Wednesday, May 22, 2024

New stars born, but Menzies shines the brightest at 2023 Baja 1000

The 2023 Baja 1000 was the second longest in race history as competitors raced an unprecedented course starting in La Paz and went north to Ensenada for 1,310 miles. Despite its daunting nature, those who dared to challenge the race and survived became legends.

Bryce Menzies, joined by his longtime team-mate Andy McMillin and Tavo Vildósola, dominated the Trophy Truck class from start to finish. The first Four-Wheeler on track thanks to Menzies’ Baja 400 victory in September, the #7 never lost the lead throughout the entire race as it completed the race in 22:35:33 for Menzies’ maiden Baja 1000 win, Vildósola’s second after 2010, and McMillin’s sixth. The lattermost ties Rob MacCachren for the most overall victories at the 1000.

MacCachren and Andy’s cousin Luke McMillin, who were riding a two-race win streak at the 1000, chased down the #7 but lost by just forty-two seconds; had they pulled it off, McMillin would have claimed his record-setting fourth 1000 victory in a row. McMillin has been Menzies’ main championship rival in recent years, winning the 2022 title and the 2023 season-opening San Felipe 250 before Menzies claimed the Baja 500 and 400. The two entered the 1000 with Menzies leading the championship by nine points, meaning a win virtually guaranteed the victor the title. Dan McMillin, Luke’s brother, was among the retirements after Justin Lofton rolled their truck.

“Whenever Luke’s racing, you always know he’s going to be up there so we could battle it out all year long from San Felipe to the 500 to the 400 to the 1000,” said Menzies, who bounces back from back-to-back years of mechanical failures. “If it’s not him, it’s me. It’s pretty cool to have that rivalry going on and we’re also really good friends. Cool to race such a good family and I’m glad to be here, glad to get my first Baja 1000 win.”

Vildósola’s father Gus Vildósola also had reason to celebrate as he won the Trophy Truck Legends class for the second year in a row. Likewise, although coming up short, the MacCachren name still added a trophy in the form of his son Cayden MacCachren being the highest performing UTV; the younger MacCachren was joined by Justin Morgan, who won the 2022 race on a bike, and the great Rhys Millen. The UTV finished twentieth overall, beating every Class 10 car for the first time in SCORE International history; Jose Ruvalcaba was the closest Class 10 as he placed two spots back.

Behind Menzies and McMillin, Mike Walser and Andrew Myers recorded a strong third and fourth, respectively. Walser, splitting time with Christopher Polvoorde and Ray Griffith, recorded his best 1000 finish since a fourth in 2019. At the tail end of the top ten, the #43 of Larry Roeseler and Team Australia‘s Toby Price and Paul Weel finished ninth to finally snap Price and Weel’s unlucky spell of retiring from mechanical issues, a trend that dates back to the 2022 1000. They seemed destined for yet another exit in the early miles when their jack system failed and jammed the driveshaft, but they were able to resolve the issue with bottle jacks and a floor jack inside the cockpit. Despite losing all of their spare tyres which forced them to race conservatively at times, Team Australia reached the finish. without further issue.

“Just feel bad I couldn’t run my full potential for the team but we completed the hardest race for the year after so many lows which feels good,” Price wrote. “This sport is no joke, it takes a massive team of people for this to work. We were way back at the start around 54th car on track and crossed the line 9th overall and 7th in class so made a good comeback. One day we will stand on a podium.”

Trophy Trucks swept the top ten, with Vildósola and the TT Spec of Riley Herbst being the lone such finishers not in the top category. After losing the 2022 win to a penalty, Herbst got to keep the 2023 victory alongside father Troy Herbst and Jordan Dean, who had “qualified” the #298 truck at the 400. They took the lead at the halfway point from Stephen Beal and faced a late challenge from Michael Marsal‘s #236 before a sector shaft failure caused the latter to roll; even if the truck did not flip or the team was able to make up the gap, the #236 was eventually disqualified for sending a chase vehicle onto the course backwards to check on the scene, nearly colliding with bike rider Giovanni Spinali in the process.

With the win secured for good, Herbst joins a group of Baja 1000 winners who have also raced in NASCAR including Walker Evans, Robby Gordon, Brendan Gaughan, and Roger Mears; Herbst had completed his fourth Xfinity Series season two weeks prior to the 1000. Gaughan and Mears’ son Casey Mears, also a NASCAR veteran, teamed up with Buddy Feldkamp to finish runner-up in Class 1 behind Kyle Quinn.

Herbst’s win is the lone bright spot for the family-run Terrible Herbst Motorsports. His uncle Tim, joined by Dean’s brother James and father Pat in the #19 Trophy Truck, retired as did the #219 TT Spec of cousins Thor and Pierce Herbst. The #263 Spec truck piloted by EJ Herbst and Justin Blower rolled early in the race before stopping at RM 1169 with a mechanical issue, though they salvaged an eleventh-place class finish.

