A Solid DNF: Behind The Scenes Photographing The 2019 Baja 1000

Photography by Emotive Image

There is something infinitely taxing about endurance off-road racing like the Baja 1000. Perhaps it’s because the Baja 1000 is the single longest non-stop point-to-point race in the world. It takes the most skilled and prestigious drivers and knocks them down a peg. There’s no safety car in Baja and no lap counter. Everyone watching sees the racers driving flat out in this gripping battle of Man vs. Machine, but others associated with the race endure their own fair share of tests.

As we have in previous articles, we wanted to shine a light on the media side of the industry. To help us weigh in on the side of motorsports that doesn’t get covered nearly enough, we caught up with renowned photographer Alex Wong of Emotive Image. Days after returning from his 95th flight of the year, Wong and I spoke on the phone for almost an hour. He explained happiness and pain in great detail while reliving his experience with photographing the legendary Baja event in 2019. This year he and his team suffered mechanical failures, had chance run-ins with stranded professional drivers, endured totally unpredictable weather, battled a language barrier, remedied injuries with vodka, and still managed to get the shot! It’s a brilliant recollection that only someone who lived it could tell. We hope you enjoy it!

Front Street Media: Why don’t we go way back and start with how the whole idea to shoot the Baja 1000 came about?

Alex Wong: You’re going to have to blame Camden Thrasher for this one. I think I met him in 2012 or 2013. He was sitting behind me at the Long Beach Grand Prix, and we just instantly became friends—like the whole weekend, we were talking shit back and forth, and we just kept in contact that year. The closer Baja came; I think we messaged each other, saying, “Hey, let’s go to Baja, it looks stupid fun.” And I said, “Hell yeah, let’s do it,” and also my buddy Ron [Palarca]—the guy you’ll see in the pictures with the video camera. At the time, he was working with me at BorrowLenses.com, and I knew he was not a huge fan of the holidays, so I said, “let’s go shoot Baja. It’s going to be fun, and we’ll eat a bunch of tacos.”

So I wrangled him in, and the last six years, it has always been me, Camden, and Ron just going to Baja. Ron doesn’t always shoot motorsports, but he does like shooting and editing, so he films us every year. We make a joke of it because it’s not a paid gig for him, so we won’t see the video until like four years later—haha! But yeah, it came off a whim of, let’s do something that we haven’t seen a lot of people do yet and we’ve always wanted to do. Because it’s relatively close—at that time, Camden still lived in Seattle, so we just figured swing down the West Coast to get there.

FSM: Let’s get to when you started planning it this year, like what goes into planning your trip? Finding clients or…

AW: This year was probably the least planned out of any year that we’ve gone. At least from my end, because usually, we’ll start kinda like when the FD (Formula Drift) season ends, and I have some free time. I’ll message Camden, and we’ll go over routes and see when he’s getting in. If he wants to fly into San Francisco and I’ll drive down, plan the hotels, and all of that. But this year, I wasn’t actually planning to shoot it, because my budget has pretty much run dry for the year. There are times when Baja is just kinda miserable, and you don’t get anything amazing. I got to the point where I was thinking maybe I’ll skip this one and next year’s the longer one, so we’ll go shoot that and save my energy.

So this year, I hadn’t planned anything up until Larry Chen calls me and asks, “Hey, are you shooting it, we need help shooting a car.” So, I guess I am now. So I started planning it—usually have the plans doubled up because I bring Ron out to shoot, so I book all of his hotels. We didn’t really plan very much with Camden because he was shooting for the Honda team, and I knew that he was coming in like three days earlier than we were. So I kinda left him to his own devices, and I just planned it out with Louis [Yio] (of Larry’s 1EXIF photo team).

I didn’t know Larry wasn’t going to be there at the time, so I was like, “Alright Louis, I’ll meet you in San Diego, and we’ll cross the border. It’s Larry’s client, so I’ll just follow you guys and help shoot.” Usually, I plan out all of the routes, I’ll drive the course, I’ll plan the hotels—usually, I do all of that. This year, I literally just booked a flight and a rental car, and “Let’s go!”

