Like thousands of other off-road racers, team members, and fans, media guys like myself are suffering yet another Baja hangover. The 2017 SCORE Baja 500 has come and gone and with it has left a slew of memories, stories and physical reminders that we have once again survived “the Baja”.
Each Baja adventure has its own set of challenges and experiences, but its sort of like your favorite TV show that no matter the episode, the same characters, set and story lines seem to repeat itself. Yet like your favorite TV show, you continue to tune in even though you almost certainly know what the outcome will be. My Baja always starts with cold beer, warm tacos, laughter, excitement and preparation. It almost always ends with a series of hi-fives, bro hugs, thank you’s, congratulations, and stomach pains. Its what happens between that make each Baja run unique, this year would be no different.
While I have no clue as to how many Baja races I have experienced to this point, I do know that this was the 49th running of the SCORE Baja 500. For me my Baja stories always seem to blend, this years however will stand out to me forever and the memories will be definitive. It was a unique Baja from start to finish, not just because of the racing, but because of the characters I was surrounded by. As is the case in life, you become who you hang out with, I learned that at a young age. Being that I was going to be fully embedded with the Scanlon Motorsports Group (SMG) for the week, naturally I became one of the “SMG Team” and it was an amazing experience that I feel compelled to share as the foundation for my story this year.
My Baja story kicked off on the Sunday prior to the race. I connected with my close friends RJ Anderson and his legendary father Randy Anderson, as well as rising UTV star, Mitch Guthrie Jr. for an early departure to Ensenada where we would join forces with Craig Scanlon and his high profile SMG racing program. The week would be filled with pre-running, food, laughter, and yes, a little bit of off-road partying. But the mission at hand was to vehemently prepare for the Baja 500, the first Baja race ever for the SMG program.
Craig Scanlon has worked hard for the past year to build his racing program while performing duties as an executive at Polaris and still maintaining a neutral role as the sports largest sponsor of racers. Its a unique situation for him, but in the end its like a dealer stacking the deck. Whether he wins or one of his supported athletes win, in the end, he wins! But Scanlon is as competitive as they come, and he wants so badly to prove beyond the flashy equipment, sponsors and coverage that he too is capable of the results that he expects of his athletes. This pressure is visible, yet Scanlon hasn’t lost site of what off-road racing truly is about as a hobby, a lifestyle he embraced long ago.
Our accommodations would be the best I have ever experienced south of the border. Scanlon splurged and treated his many first time team team and even us experienced guys to an amazing first class stay at the infamous “La Mansion” just north of downtown Ensenada. The 15K square foot +/- mansion is perched directly on the coast of the pacific ocean and is one of the most amazing homes I had ever stepped foot in. Like many teams racing in Baja, SMG had a large group of guys looking to help support their driver in reaching the ultimate goal. Putting the team in a home like this for the week is more than just spoiling your guys, its a way to keep everyone together under one roof to bond. It leaves us no need to leave for food or other distracting activities, and while we all found our way to town for food and fun, this method of a home vs. hotel proved to be great for team bonding and building camaraderie leading into a race where cohesiveness and understanding is key.
The bulk of the team all arrived together on Sunday. By Monday AM Craig Scanlon and his co-driver Keith Redstrom as well as RJ Anderson and his co-driver Mitch Guthrie Jr., would suit up and begin their first day of pre-running. While many teams choose to “solo” the Baja (one driver), Scanlon had made the choice to add another amazing driver & co-driver to his team for this grueling race. Benefits of this is that you can focus on your section and perfect it during pre-running all while ensuring that a fresh set of eyes and talent is always behind the wheel. Anyone who has ever raced for 500 + miles will tell you just how exhausting a race like this can be, so to switch mid race with a fresh and talented person like RJ Anderson is a huge advantage.
Scanlon would handle driving duties that would begin at the start of the race and carry him through the first 250 miles. The duo of Anderson & Guthrie Jr. would take over at RM250 and charge onto the finish. The two pairs spent days dialing in their notes and ran their sections to gain a good understanding of what they will be faced with on race day. The team also spent time during these sessions to understand where their pit locations would be and figure out their best strategy for maintaing the vehicle through this long and brutal event. By race day everyone felt confident both in their plan and their equipment. But, one thing you can never plan for is the Baja itself. While you can prepare for most things, you can always bet on the fact that the unexpected will appear. Exactly what the unexpected will be is always just that, unexpected.
