Next year, Brandon Walsh will step up from number 701 to 700. The double "00" numbers are reserved for the previous year's class champions. Which is what Brandon is—the 2018 Class F7 champion.
But he's not satisfied. Because this past November, he came up short in his quest to solo finish the Baja 1000, desert racing's most grueling event.
With a heavy sigh, Brandon admits, "Winning races and a championship win is awesome, but my goal all year was a Baja 1000 finish."
"It's hard to win any class. But I feel like it's easier to win a championship than it is to win a solo at the Baja 1000. Your chances of doing that are very slim, and we could have done it. It was a hard thing to come so close to. That was tough."
After racing for over 24 hours, Brandon was in first place in his class, with the finish line in sight—until a non-Toyota part catastrophically failed.
The race was over.
At a young age, Brandon got used to winning. Baseball, soccer, whatever it was, his teams always seemed to be winners. During a trip to Mexico in high school, he set a goal to compete in the Baja 500 the following year.
"I guess I had this mindset that, ‘Oh, I've won my whole life, this is going to be easy.' And it wasn't easy. At all. It was one of the hardest things."
The humble lessons came early, fast, and hard. Brandon took to the dirt at 18, modifying his own truck (often with parts he built himself), and racing when he could scrape together the entry fees. Each race—win or lose—served up lessons in what to do differently the next time.
But even after having been at it for over a decade now—with numerous wins and Baja races—nothing really prepares you for the 1000.
"Doing a race in Baja, it's so hard. Everyone thinks it's so glorious with all the trucks racing around—and it is, it's a lot of fun. But when you're doing it, it beats the crap out of you. Mentally and physically…it's really hard. Sometimes you'll do everything you can to be mentally, physically, and your truck—ready to go—and then something crazy happens."
Here are just a few of the types of sections Baja racers have to navigate that probably didn't make it onto the SportCenter highlight reel.
Whoops: Massive dirt "speedbumps" that are 3 ft. tall, 6 ft. wide. Your truck could bottom out, so you take them at 20 mph (if you're lucky). For eight hours.
Rocks: As big as your tires, and they're everywhere. If you hit one the wrong way, they can tear off a chunk of your truck. Not good.
Silt: Imagine a football field, dug 3 ft. deep. Then fill that in with soft, brown cooking flour. Now try to drive your car through it.
But it really starts to get crazy when you have to start battling your own mind.
The flashy, multi-million dollar Trophy Truck winner may race through Baja in 16 hours. But other classes, like Brandon's, often see their winners come in at well over the 30-hour mark.
"At mile 500, cactus start looking like people and people start looking like cactus. You get so tired out there, and you're just getting beat up the whole time. You literally start seeing things. You're racing two things: you're racing people and you're racing Baja, too. You're just trying to survive the elements of Mexico."
A natural question at this point might be: "Why keep doing this insane thing?"
"Every single time I leave, I think I'm not coming back. [laughs] It's so draining. But it's also so fun at the same time."
As you may have picked up by now, Brandon lives for the challenge.
"No one goes to Mexico because it's easy. We do it because it's so hard. If it was easy, everyone would do it and it wouldn't be that fun. It's so hard and there are so many things that can go wrong the whole day. It's super rewarding."
"Every 5 miles on the course, there is a post marker that says Mile 100, Mile 105, Mile 110. Every single time you get to 100, 200. It feels like good, you know? It's like a mental checkpoint that keeps you going. Every single time you see one of those little markers, even if it was 5 miles further than it was before, it just feels good. Because you know there are so many people who aren't going to make it to that mile.
It's so challenging and it's just hard. Seriously the hardest thing I've done. Ever. And I really don't like losing—I hope I get the chance to do it again."
There's yet another challenge Brandon faces: leading a team of guys through all this madness, keeping them focused, and hungry for more.
Off-road racing is demanding, and it's even harder when you don't finish—which is frustrating but common in the sport. Trying again starts with camaraderie built over years of fighting in the trenches together.
"[When a race is over], we all say the same thing—we're not going back, screw this. [laughs] But then a week later, we're like, ‘Sooo… when are we working on the truck?'"
The love of building, racing and fixing what broke—together—is just part of the culture Brandon has created within his team.
"A lot of the teams don't get to work on the cars themselves. We actually put the car together ourselves, we work on the car ourselves. The guys have control about what's going on. No one is taking orders from anyone; we're all in it together and we're going to make it work."
"I mean, what's better than to work on a race car you get to ride in, and drive around, and call your team's?"
The Toyota in your driveway might not be quite ready for 1000 miles in the Mexican desert. But with a few upgrades from TRD, you'll be ready to start exploring the wild.
Take it from Brandon:
"Do not buy some aftermarket cheap stuff. Go buy some TRD parts, and put those on your truck. Toyota put a lot of money into the R&D on [those parts]. It doesn't just fit your truck, it's made for your truck. I'm a huge believer in the TRD Pro line."
Where to start? Brandon recommends the following:
TRD Pro Shocks
TRD Pro Wheels
TRD Pro Skid Plate