Laguna Diablo is about 175 miles down the Baja California peninsula. It is surrounded by mountains of brown rock. It is dry. It is desolate. It is miles from the nearest plumbing, the nearest freeway. At night the sky looks close enough for a man to be able to squeeze the stars through his fingers, but that is pure deception; Laguna Diablo is closer to hell than it is to heaven.
One moonless-night last June a group of off-road racers were hunched around a campfire swapping off-road-racer lies: bench racing, they call it. The next morning they would disband at dawn to explore stretches of the 415-mile course for the Baja International Off-Road Race. As their jaws and brains tired, the conversation tapered to silence. One of the racers had just begun to think about making the effort necessary to snap the fire's spell, to get up and shake the rattlesnakes out of his sleeping bag and crawl in, when two yellow lights appeared on the horizon four or five miles away on the parched lake bed. The lights were small, but they grew rapidly, and soon a swirling, humming cloud of dust was illuminated by them. At first the spectral cloud seemed to be heading away from the campers, across the lake bed toward a mountain, but then it pivoted, like a guided missile whose heat sensors had suddenly locked onto the campfire, and, at 100 mph, shot straight for the racers.
"That'll be Walker," they said in unison. Some of them didn't even blink away the glaze the fire had baked on their eyes.
The hum became a buzz, a grumble, then a roar; each light split, and now four lights crashed through the dust to reveal an off-white Chevy Blazer. Just when it seemed as if the Blazer was going to stampede through the campsite, the lights bent away and the truck slid to a stop, driver's door next to the fire. The lights flicked black; the hot engine creaked quiet; dust drifted down in the silence and settled over the campsite, on the men. A match was struck inside the Blazer to light a cigarette, and newborn shadows slipped around a felt cowboy hat. The face and body under the hat climbed out of the Blazer and stretched. Pearl shirt snaps glowed like polished mescal buttons, and a sterling silver belt buckle reflected so sharply it seemed to be a tiny window into the man's belly, where a campfire was burning. His filigreed blue cowboy boots had no cow dung on their pointy toes.
September 12, 1976
The man took a sullen drag on his cigarette, tilted the gray Stetson off his forehead with the side of an index finger and said with a sudden grin, "Damn, I need a tequila."
Not many people know that Walker Evans is the son of a Seventh-Day Adventist missionary, but a whole lot believe he's the country's best off-road racer. Just as many people think Parnelli Jones, Evans' teammate and owner of Evans' racer, is better, but Parnelli isn't always one of them. When he's pressed—and when he's in a good mood—he'll admit that fastest, which he is, isn't always best.
Says Jones of Evans, "One time I was following Walker on a trail and there was this cliff over on one side and a bank on the other, and we come sliding around this corner sideways and there was this Jeep in the middle of the road. I figured Walker was history. But he just kept sliding until he was almost in the Jeep's grille and at the last minute just whipped his truck straight ahead and put it right between the Jeep and the edge of the cliff. He was so close that the door handles clicked as he went by. I'll never know how he didn't hit that thing. I know the first thing I would've done: I would've driven right over the cliff.
"The only off-road racer I would ever codrive with is Walker."
Evans has always used a codriver, because ever since he began off-road racing in 1969 he has driven two-seat pickup trucks, as opposed to single-seat buggies. But in his case, codriver is a misnomer. A more precise definition would be passenger, or possibly even captive audience, because Evans' codriver is about as functional as a Raggedy Ann doll. With most off-road racers, a codriver on occasion can make himself useful by watching the gauges, honking the horn, operating the windshield wipers, cleaning the driver's sunglasses, keeping an eye out for shortcuts or pushing the vehicle when it gets stuck. Occasionally he can be invaluable as a mechanic, or as an alter ego who paces the driver and snaps him out of traps and mental errors; such was the function of the most renowned codriver, Bill Stroppe, who used to sit next to Parnelli in the "Big Oly" Bronco (which Stroppe got in shape) and shout, "Slow down, you stupid son of a bitch!"—an encouragement Jones needed to keep the Bronco off its roof. Most people figured Stroppe was plumb out of his mind. The act of riding with Jones seemed evidence enough; but calling him names and telling him to slow down...well, any man fool enough to do such a thing has to have had a few screws vibrate loose from all that bouncing.
