We head to Mexico to an event bringing dangerous, dusty hill climbing back to the masses
“Big balls and no brains.” That, according to Matt Brabham – grandson of Formula One legend Sir Jack Brabham – is what’s needed.
Having witnessed him spear his pint-size Trophy Truck into the local scenery, and grenade two engines in a day, I’m not going to argue against it.
We’re in Middle of Bloody Nowhere, Mexico. Roughly 100 miles south-east of Ensenada at what could possibly be one of the most dangerous and exciting new races on the planet. It’s called Mike’s Peak. A 20-mile desert-based, flat-out off-road hill climb to ‘Mike’s Sky Ranch’ – a hedonistic retreat high up in the San Pedro Mártir hills.
Words and photography: Rowan Horncastle
The name is a very intentional play on that other very famous hill climb: Pikes Peak. That’s because, ultimately, it’s the kernel that got us here.
Pikes Peak, for the uninitiated, is an annual hill climb up a public road in Colorado that scales the side of a mountain. Starting way back in 1916, the course is a snaking 12.42-mile, 4,720-foot ascent through 156 corners and into the clouds to the chequered flag at a queasy 14,000ft.
It’s simple, hairy-chested racing at its best. Made even more challenging and special for one reason: dirt. Running on loose gravel offers a different dimension to the traditional, stuffy and stiff-upper-lipped hill climb scene. It’s more visual, more engaging and a lot trickier to drive.
Or it was. Pikes Peak was somewhat neutered in 2012, when glossy, smooth black tarmac was slopped over the dirt road. This changed everything. It brought a heavier reliance on aerodynamic, rather than mechanical grip. Runs became more predictable, safer and opened the door for circuit racers to come and have a crack in their track-spec cars.
People like nine-time WRC champ, Sébastien Loeb. Who in 2013 rocked up in a purpose-built 875bhp, 875kg, super-specialist, hill-climb weapon made out of recycled Le Mans parts. Seb didn’t just break the Pikes Peak record, but unequivocally obliterated it. 8:13.878 was his time. Equating to an average of 90.53mph and sending the previous 90-odd years of records into insignificance.
This irked a portion of petrolheads. The type who live for dirt to be seen underneath their fingers: the off-road racers, the dust monkeys. King of which is Robby Gordon.
Sat casually in a camping chair, leg swung over the arm rest, he surveys the paddock area and beautiful Baja scenery.
“Bitchin’, ain’t it,” he proclaims.
He’s been coming here since he was a kid. And with multiple Baja 1000 wins to his name, is heralded as a hero south of the border. No one-trick pony either; Mickey Thompson off-road, Daytona 24hr, IndyCar, NASCAR, IROC, Dakar and Stadium Super Trucks, he’s done it all.
Within the world of motorsport, he’s loved and loathed in equal measure. A multifaceted and hard to gauge character; caring, charming, welcoming, gregarious, driven, forceful, pugnacious and at times aggressive – especially when racing. But there’s more to him than the natural talent behind the wheel. Nowadays, his head is brimming with business nous and a portfolio which, when the day to hang up his Pilotis comes, can easily see him swap his race seat for one in Dragons’ Den.
Having raced for Red Bull and Monster, he thought, ‘I can do that’ so set up his own energy drink company, ‘Speed’. That’s also the name of his engineering company.
“We make stuff happen fast,” he says unprompted and without hesitation in a very ‘Ricky Bobby doing a commercial’ way.
There, he and his team build and maintain race trucks and specialist parts. There’s also his wheel company, a LED light bar firm and the fact he designed and owns the patent for the Polaris RZR, the most successful UTV in the world. The list simply goes on and on.
It’s his latest venture, Stadium Super Trucks, that’s had Top Gear captivated over the last year. It’s a reinvention of the Mickey Thompson formula – that of bringing the carnage of off-road racing into the confines of a stadium. But what Robby has created is a cartoonistic and frenetic form of motorsport, one that’s now spilt out onto city circuits and is basically real-life Micro Machines.
The vehicles of choice are lolloping 600bhp trophy trucks so deceivingly small it’s as if they’ve been left on a hot wash. During a race, 12 of them tripod around circuits made for cars with high downforce, fight for gaps that aren’t there and jump higher than the catch fencing thanks to strategically placed six-foot jumps scattered around the course.
It’s perfect fodder for the limited attention span Snapchat generation, as races are short and snappy with, on average, two write-offs a weekend.
“If you’re not writing them off, then you’re not putting a show on,” Robby says. “And it’s all about putting on a show.”
Mike’s Peak is his latest show. A race to satisfy TV and online audiences, while bringing dusty, dangerous hill climbing back into fashion, show off his hilarious Stadium Super trucks and take a bite out of Pikes Peak.
It’s a 19.5-mile dirt road ascending 4,000 feet through 203 turns (107 rights 96 left), cattle grids, water crossings, death-y drops and horrendous blind crests and corners. The idea has been swirling around off-road circles for years, but, in a very Robby way, he’s the first to make it happen. Actions speak louder than words, and all that.
