The Baja 1000 is the longest point-to-point race in the world, covering a thousand miles through the desert of northern Mexico and open to all manner of vehicles, from motorcycles to dune buggies to vintage VW Bugs (but not the new models). “Dust to Glory” chronicles one typical year’s race, and gives the event’s history in the process. Only serious racing fans will be intrigued by every element of the labor-of-love documentary, but even casual admirers of adventure will find much of the footage entertaining.
The director, writer and narrator, a race enthusiast named Dana Brown (who also made 2003’s surfing doc “Step into Liquid”), speaks in the manner of a person who loves his subject and who has not availed himself of an editor. Solecisms like “conversating” and “had shrank” creep into his narration, as do overblown declarations like, “This isn’t about A race, it’s about THE race: the human race,” and the opening description of the Baja 1000 as “sharing an adventure in a place where reality is on holiday.” Puh-leeeze.
But if you ascribe Brown’s high-school-level prose to his unadorned love for racing, his zeal becomes contagious. He introduces us to the legends of the Baja 1000 (including NASCAR’s Robbie Gordon, who comes to Mexico every year), the great, unknown-to-history riders and drivers like 62-year-old J.N. Roberts, Mouse McCoy, and the McMillin family (now with three generations of dune buggy drivers).
Since it includes a lot of rough terrain and even some ordinary paved roads on which there are speed limits that sometimes the local cops try to enforce, the race can take up to 32 hours to complete. (“It’s like being in a 24-hour plane crash,” someone says.) Mile-long patches of silt slow drivers down, as do huge divots and moguls in the roads. Rare is the vehicle that completes the 1,000 miles without several tire changes; some cars need new transmissions half-way through.
These guys are the poster children for Determination, noting more than once that any fool can drive a car in a circle at the Indy 500, but driving through Baja California takes a true mechanic and athlete. Take Mouse McCoy, for example. Most motorcyclists work as a team, switching riders a couple times during the race. McCoy wants to do the whole thing solo this year — more than 20 hours of non-stop riding through dusty, sweaty, bumpy terrain. Is he crazy? Clearly. And he becomes crazier as the race wears on, the mental and physical efforts taking their toll on his lucidity as he stops at the checkpoints set up randomly through the course.
The film’s most appealing aspect is the footage of the race, of course. With vehicle-mounted cameras and at least one helicopter watching from above, Brown gets some choice shots of thrilling, almost heart-stopping, action. The competition is good-natured, the drivers quick with a joke and eager to befriend their fellow racers before and after — but when the heat is on, there is a take-no-prisoners attitude. These are one-lane roads, mostly, so how do you pass someone? You “gently” rear-end them, and race etiquette dictates they move over so you can get around them. That rule seems to be suspended during particularly intense moments, though, when it’s every man for himself.
A fine outing for fathers and sons who admire the world of racing, “Dust to Glory” could be more tightly focused and more judiciously editing. (Some of the side stories, in hindsight, were not nearly as critical to the film as Brown apparently thought they were.) But its funny, audacious and profoundly exciting moments are abundant enough to keep it running for the entire thousand miles.
B (1 hr., 37 min.; )