One of the many things that sets desert racing apart from all other types of motorsports are the unique challenges posed by racing in natural terrain. No matter how much time is spent pre-running the course, chances are that on race day it will be different; and usually not for the better. At the SCORE Baja 400, Round 3 of the four-race 2022 SCORE World Desert Championship held in Ensenada, Baja Mexico, course conditions were even more challenging due to the arrival of Hurricane Kay. Winds of up to 70 miles per hour and 4 to 8 inches of rain battered the Baja peninsula just a week before the event.
Flood waters made many familiar locations unrecognizable. Washes were turned into huge flowing rivers that carried away anything and everything in their way, even roads and bridges. As soon as the storm subsided, people sprang into action to make roads passable and help each other repair their homes. The Baja peninsula is no stranger to harsh weather and Baja culture is based on making things work regardless of the challenges; a philosophy shared by the racers.
After the storm, much of the course was left under water or covered by deep mud. The conditions posed a dilemma for teams preparing to pre-run a course sure to change before the start. Do you pre-run in the mud, or wait until the sun has a chance to bake things for a day or two? Some areas were beyond repair and SCORE made necessary changes. But despite their best efforts, some of the damage could not be avoided; mud pits and water crossings now accompanied the rocks, silt, dust, and ruts normally expected on the course. This year’s 393.82-mile-long route was another masterpiece devised by race director Jose A. Grijalva and featured elevations ranging from sea level to 4,972 feet.
Two physical full-stop checkpoints and 170 virtual checkpoints were set up to keep racers on course. Technical terrain made passing difficult and put pressure on the teams to get everything right. If they wanted to win; no time, or more importantly track position, could be lost due to problems or repairs. Everyone sets out to have a perfect day, but very few achieve one. Most find success quickly and efficiently overcoming any problems as they arise. Even with perfect execution by the team, some predicaments are practically guaranteed to happen. Parts fail, vehicles get stuck, and tires get lacerated by sharp rocks in any desert race.
One racer to defy the odds was overall UTV winner Austin Weiland. Not only did he have a perfect day in terms of flat tires and mechanical issues, but he and his co-driver Justin Wragg perfectly navigated the course with zero penalties after starting 15th off the line.
“Due to the storm, the rain ruts became bigger, but the washes became smoother,” said Austin. “Overall it was a great race. We never got out of the car. Our BFG tires were perfect with no flats, and I felt like we may have deserved at least one. The course was technical and had some tight twisty areas. We pushed a pretty good pace from the start and got to the first physical on the road at Mike’s. I knew AJ Jones and Rodrigo were right there on time with us. Rodrigo kept us honest all the way to the finish. We had to push all day long to stay in front of him on time. We struggled at night after bumping a spec truck early on. The contact messed up our lower lights, and then we hit some mud that covered them in dirt. We couldn’t see too well in the dust coming into the finish. We got held up in the dust through Uruapan and Ojos because of this. We pushed the best we could as safely as possible. We had to sit in the dust of a spec truck to the finish, which held us up, but overall it was a great day and a great result for the entire Can Am team!”
Rodrigo Ampudia was second to Weiland. To say he pushed as hard as possible is an understatement; the man crossed the finish line on three wheels while missing an entire rear hub assembly. Rodrigo was penalized 11 minutes due to a missed VCP (virtual check point). His trailing arm had no bearing, but neither did the penalty in the end. Weiland’s time of 09:30:18.495 was still quicker than Ampudia’s 09:46:34.618 without the penalty. No matter how many wheels stayed attached, Rodrigo never gave up.
“We started in the back and had a good run going until mile 70,” says Rodrigo. “The car started going into limp mode. I shut it off and turned it back on and it fixed itself. We started pushing and worked our way to the front. With about 40 miles to go we lost drive to the driver’s side rear. We were too close on time to even stop to check it. I knew if we stopped we would not get the win or have any chance at the podium; we decided to push to the finish line, and maybe get lucky. We drove with no rear tire for 20 miles. That allowed Austin to gain 5 minutes on us. I love racing the Can AM; they’ve been really good to us. The class is so competitive; there are a lot of good teams with good equipment out there. I’m going to be helping my brothers race the Trophy Truck at the 1000, but I wouldn’t mind teaming up with another UTV team and jumping into a car after the Truck has finished. I really like racing UTV’s; they are super fast and a lot of fun.”
