The Ghosts of Miramar

PUBG Corporation has published a new excerpt of the PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds universe lore, apparently related to the upcoming Miramar update. In this snippet, the developers talked about the deadly races that take place on a desert map.

I’m writing this in a motel room on the outskirts of Miramar. It’s the middle of the night—I think. I lost my phone charger yesterday and the radio clock next to me has been blinking 12:00 since I got here.

It sure feels late. It’s pitch-black outside, except for the faint glow of bonfires in the distance. I’m exhausted, but I won’t be sleeping tonight. I’m vibrating with adrenaline. My skin itches from too much sun and dust, and my hair smells like fire and diesel fuel. I keep trying to replay the last few days in my head, trying to make sense of the utter madness I just witnessed.

Stuck somewhere between crippling fear and morbid fascination, I feel like I just walked off the set of a grindhouse version of Hunger Games—only instead of Jennifer Lawrence running through the woods with a bow and arrow, it’s a bunch of heavily armed muscle cars ripping through the Miramar desert at 100 mph.

Welcome to A la Muerte Vamos: it’s literally a death race and it’s been going on, in secret, for decades.

My road to Miramar starts in early November. I’m in LA, helping my grandmother move out of her house. It’s barely a week after Día de los Muertos, so her ofrenda, which I hadn’t seen since my dad died, is still on display. Amidst the candles, marigolds and papel picado, I find photos of my grandfather, my dad, and my Uncle Frank, who I never really knew. My dad didn’t tell me much about his brother—except that he died in prison when I was a boy. The one vivid memory I have is his eyepatch. 8-year-olds never forget a man with an eyepatch.

Tucked away behind the family photos is an old poster of a leaping black Chevy Impala with EL DEMONIO written in bold and bright letters, and A LA MUERTE VAMOS below it. It had the look of a poster you’d see promoting a stunt show or backyard wrestling. Is this from Frank’s shadowy past? What’s a Muerte Vamos? Sounds made-up, like the title of an old genre flick. I start thinking about Kurt Russell in Death Proof.

Near the poster, I find a photo of Frank posing next to the very same Impala. I can just make out his eyepatch under aviator sunglasses. I bring the photo and poster to Tita and ask her about the connection: “Your father’s friend Luis… you remember Luis, with the fake leg?” she says. “He gave me that poster shortly after your uncle passed.” Of course I remember Luis. 8-year-olds never forget a man with a fake leg, either. Luis grew up with my dad and uncle and was a regular at family gatherings.

I have more questions about Frank and the poster. I ask her about A la Muerte Vamos, but her answers sound vague and rehearsed, as if she’s afraid someone else is listening. She obviously doesn’t want to talk about it, so I change the subject.

Later that evening, though, while clearing out Tita’s storage, I discover a box with DEMONIO scrawled across it. Inside, there are more posters, a crusty racing glove, and an old leather bomber jacket with DEMONIO stitched on the back. The jacket had certainly seen better days – one of the sleeves was riddled with puncture holes – and the leather glove looked like it had been soaked in grease, or blood, or both.

Now I’m hooked. What’s the deal, Uncle Frank? The bloody glove, the perforated sleeve… did you die in a hail of bullets, or were you just really bad at studding your jacket? And what’s up with Demonio, was that like your badass nickname? I mean it is pretty badass.

I need to know more, so I reach out to Luis and convince him to help me write a story about Frank ‘Demonio’ Dominguez.

A few days later, I’m at Luis’ house outside Laredo, Texas. He’s ecstatic to see me, like a guy freaking out over a song he forgot he loved. We saunter down a driveway lined with old cars and farming equipment, as he marvels at how much I’ve grown, and how much I look like my father.

We settle on his porch and spend the afternoon catching up on everything from dad to writing to backhoe repair. Luis is semi-retired now, living alone with his many dogs and taking odd jobs fixing cars and combines. We talk for hours, but it all feels like a preamble to the inevitable conversation about Uncle Frank. “So what, you’re doing a true crime podcast about Frank or something?” No, but interesting you went there, Luis.

