2018 Baja 500 Race Report
We came into this year’s 50th anniversary of the Baja 500 with high expectations. After winning numerous races and championships in Baja on a quad, its been extremely frustrating to have not won a race yet in a UTV. This year has been especially challenging after being taken out of the Mint 400 while running strong by a broken alternator pulley and then the San Felipe 250 with overheating issues and finally a broken transmission.
I felt like I had to have a strong showing at the Baja 500 to prove to people that we have a competitive program and the ability to compete at a high level. Leading up to the race we did a ton of testing and I felt like the car was dialed and we were ready to go. The car worked flawlessly for over 300 miles of R & D and I was confident that we had all of our bugs worked out.
After racing in Baja for 25 years, I know most of the course like the back of my hand. But I still like to come down and pre-run and take extensive notes to make sure that we are prepared to the fullest and set ourselves up to have the biggest advantage possible. In order to try and win the race, we came down the week before and pre-ran the entire course. I think we ended up with over 1500 notes in our LeadNav GPS. Thursday we took the car out and did a 50 mile shakedown on it, and it worked flawlessly. We did our homework, had good lines, knew the course, and I felt extremely confident that we were properly prepared to make a strong run.
On race day, I like to drive the race car to the start in order to put a heat cycle in everything and do one final check on the car. For this race, we got up, started the car, and headed to the starting line. We were about 10 miles away and halfway there the car started to overheat. After all of the testing we had done I was baffled at how this could be happening again right before the race. We unplugged all of the go pros and the voice recorder, but we couldn’t unplug the Stella tracker as that’s required for scoring. Those were the only things that hadn’t been in the car when we tested. We pulled over, shut the car off, and turned it back on and it seemed to reset it and our temps came back down. So we started the race with the plan to shut the batteries on and off, on the fly, if we had an overheating issue.
We were the 14th Pro UTV Forced Induction off the line. There were 37 entries in our class and the field was stacked. There were fast drivers starting before and after us so I knew there would be a fast pace. I went into the race with the goal of getting the car to RM 370 in one piece and seeing how things played out from there. The car starting directly in front of us was late getting to the start and missed his position which gave me a one minute gap to the next car ahead of me. I knew this would give me a little advantage because I would have clean air for a little longer than the other cars in my class.
Once off the line, I held a fast but controlled pace and we quickly started catching other cars. Coming into Ojos Negros, the car over heated a few times but we were able to bring the temps back down by cycling the batteries. We had already passed a few UTVs when we hit the speed zone. On the pavement section, while in the speed zone, my co-driver and I were going over the overheating issue and looking at our gauges when to my surprise Justin Lambert passed me. I debated saying screw it and passing him back. But didn’t want to get penalized for speeding and figured since he had started a few minutes behind me, he must have been setting a pretty good pace. But once we hit the dirt again I was able to tuck back in behind him and was being held back, so I started going for a pass. Just as he pulled to the side to let us by on a wide open road, we started to over heat so I didn’t pass him and cycled the batteries again. We quickly caught back up and I was looking to make a pass, when we got into some ridiculously deep silt sections. It was scattered with carnage from other racers all over the course. We picked our way through the blinding dust on Lamberts bumper hoping not to run into any stuck cars. Finally, around RM 40 we came to a bottleneck, Lambert went right into a dead end and I shot left and was able to get back around.
At this point, I believe we were about fifth in class physically on the course, with clean air I was able to put my head down and start cranking out some miles at a good pace. We reeled in and passed Marc Burnett and a couple other UTVs. Coming into K77 our chase crew radio’d us that we were now physically third in class, six minutes behind the leader. I knew we had to be close to first in adjusted time. From there to the goat trail we had great notes and my co-driver did an excellent job calling things out and I felt that we were setting a very good pace. About half way to the Goat Trail we caught and passed the 2912 RZR of Tony Riggs, putting us into 2nd physically on the course. After coming down the Goat Trail we radio’d our crew, the car was good and running flawlessly. We were having to cycle the batteries less and it seemed like the over heating issue was starting to go away. They informed us they were right behind the leader in the speed zone 4 kilometers ahead of us and that we were less than 4 minutes down. Cody Rahders was leading, with us 2nd, and Lambert in 3rd physically. On adjusted time Lambert was 1st by about 20 seconds, followed by us, and then Rahders 4 minutes back. We had made over two minutes on Rahders in the last 50 miles so I knew we were reeling him in.
