Another post in a series of the experiences from Baja written by John Thawley. Read about some of John’s exploits on Dean’s Garage. John died on July 14, 2009. Published by permission from John Thawley, Jr.


The Great Tech Inspector

Several times in my non-illustrious career as a fledging off-road racer I ran out of time, money, or cars. Because this has probably never happened to any other racer, some overview of the situation is in order. In conversation with Ed Pearlman (head of NORRA) one day he “volunteered” me to be CHIEF Tech Inspector for an upcoming Baja race. Being CHIEF Tech Inspector meant that for no pay I was free to suffer the verbal wrath of any contestant that didn’t like what I had to say about the safety of their car destined to navigate the lonely and primitive trails of the Sonoran Desert. I was afforded a freebie motel room adjacent to the inspection area. Armed with two able assistants, inspection forms, and clipboards, the lie was whittled down in a mere 14 hours. It was dark-thirty when the techers could close the line, clean up, have a meal and go face down in a freebie bunk. If the cockroaches were square dancing on the linoleum, I would not have heard.




Just as day was breaking, there was a polite, but persistent knock on the door. By polite, I mean there was no indication several drunk seven foot racers lurked outside the room. With a lot of sleep left in me, I opened the door. There was an attractive. fortyish tousled female-type blonde and a twentish year-old-young man. The lady explained they had paid the entry fee, but had problems preparing the car (sure glad I never had that problem). They had worked and driven all night to Ensenada to run the race. Now they needed to be teched. The car was on a trailer in front of my room.




I was in no mood to be trifled with. Barefoot and no clipboard I took a look. As my late friend, Smokey Yunick would have said, “It was below horrible.”  The contraption was filthy dirty. Whoever had built the frame had flunked design and welding. VW engine and transmission straight out of a salvage yard or a police impound sale. I reached deeply for some semblance of civility. The lady and the young man had no clue about the Sonoran Desert. No Margaritaville. Sorry.




Explaining  as patiently and politely as I could that tech inspection had been closed the previous night at eight, but that I was willing to make an exception and inspect the vehicle. After all, their paperwork was in order, they had worked very hard to get there and, the lady had really big headlights. The CHIEF Tech Inspector told the would-be racers two things had to happen before tech inspection could take place. Wash the turd and build a firewall as per the rule book.

The last item really caught me off guard. For those of you who have not pissed away most of your life around race cars, a firewall is basically a barrier in a vehicle designed to give the occupants enough time to exit said vehicle should it catch fire on the other side of said occupants. Got that? This said vehicle had not a trace of any barrier between the engine, fuel tank and the seats. In other words, while I was savoring a muy grande plate of huevos rancheros, the unsung heroes of off-road racing might be getting the mud off the salvage yard terror, but they wouldn’t be building a firewall.




My new “racer friends” were waiting just outside my room by the time I finished breakfast. A lot of the mud was missing. Not good either. When I glanced back at the firewall area of the buggy, I was aware there was “something” there. I don’t how long I looked at “something,” but it took awhile for the “something” to sink in. Aforementioned entrants had procured some engine oil cardboard crates, cut them, shaped them to fit the roll bar structure. The flattened cardboard had been attached to the steel tubing with mechanics wire. At the time of manufacture they had been printed (in English) indicating the packaging had passed a certain fire code requirement and were fire retardant to a certain degree for a given period of time. I was speechless. I went completely around the vehicle and never put a pencil to the tech form. It slowly dawned on me that this piece of rolling junk would never make it to the end of the pavement—which at that time was about 20 miles away.



I think this was the entry John drove in the 1967 Baja 1000.


Here was a most unlikely situation. Some nice, innocent people having no idea what was facing them, with a vehicle far from being up to the task. But in their hearts, they were racers. They were caught up in the sizzle, and had no idea how tough the steak was. In a gut call, I put  the tech sticker on the roll cage, wished them well and told them never to appear in my tech inspection line again.


Ensenada, Mexico


Sure enough, in about an hour they wound up back in Ensenada at the end of a tow row. They failed the throttle linkage, or wiring, or fuel delivery—I dunno—everything was suspect—including the cardboard firewall.

Please don’t republish without permission.

  1. Phil Payne

    What a great, but no doubt true, yarn. What a wonderful witty way of relating an event. We’ve all lost something in John’s departure from this earth. May our enjoyment in reading his words give him smiles up there.


    What a funny guy. There can be a lot of humor around cars, also a lot of pain and frustration. Sometimes burns, also a lot of fun, satisfaction and enjoyment.

    I wonder if they came back the next year? It seems to me that it was probably the way he looked at everything.

    Post more Gary if you have it.


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