This years Baja 500 would see the largest field of UTVs ever for a SCORE sanctioned event. 36 total UTVs (25 PRO UTV FI / 11 PRO UTV NA) would head to Mexico to challenge the 49th running of the SCORE Baja 500. The 515 mile race course would take racers from Ensenada down through the scenic pacific ocean coast line, then traverse east through the long and rough mountain terrain towards the famous Mikes Sky Ranch before hitting the treacherous whoop sections and lake beds near San Felipe. From there the course would head west back to the finish in Ensenada. Much of the course has been used in previous Baja 250, 500 and 1000 races, but SCORE always manages to insert sections of course that have yet to be ran making pre-running essential. Many teams spend weeks down in Baja, while some spend days, and even others spend none. Knowing the course is important for drivers, but its also important for your team members who sometimes will be forced to make decisions on the fly as to where and how to pit a vehicle as its almost certain your initial plan will need to adapt on the fly due to the unforeseen challenges the race almost always presents.
Wayne Matlock would head to Baja on a mission to capture his third Baja 500 win in a row. The factory Polaris RZR athlete has won the Baja 500 a total of five-times leading into this years race. He joins the likes of racing legends like Rob MacCachren, Robby Gordon, Roger Mears, and Mark McMillin as racers who have five Baja 500 wins under their belt. Matlock wouldn’t be the only multi-time Baja 500 winner inside of his RZR. Co-Driving duties would be supplied by friend Josh Row who has earned three Baja 500 wins during his career. Row’s father Greg also has multiple wins at the Baja 500, four to be exact and he too would be racing his own RZR in the Pro UTV class. Wes Miller, another Factory Polaris RZR athlete holds three Baja 500 titles as does factory Can-Am racer Marc Burnett.
Those stats are impressive, whats even more impressive is that Matlock, the Row’s, Miller and Burnett are not the only factory UTV athlete with a reputation for winning the Baja 500 and who came to improve on their resumes. Upon doing some research I turned up that Factory RZR athlete Mike Cafro who would be looking for his first successes since earning his factory sponsorship last year, has won the Baja 500 an astonishing SIX times in his career. He shares six wins with names like Walker Evans, Johnny Campbell, Scot McMillin, Jim Dizney and only a few others. This puts a stamp on the fact that this years Baja 500 would be not only the most talented and well attended UTV field of racers, but also one of the most competitive.
An unfortunate fact of this years race is that off-road racing legend Larry Ragland was slated to compete for the first time behind the wheel of a new Polaris RZR he and close friend Steve Smith have built together. Ragland possesses seven Baja 500 championships, only eight other racers have ever won more. Ragland however was not able to make the trip and instead chose to stay home to be with our great friend and his son Chad Ragland who recently was diagnosed with cancer. We will soon post more on this unfortunate turn of events.
With the prep work complete and the stage being set, 36 of the best and fastest UTV desert racers lined up to head into the unknown. Branden Sims would lead the field of UTVs off the line followed by Wes Miller and then Marc Burnett who was anxious to redeem himself from a season of set backs and mishaps. Burnett won the 2014 Baja 500 behind the wheel of his then factory Can-Am Maverick before making the jump in 2015 to Polaris. Burnett returned to Can-Am for the 2017 season but has yet to experience the full successes he had in 2014. Behind them would be Jacob Carver in a brand new, un-tested, RZR XP Turbo built by he and Rhys Millen. Millen would not make the trip to compete.
Following the 25 turbo powered UTVs would be the first of 11 naturally aspirated UTVs. Paul Champion would lead the NA group followed by Don Whitington, Dodge Poelman, and Adrian Orellana. Down the line would be Kristen Matlock and a new name to UTVs, Red Bull athlete J.T. Homes. Many were excited to see Dave Sparks AKA Heavy D of the Diesel Brothers on the list, but the week prior had to cancel his plans for competing in the Safecraft Products RZR.
