Wide blue sky is the only thing I can see out the mud-flecked windshield. Judging from the crazy angle of our vehicle climbing up the rutted, rock-strewn trail, the incline is 60 degrees, if not steeper.
Once we crest the hill—cliff is actually a more apt description—I see that the trail curves abruptly to the left. Too much gas and we’d have plunged right over the edge and down into a gulley thick with trees.
“Never drive farther than you can see.” This driving instruction I heard earlier suddenly makes perfect sense.
At the top of the hill is a checkpoint sign, a reminder that the navigator (that’s me, the person in the right seat) must check in with the pit. These checkpoints are situated at the most dangerous locations along the route.
“We’ve cleared Checkpoint No. 2.” My announcement is delivered to the pit crew, thanks to the microphone in the forced-air helmet that is also “mic’d” to the driver’s helmet, just like in a real Baja race.
We’re on the “Bajacoaster,” a portion of the Level Two course that lives up to its name with extreme twists and turns and ups and downs. It’s not for the faint of heart, but the “wow factor” is huge.
I’ve come to Wide Open Florida, part of Legendary Excursions, a unique Baja driving experience where participants tackle the most rugged terrain in Marion County driving vehicles that have actually competed in the Baja 1000.
Mark Townsend, owner of Legendary Excursions, didn’t originally plan to start a business dedicated to adventure. A tennis coach for 25 years, he was fascinated with the thought of competing in the Baja 1000, the grueling off-road race that pits contestants and their vehicles against some of the roughest driving conditions in North America.
“I have a bucket list I’m chipping away at, and the Baja 1000 was on that list,” says Mark.
Having competed in the race several times since 1997, Mark realized most people wouldn’t have the time, resources or connections to travel to Mexico to take part in the race. Why not recreate a fraction of the Baja experience and make it available to adventure seekers?
That’s exactly what he’s done with Legendary Excursions, which offers off-road adventures in California, Utah, Pennsylvania, Florida, Caba and Baja itself. The Florida location opened in July 2011 at Hardrock Off-Road just minutes north of Ocala. Participants can sign on for either “UDrive” or “Ride Along” experiences.
Mark and his crew expanded the trails at the 150-acre site. The goal? Make a course that is still safe but offers a serious driving challenge.
There are two courses, and for the record, the Level One course is plenty exhilarating. You aren’t allowed on the Level Two course (remember the Bajacoaster?) unless you can prove you’re able to master Level One. A daunting hill known as “El Diablo” on Level Two gives you an idea of what’s in store.
If someone drove you to the site blindfolded and dropped you off, you’d never think you were in Florida. Thanks to the old mining quarries, the setting is both remote and beautiful. Sheer cliff walls surround quarries where deep brilliant blue water reflects a mirror image of the cloud-studded sky above. Narrow dirt roads wind through thick woods, valleys and dramatically changing elevation. If I didn’t know the truth, I’d never guess I was mere miles outside of Ocala.
I opted for the Ride Along. I wanted to be able to focus on the experience instead of on keeping the vehicle on the trail wheels-side down.
On much of the course, we’re in second gear and averaging 20 mph, which—trust me—seems downright fast given the hills, twists and drop offs. On the circle track, we speed up enough to actually slide the back end of the vehicle. The whoop-de-doos—on a ski slope you’d call them “moguls”—simulate what you’d find on the Baja route for 40 long miles. At certain places on the course a good driver can hit speeds of 50 to 60 mph, which, considering the terrain, seems mind-numbing to me.
Traversing one especially steep climb, I noticed buzzards floating gracefully on the air currents high above us.
“The circling buzzards are a nice touch,” I tell Mark, who’s driving.
“Just like Mexico,” he grins.
“Whoa, looks like someone could really get in trouble here.” I’m thinking out loud on one particularly difficult portion of the Level Two course.
Mark points out a large dead tree where the downhill trail makes a sharp left turn.
“See that tree? We had a driver get hung up there yesterday,” he says.
The partially uprooted tree appears to have sustained a major impact.
I have to ask, “So, did the driver make it out of that?”
“Nope, we had to send a chase crew out to pick him up and recover the vehicle. That was the end of his driving for the day,” says Mark. “We give people enough rope to hang themselves and hope that they don’t. If you don’t drive ‘over your head,’ you’ll have a safe, fun experience and you won’t have problems. But the adrenaline gets flowing when you’re driving and shifting; sometimes people aren’t paying attention.”
These vehicles weigh 2,400 pounds and have a wider wheelbase than a Hummer. It’s pretty tough to roll one, given their low center of gravity, but the tough aluminum frame is prepared to handle that event should it occur. There are no doors or side windows—you slide into the car and the side screens snap in place.
