AGUA DULCE, CALIF. – After two days of fun and celebration in Ensenada during Bilstein Tech Inspection for the Yokohama NORRA Mexican 1000 Presented By Meyers Manx, it was time for everyone to hit the dirt during day one of racing. Competitors soon learned it would not be all fun and games as they departed under cloudy skies towards the checkered flag in San Felipe. The bikes headed east through Ojos Negros and the mountains while 4 wheeled competitors headed down the Pacific Coast before also turning east and crossing the peninsula. They would see both coastlines on day one. The scenery, terrain and weather changed with every mile covered. Competitors were instantly aware of why racing in Baja is so special.
The bikes were on a course that was developed with help from world renowned racer, coach and trainer Jimmy Lewis. Jimmy has been training riders since NORRA went to road book only navigation at the Mexican 1000 last year. This first day of competition put that training to the test. The tracks Jimmy laid out were both challenging and rewarding. This wasn’t a putt through the countryside. Every rider’s navigation skills had to be worthy. Racing a bike down the Baja peninsula is physically demanding, and Jimmy made sure it was mentally demanding as well. The decision by NORRA to go road book navigation only was done so anyone who competes with us becomes a well-rounded rider who is capable of competing anywhere in the world. NORRA is known for the parties and celebrations, but they take competition seriously. Off road racing was created because of the brave and adventurous riders who set out to be the fastest down the peninsula. NORRA honors that extraordinary spirit.
Leading the pack as last year’s overall winner was Matt Sutherland. Matt finished 4th in stage one, then took the top spot in stage two to accrue the fastest combined time for the day; securing first place overall. Right behind him was fellow Sonora rally competitor Mike Johnson. Johnson finished second on both stages to take the second fastest time. Both riders are in contention for the Ultimate Ironman competition that awards riders who finish both the Sonora Rally and the NORRA Mexican 1000. They are both joined in that quest by Matthew Glade who is currently eighth place overall after 2 stages. Cade Smith is third overall followed by Scott Purcell in fourth, and Jim Pearson in fifth place. There is a long way to go to the finish so things can change but the strong showing by Sutherland and Johnson shows what great navigating skills can produce. The second stage on day one was technical and the pair finished only seconds apart. The next fastest rider, Ben Shuckburgh, was 10 minutes back. We will see who has the top speed to go with the technical skills and navigation prowess as we head further south.
The four wheeled vehicle course heading down the coast was spectacular. Nature was on full display as an explosion of incredible fauna was everywhere that wasn’t deep blue ocean or waves crashing on the rocks. The twists and turns along the coast were technical and the rocks, sand and whoops in San Felipe were brutal. Day one was a real challenge and it showed. The Fab School’s team was up past 1:00am making repairs to help out the teams. Typically they help with fabrication and repair but they never back down when it’s called for so they were even working on an alternator bracket at one point. Victor Agnon from the Fab School told us they fixed 15 cars or more and repaired things like limit strap mounts and fabricated a panhard bar. It’s good to find these weak points early and get repairs made before the speeds increase in the rocky terrain down south.
Defending overall champion Steve Menzies started on the pole and his team held their position on day one. As usual, the Black Diamond of Mark Post was pressuring them all day. Post has a powerhouse line-up but team Menzies is also impressive. Steve will have Jesse Jones sharing the driver’s seat, Sean Berriman, Todd Tenbroek, Willie Valdez JR. and Son Bryce able to jump in if needed. These guys are not messing around. In third place overall is Pat Dean in his Valley Performance, South Point Hotel and Casino sponsored 2007 Bunderson Class 1 Buggy. Pat drove day one and stated that sons James and Jordan will be driving on day two. They will be coming for the overall and are leading the Evolution Unlimited Buggy class. Fourth overall was Greg DiStefano who is competing against Steve Menzies in the Evolution Unlimited Truck class. Rounding out the top five overall is Gay Smith who is Pat Dean’s nearest rival in the Evolution Unlimited Buggy class.
