Fort Mill, SC – April 24, 2012 – What do a rooster and a hurricane have in common? They will both be at the General Tire NORRA (National Off-Road Racing Association) Mexican 1000. Friends, and teammates, Rick “Hurricane” Johnson and Jim “Rooster” Riley will once again embark upon the 1,100-mile race down the exotic Baja peninsula from Mexicali to San Jose Del Cabo. This year’s rally marking the third time since the Mexican 1000 revival in 2010 that racers from all generations have piloted their vintage vehicles across one of the world’s most notorious deserts.
Johnson in his 1979 winged sprint car named “Jalopy” and Riley in the famed “Snortin Nortin” will both tackle the gritty, old school style of racing that has laid the groundwork for what we know as off-road racing today. Both historians of the sport, Johnson and Riley sat down to talk about the history of the General Tire NORRA Mexican 1000, vehicle preparation, challenges, strategy, and socializing with 300 of their closest off-road friends. Here’s what they had to say:
Q: What does it mean to you to compete in a race that laid the groundwork for today’s off-road racing?
A (Johnson) – Competing in the 2012 General Tire NORRA Mexican 1000 returns us to a place in time where man and machine first challenged the unknown terrains of BAJA California, Mexico. It’s an honor for me to represent General Tire and retrace the routes of my childhood heroes who laid the groundwork for a race that is now known as the famous Baja 1000. In 1965 Ted Mangels was the first person to record a registered time in a 4-wheeled vehicle beating the previously set time of motorcycle racer Dave Ekins.
This sparked many thrill-seekers to attend the first organized race in 1967 named the NORRA Mexican 1000. A challenge of man to see who could be the fastest to race modified vehicles or bikes down the treacherous desert with only a map or compass from Mexicali to La Paz, B.C.S, Mexico. It tested the skills of these drivers and their machines. For us to be able to race down the Baja peninsula in the same type of vintage race cars as driver’s like Parnelli Jones, Larry Minor, Mickey Thompson and actors James Garner and Steve McQueen is a chance to relive my childhood dream of conquering Baja. Experiencing the challenges these thrill-seekers of yesteryear had to overcome, competing in modified vintage vehicles, makes you realize how far modern day technology has really come.
A (Riley) – I remember as a kid looking at pictures of my Dad down in Baja pre-running these races with his buddies. For me to actually race in an event like this is like making a childhood fantasy come true. Not to mention my Dad loves to compare stories from 1971 to present day. I love the fact that we are using vehicles that have history and their own story to tell. The “Snortin Nortin” gets “thumbs up” all the way down the peninsula.
A (Johnson) – I bought it off E-bay at the site of seeing a classic early day off-road race car, my wife Brenda thought I had gone crazy. The 1979 winged sprint car named the “Jalopy” for its unique look was built by Smokey Allerman. The car is a true testament to R&D ahead of its time. The idea of better suspension, steering and speed to handle the more difficult terrain of Baja went into the thought process of this car. The precision fabrication, independent front and rear suspension, weight balance, and sure strength shows these pioneers were experienced Baja racers. I am honored to once again be able to blaze the trails of Baja in a very unique off-road sprint car, driving on the same General Tire Grabber AT2 tires that can be purchased from your local tire dealer.
A (Riley) – I will once again be piloting the famous General Tire 1971 “Snortin Nortin” Nova in the Mexican 1000. Well known to the off-road community in the earlier years of S.C.O.R.E & HDRA Class 6 racing, the Snortin Nortin (named after the people who snort like a pig when laughing) is remembered by many with its many KC HiLites off-road lights in front and its 22 FOX racing shock absorbers that assist the cars handling. The Chevy V8 car is stiff, fast and loud. The feeling of driving the vintage Nova down the Baja terrain is a testament to how tough these cars and warriors really were. Rick actually rescued the car in 2011 from the swamps of the Louisiana Bayou after being sold by the Mick Newton family after his passing in the 90’s. The car is a throwback in history when typically family and friends would take a passenger car, fabricate a cage in their garage, add some shocks and other creature comforts, and go racing as a team. Rick and team mechanic Matt “Shrek” Dowland drove 30 hours to Louisiana one-way to purchase the Nova sight unseen. They returned to restore it with family and friends in 90 days for the 2011 Mexican 1000, just like the old days. I only wish I had the vision Rick had to purchase the Snortin Nortin. He better keep the garage locked or it may wind up in my shop….
Q: Are there any special preparations that need to be done to get a vintage car ready to run the General Tire Mexican 1000?
A (Johnson) – Baja racing whether in a vintage off-road car or modern day racer takes a ton of preparation and planning. Not only does the vehicle need to be prepared to tackle the toughest conditions; spare parts, wheel and tire, tools, food, and water are added to the car to insure you make it to the finish line. The General Tire / Azunia Tequila race team is well prepared with 13 Baja experienced team members who have helped us win a number of Baja 1000 races along with winning last year in the “Snortin Nortin” Nova. Not only will the team be racing two vintage vehicles, but our team will be following us in a highly modified Ford Bronco pre-runner, three Ford chase trucks towing three vehicle trailers and you guessed it, all on General Tires.
