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Shooting Baja – On a 3 hour tour……A 3 hour tour.

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Nikon D700, 70-200mm, ISO 3200, f6.3, 1/250th with star filter.

It is 4:38PM, Saturday, June 6, 2009 – raceday for the Tecate SCORE Baja 500.  I am sitting in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Erindira in Baja California, Mexico in a 15 foot panga, which is a Mexican fishing boat.  The boat is heading south along the coast in 3-4 foot waves and I keep flashing back the Steven Spielberg classic “Jaws”, specifically to the line from Chief Brody as he is on the Orca, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

My adventure at sea started 4 days earlier.  The Baja 500 would cover 432.51 miles this year, and although it used much of the same course as 2008 the terrain frequently changes due to weather, erosion and people driving the roads and trails that make up the course throughout the year.  I shot the race in 2008 but due to the changes I planned an extensive scouting mission to prerun most of the course before raceday.

View the race map here

So, on Tuesday the 2nd I left Phoenix in the morning, crossed at Calexico and headed south on Mexico’s Highway 5 towards San Felipe.  That afternoon I arrived at Borrego near Race Mile 200.  After a quick stop to air my tires down to 12 psi and grab a few photos I got on the race course.  It was not long before I had my first issue.  I was cruising along on a mostly flat high speed section when I came up on some big whoops.  I got on the brakes, but not quite fast enough as the truck bounced around a great deal and quickly ejected the contents of my cooler onto the course.  I picked up the water bottles and beer cans covered in dirt and sand, scrounged some ice from the bed of the truck and did a much better job of strapping down the cooler.

The last U.S. exit before entering Baja via the Mexicali Crossing.

The last U.S. exit before entering Baja via the Mexicali Crossing.

Nikon D700, 24-70, ISO 200, F2.8,v 1/6400th


The next 50 miles to Mike’s Sky Rancho were problem free.  Along the way I found a number of good potential shooting locations as the course ran next to Highway 3.  One of the best potential locations was where a dirt road intersected the paved highway creating a large ramp where the racers could catch some big air.  I made a note of this and a few other spots on my GPS in case I decided to shoot this location.

Plants are decorated with beer cans near Mike’s Sky Rancho.

Plants are decorated with beer cans near Mike’s Sky Rancho.

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, ISO 200, F9, 1/160th

I was the first one to pull into Mike’s about 6PM.  Not long afterwards, the racers started to trickle in.  First was the Banning Motorsports Class 12 team, followed shortly by a large group of bike racers including a group that came all the way from Japan.  Bringing up the rear were Will Higman and off road legend Larry Roeseler. 

The photo below shows why you must be wary of Auto white balance.  As shot the colors were way way off and even after correction it looks funny.  The Paficicos may have had something to do with it as well.

Larry Roeseler and Will Higman discuss the race over dinner at Mike’s Sky Ranch.

Larry Roeseler and Will Higman discuss the race over dinner at Mike’s Sky Ranch.

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, ISO 3200, f2.8, 1/100th

I have only been to Mike’s a couple of times but it’s a great little getaway deep in Baja yet close to the racecourse.  It is a desert oasis providing beds, showers, food and of course cold cerveza for weary teams at the end of a prerun day without the long drive to get back to town.  One of the highlights of being at Mike’s has been hearing the many stories of past Baja glory and hearing the racers discuss the upcoming race.  Those in attendance did not disappoint.  At dinner Larry Roeseler mentioned he won his first Baja 500 on a 125cc dirtbike 37 years ago!

A cold front moves across the sky at Mike’s Sky Ranch.

A cold front moves across the sky at Mike’s Sky Ranch.

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, ISO 200, 30 seconds

My plan for Wednesday was to scout from race mile 250 to race mile 360 at the Urapan turnoff.  Except for about 5 miles this was all new terrain to me and being in a 2 wheel drive truck I was a bit nervous about getting stuck.  My worries were unfounded though, as aside from short sections near Valle De Trinidad, San Vicente and Erindira the course more resembled a WRC rally stage than what people think of when Baja is mentioned.

Horses gallop across the course near Valle De Trinidad.

Horses gallop across the course near Valle De Trinidad.

Nikon D700,  24-70mm, ISO 200, f3.2, 1/2500th

The rough sections were tough, however, including large whoops, deep holes, tight rocky hill climbs and the always dreaded silt.  Valley T had some particularly promising photo locations with some large whoops that come up very fast causing a possible gotcha and some very tight technical sections that were basically Jeep trails.  The problem with these was going to be access on raceday.  It would be possible to park at either end of the section and hike several miles in with all my gear, but with a tight schedule for the race I wanted to avoid this.