FSM: So let’s talk about what goes into planning the route…

AW: It’s gotten a lot easier over the years. The first year we did it, me, Camden, and Ron, we didn’t have anything but a map that gets handed out at the town liquor store. So when we first started, we just kinda guessed like let’s go across the main highway here, or let’s go shoot this. That’s where the start line is, and maybe we’ll catch them here-kinda deal. Those are the fun ones because you don’t really know when or where anything is going to be. You’re not chasing a car, you’re just chasing a cool photo. Now, we’ve gotten wiser, where SCORE International distributes the GPS waypoints for the entire route two weeks before the event for all of the competitors to use, but we get access to that, too. So we’ll take those, and throw them onto whatever GPS system we have.

Once we get into Mexico, we’ll take a look, we’ll drive—if we can—onto a route because it’s all public roads through farmlands and through mountains. Sometimes it’s not passable with a regular car, but for the most part, it is. So we drive the route, three hours into the countryside, and crossover one point, and then cross into the racecourse and see what looks good. It’s gotten a lot easier that way, we used to just satellite view everything and just see if it looks cool. Now, we just drive through at night, or we’ll go there in the morning and look at what it looks like and if it works. If not, we’ll find another spot. It’s a lot of driving.

Even the first day we got in, we left San Diego at 3:30-4:00 am. Drove into the border, reached Camden to touch base with him, and we had to find out where the Ford Bronco was. Had to drive four hours into nowhere, and hopefully, they’re there. The same thing goes for the racecourse, you’ll drive four hours into somewhere, and hopefully, when you get there, the racecourse is marked out with those little red arrows and green arrows. And you just hope that that’s the right one and that you didn’t pull up the wrong map from the wrong year or something like that.

FSM: Do you have to drive on the actual course to get places? Can you be in the way?

AW: Yeah, sometimes. So like a lot of the time, the racecourse actually uses public roads that are in use that day. And at those points, all of the racers are held to a “speed zone.” So they are limited to 37 MPH. Fortunately, most of the racecourse, there’s a lot of country roads around the course. You try as much as you can to not drive on the racecourse because a lot of times, some of the racers don’t give a crap about the speeds and will just book it through. Like last year, for instance, if you watched the video of Alexander Rossi hitting a jump and there was like this Jeep coming the other way, and he clips the mirror in the air. So that area used to be one of the most famous jumps in a town called Ojos Negros. Now, because of that incident, that whole section is a speed zone. So there are no jumps anymore. So yeah, you can run the risk on the course, but going further, the location we chose to shoot was just at the beginning of the speed zone. So we could park there, hike into a little bit of where we wanted to shoot, but if we need to leave quickly, you could just drive on the racecourse without a lot of hassle.

FSM: You had obviously looked at the weather before you started going to Mexico.

AW: Not as much as I should have.

FSM: So you didn’t know about the storm before you got there. What happened when you found out about the rain, and how did the storm affect the race?

AW: Oh my god. For us, every time we looked at our iPhone at the weather, it will just give you the cloud with the raindrops, it doesn’t tell you if its a sprinkle or a freakin’ hurricane. So Ron and I fly into San Diego the first night, and we go find our favorite pizza spot. We get there, and the entire area has a power outage. Apparently, the storm was so bad that parts of that area were flooded. A transformer blew out and knocked out all of the power. Then the next morning, we drive into Mexico, and its pouring rain, like an absolutely torrential downpour. The streets of Ensenada are flooded, the cars are barely making it through. We saw some cars stranded on the side of the freeway. We got a text from the Ford Racing team, and they said, “we’re about three and a half hours out, and there’s no rain.”

I was like bullshit! This was literally a hurricane. So we ended up driving the three and a half hours through the entire storm, and we get to where they were testing. Weirdly enough during testing, we would watch the storm come in and just separate around us. One cloud goes to one side, makes a cool rainbow, the other goes into the mountains and creates all of these crazy light rays.

Meanwhile, our entire testing session is completely dry—maybe a couple of sprinkles, but almost completely dry. And that’s one of the craziest things we’ve ever seen. We started thinking maybe it’s going to be great.

