Off-roading is an American institution, but it was made famous in Mexico's Baja Peninsula. Racing the Baja 1000 is the ultimate inspiration for this particular Porsche 911.
When most think about off-roading with Porsches, there are three images that usually come to mind. The first two are rather obvious with the Macan and the Cayenne SUVs. It’s probably more so with the Cayenne since it has been used in rally raid competition across the world. The third in our hypothetical example would be the 959 that was used as a factory off-road racer for Porsche. It was originally slated for Group B rally racing, but ended up running in the Paris-Dakar Rally beginning in 1984 through 1986 with overall wins in the debut and final Dakar races.
While the Dakar Rally is an awesome event, for us here in North America, it’s all about Baja. This leads us to talk about an interesting Porsche that once raced there, but most probably don’t even know about it. From 1986 to 1988, three different Chenowth-chassis cars won the Baja 1000 overall, and all three of them were powered by a Porsche engine and transmission. They also helped start the modern off-road family dynasties of Mark McMillin and Bob “Baja Bob” Gordon. Mark is the father of Andy McMillin–a five-time Baja 1000 champion in the number 31 Red Bull Trophy Truck. “Baja Bob” is the father of Robby Gordon, the owner of the Stadium Super Truck series and a legendary off-road racer in his own right with three Baja 1000 championships to his name.
To talk about the legend of Baja, one must discuss more than just those aforementioned families, as the Baja 1000 is a legend in its own right. It was literally a race that was started just to see how fast one could get from Tijuana to La Paz, Mexico. The first time it was done was in 1962 on a Honda CL72 Scrambler to prove the motorcycle's reliability. It set a time of 34-hours and some change. The second time would be in 1967 with Bruce Meyers and his Meyers Manx Volkswagen conversion, which beat the motorcycle record.
Soon, more and more were attempting this run until Ed Pearlman created the National Off-Road Racing Association and organized the first Mexican 1000. In 1974, the Baja Sports Committee took over and renamed it the “Baja Mil” or Baja 1000, but found organizing such a large race difficult. In 1975 the Southern California Off-Road Enthusiasts (SCORE) took over and hired Sal Fish to be president at the same time. It has been a SCORE staple ever since, and a destination for racers like the McMillins, the Gordons, and scores of others. Even open-wheel drivers like Jenson Button and Alexander Rossi have raced in the 1000. Racing in it is a big deal, so to claim your car is worthy of the name is equally as significant.
Fortunately, TJ Russell is a person who is more than capable of building a machine with Baja competition in mind. In fact, this pre-runner 1991 911 Carrera 4 964 Cabriolet is a prototype, and TJ plans to build copies based off of this build for customers, too. “The original purpose for this build is to create the parts and components to offer clientele the resources to retrofit and upgrade their Porsche 911s for the ultimate off-road experience” he explained to us, “to create the ultimate all-terrain, all-purpose Porsche 911.”
To start, TJ went for a Carrera 4 on a 964 chassis. However, instead of looking for a hard-top, he went for the Cabriolet. “The cabriolet is a bit cheaper than the coupes,” said TJ, “and generally were taken care of better. They weren’t typically raced on the weekends and were more of a weekend cruise car.”
The all-wheel-drive system of the Carrera 4 also allowed him to have something a little more off-road worthy, a fact proven by the 959 Group B car since its AWD system was the basis for the one used in the Carrera 4. A manual differential control was added too. Not only can TJ adjust when the AWD system locks in to drive all four wheels, but also how much bias it has between the front and the rear axles.
The Cabrio body also makes installing a roll cage easier versus a hard-top. Since it doesn’t have a roof, welding the bars between the roll and front hoops is much easier. The driver and passenger are not only surrounded by metal but Sparco parts as well. First, they are treated to a pair of Sparco SPX carbon seats that have been reupholstered in olive green leather, with Alcantara inserts with a contrasting diamond-pattern custom stitched into them. The driver and co-driver are then held in by a set of Sparco six-point harnesses.
The shoulder harnesses are mounted perfectly according to safety regulations, as they are wrapped neatly around the roll cage harness bar. You can also see more of that olive leather-work just behind the harness bar.
The driver gives the front wheels directions with a Sparco Targa 350 steering wheel. An adjustable electric power steering system reduces the effort and removes the need for a power-robbing hydraulic pump on the engine. To give the car as much form as it has function, the dashboard is wrapped in Alcantara on the top with olive green leather trim on the bottom.
