The Desert Challenge: My Weekend with Joe Bacal & His Lexus LX Racer Part One

Lexus LX 570 Racer

For a weekend in January, I became an official member of Joe Bacal’s JTGrey racing team, who are entering the 2012 SCORE off-road season with a brand new LX 570 race truck. The following is the first part of a three part series detailing my experience.


After a day spent flying across the country and a night driving through the Mojave desert, I wake up at the River Palms hotel in Laughlin, Nevada, where I’ve joined Joe Bacal and his JTGrey Racing team for the Laughlin Desert Challenge — the very first event of the new SCORE off-road season and the debut of Joe’s new LX 570 race truck.

I’m scheduled to race on Sunday, and in preparation, I’ve arranged to head over to the track to get myself acclimatized. Down in the hotel lobby, I meet up with Joe’s wife Teresa, their son Greyson, and Bryan Stordahl, who will be Joe’s co-driver on Saturday.

Today is the final opportunity for testing & tweaking before the weekend’s races, and when we reach the track, Joe has just completed his first trial run.

Lexus LX Racer Standing Still

Finished just two days earlier, the new LX is running well but is essentially untested, and there’s some teething issues as a result — during the first practice run, the transmission stays in automatic mode, instead of the sequential manual mode that allows Joe to control his gear shifting.

Not being in control of the transmission is one thing, but on Joe’s second practice run, the LX enters Limp Mode, which throws the SUV’s giant 5.7L V8 engine into a four-cylinder safety setting and limits the speed to around 10 mph. Restarting the engine resets the ECU and fixes the issue temporarily, but Limp mode soon returns. “We eliminated so many sensors and wires trying to clean up the system from our first-gen LX,” Joe tells me, “and I’ve had zero test time in the SUV until today. We simply ran out of time.”

Making matters worse, the Laughlin Desert Challenge has now been divided into two separate races instead of a single race stretched out over two days. This means the weekend is worth double the points in the overall standings — not being able to race would be disastrous for Joe’s season.

Looking over the Lexus LX Racer

To avoid getting in the way, Bryan and I head out for lunch, leaving Joe and Lexus engineer Brian Reilly to work on the LX. Over at In-N-Out burgers, I learn Bryan’s story — how he met Joe while both were being treated for cancer, how he suffers from an extremely rare form of the disease and remains in treatment, and most importantly, just how excited he is to have a chance to race with Joe. At this point, the race takes on a deeper significance, so we turn to positive thoughts and a belief that things will work out in the end.

When the team meets for dinner, there is some good news. Engineer Brian believes that stretched wiring to the ECU is the culprit behind the LX electrical problems — unfortunately, there’s no way to fix the issue before tomorrow’s race.

At this point, we all do our best to ignore the dark cloud hanging over the table, and take to hoping for an early morning miracle.

Check back tomorrow for part two of my weekend with Joe & JTGrey Racing Team!