‘I race for Mark’: A crash changes a Taos mechanic's life

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Gregory Schlaff pitched forward violently in the passenger seat of his racing team's trophy truck as a cloud of dust lifted from the roadway and rained gravel against his visor. A few feet in front of him, the finely tuned motor that had roared across hundreds of miles of dry lake beds, mountain roads, coastline and untilled desert groaned and spat smoke under the light of a thin moon.

Schlaff first thought there had been a mechanical failure, that a wheel had fallen off or that their suspension had failed. But when the air cleared, he looked over at his friend and driver, Mark Luhtala – the metal frame crumpled over him like foil, another vehicle, a sputtering wreck in the dark nearby, its driver motionless in his seat – Schlaff knew that something far more serious had happened.

It was mid-November 2016, and they were more than 250 miles into the Baja 1000 off-road race. They had been struck at 58 miles per hour by a 2-ton buggy in a remote area of the course.

Schlaff turned off the engine and freed himself from the harness and the neck brace he says saved his life. He made his way to the other side of the vehicle, gripped the metal panel that covered Luhtala and pried it off with his hands.

Luhtala's leg had been shattered. The left side of his body had been crushed. He was losing a lot of blood, but Schlaff pressed two fingers below Luhtala's jaw and felt a pulse.

A crowd of spectators emerged from the sides of the racetrack. Headlights blinked in the distance as race teams headed for the scene. Schlaff pulled a belt off one of the bystanders, wrapped it around Luhtala's broken leg and cranked it down as tight as he could. A racer found a kit that held materials they used to pack the wound and stop the bleeding. Others produced saws and carved through the steel cage that trapped Luhtala in his seat. He was drifting in and out of consciousness. When he came to, he gritted his teeth.

"Code red," emergency dispatchers repeated over radios that crackled in unison inside the trucks surrounding the scene. "Code red."

In the middle of the night in a remote swath of Mexican desert, that alert brought little help, Schlaff said. Helicopters had been grounded after nightfall due to cartel activity in the area, and when the Mexican Red Cross arrived on the scene, they, too, were unprepared to doctor the traumatic injuries they encountered.

The drivers were loaded into the back of an ambulance, and Schlaff rode with them until the first band of light came up over the desert - still many miles south of the Californian border.

Under the hood

A year earlier, Schlaff was living in Taos and working as an auto mechanic, his chosen trade after completing his service in the U.S. Marine Corps. He had started his own shop in El Prado, called Mechanical Advantage. Day in and day out, he spent his days with his head buried behind car hoods and rolling under hot chassis, returning home each night blotted in oil.

During his off hours, he dreamed of participating in the Baja 1000, an alternating loop or point-to-point race along a roughly 800-mile stretch of sand, silt and rock through the northwestern Mexican peninsula. Since 1967, the Baja 1000 and the shorter Baja 500 have attracted the world's most expert off-road racing enthusiasts. To Schlaff, landing a seat at the starting line was it - right up there with a trip to the moon or reaching the bottom of the ocean, "one of the last true challenges we have as human beings," he said.

One evening in July, Schlaff was scrolling through his Facebook feed and saw a message notification appear in the corner of the screen. He tapped on the emphatic little red icon, opening a message from his former boss, Jay Edinger. Schlaff had worked for Edinger in his home state of Florida, but hadn't heard from him in years. "How'd you like to be my co-driver in the Baja 1000 this year?" Edinger asked directly.

Schlaff couldn't punch the keys fast enough.

"Hell yeah," was his reply.

Into the deep end

In August, Schlaff touched down on the tarmac at Palm Beach International Airport and made his way north to meet the team in Jupiter, Florida, a small community built at the mouth of the Hobe Sound along the South Atlantic coast.

He met the crew at a warehouse bay in an industrial park, where the crew's members were already busy building out the truck.

They ran and reran diagnostics on the vehicle, installed oil pressure, coolant temperature and transmission fluid gauges and a GPS. They removed anything extraneous or redundant that might add weight to the truck - and potentially - decisive seconds to their race time. They all hoped that the clock would stop at the finish line and not sooner, as they knew many of the competitors were expected to crash or burn out within the first 150 miles of the race.

