - Journal #5

The Race begins. . .with motorcycles.

11.20.09 The race started officially at 6:30 a.m., as the first of the motorcycles got underway; the four-wheeled vehicles followed off approximately three hours later, for reasons of safety and to try to give a decent break between the two groups. Despite knowing that a long day was in store for us, I was up at 6:30 a.m. to see the bikes leave. It seemed a very relaxed affair, but I am sure that the riders’ hearts were pounding! I can’t imagine what it would be like for these guys (and girls); 670-plus miles is a long way to ride on a bike, even if you are sharing with another rider or two. As for the guys going solo….

Waiting for the start of the bikes.

An interesting show unfolded in front of me. Just past the start, I noticed a rider standing without a bike, all suited up and ready to ride. The reason became quickly apparent: the "start" rider left the starting line, rode about 50 meters, and then pulled up alongside the waiting rider. A quick rider change followed, and the bike and new rider left. I can only surmise that the guy riding off from the start was the one that paid the most money or owned the bike, and he wanted the official start photo shot!

Despite the fact that the riders were now faced with at least 12 or so hours of riding, this didn’t mean that they took Turn One easily! But it was 6:30 a.m., the "track" was very cold and they were all on new tires, so you can imagine how much grip was available. Some were tentative and others … well … plain crazy! But the fans loved it!

Showboating: 2-wheeler on 1 wheel, ATV about to go there, too!

And if you thought the bikes were going for it, you should have seen the ATV riders! Now, having an ATV at home, I know how hard (and heavy) these things are to ride, so I cannot even begin to imagine what it would be like to ride something like that for the duration of the race. The first ATV past me caught me by surprise; it came so close to the barrier I could have reached out and touched the rider. But they provided a lot of entertainment for the fans, who just loved them!

to be continued. . .

Baja 1000 - Journal #6

To the arches and beyond.

11.20.09 Our plan was to leave prior to the start and head onto the course to await the race cars, letting them come to us. After filling up the chase truck and spare fuel cans (the trick is to get fuel whenever you see the opportunity, as, once in the wilds, finding a filling station is next to impossible!), we set off through the streets of Ensenada and out towards the course. Listening in on the radio we heard the first signs of trouble, called in by the "Weatherman." An ATV rider, #8a, was down and needed medical attention. We followed along as air support was called and soon enough, he was on his way to the ER with a back injury. We never heard how he got on …

"Weatherman" is as much a part of the Baja race as anyone else. Bob Steinberger was originally a Ham radio operator who in 1975, set up antennas from three weather balloons on top of a mountain near the El Diablo top, and has now become the eyes and ears of the Baja 1000, handling and directing all communication.

Our first stop was at the "Arches," approximate to Km19. We weren’t alone, and before long, many people had joined us to get a first glimpse of the trophy trucks and Class One buggies that would lead off the race.

The first indication that cars were on their way was the sight and sound of the chase helicopters. These were the domain of the professional teams; while not actually allowed to provide direct assistance, they could certainly coordinate recovery operations. The cars leave at 30-second intervals, and by the time the first trucks reached us, that gap was pretty static. Aside from the speed and sound of the cars, the most impressive thing was the amount of dust that was thrown up! For next 30 or so hours, that was what we would be living with and crunching between our teeth!

It was soon time for us to move on and meet up with our other support crew at Km33 and there, we had our first "racing incident." Chase 4 was hit by Chase 2 ….oops…. Apparently, the clutch on the Toyota was worn. That, or the driver just messed it up! Either way, there was a crunch and the bonnet was folded in two. Amazingly, with some slight amount of persuasion, the bonnet closed and just a minor dent remained. An appropriately placed "Honda Racing/HPD" sticker covered much of the damage! Oh well, the truck was headed to the crusher when it got back. A little war wound wouldn’t hurt….

We caught one of the TRD guys using our truck as a modesty shelter while nature called, and we took the opportunity to slap a "Honda Racing/HPD" sticker on the back of his chase truck – I wonder how long it lasted ...

to be continued. . .

Baja 1000 - Journal #7

Ridgeline takes STOCK MINI lead + Honda running 1-2 in motorcycles.

11.20.10 The Ridgeline was competing in the Stock Mini Truck class: -

The Toyota was the new-model 4Runner with what appeared to be heavy support from TRD, and legendary Baja competitor Ivan Stewart slated to drive.

The Ridgeline left the line shortly after midday and at 12:30 p.m., we received a text to say that it was passing RM15. John and Gary in Chase 2 had a laptop connected to the Internet and were tracking the progress of the Honda Ridgeline "779" live via GPS. They’d continue to provide text updates throughout the race.

At RM 35, a gap of one minute, 30 seconds existed between the H3 Hummer and 779; with the Toyota about 3 minutes behind.

At RM 50, the 779 radioed in to say all was well.