We had a planned fuel stop at BFG Pit 1, RM 118. Our fuel gauge had been acting up and we weren’t getting accurate readings. My heart sank as I felt the car start to sputter at RM 114. We swapped to our backup fuel pump thinking we were running out of fuel but only made it about a quarter mile more before the motor died and we had to pull off the side of the highway. We radio’d our chase crew and told them we were down and to get us fuel ASAP. We have a 27 gallon fuel cell so it didn’t make any sense how we could be out of fuel in only 115 miles. When our crew got to us, they topped the car off with fuel and it only took 19 gallons. So we were puzzled how we could’ve run out with 8 gallons still in the tank. Meanwhile, a whole pack of UTVs went by while we were sitting there for what seemed like an eternity. But I knew it was going to be a long tough race and most people would have some issue. Hopefully, if this was our only problem we could overcome it. Once we were going again I think we were about 10th - 12th in class, so I knew I had my work cut out for me to catch back up to the leaders.
Coming into the San Felipe section we were able to quickly close on a few other cars and got by Riggs, Alex Nicholas, and Phil Blurton. The suspension on our car was working great, I caught Wayne Matlock on a whooped out pole line road and was able to pass him. I think we had passed about six UTVs and moved back to 4th overall physically and I think 2nd on adjusted time, when I noticed we had a flat rear tire around RM 165. We pulled over, my co-driver did a great job changing it quickly. We lost a few spots but were up and going fast. Because of our fuel issues we changed our fueling strategy and would now top off the car every time we saw our chase crew. We even added a fuel stop on the road crossing on HWY 3 at RM 170. While fueling the car and swapping out for a fresh spare; Blurton, Jacob Carver and Branden Sims went by. We got going and were quickly able to run down and pass Sims and Carver. We put our heads down and were clicking off more miles. Our chase crew radio’d and told us we were 10 minutes behind the leader. We also caught up and passed Blurton. We were now 4th physically behind Murray, Matlock, and Lambert and back in the hunt for the overall lead on adjusted time.
Around RM 210 the car started to sputter again but we knew we weren’t out of fuel. So we switched to our back up fuel pump and it started running ok. After about 10 miles it started to act up again, so we pulled over to take a look at what was going on. While inspecting the car we noticed the right rear inner CV had a torn boot and was likely going to break. So, we changed an axle and then continued on. About five miles from Borrego, the car would barely run so we limped it into our pit there. We pulled a panel and checked the fuel filters and pumps and everything looked fine. We decided to try and limp it to BFG Pit 2 where the rest of our crew was and try to fix everything there. We only made it about five miles until the car died and we were dead in the water. We sat there for quite some time trying to figure out what was going on.
Finally, one of our crew had the idea to switch the lines on the pumps in case there was an issue with one of the pickups. To my surprise after swapping the lines both pumps started working again. So we took off and headed towards San Matias. The car worked great. So when we got to BFG Pit 2, we knew the next section was 100 miles of an extremely tight and technical course that would make a retrieval very tough. I wanted to be confident that the car could make it. We felt like it could, so we set off into the night.
The next section was fast all the way to Mike’s Sky Ranch, but then became very technical all the way until Hwy 1. There were numerous bottlenecks at silty uphills. The problem was, because of our down time there were now a lot of slower 2 wheel drive vehicles ahead of us. They were having a difficult time making it around the course including the bottlenecks. We would pull up and everyone was just sitting around waiting for it to clear. I would have my co-driver hop out and spot a line around for me. With the extra width, low center of gravity, and 4 wheel drive it is amazing what my race RZR can go through. Much to the surprise of all the cars stopped waiting, we went right around all of them and continued on, not even loosing much time. At the last bottleneck when my co-driver was getting back in, he noticed a rattle coming from the rear end. After investigating the sound, he found that one of the bolts holding our external alternator on had sheared and the pulley was grinding through the aluminum guard. We were at RM 320 and didn’t have a spare bolt. So he safety wired it as best he could and we continued on.
Somewhat to my surprise, everything held and we made it to our crew on the coast. We continued on from there, now starting to be concerned with the 22 hour time limit to finish. At the pace we were going, I figured we would make it with about 2 hours to spare. We worked our way up the coast passing a few cars and UTV’s. We cleared Erendira and were on our way to Santo Tomas when we started getting a low volt warning. Our volts had now dropped below 12 and I knew we weren’t going to make it much further. Luckily, we got to our crew in Santo Tomas and put a new belt on and re-safety wired the alternator. The volts came back up a little and we continued on the final stretch.
Things went fairly smoothly from there and we crossed the finish line in 20:45, making it by a little over an hour before the deadline. It was satisfying to finish after the things we had to overcome and I am proud of our team for sticking with it through a very long night. It is not the position we wanted, but we didn’t give up and showed that we will continue to fight. We also showed that we have the ability to run with the top teams and we were battling for the lead the majority of first 220 miles of the race. Even when we had some small issues in the beginning and lost some positions, we immediately moved back to the front of the pack. Our RZR works incredibly well and I know our hard work testing and developing is going to pay off.
I strongly believe that we have the best products in the industry on our car and it is unreal to drive. I want to thank all of my sponsors and crew. I couldn’t do this without you and I truly appreciate your support!