Schlaff came to understand the truck as a kind of "sacred thing" among the crew, a 600-horsepower chromoly steel and composite plastic offering to the racing gods that started the Baja rallies nearly 50 years before them. Theirs was stripped down, spare, free of the spiffy gadgets that made some trucks appear better fit to take orbit than compete in a rally.

Luhtala, the team's owner, a stocky, bearded man in his late 40s, stood by watching the operation through a pair of blue-lensed Oakleys. Schlaff made his way over and shook his hand for the first time. His future driver was a licensed pilot who operated a nearby private jet repair facility. "He could pilot anything," Schlaff recalled. "He was a natural driver - very fast, but very calculated."

They connected immediately, sharing in a common passion for mechanics and dialing down machines to their utmost racing capability.

In November, the team traveled to Baja for Schlaff's first race.

Starting in Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico, Luhtala and another co-driver wended their way south through the first half of the course before switching out with Schlaff and Edinger, who drove the second. Their driving was fast and competitive in parts, careful and methodical in others.

"It was straight into the deep end," Schlaff said. "If you're into adrenaline rush, there are few things that can touch it, and there are fewer that can touch it for that duration."

He learned how to navigate, control speed and pick out even the smallest variations in a course that could change with factors as subtle as the wind or the rain. He learned that the track could contain obstacles racers referred to as "gotchas" - rocks and other hazards more dangerous that included "booby traps," such as fake jumps built by nefarious spectators.

Schlaff would race once more with Edinger before becoming Luhtala's co-driver in 2016. They competed in the Vaquero 400 in Sierra Blanca, Texas, in April and the Baja 500 in June.

In August, Schlaff moved back to Florida to start a business with Luhtala and dedicated himself to racing full time. He began preparing for his second Baja 1000.

He was hooked.

Back to the line

In November, they returned to the starting line in Ensenada.

Flags fluttered above a sea of spectators making their way through the exhaust, all eager to touch a vehicle or snap a selfie with a crew member. Thrash metal blared from speakers covered in sponsor decals that lined the sides of the track.

Around 250 racers from 20 countries gathered at the border town last year, entering classes that included trophy trucks, buggies, jeeps and motorcycles, among other off-road vehicles. Race officials performed inspections on each, checking tires and chassis. Teams rushed back and forth from line to track, shuttling equipment and making last-minute adjustments.

Schlaff and Luhtala leaned coolly on their truck telling jokes.

Luhtala called his wife, Holly, to let her in on a laugh. She wished him luck, they fitted their helmets and climbed into the truck. As they waited near the back of the line, they tested the mics installed in their helmets, practicing the calm communication they planned to utilize during even the most intense sections of the race.

"Mark always said, 'Talk to me like we're sipping a brandy and having a cigar," Schlaff said and added, laughing. "I don't think we ever did either of those things."

The flagger waved them through, and they made their way cautiously through Ensenada, hurdled over the first big jump and drove out into the desert.

"The first 150 miles of the Baja 1000 is typically what we call 'make or break,'" Schlaff said. "Last year, within the first 150 miles, 60 percent of our class was out of the race completely."

They didn't count the vehicles they passed - they just cruised, believing that true skill in a long-range race came from strategy and intelligence, rather than a team's ability to put the pedal down. "Every rise, every dip, every turn, every rock, every group of spectators requires a constant calculation and a decision that's made between two people on the best driving teams," Schlaff said.

They averaged about 48 miles per hour as they rattled through rock fields and over sand dunes, the suspension of the truck sinking and rising in the ruts, the tires hugging the always-transforming shape of the course.

Soon, they dropped down into the first of many road sections, where trucks can be repaired and refueled and different portions of the course are linked together. Last year, road sections were open to public traffic.

Several racers stacked up behind them. Once the road ended, they entered some heavy competition. Luhtala accelerated. Dust trailed behind.

As the sun began to dip toward the horizon in the late afternoon, the track turned southwest toward the coast of the peninsula. The dusky light glinted on the water miles out near the beach, where they completed their first section. Here, they met with the second half of their race team and a crowd of spectators that had camped out for weeks to see the racers pass.