We drive back into town, and the next day is a contingency, where all the cars line up in town. I planned to take photos of all of the cars at the start when all of them get tech’d. I drove out to do reconnaissance on the course route that we wanted to shoot. It had been raining all day, pouring rain and we’re stuck in traffic, and we see this cool rainbow, and I’m thinking it’s amazing. Then I get a text from Louis saying they’re postponing the race a day.

Apparently, from the storm, the roads are all worse than we thought. At that point, do I even want to risk going down there? Like what if my car gets stuck on the racecourse and I can’t get out? Do I still want to continue driving out there to scope the route? I decide you know what, let’s just do it. The sun’s running out, let’s haul ass out there. We get there, and it’s beautiful. It’s a sunset on the coastline, there were a couple of motorcycle riders coming through, there are puddles everywhere, the sky is pink. I think it was the first time in almost 52 years of the race being postponed a day. Which for us was pretty historic considering we saw the rain and could tell it was pretty bad.

FSM: The next day, you guys had a day off where you were just walking through the city?

AW: Yeah, a friend of ours had told us to go to this town called Puerto Nuevo, which is like 45 minutes north of Ensenada. We’ve always driven past and have never stopped. So we get there and its an absolutely beautiful little town. Shops everywhere, we have a great lunch, and it’s basically the opposite of the previous few days. It’s beautiful, 72 degrees, we’re on the beach, and having seafood. I was editing photos, and Louis finds this online program where you can modify cars. So obviously we’re all just sitting there modifying cars instead of getting homework on the course. But it was a relaxing day, so we figured we’ll have some beers and modify some cars. It was nice, usually, for us, Baja is like three days crammed together. On the fourth day, we get back to San Diego, and we have a relaxing day after the race. We’re all exhausted by then and just do nothing. But this time was nice because our Airbnb was great. The view was amazing. After the sunset, you could see Jupiter and Venus, so I was thinking this is beautiful. It’s going to be a great Baja.

FSM: But no…

AW: “Narrator: But it would not be…” The next day after our free day, man, that was a wild 24 hours. So for Baja the bikes usually start at three in the morning. By the time they’re done, it gives enough buffer before the trophy trucks come that they’re not like hunting them down. So we’re here photographing this Ford Bronco, and because Baja is such a crazy race, we help out all the other photographers. If someone we know is shooting for Monster Energy, we’ll grab photos of their truck. If someone’s shooting for Toyo Tires, we’ll grab that truck, too. So our truck didn’t leave the line until 11:45 am.

We had one of our guys, Tyler [Kapper], he’s a videographer, and does Formula Drift with us. He’s never done Baja, and Larry had the crazy idea of embedding him with the chase team. Now what the chase team does, they try to catch the racecar as much as they can, it’s basically like a mobile pit stop. They get a radio call at mile marker 100, they’re hauling ass to mile marker 100 to fix a flat or repair any damage. So you’re in the thick of it for the entirety of the race. So we’re like yeah, let’s just throw him in there. It will be a fun route, and Louis and I have some experience, so we’ll go off course and shoot it.

We drop him off with the team and head out up to the race route, and get to the town where we had gone the day before. There’s a bunch of spectators there and a bunch of surfers who didn’t know Baja was happening. Just a bunch of locals hanging out there, drinking beers, having a barbecue. It was a perfect atmosphere, it was kinda fun! We just sat around waiting for our cars.

When you’re at the tail end of the town, there’s this restaurant that we were told to go to called Coyote Cal’s. It’s owned by a dude from San Diego, and we were all told just go there and hang out for a bit. So it’s this really cool little hotel, every racer has been there, all the surfers go to it. So we’re there, and I’m just kinda like, alright, let’s just get Baja underway.

And then it begins… and the cool thing with Baja, the Trophy Trucks average about 60 MPH, and on the course, we were at race mile 105-107, so you kind of plan it’s going to be about two hours maybe by the time they get here. We kinda try to scout the course beforehand. We were there at about an hour and a half, and you just kinda look off into the distance, and the second you see helicopters, it’s on—because all of the big teams will have one or two helicopters chasing them. I’m pretty sure we saw about twelve helicopters that morning. So, you look off in the distance, and the second you see the helicopters you’re like, alright, here we go. And once the helicopters and the trucks come, it goes non-stop. Especially if you’re in the earlier parts of the course, it’s just car after car, dust, smoke, people screaming, it is just good fun!

