This week, the 2021 iteration of the Baja 1000 off-road race kicks off in Baja California, Mexico—and the First Mode team will be there, along with the Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus (SCG) team competing in this year’s race.

Why are we attending what is often called “the most brutal road race of any kind out there”?

Well, besides the fact that it’s basically the definition of barely possible, we’re currently working with SCG to build next year’s version of their signature Baja 1000 race vehicle—the Baja Boot, which in 2022 will run on cryogenic liquid hydrogen as a zero-emission, first-of-its-kind race truck.

Related story: Ars Technica: Massive mine truck and a Baja off-road racer both find use for fuel cells

Still, our race is a year away—so why head to Baja in 2021? Turns out there’s a lot to be learned there, all of which will inform our ongoing modeling, simulation, prototyping, and ultimate delivery of the power source for next year’s vehicle.

We talked to the team to learn a bit more about the project they’re working on and what they hope to learn about it in Baja.

What Is the Baja 1000?

Baja Boot at the Baja 1000 Off-Road Race in Mexico (Glickenhaus)
SCG’s current iteration of the Baja Boot, which relies on an internal combustion engine (ICE). (Photo courtesy of SCG)

The annual Baja 1000 event is an extreme endurance race taking place across the Baja California Peninsula in Mexico. It is widely considered to be among the world’s most challenging motor races.

The challenge: Competitors must complete the thousand miles of off-road track within the allotted 40 hours. Half of the field doesn’t typically finish. In terms of race requirements, the Baja 1000 is less about top speed than, say, Le Mans—instead, the focus is on sustained speeds over extensive distances of difficult off-road terrain, including rock, sand, gravel, silt, and stretches of hundreds of miles with no infrastructure whatsoever.

As if that weren’t enough, spectators of the race are known to relish planting booby traps of all kinds along the route. Drivers have to contend with everything from spectator-created mud pits and boulder-studded mountain passes to blinding dust, freezing nighttime desert temperatures, and the high likelihood of flipping a vehicle or otherwise ending up stranded for hours—maybe even days.

How Is First Mode Involved With the Baja 1000?

First Mode principal mechanical engineer Joel Amundson takes a look under the Boot in Barstow, CA. (Photo by First Mode)
First Mode principal mechanical engineer Joel Amundson takes a look under the Boot in Barstow, CA. (Photo by First Mode)

Since early 2021, First Mode has been working with SCG and a coalition of partners through the process of designing and building a hydrogen-powered version of the Boot for 2022’s race. First Mode is responsible for the zero-emission hydrogen and battery hybrid power source: The race vehicle will be fueled by cryogenic liquid hydrogen, vaporized onboard to power the Boot.

Hydrogen has a greater energy density than batteries, containing between two and five times the amount of usable energy per liter compared to a lithium-ion battery. Cryogenic liquid hydrogen is even denser, which explains why this was ultimately the option selected for First Mode’s FCEV Baja Boot design.

“Today if you consider a hydrogen vehicle, it runs on gaseous hydrogen. The industry kind of just adopted that,” says Tomás Lafferriere, First Mode’s project manager for the team working with SCG. “There’s not a great engineering reason for that. Liquid hydrogen provides quite a bit more energy, but running it at any racetrack has never been done before. This is brutally cutting-edge.”

Hydrogen fuel cells need to operate at specific temperatures and be isolated from the effects of corrosive materials and vibration. Not only is the environment of the Baja 1000 extremely dirty and rugged, it also has enormous temperature swings from day to night. Furthermore, First Mode will need to develop the mobile hydrogen system for refueling the vehicle several times throughout the race, as the length of the course necessitates multiple remote pit stops.

“We are at the limits of physics.”

—Tomás Lafferriere, Formulation Manager, First Mode

If the vehicle First Mode is working on with SCG can race—and finish—the Baja 1000 using a zero-emission, hydrogen fuel cell module in place of gasoline, we will have shown parity or better with combustion engines in the field—an unprecedented accomplishment with the ability to significantly affect the future of hydrogen vehicle technology.

Why Race the Baja 1000 in a Zero-Emission Vehicle?