Driving down the highway we spotted a Class 12 car pulled over on the side of the road; it was one of the VW-powered buggies that Matt used to work on, and he knew the owner / driver. Ignition problems had been diagnosed, and we watched as they tried to make repairs. After a while, we realized that the repairs were not fixing the problem, as the engine was still misfiring. Out came the trusty ty-rap to determine which cylinder was not firing. A damaged homemade plug lead was discovered; once fixed, the car fired and ran cleanly.

We heard from the race truck that it had cleared BFG1*; all was well and only minutes stationary – a good stop. At 15:03, the Toyota cleared BFG1, now 16:35 behind. 779 is averaging 30.2 miles per hour over the course.

*BFG1 = BF Goodrich Pit 1. BFG provides a pit service to all those entrants running their tires. For a small amount of money (approximately $600), the BFG folks ordered and provided fuel at each stop, filled the car, changed the wheels and tires, etc. and allowed teams to carry out repairs in their well-lit area. They also provided a valuable radio relay service. More on that later.

We discovered the advantage of having an extra chase truck, as mountains and valleys started to break up the terrain and maintaining communications became harder. We leapfrogged from one truck to the next, relaying the signal until the right destination was reached. This proved to be very valuable.

3:27 p.m. … RM105 – …"Everything good."

Tacos #2 came up at Val de Trinidad – a late lunch. Three tacos each, and a couple of ‘Honda Racing’ stickers now adorn another taco restaurant….

We pulled into the race course near V de T to see the front-running bikes go through; the Honda Pit was set up and waiting. We discovered that the locals were becoming entrepreneurial and were now charging $5 for entry to the race course.
We saw the #3 bike come through, this was the second Honda, and Hondas were now running first and third, with the factory Kawasaki in second place. The speed of the top riders was very impressive!

At RM134, 779 had built up a 20-mile lead.

to be continued. . .

Baja 1000 - Journal #8

11.20.09 At RM134, 779 had built up a 20-mile lead.

Then, somewhere around RM 140, we heard that a bolt has been lost from the front-right lower control arm. Fortunately, a spare was available, and the delay was not too costly.

At RM154, the Ridgeline’s lead had been reduced to 16 miles.

We pulled into BFG2; it was now nighttime (approximately 8:30 p.m.), and the temperature was dropping quickly. The dust at this point was very heavy, and the crowds of people likewise. Despite the fact that Trophy Trucks and Class 1 buggies were approaching at very high speeds, the crowds were right on the edge of the race track. We witnessed Two Trophy trucks racing each other; the chasing one ramming the leader from behind … “Hey, we are here! Let us through!"

779 pulled in to BFG2 for a quick stop to replace a punctured tire, refuel and tighten suspension bolts, and the Ridgeline was on its way. Both driver and co-driver pulled on more clothing and grabbed some food. Stop time was 4 minutes, 20 seconds. The Toyota was now 27:30 behind and made a leisurely stop as we watched.

RM245 – "Everything OK."

We stopped on the side of the road to watch some of the cars come through the valley below us; fortunately, someone had lit a fire and the embers were still glowing. We coaxed it back to life to get some warmth as we watched. It is definitely cold now!

RM284 – "Everything OK."

Our next destination was the west side of the Baja peninsula; this meant we had to head back through Ensenada, so we took the opportunity to stop back at the hotel (at 12:15am!). It’s amazing what a toothbrush can do to make you feel slightly cleaner!

12.21.09 RM321 – 779 had a 53-mile lead over the Toyota.

An all-night 7-Eleven provided coffee, and shortly afterwards, we found a taco stall for Tacos #3. By all accounts, these were the best so far.

RM342—all OK with 779.

Our overnight destination was BFG5 – basically, a field in the middle of nowhere, for the final major service stop (barring problems). We arrived at 2:30 a.m. and, despite being really cold, we all crashed out in the truck. I discovered that it is possible to sleep on half the back seat of a Ridgeline, while using Matt’s crash helmet as a pillow.

Final race day dawns.
We were up again before the sun rose and sought out news of the Ridgeline; unfortunately, it wasn’t good. Apparently, a variety of suspension issues had arisen during the night, but more concerning was the fact that the chase cars that had gone to the rescue were also stuck on the course with damage. The gap to both pursuing trucks had also closed dramatically … 20 and 36 minutes to the Toyota and Hummer, respectively.More worrying was that we had lost touch with the race truck and no one was able to raise it. Due to the problems over chase cars getting stuck, the scheduled rendezvous back at V de T was in jeopardy, and the truck would have to fend for itself until it reached BFG5, where Chase 3 and Chase 4 were waiting. We would catch snippets of radio transmissions from the truck, but nothing could be communicated back. Eventually, we asked BFG Radio Relay to try to contact the truck, but they, too, failed. We could hear the truck calling for a replacement co-driver, as after nearly 22 hours in the passenger seat, Vlad had had enough. Scott was due to replace him, but Chase 1 was nowhere to be seen; meanwhile, Matt had "foolishly" brought his race suit and helmet and was instructed to get suited up, just in case – fortunately, he was familiar with the course ahead from a previous running of the Baja event. In the end, his driving services proved not to be necessary, as Chase 3 made it in time.

to be continued. . .

