The 51st SCORE Baja 500
Many Say It Was The Toughest Ever!
The Baja 500 this year was incredibly challenging right from the start. Silt bed bottlenecks happen all the time, but not usually at mile 2, and then again at mile 15 of the race. Stuck cars, and pumping adrenaline lead to insane conditions. As anxious racers continue to pile up, desperation can set in, and reason goes out the window. Is that impossible gap an opening, or a trap? Is there solid ground off to the side, or is it a trench, mud pit, or cactus patch? It could be all three. Do you wait in line, or put a gap on the field by blazing a new trail? There is no right answer to that question. After surviving the race car graveyard at the start, competitors still had hundreds of miles of punishing Baja terrain to overcome. Adding to the daunting challenge, and weighing on everyone’s mind, was the fact that they would all be returning through the same sections to get back to the finish. Many got close enough to taste the finish line, only to break, or get stuck with only miles to go.
The Lovell brothers, Brad, and Roger, with their sons Adam, Byam, and Parker, were racing a stock Polaris RZR in the new Pro Stock UTV class. They got stuck in the deep silt at mile 16 on the way out. As they passed the same spot on the way back hours later, their transmission went into neutral, and started making horrible noises. It’s almost as if that spot was haunted. They were able to shift into low range, and creep along, despite the silt. They managed to get their Amsoil Polaris to the finish line after racing for 18 hours. Many were less fortunate as the attrition rate in several classes was 50% or more.
In the turbo class, the final third of the race became a battle for survival. The Murray Brothers were in the lead, with Craig Scanlon, Matt Burroughs, Mark Burnett, Justin Smith, and Wayne Matlock clawing their way to the finish line behind them. Derek Murray managed to maintain first UTV on the road while the others swapped positions back and forth. Murray had to go around a bottleneck, which caused him to miss the VCP (Virtual Check Point). When he came back to make sure he hit it, he rolled his Can Am into a ditch. Matt Burroughs broke, which cost him a podium. “Super bummed for Monster and Can Am,” said Matt, “We broke a front ball joint and had to stop for repairs. We had this one in our grasp.” Mark Burnett lost a hub, and replaced a clutch during the race. He was running 28th at one point. In the final miles he also wound up on his side in a ditch. Locals helped get him back on his wheels so he could salvage a podium finish.
The tight, twisty trails were deeply rutted silt, and off cambered towards the outside edge. Many racers slide off the road on the way back in. Justin Smith had no rear brakes so the technical sections were even more harrowing. He was very fast, so he would reel in the car in front when the course opened up. He would close in on Scanlon who would graciously let him go by. Once the course got twisty, he could see Scanlon’s lights coming towards them. He would repay the courtesy and let them pass. This went on for many miles until Smith saw an opening. Burnett, and Scanlon both drove into an uphill silt bed, but Smith knew a side trail. He got around both of them, and the silt, without missing the VCP. Miles later when the two caught up to him again, they were surprised to see him in front. Eventually Smith broke a rear wheel flange and since it was so remote, it took 2 hours for his crew to reach him to make repairs.
In the end, Murray crossed the line followed by Scanlon, Burnett, and Matlock an hour later. Results were posted that showed that order the next morning. That afternoon, they assessed a 10 minute penalty to the Murray team, which gave Scanlon the win, Burnett in second, and the Murrays in third. “We went home thinking we had won,” said Jason Murray. “We knew we missed some VCP’s; everyone did. At first they were going to pull VCP 4 because of the bottleneck, but they changed their minds. It was still an awesome race. We are here to race, not to complain or argue. We only had 30 miles on our new Can Am X3, but it ran flawlessly all day. The harder it is, the better we like it. Congratulations to Scanlon for putting himself into position to win. He ran a great race. We had a great car with the ability to push hard and stay out front. We are super pumped with our new X3, and are excited for the Baja 1000.”
