Finding Success at the Baja 1000 Through the Eyes of the Crew.
Story And Photos By: Jason Stilgebouer
Globally known for its grueling unforgiving deserts, the Baja 1000 is one of the most prestigious off-road races and is undoubtedly the longest off-road race in North America. The Baja 1000 is synonymous with adventure and thrill.
However, it is not just the racing of insane off-road trucks or buggies that elicits thrill; that is only one part of racing in Baja.
Often we write the stories about the racer and their adventurous journey to complete the most grueling race of all time, but to be successful in Baja, you can’t do it alone. It is much more than just showing up in a built race car and pushing its limits. Coupled with weeks of planning by the racer, you need a support team you can rely on to get you through to the finish.
The racer is Adrian Orellana and his team is Rancho Racing.
Baja has become a second home to Adrian after spending years racing Volkswagens with his family there since the early ’90s. Since 2015, he has been racing UTVs and has been very successful at it. Having raced every SCORE race in his own RZR, there is one race he has yet to tackle.
That is the legendary Baja 1000.
This was the year he would solo drive the entire passage with three different co-drivers. But this story isn’t about him doing it alone, and how he did during the race, this is the story of what it took for his team to get to the finish.
2021 marks the 53rd year of the Baja 1000, a 898.4-mile loop race starting and ending in Ensenada. Adrian would be racing his Polaris RZR in the Pro naturally aspirated class and would be one of the hundreds of entrants that would battle it out throughout the unforgiving desert. But only half of all entrants will ever see the finish line, the rest falling victim to mechanical breakdowns, crashes, or running over the allotted 40-hour time limit.
Preparation ahead of the race is vital to success. Adrian spent weeks before ensuring everything on his car was 100%, and there would be no weak points on the car. Triple-checking every nut and bolt was torqued to spec; the last thing you would want is losing your race because a bolt was loose and resulted in an accident.
I joined Adrian and his team down in Ensenada just days before the race where I would join his friends, father, and brother who all made up his team, some of them being former race competitors. The familiarity and knowledge of him personally and the race are an invaluable asset. My participation in the race came in the form of joining them in one of the chase trucks throughout the entire race.
Weeks before the race, SCORE opened up the course to prerunning, so competitors can prepare themself for any challenges. Adrian took advantage of this. Prerunning is crucial to racing in Baja. It is as simple as this: the more you know Baja and the course, the faster and more confident you will be racing.
The day before the race, Adrian and the team preran 150 miles of the racecourse, where they found themselves on the beach cresting the beautiful Baja coast. It was apparent that the more we preran, the more focused Adrian would become. There were times all three of us were talking in the car and often would find ourselves silent, focusing on the terrain the faster we went.
As we took a break on the coast to enjoy the fresh, crisp ocean breeze, it became apparent how happy Adrian was to be there. Coming down to race in Baja isn’t cheap, but with his sponsors’ support, he was finally able to make this dream come to a reality, being a Baja 1000 racer, a stark contrast to his day job is being a firefighter in San Diego. Every time he gets an opportunity to race, it is not for the money; it is for his love and passion for it.
Later on that day, we met up with the rest of our team, loaded the race car on the trailer, and started our three-hour journey back to our camp in Ensenada to settle in for the night and prepare the chase trucks for the next day: race day. The chase trucks come equipped with spare tires, gas, parts, food, and water, anything needed to prepare for the worst as anything can go wrong on race day.
At 10 am raceday, the team says their goodbyes to Adrian as he stages at the start. Our game faces were on as Adrian would start his race with his first co-driver, Carl Sosa. Carl is a fellow firefighter that shares the same passion for desert racing as Adrain. After being introduced by a sponsor, they clicked, and one thing led to another where Carl would find himself navigating for Adrian.
As the chase team, we would begin a race of our own. The plan was simple; there were two chase trucks; Adrian’s father, Victor, would lead the chase truck and head to race mile 166 to catch up with them at their first official pit. And eventually have a navigator change at 300 staying on the Pacific side of Baja while we would focus on staying near San Felipe. I was in the other chase truck, and we wouldn’t see Adrian until the late evening. This is when things began to feel serious; both chase trucks were off, as Adrian has started the race, following along as best we could via satellite tracking.