While I was able to catch the first twenty or so UTVs off of the line, I was forced to make my way south towards our first location at RM80, also referred to the Urapan area of the course. While I would work hard to cover the race for all UTVs, being embedded with one team presents a challenge. In some cases its beneficial because you run in the pack and know all of the story lines, but in the case of the SMG team, Baja would rear its ugly head and throw us all off line and off pace.
While waiting for the lead UTVs at RM80 a few of us began to debate who we thought we would see first. I immediatley claimed Marc Burnett. Very few in the UTV class spend more time in Baja than Burnett. On top of that, he always sets a fast pace knowing majority opt for a slower pace to start. Burnett lives by the motto of checkers or wreckers and this years Baja 500 proved that to be true once again. Burnett would be the first UTV through as I expected, but what I didn’t expect was for the second vehicle to be Justin Lambert. Lambert in his Cognito Motorsports Factory RZR was the 14th vehicle off the line. There were many fast UTVs in front of him and that section from the start to Ojos Negros and on through to the Urapan leaves very little room for passing. Burnett and Lambert were only separated by minutes but it would take almost 20 minutes before we would see the next UTV through.
The race was already beginning to take shape within the first 100 miles. It wouldn’t be long before Burnett and his Maverick X3’s day was over, but Lambert never looked back. While the UTVs were racing the sunset south and then headed east towards San Felipe, we continued to wait for the SMG RZR. Scanlon broke a brand new factory rear hub in arguably one of the worst areas one could possibly break on course. Not only was it only 50 miles in, it was also in a section with limited chase access. It took time for our team to double back to Ojos Negros and then send RJ & Mitchie in behind the wheel of a RZR we brought along for just this type of situation. They got the parts needed to Scanlon but by the time they got him fixed up they were down by over two hours to the race leaders. The strategy shifted from winning to finishing.
Because of this long delay and the massive lack of online tracking, it was extremely difficult to keep tabs on the race itself. Many people including teams and fans back home were texting me for updates knowing that we are almost always the most reliable source for information. Unfortunately I didn’t have much to offer and found myself texting those I know for the same type of intel. I was reminded many times that UTVUnderground.com has become the best way to follow UTVs in Baja so to not be able to provide that coverage was tough for all of us. With that said, I too am a fan first. Long before UTVUnderground.com, I was running around Baja chasing the race as a team member and thats how I gained the experience needed to be able to provide the coverage we all have been accustomed too. Its also because of chasing and working with teams that I gained my love for this sport. Its important for me at times to dive back into those roles either spending the weekend actually racing or just being a productive part of a team to remind myself why I love doing what I do. So while I am certainly bummed I wasn’t able to provide better coverage this year, I was equally as happy to get back to chasing the race with a team. I just wish we would have been on the other end of the Baja luck coin.
Once the SMG RZR was up and running they had a near flawless day. One freak part failure ruined the hopes of a podium for the team, but in true Baja spirit the team persevered and literally restarted the race at RM50 from dead last. From there on SMG ran fast and clean and would end up finishing the race 17th in class and only minutes behind the previous three finishers. You never give up in Baja, never! Sometimes you need throw in the towel based on circumstances, but in the case of SMG they had a perfect and fast RZR, talented and prepared drivers, and a team that was dead set on getting to the finish line. Sure, the beer would have been sweeter had it been cracked open while celebrating a podium finish, but a Baja finish line beer always tastes good, even if it is enjoyed at 5am!
While we chased on through the night we got word that Lambert continued to stretch his lead. Behind him Sims, Ellenburg, Rahders, and Cafro were all jockeying for podium positions. Elenburg would fall out after his Maverick X3 would suffer a front end mechanical forcing him to finish on three wheels. Rahders and his RZR XP Turbo would also suffer mechanicals eliminating his hopes of a podium. Sims and Cafro however were still racing to the finish in their RZR XP Turbo’s and both would make it separated by minutes.
