Head in the Sand

Dust to Glory honors the Baja 1000, where everybody's a legend

Apr 20, 2005 at 4:00 am
If nothing else, give Dana Brown credit for enthusiasm. A documentary filmmaker in name only, he is really the camera- and microphone-equipped president of several booster clubs -- among them what might be called the International Society of Beach Bums and, thanks to his latest exercise in hero worship, the Dune Buggy Irregulars.

Brown's Step Into Liquid (2003) was a hymn to surfing that was prettier and more travel-mag romantic than anything his father, Bruce Brown, ever dreamed up -- and Bruce pioneered the genre 40 years ago with The Endless Summer. This time around, Brown the Younger is completely and hopelessly enamored of the outlaw masochists of motorsport, the desert racers -- half-crazed purists who bolt themselves into (or onto) a wide variety of heavily armored vehicles straight out of Mad Max, then careen across huge expanses of sun-scorched sand, ditch, and gully at speeds that would shock a test pilot. You don't have to be a Pennzoil-splashed motorhead to understand the blunt appeal of Dust to Glory, Brown's look at the longest and most famous of the off-road races, the Baja 1000. But you'd better be in the mood for a blitz of bumper-sticker philosophy, a major machismo transfusion and 94 minutes' worth of mind-numbing repetition, complete with a musical score seemingly lifted from reality TV.

Want to watch a car jolt by the camera in a cloud of dirt? How about 400 or so cars, one by one, each with its own cloud of dirt?

As writer and (Heaven help us) narrator, Brown favors the overheated sophomore school of prose. Dust to Glory, he informs us on the soundtrack, "isn't about a race -- it's about the race, the human race." The Mexican Baja is, of course, "a land that defies time." And if any of the grizzled, grime-streaked competitors -- all of whom seem to be having the time of their lives -- is not "legendary" or "mythical" or, failing that, "the boy wonder" or "a real force of nature," Brown doesn't know about it. To the cheerleader who never puts down his megaphone, they're all Lewis and Clark, burning high octane. Like fellow Californian Stacy Peralta, who exalted skateboarders in Dogtown and Z-Boys and big-wave daredevils in Riding Giants, Brown preaches relentlessly to the choir.

To be fair, the Baja 1000 (more formally known these days as the Tecate SCORE Baja 1000) is quite a test. In big-time stock-car racing, team owners and chief mechanics used to caution their drivers to "keep it on the black part." You know, the pavement. In off-road racing, there is no black part, just an endless ribbon of ruts and arroyos mined with bone-jarring jolts and unforeseen hazards -- animal, mineral and vegetable. If you feel like dodging a cactus or a cow at 100 miles an hour, this is the event for you.

The racing vehicles include everything from essentially non-modified pre-1982 Volkswagen Beetles to rugged-looking motorcycles to heavily sponsored, 800-horsepower supertrucks whose chase vehicles are helicopters. For a veteran off-road driver like Corky McMillan (the entire McMillan family is "legendary"), who's been driving the Baja since its inception way back in 1967, improvisation is as crucial as it is for a jazz musician: You don't get to be 74 years old in this game if you can't make adjustments. It is left to Corky's son Mark, however, to enunciate the Baja adventurers' common ethic: "Never, never, ever give up."

Well, OK. Thanks for that. And while we're at it, let's not forget that the Baja "is not a place, it's an emotion -- something you feel." Or that these "1,000 merciless miles" are "not for wusses," as race organizer Sal Fish tells us. For Brown, there is no such thing as too many talking heads, so he also points a camera at Parnelli Jones, the former Indianapolis 500 winner who gave off-road racing new legitimacy by running in the Baja.

"It's a 24-hour plane crash," Jones explains. Fine. But unless you count yourself among the fuel-injected faithful, Dust to Glory may give you the feeling you've sat through all 24.