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Westhem: A rewarding racing week in Mexico

It’s not NASCAR and it’s not monster trucks. It’s off-road racing, but try as I might, I could not really describe to my friends what my sister and I were doing last week for seven days in Mexico.

My dad, Dave Westhem, was a professional off-road racer, and now takes part in the sport recreationally. I had the life-changing opportunity to finally go with him and Westhem Racing across the border to watch them race in the Mexican 1000.

It’s a 1,309-mile race down the Baja peninsula put on by the National Off-Road Racing Association (NORRA). Everything from unlimited, souped-up vintage Ford pickup trucks, Broncos, buggies, VWs or, in our case, a 1978 Chevy K-1500 could be seen running the race. The racecourse started in Ensenada and ended in San Jose Del Cabo, following the open beaches, rough dirt back roads, mountain paths and even a highway.

Westhem Racing ended up winning its vintage class by several hours and placed ninth overall. In four years of competing in the race, we (I consider myself a part of the team now) have now had two wins, one blown crank and one blown motor — so basically it’s all or nothing.

I’ve always had a pretty good idea of what my dad did, since there have been various trucks and parts in our garage over the years, and I’ve seen him load up our lifted Excursion (complete with cattle guard and extra shocks) for multiple week-long racing trips to Mexico before, but to be able to go through the race as part of the crew gave me an entirely new perspective on the sport.

Just as I’ve taken a liking to rowing because it combines the physicality of sport with the psychological component of the mind (and my grandfather rowed for USC), I have a new respect for off-road racing for the amount of thought, mental preparation and calculation that go into each day of racing.

The first day of racing began at 6 a.m., but we were 88th off the line (remember we ended up finishing ninth) so the entirety of the day was fixed on calculating how much time it would take to overcome each slower car in front of us (there were a lot because we got an unfavorable starting position) and how much time would have to be made up in certain spots.

My job on each of the next three days was keeping track of the times of each truck that came into the pits before ours did in order to gauge our progress and predict where we would stand at the end of each day. I was a part of the pit crew so as the race truck went through each stop, our Excursion and two other gnarly, dually pickups would quickly service the race truck and then move on to the next stop once it left (there was a lot of waiting around, sandwich making and handing out stickers and decals to the local kids).

And then there’s the job of co-driving and navigating. While my dad drove, his co-driver would trace their progress on the GPS and call out directions and warnings from an elaborate course map given out each day. Not only do the driver and co-driver have to think about where the next silt bed or the next hairpin turn is, they also have to think about radioing to the crew before each pit stop to inform us how much fuel, coolant or brake fluid is needed. And then you have the added stress of any technical difficulties that could go wrong — a busted motor and crank ended the race early for the team twice previously. This year, the blown-out rear brakes and haywire GPS were luckily easy fixes.

The danger of off-road racing should not be underestimated, though. It’s definitely not an amateur sport and the top finishers are always experienced drivers. The guys who go out to have fun and play around make their way to the finish line slowly. Otherwise, they end up rolling a vintage buggy worth a fortune on the beach or limp across the finish line with a broken A-arm (both of which happened).

All serious drivers wear full-faced helmets, fire-retardant race suits, neck braces and restraining harnesses. And it’s dangerous for the spectators, too, who stand on the side of the course as an insanely heavy and high-horsepower racing machine comes barreling towards them at top speed through the desert. I definitely have a renewed sense of respect for the sport now.

That’s why I was never allowed to go to one of these races in Mexico before: there are too many unpredictable elements to off-road racing. Now that I’ve been to one, though, I’m hooked and you can bet that I’ll be taking off a week of school next spring quarter again for the 2015 Mexican 1000 — and if all goes well and I prove my navigating skills to my dad, I might even be crawling into the co-drivers side next year wearing my own Westhem Racing helmet and race suit.

La única cosa que hubiera mejorado el viaje de Ashley Westhem habría sido si Chiney Ogwumike había ido con ella. Para ponerse en contacto con Ashley, mándale un email a awesthem ‘at’ stanford.edu o mándale mensaje a su Twitter @ashwest16.

 

*This post has been updated

About Ashley Westhem

Ashley Westhem is the voice of Stanford women’s basketball for KZSU as well as The Daily’s beat writer for the team and aids in KZSU’s coverage of football. She has been a desk editor for three volumes and now serves as Managing Editor of Sports. She is an American Studies major from Lake Tahoe, Calif., and aspires to work in sports administration, to positively affect the lives of student-athletes and the relationship between the athletic and academic spheres of universities.
  • MT Challenger IV

    Ashley, well done. One minor detail in the story and I know you will hit yourself on the forehead after I point it out. It s 1300 mile race, the first day was 475 miles. Glad to see you having some father/daughter time, my daughter has been in the race car with me a few times and we had a great time!

    Rory Ward