While covering the Baja 1000 in November of 2014, everyone I spoke with kept mentioning a driver named Eric Solorzano. One man told the story of a 1,000-mile race in which Solorzano jumped a junkyard fence, fought off an angry dog, grabbed a part he needed from a totaled VW Bug and still finished first. Solorzano was the stuff of legends—unconventional, irrational, innovative and unfathomably successful.
But there was also something sour behind the legend. Racers told me the mechanic from Tijuana, the most decorated VW Bug racer in Baja 1000 history, could be tempestuous, controlling and untrustworthy. He was presented as a contradiction—generous and cheap, ingenious and ill-prepared, legendary and infamous.
The night before that race, a tiny bespectacled man, hunched over and taking quick steps, arrived at the compound where we were staying. A friend shouted through the darkness: “Hey, are you Solorzano?” The man turned toward him and grinned. He did not speak for a moment, but right before disappearing back into the shadows, he finally responded: “Sometimes I am, and sometimes I’m not.”
Kicking off its 2017 installment this week, the Baja 1000 is the longest continuous off-road race in North America. Each November, a few hundred cars, trucks and motorcycles gather in Ensenada, a large port city in Baja California Norte, to set off on a treacherous journey through the desert. The fastest motorcyclists and Trophy Trucks—$750,000 super-vehicles with three feet of suspension and helicopter escorts—finish the race in 24 hours. For the winners, there is a faint hope of a sponsorship and a comfortable living. But for most, the Baja 1000 is a fatalist adventure. Barely 50 percent of the 239 entrants completed 2015’s 821-mile racecourse; only a handful of teams didn’t lose thousands of dollars by competing in the event.
The race traces its roots to a promotional stunt dreamed up by Honda in 1962. The company hired two motorcyclists to take its newly released CL72 Scrambler from Tijuana to La Paz to prove the bike’s prowess. Five years later, a driver broke the Scrambler’s record time in a Buggy, leading to a rush of men trying the route. In November of 1967, the first Baja 1000 was held, populated by motorcyclists and drivers crazy enough to attempt the 1,000-mile journey without GPS, radio support or, in some cases, four-wheel drive.
In today’s Baja 1000, no competitors resemble the men in the original race more than Class 11—the stock pre-1982 Volkswagen Beetle class. Their cars are ill-equipped for the brutal course, but they spend hours in the shop and tens of thousands of dollars for the slim chance to arrive back in Ensenada before the 33-hour time limit has expired. Compared to the Trophy Trucks, the Class 11s are like donkeys trying to win the Kentucky Derby. Yet there is glory for those who complete the race.
No VW class racer has completed the Baja 1000 more times than Solorzano. The surly mechanic, who has finished first in his class an unprecedented number of times, is referred to as the King of Class 11. Every Class 11 owner I spoke with credited his appearance in the 2005 documentary Dust to Glory as the motivation for attempting the Baja 1000 in a VW Bug. During race week in Ensenada, everyone knows Solorzano.
On the first day of the 2015 race, Solorzano’s VW Bug was the last to arrive at the start-line. He had been tinkering with the racecar up until 1 p.m. and got in line only a half-hour before the Bug would take off. This obsessiveness or lack of preparation, depending on whom you ask, has become part of Solorzano’s trademark.
But once he began his leg, setting off from the Riviera del Pacifico Cultural Center, taking a hard left at the corner, and then another left before veering off into the dirt gulley that begins the off-road section of the race, Solorzano quickly reminded everyone of his talent. When he arrived at the first pit three hours later, the now 57-year-old racer was a full 30 minutes ahead of the other VW Bugs. His teammates began to believe that this was the year that Team Solorzano finally would win their tenth Baja 1000.
But after Solorzano exited the racecar, his fellow drivers took over and traded difficult shifts throughout the night. As the sun began to rise on the second day of the race, the course had been chewed up by the heavier, more powerful trucks, creating deep divots and debilitating beds of silt—baby-powder-fine sandpits famous for their ability to kill transmissions. Only four of the seven Class 11 teams continued to run, and after 24 hours, they were still less than halfway through the Baja 1000. There was almost no chance they’d finish the race in time, but the teams who had spent months building their stock pre-1982 VW Bugs decided to keep fighting on.