They don't say that about Evans' codriver. Evans doesn't really need anyone to remind him the truck works better belly down, so his codriver is along mostly for company. There is a waiting list of volunteers to codrive, not so much for Evans' company as to get a ride in that big bright yellow truck Evans drives: a 350-cu.-in., 370-hp Chevrolet Silverado shortbed stepside pickup, more powerful, more comfortable and a whole lot more spectacular—although no quicker—than a good buggy. The truck is the brainchild of Dick Russell, foreman and factotum of the off-road-racing shop at Parnelli Jones Enterprises. It is a full ton lighter than a showroom Silverado, and about 10 times as expensive. Underneath the body, much of which is fiber glass, Russell built a tubular roll cage on the same principle as a suspension bridge. The cage is mounted on rubber blocks so the cab doesn't vibrate but floats.
Sometimes the whole truck floats, like three or four feet in the air at 70 mph, over a jump. The landing on the 14 shock absorbers and four obese tires is so soft the earth feels like an innerspring mattress, as if the truck is touching ground in slow motion. Over smoother terrain, say a dry lake bed or dirt road, the truck can reach its top speed of 138 mph.
Evans tools along over that sort of terrain at those speeds driving with one hand. His left hand grips the steering wheel and his right hand a Salem, wedged between the knuckles of his index finger and middle finger. If there are sharp curves on the trail he may use both hands, the Salem squeezed between his teeth until the fibers from the filter start to squirt onto his tongue. If the trail is bumpy, he'll spit the cigarette out the window and let his right hand flap around at ear level as he bounces up and down like a basketball on a fast break. He looks like a crash-helmeted cowboy riding a bucking bronco with bucket seats.
Evans speaks as if he had spent his childhood watching old Henry Fonda cowboy movies and the drawl had rolled right off the screen onto his tongue.
"I've always liked heavy equipment: caterpillars, bulldozers, earth movers and such. Really enjoyed them, watching them work, driving those big things. Got out of high school and went to work for a construction company, worked my way up to superintendent from the bottom—I mean the very bottom, a parts gofer."
Today, at 37, Evans is a general contractor in Riverside, Calif., building bridges and highways. He has entered 14 Baja races, finished 12 times and won the truck class all but once. He has earned his reputation for being able to drive a truck through Baja at breakneck speeds and bring it home alive. Rare intuition enables him to avoid the rocks and ruts on the trail that shake nerve endings like a dog worrying a dirty sock and snap axles like Bruce Lee chopping down Christmas trees. Evans seems to make the truck glide...not around boulders, not over them, but somehow through them, as if it weren't the truck dodging rocks, but rocks dodging the truck. He doesn't jerk the steering wheel between obstacles, but moves it as if it all had been planned for miles, every move practiced, every twist programmed. In a sport where crashes are inevitable, Evans has crashed once, and there were extenuating circumstances: it was not a race but a practice run. at night, four men in the cab of one pickup truck, a bottle of tequila, things like that. The truck is still down at the bottom of the canyon.
The average practice run isn't made at night with four men and a bottle of tequila. In fact, it isn't even called a practice run, but a pre-run. Pre-running is an important part of preparing for a Baja race. The way for one racer to get an edge on another is to find a faster route than the official, marked route, if only by cutting a corner. This is not considered cheating by the competitors, who view discovering shortcuts as part of the challenge of reading the terrain.
Evans had driven the entire 415 miles three times before the start of the 1976 Baja International. He pre-ran with Jones, each in an air-conditioned Blazer prepared by Dick Russell and supplied by General Motors, which, although not officially racing, backs the Vel's Parnelli Jones off-road team. Said one GM representative at Baja, with a grin that tacitly conceded he was about to speak in euphemismese, "We're not racing down here, we're, uh, product testing." About the same way Cale Yarborough product-tests in a NASCAR Chevelle.