Lambert however would complete one of the most dominating Baja performances we had seen in recent years in a UTV. Lambert and his #2918 Polaris RZR XP Turbo would best the competition by by almost a full hour and would complete the Baja 500 with an average of just under 40mph! Justin Lambert is coming off a 2016 season that saw him sweep the BITD series. His season this year has been a challenge as they have worked to perfect their new XP Turbo. But all the stars aligned in Baja. Lambert would smash the 515 miles and would claim the win for himself and his Cognito Motorsports team!
UTV newcomer and Red Bull action sports athlete, J.T. Holmes would take home the win in the NA class followed by Adrian Orellana and then Don Whittington. They would help complete the sweep for Polaris in Baja giving the RZR the top 3 in both Pro UTV classes.
As impressive as the speeds and times were this year, whats more impressive is the finishing rate. 26 of the 36 UTVs that started would complete their Baja 500 runs making that the best finishing rate we have ever seen. The claim in the past has always been that if you can simply finish, your chances of being on the podium are pretty high. That clearly was not that case here. 22 Turbo machines made it across the line, only 3 would DNF.
As the sunset on yet another Baja adventure I was able to look back and reflect on the week. I was once again awake for over 30 hours before I finally was able to catch some sleep, and as I laid in my bed for the first time in 7 days, and as bad as I needed some sleep I almost didn’t want it to be over. I further bonded with close friends, I got to help one of my closest friends compete in his first Baja 500 as a team owner, I stayed in a glorious home positioned with one of the most epic views anyone could ever ask for, witnessed the sports best thrash their junk through some of the harshest off-road terrain in the world, and I got to make it home safe to my family. But easily the best part of the week was spending time in a chase truck with Randy Anderson who holds over 30 off-road racing championships as the leader of the Walker Evans Racing program. The tales of Baja, the experiences he shared and the lessons learned in the hours spent riding shot gun with this legend was something I will never forget. I didn’t have “Chasing a Baja race with Randy Anderson” on my bucket list, but I am going to go ahead and add it to the list and cross it off all at once!
I want to extend a huge thank you to Craig Scanlon and his SMG team for including me in this weeks event. I truly had an epic time with this great group of friends. I want to thank every team, racer, fan and friend who took time to chat and hang out through the week, at contingency and during the race. I cherish all of you and appreciate all of your support of UTVUnderground.com and myself. Seeing all of the UTVUG decals, shirts, and hats down in Mexico really brings me a sense of accomplishment and I really do appreciate that. As for the Baja 1000, well my plans still are not made. I kind of want to race it since its a peninsula run and I have only chased those. But whether I am racing, chasing or covering the battle, either way one this is for sure, I will be there and I can’t wait! For now, I am going to try and shake this Baja hangover and avoid any Mexican food for at least a couple of days.
Until next time…..
PRO UTV FI (Forced Induction, 4-wheel Utility Vehicle)–(25 Starters, 22 Finishers)