In the almond-colored Team Solorzano car, Geovany Alucano and his co-driver Joel Alva Bautista, eyes bright red from dust and lack of sleep and faces caked with white sand, rumbled through the rocky land west of Laguna Chapala, in the undeveloped center of Baja Norte. Despite hours of fixing flats and digging their car from deep sand, the two drivers from Cabo San Lucas were still first among the Class 11 racecars.
Though still only 27, Alucano has a quiet yet dominating presence. All of the Alucanos, including Geovany’s father Antonio, defer to the barrel-chested racer with fierce brown eyes and a thin, close-trimmed beard. In 2012, at 22 years old, Alucano won Class 11 of the Baja 1000 with his own team. Before entering the car at the start of his shift, I asked if he was nervous. “No,” he said, taking a drag from his cigarette. “Nunca en mi vida.” Never in my life.
But after 16 hours of navigating the endless traps along the course, Alucano made a costly mistake in the desert of Laguna Chapala. He pointed the nose of the racecar onto a patch that looked like hard-packed dirt but turned out to be quicksand-like silt. The wheels lost traction, the gears groaned and the engine shut off. The underside of the Bug sat beached upon a bed of knee-deep sand. The two men were stuck, 30 miles west of their teammates and 30 miles east of the Pacific. The radio had not worked for hours.
Solorzano has always been a racer. Raised in Tijuana by his uncle and aunt, he first got on a motorcycle as a child and began to race professionally at the age of 13. During his 18 years on the Mexican circuit, Solorzano won 150 races.
“When I used to race motorcycles, I would get nervous every time, same as I do now,” he told me. “But as soon as the clutch goes out, I’m a different person. I feel like I’m in heaven. It could be like a drug for me. I know what I’m doing when I’m driving.”
A crash eventually stopped Solorzano from racing motorcycles and moved him behind the wheel of a VW Bug in 1987. Inside his ’67 sedan, his legend only grew. During an unmatched run from 1993 to 2006, Solorzano’s team won Class 11 at the Baja 1000 nine times. In that stretch, he also had a few near misses, once crossing the finish line less than two minutes after time had expired. He was on a streak that seemed unfathomable—how could this mechanic from Tijuana always finish the most challenging continuous off-road race in the world?
In Solorzano’s prime, Sal Fish was the owner of SCORE, the desert racing sanctioning body that puts on the Baja 1000. Fish’s relationship with the King of Class 11 is useful in understanding how the driver exists in the off-road racing world. Fish was his advocate—he regularly fronted Solorzano the deposit for the entry fee and would always hear out his concerns about the course. But whenever Solorzano felt mistreated, he’d become indignant. Solorzano has a fiercely idiosyncratic view of right and wrong and understands every interaction through that lens. Most of his disputes come from his hardheaded nature: He expects others to view the world the way he does.
When I talked with Fish, he spoke glowingly of Solorzano (“If there was a picture in the dictionary of a guy who runs Class 11, it’d be Eric”), but did not fail to mention how difficult he was to deal with. “He’s a very unique guy. I’ve had some of the most heated discussions with him—it’d be like the guy wanted to kill me,” he said. “But I’ve always liked him from the standpoint that he’s very honest, and his heart and soul are in the sport.”
The fact that the King of Class 11 was a fiery, disagreeable man both stoked and muddied his legend. He could have been a crown jewel of SCORE and a favorite for sponsors—he embodied the rugged everyman ideal that off-road racing was supposed to be about. But he was never designated a face of the sport.
Solorzano speaks glowingly of Fish, though mainly as a counterpoint to his successor, Roger Norman. For Solorzano, Fish is the old-school ideal, and when he sold the company to Norman in 2012, everything changed for the worse.
