Robby Gordon (third from the bottom, on the asphalt), during this week's Baja 1000 'pre-run,' to check out the GPS lines. Gordon does have a strange sense of humor, doesn't he? (Photo: Robby Gordon Motorsports)
By Mike Mulhern
That's about when some of the mystique of this whole Baja thing began to hit.
-- Even before the rippin' rock-throwing run through wilderness valleys, up and over dunes, up and down dry-wash gulches, and along frightening cliff-edge trails where you have to hope to stay ahead of the blinding clouds of sand that rivals in these spidery off-road machines throw up in their wake.
-- Even before that death-defying, full-tilt-boogey sprint, well past sunset, up to legendary Mike's Sky Ranch....with its 3,000-foot drop-offs, which fortunately couldn't be seen that clearly in the darkness.
Robby Gordon and his guys have this whole Baja thing down pat by now, defusing tense situations by passing out racing hats to all, and laughing about the upcoming race. He's been doing this for more than 20 years, and he's a legend throughout the Baja penisula, known at just about every little country store around.
Strapped into the back of Robby Gordon's Baja off-road creation, with the six-point harness well tightened, and sizzling drops of oil from those huge three-foot shocks occasionally spraying the back of my neck, well, suffice it to say riding with Robby is more than a Disney E-ride. A hellava lot more.
But death be damned, let's do it, I'd said when Gordon invited me to check out this Baja thing right from the inside of the spider.
That was a couple of years ago, and I've been itching to go back ever since. Riding shotgun with Robby Gordon is a life-altering experience.
The guy has no fear.
But he's got such an infectious, enthusiastic personality that he can sell just about anything to anyone.
Right now he's selling Speed. A new energy drink, from a new company that he himself just helped form. It's part of a new business model Gordon is trying. "Instead chasing sponsors on the phone, now I am my own sponsor," Gordon says. "Do you get it? I am my own sponsor."
And he plans to use a variant of the U.S. Tobacco marketing game, putting different sponsor names on his quarterpanels in exchange for product placement by vendors.
At the moment Gordon says his energy drink is so packed with vitamins that The Vitamin Shoppe may carry it.
He's pitching Fox TV's Speed Channel for a show of his own 'Chasing speed,' with a variety of athletes, such as Tour de France legend Lance Armstrong, sports figures who rely on speed for part of their game.
Gordon has been doing his own SpeedFactoryTV (http://www.speedfactory.tv/ ) show this season.
And Gordon, with http://www.planetrobby.com/ , has one of the hottest websites in NASCAR.
When it comes to the Baja races and the Dakar Rally Gordon thrives on the tense logistics of it all, solving the myriad logistical nightmares, almost as much as the racing itself.
Glam time for RG and his Speed Girls (Photo: Robby Gordon Motorsports)
It's just all part of the Robby Gordon persona.
Robby lives to prove to the world that he can do it his way.
He's one of NASCAR's few remaining independents, an owner-driver in the classic style. And up against the giant rivals in stock car racing, Gordon is almost always the underdog.
However this season he has almost seemed missing in action, out here on the NASCAR trail, farming out his stock car team for several races, seemingly struggling to find enough sponsorship to continue to make a go of it.
Then suddenly two weeks ago at Talladega Gordon returned to the stage, touting a new sponsor – did he tell you the logo on the cans glows in the dark, perfect for those party nights -- and a new way of doing business.
And now he's pumped up about General Motors' decision to get back into Indy-car racing....which was for so many years where Gordon thrived, along with his off-road operations, based out of his Orange, Calif., hometown. Gordon, one of the few who could do the Indy-Charlotte double legitimately, came very close to winning the Indy 500 twice, and a third time he had an outside shot. Now he's readying things for the 2011 Indy 500, which he may run instead of the Charlotte 600.
But Gordon's not sure about trying the 'double,' Indianapolis and Charlotte the same day, even though promoter Bruton Smith has put up a $20 million bonus if anyone can win both. "Is that for real?" Gordon asks. "But Bruton said it, and Bruton is a man of his word....."
Gordon concedes his NASCAR operation this season hasn't performed up his standards. How that changes is still up in the air. But for starters Gordon says he'll be cutting back his NASCAR schedule for 2011. "Realistically we're not a team that can win a NASCAR championship.... "
A little Dakar action for Robby Gordon. Will General Motors step up to the plate for him in this new-found gung-ho racing game plan? (Photo: Robby Gordon Motorsports)
But that's next year, and at the moment it's all about this year's Baja 1000, which kicks off Tuesday and runs through Saturday, over the 'long course,' from Ensenada all the way down to La Paz. "So logistically it's one of our tougher races," Gordon says.
"Not quite as difficult as Dakar. Dakar is tough because we've got trucks on boats and 18 to 20 guys flying, and two cars flying....and trying to track all that stuff isn't easy.
"But the Baja is one 16-to-20 hour race. Non-stop. And you never pull into the same pit area; it's not like the 24 Hours of Daytona, where you can always pit in the same spot.
"So it takes a lot of people to manage this race."
