Tuesday, June 07, 2005

The Baja 500....Listen to the Weatherman

Many of you who read this blog might not know what the "Baja 500" is. Hopefully after reading a paragraph or two you will know, and understand why I spent the past Saturday (6-4-05) in front of my computer listening to the "Weatherman"

Off road racing may not be much of a spectator sport, but for those of us who are off-road racing fans the Baja 500 is one of two "must see" events. Because the race is run the 1st weekend of June every year, right after Memorial Day, Baja California is as perfect as a postcard. A simple drive through the hills or along the coast inspires a relaxing mindset, and kindles the desire for adventure. Though the race is often not a full 500 miles (this year it was only 419) to the racers it feels like 1,000 miles. In fact, many racers will say the 500 is much harder than the 1,000, the other "must see" event, which is held in the middle of November. Spectators gather in farm fields, on beaches, in pine forests, at natural "danger" points and man made booby-traps, and everywhere the course is near paved roads. The fact is, that in Mexico, every dirt trail is a road used by someone to get somewhere, a fact that adds to the "legend" of the Baja. Some day I will blog on some of the stories racers tell (like the time Mark McMillin had a man "appear" directly in front of him in the road, then disappear just as immediately, dropping into a "baja" sized pothole.........like some sick game of chicken with the exhausted drivers..... as Mark drove over him at 80 mph), but not today. Today I just want to give readers a feel for what motivates an avid off-road fan to spend the day sitting at the computer.

I've been involved with off-road racing since 1985, the year Mark McMillin (many time champion of both the Baja 500 and Baja 100.................and my employer at the time) asked me to "Pit" for him at Quatro Casas, my favorite northern baja surf spot. "Pitting" involves helping the racers in any way they may need, from "dumping" fuel and changing tires, to providing food and water. That year I just watched as Mark (and Mark's father Corky) raced past me, giving a short "honk" as they went by to acknowledge their thanks that I was there for them. I was hooked and became the McMillin's family designated beach pit person (after a few years I became their dedicated "out to the wilderness" pit person.

Every baja racer uses an FM radio to communicate with their team members and various other persons connected with the race. Like a thousand exicted truckers on high power CB radios, they chatter on the radios day and night. Bob Steinberger, AKA "the Weatherman" is the grand daddy of all off road racing radio people. Bob has a business (PCI) that sells radios and racing safety equipment. PCI specializes in radio/intercom setups that help racers communicate with each other as well as the world outside their racecar. These days Bob's son, Scott, does most of the selling (when he's not racing in the #7 Trophy Truck), and I'm not sure what Bob really does at the family business. But when it comes to the Baja races Bob is all "Weatherman", and his job is clear as a crystal; he controls the race radio traffic from atop the 10,000 ft. high Picacho del Diablo (devil mountain). Every year, race after race, Bob sets up a high tech communication center atop the mountain that is also home to a world class space observatory.

Racers and fans tune into "the Weatherman" channel and listen to the latest events of the race. The air is full of chatter, from lost racers, to frightened racers wives, as well as local Mexican pranksters and real long haul truckers (who accidently tune to the weatherman channel). Because Weatherman is on top of the highest mountain in Baja, his signal can be heard from almost anywhere on the course. Contrary to that fact, most of the people who call the Weatherman are down in some valley and can only be heard by those within "eyeshot" of them. This year an internet entrepreneur, known affectionately as "Klaus", set up on Devil Mountain with Weatherman, and fed all radio traffic into his computer creating a live internet stream, making Weatherman accessible to all of us who had to stay home. It was sooooooooooooooo cool. Not only could we hear the familiar and comforting voice of Weatherman, we could hear every call to him. You can't imagine what that did to my Saturday.

I intended to build a rock wall in the back yard, so I got an early (8:00 am is early for me on Saturday) start outside. At about 9:15 (the 4 wheel vehicles start the race at 9:00, with one car starting every 30 seconds) I came in for a cup of coffee, and to check the internet to see if there were any posts about the race. I checked race-dezert.com (Klaus' website) and to my amazement, there was a post that said "Weatherman Live Streaming Broadcast). I did a quick "copy and paste" to Real Media Player and there was Weatherman...........tears came to my eyes..............I was at home, and at the Baja 500.

Not much else happened that day. My wife, who had encouraged me to go to the 500, was quite annoyed with me sitting at the computer listening to the scratchy sound of strange voices, so I attempted to accomplish a chore or two. One would think I would have quit listening around 6:00 pm when Robby Gordon crossed the finish line as the Overall 4 Wheel champion, but no. There were still 250 or more vehicles out there, including the young Andy McMillin, who chased Robby all day long and finished 2nd overall, and my brother George, who was to drive in his first off road race in the 502 car (a baja bug), and all my friends in Class 7, who I wished I was competing with.

I listened until about 10:00 pm, and went to bed. Sunday morning I checked in and found that many people had listened all night long. The Weatherman was still on the air helping the lost and the straggling find their crews and safe passage home.

I don't know if modern technology is always a good thing, but this past Saturday I was thanking God for the good thing I found in the Weatherman, Klaus, and the Baja 500.


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