Building A Baja Chase Truck

by AJ Deysel

The Baja 1000 race in Mexico, remains one of the largest, and most competitive single stage off-road races in the world. With a variety of classes from full custom, professional racing vehicles, to almost stock amateur vehicles.

Baja, or Baja 1000 as it’s most commonly known, is one of the most difficult and grueling races on the planet. Held annually on the Baja California Peninsula in Northern Mexico, it’s an off-road race which tests both trucks and drivers and pushes them to their absolute limits. A lot of you have probably heard of Baja at least once because it’s arguably the biggest off-roading event of the calendar, but this article isn’t about the Baja itself.

In fact, it’s not even about the vehicles competing in the Baja 1000. As impressive as race buggies and trophy trucks are, they would be nothing on their own. You won’t see them in videos or in pictures a lot, but support trucks are the lifeline of the Baja 1000. Because it’s such a long race and every single mile is full of huge rocks and massive crevasses which can damage a race vehicle, most teams have at least one support truck on standby. We’ll get into what makes up a support truck in a bit, but for right now, all you have to know is that they’re the unsung heroes of the Baja 1000.

None or almost none of the race vehicles would be able to finish the Baja 1000 without a support truck. They’re crucial in transporting the mechanics and the team from one spot to another, and generally carry all the spare parts and the tools needed to fix the vehicles competing in the race. Although the larger teams have multiple support trucks, sometimes even half a dozen or more, most teams have at least one main support truck.

One thing most if not all of them have in common, is the need for one or a number of chase vehicles. These chase vehicles are required to carry the support crew, spares, fuel, spare drivers, mechanics and any other possible crew or requirements to the various pits and stops so that they are close by should the main race vehicle need anything.

baja chase truck
Source: Bullet Proof Diesel

The support trucks themselves can have multiple roles depending on what they were built for. As stated, most carry parts and tools, but a lot of them can be filled with stuff like tents, merchandise, and even cameras/microphones if it’s a large team which has its own dedicated media staff. It all depends on what each particular team needs and how the team is structured and organized internally.

What makes a good Baja support truck or chase truck?

Building a Baja Chase vehicle, one of the first things to consider, is what is going to be carried in or on it. If only crew, mechanics and drivers, then a SUV would suffice, but if spares, fuel, tools and other gear are to be carried also, then a truck would be the only option.

This question is difficult to answer since there are multiple factors involved, but as a general rule, a Baja support truck has to be off-road capable and durable since they go through just as much punishment as the race trucks. Okay, so they don’t run the full race course at full speed for nearly a thousand miles, but support trucks don’t spend all their time on the road either.

A lot of the roads running alongside the main race course are in poor condition, and in some sections, the road completely disappears, forcing the support trucks to take an alternative route, i.e. go off-road. Again, not all support trucks have the same role. Some were built to transport parts from the shop to the starting point for example, so they don’t have to be as off-road-ready as a fully-fledged support truck that will run alongside the main truck.

You’ll find that most of the trucks are, perhaps unsurprisingly, Ford F-250s, F-350s, or Chevy Silverados. These trucks are relatively robust and durable straight out of the box as is, and they’re a great platform to build upon. A lot of teams leave them nearly stock, but you’ll find that most of the higher-budget teams have support trucks costing more than other teams’ actual race trucks. It’s just the nature of the beast. Most teams prefer crew cab trucks since they can carry both people and equipment, but it isn’t uncommon to see quite a few single cab support trucks as well.

A huge part of running the Baja 1000 is luck since mechanical malfunctions are unpredictable and unforeseen, but that’s where being prepared comes in. Fortune favors the brave, and it’s no different in the Baja. Teams which come prepped with tons of spare parts and a decent support team are more likely to come out on top at the finish line.

What’s in a support truck or chase truck?

Not only having a truck, but firstly installing a service bed on it, will allow the carriage and organization of a lot more spares, tools and parts than a regular truck bed will allow. Labeling each compartment and tool also helps to save a tremendous amount of time.

The first thing a lot of teams do is install a service bed on their truck. This involves completely redesigning the back end to fit an actual service station should the team ever need to fix the race truck in the middle of nowhere. Most teams decide to take off the bed and order a special, custom-made utility body. Unfortunately, sometimes race trucks have an accident or a mechanical issue hundreds of miles away from the nearest road or service center, so the only possible fix is bringing the service center to the race truck itself.

Source: Harbor Truck

The service bed is usually filled to the brim with tools prior to setting off. Should you ever get a chance to inspect one of these support trucks, expect to find every type of wrench, hammer, powertool, screwdriver, and nut and bolt in the back. They’re honestly more like portable workshops than anything else. These are crucial to every team because, without them, the trucks can’t run, the mechanics can’t get around, and it’s basically game over.

