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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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"That's Ferro and Stewart," the co-driver told Evans. "If we're 45 minutes behind them, that means they've gained about 17 minutes on us."

"I don't care about that," snapped Evans as they pulled away. "We're just gonna keep driving like we're doing. As long as we're leading our class, that's all that matters."

A bit about Evans' class. In 1975 he obliterated the pickup truck class, and the other truckers pointed out that Evans' Chevy was so modified that it wasn't really a truck at all; it was a, well, they couldn't say for sure what it was, but whatever it was, it wasn't a pickup truck, no matter what it looked like, and they shouldn't have to race against it. So in 1976 the Chevy was reclassified as a "two-seat vehicle," which was as close as officials could come to defining the truck. There were 38 other two-seaters competing in last June's race.

From El Chinero the course followed the highway for 36.7 miles to San Felipe, where it left the pavement and began winding north and west to Ensenada again. San Felipe was halfway; Evans had been driving nearly five hours and had covered 233 miles. The next 60 miles were the fastest of the course, and Evans drove them as if he were intent on making up the 17 minutes on Ferro, despite what he had said. The road was smooth, silty and relatively wide, and Evans handled the truck as if it were the son of a sprint car father and a trail bike mother. He kept his foot away from the brakes and slowed for the wide turns by pitching the truck sideways to scrub off speed: it wallowed and bucked in the sand like a powerboat making a sharp turn; even the sand spraying against the truck's undercarriage sounded like water splashing on a boat's hull. The sharper turns had sandy berms rimming them, and Evans steered the truck head-on toward each berm, flicked the steering wheel at the last minute and bounced the outside rear tire against the sandy cushion to keep the truck on the road.

They crossed Laguna Diablo. There, less than a mile from where they had camped 10 days earlier, was a funnel cloud of dust, a skinny, sinister twister reaching a good 100 feet into the sky, snaking along the course toward them. Evans blinked. The codriver gulped. He thought, "There's a hole the size of a Chevy pickup truck inside that twister, and we're...."

Whoosh. An invisible jet plane seemed to pass two feet over them. Evans had kept his foot to the floor and the steering wheel dead ahead: they had crashed through the twister at 135 mph like a Greyhound bus hurtling through a wall of wicker baskets. The truck hadn't so much as weaved two inches off course. Evans and the codriver just looked at each other.

Because this leg was near San Felipe and accessible, there was an audience for much of it: scattered groups of spectators who grinned and raised their fists or simply stood agape at the sight of a big yellow pickup truck sliding through sweeping turns at 80 mph, leading a roostertail of sand. Some, convinced Evans was completely out of control when they saw him coming at them sideways, dived behind the nearest cactus. The co-driver would flash the peace sign.

Things were going so smoothly Evans smugly remarked to the codriver, "I bet five bucks we could stop and go for a swim, get back in and go home to Ensenada and still win the two-seater class." No sooner had he gotten that thought out of his mouth than he overshot a turn, fortunately at a spot where they could get back on the course without losing more than a few seconds.

"Keep your mind on drivin' and off swimmin'," said the codriver. "The next time you run off the road we may not be so lucky."

"Run off the road?" replied an undaunted Evans. "How can you run off the road in an off-road race?"

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