Courses & TravelNovember 19, 2009

Joe Bacal--Cancer Survivor, Off-Road Racer and Real Golfer

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How were you introduced to golf?

My wife plays and she's real good. Golf is one of the things that I'm passionate about. It relaxes me. My score isn't a big deal to me, but I enjoy the challenge of getting the ball in the hole. I have an eight-year old little boy and he has been playing golf since he was four. He has clubs that I could use as chopsticks. Golf's a good family sport. My wife and son and I will go out and play or we'll just go out and hit balls. It's fun.

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Oh yeah. She's better than everyone I've ever met. She can break 80. When I out drive her by just a few yards I get real excited because I did something better than her on the golf course. There are three things I can't do better than her: she's a black belt in karate, she played basketball at Minnesota and she beats me on the golf course all the time. When we play a lot of these corporate outings and these guys we play with, who all play golf all day long, my wife makes them look silly--let's just say it doesn't go over too well.

Thankfully she's not a better off-road driver than you.

She might be, but I haven't let her behind the wheel.

Where do you live?

I live in Anthem, Arizona at a country club with two golf courses--Persimmon and Ironwood.

Do you root for Tiger or Phil?

Being from Arizona, I have to go with Phil. I've always enjoyed watching Phil, and Tiger's amazing, but Phil's more my style when it comes to golf.

Do you have a favorite golf course?

I like Gray Hawk (pictured below) and Troon North.

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The Baja 500 was 432 miles; I was in the truck for 16 and a half hours. The Baja 1000 is 672 miles and I'll be in the truck for 20-plus hours. I'll get out for a few seconds at some of the pits, I'll move my legs around, and then I'll jump right back in.

Dumb question: If you're in the car for 20 hours, receiving water, food and supplements, where do you go to the bathroom?

Everyone asks that question. We call it a Texas catheter. I don't want to go into too much detail, but I have a hose running down my driving suit to where my shoe is and I go the bathroom in the car. There's really no other option. Sometimes this race comes down to 30 seconds, so you have to pick and choose when you're going to spend time out of the truck.

If it's the Baja 1000, why isn't it 1000 miles?

It depends on how they can get the course mapped out. They have to get permission and clearance from property owners to route the course through their yards. This is the 42nd running of the Baja 1000 and it changes every year.

You're racing through people's backyards?

Sometimes. You're going through towns at 100 miles per hour in the middle of the night, sliding sideways, and there's people right there. They just can't close 1,000 miles. They can't even shut down 500 miles to make it a closed course. You get ranchers going the wrong way, you get cattle, you get kids, you get dogs--that's why chaos comes to mind. It's so crazy out there. You come over a rise and you don't know what you're going to find. That's way the attrition rate is so low because people can't get to the finish. This race would never happen in the U.S.

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I believe there will be about 300 or so. I'm not sure.

What percentage of those racers will finish?

I'd guess less than half will finish.

Your story, in part, is that you're a cancer survivor; can you talk about your life since you were diagnosed in 2006?

You go through life and you don't realize how easily it can be taken from you until you're faced with the news that you have cancer. Most people, who are a little ignorant when it comes to cancer, who don't have it or you don't know much about it, when you hear cancer you just think death. When I heard the news, I knew it wasn't good. I thought: How long do I have to live? That's the first thing that comes to mind. So when you beat the odds, you want to tell everyone, you want to help everyone you can. You really want to be a part of people's lives who are dealing with cancer, going through treatment. I use off-road racing to do that. When I'm sitting in the seat of my truck, and it says Cancer Treatment Centers of America on the door, which is where I was treated, that says it all right there.

Tell me more about Hodgkin's lymphoma?

It attacks the lymphatic system. I had a golf ball sized tumor in my throat and I had another one pushing against my lung in my chest. It spreads fast because it's your lymphatic system.

You have a clean bill of health now?

Yeah. It's my understanding that Hodgkin's lymphoma is one of the only cancers that is curable. I had stage-two Hodgkin's lymphoma. I went through four or five months of chemotherapy, several months of radiation. It has been over two years now—I feel great. I guess I'm fortunate and hopefully that's the way it continues to go.

And now racing cars for 20 hours feels like nothing compared to beating cancer?

I used to be afraid to do big presentations in front of corporate executives in Japan. Now I'll do pretty much anything. Cancer made me look at life more seriously.

On a much less serious note, if I offered you an all-expenses paid trip to Bandon, Pebble or Pinehurst, where would you go?

Pebble Beach is one of my favorites, but maybe that's because they have that big car show there every year. I also like Kapalua on Maui. We spend a lot of time there and it's amazing. It would pick Pebble Beach or Kapalua.

If you had a three-foot putt for your life, would you take that putt or would you have your wife putt it for you?

She's good, but I'm also good under pressure. I think I'd take the putt myself. It's my life and I like doing things myself. I don't even like anyone else driving my car.

In golf we'd ask if you've played this course before. Have you ever driven the course you'll race on Friday for the Baja 1000?

This course is similar to the 500, but they've added a lot more miles. Back in 2007, four months after my final radiation treatment, I wasn't feeling 100 percent at all, but someone asked me if I wanted to drive 250 miles in the Baja 1000 that year. And I did it. I jumped in the truck. I'd say it was 150 miles before the truck caught on fire, but before that it was going good. The great thing about it, I was in the desert in the middle of the night and that's when it hit me, that I beat cancer. I was alive.

-Follow Joe Bacal through his Facebook page: Control Amid Chaos

-Here's a link for more information about Cancer Treatment Centers of America.

--Matty G.

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