By Steve Keating
REUTERS - In a sport that takes the road less travelled, BJ Baldwin knows his way to the winner's circle better than anyone.
A two-time Baja 1000 winner, the most extreme off road test of man-and-car this side of the Paris Dakar Rally (which he has also challenged), Baldwin's motor racing life is one of dust, dirt and danger.
Baldwin is the 'King of the Desert' and rules over a strange motorsport world of off-road racing that at first glance appears to have inspired the "Mad Max" movie franchise.
A towering, tattooed and bearded mountain of a man, Baldwin certainly is not cast from the classic driver's mold.
While Formula One, IndyCar and NASCAR starting grids are populated with smallish, lean drivers who away from the track are runners, cyclists and triathletes, Baldwin gives off the aura of a professional wrestler.
This is hard man's racing, where drivers and trucks -- sturdy beasts that produce 1800 horsepower -- can take a dawn-to-dusk pounding.
"Trophy trucks by nature have to be extremely strong,” Baldwin told Reuters. "You are putting it in the worst environment possible and driving it as fast as you can.
"A special forces buddy of mine had a great analogy describing it as kind of like 50-mile long helicopter crash."
Desert racing is not uniquely American but the United States is its spiritual home with the first organised races staged in the southern California scrublands in the 1920s.
Americans love their pickup trucks and factory-backed teams such as Toyota and Ford attract big-name sponsors like Red Bull and Monster Energy Drink but share the pits with Volkswagen Beetles built in backyard garages supported by strip clubs, saloons and gun shops.
The Daytona 500 bills itself as 'The Great American Race,' the Indianapolis 500 claims the title as 'The Greatest Spectacle in Racing' and keeping with that understated tone the Mint 400 promotes itself as 'The Great American Off-Road Race.'
Run in the desert around Las Vegas in March, the Mint this year featured over 300 drivers spread across 25 classes with Trophy Trucks getting star billing.
Even at the top end desert racing is an affordable form of motor sport with Trophy Trucks coming in at around $350,000, or about one-third of what an F1 team spends on tyres in a season.
Robin Leach of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" fame served as grand marshal for the Mint but even with a bit of pizzazz from the "champagne wishes and caviar dreams" pitchman this remains a blue collar, beer and burgers sport despite the presence of celebrities sprinkled through the start list.
The Mint has long held a fascination for celebrity gear heads, with movie stars such as the late James Garner and Steve McQueen tackling the desert.
This year, comedian Jay Leno finished his late night act at The Mirage and was in the pits a few hours later for his early-morning start.
"No one is getting rich from this sport. People do it for fun," said Leno.
For some like Baldwin, however, it is job and a dangerous one, even by motor racing standards.
In most motor sports if there is an accident doctors and rescue teams are there in minutes if not seconds.
In desert racing it can be hours.
"We accept that risk," said Baldwin. "I compete in a sport where if something happens you might not get medical attention for several hours.
"But you could have a stroke on the couch watching TV or go live your life and take some calculated risks."
Over two decades of racing Baldwin has developed a hard-charging reputation and the well-deserved nickname "Ballistic."
He has won nearly everything there is to win in the sport including three SCORE international championships (a four-race series that includes the grueling Baja 1000).
That success, along with an edgy charismatic cockiness, attracted the attention of Toyota when the automaker decided to get back into desert racing last year.
"Our program we have more of an audience than say other competitors," said Baldwin. "The next most popular guy than me has probably 10 times less of an audience than I do.
"Everything I've wanted to win I have won so I’ve
reached all my goals.
"Now I'm just trying to continue to do what I love so much as long as I possibly can."
(Reporting by Steve Keating; Editing by Frank Pingue)