The road from Valle T over to the coast at San Vicente had some amazing scenery winding through the mountains and was a blast to drive.  As with Valley T, access would be an issue here — and since the section was 35 miles long, I would be stuck shooting there for the whole day, precluding a second or third location.

My trip continued West through San Vicente and over to the coast.  I was stunned as I followed the course left around a hill and found myself looking down on a spectacular scene.  The course followed a switch back trail down a steep hill and onto an amazing coastline full of rocky outcroppings with waves from the Pacific Ocean crashing over them spraying water 20 feet into the air.  The next 20 miles were just as breathtaking as the course hugged the coastline as it passed through the small fishing village of Erindira and North before heading East into Santo Thomas.

This 20 mile section is by far my favorite to drive in Baja.  Being somewhat remote it remains unspoiled by large buildings, streets and people.  I have been lucky enough to travel all over the world, but this is one of the coolest places I ever visited.

Waves crash into the rocks near Erindira.

Waves crash into the rocks near Erindira.

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, ISO 200, f9, 1/800th

While passing through Erindira I made a short detour for a stop at one of my favorite taco stands for some lunch.  While hanging out there talking with the proprietor the topic of pangas came up because I had had an earlier idea before the race to shoot the Erindira rock whoops from a boat.

I had shot this section in 2008 and the problem is the 4 wheel vehicles don’t make it over to the coast until close to 4PM which means you are shooting directly into the sun.  The backgrounds are great but the sun does become a major issue so the photos are not all they can be.  Prior to the race I talked with friend and fellow sports photographer Mark “Batwing” Rebilas about the situation and he quickly said “just wade out into the water”.  It was a crazy idea that would solve the problem of shooting into the sun but there are two problems with it. First, the race course is elevated a good 10 feet or more above the waterline and second the waves would soak the photographer and his gear in corrosive saltwater.  The more I thought about it I knew there had to be a way to make it work — and that’s when the idea of the boat popped into my head.  I could shoot from the boat, stay dry and elevate myself a bit to get both the ocean and mountains in the shot.

Back at the taco stand the owner set me up with a boat captain that would ferry me around the coastline for a few hours on raceday for a nominal fee.  This is a full service taco stand and shows the prevailing helpful attitude of most Baja locals.  I was quite pleased because the rock whoops are great for photos as it works well for both limited and unlimited classes which is something of a rarity.  It has great backgrounds and I personally love the crunching sound of floorpans on the rocks and they traverse the 200 yards of large whoops.

Thursday I planned to prerun from the start in Ensenada out to race mile 100 near Jamau.  I invited my friend Josh Burns from off-road.com to come along and he jumped at the chance.  The common sense rules of prerunning Baja dictate that you travel with other people.  My situation often makes that impossible so it’s always nice to have someone else in the truck in case of a problem.

The first 40 miles were the same as the 2008 Baja 1000 so there were no surprises.  On raceday this would be a very low visibility, dusty, technical section of the course.  There were a few good locations that I marked for later reference. I always try to run at least the wash at the start of the race course.  Having seen photos of my racing heroes cornering hard and flying off the jump for years, it’s exhilarating for me to take the same route and imagine the banks of the wash lined with thousands of screaming fans as I open the throttle and power down the wash.

We continued through Ojos Negros and on to Tres Hermanos and the siltbeds.  I had heard stories of how bad they were for years but reports that they were not deep this year were correct and I blazed through them.  Shortly after that, near El Alamo, I came across something I did not expect.  Ahead of me was a small mountain, with the trail mostly going right up the face for close to 1000 feet.  To make matters worse, the trail was covered in loose rocks and large bumps. Typically a large helping of right foot will get me right up a hillclimb but in this case I was concerned with breaking the rear end gears from the bouncing the terrain would cause with lots of throttle.

The course winds through a valley before heading up a mountain near El Alamo.

The course winds through a valley before heading up a mountain near El Alamo.

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, ISO 200, f7.1, 1/400th

Had I known about this obstacle I would have detoured this section of the course; however at this point I was committed and past the point of no return.  I dropped the transmission into 2nd and slowly motored all the way to the top.  I credit two things for the success, a Truetrac limited slip diff and my Toyo M/T tires; both continue to impress me with their ability to take my 2wd to places I thought impossible.  Once at the top, I was happy I did not turn back; the view was fantastic and I just sat there looking out at the valley below for awhile enjoying the surroundings.

