Mark Stahl won a variety of Baja races in this state of the art mid ’70s racer, recently restored
It was early 1977, and Mark Stahl was busy building a state-of-the-art Class 1 Chenowth buggy to race in the grueling Baja Peninsula events. Sponsored by Chula Vista Imports, Off-Road Warehouse, Mike Mendeola Racing Trannies, Don Hatz, Bilstein and others, its first race was the 1977 Baja Internacional (now the Baja 500), where he was the first 4-wheeler off the line. As Stahl remembers it, “We were the first car off the line and I had the lead to Nuevo Junction, about 100 miles. At about 90 miles I took a corner a little too fast and rolled the car. It went all the way over and back on its wheels so I just down shifted and kept going. The only problem was the number plate on the roof caved in, and had my head pushed over to one side. When we got to Nuevo Junction the crew had to hammer the roof up so I could sit straight up in the car again. I think two or three cars passed us while the pit stop was going on. We never ran a number plate on the roof again. Steve Schmidt took over at halfway, and we ran in the top 5 until about mile 400 when we lost a rear axle around El Alamo. Smitty (Steve Schmidt) hitched a ride with a caballero on his horse in his firesuit and helmet to try and get help! (I think Trackside has this photo.) Anyhow, we found him, changed the axle, and finished 10th.
Things began looking better in 1978 with a third in Class 1 and third overall at the Mexicali 300, then taking his first win, the Overall just six minutes ahead of Frank Vessels at the Baja 1000. That win got Mark’s Chenowth on the cover of the February 1979 issue of Hot VWs (which included Baja 1000 coverage), but interestingly, there was never a full article on the racecar. His success continued with second place finishes at the 1979 Mexicali 250 and Baja 500, and another Overall win at the 1980 Baja 1000. Part of his success was contributed to the new bus transaxle that he was using, one of only three built at the time by Mike Mendeola Racing Transaxles with a Vanagon 4:57:1 ring and pinion and Hewland gear stacks (the other two trans were in Roger Mears’ and Joe Bean’s cars).
Racing the 1981 Baja Internacional, Stahl recollects, “I had caught Jack Motley at Ojos Negros and knew I had to pass him for the lead and put 3 minutes on him before the finish to win. When I caught him I was flat out at about 110 MPH and he was doing about 90. I knew if I slowed to blow the horn and bump him he would be gone and I would never get by. My only choice was to keep the gas to the floor and get around him before we got to the technical roads on the way to the Pepsi Stand. Just as I pulled to his left to pass him a big washout appeared in front of me and I lifted — I hit the brakes, the washout and Jack’s left rear wheel at the same time! My car shot high in the air and was barrel rolling at the same time. I landed upside down on his front end, rolled easily 7 or 8 times, and when we both had stopped I was about 100 feet in front of him. The engine had broken out of my car and all but one tire was still on. He came up to check if I was oaky and then went on to win the race.
“In the 1981 Baja 1000, I was the 14th car off the start and after about 100 miles I had the overall lead on the course. At about 300 miles I had a flat rear tire that I had to run about 50 miles on. Corky McMillin had been my sponsor in previous years, but not this year. I stopped at one of his pits and tried to get a tire, but his guys said they would be in big trouble if they gave me a tire. I kept going cautiously until I got to my pit to get a fresh tire. No one ever caught me throughout the race, and I won my third Ironman Trophy! I was in the car for over 20 hours, the longest time for anyone while winning the Ironman. Anyway, after that long in the car I was not looking in the mirrors to see who was behind me, I was looking forward to get to the finish line. I know the one headlight motorcycle is a good story (where Mark McMillin turned off all but one headlight so Stahl would think it was a motorcycle approaching and not speed up — ed.), but I wasn’t looking back. But right after I crossed the finish line Mark McMillin pulled up and I knew I didn’t win overall — a major disappointment after 20-1/2 brutal hours and not seeing any other cars for 15 hours!”
After five years of racing Class 1, and numerous wins and top finishes, Stahl started focusing on NASCAR in 1982, and put the Chenowth up for sale in San Diego. In 1983, Jim Travis and Ron League bought the car, and raced the ADRA series with it, winning quite a few events over the next few years. Travis and League were sponsored by Jack Furrier’s family business, Desert Rat Off Road Centers, which is how his son, Jeff Furrier (the car’s current owner) got involved in off-road racing. Back then, Jeff was in college, racing motorcycles and going to the races as a crew member on the Chenowth, only hoping to someday be able to afford an off-road racecar. Of course, the car he really wanted was the Stahl Chenowth.