Weather was initially the biggest non-human factor as heavy rain fell upon northern Baja California in the days leading up to the race. While the wet conditions certainly helped contribute to a faster course, silt ended up being the bane of everyone’s existence. This proved especially dangerous in the night hours when Pro Moto Limited rider Pedro Ibarra fell in silt at Race Mile 561 and was nearly hit by the Class 1 car of Ronny Wilson, who was unable to see him in the dark, with Ibarra himself barely escaping while his bike suffered damage.

Silt was particularly culpable for a four-mile stretch (RM 330 and 333) near Loreto, where the sand was so fine that multiple cars got stuck for hours. A farmer whose land was on the section used his tractor to pull them out, only for the vehicle to also break down which left competitors on their own.

The #3943K Can-Am Maverick of Lucy Block, Lia Block, and Rodrigo Ampudia were among the victims and more when they got rear-ended by a Trophy Truck while stuck, followed by hitting a boulder that bent a wheel. With nighttime repairs courtesy of Baja champion Terry Madden, the team did not miss another beat as they won the Pro Stock UTV class. It was more than just a victory for the Blocks as they added to their family legacy, with Ken Block being a Baja 1000 veteran who planned to race a TT alongside Ampudia’s brother Alan until his untimely passing in January. The family plans to auction off the Maverick in January with proceeds going to the 43 Institute, a foundation set up in Ken’s memory to support creative opportunities.

“It’s pretty amazing,” began Lucy Block, a rally and hillclimb driver like her husband and daughter. Lia plans to step into single-seaters by running the 2024 F1 Academy with Wiliams Racing. “Just the challenge that was involved and the work that everyone put in at driving those gnarly roads and silk beds, it was pretty incredible.”

Fellow Pro Stock UTV entrant David Clay, the owner of desert racing satellite service RacingTraX, officially did not finish as he exceeded the fifty-hour time limit but otherwise impressed as he did the race solo without a team-mate or co-driver. Zach Sizelove, racing in the Pro UTV Normally Aspirated class, retired in the début for his new second-generation Honda Talon.

Class 11 had four finishers, a significant improvement over the lone Beetle to do so in 2022. The category is classified in the same scoring group as Class 7SX, the latter seeing five cars make the finish. Arturo Bravo, the last Class 7SX to reach Ensenada, did so with just over six-tenths of a second left until he went over the allotted time.

Ford Performance’s two factory efforts completed the race and won their classes. Loren Healy reached the finish in the Ford F-150 Raptor R to win Stock Full while Brad Lovell was the lone competitor in Stock Mid-Size as he achieved another finish in the Ford Bronco Raptor. Tomonori Noto, the only other Stock Full entrant in a Lexus LX600, arrived in Ensenada after time expired; the same fate befell his fellow Japanese competitors Kenji Oikawa and Kazunari Iriki in Sportsman Moto.

Credit: Art Eugenio/Red Bull Content Pool

In the bike realm, Wouter-jan Van Dijk and Nicola Dutto stole the show. The former, a Dutch enduro rider from Australia who has never raced in Baja, arrived in La Paz with a used bike that did not conform to SCORE regulations until he and his fellow competitors scrambled to make the necessary adjustments. Competing in the Pro Moto Ironman class, Van Dijk battled a damaged wheel, made stops with nearby teams for food and warmth, and arrived at the finish forty-eight hours later with a bike held together by zip ties.

Dutto is no stranger to SCORE but primarily boasts a rally raid background, winning the Italian and FIM European Bajas championships twice apiece until a crash at the 2010 Italian Baja left him paralysed below the waist. Despite his injury, he raced a UTV at the 2011 Baja 1000 before competing on a bike at the 2019 Dakar Rally and 2020 Africa Eco Race. Now, he can add the Baja 1000 on two wheels to his decorated résumé.

Racing a bike with a special frame to keep him upright, he reached the finish alongside two accompanying bikes. The rest of his team consisted of Dakar veterans Julián Villarrubia Garcia, Rubén Saldaña Goñi, and Tiziano Internó; Goñi and Internó raced the latest Dakar in January.

“This race is my dream, always,” Dutto stated. “I started to race here when I walked in 2006. A lot of people have the Heart of Africa; me, I have the Heart of Baja California. This is the best place in the world. I raced in 2006, ’07, ’08. In 2010 I broke my back and I was here ten years ago with Kurt Caselli. This is for him. It’s a special gift. The Baja peninsula is something magic. It’s magic. It’s not only a race; it’s a dream. It’s amazing. Amazing.

“When you break your back with a spinal injury, you are immediately in another world, and this world is scary because you don’t know this world. But if you want something, you must cast your dream.”

