But this "start" was only ceremonial. Pressure from local ranchers, who objected to running the course over their property, had caused the starting fine to be moved about 40 miles south, so after the ceremonial send-off in Ensenada, the competitors sedately motored down the peninsula for an hour to the real start. Then, at noon and at high speed, the first of 296 entries roared off.
The opening 50 miles were over smooth dirt roads that ran along rolling hills. But then those hills turned into a steep and rocky ascent to Mike's Sky Ranch (elevation: 3,800 feet); that was followed by a plummet back to sea level and the town of Camalu, 147 miles from the start, where the racers briefly saw Route 1 again. A crowd of spectators had gathered on the highway, kept under control by a distracted policeman with an air horn, who was also trying to keep local traffic from running into race traffic. Every few minutes a racer would speed out of the fields and up a dirt road, turn onto the highway with a squeal of tires and a cheer from the crowd, then roar off south for a few hundred yards before making a hard right into a miasma of afternoon fog and racing dust.
According to Mears, the 20-mile stretch along the coast, from Camalu to San Quintin, had "six or eight places that would like to collect you." Tragically, it was a child, not a racer, who was "collected." Ten-year-old Lorenzo Lopez, who was watching along a dirt road, suddenly ran into the path of an oncoming racer and was killed.
At San Quintin the course turned away from the coast and began twisting inland for a 100-mile leg into the Sierra San Pedro Mártir mountains, the 10,000-foot-high spine of the Baja peninsula. Night had fallen by the time Mears reached the area, where Alvarez radioed to crew chief Charlie Burton that the Nissan's engine was starving for fuel. Worse, the truck's lights were cutting out. Alvarez remedied the light problem when he discovered that if two of the front beams were shut off, the six remaining lights functioned steadily. And Mears said he could drive around the gas starvation problem.
His overall strategy had to be relatively conservative. Mears's mission in Baja was to clinch the SCORE/HDRA Class 7 championship for Nissan, and to do that he merely needed to finish ahead of Manny Esquerra, the two-time and defending Class 7 champ, who was driving a factory-backed Ford Ranger. Mears and Esquerra had each won three of the season's seven races, but Mears held a 143-141 points lead thanks to better overall finishes. So Mears's pace down Baja was to be determined by his opponent, who started two minutes behind him. Mears would run no faster than was necessary to keep Esquerra literally in his dust.
They came out of the mountains at the cinder-block farmhouse in Quayquil, and cruised some 80 miles to the other side of the peninsula, to Bahia de Los Angeles, tucked against the windy Sea of Cortés. Much of that distance was traveled on Route 1 where, mingling with ancient semis, Mears's truck could reach its top speed of 105 mph (the Nissan's speed was limited by its rear-end ratio, which was selected for churning through the sand washes, not buzzing down the blacktop).
The sneakiest corner of all lay about 15 miles past Bay of L.A., as the racers call it, and Mears reached the dangerous spot at 9 p.m., about the time a driver's concentration starts to drift off. "It's an uphill, crowned, right-hand corner that goes away on you," says Mears. "You have to know it's there or it will get you, big-time."
Maybe Esquerra forgot about the corner, or maybe it just up and tripped him in the night. When spotted by one of Mears's chase cars, Esquerra and his co-driver, Tudy Esquerra, his cousin, were standing beside a bonfire. The Ranger sat nearby, its left front compressed against an embankment.
When Mears got to the oasislike halfway point of San Ignacio, where his floodlit pit was positioned at the stone doorstep of a Dominican mission, his crew informed him of Esquerra's dilemma. As tires were changed and the Hardbody's vital fluids were topped off, Mears sat behind the wheel, chatting easily, taking bites of a bologna sandwich and swigs of a Coke. Unless he broke down and Esquerra got going again, the championship was his.
It was, literally, all downhill from there—though the run on the beach was dodgy because the high tide tried to sweep race vehicles into the sea. Daybreak came just as Mears drove through Villa Insurgentes, where Roger Mears Jr., 25, in a driving suit, stood ready to relieve his father if necessary. If the race with Esquerra had still been tight, the plan was for Junior to sprint the last 150 miles. But Esquerra was gone and Roger Sr. was feeling too good to let go of the wheel. "I don't know what got into me," he said. "Toward the finish I started having fun."