General Tire is lucky to have such good off-road racers like desert team member Jim Riley. Not only do we want winning drivers, we want ones with winning attitudes—the kinds of racers that represent the best of what the off-road community has to offer.
Riley started racing in the desert in 2008 in a TrophyLite. Just two years later, he’d already won the 7-2 class at the 2010 Baja 1000 and the BITD Vegas to Reno race. Riley would follow that with multiple Best in the Desert race wins in 2011, and a victory in his Rippin Rooster 1957 Chevy in the 2011 Mexican 1000. Later that year, he would not place in the Baja 1000, but only because he made the decision to help a first-time racer accomplish his goal of finishing the 1,000-mile race. After the first-time racer got way off course in a RZR 900XP, Riley and his co-driver somehow came across him and decided to make it their mission to stick with him and finish the race together. Though they did not finish in time to place, they did pull over the finish line in the early hours of the morning after 36 hours on the course. This is the kind of driver that we’re proud to have representing the General Tire brand.
For the 2015 General Tire Mexican 1000, Jim Riley, owner of the red 1957 Chevy best known as the Rippin Rooster, teamed up with his friend, Rick Johnson, owner of the Snortin Nortins Nova. It seemed fitting that these two ultra-unique cars would race together and share support. Riley and Johnson have been teaming up for the Mexican 1000 since the second year of this new NORRA racing body. Riley has driven Johnson’s Nova and won the Mexican 1000 in it, and Johnson has driven Riley’s ’57 Chevy and won the Mexican 1000 in it. But this year, they would drive their own cars. Riding in Riley’s passenger seat this year was a new face to off-road racing: Elana Scherr of Hot Rod magazine had been asked to go down and cover Riley’s racing endeavors. After all, what’s more fitting for Hot Rod than racing Baja in a ’57 Chevy…on some 35-inch General Grabbers™?
Scherr was in for the ride of her life with Riley and his crew, but in good hands as they set off for four days of racing from Ensenada to San Jose del Cabo. One thousand three hundred six miles, two engines, and countless quarts of oil later, the Rippin Rooster would cross the finish line. Perhaps not under its own power, mind you, but it may have been an even better ending to show how Riley’ team exemplified the true spirit of Baja.
Contingency, Ensenada, Baja California 4/25/15
The morning of Contingency would bring some light showers, but nothing to stop the celebration.
Ensenada to Bahia de Los Angeles, Race Day 1, 4/26/15
The Rippin Rooster pulled out of Ensenada with Jim Riley behind the wheel and Duran Morely in the passenger seat. Morely had wanted to race in an off-road race car for years, and Riley was helping him bring that dream to fruition. With Morely and Riley in the car, there were no problems, but soon after Riley’s brother-in-law, John Lucas, got in the car they landed in some silt beds. An army Suburban ended up yanking them out and getting them back on the road. Unfortunately at some point the front chrome bumper fell off the car, taking the working Rigid LED light with it. For the last 15 miles of the race, they had no lights headed towards Bajia de Los Angeles. To get a speck of light on the road, Lucas actually rigged up the old overhead lights that were left on for nostalgia. No one had any idea if the decades old lights would work, but with some crossed fingers, they turned on!
Bahia de Los Angeles to Loreto, Race Day 2, 4/27/15
Out of Bajia de Los Angeles, they the Riley team came out of the gate having an awesome day…until it was time to pass a Cherokee in a riverbed. As they went around on the left side the route tightened and the rear of the Chevy made contact with the Cherokee. Unfortunately, the light touch caved the Bondo-ridden fender, mangling it beyond salvage as it would have interfered with wheel travel. Without too much regret, an electric saw was pulled out and the entire rear passenger side was pulled off the car! With any tire obstruction gone, it was time to race again.
While temporarily sidelined, the car was looked over and the engine seemed to be losing a little bit of oil. About 10 miles from the finish line, the Rippin Rooster’s engine gave up the ghost. For many people, this would be the end of their race.
