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Remembering desert racing legend Rod Hall, 1937-2019

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Photo courtesy Rod Hall Racing.

[Editor’s note: On Friday, June 14, off-road racing great Rod Hall died at his home in Reno, Nevada, age 81, following a multi-year battle with progressive supranuclear palsy. Last November marked the first time since the 1967 founding of the Baja 1000 (then the Mexican 1000) that Hall — a 25-time class winner — did not compete. Dan Strohl’s article on Hall’s retirement, reprinted below, seemed like a fitting tribute to this legend of motorsports.]

Racing Baja in the Sixties took place at a far different pace than today’s races. One could get lost a dozen times driving used four-wheel-drive rigs and somehow still finish in the points. Rod Hall would know: He ran the first iteration of what is known today as the Baja 1000 and went on to compete in every one of the 50 runnings of the race, a streak that he will break this week after declining to enter the 51st Baja 1000.

“I’m the only guy that hasn’t graduated yet,” Hall told SCORE International in a video on his accomplishments. “In the beginning, it was just an adventure.”

In 1967, Hall, a Californian already deep into the local off-roading scene, decided to participate in the inaugural National Off-Road Racing Association Mexican 1000. He and his pal, Larry Minor, went in together on a stock Jeep CJ-5 and made it from Tijuana to La Paz using only a compass and a dim sense of where they were headed.

“There were no signs saying ‘La Paz this way,’” Hall said. “We had no idea where La Paz was, so we figured we’d turn down this little road, and there it was.”

In those days, finishing the race was an accomplishment in itself, but Hall returned the following year and soon began to develop his own strategies for the race.

“We had good competition in those days, so I learned how to win,” he told SCORE. “I was never a fast guy, but I did learn that you don’t go any slower than you have to. It was in those slower areas that I learned how to race.”

He also proved a quick learner. In 1969, he took the overall race win in a Bill Stroppe-built Ford Bronco. While that proved his only overall win at the Baja 1000, he went on to take class wins 25 times over the next 50 years.

(While some sources claim Hall’s 1969 win was the only time a four-wheel-drive vehicle took the overall win in the Baja 1000, others — notably, Parnelli Jones in 1971 in the tube-frame Big Oly Bronco — have done it since. However, Hall’s 1969 win may have been the only overall win by a factory-chassis four-wheel-drive vehicle, for what that’s worth.)

Hall went on to participate in off-road races around the world as well, but every October — save for 1974, when the race was canceled — he returned to Baja to compete in what would morph from NORRA’s Mexican 1000 into SCORE’s Baja 1000. Over the last quarter century or so, he remained competitive by fielding Humvees in the race, though, for the 50th running of the race last year, he had his 1969 race-winning Bronco restored for another trip down the peninsula.

These days, with virtually indestructible tube-frame racing rigs and GPS, Hall has said the race “is totally different. The tech today is for young people, and I admire the way they work at it. It enables them to go fast all the time.”