As far as bare essentials or tools you’re likely to find on most, if not all chase trucks go, there are quite a few of them. The first one is wheels and tires… and lots of them. Baja loves to eat up tires, so much so that a lot of the teams decide to carry several full sets of 40-inch race tires. A lot of chase trucks have a second auxiliary fuel tank full of race fuel which they carry around for the race truck.

Most of the smaller teams don’t have the massive budgets the larger ones do, so they obviously have to make do with less equipment. Still, at a minimum, all teams have at least one toolbox like most of us have at home, as well as a jack (one that’s suitable for off-road usage). Other things on the list include tire-irons, valvestems, a valve wrench, a liquid flat tire fixer, grinders, drills, sawzall, and a whole host of other tools the teams might want to use at their own discretion. One thing that we feel is a must though, and most teams would agree, is a welder and spare metal to go along with that. A lot of the race trucks have several custom-built components, and sometimes the only way of fixing something is with a welder. This is where other metal working tools might come in handy too.

baja chase truck
Source: Joecor Fabrication

Driving and spot lights is the next consideration, as you will be driving in the desert, with mostly zero other lights around at night, decent lighting allowing greater visibility to avoid obstacles and find routes will be very helpful. As you can imagine, the desert is an awfully dark place at night, especially if it’s cloudy and the moon isn’t out. Driving the support truck at night is just as challenging as driving the race truck on the actual course, because both have extremely limited visibility. If anything, with the support truck you have less power, less travel, are usually full of gear, and you have to get to where you’re going because the entire operation rests on that.

build a baja chase truck
Source: Classifieds

Fog lights and upgraded LED headlights are the norm these days, but most teams choose to fit additional lighting in the form of light bars or spot lamps for that extra layer of visibility. Good lighting can make all the difference between getting through the night and tipping the car over in a ditch somewhere because you weren’t able to see the edge of the dune.

Not only driving and spot lights, but work lights around the truck, to provide lighting for visibility at night when working on vehicles or parts and repairs, are crucial. Work lights, which people often forget until you tell them about it or they get to see it first-hand in real life. Driving with a plethora of lights pointed forward is one thing, but what happens if you need to make a stop or fix the race truck in the middle of the night? If you don’t have any other auxiliary lights installed, you’ll be working in pitch black conditions, which is basically useless. And in a race like the Baja 1000 where every minute matters, you can’t wait hours for the sun to rise so you can start fixing the truck. Sometimes teams have to stay up all night working on an issue, and that’s only made possible if you have plenty of work lights scattered around the truck.

Safety is always the number one priority, so to that extent, teams always carry at least one fire extinguisher in the truck. Ear muffs and ear plugs are a necessity too, unless you want to be deaf by the end of the Baja that is. Helmets are a common sight as well, as are safety glasses. A lot of the teams use full-on fire suits when working on the trucks in the middle of nowhere, especially if the truck is running or the risk of fire is high.

Using proper ratchet-straps to tie down, all, but especially heavy spares and parts prevents the loss of them, but also the danger to your self and others should these parts become airborne or keep traveling when you brake or turn.

build a baja chase truck
Source: Classifieds

As far as fluids go, apart from water for the crew, you’ll commonly see jerry cans full of spare gasoline and oil for the trucks (both engine and gear oil). Axle grease and bearing grease are important too, especially with how dusty the Baja can get at times. A grease gun for applying the grease makes the job that much easier.

Other tools you might see include an impact gun, a volt meter, spare electric wire, safety wire, coils, washers, nuts, every size of hose possible, a tire chuck, blue lights, shock tools, Marine Moly paste, scrap tubing of various sizes, scrap angle, and sometimes even things like nitrogen which teams use to clean tools and gear.

We already talked about spare parts, but you’ll probably be amazed to hear that most support teams carry at least one spare part of everything the race truck uses. Yes, you heard us right. The teams have to be prepared for any eventuality, so much so that they could probably build a whole separate truck from the spare parts they have lying around. The only thing they don’t carry around is another chassis. Everything else is considered a consumable and is therefore lugged around like a spare part until it’s needed.

From control arms and bushings to camshafts and fuel pumps, teams always make sure they have more parts than they’re going to need because they’re nothing more tragic than ending a race because of a broken control arm. If teams know their truck likes to use more of a certain type of consumable, they’ll stockpile more of that particular component just so that they don’t have to borrow from other teams or completely drop out of the race in a worst-case scenario.

Flat tires are, obviously, a relatively common sight in the Baja 1000, but carrying around an air compressor is not something every team can afford. Air compressors are typically heavy and they take up a lot of space, so a common workaround is carrying a bottle of Powertank (or similar products). Because they’re no larger than your average CO2 bottles, these systems are both light and versatile, making them the perfect portable compressor for the road.

