Mexico has a new folk hero, one who ranks with Emiliano Zapata and the Cisco Kid, with Pancho Villa and the Frito Bandito. Oddly enough, he's a gringo. Last week, as he whipped his golden Bronco through a cloud of dust from Mexicali to La Paz, the shout went up from every spiky hillside and every rocky draw: "Viva Parnelli!"
For the second straight year, Rufus Parnell Jones of Indianapolis and Rolling Hills, Calif. won the Mexican 1000—North America's meanest, nastiest off-road race—and thus became the only driver in its six-year history to turn the trick twice in a row. Teamed with that master mechanic of the mesquite, Bill Stroppe of Long Beach, Calif., Parnelli bounced, jounced, bumped and thumped his way over at least 912 miles of Baja California in 16 hours, 47 minutes and 35 seconds. O.K., so that only works out to 54.308 mph, a far cry from the 143.137-mph average with which he won the Indy 500 in 1963. But the Baja is not the Brickyard, praise be to Quetzalcoatl the Thunderbird, and in terms of true grit—with which both the air and P.J.'s nostrils were filled from start to finish—this victory was perhaps the toughest of a tough driver's grand career.
The Baja race evolved from a peculiarly Southern California breed of mechanized masochism. Looking south from their pleasure domes along the southwestern littoral, the more adventurous outdoorsmen of the region found themselves growing enchanted with the bleak challenge of Lower California. Tijuana was always a seductress, what with its unabashed decadence, but below the border towns the Baja peninsula came on clean and mean. A thousand miles of rock and sun and cactus, sinuous roads with the bite of a rattlesnake, a country that was only too willing to kill a man and turn him into sun-dried jerky at the first sign of ineptitude. Rare was the gringo who had driven the whole thing from Tijuana to La Paz—the rest were all well done.
Starting in 1962, when a Los Angeleno named Dave Ekins braved the Baja on a 250-cc Honda Scrambler, covering the desiccated distance to La Paz in 39 hours and 56 minutes, the challenge found an answer. The first Mexican 1000 was organized and run in 1967, when 68 vehicles ranging from motorcycles through dune buggies to Jeeps and even station wagons took off from Tijuana en route for the bitter end. Only 31 finished, with the winning machine—a Meyers Manx dune buggy driven by Vic Wilson and the ominously named Ted Mangles—clocking into La Paz at 34 hours and 45 minutes.
November 13, 1972
When the contestants arrived at the border for this year's race, it was clear that a uniquely American racing phenomenon had occurred: the Mexican 1000 had suddenly become the status In event, resplendent with dusty chic and a sense that this was the way racing used to be before that financial invasion called factory support. There were 242 contestants in a jam of weird, tricked-up vehicles, from the world's tallest Volkswagens, higher than a man on their knobbed tires and mezzanine suspensions, to tiny critters made up entirely of roll bars and headlights. And the In crowd was there from the select circle of men they call Real Racers, in their sponsored coveralls, to such elegant, wealthy adventurers as Peter Firestone and Benson Ford Jr., whose names were introduction enough.
Meanwhile, the record time for the run had shrunk to 14 hours and 59 minutes, set last year by Parnelli Jones and Bill Stroppe in their trick Bronco, Big Oly, named for their frothy sponsor, Olympia beer. Granted that the paved portion of the route had virtually doubled over the years and that good old racing know-how had made the machinery as desert-proof as it could be from tires to gearboxes to oil and air filters—still, Jones' performance had to be rated on the same scale as a 200-mph lap at Indy or a five-second quarter mile in a dragster. Could he better his time this year? The Baja shrugged and said no.
