This isn’t Vanessa Carlton’s kinda 1000 miles.
NOV 15, 2016 5:16PM EST
It’s not uncommon for siblings to share the family car, but it is extremely rare for two sisters to race a four-wheeled vehicle, hand-built by dad, at death-defying speeds (100+ mph) through the roughest desert in Baja, Mexico. This is exactly what Paige, then 20, and Blair Sohren, 15, from Phoenix, Arizona, did last November at the 48th annual Score International Baja 1000, the toughest off-road competition in North America, where dozens of pimped-out cars, hundreds of teams, and thousands of fans gather for the ultimate man and machine endurance test.
You can now watch the Sohren sisters’ high-speed ride as part of Red Bull’s five-episode docu-series, Driving Dirty: The Road to the Baja 1000, on demand worldwide for free on Red Bull TV, starting November 14. Spoiler alert and top reason to tune in: These badass girls placed second in Class 7 (mini pick-ups with a six-cylinder or smaller engine) — an extraordinary feat for females, first-time racers, and the event’s youngest competitors. Only one of the two, however, is returning to the starting line at this year’s race, which kicks off on Wednesday, November 16.
The mentally, physically, and mechanically challenging race covers more than 850 miles of unpredictable terrain filled with canyon-sized ditches, near-vertical climbs, visibility-blocking dust and brain-scrambling heat. Battling motion sickness and a big crash were par for the course on the road — er, rather — off-road to victory for the Sohren sisters—along with their self-dubbed “Beauties and the Beasts” relay teammates, which included their dad Pistol Pete Sohren, fellow female driver Jessi Combs, and navigator Eric Clay.
“I’ve only won the Baja 1000 once in 2014,” says Pistol Pete, who has been racing for more than 25 years. “It was like winning the Indy 500. For [my girls] to come in second in their class their first time racing this event was a miracle.”
Following her father’s footsteps, Paige began driving fast the minute she could legally get behind the wheel — though she says “off-road racing does not require a driver’s license.” Fun fact: There are no license requirements or age restrictions for off-road drivers in most states (look up yours here). And, for the record, this story should not encourage you to break your speed limit — safety first, ladies.
“My dad owned a local go-kart track in Phoenix. So we’d go to work with him, and we’d race around the track. We also grew up [going to his off-road] races. When I was 16, I got my first chance at an all-girls event for breast cancer called the M.O.R.E. Powder Puff in 2011,” says Paige, a part-time community college student and lifeguard. Fifteen off-road races later, Paige felt ready to tackle what she calls “the granddaddy of all races.”
“It’s the most important, challenging, and fun off-road race of the year,” says Paige, the eldest of four. Pistol Pete encouraged her to sign up with her little sister Blair as her navigator. Though Blair had zero race experience, she was up for the challenge.
“It’s definitely something that I wanted to do. My sister really inspired me to [get started] in this crazy sport. It looked like she was having the best time,” says Blair, who was a ninth grader at the time.
Despite wanting to proudly pass the torch, Pistol Pete still had his concerns. “People don’t realize that there’s nearly 1000 miles [on this course] where anything can happen. You’re driving continuously in the middle of nowhere in the dirt and all you do is stop for fuel every 150 miles. It was a daunting task,” he explains. He wasn’t the only nervous one.
“I imagine my dad is much more fearful for us than I am for myself. But I was extremely worried about hurting Blair. There’s a lot of bad things that happen in this race. People do lose their lives doing what they love,” Paige says. Watching her own father suffer several crashes throughout his career, including one in particular that put him in the hospital with a bad concussion for weeks in the ’90s, perhaps serves as a reminder of the dangers. “I was scared to lose Blair. My personal goal was to not crash and to take care of her,” she says.
Three months out from the November race last year, the Sohren family didn’t hit the gym so much as get under the hood. They finished souping up their unique racing rig—a Bajalite model designed by Pistol Pete’s Baja Racing Adventures company, complete with his personal touches, from the body to the shocks and suspensions. Accidents are so common, the car features no glass, not even a windshield. Instead the driver and navigator wear full-closed face helmets with breathing tubes and communication ports that let them communicate with each other and their off-site team, who is following them in a chase truck on a nearby paved road.
“I build these vehicles to be safe for everyone, including my daughters,” Pistol Pete says. Racers also wear fire suits, race shoes, gloves and a neck protector.
While the girls didn’t have enough time to become insta-mechanics, they did have an edge: Pistol Pete in their corner and in their blood. They’ve basically been gearing up for this their whole lives. Their biggest concern, besides safety, was to be able to fix their truck on the fly, if need be, while the race clock is ticking.
“We’re both around 5-foot-8, and 110 to 120 pounds. So when you have to move around a huge 100-pound tire, it can be difficult,” Blair says. Lifting heavy things wasn’t the hardest part. Holding down her breakfast proved equally challenging for Blair, who tapped out at mile 80 on race day to cope with nausea. Jessie stepped in as an interim navigator.
“The beginning of the race was really tough. It was tight, twisty and windy. It was extremely crowded because we only start 30 seconds apart, so there was a ton of cars everywhere. The motion and how fast we were going got to me. I ended up feeling really sick,” says Blair, who got in the chase truck with dad and chugged water. “I was a bit dehydrated, so maybe that’s what was making me a light-headed.”
Another mishap happened at mile 120, four hours into the race: They accidentally drove into a ditch. “We were nose deep in this giant hole. The back tires were off the ground,” says Paige, who unclipped the window netting to crawl out. “I was standing in the hole, and it was taller than me!” Thanks to a five-point harness seatbelt system, neither Paige nor Jessi were hurt.
By the time Pistol Pete arrived on the scene, helpful spectators with a jeep and tow-strap had pulled the Bajalite out. Still, the truck needed repairs before it could continue. All in all, it took six hours for them to get back on track. Jessi and Eric took over for the next 350 miles, while Paige and Blair replenished their energy with sandwiches, fruit, granola bars and Snickers. They rested for a few hours before taking over again to complete the third leg of the loop, about 250 miles (and six hours), together.
“Being in the car for six hours, focusing soley on navigation and making a million decisions a second—you can feel every minute of it. Time doesn’t pass fast in the car, but it’s all worth it,” Blair says.
Just under 33 hours after Paige and Blair started the long, arduous trek, Jessi and Eric crossed the finish line in their team truck, about 90 minutes behind the winners.
“It felt amazing to come in second. At one point in the race, we didn’t even know if we were going to finish because of the crash. Even though I wasn’t physically in the truck as we crossed the finish line, I still felt like a part of it,” Blair says. Though Pistol Pete was beaming with pride, he’s glad they didn’t come out on top—just yet. “It’s better that they didn’t win. That makes it look too easy. Now they have something to prove,” he laughs.
And what better way to prove their skill than to beat dear old dad at his own game? This Wednesday, November 16, Paige returns to Mexico to race in the 49th annual Score International Baja 1000 as the navigator for her boyfriend, Chad Broughton, 21, who will driving one of her dad’s Bajalites. Blair, who still doesn’t have a driver’s license, is sitting out this season, but may come back with Paige in 2018 to participate in the 50th anniversary race. In the meantime, Paige is focused on crushing the competition, including her pops, in the prestigious Trophy Truck Spec class (every race car has the same V8 engine). And Pistol Pete is all for it: “I’m driving a certain portion, but I will always be looking out for her.”
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