Gallery: Heidi Steele [5 Images] Click any image to expand.
by Donia Moore
The hot pink and purple Geiser Brothers custom-built, unlimited Class 6 trophy truck flew 30 feet in the air over the rutted road, leaving a wave of sand and grit in its wake. Landing and sliding around a bend on two tires, the driver quickly gained control before she faced the next boulder strewn patch of rough Mexican desert road.
Heidi Steele, five-time Baja 1000 winner in her class, was out for a joyride in the grand daddy of desert races, the most dangerous road race in the world. And she’s doing it again in this year’s race scheduled from Nov. 11-15, when the race course follows a 1,200 mile newly mapped trek along the majestic Baja Peninsula from Ensenada to La Paz.
Petite, poised and relaxed, this Human Resources professional with a BA and MBA from Cal State Fullerton hardly looks the part of an adrenalin-pumped race driver. Yet she has competed against the best male drivers in the racing business and beat them. She was the first female driver to win the 2008 Dirt Sports Magazine Driver of the Year, and teamed up with co-driver Mr. Rene Brugger, she followed up with four Baja championships in the mid-sized trophy truck class - the premier class in the sport.
Was this her dream career, to race the Baja 1000 and get covered with dust and glory? Hardly.
Her original plans were actually a little less ambitious. She values the contribution she can make to the corporate environment as a Human Relations specialist. That is the career path she was following when she watched her husband Cameron Steele race in 2004.
She fell in love with the idea of racing and the sense of competition, and in a surprise move, Cameron signed Heidi up for her first race in Plaster City, CA that same year. To her shock and delight, she took 2nd place, and another Steele racer was born. Heidi and Cameron are the second generation of racers in their family, following in the tracks of Cameron’s proud father who raced in the ‘70s.
Before Heidi made her first Baja 1000 run, she went to view the course three times. She wasn’t able to actually drive the course until race day, but Cameron gave her a lot of tips.
“There’s a lot more to learn than driving skills,” says Heidi. “There’s a whole strategy of planning, pit crews, and patience you have to learn. You have to pace yourself and let the race come to you so you don’t overwork your crew or damage your equipment. It’s hard to be patient when you’re off the line and the other vehicles are leaving you in their dust, but the first 10 miles are the most crucial. After that, you generally settle down and enjoy the ride.”
Because the Baja 1000 is such a long race - 32 grueling hours and 1,200 miles for this year’s event - the racing team shares the drive, with each taking half the distance. There are about 16 pit stops to check tires and equipment, one about every 100 miles. Every 150 miles is a fuel pit stop, which takes about 30 seconds. All the vehicles are equipped with GPS trackers for both safety and fairness. With speeds varying from 60 to 150 miles per hour, Heidi points out that they can run out of fuel quickly.
Heidi is joined in the truck by navigator and mechanic Rene Bruegger.
“I always need to have a mechanic with me because I can drive, but I can’t fix the truck if something breaks. Rene can get it up and rolling in minutes if something goes wrong. We always carry spare tires and equipment, just in case something happens between pit stops.”
What does the navigator do besides wait for something to break?
The inside of a trophy truck cab resembles that of a jet airliner cabin, with tons of gauges, levers and buttons. The navigator/mechanic’s job is to monitor all the gauges, call out the race course as programmed by the GPS, and watch for anything that shouldn’t be on the course … like excited fans jumping out to take selfies with a roaring monster truck bearing down on them.
Heidi’s scariest race memory happened when her navigator told her to pass a vehicle on a winding road on a cliff high above a steep canyon. She felt like three tires were hanging out in thin air as she squeaked past. That feeling of almost going over the cliff left Heidi with a healthy sense of self-protection, and now she is a little more cautious when she has to pass someone.
Since Heidi and Cameron welcomed baby Cameron Kay into their world in 2012, she has another reason to be a little more safety conscious. She finds the challenge of being a mom/racer intense, but says Kay finds it fascinating.
“My daughter loves the races and she cheers her daddy and me on.” With Kay’s first race at eight weeks old, there’s no telling whether she may want to follow in mommy’s and daddy’s tire tracks.
Though she normally drives anywhere from three to 14 races a year, Heidi has cut down a bit on her racing. She’s only entered four events this year. She preps for each of them by getting a lot of rest and hydrating. With the hurricane wiping out the original Baja peninsula course, the race should be even more of a challenge this season.
The Steele’s family business, Desert Assassins, has taken an active role in getting supplies and water to the hurricane victims in Baja. They formed an organization called Baja Strong that works with Mexicana Logistics and the Mexican government to aid people in Mexico. Their organization has sent semi-trucks to many of Mexico’s hardest hit areas, including La Paz, Muleje, San Ignacio and others. If anyone is interested in helping, they candrop off or send donations of water, canned goods, diapers, baby formula, personal hygiene items and sanitary cleaning supplies to: Mexican Logistics US HQ, 7734 Formula Place in San Diego 92121. Costco is participating in a big way and people can also drop ship supplies from Costco to Mexicana Logistics in San Diego.
In the meantime, don’t forget to tune in to this year’s Baja 1000. It isn’t often that we get to see one of our own residents in a world class event! And who knows? Maybe someday Kay will head the third generation of Steele family racers.