One of the reasons was rain. A late-summer hurricane followed by a soggy series of downpours had produced an unwonted greening of Baja. Every cactus was in flower when the race began, and many a gulch that last year had offered good tire traction was now slick with quicksand or even axle-deep in standing water. What's more, the race this year was 80 miles longer than ever before, starting in Mexicali on the northeastern corner of the peninsula rather than in Ensenada, on the west coast 53 miles south of Tijuana. All of that made for prettier scenery but at the same time it produced much slower—and more treacherous—driving. Arroyos stretched their jaws 15 feet wide, deep as a grave. During practice, dune buggies splashed manfully into flash-flooded streams only to go drifting away like so many beer cans in Los Angeles Harbor.
Another factor was the sheer joy that Mexicans take in any kind of competition, a joy that brings them out of their hovels and palaces in numbers that would shame a U.S. football crowd. Mexicali is a city of 390,400 population, and every citizen—plus his dogs and his chickens—seemed to be on hand for the start of the race. A mustachioed motorcycle cop rumbled up and down the road ahead of the starting ramp, eliciting squeals of joy from the crowd even as he squashed a few toes in a vain attempt to drive the fans back from the pavement. No way. Kids with frayed handkerchiefs played matador with the bikes and cars as they dropped from the ramp; pretty schoolgirls offered their dimpled kneecaps in sacrifice to the god of speed; buzzards circled overhead in the witless hope of a free meal.
Parnelli, who started second among the cars after all the motorcycles made their getaways, simply pretended the crowd wasn't there. He drove right into the yelping mass with a harsh bark of burning rubber, and, amazingly, everybody got out of his way. The "olés" were almost as loud as the sound of his 351-cubic-inch Ford motor. Mexico loves risk, and so does Parnelli. But P.J. had a good, sound, pragmatic American reason for his haste; indeed, he had two of them. One was Mickey Thompson, the much-bent but unbowed beau sabreur of drag racing and Bonneville fame, who came into this year's Mexican race with a "supertrick" Chevy pickup truck that was aptly named "Totally Tough." Mickey was out to blow Parnelli into the ultimate arroyo, and he came equipped with special air hoses to keep himself cool and breathing throughout the race, a PERFORMANCE FOR NIXON sticker on his window, plaid upholstery on his bucket seats and a device every bit as pragmatic as anything Parnelli could dream up—a relief tube like that on an Apollo space capsule, so that he could slam straight on through the course without ever leaving the wheel. Thompson also had a broken finger obtained in a wild practice run in which, for a few minutes, he had the monster truck upside down.
The second reason for Parnelli's hurry was 25-year-old Bobby Ferro, twice winner of the Baja 500 (the Mexican 1000's equally challenging half brother), this year driving a single-seater, black-and-gold Volkswagen Bug sponsored by another beer outfit, Carling Black Label. Ferro is a Vietnam veteran, and in this venue those credentials count for a lot of crowd support, at least among (he gringos. He also is a lot better looking than Parnelli, coming on with that cool Sal Mineo charm where the Jones boy looks more like something out of a John Wayne movie. "Maybe the horse," as one onlooker put it.
Well, he assuredly had the gallop. Over the initial 120 miles of paved road, Parnelli took his Bronco up to its maximum of 150 miles an hour. Then, turning off into the Sierra San Pedro Martir, where the country bares its teeth under the lip of a mountain range as creased and craggy as any in the Western Hemisphere, he ran in excess of 100 mph through the dirt. No fear for the corners, which he took in spectacular four-wheel drifts, kicking up rooster tails of sand that could be seen for miles; no fear for the crowds, which gathered with beer and free sandwiches at every access point. And, finally, no fear for either Thompson or Ferro.
Approaching Oamalu, the second checkpoint of 10 along the route, Mickey Thompson bent his drive shaft and radioed desperately for a new one to be flown up by his pit crew downcourse at El Rosario. Later, after hours of work and worry, he took off again, only to lose his whole drive train, probably as a result of the stress imposed by the earlier failure. "Chances are he never had to use that drainage system," said one observer.