First Mode project manager Tomás Lafferriere shows a rendering of the hydrogen Boot design. (Photo by Drew Wehrle)
First Mode project manager Tomás Lafferriere shows a rendering of the hydrogen Boot design. (Photo by Drew Wehrle)

SCG is working to positively impact climate change through Glickenhaus Zero, a project led by Jesse Glickenhaus. This explains SCG’s decision to pursue the hydrogen Boot rather than continue on as usual with their successful ICE model. As noted by Racecar Engineering magazine editor Andrew Cotton, who recently wrote a feature story on the hydrogen Boot, “the goal of this project is to set a benchmark that will put the technology onto the radar of governments around the world.”

Related story: Racecar Engineering: Das Boot

Glickenhaus uses high-profile races as proving grounds for new vehicles; when they succeed in the race, the company then frequently makes a street-legal version of that car or truck. They plan to do the same with the hydrogen Boot.

“This is an extreme application at the fringe of possibility, and no one has demonstrated that the technology we’re working on can bridge successfully to that application,” said Chris Voorhees, president and CEO of First Mode. “In trying to move the bar forward on what is possible with hydrogen, hydrogen systems, fuel cell, and battery technologies, there is a place for racing in forcing innovation to occur.”

At First Mode, we believe we have reached a point in our planet’s health that necessitates exploring all energy sources, immediately and to the fullest extent possible. As a creative engineering company, we exist to solve these kinds of immense, complex problems in extreme environments. We see powering mobility systems, including the Baja Boot, with hydrogen rather than fossil fuels as an important step toward a future where hydrogen is widely viewed as a viable energy source. If we can help invent and build a hydrogen-powered race car to further the awareness, technology, and conversation around renewable energy, then that’s what we’re going to do.

Besides, racing the Baja 1000 is going to be a lot of fun. 

Modeling the Boot

The dashboard of the Baja Boot during testing in Barstow, CA. (Photo by First Mode)
The dashboard of the Baja Boot during testing in Barstow, CA. (Photo by First Mode)

“We modeled over one million possible vehicle combinations, then put them to the test by analyzing the race route and data from 2020—everything from terrain to weather conditions to top achieved velocity,” says Lafferriere. “Each build option was measured for power, torque, and energy, and parts were rated based on weight, timing, cost, and energy capabilities.”

“Our goal remains to be the first to finish the Baja 1000 with a zero emission vehicle.”

—Jesse Glickenhaus, Managing Director, SCG

After the initial modeling work, First Mode team members met Jesse Glickenhaus and other SCG partners in Barstow, CA, to outfit the current iteration of the Boot with various sensors, including accelerometers and gyroscopes. These were chosen and placed to measure the forces that the 2022 Baja Boot may undergo. 

“We don’t have time to not model the possible outcomes,” says Clara Sękowski, a First Mode systems engineer currently leading the modeling and simulation process for the Boot. “It’s really looking at the predictive interface between what we know about the vehicle and what we know about the environment. Those are the questions like how often are we going to end up stopping, needing to refuel, how fast are we going to go, that kind of thing…we’ve proved through the whole drive train that we’ll be able to overcome the environment that we’re expected to have to survive.”

On the Road to Baja

First Mode senior process engineer Jason Hawley with the Boot in Baja this week, where he will be embedded with one of the SCG pit crews during the race. (Photo by First Mode)
First Mode senior process engineer Jason Hawley with the Boot in Baja this week, where he will be embedded with one of the SCG pit crews during the race. (Photo by First Mode)

Now, it’s time to gain a greater understanding of the course itself, including all the race factors that will be impossible to simulate precisely in advance of 2022. In Ensenada, several First Modizens have joined the SCG team at the 2021 race in an observational capacity to gain first-hand knowledge of the course and its refueling processes, as well as potential challenges they may not have yet accounted for.

“We don’t have time to not model the possible outcomes.”

—Clara Sękowski, Systems Engineer, First Mode

“There’s still a lot of things that we don’t know that we don’t know, and this is the easiest way to get at those,” says Sękowski. “It will hopefully bring to light some things that we hadn’t considered or hadn’t realized the gravity of, and maybe put to bed some other things that we were worried about that we shouldn’t be.”

Stay tuned this week for further updates as we race toward a zero-emission, hydrogen-fueled Baja 1000 in 2022.

Want to work with us? We’re hiring! First Mode draws on the exceptional talent and creativity of its multidisciplinary team to solve the toughest problems on and off the planet. Check out our open positions in Seattle and Perth.