Chris Collard narrates how after 1,250 miles of brutal Baja backroads, Team Roxor receives the checkered flag in San Jose del Cabo
It was well past dark, and our headlights were punching holes through the black void ahead. For the past 10 hours we’d been bouncing over rocky two-tracks, diving bumper-first into powdery silt beds, and twisting our way through precipitous arroyos. My duties as navigator were to keep an eye on the roadbook and GPS and watch for hazards on the track. General grunt, you might say. That afternoon we’d lost time when we stopped to pull a friend’s AMC Rambler (yes, AMC Ramblers are NORRA regulars) out of a sand wash, and with a cut-off time of 10 pm, we were now in a race against the clock. I calculated our position and called out to Ned Bacon, my pilot, "We've got to average 20 miles per hour to make it.” We weren’t fast, but this "race" was a tortoise versus hare pursuit.
This was day 4 of the NORRA Mexican 1000, a 1,250-mile off-road contest in the vast expanses of Baja, Mexico. We were characters in CHAPTER 3 of a two-month chronicle of dirt tracks and red rocks. If we finished this stage on time, there was a possibility that the “mighty” Roxor under our butts was going to put us on the podium. One might ask what the heck Ned was thinking racing an underpowered UTV with a top speed of 55 miles per hour tire-to-tire with 400-horsepower Ford Broncos? Well, Ned is the kind of guy that if you put a green flag in one place and a checkered flag in another, he’ll don a helmet and jump on a pogo stick to get there first. As with most crazy adventures, the opportunity arose over a cold beer and a dare. Could he finesse a rig with a 93-inch wheelbase and only 66 horsepower over some of the most demanding terrain south of the border? He upped the ante by adding to the pot the Easter Jeep Safari and Sonora Rally, another five-day endurance event in Mexico.
The back story
Before we delve into details, let’s examine this unlikely competitor’s backstory. A few months earlier, Mahindra delivered a bone-stock Roxor to Ned’s shop, and he went to work getting it race-ready. The term “race-ready,” however, should not be confused with a complete strip-down and rebuild. The boxy UTV came from the company’s Auburn Hills, Michigan, assembly plant sporting Dana 44 axles, a rugged steel ladder-boxed chassis, and a diesel motor. Although Mahindra was licensed by Willys Overland to manufacture the CJ-3A back in 1947 and has continued production for more than 70 years, they are also one of the world's leading producers of tractors (in addition to airplanes and military vehicles).
Racing protocol mandated the installation of a full roll cage, PRP Roadster seats and harnesses, RaceQuip nets, and a few other items. Because stuff happens in the desert, a Mahindra Accessories front bumper and winch plate were added along with an 8,000-pound Warn recovery winch, Spydura synthetic line, and two sets of MaxTrax. The drivetrain and suspension were left alone, save the addition of Fox 2.0 remote-reservoir shocks, Deaver add-a-leafs, bump stops, and a Spartan “lunchbox” locking differential in the rear axle.
In an attempt to squeeze every ounce of juice from the 2.5-liter turbo-diesel, Ned had Vivid Racing re-flash the ECU, which netted a solid 40-percent increase in horsepower and torque (90 hp, 200 lb-ft). A few other goodies included Mahindra doors and windshield, a snorkel, and a custom "wing" on the roof. We’ll call that a shade feature—not sure about airfoil effect on things that would get passed by a VW bus.
After wrapping a set of Yokohama Geolandar M/T tires around the stock wheels, it was off to Mexico and CHAPTER 1, an 800-mile offroad shakedown at the Sonora Rally.
SOUTH OF THE BORDER
I chased Ned and Kat, his wife and navigator, through the endless sand sea of the Altar Desert, down long sandy beaches, up rutted arroyos, and over hill and dale. Admittedly, sometimes I sat for hours in the shade of a lonely tree waiting to capture a photo — they were always dead last. I must preface this comment with mentioning that being slow isn’t necessarily a bad thing; you make a lot of new friends when you’re the last guy on the track.