But Riley’s team did not give up. The decision was made to get the trailer and head straight to Loreto to try to find a replacement engine. On the way to pick up the Rooster, Riley’s team ended up grabbing another broken-down competitor and hauling him off the course before turning around and going back to get their own race vehicle.
About 11pm, the team and race car would hit Loreto, where they would meet up with a local mechanic who has a friend with a local junkyard. He assured Riley’s team that would be there the next day at 6am with an engine for them.
Loreto to La Paz, Race Day 3, 4/28/15
When 6am rolled by, the team was losing hope. As 7am struck, an ’88 Chevy truck came around the corner towards them. It was not the party they’d intended to meet, but instead a one-in-a-million chance. The driver was the father of an employee working in the hotel the night before who had overheard the team’s dilemma. Knowing that his father had a truck—with the needed engine — the hotel employee asked his dad to show up just in case. A deal for a $1,200 entire truck got down to $800 for just the engine, and the truck was given back to the owner.
With Race Day 3 well under way for the rest of the race pack, Riley’s team would be working like mad. Both the Rooster and the (still driving) Chevy truck were taken to a local garage that they had earlier rented out for 1000 pesos (under $70) for the day from a kind local. While his team removed the ’57 Chevy’s engine, then the truck’s engine, then installed the truck engine into the ’57 Chevy, Jim was on food duty. He’d gone down to buy 50 tacos for lunch for his crew and the garage owner’s family. By the time Riley got back, he found the garage owner had shown up with a big bucket of fresh clams, and already had kids on clam-shucking duty. A mid-day lunch celebration turned what some would consider a bad day of racing into a memorable day.
With an audience of about 30 locals sitting outside the shop watching the swap go down, Riley’s team would successfully make the transplant and get the Rippin Rooster ready to race Day 4 and come over the finish line in San Jose del Cabo.
La Paz to the finish in San Jose del Cabo, Race Day 4, 4/29/15
With a new (150,000-mile old) engine in the Rippin Rooster, Jim Riley and team would make it to the start of the last day out of La Paz. Riley left with one of two Pheifer brothers in the car. The night before, they had actually paid cash for the engine to get the team moving again. James’ only request was that he and his brother got to do a little racing in the car on Day 4. Jim was happy to oblige. James’ brother, Wayne, was the first in the car.
With half of the shortest race day finished, things were looking up for Rippin Rooster. James had switched seats with his brother, Wayne, and Jim even handed the wheel over to him after teaching him what the car can do. They would continue on with success until the sand washes. Jim knew this might be the final blow; the engine was already chugging oil, and sand can put a mighty strain on a powertrain.
In the sand, it got to the point where Jim and James would go 200 yards, stop, fill with oil and water, go another few hundred yards, stop, fill with oil and water, and so on….
About six miles from the finish line, The Rippin Rooster said ‘no more.’ They’d made a heck of a push, but that was it for the car on the final race day.
Meanwhile, at the finish line in San Jose del Cabo, his team would start to hear the news as they found each other in the crowd and discussed what to do. The engine had given up, but they were not about to. Now it was their turn to race as they scrambled to get a vehicle, get out onto the course and tow the Rippin Rooster to the end. They were not going to come this far and give up.
The Rooster was towed to the cones prior to the finish line where it was unhooked and Riley’s and Rick Johnson’s teams would get behind it and push the Rippin Rooster over the finish line with a cheering crowd in the background.
While the car technically had to finish the race under its own power and therefore didn’t place, it was still a win for Jim Riley and his team, who—with a week’s adventures—showed what the spirit of racing Baja is all about.
Jim Riley would like to thank American Racing, Rigid Lighting, Rugged Radios, Lucas Oil, K&N, Kreed, General Tire, Steve Ware for prep on the vehicle, Rick Johnson and his team for logistical support, and his own team of James Pheifer, Wayne Pheifer, John Lucas, and Chris Ware.