Manny Esquerra is an Off-Road Hall of Fame inductee and racing champion whose race wins in a Ford Ranger are many and well documented. The first time I met Esquerra was in 1986 at Bill Stroppe’s shop near Los Angeles, California, reporting as an automotive journalist.
I never imagined that the next time I would see Esquerra, it would be in Mexico just prior to the start of the 13th Annual SCORE Baja 500. I was assigned to report on the race for a national truck enthusiast magazine, where I would ride with him during the race. While Esquerra already had made a name for himself racing Baja, and would go onto doing much more, I was a duck out of water. My experience amounted to a brief off-road rally in the California desert and some quality time on dirt bikes, not racing the notorious SCORE Baja 500.
Yet, my publisher wanted the story covered and I was signed up to ride shotgun for Esquerra. To set the record straight, I had no clue what to do as his co-pilot.
I was so nervous I almost forgot how to fasten my helmet as Esquerra’s Ranger approached the starting grid and the green flag dropped.
There were thousands of fans looking on and beads of sweat filled my visor. But Esquerra seemed cool, calm and collected. He turned to me behind the wheel
of the truck as it was rounding the first street corner leaving Ensenada and with a broad toothy grin, asked if I was ready. I said yes. Shouldn’t you be watching the road I asked? Truthfully, I couldn’t have been less ready.
What I do remember most about riding in a Ford Ranger with Manny Esquerra was the 16-inches of wheel travel that delivered an unbelievably smooth ride, even in the whoops and big jumps getting into the forest after hours into the race.
I got into a rhythm at some point, like a piece of luggage bouncing along waiting for disaster to happen. Esquerra explained how the Ranger had a top end about
120 miles per hour on the flats, and even though I couldn’t see his face which was covered by a red bandana, I swore he was grinning ear to ear.
I was supposed to make a co-pilot change after five hours, but Esquerra asked me if I’d like to continue to the finish. I agreed that the story would be better if I raced the entire SCORE Baja 500, and so his brother Trudy had to sit out this time.
The artistry of Esquerra driving was on full display and I did my best at taking photos of his swashbuckling hands on the wheel as he weaved through the course,
never lifting the throttle. He told me driving is like dancing along the course, you have to be in sync with the way the truck responds. The Ranger rode was a dream and Esquerra was its master.
Esquerra got the lead early and never let up. Behind us in our class division were Mark Steele, Mike Harding, John Swift, and Dave Turner. But they never posed
a threat. Esquerra took the class win in 9:56.10 with only a flat tire to show for it. “Took my own sweet time with no issues,” Esquerra was later quoted as saying.
That’s what riding in the Stroppe prepped Ranger was like with Esquerra, a sweet, dusty, exhilarating experience at speed across the wild Mexican desert from
morning to night.