Almost everyone pre-runs. One afternoon Evans and Jones were reconnoitering a shortcut on foot, and they heard an engine droning across the desert. "Here comes a buggy!" said Jones excitedly, jumping like a little boy caught smoking behind the barn, and whispering despite the fact that the buggy was at least half a mile away. "Quick, let's get out of here."
Evans and Jones knew and accepted the fact that they would be shadowed on this pre-run by at least one truck, which would be carrying a film crew from Pacific Productions, who were making a sequel to On Any Sunday, Pacific's motorcycle success, to be titled, succinctly, Dirt. Jones is an investor in the film.
For the sake of show biz, this pre-run took place less around the racecourse than around the campfire, where Dick Russell, the demon truck builder, became a veritable James Beard of the bush. When he wasn't twisting a wrench, he was spinning an eggbeater; when he wasn't fixing a broken fuel pump, he was baking biscuits over the campfire. He operated out of a one-ton van, which, before the days of air-conditioned Blazers, had been a pre-run vehicle, and had racked up half its quarter-million miles off the road. It was a modern-day chuck wagon, chock full of cast-iron skillets the size of manhole covers, ice chests as big as coffins, channel locks and coffeepots, ratchets and rolling pins and gaskets and Glad Bags. Russell ruled over the van with an irascibility no one took seriously—a mechanized Gabby Hayes. For three days he cooked for 18 to 20 people as no man has ever cooked in the middle of the desert before or may ever again. Said Russell in defense of his efforts, as if they needed any defense to those reaping the fruits (and vegetables), "We might as well eat good; there's nothing else to do down here."
All that good food and camaraderie will make pre-running look romantic in the movie, but Evans got to the essence of a real pre-run when, after polishing off a porterhouse steak and sucking on a toothpick he drew from a plastic container in his shirt pocket, he said, "Usually it's a bag of Fritos and a warm six-pack."
This year's International drew a record 387 entries and paid $102,000, including contingency money. It covered a snaking path down and across Baja to the fishing village of San Felipe on the east coast and back to Ensenada again, all but 40 miles off the road. Little of it was smooth; some sections had been chopped through the cacti with machetes. "None of those long, sleepy, lackadaisy roads where you can sit back and take it easy," said Evans. "I've seen rougher, but this course is one rough José."
The race began at the crack of dawn on June 11. The motorcycles left the starting line at 6 a.m. and the four-wheeled vehicles began at 8, individually and at 30-second intervals. Evans idled onto the wooden starting ramp under the Carta Blanca beer banner at 8:27; he carefully removed his black felt Stetson with both hands, dusted it off with a few solid whacks against the steering wheel and handed it out the window to his wife Dolline. "Be back before dinner," he said to her. And he was off.
He mashed the accelerator to the floor and the truck turned the starting ramp into a ski jump. Lining the banks of the course, which began in a dry stream bed meandering out of Ensenada, Mexicans cheered and shouted at Evans' truck as it roared and slid and skipped past them, leaping hummocks that kids had built in the dirt the night before the race. One kid, playing El Cordobés in the stream bed, flapped a red shirt at Evans: "Aha! El Trucko!" The co-driver, not having much else to do, waved at the spectators through the nylon net stretched across his window and shouted "Olé" at the kid.
Evans was already into a rhythm, working the gas and brake pedals as if he were at the controls of a helicopter. His shoulders were loose, his jaw slack, his eyes unblinking in concentration. He was driving at about 80% of his capability; Evans is good because he's smart: he knew it would be foolish to charge at the start of a 10-hour race, especially when the dust was at its worst. But even at this long-distance pace, Evans and his codriver began passing vehicles; within the first 10 miles they had seen two broken buggies and had begun to pick off some of the 52 buggies that had started before them.