A (Riley) – With the challenges of Baja that are changing each and every year, I don’t think you can be prepared enough. It requires a lot of planning, physical training, organization, solid team members, and some luck. I am very fortunate to have a group of people that are seasoned Baja professionals behind the team. More work gets done behind the scenes before and during the race than most people would ever understand. As an example – Rick Johnson’s wife Brenda drove every mile of the course as a sweeper to ensure everyone made it out safe last year. I don’t think I could do that.
Q: How does vehicle preparation for the Mexican 1000 race differ from preparing for a points race?
A (Johnson) – Preparing the vintage cars are a little different then preparing our current race truck. Some of the parts are older and more fragile and not made any longer, plus the parts are not as strong as the parts of today. The driving style is different as you have to be very careful not to overdrive the car to the point of breaking it and the race is more of a rally atmosphere with a stop at each day of the race. Today’s race cars are much stronger and handle a lot better than the cars of the past. We still have to give as much care on the cars of today as the vintage cars as they are put through much more of a test. Tire technology and sidewall specifications are also more improved. Though flat tires are not a thing of the past, today’s tires are much stronger and able to take more of a beating, which helps improve everyday street driving. Our General’s have been great and I have confidence that they will get us to the finish line again.
A (Riley) – Every race has the same amount of danger regardless of what you are driving and where. For me I know that I have an incredible team working on the vehicle and getting it ready for a long race. I personally focus on my personal health and understanding of the logistics. I also listen to every word of advice my driving partner Rick Johnson has to say about the race ahead. With four Baja 1000 titles under his belt, it’s time to shut up and listen to someone that knows.
Q: How is your mindset different going into the Mexican 1000 versus a point’s race?
A (Johnson) – The General Tire NORRA Mexican 1000 is a rally style of racing spread over four days racing the beautiful Baja landscape. Sometimes you get lost in looking at the scenery of the large saguaro cactus, treacherous mountain terrain, and the clear blue waters of the Sea of Cortez. The rally is much more laid-back with timed stages each day and time to work on your cars each night. There is plenty of time to reflect back on how the early years of racing must have felt sharing stories with the heroes of our sport. Mexico is a very mystical part of the world and the culture is very eye opening and peaceful. The people of Mexico are welcoming and caring, off-road racing is their sport and part of their culture, they embrace your presence with joy and treat you like heroes. Much different than racing on a closed portion of land in the U.S. with the pressures of racing hard to win.
A (Riley) – I want to win no matter what. After getting to La Paz last year and knowing that we had finished the race my next question was, ‘did we win the class’? The competitive spirit is in us all and we want to win regardless. Besides, NORRA gives out the best trophies.
Q: What do you anticipate to be some of the more difficult portions of the race?
A (Johnson) – The more difficult portions of the race, for me, are getting a clean start and not overdriving the car right away. We all get the race blood pumping when the green flag drops and you have to keep reminding yourself that Cabo San Lucas is a long ways away. Just past the halfway point on day two is San Javier which is rocky mountain terrain and many water crossings, this is really tough on the car. If we get rain before the race, this will change the pace of the race and the leaders. The cars at this point are starting to get used up and a little tired. You start to hear sounds in the car that you didn’t notice before. The water takes a toll on all the parts and you then have to prepare to hit the deep silt beds shortly after this, so you tend to take it easier, knowing you are only halfway through the race.
A (Riley) – Anytime you run into silt beds it is difficult. The vintage vehicles work great but the strain of a silt bed always worries me. The heat can also play a factor. Last year we had to create our own “wind dam” made out of cardboard and stickers to cool off the motor. Beyond that I think we have a great course laid out to run all the way to Cabo.
Q: What type of strategy is involved for a race like this?
A (Johnson) – We use a strategy of consistency and perseverance. We know it is a long race and we try to use our equipment to keep the pace but try not to abuse it to a point of breaking. Baja is a big beautiful desert, but you don’t want to break down in it.
A (Riley) – Preserve the equipment and be smart. We spend a lot of time talking about the weak point of the vehicles and what could go wrong. We try to be prepared for that one random problem that you never anticipate. Outside of the mechanical strategies we treat this like any other race. Be smart, use your head, watch out for the dangers, and be mentally and physically tough for the long days ahead.
Q: General Tire has become part of the fabric of off-road racing and they now title sponsor the General Tire Mexican 1000. What does it mean to you to have a sponsor that supports and appreciates the heritage of the sport?
A (Johnson) – General Tire helped make history in the earlier years of off-road racing, it’s great to see them return to the sport where they left off as a champion. Not only did they make a great product then, they make a great product now. The effort they have put into the R&D of their tire through motorsport racing, transfer’s to our daily driven street vehicles and is second-to-none. We are proud to represent the General Tire brand and appreciate their involvement in the NORRA Mexican 1000.
A (Riley) – I am thrilled to be a part of the General Tire team. I appreciate that they are a brand that recognizes the important aspects of our sport from present day to the past. I attribute the renewed interest from the masses to General Tire and their efforts to support off-road racing. We are a group of loyal people that are there for each other in time of need and celebration much like a family. General Tire is a part of that family. I often wear my General Tire apparel around town hoping that someone will ask me about it because I am proud to tell them about the brand and my personal story.
Q: What’s the best part of racing in the General Tire Mexican 1000?
A (Riley) – The Azunia Tequila Margaritas at the end of each day, at a new location, with 300 of your closest off-road buddies. You will just have to come and see for yourself!
A (Johnson) – Hey Jim, that was going to be my response!