They climbed out of the vehicle, the other team climbed in and took off for a section of technical mountain terrain flanked by 300-foot cliffs.

Luhtala's 12-year-old daughter was waiting to greet him on the beach. While Schlaff lay down in the sand and went to sleep, they sat and watched the race as the sun sank behind them on the Pacific horizon.

"It was good they got to spend that time together," Schlaff said.

'The fog is like the dust'

Night fell before the other race team returned from the mountains.

A thick haze of fog rolled off the water and followed Schlaff and Luhtala as they accelerated into their second section of the course.

Within the first few miles, there was fierce competition, and then "it was like flying blind," Schlaff said, recalling how they mainly used their GPS to navigate as they moved eastward into the most desolate area of the course.

The distance between their truck and the other racers grew to miles. Theirs were soon the only lights on the road.

In what Schlaff called a "crossover section," they saw a single red taillight in the distance. They drew closer and pulled over. A motorcyclist leaned over his handlebars. Schlaff stuck his hand out the window and gave him a thumbs-up. The motorcyclist turned, lifted his hand and returned the gesture ponderously. Luhtala stepped on the gas and they went on. Schlaff still wonders if the racer they encountered was among two motorcyclists who died of heat exhaustion last year.

The clouds cleared and the moon broke through. They were, again, alone. Luhtala joked that Schlaff should make some conversation to help him stay awake. For 120 miles, they talked about their families. They talked about racing. They told jokes.

"It was the calm before the storm," Schlaff said.

The last road

It was just before 4 a.m. when they hit another 10-mile stretch of roadway, and though they didn't then know it, there was just one other racer in their class somewhere ahead of them. They were in second place.

Other racers and public traffic were coming in the other direction. The headlights grew before them and then shrank in the rear distance.

But some racers, they noticed, had to cross their path to reach pit crews on the opposite side of the road. "It wasn't much different than crossing 64 in Taos," Schlaff said.

Another mile, another set of headlights. Without warning, the beams suddenly veered in their direction.

"We never saw it coming," Schlaff said.

'Race for safety'

When the sun came up, the ambulance that carried Schlaff and the injured drivers reached a private U.S. medical helicopter that had been waiting on standby.

Onboard personnel administered the first pain medication the drivers had received in the few hours that had passed since the crash. Luhtala was slipping in and out of consciousness. The other driver was deep in a coma.

The blades of the helicopter rotated to speed and they lifted off.

Border patrol forbade the U.S. chopper from crossing the border into California, so they touched down at an airport and transferred the patients to an airplane that transported them to a hospital in San Diego.

They were bedded in adjoining rooms as doctors performed several surgeries.

Luhtala's left leg was amputated. His chest was operated on. The deceleration in the crash was so forceful that his heart hit his chest and broke his sternum. Schlaff and Holly would visit him in the hospital in following days before returning home with the team.

They were on the road when they got the call that Luhtala had passed away.

Schlaff said that the coroner's report read that it had taken "nine hours before Luhtala received significant medical attention."

"There's that magic hour, where you have the opportunity to save someone's life," Schlaff recalled of his military medical training. "It just took too long, and that was that."

Despite their months of planning, training and safe driving during the race, in which they cruised sections where they could have gone faster, the moment of the accident was one they could neither foresee nor control. And nothing about their razor-sharp racing calculus could have prepared them for what was to be their last race together.

Yet Schlaff still races, now seeking a goal, which, to him, is far greater than the one that lies on the other side of the finish line.

He launched his off-road safety campaign, "Race for Safety" this year. Its mission is to equip racers with the proper medical tools and training to save lives during a race that has claimed many over the years. Schlaff has created military-grade medical kits that include high-quality splints and materials to pack wounds, create shelter, stay hydrated, signal for help and address other dangers that can - and do - arise during off-road races each year.

It's a dangerous sport, as Schlaff well knows, one where the desire to compete can often override the more basic instinct to remain safe, but his campaign seeks to at least provide racers with a choice, the capacity to respond when things spiral out control.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Baja 1000. Schlaff said he'll be at the starting line. 

"I race for Mark," he said.

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