Volkswagen-powered Baja racers. Photos courtesy Volkswagen of America.
In the late summer of 1967, the newly formed National Off-Road Racing Association (NORRA) enlisted the help of Bruce Meyers, builder of the Volkswagen Beetle-based Meyers Manx dune buggy, in soliciting sponsorship from Volkswagen for the inaugural Mexican 1000 Rally. The response received from Volkswagen of America’s offices in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, was less than promising, threatening litigation for any attempt at linking the brand to a “racing image.”
Despite this inauspicious start, the debut Mexican 1000 went on as planned, but without Volkswagen’s financial assistance. Ironically, Meyers recalls that roughly 50 of the 68 cars starting the race were VW-based, including numerous Meyers Manx dune buggies, and a Manx driven by Vic Wilson and Ted Mangels earned victory with a time of 27 hours and 38 minutes. The functionality and durability of the Beetle platform would eventually spawn a range of off-road racing vehicles that continue to run today, including Baja Bugs and purpose-built buggies.
A VW-powered dune buggy runs an early Baja race.
Volkswagen now embraces its early desert racing roots, commemorating the 50th running of the Mexican 1000 (now the BFGoodrich Tires SCORE Baja 1000) with a press release emphasizing that the Beetle has accumulated more wins in the Baja 1000 than any other model of vehicle. In honor of this history, Volkswagen of America’s Heritage Collection even includes a SCORE (Southern California Off-Road Enterprises) Class 11 Baja Bug built by Desert Dingo Racing.
VW-powered buggies were once among the fastest entrants.
As Dan Strohl recounted in his article covering the race’s golden anniversary, its roots date to a 1962 publicity stunt by Honda of America to promote its then-new Honda CL72 Scrambler motorcycle. The 950-mile trip from Tijuana to La Paz took riders Dave Ekins (brother to Bud Ekins) and Billy Robertson Jr. 39 hours and 56 minutes to complete, and for the next five years, the record belonged to two-wheel vehicles.
During a 1967 party at California’s Big Bear, where the dune buggy crowd mingled with the motorcycle crowd, a fit of bench racing prompted Bruce Meyers to proclaim he could beat the existing motorcycle record for the Baja run; after all, a buggy could carry two drivers and quite a bit more fuel. The next day, Meyers’s friend and colleague Ted Mangels confirmed the math, devising a plan to modify Old Red, the Meyers Manx prototype, to carry an additional fuel load.
Knowing that most of the trip would be spent in second and third years, Meyers and Mangels calculated fuel economy of 15 MPG. Rounding up the distance to 975 miles, the pair calculated that 65 gallons of gas would be necessary to complete the trip without stopping. Spare oxygen cylinders were converted to serve as gas tanks (holding eight gallons each), and Meyers recalls that little else was done to prepare the buggy for the trip.
Departing from Tijuana, Meyers and Mangels made La Paz in roughly 30 hours of driving time on the feasibility run, but this trip south included an overnight stop and wasn’t officially timed. Realizing that a new record was well within their grasp, the pair enlisted the help of Mexican officials to certify the start and end times, and set off from La Paz northward to Tijuana at 10:00 p.m.
Some 32 hours later, the pair arrived in the northern Mexican city, only to find that the local police department knew nothing of the record attempt. The Tourism Department, also informed of the trip, was scheduled to open an hour later, but the clerk didn’t report for work on that day until 10:00 a.m. By the time the journey was certified, 34 hours and 45 minutes had elapsed. The time was still good enough to set a record, and though it was short-lived (and broken by a Rambler sedan less than three months later), it served as the inspiration behind the Mexican 1000 Rally.
Meyers himself would start the Mexican 1000 Rally twice, never finishing. His first attempt ended in mechanical failure, while his second run ended in a crash, leaving Meyers with two broken legs, shortly after passing Parnelli Jones. It wasn’t until 2015, while filming a movie with an Australian crew, that he was given the chance to cross the finish line. Five miles from the race’s end, Meyers was given a car “running on three cylinders, with only third gear,” but it was enough to take the checkered flag.
The fuel crisis cancelled the race in 1974, and since its resumption in 1975 the event has been sanctioned by SCORE. Today, the Baja 1000 is one of four events that make up the SCORE World Desert Championship, and while Beetles and buggies are no longer the fastest entrants, the Volkswagen categories remain popular, representing a cost-effective way to get started in off-road racing.
The 2017 BFGoodrich Tires SCORE Baja 1000 begins in Ensenada, Mexico, on Tuesday, November 14. For additional information, visit SCORE-International.com.