A MoTeC C127 dash display gives all of the readings the driver needs while ripping over the whoops in the desert or just driving around town.
The MoTeC switch panel controls nearly all of the electronics of the body as well as engine start-up. These switches send commands to a MoTeC Power Distribution Module (PDM), which then sends the appropriate signals to the lights, horn, wipers, and even the MoTeC engine management system.
The dials for the brake bias, differential bias, and differential lockup control are located just above the shifter. TJ even added a bit of modern tech with a USB power plug just above them.
A heel plate keeps the driver’s feet in the correct position for the Tilton pedal box. The front, rear, and clutch all get their own master cylinder. The brake pedal features a floating bar that adjusts the brake bias and where the brake master cylinders attach to. When the driver turns the brake bias knob, the bar angles to change how much each master cylinder is used. Essentially, it shortens the travel of the rear brake master piston rod versus the front, and makes the front brakes get the full pedal movement.
What’s nice about a proper cage is that it allows you to have a proper–and potentially far safer–side impact protection over what was factory for the 964. This door bar provides a far more rigid solution but also requires a gutted door. Instead of raw exposed fiberglass, the openings are covered in olive green leather with more of that beautiful diamond stitching.
It also means a roll-up window is out of the question, so a set of polycarbonate windows replace them. They have large, rally-car style openings to keep the wind out or allow it in if either the driver or passenger wants it.
Being out in the middle of the desert means you need to have enough fuel to drive for many, many hours. TJ went with a custom Race Safe 17-gallon fuel cell with an internal Radium Engineering Fuel Cell Surge Tank (FCST) system.
The FCST features a lift pump that feeds the fuel from the cell into the internal surge tank. The surge tank pump then sends fuel to the engine. If that main fuel pump should fail, this particular unit includes a backup pump in the surge tank.
Many think of Rothsport Racing and their builds with road racing and even time attack. However, Rothsport also has Baja experience of its own from competing in the race, to providing support services for other racers. At the very least, an engine of this caliber is required for any fast-paced desert expedition. The silt and sand also make having proper, massive filters necessary.
This Rothsport Racing engine displaces 3.8-liters and produces 365-horsepower with 310-ft/lbs of torque. It’s also a 7500-RPM screamer worthy of these individual throttle bodies, controlled by a MoTec Engine Management System.
The Porsche GT3 exhaust system features two modes. A quiet mode that lets the neighbors sleep, and a loud mode to make sure the drivers on the other side of the dune can hear you before you launch over it.
When it comes to off-roading, anything with less than eight-inches of travel is going to be rough to ride in. The 4130 Chromoly steel front suspension has 12-inches of travel using a pair of Elka 2.5-inch diameter coilovers.
The Eibach spring’s preload and height is adjusted by a top spring collar that threads on the shock body. This design also necessitated a custom-made mount to replace the strut design of the 964.
The shock mount is integrated into a custom front subframe made of Chromoly plate steel. It also includes the mounts for the custom Chromoly upper and lower control arms that attach to new machined uprights. These uprights are made out of large blocks of billet aluminum. These arms allow the full range of that 12-inch travel but it also widens the 964 to 79-inches. The rear suspension uses the 964 factory arm mounts but its tubular, off-road buggy arms allow for 13-inches of travel on 3.0-inch diameter Elka coilovers.
That new width required oversized fenders front and rear, which TJ fabricated out of fiberglass in his shop. This allowed the new suspension to go through its motion with a set of Fifteen52 Integrale Gravel FIA-specification wheels. Wrapped around these rally-level wheels are a set of Toyo Tires Open Country A/T all-terrain tires in 30x9.50x15.
If you’re new to off-road or tires taller than 28-inches, you’ll see that “30” is the advertised outside tire diameter, “9.50” is the advertised width of the tread, “15” is the wheel diameter, and all of these are in inches. It’s roughly the equivalent to a 245/80R15 in metric tire sizing. An all-terrain tire is also a bit of a compromise tire, as it’s not as loud as a blocky mud-terrain tire is on the pavement. It also provides far more off-road bite than a highway tire.
The headlights are custom-made by 9Eleven Headlights for the Baja-ready 964. They work with the classic design of the 964 911 but feature modern HID technology for vastly improved visibility during the night. Each headlight is flanked by a Baja Designs XL-R Pro LED light in a cornering beam pattern. Both are in amber as that color offers better lighting performance in the desert.