FSM: So, Baja starts…

AW: Like I said earlier, we’re helping out other photographers, so like we have this area picked out. It’s pretty. Louis is going to be over here, Ron’s going to be over there and take video, and I’m gonna be in this spot. By the time our truck gets there—the Ford Bronco—Louis and I will have switched spots, so we’ll get sunset from this area, and have a great variety for everyone. I’m just walking all over, grabbing photos, and it just didn’t stop. The trophy trucks are coming through and dusting everyone. All of the spectators were having a blast, which is really fun! We’re shooting all of the trophy trucks, so that’s like 40 or 50. Those are the big guys, so we’re trying to get every photo of those. Then it’s the Class 1 Buggies, which look like spaceships. I know I have two cars in there with Nitto Tires, so I have to get those. Then right after the Buggies, it’s going to be our Ford Bronco, and a couple of cars after our Ford Bronco is the Honda Ridgeline. Once the Buggy comes through, then find where you want to shoot. You can mess around with Trophy Trucks, but by the time the Buggies come through, you want to get into your spot and know what’s coming. It’s game time.

So I think, eh, this Buggy’s kinda cool, I’m gonna try to get a shot here, if it doesn’t work I’m going to go back to my spot at the top of the hill with the water in the background—the Baja sunset photo. I got to this spot, it’s right at the shut-down area before a speed zone. So, I’m like okay they’ll be coming through here at speed. They’ll kick up some dust, it will look nice, and then will slow down so I can get a shot off. The first Buggy comes through, and its the Wilson car, and he’s won it so many times, so I’m thinking this guy knows what to do. So he comes through, and I’m 70-200mm in hand, shooting, shooting, shooting, and I just feel something—I mean, I’ve felt rocks hit me before from rallying or Baja, but this one felt like a boulder ripped my finger off and ripped the lens off. I just sat there like stunned, saying every cuss word known to man because it hurt like hell. I’m just wondering, is my finger still there? I look down, and there’s blood everywhere.

I’ve never seen that much blood spewing from my hand. And I usually keep tissues on me, in case I have to blow my nose because it’s dusty as hell. I grab my tissues and shove it on there. Instantly, it just soaked through, like disgusting. You could take the napkin off, squeeze it, and blood’s coming out. I put my cameras down, and there’s this guy next to me, I think he was from America. I ask him if he has a first aid kit, and he can’t find anything in his car. I grab my gear and head back to the rental car, and this is the least prepared I’ve ever been for Baja. Usually, I bring a first aid kit. Every year I bring a first aid kit because you never know. This is the first year I don’t. I asked a couple of the local families around if they have first aid, and they didn’t understand but saw the blood.

One of the family members runs over, grabs my hand, and in Spanish tells me to hold my hand above my head and squeezes my wrist for like ten minutes to stop the bleeding. At the same time, I’m waving down Ron to come back and see if there’s any medical anything, and Louis is way over on the other side. The guy stops the bleeding, I’m thinking, cool, still feels like it ripped something. This guy’s son runs over with a bottle of vodka, and I’d seen this in a movie, it’s about to get pretty painful. He soaks a towel, soaks my finger, and just starts cleaning the wound with vodka. Holy crap, that was not an experience I want to redo. Haha! He offered me a shot of it afterward, which was nice. He offered me a band-aid and some painkillers, but I was still in shock, so I didn’t really need anything, so I was okay.