Fastest man to the first checkpoint, 35 miles from the start, was Jones, driving his infamous Funny-Blazer, which is about as much Blazer as banana bread. Jones beat Ivan Stewart (who would turn his single-seater Funco over to Bobby Ferro at the halfway point) by nearly three minutes and Evans by almost five. But Jones should have had Stroppe along to yell at him. A few miles after the checkpoint he hit a knee-high boulder that had been obscured by dust; after splitting the rock, the Blazer skidded for 100 feet—minus its right front wheel—and stopped against a fallen tree.
By the time Evans reached the scene, Jones had already changed from his helmet to his jaunty denim cap, but he wasn't in a jaunty mood. He had worn a circle in the brush, where he had been stamping around and swearing at the Blazer. As Evans drove slowly by, Jones shouted, "Tell Russell I ran into a rock and broke the right front ball joints!" which was like Custer saying he ran into a few Indians and they spoiled his afternoon.
"P.J. is always telling me, 'Don't do as I do, do what you normally do and finish the race, so at least somebody makes the team look good,' " Evans said to the codriver. "If only he could slow himself down...." Then Evans' mind quickly shifted gears from Jones to his own race.
Evans had averaged 54.97 mph on the first leg, but now the course got slower and twistier as it climbed to 5,500 feet and wound between pine trees, a few of which had traded pieces of bark for bits of buggy paint. At the first stop Evans informed Russell of Jones' broken ball joints while gas was dumped into the truck's 56-gallon tanks. Danny Shields, Evans' chief mechanic, climbed on the truck's fiber-glass hood and snapped off the codriver's windshield wiper; the wipers, flapping steadily to scrape off dust, had been tripping on one another from the start, and had finally wrapped around each other like skinny lovers. About a minute later Evans and the codriver were moving again, the first problem cured—the remaining wiper was wiping away more smoothly, although more lonely.
"Alllreihttt!" shouted Evans as they churned away from the pit stop. Meanwhile, Dennis Fuji, the engine builder of the crew, was sent out in search of Jones. After driving around the bush, he finally found the broken Blazer. By this time Jones had hitched a ride back to Ensenada, and Fuji sat down beside the broken machine with a book to wait for a trailer to come and haul it away. But he didn't get lonely sitting and waiting. He had some visitors.
Fuji had been there an hour when six gorillas drove up in a pickup truck. Drunk, and with four-day stubbles, they looked like regular bandidos.
The biggest bandido got out of the truck and walked over to Fuji.
"Hey, you alone, amigo?" he asked.
"My friends will be here any minute," Fuji lied.
"You got a gun?"
Fuji decided not to stretch his luck. He shook his head from side to side.
"It's not safe for a gringo to be out here alone, you know. People try to steal things."
The bandido's eyes gleamed as brightly as his silver incisor. "You want to sell your wheels?"
"No sale," said Fuji.
"My friends, those five big men over there, they really like your wheels," said the bandido cheerfully.
"No sale," said the ever faithful Fuji firmly.
One of the bandido's big friends walked over to him and, with his back to Fuji and his arm around the bandido, gestured with his thumb at his hip to the side of the Blazer, where it said PARNELLI JONES. After Zapata, Parnelli Jones is the biggest name in Baja.
The bandido turned around. "My friends say they won't buy your wheels if you give them a fender that says Parnelli on it," he said to Fuji.
Jones' right front fender lay cracked beside the car.
"It's a deal," said Fuji, and six smiling gorillas rode off in a rusting and rattling old truck that would soon have a new white Blazer fender chicken-wired to it, and one Hawaiian-Japanese gringo collapsed into a bucket seat, overcome by a rush of relief.
"Uh-oh, we're in trouble now," said Evans, over the whrrssnng of wheels spinning in the sand. He had swerved in order to dodge some overhanging branches that could have cracked the windshield, and had run off the road, nudged a tree and gotten stuck. Evans and the codriver unfastened their shoulder harnesses and crawled out of the windows. While Evans dug furiously around the rear wheels with a tiny Army-surplus shovel, the co-driver gathered brush and packed it under the wheels. Evans blasted out of the hole while the codriver stood on the rear bumper, and sped away as the co-driver climbed from the bumper to the bed and into the cab, feeling like Roy Rogers leaping off Trigger and scrambling from the caboose to the locomotive to rescue a runaway passenger train. "Go!" he shouted as he dived into his bucket seat headfirst, his legs still dangling out the window. Evans gave him a curious glance. The codriver felt silly when he got rightside up and realized they had already been going.