I open my bag and take out the leather jacket, holding it up so Luis can see Demonio stitched on the back. He stares at the lettering in silence and a grin spreads across his face. “Ah, Demonio,” he says, shaking his head. “I haven’t seen that name in years.”

Growing up in El Paso, Luis and Frank would spend their summers building and racing rally cars in the Chihuahuan Desert. They kept at it until landing a spot on a team at the World Rally Championship (WRC): “We were right up there with the best,” he says. “We could have had it all, man – travelling the world, competing in elite races – but the owners fucked up.” In the early 90s, their team was caught in a cheating scandal that got them blacklisted. “We had nothing to do with it,” he scowls. “They made the cars; we just drove them. But we never worked the WRC again.”

After the scandal, Luis went back to El Paso to find work; Frank, meanwhile, went searching for the next race. “Man, Frank was not ready to walk away,” says Luis. “He’d disappear for weeks on end and come back with stories about stunt driving, demolition derbies… whatever he could get his hands on.”

But Frank was quickly growing tired of the novelty acts. “He just wanted to race,” says Luis, wistfully. “But that WRC shit followed him everywhere he went. So, he went underground.” That’s when the weeks away turned into months away. Frank would come home totally unannounced, sometimes in the dead of night, with duffel bags full of cash. “It drove Tita nuts,” says Luis. “Your dad too. But it was hard to stay mad at him. We all missed him so much.”

With Frank always on the road, he and Luis lost touch. Years would go by without so much as a phone call. Then, one summer night in 1992, Frank showed up at Luis’ door. “He was standing right there,” he says, gesturing at the porch step in front of me. “Big duffel bag. That jacket you’re holding. Oh and the eyepatch! The eyepatch was new.” That was the night he told Luis all about Miramar: “He described it as a wild street race in the desert… Mad Max type shit,” says Luis. “And the best part? Completely off the grid. I’d never seen Frank so excited in my life, man. He was happier than the day we signed our first contract for the WRC.”

It was hard for Luis not to get caught up in Frank’s excitement. Luis had been living job-to-job for a while at this point, and he sorely missed racing too. So, by the end of the night, Frank wasn’t the only one planning his next trip to Miramar. “I just couldn’t resist,” says Luis, shrugging. “Frank convinced me to join his pit crew and a week later I was in Miramar.”

It’s hard to believe Luis’ description of Miramar. Parts of it sound like your average rally car event in the desert – tents, dust, heat – but other parts of the story sound otherworldly—or at least underworldly. The race itself is called A la Muerte Vamos, which begs all kinds of questions. Luis says the rules are simple enough: cross the finish line first and crush anyone in your way. Crush as in kill? “People died all the time out there,” says Luis, tentatively. “But that’s what Hector wanted.”

Hector Ochoa. The name comes up several times. According to Luis (and some very speculative sources I found online) Hector created A la Muerte Vamos as a bigger, more entertaining alternative to the infamous ‘Gulag Tapes’, a series of ultra-violent prison riot videos that was popular on the black market at the time. Remember Faces of Death? A la Muerte Vamos was the Races of Death. “It was rough out there,” said Luis. “But Frank ate that race alive, man. Watching him race was like being a kid in the Chihuahuan Desert again.” Hector loved Frank for how much he loved A la Muerte Vamos. “Hector wanted gladiators,” says Luis. “Frank was more than a great driver, he was an entertainer, an icon.” They called him Demonio because he always raced “like a demon escaping hell.” Ok that nickname is way more badass than I thought.

Though Luis and Frank had their share of glory together, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to you that this story doesn’t end well. A year after Luis arrived in Miramar, during the final lap of a race, Luis and his crew were struck by two cars flipping right into their pit stop. “All I remember was a loud crash, then darkness,” he says.

I woke up days later, covered in bandages, leg missing from the knee down, lying in a hotel bed in Laredo. I never saw Frank again.