1. 2918 Justin Lambert, 41, Bakersfield, Calif./Mitchell Alsup, 26/Eric Sheetz, 33, Polaris RZR XP1000, 13:17:01 (38.67 mph);
2. 2913 Branden Sims, 31, Prescott Valley, Ariz./Justin Krause, 32, Prescott, Ariz., Polaris XP4 Turbo, 14:06:23;
3. 2975 Mike Cafro, 47, Fallbrook, Calif./Jamie Kirkpatrick, 36, Olympia, Wash., Polaris RZR XP4 Turbo, 14:18:14;
4. 2948 Zachary Burroughs, 19, Norco, Calif./Cain Smead, 45, Leona Valley, Calif./Dan Lewis, 52, Jurupa Valley, Calif./Brad Howe, 30, Elizabeth Lake, Calif., Can-Am Maverick X3, 14:43:47;
5. 2990 Steve Smith, 59, Escondido, Calif./Larry Ragland, 73, Cave Creek, Ariz., Polaris RZR XP1000 Turbo, 15:10:12;
6. 2917 Derek Murray, 36/Jason Murray, 34, Eastvale, Calif./Monty Aldrich, 49, Las Vegas, Can-Am Maverick X3, 15:24:58;
7. 2916 Cody Rahders, 22, Alpine, Calif./Kevin Sullivan, 31, Campo, Calif./James Hill, 32, Canyon Lake, Calif., Polaris RZR XP4 Turbo, 15:38:00;
8. 2912 Tony Riggs, 49, Santa Clarita, Calif./Kyle Melville, 26, Lancaster, Calif./Ryan Edwards, 30, Lancaster, Calif., Polaris RZR XP4 Turbo, 15:40:39;
9. 2910 Scott Trafton, 35, Santee, Calif./Marc Behnke, 69, El Cajon, Calif./Dave Price, 55, Alpine, Calif., Polaris RZR XPT1000, 15:40:44;
10. 2904 Cory Sappington, 51, Peoria, Ariz./Scott Sappington, 53, Glendale, Ariz./Jason Flanders, 38, Peoria, Ariz./Darren Sappington, 50, Phoenix, Can-Am Maverick X3 Turbo, 15:41:56;
11. 2944 Shane Redline, 41, Amarillo, Texas/Jax Redline, 16, Amarillo, Texas/Jonathan McVay, 41, San Tan Valley, Ariz., Can-Am Maverick X3, 16:15:428; 12. 2905 Marc Burnett, 46, Lakeside, Calif., Can-Am Maverick X3, 16:33:49;
13. 2946 Jose Juarez, 33, Lemon Grove, Calif./Rodolfo Rivera, 30, Chula Vista, Calif./Alex Zuniga, 36, Chula Vista, Calif., Polaris RZR XP4 Turbo, 16:41:00;
14. 2930 Sean Cook, 51, Citrus Heights, Calif./Hans Luenger, Cleveland, Ohio/Jesus Leon, Merida, Mexico/David Jackson, Las Vegas, Can-Am Maverick X3, 17:00:23;
15. 2977 Justin Elenburg, 39, Mesa, Ariz./Ernesto Taylor, 36, Mesa, Ariz./Bryan McBride, 35, Rocky Point, MexicoCan-Am Maverick X3, 17:07:19;
16. 2936 Jacob Carver, 26, Phoenix, Polaris XP4 Turbo, 17:09:01;
17. 2931 Craig Scanlon, 43, Maple Grove, Minn./Keith Redstrom, 49, Glendale, Ariz., Robbie Tiffany, 35, Glendale, Ariz./R.J. Anderson, 24, Riverside, Calif., Polaris RZR XP4 Turbo, 17:13:42;
18. 2919 Brandon Schueler, 28, Phoenix/Justin Schekley, Phoenix/Pat Stone 48, Payson, Polaris RZR XP4 Turbo, 17:19:14;
19. 2989 Wes Miller, 47, Carlsbad, Calif./Jason Luburgh, 33, Zanesville, Ohio, Polaris RZR XP4 Turbo, 17:42:27;
20. 2949 Alonzo Lopez, 43, Murrieta, Calif./Francisco Rodriguez, 45, Chula Vista, Calif., Polaris RZR XP4 Turbo, 18:51:05;
21. 2967 Anthony Perez, 31, California City, Calif./Jason Farrell, 35, Las Vegas/Jeremiah Smith, 33, Palmdale, Calif., Can-Am Maverick X3, 19:02:55; 22. 2929 Paul Wadlington, 51, Colorado Springs, Colo./Chris Barnett, 36, Foxfield, Colo., Polaris RZR XP4 Turbo, 19:04:58.
PRO UTV (Naturally Aspirated, Stock 4-wheel Utility Vehicle)–(11 Starters, 4 Finishers)
1. 1950 JT Holmes, 36, Reno, Nev./Eric Clay, Reno, Nev., Polaris XP1000, 16:10:32 (31.76 mph);
2. 1985 Adrian Orellana, 32, Jamul, Calif./Daniel Gonzales, 25, Menifee, Calif./Victor Orellana, 60, San Diego, Polaris RZR XP1000, 16:20:26;
3. 1998 Don Whittington, 71, Fort Lauderdale, Fla./Angel Marquez, 34, Ensenada, Mexico, Polaris RZR XP1000, 17:44:20;
4. 1925 Matt Scarpuzzi, 36, Alpine, Calif./Mark Reece, 40, San Diego/Jeff Ring, 40, San Diego, Polaris XP1000, 19:50:40.