Ron goes back to that hotel/bar/restaurant that we were at before the race started, and I’m just sitting in the rental car drinking water, eating granola bars, and trying to keep my blood sugar up or whatever my mind was thinking at the time. Ron comes back and tells me the hotel guy says to him if you go to the other edge of town, there’s a hospital there that is really nice. The facilities are great, the doctor is amazing, and if you go there, he can probably stitch you up for free. Ron goes back out to shoot, and I’m just completely defeated. I lower my seat down and just kinda lie back for like an hour, then after an hour, Louis and Ron come back, and Louis is freaking out because he didn’t get the shot of the Ford Bronco coming through. I’m thinking, God! The first time in my career that I’ve never gotten a photo of my racecar on race day. He said he was transitioning positions, and then Ron says, “I think I got it?” He had been filming videos, and apparently just thought he was going to shoot some photos in between. When he puts his video camera down to take photos, the Bronco comes through, and he’s the only one to get a decent shot of our car out of all three of us.

We all pack into the car and get back to the hotel place, so we can try to get to this hospital as soon as possible. We’re talking to the hotel guy, and told him I had a rock injury. He said they’ve been hearing a lot more of that this year because usually the rocks are embedded hard into the ground. However, the rain washed away the top layer of dirt, and the rocks were above the ground now. He says drive back into town, make a left on this concrete road, and it’s up the hill.

So while driving to the hospital in that town, we see the Honda Ridgeline that Camden’s shooting for. Alexander Rossi is driving, and we’re friends with Rossi because I work in the IndyCar series. So we pull over, and I hop out, and I’m telling him to look at my finger, and I’m looking at his truck, and it’s completely mangled. I look at him and ask what he did. Rossi says, “we rolled the car three miles from your location,” and he has a hefty injury.

Fortunately for us, that town has cell reception, so we get this news that the Honda is not driveable. So we text Camden, who we heard was about 50 miles south of us, waiting to get the sunset photo of the truck. We texted him, saying, “Hey, your car is dusted.” He texts us back, saying, “Yeah, I’m not even at the right photo spot.”

Here, while driving the racecourse rec’ing the day before, he busted the oil pan on his rental car. He J-B Welded the pan, filled it back up with oil, and had to drive it on main roads. So every photo he got on race day was on main highways routes, so Team Honda wasn’t having a good day, either. The photos I shot of Rossi, and the Ridgeline were with my left hand. I got out of the car, grabbed my camera, and realized I couldn’t grip it. So left hand and upsidedown shooting on the D4 (camera) it was.

We go back into town, and we’re trying to fend off race Buggies coming by us because we’re still on the racecourse. We get to what we think is a police station with an ambulance outside of it, and we think okay, cool this should work. Inside there were three cops, thankfully Ron speaks Spanish and asks them where the hospital is. They say it’s three blocks down and make a left. This is during sunset, so we’re up on this hill, and you can see the Baja cars on the beach just flying, dusting up everything with the sunset backlit, utterly beautiful. I’m just thinking, man, this is the worst.

We get to that hospital, and it looks nice? I suppose? But the gates are closed and locked—obviously. There’s a couple of locals walking around asking if we’re looking for the doctor and say he lives three blocks down if you want to knock on his door.

Our initial plan was to shoot the sunset location. If we had enough time, get to another location, but if we didn’t, we’d just head back to Ensenada because Ford wants those photos immediately. We could shoot those photos, head back to Ensenada, get those photos up. Go to a nighttime spot, then a sunrise spot on the other side of the Peninsula.

We’ll head back to Ensenada, we’ll drop Louis off, we’ll dump photos, and I’ll find a hospital there. It normally takes an hour and a half, this drive took four hours! Thanks to the rain, part of the freeway was taken out, so we were routed around it, which took four hours to get back to our Airbnb. We weren’t back until after 9 pm.

That was the time we get a phone call from Larry, who says he can’t make it in. So the whole reason I was part of this team, is because it was supposed to be like seven people shooting for Ford, but one guy got sick and couldn’t make it. Then Larry and another guy were supposed to come in late on race day to help shoot. But then those two couldn’t make it. So it was down to me, Louis, Ron, and Tyler—who was embedded with the chase truck. At this point, it was down to Louis, because I decided you know what, I’m going to call it. I don’t want to find out my finger is worse than it is. I’m gonna go straight to the border and find a hospital. I didn’t want him to have to shoot alone, but I had to make that decision.