CASE IN POINT
On several occasions, hotfooted drivers that had whizzed by ended up on the receiving end of Ned’s tow strap. The mighty Roxor rescued a UTV from certain death by pulling it out of the surf in a rising tide. Another with two broken axles was indebted after a long tow from a remote arroyo — usual payment is an endless supply of coldies at the nightly bivouac. Ned said, “The highlight was pulling other competitors off the course when they were broken down.” The Roxor didn’t see the podium, but it did ferry its human companions to the finish line with nary an issue. In the dunes it was like we brought a knife to a bazooka fight, but that thing is a rock… or Roxor. Like a little tractor, it did everything we asked. Rough as a cob, it just kept chugging along. It had 200 miles on the odometer at the starting line, and the only issue we had the entire race was a stretched fan belt. CHAPTER 2 in the epoch found our lead character traversing the backcountry slickrock of Moab, Utah. Ned was one of the pioneers in the sport of competitive rock crawling, and sissy routes were not on the agenda. But the little Roxor, with its torquey diesel, nimble size, and rear locker, didn’t flinch, putting from one hardcore trail to the next, day after day. From Moab it was loaded on a trailer (the Roxor is not street legal) and found itself back in Mexico facing a daunting task.
THE WILDS OF BAJA
Hundreds of well-prepped four-wheel drives, dirt bikes, and UTVs lined the streets of Ensenada for the start of the NORRA Mexican 1000 vintage rally. South by southeast as the crow flies, a checkered flag awaited in the mission town of San Jose del Cabo, which was founded in 1730. While nearly all teams utilize a chase crew to carry extra tires, fuel, spare parts, and even backup drivers, Ned runs solo. His steed not only must survive whatever conditions are presented, but also transport him 1,000 miles back to a tow rig near the border. There was no way in hell they were going to win their class, but that didn't matter. Life is about the fun, and NORRA's tagline is "The funnest race on Earth."
"Our goal is never to win any podium placement, just finish the race and have fun,” Ned said. “So far that strategy has seen us on the podium three times."
Three days later, I slipped on my fire suit and helmet and climbed in. I’m not proud of the fact I was Ned’s third choice. Kat had other commitments, and his backup navigator, Brian Lutz, was spending the day praying to the porcelain god; he and Ned had dinner with Montezuma the previous night. Ned had managed to peel himself away from the toilet in time to make his start time, but he looked like an emaciated corpse.
By the time the sun disappeared in the west, we had 40 more miles of Baja’s rockiest, most miserable terrain still to complete. Although that day’s course was only 260 miles in length, I’d wager we put only 130 miles on the odometer, as we spent half the time in the air… like a pogo stick. But the Roxor took it in stride, chugging along at its own pace, undeterred by illusions of podiums and trophies. Reaching the checkered flag with 12 minutes to spare, we turned the wheels toward La
Paz. Larry pulled up in his AMC a few minutes later. Underdogs rejoice! Feeling like a couple of wet noodles, it was one of those days we might look back on through rose-tinted glasses and say, “We had a good time…didn’t we?” Ned fired up the mill the next morning, Brian climbed back in, and they drove like banshees (as much as a Roxor can “banshee”) to San Jose del Cabo and the checkered flag.
When the dust settled after more than 1,250 miles of Baja’s best, Team Roxor had achieved a proud 3rd in Class on the podium. I overheard a patronizing comment, “Yeah, but only three vehicles finish.” I had to laugh at the person’s naiveté and chimed in, “Exactly.” Roads in India are largely undeveloped, and the Roxor takes its cues from its brethren tractors: It just doesn’t stop. Vehicles that finish a race like this have the fortitude to survive. As for the contents of Ned’s toolbox, it never saw the light of day. When the trophies and awards were claimed, the fireworks flamed out, and the cervezas ceased to flow, Ned turned the wheels north toward Ensenada for a few days of camping on the way home. The Roxor can definitely stake claim to the "utility" in UTV.