Story By: Mike Ingalsbee
Photos By: HighRev Photo & GetSOME Photo
Desert racing is always tough, that’s what makes it a challenge, but at the SCORE Baja 400, the punishment was at a whole new level. Many of the racers were competing to get a good starting position for the SCORE Baja 1000 (B1K) in November. Top finishers would start up front for the peninsula run that will travel all the way to La Paz. After the race started, the B1K was probably the farthest thing from their minds; the focus switched to survival. Some sections of the course that were run previously during the Baja 500 were chewed up bad. The silt was deep, and so were the ruts. Both were filled with loose rocks. When combined with the twisty trails, dust, challenging light conditions, and race day traffic, it’s a wonder anyone made it to the finish at all.
Experience, and diligent prerunning seemed to make a difference; except for Phil Blurton, but we’ll get to that in a bit. Those drivers who reached the finish line were visibly exhausted, their slurred speech, bloodshot eyes, and dirty faces told the story. It’s very obvious how racing in the States, and racing in Baja differ. Baja is exponentially more difficult, and SCORE makes no excuses for putting their racers through hell. In my opinion, it’s more true to the roots of the sport. It’s supposed to be rough. It’s supposed to break cars. It’s supposed to push the boundaries of human will. The Baja 400 did all of those.
It’s ironic that the focus of many was to start in the front at the B1K because most of the top finishers at the 400 came from the back of the pack. Turbo class winner Austin Weiland started 20th. Second place Phil Blurton went off the line 26th. Third place finisher Justin Lambert was 12th off the line. It was the same in the other classes too. No driver who started first ended up in the same position; not one. Are the racers’ priorities unfounded? We will have to see. The goal is to have clean air, but once the race starts it all goes out the window.
The turbo leaders on the road, Blurton, and Weiland had everyone else behind them, but were dusted out by Trophy Trucks, Class 1’s, 10 cars, and Trophy Truck Spec trucks. As the race was nearing the end, Weiland, with Blurton on his tail, caught and passed a Trophy Truck through Uruapan only to get stuck behind a class 1 car. Luckily for him, Blurton was playing follow the leader too. With all the dust, the setting sun in their eyes, and the narrow, twisty roads, it was nearly impossible to pass.
“We did a lot of prerunning before the race,” said Austin Weiland. “I figured out what sections would be a problem on race day, and found alternative lines around the bad spots. When I got to Uruapan it didn’t matter. There was one line through there. It was so dusty you couldn’t see. I almost had to stop several times because we were heading into the setting sun, and we couldn’t see through the dust. The notes would call out a deep rut, but coming over the blind rises we couldn’t see enough to stay out of them. We got sucked right into them anyways. My car is beat. After the win at Vegas to Reno we replaced the heims, and a couple other things but left the motor and transmission alone. Now it’s coming down to the bare frame before the thousand.”
Phil Blurton seemingly entered the race on a whim. He showed up the day before the start in a brand new car with zero test miles, and did no prerunning. Interestingly, he was one of only a very few that got no penalties. As mentioned before, he started way back in 26th, and somehow got through the entire field, the bottlenecks, and the countless pitfalls on the way. Blurton and Weiland were in a class by themselves, and the only two drivers to finish in 10 hours and change. Third place Justin Lambert crossed the line an hour after Weiland did. For Lambert it must have been a huge relief. The former champion who had a perfect season in 2016 has been struggling in Baja lately. It was a great boost having finished on the podium in such a demanding race.
Pro UTV NA winner Kaden Wells just missed the 10 hour mark; crossing the line in 11 hours, seven minutes. Pro UTV Open winner “El Chapo” Justin Elenburg also ran strong finishing after 11 hours and 30 minutes of racing. In fact, only the top 8 UTV’s that crossed the line, did so in less than 12 hours. The times alone tell you how difficult the race was. Several podium finishes were taken by survivors who managed to limp across the line after hours of struggling.
Kristen Matlock who finishes regularly on the podium finished third in Pro UTV NA, but it wasn’t her typical race. Her crew busted their tails all day to fix a slew of issues during the race. Kristen was impressed with how well they did in adversity compared to their characteristically clockwork performances. If it was this tough on the professional teams, how did the sportsman UTV racers do? Both competitors qualify for the long haul award as winner Chad Gould hails from Kelowna, BC, and runner up Dave Miller is from Miami Beach, FLA. Gould crossed the line in 15:38:00.497. Miller was almost three hours behind with a time of 18:25:48.231. Can you imagine driving home after that?
What was supposed to be a qualifier for many competitors turned out to be an extremely tough ordeal just to finish. Everyone who made it to the checkered flag earned every mile. Although they were beat up, dirty, and in many cases limping along, they all had ear to ear grins, and a sense of accomplishment that many will never experience. Now they can think about the Baja 1000, but what they overcame at the Baja 400 won’t be forgotten for a very long time.