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In a Cloud of Dust, Heigh-ho, Silverado!
Sam Moses
September 13, 1976
Neither rocks nor ruts nor barbed-wire fence stayed off-road racer Walker Evans and his pickup from their appointed rounds in the Baja International
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September 13, 1976

In A Cloud Of Dust, Heigh-ho, Silverado!

Neither rocks nor ruts nor barbed-wire fence stayed off-road racer Walker Evans and his pickup from their appointed rounds in the Baja International

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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 Jos�."

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 Cordob�s 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 "Ol�" 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.

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