By Sue Mead
Rod Hall raced over rocks, through deserts and across countries for more than 50 years. He drove Fords, Jeeps, Dodges and Hummers, winning his class in the Baja 1000 a record 25 times. The Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame enshrined him in 2005. Now he is facing his most difficult opponent.
Hall, 81, is fighting a neurodegenerative disease called progressive supranuclear palsy. It is a rare brain disorder with symptoms similar to those of Parkinson’s disease. There is no known cure.
Hall, once a blur on the race course, now struggles to get from room to room. Retirement allows him to reflect on his racing career and a lifetime of outdoor adventures. He and his wife, Donna, live in Reno, Nev., surrounded by trophies and memorabilia from his victories.
Hall spoke with Trucks.com, sharing his memories as well as tips for young off-road drivers. Here is an edited version of the conversation.
How did you get your start?
My racing career began in the 1950s, when organized off-road competition was just starting. I earned a reputation for going faster than others and surviving with less vehicle damage. I was a guy that made instant decisions about far enough, fast enough, long enough.
The 1967 Mexican 1000 was the first true adventure that I went on. I loved the challenge of not knowing where we were going, before GPS programs and apps with the preloaded race course.
My co-driver and I were shocked to win after getting lost a dozen times and performing repairs in the unrelenting desert sun. We felt pretty famous when we arrived at the official finish. I was given a steak that covered my plate and free drinks. It was then I decided my career was going to be off-road racing.
What were your favorite places to race?
My favorite place is Baja, Mexico, by far. I like the people. I was the first one to race it for 50 years. I can’t believe I did it. I raced in my fiftieth with my son Chad and we won by 10 minutes. It was the last time I was in a race car. If I could get well and walk again, I would go back.
But I have raced in many different countries including in the East African Safari. That was the race at one time before the Dakar. Nobody knew much about it, but I did it in the Dodge Ramcharger and I really enjoyed it. And I liked racing in Australia.
What are your most memorable in-race repairs?
My race partner Jim Fricker and I were down in Baja, and my Bronco just quit going. I looked out the side, and the wheels were off. The axle had an open differential, and the axle housing just broke in half. We chained it from the sides of the pumpkin, or rear differential, to the cross member and drove it home.
Another time we lost all forward gears, but had reverse. We were about forty miles from the finish, so we turned it around. But all our lights were facing the wrong way. We used a spotlight to light the track, and we won!
What are three things you recommend off-roaders keep in their vehicle?
A compass. I won my first Mexican 1000 with just a compass. Rags to wipe your hands and your compass. And in the last few years, I’ve come to really like Masterpull’s kinetic rope.
What advice would you give to off-road racers today?
Haste makes waste. My mantra is the tortoise and the hare. But, on the other hand, it really hurt my feelings if I got second place, so I would go as fast as I could.
Respect and help your sponsors. I learned that you have to help manufacturers so I would ask BF Goodrich what I could do to help sell tires. If you put a sticker on your car and you win the race, that’s when your job begins.
Keep in shape. I always worked out and stayed in shape to drive. When I was beginning to struggle with mobility, my good friend and I hiked Mount Rose, an 11,000-foot peak. I said, “This will be the last time that I can do this.” He said, “Don’t bet on it.”
What is the latest on your battle with progressive supranuclear palsy?
When I first learned that I had this illness, I was very depressed and wanted to give up. But I love my wife and family and I am not a quitter. Not being able to get around on my own is hard. And the fact my brain tires more quickly is hard. But life is hard. My advice is to pay attention to any signs, like loss of balance and troubles with vision, and seek out information on the illness.
My eyes don’t work well anymore, and I have double vision. But I know I am blessed. I am grateful for every day on this planet. I hope I get back to walking, and I’d like to race again. But if I don’t, I’m as happy as I can be.