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La Competicion Asombrosa: Dana Brown Chases the Baja 1000 in 'Dust to Glory'

By Michael Rose

From Dana Brown's 'Dust to Glory.' An IFC Films release. Photo: Mike McCoy Sr.

From the squalor of Tijuana to the magnificent beaches of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico 's Baja California Peninsula is an almost mythic place filled with contradictions. It's covered by deserts yet boasts grand, pine-covered mountain forests. Billionaires fly in to visit their beachfront villas while many people eke out a marginal existence.

To some it's the last vestige of the Wild West. It's rough, seedy, dangerous and seductive. For 37 years Baja has enticed an ever-growing collection of little-known off-road racers, including motorsports champions Parnelli Jones and Robby Gordon, actors Steve McQueen and James Garner and everyday dreamers. They willingly enter the most grueling, insane sporting event ever devised.

This disparate bunch shares the desire to zoom across the untamed Baja in a 1,000-mile-long race over primitive trails, rocks, sand washes, dry lake beds, cattle crossings and precarious mountain passes. Half the race is run in total darkness. Missing a turn can send you hurtling down a mountainside. And there's no cell service.

An aura of festive danger hangs over the Baja 1000 and gives the drivers a certain status, like the matadors in Tijuana 's bullrings. The cars assemble just after dawn on the main street of Ensenada. The area is transformed into a cross between a carnival and a scene out of The Road Warrior. Helmeted desert racers in colorful flame suits line up their motorcycles, 800-horsepower monster trucks, handcrafted stubby VWs, dune buggies and futuristic, custom-built high-performance machines.

This pre-race circus is easy for the media to cover; what's hard is the race itself. I was sent down to Baja several years ago with a small film crew to capture the event for a History Channel special. A 1,000 mile-long race across inaccessible terrain where cell phones don't operate is a different animal from the Indy 500. There are no press facilities or staked-out camera positions, let alone hospitality suites. You're on your own covering high-speed chaos. If you grab a few shots of the start you'll be trapped in the traffic, and you never get out of town to capture the rest of the race. So, most crews settle for either shooting the start or mapping out a plan to race the racers and catch them when they cross over paved roads. This usually works for the first 200 miles, and then they're gone. That's why the Baja 1000 is called "the greatest race that's never been seen."

But it's become a part of racing folklore. Every bar is full of veteran drivers regaling listeners with harrowing stories about booby traps of cars and boulders buried by spectators on the dirt course, mischievous course-change pranks and crowds that walk out in front of the oncoming racers. Then there are the silt beds that can swallow a car, and the ever-present Federales. But there are also the stunning mountain passes, deserted beaches and the pristine wilderness, as well as the generous locals who rescue drivers from twisted heaps.

This created an enticing myth that could never be captured. That is until Dana Brown--director of the surfing epic Step Into Liquid and the son of Bruce Brown, the creator of the quintessential surf film The Endless Summer--decided to take a stab at shooting the unseen race. The result, Dust to Glory, a 90-minute feature-length documentary, is set for release in April through IFC Films.

As he prepared to get underway it became clear to Brown that this wasn't going to be an easy Indy 500 weekend. He assembled a production army that would have made Leni Riefenstahl jealous. Brown mapped out a plan for his 90-some crewmembers, who'd lug 55 cameras and place themselves along the course at intervals designed to catch the action. A few would follow the race from four helicopters and a custom-built, four-passenger, high-speed camera car. All this was augmented with a sprinkling of shooters wearing helmet cams and on-board cameras placed in vehicles to let the audience see the race from the driver's point of view. Brown thought he had it covered.

"We didn't get close to the whole thing," he says. He looked at a map and realized that his crews would still be 25, 50, 100 miles apart. "So you're not really getting everything, but we got plenty, which is kind of our theory."

Brown worried about the safety of his crew. "I felt sick to my stomach the whole day thinking, 'What are you going to do if somebody gets killed?'" he recalls. One helmet-cam operator broke his hand but got swept up in the race and kept riding for nine more hours.

The rest of the crew made it unscathed and brought back 250 hours of footage shot with a combination of high-definition video/HDcam, 35mm, Super-16mm with Nightscope, Super-16mm time-lapse, DVcam and miniDV. It took Brown, his co-producers and editors three months just to view the raw film. They fell in love with the stories the crew had captured and were glad one of the racers had talked them into making the film.

Mike "Mouse" McCoy had raced motorcycles in Baja for years. After seeing Step Into Liquid, he was determined to convince Brown to shoot what he calls "The Last Frontier."

"It's The Last Frontier that I know about in North America that I can get to, that I can access. It's border towns in the north, vacation towns in the south and 1,000 miles of uncharted territory in between," says McCoy. He was sure Brown would see that the racers are like the big wave riders in Step Into Liquid.

"You're not out there risking your life going 110 miles an hour at night in Mexico because someone in the stands is cheering you on," maintains McCoy. "You're doing it because you enjoy the moment. For me it's more soulful."

Brown looked into the idea and was hooked. "It's like Mardi Gras meets the Indy 500 meets the Oklahoma Land Rush," he explains. Brown and his team found enough craziness and action, but they also discovered human stories. They followed legendary racecar driver Mario Andretti as he attempted his first Baja race. It was a fish-out-of-water experience seeing the refined and worldly Andretti, who is normally at home in his Napa Valley vineyard, climb into a truck and head off into the desert. Unfortunately, he ends up hitchhiking back to town after his truck breaks down.

The most dramatic sequence is a duel for first place that pits Honda motorcycle team riders Johnny Campbell and Steve Hedgeveld against former teammate Andy Grider. The camera helicopter follows the riders as they plow through the sand washes and try to find short cuts that bypass the mapped-out course. They head for the beach and storm down the coast then cut back inland and keep racing. The cross-cutting, amazing vistas and back story of the rivalry between the riders makes for riveting filmmaking.

McCoy also gets his due. Unlike most riders, who team up and split driving chores, he decided to run the race solo. We see that after 12 hours of constant riding he gets a bit loopy. He tells his pit crew the same story over and over again. They feign interest and quickly get him back into the race.

There are also some smaller touching moments. We take a detour with Malcolm Smith and visit an orphanage he's helped to build. It's clear that many of these crazed, adrenaline-pumped racers have a real love for the land and the people.

While we're dazzled by the spectacle, we also get a sense that there's a message lurking beneath all the dust and noise. "No matter who you are, it's going to make you want to get off the couch and go try something," says McCoy.

"We live in a world where everybody's trying to tell you that you can't--you can't do this and you can't do that, and be very afraid," Brown notes. "There's a whole lot of things in the world you can do if you're dumb enough or brave enough or just don't mind falling on your butt."

After seeing this film, you may not want to rush out and challenge the Baja, but you'll understand why these racers keep coming back year after year.


Michael Rose is a writer/producer/director of factual programming and serves on the IDA Board of Directors.