The 2016 SCORE Baja 500 will forever go down as one of the most brutal, tragic and hard fought Baja 500’s of all time. Every year we hear racers claim that it was the toughest course, but this year the course itself was only part of what made the 2016 running the most brutal of all-time.
The race weekend kicked off just like every Baja does, with festivities and celebration. Thursday night, Monster Energy hosted the first major party held at the start / finish line area. Hundreds gathered to listen to music and see some of their favorite Monster Energy athletes. Everything lead up to Friday’s full day of tech and contingency. While most would agree that the BITD Mint 400 contingency now rivals Baja in terms of size and attendance, no one can argue that contingency at the Baja 500 and 1000 are still the biggest and most festive events in all of motorsports. Its somewhat of a national holiday with tens of thousands of locals packing downtown Ensenada to see the most exciting display of vehicles in all of off-road racing. The cultural impact alone is what makes this day long parade so much fun. Its just as much about the food, music and location as it is the race and vehicles. Fans and racers alike spend their entire day funneling through this gauntlet of spectators, vendors and race vehicles all giving off a Mardi Gras type vibe as racers work to get their machines to the end of the line where tech officials wait to give each race vehicles its final stamp of approval. The day wraps with a drivers meeting and the now anticipated Monster Energy street party hosted by Papas & Beer. The party rages well into the night as teams and racers head to their safe havens to get rest in preparation for Saturday mornings race.
If you are riding a bike or ATV then your morning starts early on Saturday with the first bike leaving the line at dawn. SCORE implemented a change in the start order a few years back to provide bikes and ATVs a larger head start to help in preventing the bigger four wheel vehicles in catching them. This was a change to improve safety, something SCORE has dedicated too in all areas of the race. Saturday’s race would see over 220 teams take the green flag in Ensenada before blasting out onto the 477 mile course which led racers from the Pacific Coast to San Felipe and back. A heat wave hit the Baja peninsula the week of the race and racers were warned that triple digit temps would be part of this years event. While most of the competitors would tell you they were expecting the heat, none I think were fully prepared for the soaring temps that Baja would thrust upon them. Nevertheless, heat and brutal conditions are nothing new, however no one was prepared for what would happen before most would even leave the start line.
After a brief delay at the start-line, the first trophy truck would rocket off just after 10am PST. Robby Gordon in the #77 truck would leave the start and send the local crowd into a frenzy. There is something about seeing that first trophy truck slide through the first turn with the engine running at full song that gives you the chills. Locals screamed with approval as Robby sent his truck into the Ensenada wash. He was soon followed by other top qualifiers like Bryce Menzies, Rob MaCachren, and Andy McMillin. As fans jockeyed for their spectating positions all throughout the downtown start area trucks continued to pounce off the start-line. What happened next none of us were prepared for.
Trophy Truck 75 piloted by relative unknown Todd Pederson shot off the line and like everyone before was headed into turn three of the start which takes racers off of the blacktop and onto dirt for the first time which then leads them down the entrance into the infamous Ensenada wash. As TT75 slowed to make this right hand turn, he slowly missed the corner and began to descend down the side of the entrance which is formed of dirt. He tried to correct his mistake by hitting the throttle but the angle of the slope and the size of his truck forced him down the embankment and sent his massive truck directly into a small group of spectators. What happened next is something that will never be erased from the minds of those who witnessed this incident. What should have been a simple mistake resulting in a stuck truck at worst turned into a 28 year old mother and her 8 year old son being ran over, from there chaos ensued. As the truck came to a hard rest stuck in the marsh of the wash, samaritans from all sides of the course rushed to pull the 8 year old boy aside and help calm the visibly shaken mother. The boys father desperately began to perform CPR as others began to slow the next truck coming towards the same corner.
The moments that followed were some of the saddest I have ever witnessed at any motorsports event. The mother who had a severe leg injury began to shout as she watched her husband and others fight to save their sons life. Officials began to set a perimeter and the race came to a halt. The next hour would be filled with cries, shock and confusion as to what the next step for the race would be. But for those there the only thing on our minds was whether or not that young life would be spared. As the ambulance left with the boy, the mother was carried through the crowd to another waiting vehicle to also transport her. Roger Norman, the owner of SCORE was on the scene and personally escorted the officials who carried the injured woman. While local police worked on their investigation the truck was towed out of its location and then slowly driven away by another official or team member. The driver and co-driver were kept on the scene until the area was cleared. By then the race had been delayed for well beyond an hour.
