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.
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 "ol�s" 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.