Half an hour later Evans suddenly shouted "Whoops!" as he pumped the brakes. "No reason!" he shouted to himself. "I'll be damned!" he shouted cryptically. Then he finally got to the point. "No brakes!" he shouted.
"None?" asked the codriver.
"Well, a little," replied Evans. "I think we've got a broken line. All I got is front brakes. There's definitely a problem, but whatever's wrong, it ain't nothin' we've done."
"Can you get this thing to the next stop at El Chinero?"
"Oh yeah, we'll gel to El Chinero all right. Danny can fix the brakes there."
(The crews stayed one step ahead of the racers by traveling between the pit stops via the highway, which was possible because the course conveniently snaked back and forth across the pavement in miles-long arcs.)
The pickup began dropping out of the pines into a valley, along a steep, narrow, downhill trail of jagged rocks, some as big as breadboxes. As the truck stumbled on fading front brakes to the bottom, the codriver looked over, saw Evans driving left-handed and wondered why he didn't stop flapping his free right hand and cover his eyes with it.
In the valley the trail smoothed and spread into a small dry lake bed, where the truck accelerated to about 120 mph. Suddenly Evans pressed the brake pedal down hard. Metal clanked against metal as the pedal hit the floorboard. The truck slowed to about 80 mph. The codriver looked at Evans; Evans shrugged.
They approached two buggies in the lake bed. Just as one buggy pulled out to pass the other, Evans squirted between them and passed them both, laughing, "Ha! No brakes, and I still passed them!"
"You didn't pass them with the brakes, you passed them with the gas!" shouted the codriver over the roar.
"Yeah, boy," said Evans, still laughing. "The gas!"
When the lake bed ran out, Evans announced, "There's a shortcut up ahead in a sand wash." But he headed into the wrong wash—they all look alike anyhow, thought the codriver, who had been of no help in spotting the shortcut: seen one sand wash you seen them all—and they were being led away from the course. Off-road racers would rather get out and push than backtrack, so Evans slowly cut across the middle of the desert, dodging boulders and cacti and sand traps at 10 mph, not knowing exactly where the course was but hoping to meet it at the pass. When they finally discovered the trail again, Evans began attacking the road; he was mad at himself for missing the shortcut and was driving improvidently.
"Hey! Don't get carried away!" admonished the codriver. "Forget the mistake!"
That reminder was all it took. Evans replied, "O.K.," irritably, then paused, thought about it and nodded his head in agreement. A minute later he was back into his rhythm. "Alllreihttt!" he yelled.
Before the truck had even staggered to a stop at El Chinero, Evans shouted out the window to Shields, ready with a gas can, "No brakes!"
"No brakes!" shouted the codriver out the other window to Russell.
"No brakes?" asked Shields in one window, Russell in the other.
"No brakes!" replied both Evans and the codriver out opposite windows.
Shields and Russell looked at each other. "No brakes? No brakes!" and with that they dived under the truck as it was being gassed and the rear tires were being changed. Quickly they found the problem: a rock had struck the rear caliper and broken the brake line.
"Can't fix it here." Shields said. "You got any brakes?"
"Just enough to keep from killing ourselves or someone else," answered Evans. "We drove it in here like this, so I guess we can go the rest of the way. Just fill it up with brake fluid. It's leaking so fast that I'm losing my front brakes, too."
Another crew member was talking to the codriver. "You're 45 minutes behind the first car."
"What's its number?" asked the codriver.
"That's Ferro and Stewart," the co-driver told Evans. "If we're 45 minutes behind them, that means they've gained about 17 minutes on us."
"I don't care about that," snapped Evans as they pulled away. "We're just gonna keep driving like we're doing. As long as we're leading our class, that's all that matters."