Norman, a well-tanned businessman with a soft smile and steel blue eyes, also dislikes Solorzano. When I reached out to Norman before the 2015 race, he told me my “time would be much better spent with one of our young guns or pretty much any other racer.” Solorzano, despite being the winningest driver in his class, is not the man to represent Norman’s new vision for SCORE. They are incongruent figures—Norman’s composed demeanor is light years from Solorzano’s erratic intensity—but the root of their distaste for one another is a differing vision for the future of the Baja 1000. Solorzano believes that off-road racing must remain a working man’s sport—the rare place where a gritty mechanic from Tijuana has the same shot at glory as a millionaire in a Trophy Truck. Norman believes the essence of the race can remain, even as it evolves into a more lucrative event. He spoke to me of a future where TV coverage and better name recognition could make the drivers true professional athletes who could off-road race full time.
Unfortunately for Solorzano and the other Class 11 racers, this future is built for the faster and better-equipped classes. The racecourse continues to evolve to challenge those cars, leaving the ancient Volkswagens dangerously overmatched.
The four Class 11 team’s chase trucks—vehicles driven by teammates to provide support for each racecar—waited at a burnt brown ranch by Laguna Chapala on the west side of Highway 1. No one had slept, save a few catnaps in the back of the trucks, since they all had left the start line in Ensenada 24 hours before. The teams huddled, trading tales of countless breakdowns, flat tires and rescues, always keeping an eye on the handmade rope fence that separated the course from the highway. The rancher only opened the fence when a car would pass, preferring it closed to keep his cows from wandering toward the road. It had been hours since he’d opened it for anyone.
The dusty lot where the chase trucks sat was without shade or running water, and there was no cell service for a hundred miles in either direction. It was a desert island in the center of Baja California, a region coined “the other Mexico” by the writer Fernando Jordán Juarez. The shrubs dotting the mountains were blackened from the drought as if to accentuate the sense of isolation.
At 3 p.m., Solorzano, nervously kicking up dust with his short strides, decided to send two of his chase trucks to refuel at the closest gas station, which was a hundred miles from the ranch. When they finally returned with full tanks, the blue sky had begun to dim to a sullen gray. Everyone hopped out and gathered haphazardly, except Solorzano, who jumped behind the wheel of the Jeep Cherokee, pausing just a moment for his old racing buddy, Eduardo Gutierrez, and his stepson, Emmanuel Gomez, to follow him in. Without a word, he sped west across the lot, toward the setting sun. The team watched as first the taillights disappeared, then a plume of dust rose, and finally the desert settled back to a barren collection of shrubs and sand and darkening hills.
Solorzano is some kind of Ahab who races because there is desert before him that has not yet been conquered.
Thirty miles and a mountain pass separated Solorzano from his stranded racers. The steep road was pocked with jagged rocks and without a radio to contact his other teammates, a flat tire would mean disaster. As the SUV slowly descended, his co-pilot Gutierrez pointed out the lines to take along path. By now, the only light came from the headlamps and a luminescent three-quarter moon.
At the bottom of the mountain, the tightly cut pass widened and the road flattened. Black hills surrounded the wide clearing, which lit up with a cosmic glow. The ground was smooth and hard packed, hinting of a moment ages ago when Laguna Chapala was filled with water. Today, the lagoon in the region’s name is another mirage—the desert the men traversed was bone dry.
Twenty miles into the rescue, Solorzano spotted headlights in a ravine below the right side of the road. The men got out into the warm desert night, peered down 40 feet into the chasm and saw another team’s stranded pickup truck. Gutierrez looked at Solorzano for a moment, and he nodded. They got back into the Cherokee, drove a quarter-mile to the mouth of the ravine, and then reversed all the way back toward the truck. The frantic drivers began to thank Solorzano, but he brushed off the pleasantries and quickly anchored the towline. He drove slowly back up to the road, dragging the truck behind him.
In Solorzano’s world, karma is an immediate and brutal force. All through the week, he repeated the mantra “what comes around goes around” when I asked him about people whom he perceived had done him wrong. He has a stiff set of morals and is wary to forgive and forget. But his karmic fear also leads to a generosity—those closest to Solorzano are fiercely loyal.