The course sped up again after the summit (not “The Summit” a well known mountain near race mile 110) and turned into a sandy high speed trail with fast sweeping turns until it crossed Highway 3.   I found many areas between Ojos and Llano Colorado that would provide scenic artsy photos but I passed on them.  I wanted a solid action spot since I would be doing artsy on the coast later in the day.

From the crossing we drove on to Agua Blanca where I found some nice sandy high speed corners that would make good roost shots just before Checkpoint 1.  Beyond that some large nasty whoops come out of nowhere and that would make for some good surprise action shots.  I wrapped up my prerun at El Jamau and headed back to Ensenada for some long overdue cerveza and tacos.  I was not yet set on my first location and planned to narrow it down the following day and the morning of raceday.

Fans clamor for stickers from Marc Burnett’s crew during contingency.

Fans clamor for stickers from Marc Burnett’s crew during contingency.

Nikon D300, 10.5mm Fisheye, ISO 640, f4.5, 1/1000th

Friday is the big party day in Baja.  The race vehicles run the gauntlet of vendor row in downtown Ensenada while thousands of fans mill about eating, drinking, buying souvenirs and checking out the cars.  Unlike most forms of racing that sequester the drivers and racecars from the fans, off road racing puts them right smack in the middle of the dirt nation.  This level of access is a great thing for fans as they can get up close and personal with their favorite driver, team or racecar.  Robby Gordon and BJ Baldwin are always two of the most popular drivers among Mexican fans and their trucks always draw large crowds of people clamoring for “steeekers”, autographs, “fotos” and a close up look at the trucks.

After transmitting some photos from contingency I headed out to Ojos Negros for the night so I could beat the traffic the morning of the race.  I really wanted to shoot near El Jamau but being at race mile 90 I would only be able to shoot half the racers or less before I had to leave to head South to Erindira.  As a result I settled for shooting at the large jumps at Ojos Negros.  It is a bit of a cliché location, almost too easy, but I had not shot there in several years and the crowds make nice backgrounds for shots of the racers getting big air.

Saturday, June 6th, 5:00AM.  It’s far too early in the morning to be up but I don’t care.  I have spent 4 days driving all over Baja, I am tired, sore and unbelievably excited. It is RACEDAY!  I drove back to the Ojos road crossing and turned in on a small road to a ranchero.  In the past I have used this route to get out to the jumps without driving on track, but today the rancher had it blocked.  Now this was a problem and one that was entirely my fault.  I did not spend any time prerunning an alternate route to the jumps and the lead bike would be there in less than 20 minutes.  With no time left to find a new route I parked at the road crossing, grabbed all my gear and started walking in on the course the 1.5 miles to the jumps.

Dale Lenk flies of the Ojos jump as fans cheer.

Dale Lenk flies of the Ojos jump as fans cheer.

Nikon D700, 400mm, ISO 200, f10, 1/500th

I enjoy shooting at Ojos because of the crowds, but for some reason the crowds were way down from past years.  Typically the area is covered with thousands of drunk screaming crazy fans who have been up all night partying.  In addition to being fewer fans they were far tamer than in past years.  The upside to this was instead of the usual madhouse of fans bumping into me and jumping into the shot, I had room to work without the problems.  I shot at Ojos until just after noon and managed to get almost every racer.  I was also lucky enough to catch a ride back to the road from the guys at King Shocks which saved me a lot of walking with 50lbs of photo gear.

The Avigail, my soon to be swamped fishing boat.

The Avigail, my soon to be swamped fishing boat.

Nikon D700 (wet), 24-70mm (wet), ISO 400, f4, 1/1600th

I hit the road and headed back into Ensenada on Highway 3, then jumped on Highway 1 to head down the coast to Erindira where my “yacht” awaited.  3 hours later I made a beeline for the taco stand and met my boat captian as well as some friends in the Checkers pit club.  I left the truck at the Checkers pit so it would not be molested and headed over to the boat ramp.  I jumped in the front seat of the panga with the Skipper and Gilligan (my own nicknames for the crew) behind me on what was supposed to a 3 hour tour.

The Checkers set up their pit at Erindira.

The Checkers set up their pit at Erindira.

