Nobody really knew what to expect when Best in the Desert announced they were going to run the course in the opposite direction than usual at the season opening 2022 Shock Therapy Parker 250 presented by BlueWater Resort Hotel & Casino in Parker, Arizona. Typically that means it will be super rough, but it turned out to be blazing fast instead. Those who play in the big sand dunes know that most of the time a dune is rounded on one side, and a vertical drop on the other. Well, the same is true for desert race courses. The braking bumps get rounded on one side, and vertical on the opposite. When you run backwards, the bumps will have a square edge to them which delivers a pounding. It’s like hitting a curb instead of a speed bump. It was still rough with plenty of rocks, but it wasn’t as bad as expected. It seems Mother Nature had sculpted the course with wind and rain, like she does. It also meant the deep sand on the back side of the course was packed down instead of being loose, and that makes a big difference in the top speeds possible.
The first chance racers had to strut their stuff was during qualifying on Thursday. Cayden MacCachren took the top spot driving Seth Quintero’s Red Bull car. Seth is in Saudi Arabia for the Dakar Rally where he has been capturing several stage wins, and representing the United States well. Second place qualifier Bruce Binnquist was followed by Phil Blurton who was third fastest. It’s a huge advantage to start up front in clean air, as we would see on race day.
Friday morning was contingency for the youth classes that would race later in the day. They had a full schedule from noon to 5:45 pm. Classes for the young racers included 170 production, 170 Modified, 250 Modified, 570 Production, 570 Modified, 1000 Production, and 800 Modified. It’s really entertaining to watch the next generation of racers begin their careers. It wasn’t that long ago when Seth Quintero was racing in the youth classes and look at him now; dominating on the world stage.
The Pro UTV classes would not have to be in the staging lanes until 12:15 pm on Saturday. The anticipation was running high as everyone was beginning a new year with a clean slate. It was make or break time, and unfortunately some would break. Right from the start the pace went right to 110%. The pack up front contained Phil Blurton, Cayden MacCachren, Mitch Guthrie, Justin Smith, Mike Deley, and PJ Jones. Blurton took the lead and put a gap on the rest of the field. Watching the tracker, his lead was over 5 miles on the rest of the field. Blurton out front in clean air and no traffic was bad news to the rest of the field. Hoping for him to break, or make a mistake is usually a pipe dream.
Cayden MacCachren was the first to suffer problems. His exhaust came apart and melted some wiring in the engine bay. He made it about halfway through lap one. Then Mitch Guthrie came to a stop in the wash alongside Shea Road. Bad luck for both, but nothing compared to the fate of Justin Smith. He was running 90 miles-per-hour in second place when a cow darted in front of him leaving no time for anything except an Oh S***! before contact. The collision sent them tumbling through the desert. Luckily he and his co-driver, Jason, were ok.
“We were sitting in second place on time and thinking of a steak dinner when it presented itself to us,” he posted on social media after the crash. “We lost a belt on the first lap trying to stay with Phil. We didn’t have power steering on lap two so that slowed us a little. We thought we were finally able to get a strong finish. The crash doesn’t break us, we are more determined now than ever. We are in it for the long haul. We will probably save the car, and put a new front and rear end on it. The cage held up well. After the crash we found the parts from our AGM jack so we duct taped it together and used it to get us off our side, and back onto the wheels. We were in a remote part of the course so our crew could not get to us. We were going to drive it out when BITD showed up to tow us. We had three cameras going; it was the first thing my video guy Josh did. He put the video together and posted it while we were still in the desert.”
While others struggled, Blurton was out front setting a punishing pace. “It was an awesome day of racing,” said Phil. “Our Can-Am was flying. The track was by far the fastest we have ever raced. It feels great to start this season off with a win.” Phil and co-driver Beau Judge only stopped for fuel all day, but had to make a third stop because they were using so much fuel running wide open all day.
Second overall was Vito Ranuio. He lost a belt that wrapped around his clutch cover, but co-driver Mike Whitaker made a quick change. The three or four minutes of downtime made a difference. Mike Deley finished third overall, and took the Unlimited class win. “That was the fastest race I’ve ever done,” said Mike. “It was a smooth race; we tried to save the car as much as possible. We had a lot of bad luck last year, but I think we have it figured out now. I liked starting up front in a bunch of fast cars. We qualified mellow because we didn’t want to hurt the car. We could go faster if we could manage the belt temps better. Our crew is really small so we only had one pit, and didn’t know where we were running all day. We were right behind Justin when he hit the cow. It was blocking the course. They gave us the thumbs up so we kept racing.”
The racers out front all day may have taken the spotlight, but third place in the Turbo class, and fourth place overall Dustin Jones was on fire. He had problems during qualifying that dropped him all the way back to 69th place. With the high speeds up front, and all the dust he had to eat, his podium finish was downright amazing. “We could tell by the looks on the faces of the other teams when we pulled into the pits after lap one that nobody expected us to be there,” said Jones. “We blew a pipe off the turbo intercooler during qualifying so we had to watch everyone go around us.”
During the race he and his co-driver Dustin Henderson would get the chance to return the favor. “It was very stressful in the dust,” Jones continued. “I just had to trust Dustin’s calls on what was ahead. He makes the call, and I can picture what’s coming in my head. We would hit push to pass, and lay on the horn. We’ve won Parker twice so I know the area well. We decided we were either going to go for the win, or tear the car up. It’s the first race; you have to do good if you want any chance at taking the championship.”
Also on the podium were Jim Beaver, and Dan Fisher; second and third in the Unlimited class behind Deley. Just off the podium in the turbo class but a frontrunner during the race was veteran PJ Jones. Jones has raced all kinds of cars on dirt and pavement. “We popped a belt which cost us 6 or 7 minutes.” PJ said. “We were running out of gas at the end. We need to find some more top end. We were running 91, but I think Blurton was over 100. It was a fast course; a lot of fun. We had no flats on our Tensor tires.”
First time winner in the Naturally Aspirated class was Mikey Sandoval. With backing from Racecousa, Yokohama, Vision Wheels, and others, the 21-year-old shows a lot of promise. He works at Racecousa with Jamie Campbell learning fabrication, and is coming off a championship in District 38 racing. “We qualified fifth. My goal was to stay smooth and make no mistakes,” said Sandoval. “It was fast, and we had a perfect day. I’m very happy with my Honda. It’s mostly stock. We want to prove what a good platform it is. I want to thank Raceco for the opportunity to drive their car. Our goal is to go for the championship.”
The first race of the year typically sets the tone for the season. I’m not sure if they could fit a bigger target on Phil Blurton’s back, but I know everyone is even more determined to beat him. Dustin Jones is always in the mix, and his performance in Parker was startling to say the least. Is Jim Beaver going to have a breakout year, or will it be Mike Deley? One thing is for certain, it looks like a great season of Best in the Desert racing is on the way.