Written by: Wes Miller
Well, the Baja 500 didn’t go quite as planned. I think there are times that life throws you a curveball to see if you can persevere and this was one of those types of races.
Being that the Baja 1000 this year is point to point and is going to be a long race, I made the decision to add another driver, Jason Luburgh. Jason is an excellent and accomplished UTV racer and has raced the Baja 1000 before with me on a quad in 2005. I told him if he was going to do it though, he had to come and pre-run and co-drive the Baja 500 with me to learn. He agreed and flew out for the race.
The problems all started before we even left. As I was trying to install the Airdam clutching on my pre-runner the night before we left, I bent 2 clutch pullers and spent the entire night trying to get the primary off. I had to wait until the next morning for a dealer to open to buy more pullers. I finally got it off and we were on our way. The first day of pre-running was going pretty well until the end of the day when a lower radius rod end broke resulting in a broken trailing arm, swaybar link, and rear shock. I had to have parts brought down from my house. We got it replaced, but lost another day of pre-running. Now I needed to do the whole 500 mile course in 2 days to stay with my plan. We made it almost all the way when both rear axles blew out of the car. Luckily we weren’t too far from the road and were able to limp it to the chase truck in front wheel drive.When I raced quads in Baja, it seemed like the better pre-running went, the worse the race did and vice versa. So I told the team that and actually felt good about the race and what we accomplished pre-running. The race car got down to us on Wednesday night. We registered and pre-teched on Thursday. I also pre-ran the start in the race car to give it one last shakedown and feel it out. Everything felt good so we were ready to go.
On the way to tech and contingency Friday while driving the race car to the line, a local crashed into the back of the car. He hit the car pretty hard, but everything looked like it was ok since he only hit the rear bumper. We inspected the car and nothing looked bent or damaged. I drove it about 10 miles back to our house just to make sure.
Race day is always a game of hurry up and wait. They held the UTV’s back for quite awhile. When they finally called for us, it was kind of a mad rush because they had held us so far back for so long. We got to the line and were going to be 2nd behind Branden Sims. There was a good group of teams up front, so I was looking forward to some good racing. My biggest concern was that there would be a bottleneck that held us up and let everyone else catch up.
As I pulled to the line, I kept telling myself to “relax, take it easy, that it was a long race and to take care of the car.” Once we got the green flag, I rolled on the throttle and took off. No more than a few feet into the race, I heard a snap and immediately realized we broke a rear axle. I couldn’t believe that less than 10 seconds into a 500 mile race we already had a problem. We radioed the crew and pulled over at the entrance to the wash. Jason and I got the axle changed fairly fast and our crew ran over another spare axle. It was very disheartening to watch UTV’s one after another drive by, but we got going again. I told Jason that we needed to be smart and work our way back to the front. It was a long race and there was still plenty of time and miles.
We started picking off cars right away. It was very dusty and difficult to see, so I tried not to take too many chances. We made it to about race mile 35 when we noticed that we had a broken right front axle. We weren’t carrying a spare front, so we pulled over and put a plug in it as I radioed my crew to shuttle in another. We drove up course in 3 wheel drive to our meeting point and got the car ready for the new axle. It all went very smooth and we got going again as quickly as possible.
We had lost a fair amount of time, but I was still confident that we could work our way back to a podium or at least top 5. We started reeling off miles and things were going fairly well. The car works amazing and we settled into a solid pace. This was our first race on the new BFG tires and I was extremely impressed with them. We were catching other cars with ease and I was having fun again.
Coming into Acambaro, the course gets very technical. This was one of the sections that I worried about bottlenecks. After all of the problems we had, I was kind of hoping one may have happened to slow the field. Well, I got what I wished for but most of the UTV’s had cleared it by the time I got there. Wayne Matlock had some problems in the beginning of the race and we were only a few minutes apart. He and I know Baja as good or better than anyone in our class so we both immediately started trying to find ways around the bottleneck. We found a road that led around it. But right before we got to where we needed it to go, we came to a pretty substantial gate and fence that had been locked shut. We both tried finding ways around, but in the end had to go back to the line of cars and wait for it to clear.
When we finally got through and to highway 1, we were about 1:15 behind the leader. I told Jason that we needed to focus on our own race, be consistent, and see where we end up. The next section along the coast I know like the back of my hand and I felt we could really make time. We put our heads down and focused. Over the next 100 miles or so, the RZR worked almost flawless. My crew told me we had moved up from around 25th to near the top ten. I felt like with the pace we were catching people that we could still salvage a respectable finish.
On the way into Coyote Ranch, we caught and passed Mark Burnett and were closing on more UTV’s. As I started up a hill, all of a sudden the steering column came loose and was rattling around. A bearing on the shaft had backed out. We pulled over and beat it back in. In the meantime Burnett went back by. We caught right back up and had to fight threw his dust to get past him. We got by a few more UTV’s. It felt good to catch dust and see a flashing blue tail light of our class.
Between Coyote and Mike’s Sky Ranch there was another technical, rocky section. About midway through, the motor started to cut out intermittently. A few miles later, I felt a rear cv break. As I looked for a spot to pull over, we came across Kristen Matlock broken down. I pulled up next to her and we got to work. We jacked the car up to change the axle and pulled the tire off. About 10 seconds later the jack mount broke and the car crashed to the ground. We spent about half an hour trying to get the car jacked back up to get the axle changed, even digging a hole to put the wheel back on. Luckily Kristen was there and let us use her jack because I don’t think we could have done it without one.
We got going again but had now lost a bunch of time and had numerous UTV’s pass. It was getting dark so we turned on our lights. The switch for our main top light bar wouldn’t work, so we had to drive with our amber dust light. When we got to our fuel pit in San Matias, we tried to hard wire the light but there was a short in the wiring and it wouldn’t work. We were only halfway into the race with all of the San Felipe loop ahead, so we gave the car a good once over.
Heading into the night with limited lighting, I knew it was going to be more difficult to pick our lines. As we passed Morella Junction, the motor started cutting out more often. It seemed to get worse when I closed on another vehicle and was in their dust. We started getting a check engine light and would have to pull over and shut off the motor to reset the code. We did this into San Felipe. At our pit just outside of town, we trouble shot as best we could. We switched back to a flashed stock ECU, checked the wiring, checked the intake and changed the air filter, switched to the back up fuel pump, checked the vent lines etc…
It seemed to help for a little bit, but the problem soon came back. We started being able to go a few miles before stopping. The intervals continued to get shorter and shorter. And we could now only run 1/8 to 1/4 throttle. I was starting to have my doubts that we were going to make it. Near the finish, we were really limping it in and continued to loose positions. I had to stop every few hundred yards at some points and the fog was very heavy coming into Ensenada.
We finally finished in 17:42 in 19th place. Jason and I were exhausted and our team was wore out. At least we finished. We have really had to work for our 2 finishes this year in the San Felipe 250 and Baja 500. But we will take what we learned from these races and apply it to the rest of the season. The potential is there and I am extremely confident that we will be turning some heads in the very near future. I want to thank all of our sponsors for the tremendous support. Jason for doing a great job co-driving and wrenching on the course. And our crew for being prepared, organized, and supporting us all race.
We have had a rough start to the year, but I know we will work through this.