Long-time friend and reader of Double Apex, TJ Ostapchuk, recently competed in his first off-road race. Our US-based writer reports on his experiences here.

Water splash image by Daniel Curiel Photographic all other images by Team Pepe Chase.

The emergency meeting was hastily organised by Class 11 Champion, Dennis Hollenbeck, on the evening before contingency for the 50th Anniversary SCORE Baja 500. In a room full of team members, drivers, co-drivers, and crew, Dennis announced to all of us that they had a last-minute crisis.

A cancelation in the 11th hour meant that of the eight available seats in the car (four driver/four co-driver) there were only seven people confirmed for the race. His attention quickly zeroed-in on me, and without hesitation, he proclaimed that he wanted to have me, an aspiring Class 11 desert racer, in the passenger seat of “Bochito,” his famous black-and-green Volkswagen. I could not have been more surprised.

Rewind a bit

Six months previous, I had ventured to Arizona to inspect and purchase another Class 11 Volkswagen, a medium-blue 1973, known during its racing life as “Pepe Azul.” The purchase process evolved from the traditional car-buying exchange into a series of interviews, and little did I know that the purchase of that VW would open the doors to some incredible friendships and opportunities.

In 2017, Pepe Azul won its class in the NORRA Mexican 1000 Rally, a week-long Dakar-like blast down the Baja peninsula. Racer Dennis Hollenbeck was one of a list of drivers and co-drivers that reads like a who’s who of Class 11 off-road racers.

Click here to read about and watch VW break the Pikes Peak record.

Baja mania

Fast-forward to the 50th Anniversary Baja 500. At the request of Pepe Azul’s former owner, and other “Friends of Pepe,” I made the journey to Arizona by airplane, and then the overland trek to Ensenada, Baja California (Mexico) in the cab of a four-wheel-drive Ford pickup.

The plan for our group-of-four was simple. The experienced two members of our crew were going to drive/co-drive one–leg of the 500-plus mile race (800 km), with myself and the other novice driving along in the Ford pickup, with some tyres, fuel, and assorted VW parts, as an additional chase vehicle.  Then the emergency team meeting happened.

Reality strikes

Early the next morning, I learned how surreal this experience would be. While riding in Bochito through the streets of Ensenada, I noticed that people everywhere would stop, stare, and possibly wave every chance they would get. Not because Bochito was just a racing car, but because Bochito is the central team member, a living, breathing thing that carries the hopes and dreams of the children from Casa de la Esperanza. This is a Christian home for children who have been orphaned, abandoned, or abused, and the central part of why Dennis is racing.

As we stopped for fuel, some local kids stopped to ask about the car, Dennis, and Dana Brown, the man behind the pair of documentaries From Dust to Glory and more recently 2017’s Dust 2 Glory where Bochito, the team, and the children from Casa de la Esperanza were immortalised on film.

Hero status

Once at contingency, I was handed hero cards and a marker. Skeptically, I asked another member of the team what I was supposed to do, and he replied: “Sign them.” Sign them? But I’m brand new? That didn’t matter. I was now well into the deep end of the pool, and a part of this team.

Just days earlier, I was working as a firefighter in the northern suburbs of New York City, and now I was standing next to one of the most popular racing cars at the Baja 500, about to race alongside one of the most popular drivers, and I was handing out autographs to fans.

Time to race

Race day started early, with last-minute preparation of the chase vehicles, pit strategies, and ultimately Dennis and I suiting-up and driving Bochito a short distance to the start line.

After some friendly discussion with other competitors in our class, and a couple of sips of coffee, it was helmet on and strap-in. A quick blast up to the starting line was followed by the dramatic countdown to our launch and, in one breath we were off.  With an angry yowl, the 1 600 cm³engine catapulted us past the thousands of fans lining the streets of Ensenada. After a couple of left turns on the city pavement, we made the abrupt right turn by the Hotel Coronado, and plummeted into Arroyo Ensenada, a dry riverbed, for our foray into the desert.

Easy going… at first

For the two of us in the early stages, Bochito was perfect. The car was quick and obviously well-sorted, and our 107-mile (170 km) segment of the race was uneventful aside from a single off-course excursion.

Nearly three and half hours after we started, we pitted the car in Ojos Negros for fuel and a crew change. At that point, we learned that we had advanced from 3rd to 1st place in the Class 11 standings, and that felt like a great success for my maiden race.

WHAT an experience

Although this marked the end of my in-car Baja 500 experience, it was nowhere near the end of the race for any of us. For the next 27 hours, as part of the chase crew, our team experienced both the highs and lows of the desert racing. For the better, the car was quick and reliable.

Unfortunately for our team, the 50th Anniversary Baja 500 ended officially in a DNF, after 22 hours, officials no longer classify the competitors. The team, however, continued to show their grit and determination, and at shortly after the 30-hour mark, Bochito made it back to the Riviera de Ensenada, where the adventure started the day before.