The Wake Of The Sleeping Dragon
... El primer de muchos
Sage Carli enters the ring. Teamed up with Big Dog Performance out of Alberta Canada for the 2007 SCORE International 40th Anniversary Baja 1000. The young company out of Orange County, CA has been on a dead run for two years now. There's never been more happening with the business... things are moving forward, innovations are taking place and people are starting to listen. This has resulted in true entrepreneurship taking control... 7 days a week and 14 hours a day to keep up with every demand of the business... and now enter the world's premier off-road race, stretching over 1,300 miles through Baja Mexico.
The fledgling corporation is just now starting to set a steady tempo. Now the business is looking for direction and hazards on two fronts... steady business growth and now the demand to enter a Dodge Ram 2500 on concept suspension, into the motherbitch of all things you can do to a vehicle... Race it... In the 2007 BJ1K.
The truck arrived a week before the team was to be buying insurance at the border and signing in at the racer's desk. Richard, President of Big Dog Performance, hauled down truck 809. He and his brother Michael had fabricated the cage, wired the truck and completed the suspension installation in just over 3 months. When it arrived, Sage had two weeks worth of work to do... not enough people to do it all... and only 3 days to complete a race truck.
That's when things started happening and Sage was the first one to put on the gloves.
The team was split in two... Richard and Michael made a list of everything that they had to get done... then Sage and Mike made one of their own. Each list would have tallied 200 man-hours to complete... and they had to prioritize. This isn't anything unfamiliar to a racer... this is where races are won or lost... right here in the shop.
Everyone wanted to help, but there just isn't enough room and tools for 16 people... so most of them had to go. Down to a minimum of 6 to 8 working at a time... each list was starting to get checked off. Everything went great... for about eleven minutes, before the first issue raised itself and somebody said the words "Oh, I didn't know you said that"... or even better, "I thought you did". Needless to say, it was business as usual for a homebred American race team.
I think for the first time in Sage's life, he was unsure... and maybe he was? But what happens next is a signature of his roll... He just started working. Hard. Everyone stepped up to help make it happen. Bro's rolled over just to drop off a pizza and ask how everyone was doing... his vendors stopped by to say hi and see the truck and ask a thousand questions... his mother even met the crew... and he paused and gave time to them all, at his own expense. Hours rolled by.
But there was always something else he was looking at...
Something else he was thinking about...
And there was something else that needed him more...
The nights drew long... and the same 6 to 8 guys started to pick up rhythm and set a pace... air hoses had to be shared... flying back and forth between a grinder and an impact gun. Toolboxes and carts were parked like shopping carts out front of a thrift store... and welders had to be wheeled around constantly. The place was pretty much a well-synchronized, harmonious version of chaos.
The suspension is pure prototype... nobody has done this before. Running production versions of their flagship products, 3.0 King Shocks on the front corners, billet T6 shock towers, track bar and chromoly control arms... with hydraulic bumpstops accessorizing the ingenuity up front. Then top it all off... with King Kong 4.0 quadruple bypasses on all four corners.
This was something different.
So far, so good with the first push of the team... now the truck just needed bumpers, front and back, some lights, differential guard and an axle truss... while some of the team had to work with GPS, PCI radios and intercom units... others were drawing up a pit plan. At least half of the top priority things on their initial list got trumped about 9 times over the course of the first 20 hours. This time, when somebody dropped by, nobody said a word... only slowing down for an occasional sip on a can of Monster or pull a half eaten Snicker's Bar out of their pocket and eat it with a welding glove on.
As progress was made, bigger things started happening... the truck was taking on an attitude of its own, brought to life by Mike Kim, the in-house fabricator and designer. Now, being able to weld, bend tube and cut plates is one thing... but being able to stand back, envision something, jump on CAD and start drawing while looking at the vehicle through a window in the shop after taking 2 measurements and save a design to disk... is a whole other beast.
But that's the only way it goes down there. Mike was asked to cut some corners... he was at the quality decision point with everybody saying... "It would be totally fine if we just do it like THIS"... and a response of silence was the only result. That's just how Mike builds race trucks... he doesn't know any other way. The designs were cut on a laser the same day... tube showed up on a trailer... and somebody had to start rocking on a chop saw with lengths shouted across the shop... then came the angles. Magic marker was on the ends, edges and intersections of everything in front and behind the drivers... and finally, Mike started his own concert on the welders.
And only then did it start to look like a real race truck...
