— UTV Action’s take on this 50th Annual Score Premier Event —
By Nick Nelson
— Around our house, November is a sacred time of year, but it’s not for the turning of the leaves, the usual fall festivities or even Thanksgiving. Around our place, November means one thing and one thing only—the Baja 1000. It is considered the race by anyone who’s ever been, or even anyone who’s just into off-road desert racing. This year marked the 50th running of the historic Baja 1000 race, and I’d now been steadily chasing it for 17 years.
The “mother of all off-road races” takes place the week before Thanksgiving and either runs a big loop out of Ensenada or the point-to-point granddaddy course from Ensenada to the tip of the Baja Peninsula in La Paz, Baja California Sur. This year would be the latter. ATVs, motorcycles, UTVs, trucks and buggies all have specific classes to compete in, but the real competition is the racecourse itself. You don’t typically go to beat a certain team in Baja; you go to beat the Baja and then see where you end up when it’s all over.
I personally managed and raced an ATV team for 14 years before attempting the race on a UTV. This year I was invited to co-drive with Wes Miller and Jason Luburg in the Pro Turbo class instead of driving myself. This would be my first time in the navigator seat, and I wasn’t sure what to think. A point-to-point race effort of my own would have cost a small fortune; Wes had built a great car, and Jason is a world-class driver/racer, so why not? I was in!
In Baja Racing, the race is only the icing on the cake. A true effort takes a few solid days of pre-running the course and figuring everything out before the big day. The progression of the UTV, or in our specific case the RZR XP 4 Turbo, made pre-running more enjoyable than ever. On an ATV, you are often by yourself, with limited supplies for hundreds of miles. Packing fuel is a big concern, and just getting through the pre-running is often nerve wracking.
In a four-seat RZR Turbo, pre-running is a breeze. The miles literally fly by as the machine works so well on this type of course. A 10-gallon fuel cell gives you a lot more range than a desert tank on an ATV or motorcycle, and you have plenty of room to pack extra fuel, supplies, food, drinks, clothing, etc. Our teams’ plan was for Wes to race and pre-run the first 600 miles, and for Jason and I to cover the last 530 to the finish. Jason would fly out from Ohio, while I prepped the brand-new Dynamix Edition four-seat XP Turbo for pre-running.
The first thing we did was set the car up with a bolt-on CageWerx cage and roof. The cage is way safer if things should go wrong, and a roof is a no-brainer for long days in the sun. We also installed Pro Armor G2 suspension seats and Pro Armor harnesses. Overall, comfort is increased tenfold; the side bolstering and containment keep you from getting tossed around and worn out. Next, we added the Polaris/PCI Comlink RTX intercom. An intercom is key for communication between the driver and occupants. This model also features a low-powered radio with push-to-talk capabilities so you can communicate with the chase truck. We installed a 40-inch Lazer Star light bar up top and two pods on the A-pillars. We actually used the entry-level-price-point PreRunner-series lights, and they worked flawlessly. I also installed a Lowrance GPS because I had it, but we would actually be using the new LeadNav system for course marking and navigation.
The only other real modification to the Dynamix RZR was ultra-tough, 30-inch, Braven Ironside tires and Braven wheels. This would be our first experience with this exact tire, but we have had great experiences with other Pit Bull tires in the past. Out of the box, the wheels looked really nice, but we were a little skeptical about not running a beadlock. We had five of the tires, so we mounted a spare above the bed and went with them anyway. Underneath the spare tire, we installed the Pure Polaris/Ogio hard-pan soft bag for storage. It is a huge bag. We filled it with tools, spare parts, a compressor and cold-weather gear, and it still fit perfectly under the spare.
The most important part of pre-running is to familiarize yourself with the course to know what to expect on race day. On ATVs or bikes, this means multiple passes through your section to memorize it. In a four-wheeled, two-passenger vehicle, you can take your time, inputting notes into the GPS to be read on race day. The LeadNav program/app/software is breakthrough GPS technology that started with the military and made its way to off-road racing.
This downloadable GPS app features live tracking over downloaded map imagery right on your iPad. We ran the latest 10-inch iPad in a Life Proof case, and it completely replaced the need for a GPS. While pre-running, this app allows you to input typed in notes/warnings for every turn, danger, drop off or rock, and it will read it back to you through your intercom on race day as the exact location of each marking approaches. The system is incredible, and its capabilities are improving each and every time we use it. Pre-running the course is slow going when you are making extensive course notes along the way; but, when you are done, you have a serious handle on your section as well as audio and visual reminders for every obstacle or danger on race day.
