LA PAZ - Baja California Sur: For the first time it its history, the Baja 1000 will be run in a northerly direction, beginning in La Paz 1,310 miles south of Ensenada. Not as the crow flies, of course, but as a drunken mule might stagger up the famed peninsula that has already hosted this event for 55 years as trucks, buggies, all-terrain vehicles and motorcycles tackle one of motorsports last true endurance races. Former NASCAR driver Brendan Gaughan, with help from Casey Mears and Buddy Feldkamp, aims to ride his mount into history.
Each year sports cars race twice around the clock in the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. The projected time for the overall winner of the 1000 is somewhere in the range of 30 hours for the overall winner with a median time of 36 hours for most classes. That's three times around the clock.
After leaving the grueling world of NASCAR, Gaughan decided to return to his roots and find an even bigger challenge.
"I've done the 1000 every year since I retired from NASCAR," Gaughan told NBC Sports one day prior to climbing into his truck. "First thing I did was go back into the world I loved."
Gaughan won the Class 1 division of the Baja 100 in 2019 and counts it as one of the highlights of his career. He recalled he's raced in the Daytona 500 with a best finish of seventh as recently as 2020. And he's won the Rolex 24 in the GT class, so he knows something about the thrill of victory.
Things have not gone as well since, but it has not dampened his enthusiasm.
"My Class 1 car has been struggling," Gaughan said. "Since we won the 2019 1000, it's been breaking. We've had all these problems so we took the 400 off and cut the entire racecar apart, rebuilt everything, put a brand-new transmission in it. Kevin Kroyer, the guy who did my NASCAR engines forever - Kevin's been with me since I was 15; or I've been with Kevin since I was 15 I should say - so we have great power, great stuff.
"It's a brand-new car because we want to win this race. To be the guy who wins the first and maybe only northern direction Baja 1000, that's going to be legendary so hopefully we can put our name on that."
Gaughan is the driver of record in the No. 62, so his is the name that will appear first on that page of the book.
The Driver of Record must either start or finish the race, so Gaughan will drive the first leg. He's not alone, however, with two legendary co-drivers who share a history in the sport.
Mears will take over for the middle stage and another family friend and legendary son of the sport, Buddy Feldkamp will finish. Each stage will be more than 300 and upwards to 500 miles of extremely difficult terrain. This terrain often leaves racers unfamiliar with the sport of desert racing wondering how they can stay razor focused for the entirety of their stint.
In addition to his engine builder Kroyer, Gaughan has pressed his former crew chief Billy Wilburn into service. It was an eye-opening experience.
"Billy Wilburn - he's here with me on the pit crew - we put him in the Class 1 car on the way down to San Felipe," Gaughan said. "I told him when we were together at Penske 20 years ago, there's nothing like the desert. He got out of the car and said 'Holy ... something ... NASCAR ain't got nothing on this. This is a totally different world.' This is totally wild, super-epic. Every journey is amazing.
"I love that this is where my family has been my whole life. I love Baja. I don't race in America, I only race Baja."
And making this edition so much more special is that he is able to do so in 2024 with close friends. Actually, make that extended family.
"Buddy Feldkamp always raced with me when I needed a second driver," Gaughan said. "The Feldkamp family and mine go back to the 1970s when they drove for my dad (Michael) way back in the Barbary Coast cars and (Buddy's father) Bud is one of my favorite people on the face of this earth. Casey and I grew up together. When I'd go out and watch my dad, we'd hang out with grandpa Mears and grandma Mears. I've been hanging out with the Mears family since I was born.
"Casey and I were teammates at Mirage in 1981 in the old Mickey Thompson Stadium Series. We raced NASCAR together, so when I needed a third driver, he's got a decent amount of experience."
Gaughan, Mears and Feldkamp are calling themselves "Non-Hall of Fame Racing." They have surnames that are legendary in off-road racing and have gone great distances to make their given names equally memorable.
"I said, you know what, Rick and Roger, Bud and Buddy - the Hall of Fame families - we've got the right last names, just not the right first," Gaughan said. "Why don't we get together?
"And Casey was so excited. I think it's so cool to have the Mears gang in my racecar because we have been entwined for 60 years, at least the families have. Seeing Casey and Roger pre-running together, seeing Bud and Buddy pre-running together, it's so cool to see the families together."
"But it's 1,300 miles. You know that old saying you can't win it it Turn 1? This is the definition of that. We're going to try and get this to the finish line. I have an ego - so do the boys - and we want to not only finish; we want to win."