Ride of a Lifetime

An 840-mile drive down the coast of the Baja California peninsula in Mexico might sound like a great way to enjoy some sightseeing, but for 13 Georgia Southern students, that drive was dangerous, grueling and the opportunity of a lifetime.

It also was a historic event for the students, as they became the first collegiate team to compete in the utility terrain vehicle (UTV)-specific class of the second-largest off-road race in the world: the Baja 1000.

The students, part of the University’s Eagle Motorsports Baja 1000 team, traveled to Mexico in mid-November to compete in the race, also becoming the first collegiate team to compete in more than three decades.

“It’s not a sustainable activity for us to go out and baby step into the field,” said Spencer Harp, team advisor and laboratory supervisor for the Department of Mechanical Engineering in the Allen E. Paulson College of Engineering and Information Technology. “You get noticed for the splash that you make, so we’re just jumping in and doing something else that no one else has done.”

In order to compete in the race, the team, one of three racing teams within Eagle Motorsports, met numerous challenges. It began with rebuilding, from the ground up, a brand new UTV, a two-seat machine with a roll cage, to meet SCORE-International requirements. SCORE-International is the governing organization of the off-road race.

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Baja 1000 team members who traveled to Mexico include (left to right): Chris Gleiter, Kara Dees, Alex Purdy, Chris Gerdmann, Abasiofon Bassey, Robert Branch, John Demerlier, Reece Chesser, Tahir Daudier, David Miller, Laura Hutson and Madison Reynolds; not pictured Spencer Harp. Other team members who did not travel to Mexico include: Victor Acosta, David Alexander, Jakeb Burks, Jordan Denney, Notorius Hollerman, Taylor Hulsey, Nicholas Johnson, Jahsiah Kidd, Dinahlee Lemaistre, Jonathan Perez, Christian Scott, Jason Stiteler, Jim Walker and Josie Woodward.

 

“Most teams spend a minimum of two years building a platform to go race, and we started a year ago with the idea, and spent six months trying to secure a corporate sponsorship, then building, designing and figuring out the logistics,” Harp said. “That’s a third of the time anyone else would normally attempt to do it. We’ve been told by several seasoned professionals that this was an absurd idea and we were really reaching.

“But what they don’t understand is where they may have a team of two or three people, we’ve got 20-plus, well-educated engineering students making an effort to ensure everything is accounted for,” he continued, noting in addition to their team in Mexico, a “home team” on the East Coast was also in place helping coordinate race efforts.

They also had to prepare mentally and physically for pre-running and race day of the 840-mile course, which essentially is a rough cut path through the woods, Harp said, with hidden obstacles including large rocks hidden by cacti or brush, cliffs that can abruptly end in 1,000-foot drop offs and terrain ranging from mountainous and rocky to old riverbeds full of silt and sand.

“When someone says Baja [1000] is tough, I wouldn’t say it’s just the terrain, it’s the entire race as a whole,” said Chris Gleiter, lead fabricator for the Baja 1000 team. “It’s nearly a thousand miles, a ton of logistics that have to work perfectly together in an orchestrated way to make the whole thing happen.”

Despite the challenges the team encountered during preparation and their travels to Mexico, Harp said pre-running the race course proved to be the biggest challenge.

“We ran over 400 miles of that course prior to the race even starting. We pre-ran for pretty much a solid week leading up to the race and that is a challenge in itself. Getting out with race machines and going through the terrain at a slower pace. That was probably the biggest struggle for us.”

Having practiced on more than half the race course really boosted the team’s confidence leading up to race day, but it didn’t compare to the “heat” the team was destined to feel once they crossed the starting line.

“Closer and closer to the race, more of our supporters told us ‘you’re going to receive so much heat from Baja but it’s not physical heat, it’s a mental game more than anything,’ and it showed,” said Robert Branch, team leader and one of the drivers.

Driving alongside seasoned professionals of the Baja 1000 on unfamiliar terrain “was like no other thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “But once you’re in the car, the build up and emotions go away once you’re in your element.”

But despite feeling in his element after the start of the race, at mile 116, he encountered an unexpected ravine and crashed. While he and his co-driver were unharmed, the team’s chase vehicle with parts to fix the damage was too far away. Harp explained teams have to reach race checkpoints within a certain time frame, and by the time the chase car arrived with materials, the team wouldn’t have made the next checkpoint in time.

“Having pre-run that area of the course and knowing what the course looked like — knowing that you were three inches from 1,000-foot ledges — made the decision [not to finish] pretty easy for me. We weren’t going to try to push beyond our means,” Harp said.

“At that point during the race, we had encountered everything that the competition was for us. All the challenges, struggles, professional development, contingency plans — all that stuff had been executed and executed well.”

Branch said he sat quiet for a while after the decision was made not to finish the race, weighing two perspectives.

SPRING16ride-of-a-lifetime-3“As a student leader, I had to look at it as what was the best collective call and when the call was made I couldn’t agree more. Time was the thing that took us out. It wasn’t a mechanical issue, or safety,” he said. “But from a racer’s side, your number one thing is competition, so that part of you is thinking ‘If I’m not number one, I need to be number one.’ And in Baja, honestly you can’t finish first without first finishing, so that part of me is not upset, but more disgruntled and sorry to see that we couldn’t finish.”

Different thoughts and emotions consumed each team member, but co-captain Kara Dees said not finishing because they ran out of time was, in her opinion, “the best reason not to have completed the race.”

“I think the team is completely satisfied with what we did,” she said. “We came and did our best, and honestly that is the only thing I could ask from my team is to come, give it their best and make it safely home and that’s exactly what we did.”

Although the car never crossed the finish line, Harp noted he was surprised how passionate the students were about getting the experience, whether it was learning more about motorsports, engineering or getting professional development and leadership skills.

“There were a lot of life lessons taught that I don’t think there is another avenue to get all of that in one shot. These students are exceptional students. If I was running a company I would hire every one of them tomorrow to work for me,” he said. “Each person brought a different perspective to the group, and seeing all that really open up and develop that was pretty breathtaking.

“We went down there as a team and left as a family.” — Crissie Elrick


FilmClub

From left: Madison Reynolds, Tahir Daudier, Laura Huston and David Miller, members of Film Club GSU, accompanied the Eagle Motorsports Baja Team to Mexico for the race. The club documented the team for several months and will be releasing a documentary about their efforts later this year.

 
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