We started our pre-run 600 miles south of the San Ysidro border crossing. Just getting to that point is an adventure in itself. Sketchy roads, free-range cattle, story telling and searching for spare trailer tires will keep you more than entertained. We started our pre-run in the early morning in San Ignacio. Jason drove while I re-familiarized myself with the LeadNav. The car was flawless, and we found ourselves in Loreto in the early afternoon. We decided to hang in Loreto, calling it an early night, which would make for a much longer push the next day.
Day two, we got up reasonably early and backtracked to re-do the final silt section in Loreto and then took the course up and over the Sierra de la Giganta mountains. The silt sections are incredibly sketchy, with talcum-powder-like soil and zero visibility. We picked a solid line around to avoid it as best we could and headed over the mountain range back to the Pacific Coast. The top of the mountain range is home to the incredible San Javier Mission that dates back to 1701. The Baja 1000 races right past this historic mission like it’s no big deal. We stopped for photos and met up with the Murray brothers in their awesome new Maverick X3 Max pre-runner build. A little bench racing with these guys and we had to get on the road.
Going up and over the Sierra de la Giganta Mountain brings the course through more than 40 water crossings, as the course crisscrosses a stream on both the eastern and Pacific sides of the mountain. We marked each and every water crossing’s depth with either “pin it!” or “watch out; it’s deeper than it looks!” Once over the mountain range, my wife and our buddy Juan, who lives in the adjacent town, met us for fuel and lunch. Meeting great people and families across this amazing country is truly what keeps us coming back.
Our lunch stop was followed by miles upon miles of relentless whoops. Just what you want after a couple of world-class Machaca burritos—75 miles of waist-deep whoops that are lined with cactus and offer no way out. Up until this point, the Dynamix suspension had been so good that we were just hoping our race car would handle close to as well. Whoops like this are a different story. The Dynamix car on “firm” was as good or better than any other stock UTV we’ve driven; but when whoops are this deep there is no replacement for long-travel suspension, fully tuned race-level shocks, and 32-inch tires.
The Dynamix pre-runner was still flawless. We’d done nothing but gas and go for two days, and it was getting dark. My wife fueled us again at the Santa Rita road crossing, which was about RM 1010 of 1130. It was only about 6 p.m., so we kicked on the Lazer Star lights and decided to go for it. The last part of the course was a fun mix of deep whoops, fast fire roads, a couple small silts and some really cool coastline. We arrived in La Paz about 9:30 p.m., a little weathered, but happy to be there and in perfect shape.
Over dinner, we bragged about how great the tires had been, remarking that we hadn’t even had to break out the plug kit. The next morning, we woke up to find the Dynamix sitting on the trailer with a flat front tire. That should teach me not to open my mouth. Upon further investigation, we found a substantial wooden splinter had worked its way through the tough rubber. We dug it out, plugged it right on the trailer and filled it back up with air. Our tire was as good as new and ready for many more miles, as the tread appeared to still be around 80 percent or so.
Our Bomb Squad Racing team was pretty much out of the points, but we were more than ready to win the Baja 1000. Some of the other big players all had the same idea. Marc Burnett’s Can Am team came into the 1000 with a 20-point lead over Schueler’s Jagged X team. Desert Toy’s Corey Sappington was only a point behind Jagged X. The Murray Brothers and Mike Cafro with Black Hills UTV were not too far behind, tied for fourth. It was anybody’s race, and if Burnett broke, quite a few guys had a solid chance at the championship.
This brings us back to racing the Baja more than racing your competition. As luck would have it, Baja would have its way with just about everybody. To start the day off, Marc Burnett’s brand-new car broke a front differential during a final shake down in Ensenada. An hour and a half before the start of the race, they were racing the clock to swap diffs just to make the starting line in time. Rhys Millen would grab the early lead, running up front with the dust advantage for the first half of the race. Burnett suffered a few more minor mechanicals, setting him back a little further, but the Jagged X guys were having a great race with Mitch Guthrie moving them into a solid second-place position behind Rhys Millen for his third of the race.
