SI Vault
Robert F. Jones
November 13, 1972
Beyond Mexicali—down the California peninsula—lay mile after mile of ferocious desert and rock-strewn road. Many started out, but it was Rufus Parnelli who won the kiss and the cup
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November 13, 1972

Meet At The Border And Bounce Down To Baja

Beyond Mexicali—down the California peninsula—lay mile after mile of ferocious desert and rock-strewn road. Many started out, but it was Rufus Parnelli who won the kiss and the cup

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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.

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