Frank’s death was never actually confirmed, and this doesn’t sit right with me at all. So, walking back to my car, I tell Luis that I want to go to Miramar, I want to find out what really happened to Frank. But he just laughs. “You got your story,” he says, still laughing. “Ain’t no fucking way I’m sending you to that hell hole.” I drive away feeling dejected that Frank’s story doesn’t have a conclusion.

A few weeks later, just as I’m about to shelve my story about Uncle Frank, I get a phone call. It’s Luis.

After huffing and puffing and reminding me that my dad would definitely not approve of this, Luis gives me an address and tells me to be there before Friday. “Pack very light and don’t tell anybody where you’re going. You understand? Nobody can know. And for the love of God, be careful.” Click.

Looks like I’m going to A la Muerte Vamos after all.

It’s a long road to Miramar. I drive halfway there, but I’m paranoid about being followed so I complete the journey by bus. The address Luis gave me is a small motel on the side of a poorly-lit highway. I check in and settle down for a restless night, my head throbbing with regret. I feel hopelessly alone and rudderless. I’m just about to pack my things and look for the next bus home when there’s a knock at my door. “Eddie?” I can feel my heart pounding in my ears. “It’s Chester. Luis set this up. Let’s go.” I gingerly open the door and see Chester standing there, half-smiling. “Wow, you even look like Frank,” he says. “But you know, without the eyepatch.” He seems pleasant enough in a dystopian, slightly unhinged kind of way. We shake hands and I see that he’s missing an arm. We walk to a pickup truck in the parking lot where I see a handful of heavily armed men. One guard frisks me while another searches my bag and confiscates my camera and phone. What did you expect, Eddie? As they blindfold me and load me into the truck, all I can think of is how bad an idea this might turn out to be. “I know what you’re thinking,” Chester shouts, as if he knows that my heart is absolutely pounding in my ears right now. “Stick with me and you’ll be fine. This is just a formality.” 

The drive is long and disorienting. All I can hear is soccer commentary on the truck’s radio. We finally arrive and, after another security clearance, they remove my blindfold. In front of me is a sprawling scene that looks like George Miller’s vision of Burning Man: fields lined with cars, bikes and prop planes; a sea of misshapen tents, some as big as a bungalow; people everywhere, many of whom are armed to the teeth. It’s a veritable hive of activity. “You wanted Muerte Vamos? You’re getting Muerte Vamos,” says Chester. He turns and mutters something I can’t quite hear to the guards, who then run off towards what looks like a dilapidated resort hotel.

Chester leads me past a large hangar lined with car parts, scrap metal and artillery. Racing teams are arriving in droves. I count at least eight different car models and types, from souped-up Toyotas to miniature monster trucks. “Everyone must register!” Chester shouts to no one in particular. “They can’t bet on you if they don’t know you’re here, and if they don’t know you’re here, you don’t get paid.” We stop at a shed where teams are signing in for the race. Chester grabs a clipboard tethered to a chain: “20 cars!” he says. “Looks like we’ve got ourselves a full house tonight.” Next to the board is a large map of the circuit, which starts and ends in the streets of Miramar but mostly takes place in the rugged outskirts. If – and that’s a strong if – you complete the race, you will have covered 75 miles over 3 laps.

I ask if teams have to sign waivers – you know, in case they die – but Chester just shrugs: “Everyone gets paid to race,” he says. “That’s kind of like a waiver, right? You survive, you have your money. You don’t… well, you knew what you signed up for.” We leave the shed and pass a flickering LED display announcing the pot for today’s winner’s circle: ten grand for third, fifty grand for second, five hundred grand for first. “That’s if there even is a third or second place today,” he says, chuckling.