As the race rolled on, casualties were studded all down the route: suspension systems and human bones snapped with equal facility against the rocks, and one driver—reeling away from a smashup in the cactus—suffered a sandy version of nitrogen narcosis, the "rapture of the deep," dazed and babbling incoherently about desert goblins. A motorcyclist, clambering out from beneath his upside-down machine, discovered he had a broken foot but, finding that the bike would still roll, got back on and headed for his checkpoint at the top of a nearby-mesa. He came thundering up, neatly if groggily, then overshot the area, slammed on all brakes and rolled it end over end far into the dunes.
Parnelli blew into the fourth checkpoint, Rancho Santa Ynez, fully 10 minutes ahead of his schedule. Santa Ynez is one of the grace points of the Baja: a quiet green oasis amid the prickly boojum trees of the peninsula's midsection. Dogs doze in the sunny plaza and chickens squabble under their roost, the chassis of a devasted Baja Bug left behind during a long-forgotten race. There is beer in Santa Ynez, beaded bottles of Tecate that chill the palm and reward the howling throats of contestants and spectators alike. There is food at Santa Ynez, heaping plates of freshly cooked enchiladas, retried beans, tortillas that are as warm and soft as a Mexican lady's smile. And there is Se√±ora Josefina Zuniga. Clad in black, her hair bunned behind her, she walked in beauty like the night—replete with a serene gold-toothed smile—to the pit area when Parnelli screamed in. And she stood there awaiting the chance to do honors to the folk hero.
"No front brakes!" P.J. yelled to his pit crew.
"Looks good to me," said a mechanic after a quick check under the front axle.
"Well, fix it," said Parnelli, unwilling to tolerate any mechanical nonsense. "It ain't foolin'."
Se√±ora Josefina sensed her moment. She approached the Bronco with the poise and proud bearing of a woman long ago acquainted with masculine peccadilloes: perhaps the burro has died, maybe the rifle misfired, of course it has failed to rain for a year or two; a woman walks with trust. She kissed Parnelli's leathery, sand-blasted cheek with the same reverence she might have offered years ago to the gilded toenails of a religious statue—con mucho gusto. Then she retreated, slowly and with dignity.
"There's a little leak on the right front," said the mechanic.
"Well, let's plug that little leak," growled Parnelli. They plugged it up, and smartly.
"Good now," said the mechanic.
Parnelli looked around—the tires had been changed, the gas tank filled, Se√±ora Josefina satisfied. Perhaps he disregarded the thatched roofs, the pigeons playing tag in the halves of tire cases dangling from the roof beams, old tire cases painted a shocking purple to match the desert sunset; certainly he failed to see the goat sleeping in the dust behind the cantina and the tents of the campers . spread so brightly in the riverbed behind the rancho. But his racer's eyes did not miss the fact that this was the main chance.
"Fire up," he said. The engine let loose a tremendous roar that spooked the dogs and the goat from their somnolence, and Parnelli dug out of Santa Ynez trailing a 10-yard spume of dirt.
Bobby Ferro limped in a few minutes later. It had been bouldersville all down the line. His skid plate was gone, ripped off by the fangs of the Baja. His brakes were shot, victims of the same bite. His gearshift would not work, and he tried to fix it with that magnificent nostrum of racing, gray tape, winding yards and yards around the housing. Sure cure for cancer, they say. "Somebody threw a firecracker at the car back up the road there," he said, "and it blew up in my lap. Not that this race ain't tough enough anyway."
So that was the end of Bobby Ferro. He forged ahead, as a true Baja racer must, but he failed to finish. Parnelli seemed to be home free. That night at the midway point of the race, a dusty, dying mining town called El Arco, Big Oly roared in and out in mere seconds, disappearing down the road to La Paz with an angry blast. Parnelli's headlights lit the town church like a postcard. The dust of his passage reddened in the glare of cook fires built from dead cactus roots and those who were not racing—the observers, spotters, officials—settled down to their strange suppers. Beer, Scotch, Fig Newtons, Kahlua, a culinary delight called "Baja Mix"—the enlightened combination of canned beans and corned-beef hash—rendered all the more tasty by that grand sauce, hunger, and the absence of real sustenance. But all the racers had to eat was dust, starlight and a nightful of air that registered only 38° Fahrenheit on the thermometer. For dessert there were coyote yowls and a few owl hoots, if one could taste them above the sound of the engine.
