ENSENADA, Mexico (May 19, 2000)—In the mountains 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, often stark but beautiful in its own right, is known as the starting point of the famous Baja 500 and 1000 off-road races. It´s 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.
Tire Business had the opportunity to test those tires on the Baja course April 26 during a one-day driving event arranged by Yokohama for the automotive and tire trade press.
If the Geolandar A/T+ can handle the rugged Baja terrain, then, Yokohama contends, it can certainly manage the potholes and wet pavement many "soccer moms" face on their way to the grocery store, said Rick Brennan, director of product planning. Hence, what better place to see the tire´s endurance than Baja?
Eight journalists, together with representatives from the tire maker, loaded up in seven off-road race buggies equipped with two-liter Porsche engines, 28-gallon fuel cells, four-speed transaxle racing gear boxes and, of course, Yokohama Geolandar A/T+ tires.
The vehicles had no windshields—the harshness of the terrain could easily break the glass—so safety nets replaced driver- and passenger-side windows.
Because of the wild terrain, we all wore protective gear—jumpsuits, waist pads, neck braces, gloves and a helmet with a visor. Much like race-car drivers, a shoulder and lap harness was required to prevent us from flying out of our seats.
Our helmets, attached by hose to air pumps in the vehicle´s back seat, served as our "air conditioning system." They also contained built-in, two-way radios to communicate with our partners in the vehicles and with the other buggies.
The journey started a few miles east of Ensenada and generally kept within a 100-mile radius of the city, taking us from sea level to elevations of roughly 4,500 feet.
The landscape varied 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, an experienced Baja race driver and a managing partner of Wide Open Baja, the tour group organizer, served as our trail boss, telling how much distance to keep between cars, which gear to drive in, and alerting us to upcoming obstacles. Without his direction, the treacherous course could potentially have been deadly.
Most stretches of road were dusty, rocky, and so filled with hazards that we drove most of the way at 40 mph or slower, although the vehicles´ top speed was 70 mph. 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," tied to trees and shrubs.
Drivers could never tell just what was around a 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 hazards like those 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 another buggie suddenly in front of us on the other side. Fortunately, we were able to brake quickly and avoid a collision.
In another spot, our vehicle crossed an area where water had eroded groove-like steps. We hit that stretch 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 following our convoy quickly got the flat changed so we weren´t delayed for too long.
Maneuvering the Baja is, well, like nothing I´ve ever driven through before and certainly no cruise in the country.
I´ve covered several new-tire demonstrations by tire makers, and have never returned from one of those junkets as bruised and sore as I was from the Baja. Was it worth it? You bet.
After an hours-long stretch of road that had us all practically bouncing in our seats nonstop, one participant best summed up the ride: "If it was easy, it wouldn´t be Baja."