The news of the accident flooded the rest of the teams waiting in line for their chance at taking on this years race. SCORE worked feverishly to get the situation remedied and get the race back underway. The race resumed but many racers and spectators clearly had the wind removed from their sails. We spoke to numerous racers who after the event said that they lost all excitement before even leaving the start line after hearing what had happened. For many of us who were there to spectate and cover the event we too had lost the joy of being at the Baja. As I headed through town and onto HWY3 to make my way out to the race course I couldn’t help but dwell on the incident. Conversation amongst those of us in the truck was centered around how that happened, why it happened and how it should have been and could have been prevented. What makes Baja great is the adventure, the danger, and the unknown. Racing in the United States was greatly impacted by the infamous California 200 MDR event years ago when individuals who were standing in a known sketchy location were killed by a competing vehicle who lost control. The blame game took precedence over all things and fingers were pointed in all directions. Ultimately most will tell you that people have to take responsibility for themselves, spectators assume responsibility when they make a decision to stand next to an active race course and organizers should not be held accountable for every single person spread around an off-road race course. I tend to agree to a degree, that we all know the dangers of this sport. We all know that at any moment a parts failure or lack of judgement from the driver could cause that massive steel vehicle to lose control. But what makes this situation unique from other vehicle vs. spectator incidents is the proximity to which this accident happened to the start/finish line of the course. This accident took place less than a mile from the start in an area that is known for being a suspect spot and in an area that has seen numerous vehicles make the same mistake that TT75 made this year. Yet there was no one there to keep those individuals from walking, standing and spectating in that location.
Now, many will revert back to the argument of “well they should have known that was a bad spot to be” and yes, I do agree however that argument went out the window the minute I found out that the family here were not avid race fans but rather American citizens who were in town for other reasons. The town of Ensenada is frequented by tourists from all over and cruise ships dock minutes away from where the race is taking place. The reality is I do not think these particular spectators who were injured fully understood that where they were standing was a dangerous location. Fortunately for the others in that same location, they were able to run and dive out of the way and were spared. My point is, this situation should have been avoided. There is no reason those people should have been allowed to cross on that side of the wash, they should not have been able to be standing there and there should have been procedures in place to ensure that when this corner was blown, because it was bound to happen as proven time and time again in this spot, that no one would be down there to be in harms way. The blame will be shared by the parents who stood in that spot, the driver who ran out of talent 3 turns into a 477 mile race, and the authorities who should have the foresight to know that this particular spot at the very entrance to the first dirt of the race is a dangerous location and no one should be on the outside of that corner.
It would be later announced that the 8 year old boy was pronounced dead at the local hospital. The mother is stable but suffered traumatic leg injuries as well as head injuries. The father is a youth pastor at a local Southern California Christian church and he and his wife and son were in Baja working at a local orphanage we were later told. Why they came to the race I am unsure of, but nevertheless their lives were forever changed in a blink of an eye. The co-driver of TT75 was released at the scene and the driver was taken by officials. We are unaware of what has taken place since for him. In Mexico the laws are very different and while this was purely a racing incident the local authorities from what we are told still treat it like any other traffic accident. We are unaware of the process, how long the race vehicle is impounded for and how much this will cost the driver both financially and time-wise. Racers know the danger of spectators and locals on the race course and are prepared for large crowds all over the course throughout Baja, that is part of what makes this event so exciting. But should racers really be concerned with hitting and killing spectators less than a mile off the start where there is ample man-power and resources to prevent such tragedy? I can tell you, if I am racing Baja, I will enter that corner and many more near that start area with added caution and concern not just for others safety but for my own. In addition, let this be a lesson to all competitors to understand your rights and the procedures should this happen to you. This was not the first nor last time it will happen, are you prepared?
With the race back underway the lead trophy trucks benefitted from the delay and were able to put a large gap between them and the rest of the field. By the time UTVs left the start line the desert temperatures would sore well beyond 110 degrees in many parts. While UTVs raced out of town they would soon be slowed by yet another turn of events, this however would be directly related to other vehicles and the course itself. Less than 30 miles into the race a Spec TT class racer would stick his truck on a very steep and silty dirt hill climb. This resulted in a massive bottle neck preventing racers from once again getting into their race groove. For many this bottleneck caused racers to be delayed upwards of two hours as they waited for vehicles to make the climb one at a time up this tricky section. Frustration set in for many as they tried to navigate around the line of race vehicles and make other lines up the hill with little luck. This incident has furthered the post race discussion and frustration for many involved. Its easy to say that this is just a part of the race but this pile up 30 miles into the race cost many who were stuck valuable time in catching those who were able to squirt through. In the end everyone got through and were able to finally settle into a long term race groove and that would lead them well into the night.