In 1987 the car was once again sold, this time to someone wanting to race the Chenowth in a 1600cc class. Before selling it Ron pulled the engine and Mendeola 091 transaxle, and away it went. Over the next 20 odd years it was owned by four different people, including Tom Welman, Tom Surdez, Steve Klinkenbeard, and Steve Smith. But Jeff Furrier never forgot about the car he wanted so badly as a teenager, and in 2010 started looking for the car he’d dreamed about. Through connections in the racing industry, and prompting from good friend and off-road racing aficionado Rory Ward, he found it in August of 2010. Sitting against Steve Smith’s garage in Tucson, it was mostly disassembled, but the major components were still intact. Steve had bought it as a basketcase with the intent of putting it back together, but sold it to Jeff because he wanted to see it finally restored.
As Jeff tells the story, “Rory and I planned to rebuild the car and race it in the 2011 NORRA Mexican 1000, which was held in May of 2011. With only nine months to source parts and rebuild the car, we had our work cut out for us. Amazingly, every time we mentioned the ‘Mark Stahl Chenowth 1000’ to people in the off-road racing industry, they jumped at the chance to help. We had no idea how much this car affected racers, fans and business in the off-road racing industry. Companies like Bilstein, who supplied the original shocks, and Mendeola Transaxles that built the famous Bullet Box transaxle that helped win the three Baja 1000s all offered assistance. Mike Mendeola said, ‘That car put us on the map,’ referring to the success he had from the exposure received from the many race wins.
“After nine long months, hundreds of shop hours, countless emails and phone calls to locate parts and information, we brought the legendary car back to life. The dream was not complete until I was able to drive the car across the finish line in La Paz for one more Baja win at the NORRA Mexican 1000. With the help of Rory Ward and Mark Stahl, we were able to add one more win to Chenowth’s resume 30 years after its last Baja win in 1981.”
With a lot of assembly help from John Furrier and Chad Nichols, the original trans from Ron League that was rebuilt by Mike Mendeola (still had some original gears!), bodywork and paint by Bobby Scoot, graphics and lettering by Thom McDonald, wiring by Brian Coombes Accurate Automotive and an updated 2276cc engine by Larry Weiser, Mark Stahl’s 1977 Chenowth once again crosses the finish line in La Paz in style. An in an age of mega-travel Trophy Trucks dominating the off-road spotlight, this restored winner is fitting tribute to the men and machines that made this sport what it is today.
ENGINE/TYPE 1 DISPLACEMENT/2276cc (current) BUILDER/Larry Weiser, CASE/VW AS41, magnesium CRANK/BUGPACK 82mm stroker, forged, 8 dowels RODS/Aries PISTONS/Mahle, 94mm CAM/Engle VZ-15, .478-inch lift, 279° duration LIFTERS/BUGPACK PUSHRODS/BUGPACK stroker ROCKER ARMS/BUGPACK, 1.1:1 ratio OIL SYSTEM/Melling, cast iron, full-flowed OIL/Redline HEADS/BUGPACK, 40x32mm valves COMPRESSION RATIO/8.5:1 IGNITION/Bosch and MSD INDUCTION/single 32 Zenith two-barrel carb on Deano manifold, K&N filters EXHAUST SYSTEM/BUGPACK FLYWHEEL/200mm, 15-lb., 8 dowels CLUTCH/Kennedy pressure plate HORSEPOWER/140 (estimated) SPECIAL MODIFICATIONS/custom Ron Hatz aluminum fan housing, TRANSAXLE/1977 VANAGON BUILDER/Mike Mendeola, La Mesa, CA RING & PINION/4.57:1 STARTER/Bosch 17B snub nose GEAR RATIOS/3.10:1 1st, 1.93:1 2nd, 1.41:1 3rd, 1.04:1 4th SPECIAL MODIFICATIONS/modified for complete Hewland gear set, case welded for double gussets, shift rails knife-edged, Type 1 detent springs, Mendeola mainshaft bearing plate, double thrust pinion bearing, all forward gear shot-peened to AQI specs