It’s hard to imagine that 10 years have now passed since Los Angeles area jukebox king Mike Pearlman decided to pick up and dust off a long-forgotten, family legacy. It was his late father Ed Pearlman who first led American racers down the Baja peninsula at the inaugural National Off-Road Racing Association (NORRA) Mexican 1000 rally in 1967. That groundbreaking event is recognized as the first professionally organized off-road race, and it led the elder Pearlman down a winding and colorful path of organizing and promoting the sport until the mid 1970s.
Flying squarely in the face of naysayers who said another sanctioning body would never survive in Baja, April’s 10th running of the Yokohama Tire Mexican 1000 is proof positive that the decisions of both Pearlmans were the correct ones.
The shiny new NORRA has been the key factor in the opening up the new off-road form of motorsport called vintage Baja desert racing. For 10 years now, race teams and drivers young and old have been digging up and and restoring vintage machinery, and having fun.
Today, Pearlman’s original vision is aided by partner Eliseo Garcia Jr., an Ensenada, Baja, native whose father Eliseo Sr. was instrumental in helping Ed Pearlman navigate logistics and political challenges back in the early days of racing on the largely uncharted peninsula.
Off-road racing life has indeed come full circle.
There are just under two months to go before NORRA drops the green flag for this year’s five day, 1,300-plus mile odyssey that race veterans refer to as “The Happiest Race on Earth,” and already 239 entries have already signed-up to compete in a wide variety of truck, buggy, motorcycle and UTV categories. Pearlman expects a record entry for 2019 — and he clearly knows why:
“When we started, one of the smartest things we did was to keep our eyes focused on having fun and making it all about the enjoyment of our racers,” he explains. “The multiple day, rally-style format makes the trip down Baja a more scenic adventure, not a dangerous straight run. There are social gatherings at every stop, and our finish-line parties are the best in motorsports.
“It’s all about the fun,” Pearlman goes on, “and it’s working.”
Mike Pearlman: “It’s all about the fun.” Image Marty Fiolka Collection
That focus on making desert racing less serious and more accessible is only part of the NORRA success story. The more remarkable aspect to 10 years of growth lies in the race’s wholly unique emphasis on creating an environment for vintage off-road race cars, something that didn’t exist before the NORRA phenomenon. For decades, these original race vehicles were largely forgotten relics of the past, related to dark storage garages or non-functioning museum pieces. As so many in the automotive world will tell you, vintage racing has long been a legitimate and vibrant segment of motorsports.
Thanks to NORRA, both new and older racers have found a perfect outlet to express their need to experience Baja at its finest.
Now old race trucks and once butchered buggies and sedans are being dragged into the sunshine, with many recapturing the best parts of their past. While the vintage categories do not make up a majority of NORRA entries, certainly they provide the tangy spice that gives the Mexican 1000 it’s wholly unique flavor.
Retro is always cool, and for a new breed of desert racer nothing is better than returning to Baja for a once-a-year fling with a vintage flair.
At right, NORRA’s founder, the late Ed Pearlman. Image Marty Fiolka Collection
For Mike Pearlman, the past decade has been a rapid education in the modern promotional environment of racing and a deeply satisfying nod to his late father’s lasting impact.
“Looking at how far we have come and how enthusiastic our growing family of racers seems to be, I would think that dad would be looking down with a lot of pride,” he shared. “It hit me recently that the modern version of NORRA has been in existence longer than the original. That’s hard to imagine. It’s kind of cool.”