Saturday, March 2, 2024

PREVIEW: 2023 SCORE World Desert Championship – Baja 1000

The golden season of the SCORE International World Desert Championship will come to a close this week with the fifty-sixth running of the legendary Baja 1000. Racing begins on Thursday, 16 November, with the Bikes setting out at 1 AM MST followed by the Four-Wheel classes at 9 AM.

Luke McMillin and Rob MacCachren enter as the reigning Four-Wheeler winners, while Mark Samuels, Justin Morgan, and Kendall Norman won on Bikes in 2022.

The Course

For the first time, the Baja 1000 will start in La Paz before running northwards to finish at SCORE’s headquarters in Ensenada. The course is 1,310.94 miles (2,109.75 km) long for Pro categories, the second longest in the race’s history behind the 1,679.54 of the 2000 edition to celebrate the turn of the millennium, while Sportsman classes get a bypass that shortens their race distance to 1,197.04 mi (1,926.44 km). All competitors have fifty hours to complete the race.

Further details of the route can be read in TCF‘s story of its reveal.

The Baja 1000 will be the first race to prohibit competitors from overtaking each other within the first 100 feet after leaving a Speed Zone, which are certain locations that mandate a certain speed due to Mexican federal law. Violators will be automatically disqualified.

Credit: SCORE International

The Grid

As the largest race on the SCORE calendar and one of the biggest in the world, it goes without saying that the Baja 1000 will see a bloated entry list with special names and new faces. Due to its length, many competitors prefer to team up and share their vehicle with others, which often leads to drivers in unusual locations as they help their new team-mates in the championship.

Current championship leader Bryce Menzies will try to seal the title by sharing the #7 Trophy Truck with Andy McMillin and Tavo Vildósola. After stepping away from full-time racing at the end of 2022, McMillin returned for the Baja 400 in a second truck from Menzies’ team and finished third. Menzies won the 400 and will thus be the first Four-Wheeler to start the 1000.

McMillin’s cousin Luke, the defending SCORE champion and winner at the San Felipe 250, enters the race trailing Menzies by nine points. He will aim for his record-setting fourth consecutive Baja 1000 while MacCachren hopes to notch his third in a row as his partner once again. Coincidentally, the pair are tied for the current record of Baja 1000 victories by an individual, with MacCachren setting his streak from 2014 to 2016, as is Larry Ragland (1995 to 1997).

A closer title battle comes in the top bike class where Ciaran Naran has just a three-point gap on Juan Carlos Salvatierra in Pro Moto Unlimited, while Eric Holt and Adrian Ortiz also have shots as they tail by eleven and thirteen points, respectively. Baja 500 winner Arturo Salas, fifth in the Pro Moto Unlimited standings, was supposed to race alongside Samuels on the #7X but broke his femur in a pre-running accident on Saturday.

Samuels’ 2022 team-mates Norman and Morgan have gone their separate ways. Morgan, a six-time Baja 1000 winner, will step into the #1821 Pro Open UTV of Cayden MacCachren and multi-discipline legend Rhys Millen.

Jano Montoya (Pro Moto 30), Robert Creemers (Pro Moto 50), Kevin Ward (Pro Moto 60), and Brandon Wright (Pro Moto Ironman) are all tied for the SCORE Bike outright championship lead with 315 points each.

Team Australia‘s Toby Price and Paul Weel hope the addition of thirteen-time Baja 1000 champion Larry Roeseler can finally turn their abysmal luck around. The trio will share Roeseler’s #43, a change of pace for the Australians as their #46 has failed to finish all but one of their five starts since their début last year, each due to mechanical problems; they had otherwise shown impressive speed as they won both qualifying sessions in 2023 at San Felipe and the 400. On the other hand, Roeseler has an outside shot at the TT championship as he sits third with a deficit of thirty-five to Menzies. Price recently finished runner-up in the World Rally-Raid Championship’s RallyGP class.