Baja 1000 - Journal #9

Challenges of the final race day.

11.21.09 The best news of the morning: we hear that the JCR Honda bike had won the motorcycle race outright from Kawasaki, with the team’s second entry placing third. Good for them!

As 779 approached, we heard that it had sustained left-rear suspension damage and was calling for someone with a welder. It transpired that the front location point of the rear trailing arm had broken away from the chassis and was now ‘flapping around in the breeze’. Noel proved to be very capable with the welder and in 17 minutes, the truck was repaired and back on the race track … let’s see the local body shop fix something like that in a similar amount of time! We also noticed that the left-front strut mount was cracking, too. No action was taken there, though.

By the time the repairs were complete, both the Toyota and the Hummer had passed the Ridgeline, but the race was very close, with just minutes separating all three. Gavin was fired up, and very confident that he could catch both.

Our chase vehicle, Chase 4, was scheduled to track the race truck down near the beach and then run parallel to the race course for several miles, until the course headed back inland. We had to drive hard to ‘leapfrog’ ahead of the truck, and arrived at our first destination point with just a few minutes to spare. By this stage, 779 had passed the Hummer and was within 15 seconds of the Toyota. One of the chasing helicopters had caught on to this three-way battle (once again, Honda vs. Toyota!) and was tracking the trucks very closely.

to be continued. . .

Baja 1000 - Journal #10

The final hours.

11.21.09 As we raced toward the beach, we received the radio call we had been dreading, the race truck had lost all forward gears and only had reverse. Gavin was able to gain some momentum under very low throttle applications going forward, but as soon as a hill presented itself, he had to spin round and tackle the hill going backwards. We called to them that we would attempt to meet them up on the course; fortunately for us, we caught them not too far off the main road, since we were traveling the race course in the wrong direction! It was a sorry sight, seeing the truck having to reverse up the race track to meet us….

After an initial investigation, and discussions with John and Gary, we concluded that the main driver clutch in the automatic transmission had failed. And at RM565, 779 retired from the 2009 Baja 1000.

A sad procession followed, with Chase 4 towing the race truck off the course and back toward the main road, then on toward Santo Tomas and eventually Ensenada.

En route back to Ensenada, the call came over the radio to stop, as food and extra layers of clothing were needed. Note that the race truck has no protective glass, so the outside air just blasts straight in on the occupants. This would be Taco Stop #4 and yet again, they were wonderful; perhaps being helped by the fact that this time, they were accompanied by a beer! Everyone was tired and dirty, but in reasonable spirits, despite the disappointment of not finishing the race. We managed once again to get Honda Racing/HPD stickers in pride of place, adorning yet another Mexican establishment!

But the fun wasn’t over yet… We were 25 kms from home when we saw blue lights flashing from behind. Yes, we were being pulled over by the local police. Apparently, you are not permitted to tow cars in Mexico; they have to be on a trailer. Hmmm, you know, I had noticed all the locals moving their broken-down cars around on trailers and wondered why….NOT!
The police officer was not the most friendly person ever encountered and seemed quite deflated when we said, "OK, we will get one."
"Where is it then?"
"Ensenada," we replied, as we radioed for it!
With that, he stormed off and got in his car and drove up the road (no doubt, to wait a couple of miles further away, assuming we would just carry on, regardless).
And that was Baja 1000, 2009. The spirit of Baja embraces many people and the number of them on or in Honda-powered vehicles is something to grab hold of. I counted at least 55 entries that carried the "H" mark. It was an amazing experience, and I, for one, am converted and will be back next year. I’ve heard that the next running will be a ‘straight’ run down to La Paz.

That will be amazing, I am sure.

to be continued. . .next year.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Q&A with HPD Technical Division Manager, Roger Griffiths

1. What is Honda's preferred engine direction in the new IndyCar specifications? What horsepower levels?

We will design a V-6 engine and horsepower is difficult to say, but we are targeting a 225 mph average lap speed at Indianapolis. With the information we have been given, we will require somewhere around 575 hp. We hope to have more hp available for road-course racing, subject, of course, to IZOD IndyCar Series approval.

2. Did the IndyCar muffler contribute to the instability of cars in traffic? Any thoughts of removing it next season?

We have no plans to remove it. We have not received any reports from race teams regarding any instability in traffic. Our initial testing of the muffler in 2008 showed very little change to the aerodynamic performance of the car.

3. If the fuel-mixture switch has, say, six settings, why not make #4 the max the engine can do, and then have P2P (push-to-pass) be the equivalent of #6?

Anything is possible. Right now, we are in discussion with the IZOD IndyCar Series to remove the fuel-mixture switch from the car completely. This would make the driver responsible for controlling the amount of fuel consumed with his or her right foot. If we do that, we will adjust the standard engine setting to make the P2P more effective.

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