Joe Bacal Interview

06/15/2011—As a cancer survivor, desert racer Joe Bacal knows that when you take a fall, you have to climb back up. Last year, his JTGrey Racing team, and their heavily modified Lexus LX[1], secured the SCORE 2010 Stock Full Championship by racking up multiple wins throughout the desert racing season, including the legendary Baja 1000.

And last week, as fans of Bacal now know, at the 43rd Tecate SCORE Baja 500, the team’s tenacity came through in a different way during a rough fall down a steep hillside. But I’ll let Bacal tell you about it in his own words:

LEXUS: Can you set the scene for us, and describe how the Baja 500 started out for you?

BACAL: For the most part, it was a perfect day. We took the lead in the first mile, and never looked back. Going into race mile 35, we already had 20 minutes on second place. By race mile 80, we had an hour and a half.

Alt tag: Baja 500

What kind of driving are we talking about?

If the truck breaks, you’re out of the race, so I’m very conscious of keeping things together. There were some fast sections where you can do that rally-style driving, where I feel really comfortable just racing into the corners at high speed. We got over the mountain range, onto the dry lakebed, and there are four or five miles where you are racing at 100 mph, although we maintained probably a 30 mph average, which is pretty fast in a stock vehicle.

What happened next?

It started getting dark, but that was OK. Our modified vehicle has KC HiLiTES, 70-watt HIDs that turn everything into daylight. So me and co-driver Chris Cocores started heading into the mountains again, and were about 50 miles short of the finish line with about 10 hours left on the clock—you’ve got 23 hours to finish, so we had plenty of time. We also knew we were the only guys left in our class; everyone else had broken down. So we’re just running a good pace, keeping it clean, trying not to make any mistakes and get to the finish line.

Alt tag: Baja 500

Then, up on a narrow section in the high mountains, we came up behind a broken-down vehicle. The road was narrow, but they told us several vehicles had already passed around them, and everything looked OK from our perspective. But as I got to the front, my right tire dropped, I couldn’t recover, and we went off the mountain, slamming into several big rocks on the way down, and finally ended up wedged against a rock with the vehicle on its side.

Was everybody OK?

Yeah, we’re fine. The vehicle’s modifications include roll cages. We’re a little sore, but I think my ego is bruised more than anything else. I’m not one to make mistakes, and I’m kind of beating myself up about it. But that’s racing. The crazy thing is, when we came back the next morning and saw it in daylight, we realized that if we hadn’t wedged against that rock, we could have gone down another quarter of a mile.

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How does this incident rate from what you’ve experienced in your career?

I’ve been a race driver for a while, and I’ve had a couple little “uh-ohs” here and there, but I would have to say this was definitely an extreme race. When that front wheel dropped, we had no idea what we were in for or how far down it was. But that’s what you have to be prepared for in any race.

Related: Lexus LX Specs

What’s the condition of your race vehicle?

Pretty bad. But do you want to know the amazing thing? After we winched it back up to the road, it actually drove all the way back to base camp under its own power, 50 miles away. It didn’t leak any oil, and the alignment was pretty good. I mean, you’d think the alignment would be way off after all that!

Tell us more about the team involved.

Well, besides me and Chris, we had 10 other crewmembers spread across the Baja Peninsula in six other off-road trucks. All of them did their jobs magnificently. The crew that picked us up arrived within minutes of the incident. Then there was all the communication between everybody to sort things out during the night, as well as the team that went out to recover our vehicle—everyone just performed flawlessly.

So, next steps?

We’re already building a new race vehicle as we speak. This was actually going to be that particular modified LX’s last race, and the plan was to retire it. We learned a lot from this LX, and know what we want to change and improve, so I think we’re only going to be that much more dominant in future races.

I’d rather people didn’t focus on the incident. But I do think it’s important to focus on the fact that the race vehicle drove away after it happened. Sure, it would be nice to run a perfect race all the time. But when things like this happen, it’s important to have experienced team you can count on.

Joe Bacal and JTGrey Racing’s sponsors include Lexus, Cancer Treatment Centers of America, BFGoodrich, King Shocks, KC HiLiTES, Geiser Brothers, Hino Trucks, ARB, Okaley, and Head First Design.


Legal Disclaimers

[1] LX model shown is a special modified Baja race project for racing purposes only.