Carter Klein, the younger brother of Dakar competitor Mason Klein, helped bring the #1X Pro Moto Unlimited team led by reigning class champ Juan Carlos Salvatierra to the overall bike victory. Klein traded off with Shane Logan for the final sector, and the combined effort along with Diego Llanos, Justin Carens, and Corbin McPherson held off rival Ciaran Naran‘s stable for the win and pass him for the title.

Van Dijk finished seventh in Pro Moto Ironman for solo riders, won by Edgar Cota. Patrick Culligan Jr. joined Cota and Eddie Meek on the class podium, overcoming a broken shoulder that he held together with duct tape for the final stretch. Another Ironman Reed Christensen was the race’s 152nd and last official finisher in the main categories (excluding Sportsman and Classes 11 and 7SX), beating the fifty-hour clock with twenty-two minutes and seven seconds to spare after a chaotic night in which his chase truck caught fire and the air filter was installed incorrectly which required a mid-race rebuild. The Sportsman Moto of Shawn Nelson, whose classes ran a shortened course of 1,197.04 miles, cut it even closer as he arrived with just four and a half minutes remaining.

Despite the scare with Marsal’s support truck, Spinali won the Pro Moto 50 class to complete a dramatic comeback from a massive crash in the 2022 Baja 1000 that resulted in eighteen broken bones and multiple surgeries.

Defending 1000 bike winner Mark Samuels retired following a frightening accident involving his team-mate Kade Walker, who was hospitalised for serious head injuries following a nine-hour extraction that was exacerbated by the fall occurring in one of the most desolate spots on the track. Despite a request for an airlift, SCORE was unable to send medical helicopters due to Mexican federal law prohibiting helicopters from flying at night, forcing the team to medevac him via chase truck from McMillin Racing. Upon reaching San Felipe, Walker was flown by McMillin’s plane to San Diego for treatment. As of this article’s publication, Walker remains in hospital and has not awakened.

“At the end of the day, it was us and McMillins that made this happen,” commented Samuels. “It’s pretty disappointing that there was not much help from SCORE, there’s not much help outside of anything except for us.”

Class winners

Class Overall Finish Number Competitor of Record Time
Baja Challenge 79 BC1 Kyle Tucker 36:40:53.940*
Class 1 12 100 Kyle Quinn 26:14:49.976
Class 1/2-1600 58 1685 Pablo Jauregui 33:38:01.715*
Class 3 DNF N/A No Finishers N/A
Class 5 102 512 Mike Belk 40:45:11.942*
Class 5-1600 138 558 Luis Herrera 47:34:39.567*
Class 7 68 710 Mike Shaffer 35:25:07.320*
Class 7F 132 714F Justin Park 46:53:38.502*
Class 8 DNF N/A No Finishers N/A
Class 10 22 1000 Jose Ruvalcaba 27:37:49.834*
Hammer Truck DNF N/A No Finishers N/A
Heavy Metal DNF N/A No Finishers N/A
Pro Moto 30 46 300X Jano Montoya 30:16:14.129*
Pro Moto 40 91 441X Alirio Amado 38:14:34.551*
Pro Moto 50 63 500X Giovanni Spinali 34:23:50.180*
Pro Moto 60 109 644X Kevin Ward 42:02:56.856
Pro Moto Ironman 92 723X Edgar Cota 38:33:04.150
Pro Moto Limited 36 100X Fernando Beltran 29:17:50.836*
Pro Moto Unlimited 15 1X Juan Carlos Salvatierra 26:34:17.086*
Pro Quad 54 1A Nicolas Velez 31:53:56.463*
Pro Quad Ironman 145 96A Jose Enriquez 48:26:35.859*
Pro Stock UTV 71 3943K Lucy Block 35:50:38.956*
Pro UTV Forced Induction 39 2917 Jason Murray 29:33:04.651*
Pro UTV Normally Aspirated 73 1914 Lawrence Janesky 36:01:09.741*
Pro UTV Open 20 1821 Cayden MacCachren 27:25:03.336*
SCORE Lites 108 1220 Jeremy Sundt 41:49:54.220
Stock Full 106 8152 Loren Healy 41:44:45.634
Stock Mid-Size 100 766 Brad Lovell 40:37:47.820*
Trophy Truck 1 7 Bryce Menzies 22:35:33:009*
Trophy Truck Legends 7 1L Gus Vildósola 25:29:26.760
Trophy Truck Spec 8 298 Riley Herbst 25:33:14:411*
* – Received a time penalty

Class 7SX/Class 11

Class Overall Finish Number Competitor of Record Time
Class 7SX 4 753 Rodrigo Martinez 43:02:16.873*
Class 11 1 1105 Oliver Flemate 33:33:17.460*

Sportsman

Class Overall Finish Number Competitor of Record Time
Sportsman Moto 2 249X Jose Ortiz 30:36:48.034*
Sportsman Quad 1 139A Sergio Jimenez 28:35:53.179*
Sportsman Truck 16 1435 Chris Greenwood 48:44:22.673*
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