For $600 anyone can enter in pretty much anything. Seriously, the categories are as broad as you can get. At one end of the spectrum you have purpose-built 800bhp ‘Dakar-come-at-me-bro’ Trophy Trucks. At the other, a rental class. Yep, just fly in, head to the Enterprise rental desk, tick the premiere insurance box, cross the border and pray you don’t herniate the sump on the way up the hill. Sandwiched between those are SST/short course trucks, Ultra 4s, rock crawlers, rally cars, desert trucks, buggies, quads, UTVs, motorcycles and three-wheelers.
There’s no age limit either. The youngest person competing this year is eleven, has a pillow wedged behind his back to reach the pedals and his dad riding shotgun shouting go and stop in his ear. Not sure what Supernanny would say about that.
But rolling into the paddock, I’m deflated by the overall attendance. Less than 25 people have signed up and base camp at the bottom of the hill is barren and lifeless.
This is for a few reasons. Firstly, with the Baja 1000 less than two weeks away, people don’t want to risk their truck before the biggest race of the year. Secondly, just three weeks before Mike’s, a series of shocking events happened that shook the off-road community to the core and sent Robby’s world into a tailspin.
On September 14th, both Robby’s father and step-mother were found dead in their Southern California home. Police said 68-year-old Robert Gordon strangled 57-year-old wife Sharon Gordon to death and fatally shot himself. It’s being investigated as a possible murder-suicide.
Like Robby, his father, ‘Baja’ Bob Gordon – a horse feed magnate – holds legendary status on this scorched peninsula. He chalked up countless class wins racing up and down this off-road mecca and showed Robby how to read the land, drive a car reliably and be quick.
“We’ve spent many, many nights here [at Mike’s Sky Ranch]. We’d share a room, share a bed,” Robby recalls. “I think if I would have stopped this event, he would have been mad at me.” So even though the promotion was pulled, Robby promised the show would go on. But now in Baja Bob’s honour.
Quickly I realise this inaugural weekend is very much a loss-making proof of concept exercise. The minimal turnout is actually a blessing in disguise – it allows the schedule to be fluid and gives opportunity to iron out logistical creases. Good things when you have an unpredictable and dangerous road, rookie racers, a skeleton crew of medical and course staff, plus 600bhp on sand. Basically, ingredients for cooking up Total Disaster. Or at least a massive accident.
Before race day, I drive the course – at night – to check it out and assess the lodgings at the Sky Ranch. Being a Londoner, the closest I get to off-roading is crossing the grass car park at the village fete. So the terrain comes as a bit of a shock. It’s scenery that a Range Rover would struggle to get through at any sort of speed - you’re clouting over massive boulders, blasting through cattle grids, spearing across sandy, churned-up desert, doing unexpected jumps and being paranoid at what’s around the corner as the bonnet badge is pointing towards the moonlight.
It takes close to an hour to do the 19.5-mile course. I thought I’d done alright. The next day, the race cars would show me how truly wrong I was.
Robby slithers into his bright orange SST truck and heads to the start line. No one has ever run an SST truck in this kind of environment before. But being so small, light and nimble in comparison to a Trophy Truck, he reckons they’ll be a shed load quicker.
Only 21 SST trucks exist and Robby owns all of them. They’re all exactly the same spec, cost about $250k to build and no matter how much money you have in the world, you can’t buy one off him. Instead, you can rent one for $25,000 per event or $225,000 a season. He’s a businessman, remember.
Built off a steel-tube frame chassis with quick-release fibreglass bodies skinned on top, they all have good ol’ 600hp Chevy V8s powering them, a solid rear axle, and three-speed automatic transmissions. Weighing in at 1,300 kg, they’re featherweights with Trophy-truck spec suspension with 26-inches of travel and have road-legal chunky Toyo tyres.
Where my off-road biased Toyota Tacoma was pummeled to death the previous night, the SST trucks are completely unfazed by the terrain. The shocks soak up the topography, channelling their inner swan with the cabin floating elegantly and unperturbed, while below the wheels fire up and down into the arches to the beat of Happy Hardcore on fast-forward.
There’s not a corner for the first 1.3 miles. The skinny pedal spends most of the first five miles pinned to the bulkhead as the trucks top out at 150-ish mph. It then gets tight and technical. Slow, poorly-sighted and badly rutted roads concentrate the mind until Mile 8, where hard-packed, slick roads with some cliffs and pine forests take over. It leads into a series of jumps, where the SST trucks are their most entertaining.
See, where the bigger trucks and buggies suck up the terrain and land with the grace of Simone Biles, the SST damping differs. Their characteristics are akin to a space hopper that’s been toe-punted into a wall. They just seem to bounce off everything as drivers constantly sway, bucking around trying to gather up the wayward movements with the super-quick one-to-one ratio steering rack.
Mile marker 9.5 is a puckering experience. It’s a left-hander that’s out to eat you with a big rock mound on one side and cliff on the other. “I’ve seen 30 cars upside down in that one corner over my career,” Robby casually notes over dinner later.