Gordon just got here to Phoenix International Raceway Friday morning, after spending the week 'pre-running' – checking out legs of the course, doing the GPS measuring and timing, and taking notes on where the notorious 'X's' are – to be avoided – and how fast to run where and when.
He and his guys will fly back to the Baja immediately after Sunday's Phoenix 500-K, to put the finishing touches on things. And if all goes well, he'll finish the 1000 just in time to fly overnight Saturday cross-country to Homestead to make the starting line for Sunday's NASCAR season finale. Wonder if he'll have time to spend a night at Mike's Sky Ranch? http://on.fb.me/d3MqFz
However it's never really the off-season for Gordon.
While the NASCAR tour is winding down this month, Gordon is in thick of preparation not only for the Baja 1000 but also for January's Dakar Rally, through Argentina and Chile.
His two $1 million Dakar Rally cars will have to be ready to leave the shop Dec. 15th, for the January 1st start of torturous 16-day South American race -- Buenos Aires to Buenos Aires via Chile's haunting Atacama Desert, with nightly bivouacs, and no Marriott or Hilton points.
While Gordon is always among the favorites to win the Bajas, he's an underdog against the army that Volkswagen throws into the Dakar.
Gordon is one of five favorites in next week's 1000. "But there are 32 Trophy Trucks now; it's not like it was when there were only 10," Gordon points out.
"The five of us may have the best shot at winning, but if any of us has any glitches, there are 15 guys who could win."
Gordon, son of the famous 'Baja Bob,' has been running off-road since his teens, and he's won seven championships, most recently 2009, while running the full NASCAR Cup tour. This season his off-road program has been less effective; he's eighth in SCORE standings. The year didn't really start all that well: he was late getting to the first event, in Laughlin, Nev., in January because he was still in Argentina finishing the Dakar. And then he broke two wheels in the Laughlin race itself. He finished second the next time out, in the March San Filipe event. "In the (June) Baja 500 we were leading when we broke the transmission. And in the Primm (September) we broke the transmission.
"So we've just made a whole bunch of new transmission parts. In fact we just got the parts this weekend, for the Baja 1000."
RG: New sponsor in hand....his left hand here (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
It's a Chevy deal off-road, though he runs Toyotas in NASCAR. How Gordon fits into the NASCAR Toyota program isn't all that clear, but it doesn't look like much of a factory deal at all. Gordon is shopping for a new NASCAR manufacturer for 2011, and he says he wants to return to Chevrolet.
Part of the behind-the-scenes key to Gordon's career has been partial backing from long-time friend John Menard, he of Menard's fame.
Gordon won his first Baja in 1989, and he's become a Baja legend in the years since. (Sisters Beccy and Robyn also race off-road.)
He stepped it all up a notch in 2005 by taking on the Dakar Rally, winning two of the 16 stages and finishing 12th. The Dakar was moved to South America in 2009 because of terrorist threats over its traditional African courses; Gordon finished third in the 2009 running and eighth in 2010. He's won four Dakar stages overall, quite a driving achievement for a relatively under-budgeted operation against the giant Europeans.
Factory-backing is key to the Dakar, and Gordon's sponsorship has been with General Motors, for its Hummer marketing. GM is of course dropping Hummer, but Gordon is banking on what appears to be a major new GM commitment to racing – he's ready to sign up for the new Chevy Indy 500 deal, just announced Friday – and maybe GM's marketing plans for that honking-big new truck will include one of the world's best off-roaders.
Robby Gordon's business dealings with John Menard span his career, and there may soon be a new chapter (Photo: Robby Gordon Motorsports)
Robby Gordon, over his nearly 20-year NASCAR career, has been one of the best pure racers in this sport. But his insistence on doing things his way has sometimes seemed a roadblock. For example he was winning Cup races while driving for Richard Childress, but Gordon wanted to prove that he could build a NASCAR team of his own and compete successfully.
He still hasn't won for his own team, but he's come very, very close, like at Sonoma this past June.
GM's former Chevy boss Brent Dewar, a die-hard racing fan, calls Gordon a 'MacGyver,' for his duct-tape-and-Swiss-Army-Knife resourcefulness in the field, a survival trait on some of these trails.
NASCAR officials, on the other hand, have frequently put Gordon in their doghouse. Like the time he was fined $100,000 for having the wrong front bumper on his Daytona car; he appealed....and the fine was raised to $150,000.
But Gordon almost seems to revel in his mischievousness.
"What I really like about this off-road stuff is I can build anything I want, I can let my imagination go wild," Gordon, a poet in steel back in the shop, says.
"So it's like Formula One on dirt. The only rule is no blowers, no turbos.
"You can whittle something out on a lathe or a mill and then go race that part.
"So we make every part on the car, everything from wheels to brake calipers to the body. That's the part I truly enjoy…because here in NASCAR your hands are so tied, and if your rear end is a little off, it's $50,000 and 50 points.
"But off-road you can use your imagination.
"I'd love for Rick Hendrick and Roger Penske to come race off-road and see what they could do."
The 2011 Dakar Rally, Buenos Aires to Buenos Aires, the long way around....
When you're making a pit stop for gas and tires in the desert, well, bring along everything you might need. (Photo: Robby Gordon Motorsports)