Nikon D700, 400mm, ISO 400, f13, 1/1000th

I spottd my friend Klaus from Race-Dezert.com of the beach and called him to make sure he got a photo of me in the boat.

Matt Kartozian prepares gear in a panga off the coast of Erindira.  Photo by Klaus Rasch.

Matt Kartozian prepares gear in a panga off the coast of Erindira. Photo by Klaus Rasch.

Canon 40D, 70-200mm, ISO 100, f4, 1/1600th

A screen cap showing me in my boat from a great Roger Normal Motorsports video.

A screen cap showing me in my boat from a great Roger Normal Motorsports video.

And here is a shot at the same time from my boat.

Tim Herbst chases Roger Norman in Erindira.

Tim Herbst chases Roger Norman in Erindira.

Nikon D700, 400mm with 1.4TC (550mm), ISO 400, f13, 1/1000th


I was immediately struck at how different the coastline and racecourse look from the water, I thought to myself “This is my best idea ever!”  I had Skipper take me over to the rock whoops and set up my gear.  Because of waves, seaweed and other maritime hazards we could not get too close to the shoreline but I was prepared with a 400mm lens and a teleconverter effectively making it a 560mm lens.  I put the lens on a monopod, checked my exposure and set about taking some photos of the bikes before the trucks came through.

Curt Leduc races along the cliffs at Erindira.

Curt Leduc races along the cliffs at Erindira.

Nikon D700, 400mm, ISO 400, f13, 1/1000th

Right away I realized I was in deep.  The waves rolling in were roughly 3 feet high causing the little panga to bob up and down precipitously.  This condition makes holding a tiny focus point in the 25 pound camera’s viewfinder steady on a small bike, quad, buggy or truck more than difficult.  I had about 20 minutes before the first four wheel vehicle showed up and I was able to get my timing down to work with the waves.  When the first Trophy Truck arrived, Skipper started using the engine to turn or steady the boat.  By this point he and Gilligan has consumed most of a bottle of tequila which did not enhance his ability to smoothly operate the throttle; this only added to the pitch of the boat making it even harder to hold steady on the trucks.  I tried several times to explain that he should not use the motor at all when the trucks were in front of us.  Skipper spoke very little English and me only a small amount of Spanish, but with the translator on my phone I was able to tell him in Spanish.  However this made no difference.  If only my phone had a tequila translator.

Trophy Truck winner Rick Johnson hits the rock whoops at Erindira.

Trophy Truck winner Rick Johnson hits the rock whoops at Erindira.

Nikon D700, 400mm, ISO 400, f13, 1/1000th

After shooting the top 20 cars and trucks we moved a few hundred yards South to where the racers came out of the sand wash and onto the coast road.  Skipper was able to get closer to the shore where the waves were even larger.  Since I was closer to shore, I was in the process of changing to a wider lens when Skipper whipped the boat around right into a huge wave which promptly came over the bow and filled my camera with saltwater.  I was less than thrilled.  Realizing this location was far too rough, we headed another 2 miles South to the rocky part of the shoreline.

By this point the wind was picking up and the waves were getting larger, but Skipper did not let this slow him down.  I was sitting on the front bench, resting the large camera and lens on my legs holding it with one hand while the fingertips of the other hand tried to cling to the narrow ledge of the seat.  I quickly realized a few things at this point.  First, my camera has a lot more sharp pointy bits than I previously knew as it slammed into my thighs over and over and giving me a nice collection of souvenir bruises.  Second, pangas do not handle rough water well; wave after wave came over the bow soaking me and my gear.  Third, getting into a panga in rough water with a drunken boat captain to shoot the race was actually my Worst Idea ever, not the best as I previously thought.  Finally, “you’re going to need a bigger boat”, the epic Jaws line.

Our next location was just as rough and basically impossible to shoot from so I asked Skipper to head North a few miles in hopes of smoother water and a wider shot along the cliffs.  This time Skipper hung close to shore and to my dismay in much rougher water.  At one point we came perilously close to running aground while he waved to an amigo on the beach with one hand, and took generous swigs of his cocktail with the other.  We headed North at an even faster pace now really hitting the waves hard, lifting me off the seat several times.  All of a sudden, we slowed down to a reasonable pace and I thought Skipper must have come to his senses.  Negative Ghostrider, Gilligan and Skipper’s cocktail is empty so its time to make a new one.  The bottle was emptied with the new drink, and Skipper tells me he has to drop off Gilligan at the boat ramp (I suspect to get another bottle).  I am irritated but OK with it; I just want to get back to shooting despite all the problems.  The outboard roars at full song again and soon there after I am thrown off the seat to land on my back on the floor of the boat from a big wave.