“A lot of people are expecting a souped-up dune buggie, not a real Baja-style racecar,” notes Steve Kraft, a professional driver and adventure guide at Wide Open Florida. (Beyond catering to the thrill-seeking adventurer, there is another component to Wide Open Florida. They actually train customs and border patrol agents in high-speed, off-road driving tactics. These guys know what they’re doing. Wide Open has competed in the Baja 1000 for the last 14 years and for the past seven years has a 100 percent finish rate. Impressive, especially when you realize that 54 percent of the vehicles that started the race last year did not finish.)
“The cars handle well and are pretty simple to drive, even for a novice,” Steve points out. “Everyone’s surprised how smooth the car is over the bumps because of how the suspension is designed.”
It helps that the shocks are 20-inches long and run, oh, about $2,000 each. But then, these are $150,000 vehicles.
Incredibly, they’re just two-wheel drive, but their power-to-weight ratio enables them to handle the rough conditions. They have powerful 200-horsepower Subaru Boxer EJ25 “tuned up” engines and pricy BF Goodrich tires that cost approximately $250 apiece.
There are several different experience options: You can drive with a pro or drive yourself. (You must be at least 25 years old to drive.) There’s also a parent-child experience where the parent drives and the child (must be 42 inches tall and weigh at least 60 pounds) gets to navigate. There’s currently a winter promotion where you pay for a two-lap experience and also get a “hot lap” in which a professional driver takes you out on the course and shows you the true capabilities of the car. Experiences are a minimum of two hours overall up to a maximum of four hours. Variables include weather, terrain and driver changes. (You can share the experience with a friend and change drivers once.)
Oh, and you need to know how to drive a stick shift; Baja vehicles have manual transmissions.
Clients choose the day and time that works for them, then sign up and complete all paperwork online. (Word to the wise: Don’t skip the insurance. It’s a small price to pay for making sure you’re covered should you “drive over your head” and end up damaging the vehicle.) There’s also a link to watch the orientation video. This sign-up method means that once you reach the site, you’re immersed in the experience from the very beginning.
Upon arrival, you’re met in the parking area by one of the crew, who takes you via 4×4 chase vehicle over winding dirt roads and down to the “pit,” where a race trailer is set up by the lake. There, a wide screen TV showing the movie Chasing Baja gets clients in the mood for what they’re about to do.
If you sign on for the UDrive experience, your adventure starts with a training and instructional video that will have you itching to get behind the wheel.
But first, there’s a “360” of the vehicle to familiarize you with what you’re driving and allow you to ask any questions you might have. Then Steve, or another one of the professional drivers, takes you out on a “pre run” of the entire course in a chase vehicle. This is the ideal time to ask, “OK, how would I handle this?” so the experienced driver can offer techniques and advice on how best to negotiate different aspects of the course.
Safety figures in a prominent way. In addition to the helmet, you’re strapped into a five-point safety harness, just like in a pro racecar. The only thing moving is your mouth because your body isn’t going anywhere. One reassuring detail is that you’re connected to the pit crew at all times by microphone transmission.
“If you break down here, we’re five minutes away to help you,” says Mark. “If you break down in the Baja, you’re in deep doo-doo.”
There’s a camera, which also captures audio, mounted behind the seats to record every moment of your adventure. Mark admits it’s priceless to play back the tapes, especially with a husband-wife team.
“The navigator’s responsibility is to tell the driver what to do and where to go. Women love this,” he says.
“I bought the five-lap experience for my boyfriend’s birthday,” says Christy Morgan of Oviedo, Florida. “He said it was probably the best birthday present he’s ever gotten. He drove and I navigated.
“Other than watching Baja racing on TV, I wasn’t familiar with it. Baja is totally different from drag racing. Steve was awesome; you can tell he loves Baja racing. He told us how to tackle certain obstacles and gave us pointers. We had so much fun! At one point we were going about 40 mph; we got some air on a couple of the hills,” says Christy, who’s already planning a return trip to Wide Open Florida… and this time, she’s driving.
Christy’s words are exactly what Mark Townsend likes to hear.
“That’s what we want to give people,” he says. “We want them to walk away with a memory.”
Wide Open Florida
Hardrock Off Road
6849 NW Gainesville Rd., Ocala
Experience The Thrill!
Ocala Style and Legendary Excursions are giving Ocala Style readers the chance to feel the adrenaline rush of Wide Open Florida for themselves. Two winners will receive a two-lap Ride Along Experience, valued at $179. To enter, “Like” us on Facebook and stay tuned for updates on how to win.