Wes Miller put his Polaris RZR on the podium in third place behind the Can Am’s of Weiland and Ampudia. “We were running up front for 350 miles until we had some issues that slowed us up,” said Miller. “We ran in the top 3 all day. I think a third place will keep us in the points chase. We always race to win but are also looking at a championship.”
The Pro UTV Open class started up front but were overtaken by the Turbo cars about halfway through the race. The lead was swapped back and forth between Mike Pratt, Kristen Matlock and Mike Cafro. Coming down towards the coast after going over the loop behind Mike’s Sky Ranch, Mike Pratt suffered an issue that caused some downtime and cost him the win. Kristen Matlock took a turn up front, but she too had a problem and was removed from contention. The battle came down to Mike Cafro and Craig Scanlon for the win. Both managed to pick up time penalties for missing VCPs. Scanlon got docked 10 minutes; Cafro lost 20 minutes but still prevailed. His years of Baja racing experience came in handy.
“The course was muddy, but it was fun,” said Mike Cafro. “It was challenging, but I enjoy that. We are leading the points, so we didn’t want to do anything stupid. We wanted to stay clean and get to Ojos safely. Then fall into a smooth rhythm. We had some small issues and were surprised Kristen (Matlock) didn’t catch us sooner. We missed 2 VCP’s by literally a couple feet, but it didn’t change the results. We lost some track position when we stopped for a flat tire. We jacked the car up and pulled the wheel off; then the jack started sinking into the ground. We had to put rocks under the car, drop it down, and then reposition the jack. That’s when Wes Miller and Austin Weiland got around us…”
He continued: “The dust was bad, but it could have been much worse. We caught a spec truck up around Mike’s and he jack-rabbited on us. We didn’t want to be stuck behind him all the way down so when he slowed up for the water crossing we pinned it and got around. I usually don’t hit the water at full speed, but it worked out. The closer we got to the finish, the more 10 cars and trucks we caught. It was hard to see. We had to be really careful in the dark because it only takes one rock to end your day. The pace you have to run these days is pretty intense.” Craig Scanlon finished second place, and Kristen Matlock was third.
“It’s a new car; we had a couple issues, but it’s a great start,” said Craig Scanlon. “This is going to be fun for us when we get it dialed. We finished second which means we start second at the 1000. That’s what we came here to do.”
In the Naturally Aspirated class there were only three entries, but they put on a good show. Kaden Wells came away with another win. Joe and Austin Bolton finished second and third. Bradley Millner suffered a DNF. “We lost our clutch, but Austin and the crew were right there,” says Joe Bolton. “We lost about 20 minutes. We are already looking forward to the Baja 1000. We can finish right behind Kaden (Wells) to take the championship, but we’d like to be ahead of him and also take the win.”
With a challenging race behind them, the competitors are focusing 100% on the Baja 1000. Everyone wants to win the iconic race, but championships are also at stake. Those who are not in the points chase are a huge threat with nothing to lose and the ability to push paces beyond reason. Let’s hope we don’t have any more weather events before the race, it’s going to be challenging enough.
PRO UTV OPEN:
-  Mike Cafro – 10:30:47.066
-  Craig Scanlon – 10:57:47.758
-  Kristen Matlock – 11:50:47.282
-  Mike Pratt – 12:30:43.732
PRO UTV FORCED INDUCTION:
-  Austin Weiland – 09:30:18.495
-  Rodrigo Ampudia – 09:46:34.618
-  Wes Miller – 10:01:04.287
-  Matt Burroughs – 10:24:18.838
-  Marc Burnett – 10:32:27.291
PRO UTV NA:
-  Kayden Wells – 10:04:39.542
-  Joe Bolton – 11:22:31.607
PRO STOCK UTV:
-  Randy Emberton – 13:40:18.042
-  Douglas Cornwell – 17:54:42.546