Mike Cafro and Sheldon Creed driving Max Gordon’s Arcitic Cat were battling for the final podium spot heading south from San Felipe. Meanwhile, the Murrays were involved early on in a huge fire ball/fueling incident that sent a driver to the hospital. Wes Miller and our Bomb Squad RZR were sticking to the plan, running a smart race and slowly working through the pack before tragedy struck at about RM 110 when a tool bag broke, causing a small electrical fire. Our team quickly went to work rewiring everything that was damaged, but the gremlins took this opportunity to climb aboard.
Schueler and the Jagged X team had to win this race for any hope at a championship. Marc Burnett would also have to finish worse than ninth. They knew it was a long-shot, but all they could do was pin it for the win and see where the chips fell. Mitch Guthrie passed Rhys changing a flat about 300 miles into the race, and then Rhys got back by as they were swapping drivers to Matt Parks. Parks would drive the next 300 miles nearly flawlessly without ever seeing Rhys Millen or his bright-yellow Penzoil RZR. Somewhere near El Arco RM 500, the leader broke and was out of the race that he had just dominated for nearly 12 hours.
Jagged X was now out front and Cafro/Kirkpatrick were having a perfect day, trailing in a reasonably close second place. Justin Ehldenburg’s Chapo Racing was hovering in third. At this halfway point, our Bomb Squad car was nearly 150 miles behind the leader’s and had been battling a fueling issue and overheating related to the initial fire. Meanwhile, the Murrays had recovered from their fire and were making a valiant push for the podium. Matlock had also run upfront early on but had been battling mechanical gremlins of his own.
When the car got to us in San Ignacio RM 610, they were 50/50 on whether it was ever going to run well enough to even leave the pit. Our crew dug in like true Pros and did their best to figure out what was going on. They played with the fuel pressure regulator and were able to get it to at least idle. Wes and Donnie had been toggling between pump one and two for the entire race just to keep it running. After a solid hour in the pits, we decided to give it a shot.
Leaving town, the car was dying so bad that we turned around into the pit. Wes assured us that it would clear out if we kept toggling back and forth, so we went for it. After limping it for about 60 miles, Jason and I decided to go the opposite way on the fuel regulator to see if it would improve. Miraculously, it leaned out and started running way better. Unfortunately, leaner is also hotter, and we were already battling a heating issue. Jason and I got to turn it on for a super-intense 300 miles of actual fun racing before overheating and blowing it up 80 miles from the finish line.
For everyone else, the race to the finish was on. With the exception of a flat tire, the Jagged X had a pretty much flawless run to the checkers. Cafro had a pair of A-arm bolts cost them the silver, as Chapo passed them while limping the car to the pits. They fixed the A-arm bolts and were forced to settle for a well-deserved third. Amazingly, the Derek Murray team would salvage a fourth after its massive fire, and Wayne Matock charged it in for fifth.
Marc Burnett knew he needed a ninth, and after conquering multiple issues and mechanical gremlins, he was settling into an eighth- or ninth-place finish. That is, until they decided to set his car on fire while fueling in the last Baja pit. Luckily for all parties, Marc was able to jump out and put out his own fire with his Safecraft fire extinguisher. He claims the thing was absolutely amazing and literally put the fire out inside the fueling tube.
Marc Burnett was able to get out of the fire, salvaging a 10th-place finish. After all was said and done, a 10th place would actually put him in a tie with Jagged X for the championship. The tie-breaker would be their previous win records and then the finish over the Baja 1000. Since Burnett and Schueler each had one win, the next-best finish decided the title. Burnett was second ahead of Schueler at the San Felipe 250, so he is the defending Forced-Induction UTV Pro heading into this season.
SCORE 2017 PRO UTV FINAL POINTS/WINS
Forced-Induction UTV Pros
1. Marc Burnett/C-A 348/1
2. Brandon Schueler/Pol 348/1
3. Cory Sappington/Pol 325
4. Mike Cafro/Pol 309
5. Derek Murray/C-A 306
9. Wayne Matlock/Pol 258/1
10. Justin Lambert/Pol 224/1
1. Don Whittington/Pol 298
2. Kristin Matlock/Pol 273/1
3. JT Holmes/Pol 178/1
4. Paul Champion/Pol 155/1
5. Aldo Salazar/Pol 148
SCORE 2018 UTV/ATV SCHEDULE
1. Apr. 4-8 San Felipe (250), Baja, MX
2. May 30-June 3 Ensenada (Baja 500),
3. Sept. 19-23 Desert Challenge
(Tijuana), Baja, MX
4. Nov. 14-18 Ensenada (Baja 1000),