As we chased the race towards San Felipe we would fall victim to the limited data and cell coverage that still plagues much of the Baja peninsula. We have all grown very spoiled in the realm of communication but in this part of Baja you have to know that your coms are going to fall off. We relied heavily on our PCI Race Radios and the always crucial Weatherman radio channel to keep us informed. It would be during our stint waiting on race vehicles that we would hear more code-red emergencies radioed in and it would be confirmed later that 2 motorcycle racers would also lose their lives in this years wild Baja 500 race. Crashing is always part of Baja, riding a motorcycle or quad increases your chances of potentially fatal injuries due to the lack of protection as you race across the always dangerous Baja terrain. But it was the heat that would claim the life of at least one of these riders and would also take numerous racers out of the race. Heat stroke and heat exhaustion both played a roll in the race for everyone competing. Even the worlds best athletes can fall to dehydration and symptoms of heat stroke. Top trophy truck racer BJ Baldwin was just one of the many who had to be relieved and attended too by medical personnel due to the heat. Hearing the Weatherman coordinate medical situations further added to the erie feeling that this race had surrounding it. After spending hours in the 110 degree temps around RM 325 we decided to pack it in and head back towards Ensenada where we would try to track the race via tracking services and with reliable cellular data. We knew that due to the delays we would never see the UTVs in day light at this location and we were right.
What took place between the UTV teams will be left up to their own race reports and stories. It seemed as if this race put us back in time as it pertained to coverage and updates. Social media and text traffic was unusually quiet but it wasn’t surprising considering the race course design which kept racers and their chase teams who provide most of the intel in the cellular black zone known as HWY3. We would collect patchy intel throughout the night but were left with no images and no real story lines to cling too. But after 12 hours and 48 minutes of brutal race competition Baja veteran and factory Polaris RZR driver Wayne Matlock in his #2971 Terrabit Racing / Jimco Polaris RZR XP Turbo would take home the big win. Finishing ten minutes behind him was Polaris RZR teammate Justin Lambert in the #2918 Cognito Motorsports Polaris RZR XP 1000. Rounding out the Pro UTV FI podium was Can-Am X Team driver Cory Sappington in the #2904 Dezert Toyz Can-Am Maverick Turbo who would cross the line just over an hour after Lambert. It should be noted that Justin Lambert raced up a class and took on the FI (forced induction) class with his naturally aspirated RZR 1000 proving again that its not all about horsepower when taking on the extreme Baja desert terrain.
Finishing first in the Pro UTV class was Alonso Lopez in his#1949 GlazzKraft built Polaris RZR. Lopez, a Baja native, has worked hard to compete for a Baja 500 win in the UTV class so to see him do well was very exciting for those of us who call Alonso a friend. They would complete the 477 mile course in 15 hours and 11 minutes in their brand new machine. Behind them was the#1983 of John Estrada and Justin Quinn in the #1983 Polaris RZR. Rounding out the Pro UTV podium was the #1954 Terrabit Racing / Jimco Polaris RZR of Kristen Matlock. Kristen who is wife to Wayne Matlock, has been on a terror in her first season as a UTV racer. The husband and wife racers have taken the class by storm in 2016 and she has raised the bar for women competitors in the class.
While the 2016 Baja 500 will be shadowed by the lives lost it should not diminish the accomplishments of those who competed, finished, and won. Racing Baja is not for the feint of heart. Competing south of the border is not just a competition between teams and vehicles but in more ways its a race against the terrain and ones self. For many, just taking the green flag at a Baja event is an accomplishment. For others, finishing the Baja is as good as a win. For most, just being part of the event is something you cherish for your entire life. The memories made, the bonds that are forged between teams, the challenges that are overcome and the miles and miles of stories are what make competing in Mexico the most talked about in off-road racing. Baja is not about the glitz and glamour, its not about the money or fame, its about the love of the sport. Its about the love of competition and bonding with your families and friends in a way that only those who do it understand. For me, coming to Baja is a part of what I do and what I want to do for the rest of my life. Whether I am racing or spectating, providing coverage or supporting friends, just being there gives me more joy then one will ever understand. I will never forget this years race. It will forever go down as probably the worst Baja 500 I have ever tried to cover, but thats not a knock on the racers or the event. Lives were lost, unfortunately I as well as many were there to witness one of them and that alone put a damper on the trip. However, for that one bad memory there were 100 good ones made and so while the race itself was rough, hot and harsh the trip itself will act as a reminder as to why we go to Baja.