A bit about Evans' class. In 1975 he obliterated the pickup truck class, and the other truckers pointed out that Evans' Chevy was so modified that it wasn't really a truck at all; it was a, well, they couldn't say for sure what it was, but whatever it was, it wasn't a pickup truck, no matter what it looked like, and they shouldn't have to race against it. So in 1976 the Chevy was reclassified as a "two-seat vehicle," which was as close as officials could come to defining the truck. There were 38 other two-seaters competing in last June's race.
From El Chinero the course followed the highway for 36.7 miles to San Felipe, where it left the pavement and began winding north and west to Ensenada again. San Felipe was halfway; Evans had been driving nearly five hours and had covered 233 miles. The next 60 miles were the fastest of the course, and Evans drove them as if he were intent on making up the 17 minutes on Ferro, despite what he had said. The road was smooth, silty and relatively wide, and Evans handled the truck as if it were the son of a sprint car father and a trail bike mother. He kept his foot away from the brakes and slowed for the wide turns by pitching the truck sideways to scrub off speed: it wallowed and bucked in the sand like a powerboat making a sharp turn; even the sand spraying against the truck's undercarriage sounded like water splashing on a boat's hull. The sharper turns had sandy berms rimming them, and Evans steered the truck head-on toward each berm, flicked the steering wheel at the last minute and bounced the outside rear tire against the sandy cushion to keep the truck on the road.
They crossed Laguna Diablo. There, less than a mile from where they had camped 10 days earlier, was a funnel cloud of dust, a skinny, sinister twister reaching a good 100 feet into the sky, snaking along the course toward them. Evans blinked. The codriver gulped. He thought, "There's a hole the size of a Chevy pickup truck inside that twister, and we're...."
Whoosh. An invisible jet plane seemed to pass two feet over them. Evans had kept his foot to the floor and the steering wheel dead ahead: they had crashed through the twister at 135 mph like a Greyhound bus hurtling through a wall of wicker baskets. The truck hadn't so much as weaved two inches off course. Evans and the codriver just looked at each other.
Because this leg was near San Felipe and accessible, there was an audience for much of it: scattered groups of spectators who grinned and raised their fists or simply stood agape at the sight of a big yellow pickup truck sliding through sweeping turns at 80 mph, leading a roostertail of sand. Some, convinced Evans was completely out of control when they saw him coming at them sideways, dived behind the nearest cactus. The co-driver would flash the peace sign.
Things were going so smoothly Evans smugly remarked to the codriver, "I bet five bucks we could stop and go for a swim, get back in and go home to Ensenada and still win the two-seater class." No sooner had he gotten that thought out of his mouth than he overshot a turn, fortunately at a spot where they could get back on the course without losing more than a few seconds.
"Keep your mind on drivin' and off swimmin'," said the codriver. "The next time you run off the road we may not be so lucky."
"Run off the road?" replied an undaunted Evans. "How can you run off the road in an off-road race?"
The road into the fifth checkpoint, an oasis high in the mountains where an enterprising Mexican had built a small resort called Mike's Sky Rancho, was narrow, and many of the turns were blind, bordered on the outside by steep slopes and, in some places, sheer cliffs. Realizing how serious, even dangerous, the lack of brakes had become, Evans took no chances; he drove cautiously and conservatively, and required two hours and 23 minutes to cover about 38 miles. Still, he misjudged one turn—a sharp lefthander on the blind side of a crest—and the truck fell over a bank. For a few minutes he and the codriver feared they might not be able to drive the truck back up to the road, but Evans eventually spotted a trail that allowed them to escape.
"We'll never know how close that was," Evans said in relief as they bounced back on the road.
They had been racing nearly nine hours. An engine flywheel dust cover had vibrated loose—harmless enough, but the truck sounded as if it had picked up a hitchhiking platoon of little men with rakes who were busily scraping leaves across the bottom of the engine block, and whistling while they worked. As if to divert his attention from the yardwork taking place under the hood, Evans reached into the pocket of his fireproof suit for another cigarette.