Where does this money come from? Who’s funding this? “You’d be surprised what people pay for this kind of entertainment,” says Chester. He points up, revealing a network of cameras mounted to walls, balconies and telephone poles. “Some people will pay obscene amounts of money to see this shit. Every win, every crash, every flying body part is captured in HD and sold to the highest bidder.” Just up ahead, I can see footage of a previous race playing on an old TV: two cars collide and burst into flames; a driver leans out his window and fires an RPG; another driver stumbles across the track, riddled with bullets. I look away.

How on earth do they keep this spectacle a secret? There are hundreds of people here, maybe even a thousand. The cameras, the screens, the noise… it doesn’t add up. But these are the questions we’re not supposed to ask. “There are people out there with the means to keep those questions from ever getting asked,” says Chester. “I mean, I’ve been working here for almost 30 years now and I still don’t know everything that’s going on. Sometimes, this entire place will shut down for some mysterious event that nobody’s supposed to talk about. We’re just meant to pretend like it never happens. So unless you’re planning on a guided tour of a body bag, I’d stop asking questions and just watch the show.” Yes sir.

Chester brings me to an abandoned hotel where guards escort us to a mezzanine with a clear but safely-removed view of the starting line. I ask about getting closer to the action, but Chester isn’t having any of it. “Trust me, this is close enough,” he says. I look around and see small crowds of straight-faced suits gathered on balconies nearby. I can hear cocktail waitresses try to take orders over the roar of engines coming to life. Below me, I can just make out the crowds at street level, cheering and jeering as twenty or so drivers emerge like pantomime villains, as their crews put the final touches on their cars.

I see two veiled women dressed in long, black lace spring-loading a harpoon mounted to the hood of a Hearse;

another guy wearing only a bright yellow speedo loading magazines into a side-mounted gatling gun; another guy, dressed in full Samurai armor, ceremoniously unsheathing a Katana and placing in the passenger seat of a Pontiac Firebird. My money’s on Katana Firebird guy.

None of this looks or feels real. I’ve seen this kind of pageantry before in pro wrestling, even ice dancing, but death racing? These people are fine with dying in a fiery car wreck wearing only a bright yellow speedo? I catch myself saying this is fine over and over again in my head. This is fine though, right? I’ve seen a lot of busy, happy people today, and those drivers look like they’re having a blast. I’ve seen a lot of guns today too, though. Guns and surveillance. I feel sick now—though maybe it’s the diesel fuel. Or the 20-odd engines rumbling right below me. The PA system crackles to life and prepares the racers to take their marks. Chester unsheaths a flask of tequila and pours some into my water bottle. “It’s going down!” Chester hollers. “May God have mercy on them all.”

The start alone is an insane blur of action, like a post-apocalyptic Days of Thunder. I remember the Hearse team harpooning a car in front of them and flipping them right on their back. I remember Katana Firebird hanging out of his window, swinging his blade and thrusting it at anything that moved. I remember the smell of fire and the piercing sound of scraping metal. The race lurches towards the outskirts and we all turn our attention to a TV set with a live feed of the desert stretch. Two cars duel on a narrow cliffside road before plummeting into the canyon below, leaving nothing but a smoldering plume of red and black smoke. A handful of cars pile into one another only to be decimated by the mini monster truck and its medieval snowplow. Every blast, every crash, every death sent the scattered crowds into a furor.

On the final lap, I catch a glimpse of two cars approaching, locked in an intense battle. The crowd is foaming at the mouth, screaming and throwing debris onto the track. The stutter of machine gunfire erupts from one car’s back window, sending the other driver into a tailspin. The shooter narrowly avoids the spinning vehicle and crosses the finishing line—only to lose control and crumple into a wall, bursting into flames. There are muted cheers from the balconies nearby, as emergency crews scurry onto the track. Is that screaming I hear? Please don’t let that be screaming. Behind me, a guard curses and hands his cackling colleague a roll of money.

At this point, I don’t know where to look anymore. The scenes at the finish line are too upsetting—the instant replays on the screens above are even worse. All around me I see people celebrating for correctly guessing who would die first. What is this place? Why did I come here?

