ENSENADA, Mexico (May 9, 2000)—In the mountains and foothills near Ensenada, a sleepy Pacific coastal town, lie some of North America´s most grueling, brutal roads—roads that wind around boulders, shrubs, creeks and cliffs and seem fit only for a burro.
This area is known as the starting point of the famous Baja 500 and 1000 off-road races—a place where serious car enthusiasts come annually to test their mettle as they attempt to drive down the Baja California peninsula.
The Baja is hardly an environment that most sport-utility-vehicle owners would pick for a joyride, but it was where Yokohama Tire Corp. chose to demonstrate the off-road capabilities of its new Geolandar A/T+ light truck tires.
To promote sales of the new tire, Yokohama is giving away a five-day, all-expense paid driving adventure along the Baja course to a consumer who purchases Geolandar A/T+ tires, as well as to the tire dealer and salesperson who make the winning sale, said Mark Richter, Yokohama´s performance marketing manager.
All entries must be postmarked by June 30; the drawing for the trip will be held in July.
Yokohama is arranging the Baja trip through a San Juan Capistrano, Calif., company called Wide Open Baja L.L.C., which gives tours of the Baja race course in custom-built racing buggies. The contest is Yokohama´s way to prove that it can "over-engineer" a light truck tire to appeal to both off-roaders and average consumers—and to do so with style, said Rick Brennan, Yokohama´s director of product planning.
The Fullerton, Calif.-based tire maker believes that if the Geolandar A/T+ can handle the rugged terrain of Baja, then it can also manage the potholes and wet pavement many soccer moms face on the way to the grocery store, Mr. Brennan said.
He acknowledged that though the majority of light truck and SUV owners never go off-road, they still want the trendy look of an off-road tire, but without sacrificing the comfortable ride of a passenger tire.
As a result, Yokohama designed the Geolandar A/T+ with more groove depth in the center of the tread for more traction in mud and snow. The tire replaces the Geolandar A/T and comes in 19 sizes for 15-, 16- and 17-inch rims.
So what will the contest winners experience on the Baja course?
Tire Business had the opportunity to preview the Baja adventure April 26 during a one-day driving event Yokohama arranged for the automotive and tire trade press.
Eight journalists, together with representatives from the tire maker and Wide Open Baja, loaded up in seven off-road race buggies equipped with Porsche two-liter engines, 28-gallon fuel cells, four-speed transaxle racing gear boxes and, of course, Yokohama Geolandar A/T+ tires. The vehicles had no windshields but did have safety nets for both the driver and passenger windows.
Because of the wild terrain, we all had to wear protective gear—jumpsuits, a waist pad, a neck brace, gloves and a helmet with a visor. Much like race car drivers, we wore a shoulder and lap harness to prevent us from flying out of our seats.
Hoses connected to an air pump in the vehicle´s back seat were attached to our helmets to provide oxygen. The helmets also contained built-in, two-way radios to communicate with our partners in the vehicles and with the other buggies.
We started our journey a few miles east of Ensenada and generally traveled within a 100-mile radius of the city.
The landscape changed dramatically in just that section of the Baja, from mountains dotted with shrubs and cactus plants to lush, green meadows and pine forests.
Todd Clement, a managing partner of Wide Open Baja and an experienced Baja race driver, served as our guide and leader. He instructed us on such details as the distance to keep between cars and which gear to keep the cars in, and he alerted us to upcoming obstacles.
The roads contained many hazards. Most of stretches were dusty and rocky, so although the vehicles´ top speed was 70 mph, we drove most of the way at 40 mph, if not slower. We also had to be careful not to miss the only trail markers along the Baja: pieces of yellow tape, printed with the word "caution," were tied to trees and shrubs.
We could never tell just what was around the bend when the path suddenly curved or led through some boulders. Many times we passed cattle, horses and even some locals in cars or on bikes.
Avoiding those hazards yet staying on the path is what makes the Baja so thrilling and a bit dangerous. At one point, my car finished crawling up a steep, rocky incline only to see one of the other buggies suddenly in front of us on the other side. Fortunately, the buggie was able to brake quickly and avoid a collision.
In another spot, our vehicle crossed an area where water had eroded groove-like steps in the path. We hit that stretch of road just a tad too fast, causing a bucking bronco effect as our rear bumper rose higher than the front over each step.
Through all the sharp rocks, clefts and water holes we traversed in eight hours, only one vehicle in our group experienced a flat tire. A backup maintenance buggie followed our convoy and was on hand immediately to change the flat so that we weren´t delayed too long.
This is what driving along the Baja is like. It´s no cruise through the countryside.
I´ve covered several new-tire demonstrations put on by the tire makers, and I´ve never returned from one of these junkets as bruised and sore as I was from the Baja. But it was worth it.
One of the participants summed up the ride best after a stretch of road that had us all bouncing in our seats nonstop: "If it was easy, it wouldn´t be Baja."