Until this point I was determined to tough it out and get the shot but this was too much.  The idea of being tossed overboard by a wave while wearing heavy boots, 50 pounds of metal ballast with not a single surgically enhanced dancer to act as my floatation device in sight was too much and my survival instinct took over.  Lying on the floor in several inches of water while still at speed and the sharp pointy bits of my camera finding new places to bruise, I lost my temper.  I yelled for Skipper to slow down and stop followed by a long string of expletives.  I wish I had video of it all, as when I think back it really had to be a hilarious sight.  A very large man, legs straight up with feet flailing about screaming “ALTO!  #%$^$@** ALTO! $#%%^@@** ALTO!”  I struggled back up onto the seat after we stopped and in a calm measured tone (trying to keep from doing anything else stupid) told Skipper to take me in.

Skipper tries to get the boat on the trailer.

Skipper tries to get the boat on the trailer.

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, ISO 400, f4, 1/1250th

My panga is dragged up the boat ramp at Erindira.

My panga is dragged up the boat ramp at Erindira.

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, ISO 400, f4, 1/800th

The boat was only able to get halfway on the trailer due to the waves but I grabbed my cameras, attempted to drain the water out of them via gravity and hopped out of the boat.  The old Toyota 4×4 pulling the trailer dragged the boat up the ramp with generous clouds of clutch and tire smoke tearing open the transom which at least allowed the water to drain.  To his credit Skipper apologized profusely and admitted he had too much to drink and I respect the man for owning up to his mistakes.  He called me a few days after the race to apologize again.  He even offered me a fishing trip next time I visited.  This said a lot about him as a person, a gentleman of honor.

It was my fault in part as well, cooking up a half baked plan and taking lots of expensive electronic equipment onto the water without anything to protect them.

At that time however I was still pretty angry about the experience and I walked back to my truck to calm down for a few minutes.  The fine folks a the Checkers pit fed me as I told them what had happened among bursts of laughter at my plight and questions like “Are you insane”?  A more sympathetic group you won’t find — I confess I would do the same in our positions were reversed.

Ray Files negotiates the rock whoops at Erindira in his 1-2/1600 car as the sun sets on the Pacific Ocean.

Ray Files negotiates the rock whoops at Erindira in his 1-2/1600 car as the sun sets on the Pacific Ocean.

Nikon D700, 24-70mm, ISO 400, f3.2, 1/250th with AB 1600 strobe

After drying everything out a bit it was close to sundown so I moved back to the rock whoops (on land this time) and set up a studio light to get some photos of the racers with the colorful sunset skies in the background.  Dusk turned to night, a cold breeze blew in from the water, and the fans packed up.  I stayed another hour to get some of the night shots I love so much.  At 10 PM I loaded the gear back in the truck and drove North, thinking of a hot shower and a warm bed.  I arrived at the hotel about midnight, quickly edited and transmitted a few photos to my editors and hit the bed like a sack of potatoes after 19 hours along the racecourse.

Trophy Truck driver Adam Householder chases John Holmes in his 7sx truck at Erindira.

Trophy Truck driver Adam Householder chases John Holmes in his 7sx truck at Erindira.

Nikon D700, 70-200mm, ISO 4000, f2.8, a/160th with Star Filter

I made it back home to Arizona on Sunday the 7th to edit the 4000 odd photos I had taken during the trip.  On the way home I had time to reflect on another epic, fun, thrilling, amazing trip to beautiful Baja California.  For many, the 2009 Baja 500’s defining moment would be the penalties meted out by SCORE International.  But for me, it was the few hours I spent a hundred yards off the coast of Erindira in a tiny fishing boat with my borracho amigos, Gilligan and Skipper.  Of all my trips to Baja this was without a doubt the most fun and memorable.  I ended up driving 1360 miles, spent 35 hours and 35 minutes in the truck, 2 hours and 52 minutes in a boat and despite all the problems I would do it all again in a heartbeat.  Bring on the 1000!

A final tally of my milage, speed and other data for the trip.

A final tally of my milage, speed and other data for the trip.

Some of my coverage of the race can be seen at Off-road.com.

To see more photos or purchase prints from the Baja 500  click here.

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