One moment, I was flaked out in the back of a van fresh off a long-haul flight; the next, I have a Corona in my hand, an equally shell-shocked photographer at my side, and close-quarters writhing is happening, lit red and bouncing to a deep beat. A man with a cruel face squares up to me. "What ju here for? You want woman? We've got l-o-t-s of womaaan." He drags the syllables out.
"Um. No thank you, not at the moment." "Ju here for the Ba-ha, right? I got gurrrls from aaall over Meh-hee-co. Everyone here for the Ba-ha. Gurrrls here for Ba-ha." The Baja 1000 is legendary. Not because – ahem – related service industries expand to meet demand while the race is on, but because this is the world's longest and most gruelling non-stop off-road race, a southbound blast down the finger of land that marks much of Mexico's Pacific coast. It's the biggest sporting event in the country, with an estimated 1.5 million spectators lining this year's 1,121.55-mile route. And it's not even held on a weekend. Perhaps a national holiday has been declared.
Justin the photographer and I are here to take part. For me, this is something I've wanted to do forever, real bucket-list stuff. Justin's only bucket-related thought is that we're going to kick it. It probably doesn't help that you're free to be fantastically underprepared; you need no special licence to do this, just a green wristband gained at signing on and a suitably gnarly car. Ours is a Baja Challenge buggy, and it looks smaller, lighter and faster than it actually is.
It's powered by a naturally aspirated, rear-mounted Subaru flat-four which sends 175bhp through a four-speed manual to the rear wheels. That's where the fun starts: 18in of suspension travel and a set of tyres more craggy than my driving coach's face.
Rich Minga is a Hollywood stuntman by day, but his dusty eyes, grizzled features and laidback demeanour are pure Baja. We're in the scrubby hills above the race-start town of Ensenada to get a feel for the car. For me, this is about driving, but Justin, with an expression not unlike the one he wore the previous evening, has just found out that, as co-driver, he's responsible for all navigation and communication. This includes 16 radio channels. Oh God.
"And you, my friend," Rich says, turning to me, "Well, this terrain ain't gonna teach you sh*t about the Baja." Oh. I look out across the heavily eroded landscape, thankful at least that the race itself won't be as technically demanding as this mangled obstacle course of rock and earth. "Nope," Rich continues, kicking at the dirt. "The Baja is a kick in the crotch compared with this soft-a*se stuff."
I do at least learn how to drive the ‘car'. I learn that momentum is the single most important thing, that the gearbox is crummy, that there's no windscreen because it would be smashed by rocks, that the absence of doors aids egress when it rolls over, that I need to beware of the whoop-de-dos and that dust is an almighty issue. And I learn that I'll actually be glad that the steering has no feedback, no weight, yet is bewilderingly sharp. I have my doubts.
Aside from that, the buggy is a joyous device, something to be chucked at the landscape with wild abandon. Rich has witnessed my enthusiasm and decides a peg needs to be removed from my confidence. "You do realise how dangerous this event is?" I nod. "That drunk spectators dick around with the course and build booby traps?" Slower nod. "That faster cars will first tap, then ram you if you don't get out the way quick enough?" Small head movement. "That people die out there every year?"
Two corners on tarmac, then a hard right to Armageddon.