The team started earning a lot more respect for the vehicle, as the night grew longer. Men were standing around the shop, looking for things that were in their hands, or clipped onto there pocket... some people started to chain smoke and a few called it a night. Mike's welds got tighter and tighter... And he was the one who turned out the shop lights the morning of the truck's departure to Mexico. If I recall correctly, Mike left himself just enough time to make it home to pack.
But the job was done right...
The team head south on 5 hours of sleep... over the last 3 days...
... Not like Sage was going to sleep anyway
Being in Mexico was no different than the shop... except we ate more tacos. There were more things going on now... he just now met the other 75% of his team... in a dirt parking lot in Ensenada.
Time was going by slow prior to tech... for the first moment, there wasn't something to do... and then he realized that there is something to think about. Competing in the world's premier off-road race with an untested design, Sage steps into the ring.
As the vehicles paraded through the streets of Ensenada, the anticipation was relieved... guess who just showed up to the party?
The next thing to do after the truck passed final tech... was to drive it. This is when things got interesting...
PCI radios kept the team in expert communication... and the best part is, everyone who had one, bought it at their own expense to be part of what is happening. Heat synchs warmed the calf as the entire chase team following Richard and Sage out of Ensenada.
Richard behind the wheel and Sage at his right... there was a rustle... that of something moving... something that was going to change things. Carrying these two was a Carli Suspension competition system... and now it's finally in its true element... The Mexican Desert.
All that was heard on the radio as the three Dominator equipped chase trucks went for the first cut off road... is Richard and Sage talking... comfortably. This is was a huge release for Sage and all the doubt about the truck was lifted in the first 2 miles. It worked.
Sage and Richard weren't the only ones out there either. It was full blown pre-running for a lot of people. Chasing is fun every single second... except for the waiting part. When you're out of radio range. That's when you stand around talking about everything but Mexico and trying to ignore that trophy truck pre-runner and a Class 1 behind it. Then you start double checking things in your head and now it's the support team with some time to think.
This race is a constant challenge for anyone that is down there for anything other than spectating. There's a lot of time to get to know what part of you showed up. On the horizon, dust signaled for miles... each person supporting checked to see if it was ours... every time.
Finally, the truck comes in... and there's a new look in someone's eye.
Sage knew that the only thing that stood between this truck and the finish line, were the drivers. His entire crew's pit plan had just been changed... He wasn't letting this truck out of his sight. Mike knew too.
The night before the race everyone goes out for a taco and a beer at the local spot. This is when people start learning about each other among the team... where everybody's from... how they fit into the picture and what they're about. Everything that took place over the last 60 hours was all we really needed to know. Now we were in Mexico with a suspension concept that is about to be put to the ultimate threshold development lifecycle... breaking points will be tested... and not just that of the machine.
Nobody could sleep and the anxiety turned into excitement. It was Race Day.
Richard and Michael boarded the truck and headed into town to line up. Two rigs had already left for El Rosario and the 3 chase trucks loaded up and went their separate directions. Finally, Richard and Michael exited Ensenada with confidence.
Racing over 1,000 miles down the Baja Peninsula is a race of attrition. No matter how much money and time you throw at a vehicle... Mexico will find something that you forgot... and it will do this over and over. You can't make a truck strong enough to be stupid; you have to be able to manage the big picture while in the moment. The Big Dog Performance driver team one handled this responsibility perfectly as the Class 8 headed for the canal.
The awaited arrival of Sage Carli in the SCORE International race series was over. That suspension was conceived in Orange County, CA... and now it flies under the Red Bull Bridge in Ensenada, Mexico. Now there was only 1,200+ miles to go... two driver team changes... nine scheduled pit stops between the team and Cabo.
The chase teams were constantly on the move. The pit plan was modified so that each point of support access to the racecourse had a Carli Dodge in position to get eyes on the truck as it mowed through the desert terrain.
Richard held the truck back and under drove the vehicle for hundreds of miles. Passing vehicles that had broke down, crashed or otherwise fell victim to the environment. Doing exactly what an experienced Baja racer should do... set a pace and let everyone find their groove.
The first hundred miles went by without incident. Chase teams had excellent contact with the race truck, Richard and Michael were checking in and providing status regularly... and the race went on. Driving 467 miles of the course, driver team one, Richard and Michael consistently delivered the vehicle to each checkpoint, each pit and each chase team observation. So far, all we had to do was cheer them on as they drove past. Rolling by with a blip of the throttle and a honk of the horn, the team continued.
