What professional rock climber Timmy O’Neill learned racing the Baja 1000

What's a guy who doesn't even own a car want with a 1,000-mile auto race through the desert? The same thing someone might want from climbing 3,000 feet to the top of a sheer cliff with only a thin rope to catch them, I guess: To survive what shouldn't be survivable. To go where people don't belong. To feel afraid but do the damn thing anyways.

It's something along those lines that led Patagonia-sponsored rock climber Timmy O'Neill to accept an invitation to compete in the Baja 1000, one of the world's gnarliest off-road races, held every November in the desolate and unforgiving desert of the Baja peninsula.

While the motivation might have been similar to that which has been driving him up rock faces for three decades, it was precisely the dissimilarity between climbing and long distance off-road racing that proved most profound for O'Neill.

Professional climber Timmy O’Neill co-pilots as Mike Ray takes the wheel in the Baja 1000. Photo: Courtesy of Hed Hi Media

However, like so many epic adventures, there might have been a little peer pressure involved, as well. O'Neill was invited to join a Baja 1000 racing team courtesy of friend Mike Ray, a South Carolina-based baker, surfer and (as described by O'Neill) "adventure dilettante."

The two were introduced by mutual friends in 2012 when Ray, who had never been rock climbing, expressed interest in summiting Yosemite's El Capitan. Ray became involved with O'Neill's charity, Paradox Sports, and in October of that year O'Neill led Ray on his first ever ascent, a 24 hour climb up the nose route of El Cap (even if you're not fluent in climbing you should know that's ridiculous).

Fast forward a couple of years and Ray, along with his local surf buddies from the Macho Beach Noseriders Club, was ready for another adventure. They set their sights on the Baja 1000 -- nevermind that none of them had ever really driven a race car.

"These guys are crazy," O'Neill says of the Macho Beach Noseriders (aka Macho Beach Racing Team). "This is a group of middle-aged white male Americans who live in Charleston, South Carolina, and who have an affinity for surfing and drinking -- or is it drinking and surfing?"

Timmy O’Neill and Mike Ray with the Macho Beach Racing Team’s class 5 VW Baja Bug. Photo: Courtesy of Hed Hi Media

Ray asked O'Neill to join the team, which by O'Neill's own admission was "a bit of a leap." The climber hasn't owned a car for three years and jokes that he'll never even own an electric toothbrush. "I wouldn't know how to use it. I'm analog only,” jokes O’Neill.

He accepted Ray's invitation, though, and did so whole-heartedly.

"I was a hired gun, without a gun," he says of his role on the 12-person driving team that set out to tackle the the Baja 1000 in six two-man stages. "What I was able to do was bring decades of experience around risk assessment. I'm known as a speed climber -- someone who climbs rocks fast -- and that's always been me: Sort of fast twitch.

“I want to get there; I don't want to ever be late and I don't want to ever be early, I want to be right on time so I can use all of the previous minutes doing whatever it was I was accomplishing. That's kind of the same thing with auto racing because it's a nonstop race. There's always something that needs to be done, and I like to do that."

O'Neill says the race was two years in the making for him, while team videographer Tim McManus of Hed Hi Media adds that it was about six month of intensive prep.

"We kept going out to Barstow, California and running the car and kind of figuring out what the hell we were doing," recalls McManus. "We met a couple guys who were desert off road racers who decided they were going to help us, and they had connections in Mexico."

They were serendipitously introduced to mechanics Raul Solano and Raul Yanez, as well as the San Diego-based Negrete Boys Racing Team, who all joined the fold and provided the experience and mentorship the well-funded and amply-enthused Macho Beach crew lacked. "

So we ended up with this core team," McManus says. “And the next thing you know we found ourselves in Mexico the week before Thanksgiving for the 50th running of the Baja 1000."

The Macho Beach Racing Team leaves the start line of the Baja 1000. Photo: Courtesy of Hed Hi Media

Although the original plan was that Ray, who only has sight out of one eye, would drive just the first 10 to 20 miles off the start line and then let O'Neill take over, he was feeling good behind the wheel and ended up driving the majority of their 189 mile stage.

"When you're copilot, you're certain that you're going to die," O'Neill says, only half joking. "You know the driver is going to lose control and he's going to kill you because how could he not? This is a deadly activity you're involved in, but then you eventually have to relax and release control and just believe you're going to be fine."

Making matters more interesting, of course, is the fact that Ray's lack of stereoscopic vision means he has no depth perception.

"My role was to warm him of tight turns where we needed to reduce speed," says O'Neill of his position as co-pilot to a one-eyed driver.

Around mile 160, O'Neill gave exactly such a warning as they approached a tight left turn.

"I'm yelling 'Hard left! Hard left! Hard left! But he wasn't slowing down," recalls O'Neill. "He's going for it -- God love him -- and we end up barely going on our side. We didn't roll it all the way, we didn't even go onto the top. We went onto my side, tipped over, face full of dirt … We were now on our side, in the middle of the track, around a blind turn, with vehicles in the dark going fast. It became epic at this point."

They were helped by Bronco-driving spectators, a not uncommon occurrence along the Baja 1000 course, similar to the so-called "trail angels" who make a habit of helping hikers along the Pacific Crest and Appalachian Trails. The men worked together to get the car up and running again and, according to O'Neill, "for 30 miles we limped in to get it to the next drivers."

The Macho Beach car -- a VW Beetle souped up for classification as a Class 5-1600 Baja Bug -- made it 703 of the total 1300 miles of the 2017 Baja 1000 race, a year in which only five of the 13 Class 5 entries crossed the finish line.

"Of all the cars in our class that didn't finish, we made it the farthest," notes McManus.

Race car driving "has parallels with climbing and with expedition," says O'Neill as he reflects back on the experience.

"You can go to these far flung locales like Greenland and Pakistan and Patagonia, and the weather may not cooperate and you never leave basecamp. It's very similar,” O’Neill continues. “The weather is a metaphor for the working wellbeing -- mechanically -- of the vehicle. If it doesn't provide you with clear skies and great weather (aka a perfectly running machine), you're not going to race.

“So there is a bit of luck, but there's a lot of skill and a lot of preparation that goes into preventing that. Even the best drivers failed this year."

As a professional climber who has arguably made his living pushing the limits of “Type 2 Fun,” O'Neill discovered something new in the Baja desert, something he describes as “Type 2 Culture.”

"It's so loud and dirty and noxious," he says, noting how starkly contrasted auto racing is to the environments he's accustomed to climbing in.

Drivers from the Macho Beach Racing Team “punish the desert,” as described by climber-turned-driver, Timmy O’Neill. Photo: Courtesy of Hed Hi Media

And in exploring that contrast, O'Neill can't help but explore the contrasts he observes in himself.

"I feel that I can have contradictory impulses and contradictory concerns and passions,” he says. “I can tell tasteless jokes but then read deeply from literature. I can care about the environment -- and in fact for the last seven months I stopped eating meat and dairy for the environment -- but then also partake as a driver in the Baja 1000.

“I can carry conflicting aspects, because isn't that what life is about? We live strongly knowing that we will die. That is the most intense of conflicts. How do we live so strongly when death and destruction is all around us?"

When asked if he'd like to return for another attempt at the Baja 1000, O'Neill's immediate answer is no.

"I would rather learn to play piano. I would rather read a little bit more,” he continues. “I would rather go practice the ophthalmology work I do in Ethiopa. This was a one-off for me."

Later in the conversation, though, he relays the excitement his teammates had about returning to Baja in search of finally crossing that finish line. "I think they're all going to be in again," O’Neill says of the Macho Beach team. "And I bet you I'll be with them."

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