Our first stop would be at race mile 60. This was strictly a visual inspection where we met him on the highway. Adrian would only stop if something were wrong with the car. By this point in the race, he was getting comfortable in the car. A few minutes later, Adrian passed through having made his way through the field and now upfront with the turbo UTV’s. Moving past us at 50mph, he was up in the front, sitting in the third position.
We began our journey through the night and prepared for Adrian’s major pit at the race’s halfway point. Night had fallen and trophy trucks flew by as we set up our pit. With no radio contact, we patiently waited. We noticed a few UTVs started passing us, but no sign of Adrain.
Between Adrian and us lies a mountain range, interfering with all communication. An ominous feel came over the team. What if he had a flat? What if they rolled the car and broke something?
There was nothing we could do but sit and wait for him on the radio, but nothing.
Adrian’s brother Victor made a call to the radio, making several attempts to reach Adrian. “Chase 1 to Race 1,” he asked. “We are at race mile 300, on the right side, waiting for you.” Silence still. After many failed attempts, finally, we heard him on the radio, informing us that they were ok. As they rolled into the pit; everyone got to work. Each person on the team had an important job, such as changing a belt, or fueling the car, or completing a visual inspection.
Adrian had a glazed look on his face that was set with exhaustion and focus. He was now in second place, and he knew he had a long race ahead of him, and he was only halfway through it. Carl was out of the co-driver seat, and Manny Viena was settling into the car with Adrian.
Manny is a fabricator and UTV mechanic who helps Adrian periodically prepping the RZR for races and pitting at every race. What started as just a mechanic and fabricator led him to jump in the car alongside Adrain at races.
The team noticed the car’s damage and found out they had rolled the RZR; despite this, the car looked good. They gave them a final once over and they were back in the race. Our adrenaline was high – after all, we were racing too. Once they were back into the race, our adrenaline wore off, as we went back to chasing and tracking them online.
It was 3am by the time we arrived at the next pit. Exhaustion had set in for everyone. We hadn’t slept since we woke the morning of the race day. Sitting on the side of the road waiting for Adrain, we were hours ahead of schedule. “Sleep when you can,” the team often said; “you never know when you will get the opportunity, and you will need it.” We all tried to get some sleep as this was one of the few opportunities to do so. I opted for the tailgate of the truck to make my attempt at sleep, or as much sleep as one could get with Trophy Trucks driving just six feet from you on the road.
Adrian arrived with no issues and decided to keep Manny in the car until the next pit, RM 605 – he thought they had a great rhythm going well together. They did an inspection, fueled them up, and off they went.
Russell Porter was the third and final navigator who was scheduled to get into the race car with Adrian. He has been coming down to Baja for years with Adrian; whether it be helping him chase or even hopping in the passenger seat, the friendship that formed between them from racing is unparalleled. Now it was his time to jump in the car. Russ became calm and focused. Suited up with the helmet on and ready to go, staring into the dark course waiting for his ride to arrive. It is his job to keep Adrian concentrating on what is essential at this point: finishing the race.
At mile 605, Manny hopped out of the race car, and Russell got in so they could finish the race. It was apparent that Adrian was exhausted. He was in disbelief that the sun was up. He already raced more than the length of the Baja 500. It was crunch time. Not only did Adrian have to focus, the team had to focus. As a collective, we had been up for more than 24 hours at this point, our bodies were sleep-deprived, and there is no way we can operate at 100%. But, when Adrian arrives at the pit you forget all about that. You remember why you are there. It is the spirit of Baja that keeps you going. The adrenaline is rushing through your body, every second counts, you need to do your job as perfectly as you can.
Seeing him leave the final pit felt like a weight has been lifted off the team’s shoulders. Knowing you have done everything you can possibly do to help get that car across that finish line is a small victory of its own. After months of planning, hundreds of miles logged in Mexico, studying the course as much as possible, it all comes down to this; bringing the RZR across the finish line.
Adrian and Russell would finish the Baja 1000 with a final time of 26 hours and 35 minutes, finishing second in the naturally aspirated Pro UTV class and placing third overall. Adrian drove 898.4 miles without ever leaving the driver’s seat once. It took bravery, skill, luck, and his team to complete it. Because it is not just the race car and driver that will get you across the finish line, it is also the team that helped get you there.
When you are chasing the longest off-road race in North America, it’s just that – long, and it becomes a game of hurry up and wait. The team is an important component in racing Baja as a well-oiled machine. A machine that can finish. A machine that cannot be raced alone.