Day turned into night... eyes drew tired and bodies started to ache. Chase access starts to thin out south of San Quintin..., which makes the pit wait even longer. Once in a while when the terrain was just right, Michael's voice would come across the radio, transmitting in the blind, hoping we could hear him and he just couldn't hear us. "809 Chase, this is Race... be advised, we are at RM 435, I say again, RM 4-3-5 with no problems"... while still reading the GPS and course map to Richard, he delivered information to his support.
Finally out of the dark, the vehicle arrived at the pit. On time and carrying an average speed of 28 miles per hour, team 809 met their support.
Suffering only a power steering line leak and a brush with a tree up by Mike's Sky Ranch, the truck arrived at the first driver change just north of El Rosario. A crew of seven dove on the vehicle with flashlights and tools as others helped prep the next driver team and spot check the truck.
The longest scheduled pit stop lasted approximately 12 minutes. The crew was confident and comfortable now. We were so far into the race that vehicles were spread out, dust wasn't as much of a factor and it was going to be a matter of continuing to do exactly what was going down. Hold back, save the truck and drive intelligently, keeping the heroics out of the head and understanding that a race such as this, is something that you survive. You don't come down to Mexico and kick Baja's ass, you have to respect it or get bitten.
A very tired, yet enthusiastic Richard and Michael disembarked the Dodge with fatigued smiles and reserve energy. Ensenada was hours behind us. Once out of the vehicle, the stories started to unfold. Close calls with rocks, cliffs and even a tree... passing disasters and even a helicopter crash... Richard and Michael successfully raced 1/3 of the Baja 1000 without incident... Providing us all a true example of experience and commitment.
From Alberta Canada, to Orange County, to Ensenada, to scheduled pit stop #3 and 467 miles of brutal terrain, the driver team had a chance to celebrate their own victory. Their responsibility was to hand off a truck still in race condition... and they did.
This continued for another 700 miles, including another driver change just north of Loreto. The second team carried Richard and Michael's pace, putting them into 2nd place in their class.
Almost as if Baja had intentionally lulled the team into a false sense of security, being patient and cunning, the team still had another world of challenges to face. Shortly into the 3rd leg and final driver team's section, a silt bed ate the truck just outside of Loreto.
Chase teams were on sight within 20 minutes and the team recovered the truck and it was back on course. By this point, over a day had passed since the start of the race and the support team had been stretched to the breaking point. Fatigue, sleep depravation, hunger, dehydration, confusion... all symptoms of a SCORE International race team in the moment.
Disaster struck the team with less than 50 miles to Cabo. Running 2nd place in Class 8, a driver error rolled into the team like a grenade. Rounding a corner at 75 mph, in a drift with an overcorrection, lead to a wild hundred yards for team 809. "Gotcha". The truck nosed into a rut at freeway speeds and tossed the vehicle to the adjacent bank. Chromoly controls arms were taco'd... the front drive shaft was amputated by the force... and even Walker Evans bead locks were destroyed in the event.
The support team on the 40th hour of the race got the news over the radio that the truck had hit a ditch, rolled, hit a bank and was resting on the front axle. This would have been considered catastrophic to many. The vehicle looked like it was beat up by a giant and even the most exotic forged parts weren't capable of withstanding the force caused by this err.
Four hours passed as the team worked on the truck. Having accounted for just this type of incident, parts were at the ready... but this wasn't a matter of replacing a broken part here or there, this was a complete front end reinstallation... while sitting on the SCORE route just minutes from the finish line of the longest point-to-point off road race in the world.
Sage and Mike dropped their shirts and got into the dirt and started to assess the carnage. At one point, the lead sponsor and driver was going to call a helicopter and let the race end right there. Not this time...
The front end was jacked into the air and tools scattered on the road... the team worked. Four hours went by. A half of a work day for the rest of the population... but here, down in Baja, this was just responding to an incident, after 3 days of preparation and a complete day of racing, the crew put in another shift and granted the third driver team a miracle. The truck was race ready once again. Sage has never left a truck in the dirt... and it wasn't going to be his first campaign where that happened.
Truck 809 crossed the finish line with time to spare. Carli Suspension, Inc just introduced itself to the off-road market as a true wild card entry... and something to think about. Success rang out with the first time Class 8 4x4 Dodge 2500 quad cab... with a team that didn't know each other... suspension that was only in concept form... support that had volunteered... and Sage's commitment.
This was just Their first try... The sleeping dragon has wakened.
All video, photo and journalist support provided by Brad Holland