Most support trucks run a hitch for towing a trailer or giving a stuck truck a helping hand. Trailers come in all shapes and sizes, depending on what they were designed for. Some are used as service stations, in case the truck doesn’t have a service station or the back or the one it does have isn’t sufficiently big enough. Other trailers might be used for towing the race truck to and from the venue, or just carrying a whole bunch of race parts. That’s all down to each individual team so we won’t delve any further into it.

A lot of teams have at least one vice on hand capable of dealing with anything, but a really common thing we started seeing these last couple of years is tow pack-mounted vices. If the truck has a portable hitch, having the vice mount in the same location is extremely convenient since you save a lot of space and it’s a solid mounting platform which won’t flex or bend.

Up front, most support trucks have a winch in case they need to pull out a stuck truck or they get stuck themselves. Most modern winches have Bluetooth capabilities, so you can literally operate them from your smartphone. Braided lines are another must-have, as these are large trucks and the winches are put under a lot of stress every time they’re in use.

Welders are bulky and heavy, but they’re necessary when it comes to fixing race cars out in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes teams run out of replacement components and they need to fix broken parts, while others the race car itself might have suffered some frame or chassis damage. A welder is crucial in those situations, which is why most teams never hit the road without one.

Trucks like the F-350 are robust and built to last, but a lot of the teams competing in the Baja 1000 often choose to further upgrade them to make them completely bulletproof (or as close to bulletproof as you can get). This includes upgraded components such as chromolly axle shafts, stronger reverse cut gears, and beefier axles.

Decent off-road tires are an important part of maintaining control and grip when traveling on dirt at speeds.

Since most support trucks usually run larger wheels and tires as well (as large as 38-inch tires), teams have to upgrade the suspension if they decide to go down this route. Long-travel leaf packs get paired with heavy-duty shocks (usually Fox), while the back is commonly fitted with air bags to accommodate the load all the added parts and tools generate (usually Fox or Firestone air bags).

build a baja chase truck
Source: Classifieds

The suspension setup needs to provide both added load carrying capacity, and performance, to ensure you can carry the added weight of all the extra tools and spares, but also do so at speed, whilst maintaining control of the vehicle, and without everything bashing and rattling loose.

Support trucks aren’t built for outright speed, so the engines are more than powerful enough to haul all that gear across the desert, but some teams still can’t restrain themselves from tinkering with the motor. Upgraded intake systems and larger downpipes are common modifications, as are straight-piped exhaust systems and ECU upgrades in the form of tunes or flashes.

The interiors are kept basically stock, so you have the usual array of Ford F-350 creature comforts and technology features. One thing all teams install though is a high-quality race radio so they can communicate between themselves and have a direct line with the race vehicle.

build a baja chase truck
Source: Classifieds

Obviously, these trucks don’t need roll cages since they’re completely road-legal and spend 99% of their time on the road, but you’ll be glad to know all of them put safety first and always carry things like fire extinguishers and first aid kits on board.

Pleasing the sponsors

build a baja chase truck
KC Motorsports F250 Chase Truck

The Baja 1000 is as fun as it is expensive. A simple 200-250 mile racing package can cost you as much as $10k, but securing a spot in the big race, the full Baja 1000, can set you back circa $80,000. This all depends on how much you’re going to spend on hotels, meals, how large your team is, and whether you’re going to do a bit of pre-running. Costs will vary up and down depending on your individual set of circumstances, but we haven’t even talked about the trucks yet.

Trophy trucks can obviously cost upwards of $500,000, but even some of the ‘lesser’ trucks can easily set you back a quarter of a million dollars. The Baja 1000 is not something you can enter with an unmodified F-150 and expect to come out the other end unscathed. There’s a reason most people build their trucks weeks if not months in advance, and usually get some pre-running done to get a feel for it.

Support trucks are obviously less expensive, but they can still get costly if you decide you want to modify them as well. If you’re planning on running multiple support trucks, you can easily double or triple that figure. Team members are something you have to take into consideration as well, especially if they’re qualified mechanics and not family members. Then there’s the cost of the spare parts, which can easily cost as much or more than the race truck itself if you’ve decided to prepare for any eventuality.

In Conclusion

It’s the most grueling race on the planet, but then again I suppose that’s the appeal of it. Not anyone can enter, and certainly, not anyone can win either. It takes both skill and luck to just finish the race let alone win it. You’re not going to with without spending some serious money, but you can definitely enter the Baja 1000 and finish on a ‘budget’. It all depends on what your expectations are and how realistic you are with your own goals.

Is the Baja 1000 expensive? Yes, it is, but then again which motorsport isn’t? A simple track day can cost a few thousand dollars, and you might only be out on track for only a couple of hours at best. The Baja 1000 is unique because there’s nothing like it anywhere else in the world.

It’s an assault to the senses and a real logistics nightmare, but people still keep flocking to it year in and year out. It’s the place where amateurs get to mix it with the pros, and which other sport can you say that about?

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