It was more than 40 years ago when I first saw an off-road race – the Mexican 1000 in Baja in 1970. In those days, the race was a real adventure, and the vehicles were crude. However, I was immediately attracted to the fun and challenge of off-road racing.
In 1978, I was fortunate to compete in the Baja 1000 race myself, co-driving a Baja Bug. I remember how much my body ached, and I was glad I wore a kidney belt. Since then, as a photojournalist, I have covered many off-road events around the world, including the Camel Trophy in Papua, New Guinea, and the Dakar race in Africa and South America. On each occasion, I was driving an SUV on relatively smooth tracks.
I was kind of surprised when I found myself having reservations about how I would survive three days of real off-roading in the Nevada desert. I could blame old age, I guess.
I need not have worried, because these buggies are easy to drive as long as you can operate a manual transmission. To begin with, the going was easy, with smooth tracks and no sharp corners or big drop-offs. In fact, an Outback easily could have tackled the first 20 miles. That is, until we turned into a wash. There, the vehicle’s 24-inch ground clearance and the enormous tires were a necessity. It was fun to dodge boulders and low-hanging branches craftily as we worked our way along the wash that even a four-wheel drive truck would have trouble traversing. This was real off-roading.
What amazed me more than anything is how technology has improved so much in the past four decades. The suspension on today’s off-road race cars soaks up bumps with such ease that the ride is better than you experience in a road vehicle on a pothole-strewn city street.