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Laguna Diablo is about 175 miles down the Baja California peninsula. It is surrounded by mountains of brown rock. It is dry. It is desolate. It is miles from the nearest plumbing, the nearest freeway. At night the sky looks close enough for a man to be able to squeeze the stars through his fingers, but that is pure deception; Laguna Diablo is closer to hell than it is to heaven.
One moonless-night last June a group of off-road racers were hunched around a campfire swapping off-road-racer lies: bench racing, they call it. The next morning they would disband at dawn to explore stretches of the 415-mile course for the Baja International Off-Road Race. As their jaws and brains tired, the conversation tapered to silence. One of the racers had just begun to think about making the effort necessary to snap the fire's spell, to get up and shake the rattlesnakes out of his sleeping bag and crawl in, when two yellow lights appeared on the horizon four or five miles away on the parched lake bed. The lights were small, but they grew rapidly, and soon a swirling, humming cloud of dust was illuminated by them. At first the spectral cloud seemed to be heading away from the campers, across the lake bed toward a mountain, but then it pivoted, like a guided missile whose heat sensors had suddenly locked onto the campfire, and, at 100 mph, shot straight for the racers.
"That'll be Walker," they said in unison. Some of them didn't even blink away the glaze the fire had baked on their eyes.
The hum became a buzz, a grumble, then a roar; each light split, and now four lights crashed through the dust to reveal an off-white Chevy Blazer. Just when it seemed as if the Blazer was going to stampede through the campsite, the lights bent away and the truck slid to a stop, driver's door next to the fire. The lights flicked black; the hot engine creaked quiet; dust drifted down in the silence and settled over the campsite, on the men. A match was struck inside the Blazer to light a cigarette, and newborn shadows slipped around a felt cowboy hat. The face and body under the hat climbed out of the Blazer and stretched. Pearl shirt snaps glowed like polished mescal buttons, and a sterling silver belt buckle reflected so sharply it seemed to be a tiny window into the man's belly, where a campfire was burning. His filigreed blue cowboy boots had no cow dung on their pointy toes.
The man took a sullen drag on his cigarette, tilted the gray Stetson off his forehead with the side of an index finger and said with a sudden grin, "Damn, I need a tequila."
Not many people know that Walker Evans is the son of a Seventh-Day Adventist missionary, but a whole lot believe he's the country's best off-road racer. Just as many people think Parnelli Jones, Evans' teammate and owner of Evans' racer, is better, but Parnelli isn't always one of them. When he's pressed—and when he's in a good mood—he'll admit that fastest, which he is, isn't always best.
Says Jones of Evans, "One time I was following Walker on a trail and there was this cliff over on one side and a bank on the other, and we come sliding around this corner sideways and there was this Jeep in the middle of the road. I figured Walker was history. But he just kept sliding until he was almost in the Jeep's grille and at the last minute just whipped his truck straight ahead and put it right between the Jeep and the edge of the cliff. He was so close that the door handles clicked as he went by. I'll never know how he didn't hit that thing. I know the first thing I would've done: I would've driven right over the cliff.
"The only off-road racer I would ever codrive with is Walker."
Evans has always used a codriver, because ever since he began off-road racing in 1969 he has driven two-seat pickup trucks, as opposed to single-seat buggies. But in his case, codriver is a misnomer. A more precise definition would be passenger, or possibly even captive audience, because Evans' codriver is about as functional as a Raggedy Ann doll. With most off-road racers, a codriver on occasion can make himself useful by watching the gauges, honking the horn, operating the windshield wipers, cleaning the driver's sunglasses, keeping an eye out for shortcuts or pushing the vehicle when it gets stuck. Occasionally he can be invaluable as a mechanic, or as an alter ego who paces the driver and snaps him out of traps and mental errors; such was the function of the most renowned codriver, Bill Stroppe, who used to sit next to Parnelli in the "Big Oly" Bronco (which Stroppe got in shape) and shout, "Slow down, you stupid son of a bitch!"—an encouragement Jones needed to keep the Bronco off its roof. Most people figured Stroppe was plumb out of his mind. The act of riding with Jones seemed evidence enough; but calling him names and telling him to slow down...well, any man fool enough to do such a thing has to have had a few screws vibrate loose from all that bouncing.
They don't say that about Evans' codriver. Evans doesn't really need anyone to remind him the truck works better belly down, so his codriver is along mostly for company. There is a waiting list of volunteers to codrive, not so much for Evans' company as to get a ride in that big bright yellow truck Evans drives: a 350-cu.-in., 370-hp Chevrolet Silverado shortbed stepside pickup, more powerful, more comfortable and a whole lot more spectacular—although no quicker—than a good buggy. The truck is the brainchild of Dick Russell, foreman and factotum of the off-road-racing shop at Parnelli Jones Enterprises. It is a full ton lighter than a showroom Silverado, and about 10 times as expensive. Underneath the body, much of which is fiber glass, Russell built a tubular roll cage on the same principle as a suspension bridge. The cage is mounted on rubber blocks so the cab doesn't vibrate but floats.