I love Baja, it's one of my favorite places on the planet. It is difficult to explain to people, it's just something you have to experience for yourself. You either love it here, or you hate it. I certainly look forward to any excuse to head South of the border for a little racing and good times with good friends.
I was talking with Mike Shaffer from Shaffer's Offroad a couple of weeks ago, and he mentioned that Bill Kunz and Greg Jones from Torchmate Racing were planning their first trip to Baja for the Baja 500. He asked if I would be interested in tagging along and helping with chasing duties. Of course I jumped at the chance. Bill and Greg put together a great team of experienced crew members, all with extensive Baja experience.
This lucky kid from the fishing village of Erendira got all kinds of free swag from the Torchmate Racing crew.
SUNDAY MAY 31, 2009
We all met up just North of the Mexican border in San Diego on Sunday and headed down into Ensenada. I towed down Bill's Jeep Rubicon behind my KORE equipped Dodge Ram which would be used for pre running the race course.
The next few days were spent pre running by the drivers and co-drivers. Those of us in chase vehicles scouted out areas for remote pits and of course we also had to scout out the best taco stands.
Getting mobbed by locals for "steekers"
Bill and Brad Lovell pre ran the first 205 miles of the race course while Greg and Mark pre ran the last 215 miles. Each day they would come back to the hotel with horror stories of how their poor "pre runners" were mercilessly beat into submission. There is no doubt that tomorrow's course will be a challenging one, even in the Torchmate Racing Class 7 Unlimited race truck. The boys have their work cut out for them.
JT "Tea Bag" Taylor making sure 703 is fully race ready.
FRIDAY JUNE 5, 2009
Today the town is bustling with activity. The locals are out in droves to check out all of the race vehicles as they wind their way through contingency row. Tomorrow the action begins at 6:00AM PST for the dirt bikes, and approximately 10:00am PST for the 4 wheeled vehicles with the trophy trucks first off the line, followed by the Class 1 Unlimited cars. Bill and Brad will be starting 3rd in Class 7 and should be off the line at approximately 10:30AM. You can follow them on the Iritrack website here. Also be sure to tune in to the Desertbull's LIVE broadcast of the Baja 500 right here.
RACE DAY JUNE 6, 2009
We had a team meeting at 7:00AM and went through all the details of our chase plan. Afterward we went out and went over the truck one more time. You can never be too thorough.
At 10:05AM the first SCORE Trophy Truck was off the line and a quiet Saturday morning in Ensenada was awaken with 800 horsepower monsters thundering through town. You can't help but get excited watching Trophy Trucks, even if you've seen them many times before. To quote the movie Dust to Glory, "and the rhythm of the race had begun..."
703 lined up into staging around 10:20AM and waited for their turn for the green flag. Speaking from experience, anticipation is off the charts while being staged. I was fired up and I wasn't even driving!
Eye of the tiger
Staging at the starting line
At about 10:45 Torchmate Racing dropped the hammer and had begun their very first Baja race. Would they be able to survive the wilds of Baja? Better yet, would they not only be able to survive, would they be able to get a podium finish?
Hitting the dirt and charging hard!
After we made sure they had a smooth start, we ran to our KORE equipped Dodge chase truck and hit the road. The goal was to get up to race mile 20 so we could make sure they made it that far without any issues. From there JT Taylor and Nick would take over chasing that area of the race course. We battled through the traffic jam in town and were on our way out to race mile 20 when we heard Brad Lovell over the radio, "we just passed race mile 21 and everything is looking good." So we turned around and headed back to Ensenada for fuel, food, and drinks. Of course one of the best things about Mexico is the food. We stopped at one of our favorite taco stands and loaded up on some tacos al pastor.
You haven't lived until you've had authentic tacos al pastor (pork)
After we filled up both the Dodge and our stomachs, we hit Highway 1 Southbound to the small fishing village of Erendira at race mile 320 where we would wait for the race truck. And wait we did... And wait, and wait...
Afternoon rolled around, and the first trophy trucks began to blow through town with no regard to the 35' cliff to the rocks and ocean below. It is an amazing site to see some of these guys drive a half a million dollar truck at the edge of control.
Robby Pierce of MasterCraft seats haulin' the mail
Here's a picture of the same spot at a different camera angle.
Better yet, here is a video of the same spot. The video has a couple shots of the start of the race and then it shows Robby Gordon chasing BJ Baldwin, and then Roger Norman with Terrible Herbst hot on his donkey:
We heard from JT that Bill and Brad had lost an alternator belt which slowed down their great pace. Before they had belt issues they were running in 2nd place, and looking good. Unfortunately it would only get worse from there. After the driver change at race mile 200, Greg Jones took command of the 703 Ranger. He would only make it about 11 miles before the throttle stuck wide open and he put the truck in a ditch which popped two tires. JT and Nick were quick on the scene, and got things fixed, and they were back in the race only to come into a corner a little to hot at race mile 242 and roll over. Luckily the truck landed back on its wheels, but unfortunately the steering suffered some considerable carnage. JT and Nick were back on the scene and went to work on attempting a jerry-rig repair. After some head scratching and creative engineering, they had Greg and Mark back on the race course after a couple of hours.
At around 12:00AM we heard the radio crackle, "703 race to chase 2... Do you have a copy?" They were finally heading down from the mountain passes onto the coastal roads. They would be at our pit shortly. Since we were no longer in contention of winning (we saw the lead vehicles go through) we had them stop at our pit to look everything over, and to check out a driveline vibration. After making sure everything was good we gave them the green light, and off they went into the cool desert night.
Waiting, and waiting and more waiting...
We scrambled to break down our pit, and hit the road to Santo Tomas to try and meet up with Greg and Mark for the 10 miles of paved road before they would leave the highway to head into the Urapan section of the race course. Just as we pulled into Santo Tomas Greg and Mark came sliding onto the highway. Talk about perfect timing!
We followed Greg and Mark until they got off the highway and headed into the dreaded Urapan area. Urapan consists of gnarly silt hill climbs, lots of nasty rock outcroppings, and lots of blind breakovers. In my opinion it's the most critical part of the race as many of the racers are entering this section in the dark, and fatigue has usually set in.
Greg and Mark made short work of this section with some awesome stories of some unreal passes they had to make on some stuck race cars. Mike and I headed back to town and fired up the laptop so we could watch their progress as they made their way back to the finish line.
At around 3:30AM Sunday morning, the beat down 703 Torchmate Racing Ranger came flying down the city streets of Ensenada driving like Robby Gordon around the final corner and across the finish line. The entire crew breathed a collective sigh of relief, and it was finally time for a celebratory Mexican beer (Sol, of course).
Fresh out of battle, and on the podium with a 3rd place.
Amazingly Torchmate's first Baja effort ended up on the podium with a 3rd place finish in Class 7 Unlimited. An impressive feat to say the least!
The next Mexican adventure will be the legendary Baja 1000.