Heavy Metal Affliction - Desert Dingo Racing
Car addiction takes many forms, and for some, you may not even know how bad you have it until something triggers a response. For Jim Graham of Desert Dingo Racing, that trigger was the classic petrol head film Dust to Glory. After watching those desert heroes take on the rigors of the longest desert race in the world (the Baja 1000), he was hooked.
That was in 2006, and Graham and his Desert Dingo Racing Team now have six Baja 1000 Class 11 races under their belts, as well as a several class wins in other major desert racing events. They have yet to win or even finish a Baja 1000 but, in a class where typically only one car finishes the race, they are getting ever closer to the goal of victory.
First off, the Dingo’s are not your typical race team with million-dollar budgets racing a Trophy Truck that can suck up bumps the size of a small house. These guys race Class 11, or Stock Bugs. That is a mostly stock original, air-cooled, rear-engine VW Beetle. Adept, tough, and endearing as the Beetle is, the terrain of the Baja 1000 is simply in another league, and the challenge that comes with racing them in these conditions is monumental.
The #1107 Desert Dingo Beetle is a Forza first, and you can find it in the Rockstar Energy Car Pack for Forza Horizon 2 for Xbox One. Forza fans have been begging for a Baja Bug in Horizon and now the #1107, with all its character and race history, is ready to take on the open world of Forza Horizon 2.
Awesome Forza Horizon 2 Desert Dingo jump photo from SPQR Jackson
Graham has a history in journalism and public relations and met fellow Dingo “Crusty” at the Burning Man festival. Prior to their first Baja 1000 attempt in 2006, Burning Man was the extent of their exposure to the desert. Now the Dingo’s are veterans who help those who want to take on the challenge, while still trying to find a way to finish and win in their own right.
We had a chance to ask Graham a few questions about why anyone would put themselves through the torture the Dingo’s and the #1107 endure to compete. Here is Part One of our two-part interview.
HMA: What made you decide to take on the Baja the hard way in a stock Bug?
Jim Graham: When I watched the movie “Dust to Glory” the first time, I thought “How expensive can it be to race a Volkswagen?” It turns out it’s plenty expensive. You learn to lie to yourself about how much it all costs.
HMA: Class 11 is a stock Beetle, but they are obviously far from stock. Can you tell me what is actually stock and what is modified and to what degree?
JG: Compared to other off-road racing classes, Stock Bug is pretty stock. The vast majority of modifications are for safety – roll cage, race seats, five point harnesses, fuel cell. Then you’ve got things like a radio and comms so you can talk to each other in the car (it’s very loud and you’re wearing helmets), an air pumper so you can breathe fresh air instead of silt, a ruggedized GPS unit (pretty much everything in the car is ruggedized). In terms of performance you can make minor modifications to the engine – though you have to keep it 1600cc – and you can do some work on the suspension system to increase clearance and how the car handles rough terrain.
Making the desert of the Baja peninsula look even more beautiful. Photo credit to D. Tobias Silverman
HMA: How much suspension travel do you have in a Baja 1000 setup? Is it adequate by any measure?
JG: We have just a few inches of suspension travel. Compare that to a half million dollar Trophy Truck, which can have three feet of travel. I’ve had Trophy Truck drivers say we get more beat up than they do during a race. I’m starting to believe it.
HMA: What are the limitations of driving a Class 11 in the Baja 1000?
JG: Everything’s working against us. I don’t say that to be dramatic. If you look at the Baja 1000, the time limit on the course (something like 45 hours last year) was set for the Class 11s. It’s typically, “Take the length of the course, divide it by 26 mph and that’s how long you have to finish the race without timing out.” We’re the slowest class and we’re usually the last to leave the start line. That means the course has already been chewed up by all the other cars. Don’t even get me started on getting through silt beds.
HMA: Are there any advantages to competing in this class, aside from the obvious nostalgia and monumental challenge?
JG: Racing in general is a money pit but Class 11 is affordable compared to other classes. You can buy a race ready car for $6,000 to $8,000 and it usually comes with a bunch of spare parts and you’re racing the next weekend. If you build from scratch and want a good quality, competitive car, you’re looking at $12,000-$15,000 and it can take up to a year to build. Contrast that with a new UTV, which will set you back around $20,000 and then you need to bolt on race parts. Class 11s are also fan favorites. Folks love the Trophy Trucks and they love the Class 11s, mostly because they think we’re crazy for even trying to do what we do.
HMA: The adaptability of the VW Beetle is legendary, but why do you think it is still competing in races like Baja in a stock class? Is it really that adept? Or is there a lot of love of the Beetle that fuels team like Desert Dingo?