Dust can form at the front of the vehicle when driving in the sand and silt. White light will reflect off of the sand particles and blind the driver while amber (and red) light will reflect less. The same principle can be applied to driving in the fog, and that is why you see many European cars with amber-colored fog and driving lights.
This color also works in conjunction with the wide, cornering beam pattern that was created by Baja Designs. It’s set to a 42-degree horizontal pattern, which means the light beam spreads out rather than being sent out further down the trail.
However, when dust isn’t a problem, out-pacing your light beam can be. That requires lights capable of not only extreme brightness but also lighting that sends a beam further than standard headlights can. That’s where these Baja Designs XL-R Pro lights come in. They rest inside a rally car-inspired pod on the hood and are set up with a “combo” beam pattern.
This means they have a light with a 10-degree driving beam (the heavily diffused bottom lights) and a nine-degree spotlight (the undiffused top lights) beam patterns in the same housing. The way to think of it is that the wide pattern gives you visibility across the road while the spot pattern gives you visibility down the road.
The taillights are custom made for TJ and his Carrera 4 Baja. When the driver puts the Porsche 964 into reverse, the “Russell” lights up to let you know it’s backing up. You can also see the extent of the protection made into TJ’s car. The front and rear bumpers, both made from 4130 Chromoly steel tubing, are tied into the roll cage and chassis. There is also a full set of underbody armor made from carbon fiber to protect the delicate parts from rocks and debris.
The rear wing is reminiscent of the original “whale tail” Carrera 4 spoiler and is custom-made from fiberglass by TJ. “The car is completely re-bodied in composite panels exclusive to these builds,” he explained, “and months were spent on design to show homage to the curves and create new lines as synonyms to the Porsche DNA. It was also important to give the wide-body panels that ‘factory race’ look, something that looked like Porsche continued its off-road program after the 959.”
This also meant coming up with innovative ways to cool the engine of the 964, since dust mitigation and chassis protection were requirements, and these parts would block off areas where extra cooling from free air could normally be added. The rear section that used to house the soft-top gave way to a scoop to send cool air into the oil cooler.
“The entire year-and-a-half build has been full of highs and lows,” said TJ. “It seemed that every new step created a new uncharted challenge which in itself brought moments of doubt. I was questioning whether what I was aiming for was worth it, or even if it was something that people were going to find value in,” he explained. In the end, however, TJ and his Baja Carrera 4 would earn himself a spot in the Top 12 of the 2019 SEMA Show Battle of the Builders. That should be proof enough that people love this car.
“The achievements so far have been amazing,” TJ admitted, “The response of the media and Porsche world have been overwhelming. It is thanks to its blend of high-quality race car fabrication and design, while topping it off with a fit and finish that compares to the best, custom luxury vehicles in the world.”
While he is proud of the outcome, this is still a reference build for his business. “If I had to do it all again I would do nothing different,” he explained, “don’t get me wrong, I already have some things to improve on through testing and R&D, but I gave this build everything. The generation-two Baja-spec builds will have some updated improvements like carbon composite body parts, minor suspension modifications, and an optional six-speed sequential gearbox will put these builds over the top.”
Porsche and off-road have an interesting history together; a history which has been fueled further by the birth of the Baja 1000. Those Porsche-powered Chenowth chassis were only a hint as to what a properly built, high-performance air-cooled open desert racer could be. TJ Russell now shows us what a proper off-road 911 should be with real suspension travel, great power, and even better drivability. With the explosion of overlanding, the appeal of the accessibility of off-roading, and Porsche-performance, we are seeing the start of some incredible and unique machines made for off-pavement driving.
Story by Justin Banner
Photos by Antonio Alvendia
If you enjoyed this Baja 911, you can find additional Porsche-related content at porsche.fcpeuro.com, as well as more build features like this one, here. If there's anything specific you would like to see, or if you have any questions/comments, leave them in the comments section below.
FCP Euro's Feature Editor Antonio Alvendia is an aficionado of cameras, rare wheels, 90s hip hop, and obscure aftermarket car accessories. He bought his first E39 Touring after seeing M5 Estates on photo trips to several racetracks and automotive museums in Europe. He is currently devising a plan to return to the Nurburgring to shoot the N24 race and drive the Nordschleife again. ••• Instagram : @MOTORMAVENS