Unlike Solorzano, who began racing before he had facial hair, Roger Norman grew up surfing in San Diego and came to the off-road world only after moving to Nevada to work in large-scale real estate ventures with his father. Norman told me he owns the industrial park in Reno where Google is building a 1,200-acre data center and Tesla is constructing its massive Gigafactory.
Norman instantly showed a talent for the sport, and in 2001, was invited by legendary driver Rod Hall to join his Hummer racing team. Norman and Hall’s Hummer Trophy Truck was the first vehicle to finish the Baja 1000 that year with a time of 22 hours and 22 minutes. In 2008, the Nevada businessman began Norman Motorsports, racing a Trophy Truck that won the overall Baja 1000 championship his first year.
But two years later, during a race in Baja, Norman hit Tim Nugent, a sportsman motorcyclist (the slowest class of biker), while going 120 mph in his Trophy Truck. Nugent survived, and after 28 surgeries even raced again, as Norman’s co-driver in a Trophy Truck, but Norman told me the accident “really messed me up.”
Norman organized a group of drivers and bikers hoping to make the sport safer, but came up against resistance from competitors who did not want change. “We just realized that the sport basically is what it is, and there wasn’t going to be absolutely any change without being able to be the guy to make the decision,” he said.
So he began an effort to become that decision maker, hoping to buy SCORE International from Sal Fish. After six months of conversation, Fish finally agreed to sell him the desert racing sanctioning body that he’d run for almost 40 years.
Norman frames the purchase as a means to make the race safer, and he has made changes to lower the chances of interclass crashes (the motorcycles take off an extra hour before the trucks now). But he also spoke extensively about the growth of the sport throughout our conversation. Right when the sale was announced, Norman told Autoweek about his plans to nationally televise the Baja 1000, and he has successfully found a taped broadcasting partner in CBS Sports Network. This year SCORE will attempt to air a live streaming broadcast shot with drones. For Norman, part of the dream is to create a world in which Baja racers can be paid like professional athletes.
“I wanted to see more media. I wanted to see more safety. I wanted to put some effort in,” he said. “Sal had been running it for 39 years and it really needed a fresh look at everything. Sometimes if you’ve been doing the same thing for a long time, it’s hard to make an investment toward something.”
When we spoke three years out from his sale, Fish voiced concerns about the direction Norman seems to be taking the sport. He told me that he initially created the Trophy Truck division as a means to court the valuable manufacturers. Much like in the Formula One racing model, the Trophy Truck division allows manufacturers to create a super-truck to demonstrate their brand’s dominance. But Fish explained that he made sure to never allow the large sponsors to dictate rules to him. “It should be a sport in which the little guy has the same opportunity as the factory-sponsored, helicopter-chase-vehicle guys,” he said. “There’s a place for that, but I myself did not want to be a road manager for 30 superstars.”
Over the last few years, Norman has focused on creating an in-house media operation, founding an official SCORE magazine, SCORE Journal, as well as companion videos to run online. While reading through the back issues, and watching the videos on SCORE’s website, a clear focus on the Trophy Truck drivers and the motorcyclists becomes evident. During the official prerace press conference at the 2015 Baja 1000, most of the drivers who spoke were in the Trophy Truck class, and this summer, SCORE showed off a handful of Trophy Trucks at a Lucha Libre event to promote the race. In order to build the brand, having these drivers front and center makes perfect sense. These are the racers that are finishing first overall, bringing in the advertisers, and showcasing the best vehicles the manufacturers have to offer. Norman estimates that SCORE makes eight times more today than it did when he took over.
But Fish told me one of his priorities was always to keep a sense of amateurism in the race. “Everyone has their goals and their dreams,” he said. “I’m certain Roger could look and see things that I did and say, ‘Gee, why did he leave all of those on the table?’ or ‘Why didn’t he do that?’ or ‘I want to take it to this other level that is more, maybe more, how should I say, Hollywood.’”
The 33-hour time limit had expired and none of the Class 11 cars were close to reaching Ensenada. For Alucano and Batista, stranded in the brush-pocked desert, a world away, winning was the least of their concerns. They’d tried everything to unbeach their car—they’d dug, they’d worked under the hood, they’d prayed. Now, it was clear that all they could do was wait.