So we dump the photos, it takes about an hour, I give Louis a hug and wish him well. Ron drives me to the border, it takes about two hours to get through the border, which is pretty normal, we find a Kaiser (hospital), and I get x-rayed. A doctor sees me pretty quick, and the lady says they looked at the x-ray and didn’t find any wounds. There weren’t any cuts or anything, its just this abrasion. So they kinda patch me up. They clean up the wound, cut off the skin that had been torn off, put a little brace on my finger, so I don’t bend it, and send me on my way. Usually, we end Baja with all of us going to get Taco Bell. Because, of course. So after we leave Kaiser, it’s three in the morning, and 3 am Taco Bell is kind of the norm. We get Taco Bell and pass out in the hotel.

So the next day in San Diego, I texted Louis and ask him how it’s going. He doesn’t answer and probably didn’t have reception. So we look online, and there’s a 35-hour time limit for all racers, and if you don’t get to the finish line in 35 hours, then you’re DNF’d (did not finish). Our DNF time was 12:50 or 1:50 pm the next day. I texted Louis at 3 pm, and he responded, saying, “we’re still 300 miles from the finish.” So the Ford Bronco officially gets the DNF, as does the photo team, as does the Honda, as does, man, everything. It was just one for the books—a solid DNF.

We were hanging out in San Diego the next day, a beautiful sunny day, and we just had junk food and hung out at the hotel. I was sitting there thinking about how my injury really isn’t that bad, and I wish I would have stayed and shot. The sunset was amazing, and Baja always makes great photos but, everyone I tell this story to says I made the right choice, and safety first. Because the wound was on my middle finger, which was about an inch from my eye while shooting. And I thought about it, if it was any other scenario, my eye could have gotten taken out.

FSM: Oh, for sure, imagine getting blasted with a rock in your head instead of your finger.

AW: Yeah, so I’ll take the finger. But that was an adventure. It was a mess for all the teams. With the Ford Bronco, the car was experiencing electrical issues and initially didn’t even make it off the line, which is why it took longer to get to us in our spot.

Leading up to when I got hit, it was one of the most fun events I’ve ever had. I was talking to Louis, and he was excited to do the full-pull Baja shooting everything, and I was bummed I couldn’t give that to him, but he went at it solo. And I think he grew a lot from that. Baja is not something you want to go shoot by yourself. You want a team. But we sent him into the midnight desert by himself, and he’s posting on Instagram, so I’m sure he’s alive, haha. It was just a weird one.

FSM: Yeah, it sounds like it. Everything from the weather beforehand, obviously the incident with the Buggy happens, and the Honda team breaks down, and Camden’s not even there because his car broke. You guys are trying to find a police station and a hospital, and drive four hours through traffic and sit at the border and your racecar was DNF’d.

AW: Yeah, it was almost the perfect storm. At the end of it, I wouldn’t say we were all worse for wear, but we all grew from it. Like Rossi, he got a DNF and an injury, but it gave him energy like he wants to come back and get this done. The Ford team had this all-star lineup of drivers, and they put a lot of their eggs in one basket for this, and you know they want to come back and prove what the Bronco is all about. Initially, when I was at the border, I was thinking I don’t want to come back to Baja, but next year is like 1200 miles, so that might be the biggest one—the one to go to. I think with all of us, after all that happened this year, we want redemption. We’ve got unfinished business, so we’ll see. That one I think we’ll plan a little more for, maybe bring a first aid kit.

FSM: Man, so do you have any last words or thoughts about Baja?

AW: My takeaway was—I’m not saying I’m the best—but even the people that have been through almost 10 years of shooting, you will fail. The longer you don’t fail, when failure comes, it’s a bigger one. I’m glad this one wasn’t as big as it could have been. In the grand scheme of things, you can miss the shot, safety first, make sure you can come back to shoot it again. If I weren’t able to go back to shoot it next year, it would be a whole different story, but I’m glad Ron was there. Baja with Camden, Ron, and Louis, and all of the people off-road shooting: These guys are beasts. Anytime, any place, there might be blood, there will be sweat and tears, but we’ll be doing it. Like Rossi said to me, it’s the most addicting thing ever. No two days are ever the same, and the views you get are incredible, so we’ll be back. We’ll definitely be back!