One who failed to enjoy the dessert was Preston Petty, no kin to the stock car racer. He stalked into El Arco at sunrise, huge in his leather jacket and bulbous crash helmet, marching toward the fire like an updated Frankenstein's monster, replete with lace-up boots. "Gimme heat," he seemed to say. Cactus failed to stop him en route to the nearest camp-fire. Crash, slap, slam—they all fell down, but not the man himself. "Damn rear end broke last night when I was gettin' here," Preston said finally, toasting his hands over the campfire. "Thought I'd get some shut-eye but then they told me they'd welded her back together again and I took off cussin' and, by dang, I got about some 15 miles down the road out of El Arco running real smooth through the dark there, when she just plain broke again where she'd broke before. It was weird there whistling through the weeds and in a way I was glad to get quit of it, but now that I've been walkin' out of the desert towards this here campfire for a couple of hours I'm not so sure. Got any coffee?" A few minutes later the rising sun dissipated Preston Petty's malaise: the snarl of an approaching engine announced that his Volkswagen Safari was well again. He churned off into the dawn. The monster lives, as perhaps it should.
Same thing with Parnelli. Approaching La Paz on the last leg of the journey, he felt his brakes fading. "It started at EI Arco, and by Villa Constitución the pedal was just lying there on the floor," he said later. "There was a mix-up about the gas at the Villa, some Meskin poured water down Stroppe's back and about 14 miles out of La Paz it looked like he'd poured some into the gas tank as well. Or maybe he poured gas down Bill's back and none into the tank. Anyways, we were stuck there for nearly 40 minutes, maybe 45, flat out of gas. Finally we flagged down a Meskin in a Volkswagen. He had a tequila jug with him. I paid him a $20 bill to empty it and refill it with gas at the nearest station. We fired her up and made it into La Paz just about three o'clock in the morning."
When Big Oly crossed the finish line the crowd-control fences came crashing down. "Viva Parnelli!" was the only coherent sound. Then the local cops went home, the judges disappeared, and the remaining finishers—some 97 of them—had to steer sharply as they entered the hysterical throng.
The main drag into downtown La Paz doubled as the finish line and the only thing that stopped the racers—most of them half hypnotized by the last straightaway—was the frantic waving of a checkered flag and the ever-narrowing human alley of cheering Mexicans.
One man-and-woman team, obviously not speaking after their night desert run, whipped their buggy to a stop and sat staring stonily ahead, both coated evenly with a rich crust of grayish sand that made them look as if they and their vehicle had been sculpted simultaneously out of sandstone and were ready for the bronze casting. The only touch of color was the bright pink polish on the tips of the woman's fingers.
In came a motorcyclist, chickens skittering out of his way. He took the flag, turned off the roar and sat there blinking. The flagman threw a comforting arm around his shoulder, puffing up a mushroom of dust. "How was it out there?" he said.
The cyclist shook his head, pried one hand loose from the handlebar and raised it. Slowly, he formed his fingers into something of a fist, forefinger extended.
"I guess it was pretty bad," the Hag-man prompted.
The cyclist opened his mouth. And creakily he pointed directly into it with the forefinger.
"My God," the flagman said. "Somebody get this guy something to drink!" A Coca-Cola was handed out of the crowd, and the competitor drank deeply. Then he cleared his throat raspily.
"It was bad," he said.
Bad, yes. But then again, that's Baja. Neither Parnelli Jones nor Emiliano Zapata—much less the Frito Bandito—would prefer it any other way. Such is the style of folk heroes on either side of the border.