Evans spotted two Mexican boys at the side of the road, grinning and waving their arms like hustlers flagging tourists into a Tijuana strip show. Evans slowed nearly to a stop, smiled out his window and said, "No way, boys." Then he rolled through a huge, hidden rut that at 60 mph could have taken the ball joints to the same junkyard as Parnelli's.
A few miles farther on, a spectator raised three fingers as they sped past.
"Did you see that?" asked Evans. "That must mean we're the third car through. Hot damn! Only two ahead of us."
There were only two. Evans had passed 50 buggies, and even a few bikes, despite the bikes' two-hour head start.
On the final long leg, a 58.15-mile jaunt between the tiny villages of El Rodeo and Ojos Negros, the number of spectators grew as the truck got closer and closer to Ensenada. Most of the American spectators were involved in the race in some way, so they knew who Evans was, and, from his position, knew he must have been chasing Ferro all day. But they didn't know that he had driven most of the race with practically no brakes.
There was one small group in particular that Evans wished had known about the brakes. Then maybe they would have understood that the contretemps with the barbed-wire fence wasn't his fault. Not too much, anyhow.
About 20 spectators were standing around a 110-degree left-hander at the end of a roller-coaster dirt road, and Evans came storming down the road at 100 mph, the truck sailing high enough over the undulations for the spectators to see the horizon under its belly. Evans waited until the last instant to back off—he had practiced this turn during a pre-run, had it down pat and wanted to make it good—and then...waited a split second longer. The codriver saw it coming. So did Evans. The truck slid toward the fence, its two front wheels locked and plowing furrows in the soft dirt. Evans cranked the steering wheel hard to the left so the truck wouldn't smash straight through the fence. It didn't; it smashed along the fence. The truck became entangled in barbed wire like a fork in spaghetti; fenceposts fell like saplings tripped over by a klutzy giant. One hundred and sixty feet of spaghetti tangled and 10 saplings fell—the crowd, whooping like fieldhands at a hootchy-kootch show, had measured and counted.
After managing a chagrined "Sorry, folks" out the window—as much as the crowd loved it, he should have stopped, gotten out and taken a bow—Evans bounced back on the road and accelerated from the scene. The right front fender blew away; the hood flapped up and down. "Terrific," he muttered.
The codriver heard the barbed wire dragging behind the truck and the fenceposts clanking at the wire's end, like a honeymoon car with tin cans tied to its bumper.
"Looks like we're taking back a souvenir," he said. "Maybe we should stop and put a JUST MARRIED sign on the tailgate."
"All right, that's enough," replied Evans. He didn't like the idea.
And so they brought to the finish line half a bale of barbed wire wrapped around the axles, an engine powered by a multiplying army of midget gardeners, a hood that kept trying to stand up and jump overboard and a left front fender looking over its shoulder and wondering where its partner was. They were greeted in Ensenada as if they had liberated Mexico, by a crowd that included the Dirt film crew and Dolline Evans, who carried a fresh cowboy hat for her husband—powder blue. Later that night he would change into his dinner hat—chocolate brown.
They had finished third overall, and first in the two-seater class, 17 minutes ahead of Tim Crabtree and Earl Stahl. The first two single-seat buggies, the Ferro-Stewart team and John Johnson, had been faster by 28 and 20 minutes respectively. They had started first and second and neither had seen another buggy along the way, which meant no dust. Also, their brakes worked (although Ferro had driven most of his half without second gear). In Baja, they will be talking about the year Walker Evans won his class with no brakes for a long, long time—maybe even as long as they've been talking about the year he won his class with a steering wheel that was connected more to his hands than anything else.
The codriver was slow to climb out of the truck. When he did make his way out the window, someone remarked as to how he was sort of walking funny, hunched over and all, and trying to touch his shoulder blades with his ears—or was he trying to separate his shoulder blades from his ears?
"How did you like the ride?" asked a lady.
That was a tough question to answer at the finish line. But the codriver tried. "Well, put it this way," he said. "I learned at least one thing. Never ride in a pickup truck with a cowboy."