JG: VWs were at the beginning of off road racing. Back in the 1960s, everyone had VWs, Ford Broncos, and old Jeeps. People have been modifying them ever since. Folks are really amazed at what we can do and where we can go in the car. They’re light, they’re nimble, and, because they’re round, you can roll them back over pretty easily. There’s definitely the nostalgia factor, but considering it’s a 48-year old car, it does OK for itself.
The #1107 doing its thing. Photo credit to D. Tobias Silverman
HMA: I understand experience is the most valuable tool in the toolbox -- that and some luck. What do you think has been the barrier that has stopped Desert Dingo from finishing thus far?
JG: We just keep finding new ways to not finish. The first time we made every noob mistake in the book and only lasted 144 miles. That’s typical for a first-year team. The second year we hit a tree head on at night and blew the transmission. The year after that, we blew through two transmissions (now we take three with us). In 2013, we broke our own rule and let someone work on the car who wasn’t part of the team and, as a result, we blew our front shocks, cannibalized some off another car, then destroyed a front beam and we still made it 577 miles until we got to a section of course there was no way we could make it through. Despite all that, the guys drove the car back to Ensenada on the highway (stopping for drinks along the way). Last year I really thought we were the team to beat, but we got an oil leak early on (not a big deal), then we had a clutch disintegrate inside the transmission (never had that happen in seven years of racing), and then we broke a front spindle. We fixed all of those but, by then, checkpoints ahead of us were closed and there was no way we could finish the race before timing out. We’ll win it this year for sure.
HMA: What did you learn in the last Baja 1000 that will be a key factor in improving next year’s run?
JG: We made the mistake of distributing our fuel to the remote pits instead of carrying it on our chase trucks and doing our own fueling. I should have known better. When we started having mechanical problems, the window of time to make it to each pit before it shut down kept shrinking. In the end, the car was running great, but there was no way to make up for lost time. For 2015 we’ll carry fuel in our chase vehicles and use the pits for emergency service.
In the 45 hours it take to complete the Baja 1000 at Class 11 pace, about half is done in the dark. Photo credit to D. Tobias Silverman
HMA: Ok, first things first. Finish a Baja 1000; better yet, win your class. But what about Dakar? Do you think Desert Dingo will aspire to compete in the most grueling race in the world?
JG: Dakar is an entirely different world, though I’ve been invited to go down and be part of a German team for the 2016 race. Also it’s an order of magnitude more expensive. And there’s no class for stock bugs. Once we win the 1000 (and we will win it), the team will decide what we want to do moving forward. We’ll probably do the NORRA Mexican 1000, which is more fun; the Vegas to Reno race, and always the Mint 400. We go for the long endurance races. Short course racing, to me, is boring. I also keep looking at the Mongol Rally – 10,000 miles from London to Mongolia – in a Baja Bug. Mostly because it would be cool and I’d visit the Kamaz factory in Naberezhnye Chelny, Tatarstan. Their Dakar trucks are awesome. And maybe the La Carrera Pan Americana in a rally Beetle. That would be a blast.
HMA: Would you say Desert Dingo is as homegrown as other Class 11 teams? What makes Desert Dingo different than the competition?
JG: We’re definitely shade tree mechanics. The team wrenches on the car in a Quonset hut at the home of one of the team members. That being said, we’re always looking at new technologies – many of them from outside of racing – to give us a competitive edge.
One of the greatest challenges in racing the 1000 is communication, knowing where everyone is and being able to talk with them. Car radios are short range – a couple of miles or so – and cell phone service is pretty much non-existent once you’re outside the cities and towns. Iridium loaned us some of their new Iridium Go! satellite-based Wi-Fi hotspots. We hard-wired one into the race car and had one in each chase vehicle. We were able to stay in constant communication throughout the race, which is pretty much unheard of. I tell people “We’re slow, but we have the cool toys.”
I also acquired a process engineer to join the team to help us streamline processes we use to prep the car in advance of a race, including how we work on it on-site and how we do pit stops. His recommendations were phenomenal and now we have a 21-page checklist we go through for every race. It’s made us much more efficient.
We’re also pretty good at marketing and sponsorship. All those decals you see on the car are from companies that are working with us and – I hope – we’re providing some value to them.
Lastly, a lot of Class 11 racers helped us out when we were getting started and we do the same now, reaching out to new teams to share advice on how to get started and what to expect. Also, it’s a great way to keep an eye on future competition.
Join us next week in Heavy Metal Affliction for Part Two of the Desert Dingo Racing interview where Graham enlightens us on what it takes to plan an attempt at the Baja 1000, what it’s like to drive a stock VW Bug under these conditions, and a rapid-fire session that may leave you wondering if you really needed to know the answer to our last question.
See you tomorrow on #ForzaFriday at 3 p.m. Pacific on Twitch where I will be taking on the 1.2 Hours of Sebring in Forza Motorsport 5.