Chester takes me to the hangar, where the winning driver is celebrating with his team. One driver sits in the corner, dejected, his arm in a sling.

Two drivers arrive on stretchers—another two in body bags.

Tow trucks make their way to the track to clean up the wreckage, as well as a van sporting a crudely drawn red cross on the driver door. “Can you believe your uncle did this for over ten years?” says Chester. “You’re lucky if you survive ten days of this shit.”

Ten years. I can’t even begin to imagine him on that track today, yet he did this for ten fucking years. What kind of toll does that take on a man? I look back to the driver sitting in the corner, staring blankly as a team member stitches a gash on his cheek. Why did you do this, Frank? The driver looks up at me – probably sensing me standing there, mouth agape, staring at him like a child – and I quickly look the other way. Then Chester puts his hand on my shoulder and points me to a pickup truck waiting outside: “Let’s go see Uncle Frank.”

We arrive at an enormous junkyard of wrecked cars—victims of A la Muerte Vamos, surely. We drive to a spot where flood lights hang over a long line of beautifully restored cars. “These are the Ghosts of Miramar,” Chester says. “It’s like the Muerte Vamos hall-of-fame: if you win a race, you live forever right here.” The cars have become altars, overgrown with photos, flowers and other tributes. We stop and unload at a black Chevy Impala sporting a gothic ‘D’ on each door. A gold racing stripe sparkles under the light. “This was your uncle’s car,” says Chester with quiet reverence. “He drove it for almost 10 years.” And that’s when Chester tells me what really happened to Uncle Frank.

Around the time of Luis’ accident, Hector left A la Muerte Vamos to a group of private investors. Frank, meanwhile, just kept on racing. “He raced for years and years,” says Chester. “He won one more championship, I think the race right after Luis left, but it was downhill from there: more crashes, more injuries, more time on the sidelines. But he refused to hang it up.” One year, he was shot 6 times and still managed to finish the race. I guess it wasn’t a studding accident after all.

In the end, it took twelve years to stop Frank from finishing a race. “He was flying, man,” says Chester. “We were all glued to the track. Someone’s rocket connected. The blast was incredible, took hours to put it out. I’ll never forget it.” Chester leans in—under this light, his face is a labyrinth of scars and burns. “I think he wanted to go out like that… glorious death and all that. Now, he lives forever right here.”

I spend some time alone with the car. I don’t quite know what to say or feel…

I never knew Uncle Frank, yet I feel a sense of closure—closure, at least, for Tita, Luis, and my dad.

I pull a few old family photos from my bag and rest them on the dashboard, along with his jacket and glove. The smell of the car’s pristine leather seats is a welcome reprieve from Miramar’s Burning Man funk. I close the door and head back to the tents, where I slip into a fitful, feverish sleep.

When Chester wakes me up, it’s still dark out. The air smells like sulfur. My ears are ringing. I catch a glimpse of a sleepy Miramar—the tents are quiet, the hangar is empty, I can just make out the faint burst of gunfire in the distance. Well good morning to you too, Muerte Vamos. My ride pulls up, I’m promptly blindfolded and, just like that, we leave Miramar. We arrive at what I presume (hope) is my motel and blindly follow someone into what I presume (hope) is my room, where I’m told to sit down and count out loud to 100. I say goodbye to Chester – though I’m not entirely sure he’s even there – and start counting. Long after 100, I stay seated in silence, still blindfolded, Maybe I napped? Maybe I’m just paralyzed by fear.

I sit there for what feels like hours. When I finally remove my blindfold, I’m relieved to find myself back in my motel room. On the bed is my bag, my camera (no batteries or SD card), and my phone (no charger).

There’s a box on the desk. I’m more tired than afraid now, so I open it.

There’s a card inside. I pick it up, my hand trembling:

I hope you found what you were looking for – H.

Underneath the card is a small pouch; I open it and pull out an old leather eyepatch with a golden ‘D’ on it. D for Demonio.

Viva Demonio.