In the distance, the two racers saw headlights approaching. The desert night had fooled them before—voices and visions proving nothing more than mirages—but as the lights came closer it was clear: Solorzano had arrived to bring them home. It’d been 24 hours since they entered the 50-year-old Volkswagen, trying and failing to traverse the rocky landscape with only six inches of suspension. Now, finally, they were reunited with their team.
Alucano and Bautista chugged down water bottles, wiped off their dusted faces and got right to work. Alucano, Bautista and Solorzano tinkered under the hood with flashlights, rewiring the ignition and fixing a bevvy of other issues that are symptomatic of taking a ’67 VW Bug hundreds of miles through the desert.
Every movement was crisp and confident as Solorzano worked, every cut of a wire made without a breath of hesitation. There is not a man on earth who knows more about racing a VW Bug, but his real secret, so far as I can understand it, is an intense obsession with the craft. Three nights before the race, he fine-tuned the Bug until 3 a.m. and then left for work across the border at 6:30. The night after that, he spent an hour fixing the windshield wipers while his team drank beers and ate dinner. During the week leading up to the Baja 1000, Solorzano slept about three hours each night.
His obsessiveness can also be his undoing. Every racer in the Baja 1000 has stories of hallucinations—seeing visions is a side-effect of eight-hour shifts in unlit desert desolation. But for Solorzano, a man with an unshakeable trust in his senses, the hallucinations become something else. He told me story after story of close encounters with UFOs. Once, he was face-to-face with a creature that was two feet tall, looked like Golum from the Lord of the Rings, but with “no suit or no nothing. He scared the shit out of me.”
“Eric’s good for about 20 hours,” Robert Johnson, another Team Solorzano racer, said with a grin. “But after that he’s too crazy.”
There was a small moment of serenity as Solorzano, Alucano and Bautista worked on the racecar. But as soon as the Bug was ready to go, a desert madness struck Solorzano. He hopped behind the wheel, without a word to anybody, taking off on what he believed to be the way out. Instead, he sped the Bug back into the treacherous stretch that had disabled the racecar hours before.
The old racer’s momentary lapse, guiding the racecar the wrong direction, began a string of stirringly bad luck for Team Solorzano. In what felt like a fever dream, the racers were unremittingly punished by the desert of Baja Norte—there were two breakdowns, six flat tires, miles hiked through knee-high dust, shouting matches and hardly any water. A little past midnight, the racers finally settled around the disabled racecar and fell asleep.
Class 11 has long been the mechanics’ class—the VW drivers must wrestle their overmatched sedans into race shape through mechanical wizardry. While the Trophy Truck drivers have full pit crews ready to repair the vehicles, almost every Class 11 competitor spends months in the garage building and modifying their cars themselves. But the class as a whole is dwindling—it is becoming increasingly expensive to get the 50-year-old cars ready to run and the course has become nearly unconquerable for the tiny sedans. For the 50th anniversary race, there will be 10 Class 11s at the start line in Ensenada, but in this year’s Baja 500, a shorter June event that also takes off from Ensenada, only four Class 11 racecars competed. There may well be a SCORE race in the near future without a single Class 11 racecar.
Traditionally the working man’s class, the VW Bug is no longer the cheapest way into the race. Today, Class 19, populated by UTVs—many of them bought off the showroom floor, ready to race—has become the class with the lowest barrier to entry. And because the Baja 1000 brand matches with the UTV manufacturers’ desired public image, reaching the top of Class 19 can lead to lucrative sponsorship deals.
Dennis Hollenbeck Chairez, owner of H12:One Class 11 racing team, explained that though he understands the appeal of Class 19, he fears what it will mean for the sport if it replaces Class 11.
“You don’t really know until you have a ’68 or ’69 Volkswagen Bug sitting in front of you and you go, ‘I’m gonna transform this into a race car,’” Hollenbeck Chairez said. “It’s not like going to Polaris, going on the showroom and saying, ‘Yeah, I’ll take that RZR right there that’s ready to race and I don’t have to do a thing to it except maybe put some stickers on it and go.’”