“If you had to pick one race to win, it would be hard to choose one over the Baja 500; it’s that big of a deal,” said Craig Scanlon. “People see the nice looking car, and the chase trucks, and think it’s easy for us, but it isn’t. This win is as much for Keith Redstrom, and the crew as anyone. We have a loyal group that has been with us for years; during a lot of trials, and tribulations. The whole team was flawless; we were dialed in. We had some trouble with the sway bar links but we knew it going in. We had a scare when we hit a big g-out and the lights went dim. It would have been nearly impossible to get to the finish in the dark. Luckily we had just bumped the switch and turned them off. The key for us was running a consistent pace. The crew knew we were on a pace to win, but they told me we were in 5th so I wouldn’t push too hard, and break. You have to manage the car for the entire race. We were trading spots with Smith, Burroughs, and Burnett, but they all raced us super clean. There are so many fast teams out there; it’s not easy to win.”
The Naturally Aspirated class was more of the same however one racer was clearly dominant. Kaden Wells was very strong, finishing 4th overall UTV. His next closest competitor finished almost 3 hours after he crossed the line. “It was crazy, we were running with the turbo cars,” says Wells. “We had our share of problems. We had 2 flats and broke the radiator. Luckily the weather was cool enough so that we didn’t overheat; we just had to keep moving. We pulled over to let a 6100 truck go by, but he clipped us. It smashed in the bumper, but our gusseted, stock Turbo S arms took the abuse. We also lost a fuel pump; that’s a first for us. We chose good lines all day. We figured we were in the back, but when we asked the crew where we were at mile 260, they told us we were leading. We also lost half an hour sitting in a bottleneck, but we won the Baja 500! Everything else pales in comparison. We finished second at the Baja 1000 last year. We are hoping to get the win this time around.”
Finishing in second place was Kristen Matlock. Her day was incredibly tough, but she never backed off. In fact, she is such a hard core racer that she loves every mile of racing; good or bad. “We ran most of the race in survival mode,” said Kristen. “We were fast off the start. We were running 4th overall. You always know when you are running good because the helicopters are following you. We had 3 of them over us, but then they just disappeared. We changed a lot of parts trying to figure out what our problem was. The car would drop 3000 rpm’s. Our speed would be 18 miles per hour. We were down an hour and 45 minutes to the leader, but we were still moving. Out of the 8 cars in our class, only 4 finished. With 50 miles to go, we figured out the problem, and my RZR ran great to the finish. It was a good thing because the trails were so silty and rutted out. The way they were off camber towards the cliff side made it treacherous. The best way was to pin it around the turns. My thumbs were sore the next day because I was gripping the wheel so tight. I couldn’t believe that we finished second, but I knew it was a tough day for everyone.” Kristen sets a great example for everyone, but at the 500 she had a special addition to her team. 13 year old racer Cadence Cowan and her Dad were down chasing with the team to learn the ropes of desert racing. Cadence could not have a better role model to learn from.
Third place Adrian Orellana ran a really smart race, but it wasn’t without drama. In the early going he took some calculated risks at the bottlenecks, and they all paid off. “One of the good things about running in the Naturally Aspirated class is that by the time we get to the bottlenecks, the turbo cars have found a way around the mess so we don’t lose any time,” says Orellana. “When I got to the first bottleneck the whole class was there bumper to bumper. Kaden, Matlock, Felix, and I were all there. I found my own line through. It was gnarly, but it turned out to be a good move. The first 30 miles were pure survival. By mile 80 we had a little separation, and I was running in second. We started having some issues. The battery was low on juice so we took one out of the prerunner. We had been managing the battery all day, turning stuff on and off to save juice. When I got to the coast I was ready to turn it up because I know that section well. I just pushed too hard and grenaded a belt. It ripped off the coil wire harness. We got going but were down on power because the wire was cut inside the loom. We finally got to the finish, but we were unable to hold onto second place.” Adrian and his crew took everything Baja could dish out and still landed on the podium. They are really pumped for their next race at Vegas to Reno. JT Holmes was the only other N/A competitor to finish.
In the unlimited class, there were 4 entries. Nobody survived to the finish. The Baja 500 is legendary for the challenges it presents. Every bit of Baja terrain is included in the typical course. The start and finish in Estero Beach, instead of downtown Ensenada, added an insane amount of silt, and narrow cliff lined roads to an already impossible task. If you finished the race, it was incredible. If you were one of the many casualties, some of who were out in the first 20 miles, you might not feel the same. In a world where everyone gets a trophy for just showing up, it was refreshing to see some very tough, hard core racing, right from the drop of the flag. The legendary Baja 500 has only grown in stature from the 51st annual race.