The only real section where it feels like you’re properly climbing is around Mile 10. It’s a narrow run up steep elevation with lethal ledges and cliffs abound. The surface is slick, with river ravines, and choppy, so the tyres skate over the surface rather than grip. It gets really fast again up until Mile 16. From there to the finish, the road narrows, gets increasingly blind and incredibly rough. There’s a big flyer (jump if you’re not down with Baja lingo) at Mile 18 where the truck’s trajectory is around 1 o’clock. Then, for the grand finale: a river crossing to cool the drivers down and create a visual spectacle for the fans. If there were some there to watch, that is.
“I had the time of my life, man,” Todd Romano, one of the seven SST competitors says. “It’s so epic. Difficult, engaging and soooo damn fast.” He whoops into the pits with excitement while desperately trying to locate a beer to dilute his adrenaline.
Robby bounces rosy-cheeked with child-like enthusiasm. “Seventeen minutes! ” he shouts excitedly.
I’m stunned. Given that a road car can barely make it up in an hour, it’s a time that I just don’t have the computing power to process. It’s two minutes quicker than a trophy truck and over a minute faster than any other competitor.
Once the dust has settled, we spend the night up at the Ranch. Conditions are primitive. Phone signal, electricity and any form of connectedness to the outside were stripped of us four days ago. It’s a nascent Bond Lair, but not even Ernst Stavro Blofeld would bother coming here – you’re miles away from anywhere that sells cat food and there are no plug sockets to power the lasers.
It was built by Mike Leon, an American whose family came from Jalisco, Mexico. He owned a couple of bars in Tijuana, but by the 1960s he’d had enough and wanted something a little more remote. In 1967, he bought the place and used to have hunters come and stay in the 30 guest rooms. Then off-road came along, with Mike winning the 1984 Baja 1000 and 500, his ranch quickly became a staple hangout for pre-runners who’d leave their mark in the shape of stickers, t-shirts and business cards plastered over the walls.
It’s now run by his son, Mike Jr. A man with a wonderfully weathered face who’s lived there all his life and accommodates us with steak at night, eggs in the morning and beer in between.
With just the stars for company, it’s a welcome break from our modern age of hyperconnectedness and click-like-share feedback loops. Over dinner, there’s no ego. Just war stories from the day and ideas of how it can be improved.
“I think we should jump over the water splash,” Robby declares.
The next morning, while the drivers descend back down the hill, a bulldozer is found and a jump created. There’s no real science to it, just stack a load of mud together, hit it at speed and see what happens. Top Gear maths at its best.
Intrigued to see exactly what happens, I stick around. Where at Pikes Peak the course is now consistent but the weather variable, here it’s turned on its head: the weather is consistent but the course ever-changing. And after two runs up the hill, the chunky tyres have chewed through and rutted the course. It’s completely different to the previous day. But that’s off-road racing. Circuit racing is about perfecting your inputs to make you go fast consistently. Desert racing is about perfecting how you read the terrain.
The helicopter whirs above and then the unmistakable but distant ‘wahhhhh’ of a V8 with a throttle wide open comes into earshot. Sheldon Creed – Robby’s closest competitor – appears. Sliding sideways down a ridiculously off-camber right-hander he hits the compression and fires towards the jump. Charging to mud pile, he’s shot into the air before landing in the drink and then bouncing back out of it again and nearly through the finish line gantry.
Robby comes through next. Like most people who have an energy drink logo stitched onto their work uniform, his ability to detach the bit of the brain that goes ‘hmmm, I don’t know what’s round that corner I better slow down’ is what makes him stupidly quick. He’s used to driving flat-out in these conditions for over a 1000 miles, so a 20-mile jaunt means he can push harder and harder, learning the course each time and taking bigger liberties. This stubborn belief and hubris that his skill will overrule any sticky situation is enviable.
Robby jumps even further, a General Lee horn subconsciously goes off in my head as his orange truck fires across the water with dust falling away off the back of it. The timekeeper chews the lid off a Sharpie. ‘16:51’ is scribbled on the side of his car. It’s the fastest time of the weekend, declaring him the winner of the first ever Mike’s Peak hill climb.
Word quickly spreads to the wider off-road community. Trophy truck racer and the man who recently jumped a car over a town, Bryce Menzies, went on Facebook and posted a reaction video. It turns out he and his Red Bull chums also had a crack at the Mike’s Peak run last year for a promotional video. In the edited video, he claims a time of 14:20.
Robby doesn’t believe it’s possible and calls him out.
“I don’t know how a trophy truck can be two minutes quicker. I have to see it to believe it,” he says. “I just guess he’ll have to come here next year and prove it.”
After the first weekend, the snowball has already started to roll. Mission accomplished for Robby. We just have to wait to see how big it’ll get.
So if you’re into dangerous, seat of your pants driving, Mike’s will tickle those synapses. So come and have a go next year. If you’re brave enough…
Additional photography: Ernesto Araiza