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."