In the 2015 Baja 1000, none of the seven Class 11 entrants finished the race before time expired, while 10 of the 24 Class 19s crossed the finish line in time. I asked Hollenbeck Chairez why he races his Bug when the odds are so long. Why spend all year preparing for a fight you almost certainly will lose? “Why do guys climb Everest?” he said. “Because it’s the ultimate challenge. The chances of a Class 11 getting to the end and on the podium is the ultimate challenge.”
As the sun rose on the third day of the race, in a moment of faith or perhaps hubris, Solorzano decided he’d attempt to drive the racecar over the mountain pass on only its two front rims. The tired men did not question him, removing the other front tire from the Bug. He set off on the brush on the side of the course.
Guiding the vehicle he had driven for over two decades, he managed to make it a mile back toward the ranch. When he’d become stuck, the Cherokee would tow him out and he would begin his desperate march again. On the fourth tow out, the Cherokee itself nearly became beached on a bed of silt—it was clear the attempt was fatally flawed. With the SUV choking on dust and sitting on an overmatched spare, Solorzano and Alucano would have to drive out to the ranch for help alone. The Cherokee could not hold the weight of all the men. Gomez and Gutierrez steeled their reserve, knowing they’d have to wait for hours under the harsh desert sun. Solorzano handed his stepson and his best friend the last two bottles of water.
The Cherokee, with a spare tire, was hardly equipped for the racecourse, and the clouds of dust clogged the air filter. Solorzano guided the SUV along slowly, crawling toward the solace of the distant ranch. But as the sun reached its highest point, 48 hours after the team had set off from the start line in Ensenada, the engine shut off completely. The men were halfway between the ranch and their stranded racecar. Solorzano hopped out of the Cherokee, cursing the car, the desert and his terrible run of luck.
He looked toward the sky, crossing himself, praying for an answer. Then he had an idea.
The old racer grabbed a piece of plastic piping from the trunk and popped the hood. He undid the tube that connected the air filter to the engine, fastening the piping on as a means to bypass the dust sensor that had automatically shut down the engine. He secured the metal clasps, successfully overriding the safety mechanism. The Cherokee’s engine choked down the dust, but began to run.
The SUV moved slowly and tenuously back toward the ranch. The wheezing engine terrified the men, but as they turned a corner, they saw an overflowing F-250, driven by Alucano’s family members, and let out a scream. They parked and the two racers ran toward the truck. After a moment of exhausted celebration, Solorzano grabbed the repaired tire and Alucano hopped in the back of the F-250 to ride toward the racecar.
Solorzano set a jack and got right to replacing the spare. An hour later, as the sun sat high above the mountains, a cloud of dust arose in the west. The F-250 and racecar came screaming around the corner. Alucano was driving the Bug with Gutierrez in the passenger seat.
It had been 40 hours since Alucano had started his shift by the Pacific Coast in a small town called Calamú. Finally, at noon on Sunday, an hour or two after Norman had presented the winners of each class with their trophies at SCORE’s Awards Ceremony in downtown Ensenada, Alucano pulled the Bug through the rope fence and back to the ranch at Laguna Chapala. The team was still five hours from Ensenada, but it was clear now, for the first time in days, that they would make it home.
There is a fierce hardheadedness to Solorzano that has become part of his legend. He is a talented driver and an expert mechanic, but what truly separates him from the other racers is his unwillingness to quit. He is a difficult man, unable to compromise and at times irrational, but he is also perfectly suited for an unwinnable race. This month, he will once again roll his Bug to the start line, believing wholeheartedly that this will be the year he wins his tenth Class 11 title. The Baja 1000 in a VW Bug has always been a fool’s venture, but as the course gets harder and the Trophy Trucks faster, it has become a true White Whale. Solorzano is some kind of Ahab who races because there is desert before him that has not yet been conquered—sleep, money and even the false idol of a checkered flag be damned.
“When God came out of the dirt, he knew he was going to suffer. That’s like the same thing we’re doing,” he said, grinning. “I come here to suffer and every time it’s the same thing.”
Check out more of Toby Silverman’s photography here.