As you might recall, last year’s overall stage winners started up front. This put Kristen Matlock in the fourth position off the line as she dominated day 5 last year; winning both stages overall. She held her own all day in her Polaris RZR Pro R UTV amongst the bigger, more powerful trucks and buggies, but was apparently a little too wide at times. That’s a polite way of saying she was penalized for blocking.
Part of NORRA’s safety protocol is the use of the Stella system. It allows drivers to send a signal to the car in front that they have been caught and need to move over to allow a pass. This is the worst thing for a driver’s ego, but also because they will have to contend with the dust of the car that is now ahead of them. If you wait too long to let someone by, you earn a time penalty. In the old days before Stella, you would get up on the car in front and give them a little tap (extreme sarcasm warning). Of course a heavier, more powerful car or truck would destroy a UTV if this ever happened so it might have cost Kristen this time, but it’s the only way she could survive racing with Unlimited vehicles so it’s a tradeoff. The penalty dropped her back to 15th overall and third place in class, but if you know Kristen that will only make her more determined. Her husband Wayne is leading the Evolution Unlimited UTV class in his Polaris RZR Pro R. He finished 8th overall.
The Evolution Era cars and trucks dominated the overall positions as anticipated but there were some exceptions. Second overall Mark Post races in the Historic Era (20 years or older) and Hap Kellogg was seventh overall in his Class 5 Unlimited car. His VW is in the Vintage Era. This is no surprise as Hap is always giving the Evolution Era vehicles a run for their money. We are talking about the overall standings right now but there are plenty of racers competing in their Era and class who are leading right now.
As we move forward we will cover the class leaders. Cars are classified in both an Era in which they competed and also individual classes. That way the playing field is level for everyone. It shows what some of these older vehicles are capable of competing against the same technology. A great example is the Vintage Short Wheelbase 4×4 class lead by Larry Trim in his Jeep Grand Cherokee. Larry had brake issues yesterday but managed to stay on the throttle enough to take over 5 minutes on David Vernick in his Land Rover Defender 90. Their race was just as exciting as any other, and probably more than most for Larry. Larry’s co-driver is Tom Allen from PSC (Performance Steering Components) who knows a little about hydraulics. Hopefully they will have it fixed for John Koeth and his daughter Sarah who will be driving on day two.
Also out enjoying the Baja Scenery were the Safari classes. Safari is divided by the capabilities and desires of participants. Rapido goes fast, and Slow Baja takes it easy. Julie Farr-Gay tells us about her day. “We pushed off at 7:23am in Slow Baja Safari and headed down the coast through Route de Vino. Quite the scenic change through the valley since my first visit in ‘95! After a quick air down, we found ourselves in heavy red dust as we each found the right pace along the trail. Many in Slow Baja Safari are vintage and may not have been down rugged Baja trails for a few years. LeadNav and Stella called out ruts, dips, and wash outs along the way. It was a great addition by NORRA having all Safaris run an amber rear light for safety. After passing a number of slower vehicles in the clear, we found ourselves ahead of all other Slow Baja and caught up with Rapido Safari at their rest stop along the ocean. We took a brief photo stop and pushed out just behind the Rapido sweep. They peeled off to a dirt section and we continued to the Hwy from Erendira. We caught up with Rapido at the Pemex and after conferring with Dave the lead for Rapido and Sweeps, we joined them for the next section. After a few miles of Highway we once again veered right and headed back towards the rugged Pacific Coast for lunch at Pirates before the final 80 miles or so to our finish today.”
Day one of racing was a good one, and we’ll have four more before we’re done. The Yokohama NORRA Mexican 1000 Presented By Meyers Manx is a treat for competitors wanting a challenge as well as adventurers like Julie in the Safari classes. There are so many things to experience you will want to come back again and again. All the information you need to join us in Baja can be found at www.norra.com. Go there, check it out, and start making plans today!