As always, thank you to all of the racers and teams who support UTVUnderground.com both on and off the track. Seeing our colors on your cars makes us extremely happy and we can’t thank you enough. To the people of Baja, THANK YOU for allowing us to have so much fun in your country. We can’t wait to come back in November for the Baja 1000! Lets pray for cooler weather, safer conditions and a few more cell towers along Hwy3.
To the teams and families who lost love ones this year, our thoughts and prayers are with you. I know words will never relieve or replace the pain you all are feeling but rest knowing that the community as a whole is here to support you and to remember you. May God bless you all and comfort you through this hard and terrible time.
Until next time….
After publishing, Pacific Coast Church put out this statement:
“Today Pacific Coast Church grieves the loss of Xander Hendriks, 8 year old son of PCC youth pastor Brandon & Melissa Hendriks. Xander was fatally injured while watching the Baja 500 in Mexico yesterday. Please commit to praying for Brandon & Melissa during this unspeakably difficult time.”
2 Cor 1:3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction..
PLEASE TAKE A MOMENT TO DONATE TO THE HENDRIKS FAMILY FUND TO HELP THE FAMILY WITH MEDICAL EXPENSES: https://www.gofundme.com/thehendriks5
WAYNE MATLOCK, No. 2971 (First in class. Matlock drove the entire race.) — “That was one tough and dusty course. We had a pretty good run and we had little clutch issues here and there but other than that the car was flawless. We got stuck in the bottleneck and went from first to eighth really quickly. It happens.”
JUSTIN LAMBERT, No. 2918 (Second in class. Lambert shared driving duties with Victor Herrera.) — “It was a heck of a day. We entered the forced induction class but this is actually a naturally aspirated car so we are down on power but to lead most of the pack all day long we are pretty proud.”
CORY SAPPINGTON, No. 2904 (Third in class. Sappington shared driving duties with Scott Sappington.) — “It was gnarly out there. Baja tried to beat us up but we beat Baja today. There was a huge bottleneck in the first 20 miles and it was chaos out there. We made a bunch of ground up by plowing bushes over and getting through that mess. Thank you to all of the fans. It makes it so special that you are out there cheering us on in the middle of the night.”
PRO UTV FI (Forced Induction, 4-wheel Utility Vehicle)
1. 2971 Wayne Matlock, Alpine, Calif., Polaris RZR XP4 Turbo, 12:48:03 (37.30 mph);
2. 2918 Justin Lambert, Bakersfield, Calif./Mitchell Alsup/Victor Herrera, Menifee, Calif., Polaris RZR XP1000, 12:58:55;
3. 2904 Cory Sappington, Peoria, Ariz./Scott Sappington, Glendale, Ariz./Jason Flanders, Peoria, Ariz., Can-Am Maverick Max Turbo, 14:13:08;
4. 2975 Mike Cafro, Fallbrook, Calif./Jamie Kirkpatrick, Olympia, Wash., Polaris RZR XP1000, 14:28:11; 5. 2936 Jacob Carver, Phoenix, Polaris RZR XP4 Turbo, 14:42:51;
6. 2905 Marc Burnett, Lakeside, Calif., Polaris RZR XP4 Turbo, 15:19:02;
7. 2917 Derek Murray/Jason Murray, Eastvale, Calif./Monty Aldrich, Las Vegas, Can-Am Maverick Max, 15:50:16;
8. 2919 Brandon Schueler, Phoenix/Craig Scanlon, Phoenix, Polaris RZR XP4 Turbo, 16:24:18;
9. 2916 Cody Rahders, Alpine, Calif./James Hill/Fernando Ramirez , Polaris RZR XP4 Turbo, 17:07:57;
10. 2910 Scott Trafton, Santee, Calif./Marc Behnke, Lakeside, Calif., Polaris RZR XP4 Turbo, 18:11:55.
(14 Starters, 10 Finishers)
PRO UTV (Naturally Aspirated, Stock 4-wheel Utility Vehicle)
1.1949 Alonzo Lopez, Murrieta, Calif./Francisco Rodriguez, Murrieta, Calif., Polaris RZR XP1000, 15:11:16 (31.44 mph);
2. 1983 John Estrada, Glendale, Ariz./ Justin Quinn, Phoenix/Nick Hooey, Phoenix/Mike Novich, Phoenix, Polaris XP1000, 15:17:15
3. 1954 Kristen Matlock, Alpine, Calif., Polaris RZR XP 1000, 16:25:12;
4. 1992 David Nance, Costa Mesa, Calif./Kent Pfeifer, Costa Mesa, Calif./Zach Goemer, Polaris RZR XP4, 17:03:00.
(14 Starters, 4 Finishers)
Photos by: Ernesto Araiza // UTVUnderground.com