While Price switches to four wheels at Baja, the #313X Pro Moto 30 team will bring some rally raid bike flair led by Nicola Dutto, the first paraplegic to complete the Africa Eco Race on a bike. He will be joined by Tiziano Internó and Rubén Saldaña Goñi, who ran the Dakar Rally in January, along with Dakar and AER veteran Julián Villarrubia Garcia.

Riley Herbst, two weeks after completing his fourth season in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, will join his family-run Terrible Herbst Motorsports in the #298 Trophy Truck Spec. The starting position was set at the Baja 400 by Jordan Dean, who will continue to spend time in the truck by sharing it with Herbst. Herbst and his cousin Pierce, along with Dean’s brother James, won the class at the 2022 1000 but were dropped to third by penalties.

Outside of the #298, the Herbst and Dean family connection continues as James and his father Pat Dean will be in the #19 Trophy Truck with Tim Herbst. Tim’s son Pierce and Thor Herbst are sharing the #219 TT Spec.

Riley Herbst is not the only NASCAR driver in the field as the #162 Class 1 entry will be split between stock car veterans Brendan Gaughan and Casey Mears. Gaughan will try to bounce back after retiring from his two earlier starts at San Felipe and the 500, while he has not finished the 1000 since 2020. Mears’ previous 1000 driving experience has exclusively been in a Trophy Truck, with his last attempt in 2021 coming alongside fellow NASCAR alumnus Robby Gordon.

Justin Lofton, a former NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race winner turned Trophy Truck competitor, will race the #23 with Dan McMillin. Ricky Johnson, another ex-NASCAR racer, is working with Vildósola’s father Gus Vildósola in the #1L Trophy Truck Legend.

Lia Block and her mother Lucy will pay tribute to Lia’s father Ken by making their SCORE début in the #3943K Can-Am Maverick with Rodrigo Ampudia as their team-mate. Ampudia is a family friend of the Blocks who won the UTV overall at San Felipe sporting a Ken Block Gymkhana-inspired livery. His younger brother Alan shared a Trophy Truck with Ken at the 2021 Baja 1000, and he told The Checkered Flag in April that there were plans for them to do it again for the 2023 race prior to his passing.

Alan and Aaron Ampudia will work with Jax Redline, who comes over from Mike Walser‘s team, in the #10 Trophy Truck that finished third at the 400.

Polaris Factory Racing will have a star-studded Pro Open UTV lineup. UTV overall points leader Brock Heger will partner up with fellow short course driver Ronnie Anderson and Baja winner J.D. Marsh in the #1896. Team manager Craig Scanlon is sharing the #1831 with Mike Emerson, Baja and Dakar veteran Max Eddy, and 2022 Stadium Super Trucks champion Gavin Harlien. The #1821 is also a Polaris Factory Racing car.

Anderson’s Championship Off-Road Pro 2 rivals Doug Mittag and Keegan Kincaid are also racing a Polaris UTV, driving the #1899 with Kyle Ahrensberg.

While Polaris and Can-Am make up most of the UTV field, Honda will try to insert themselves into the battle with three Pro UTV NA entries. Honda Factory Off-Road Racing‘s Zach Sizelove will race a new Honda Talon that is modelled after the two-seat production Talon and caters more to his driving style.

Giovanni Spinali makes his return to racing in Pro Moto 50, now recovered after suffering severe injuries in a frightening crash at the 2022 Baja 1000. His team-mate Jim O’Neal will run his forty-second consecutive Baja 1000, the most by any bike rider in race history.

Among the Stock classes, Ultra4 legend Loren Healy and Japan’s Tomonori Noto will do battle in Stock Full while Brad Lovell is the lone competitor in Stock Mid-Size. The latter completed the 2022 Baja 1000 and Australia’s Finke Desert Race in the new Ford Ranger Raptor. Noto is once again competing for Team JAOS in a Lexus LX600.

Approximately 330 entries are taking part cross eighteen countries.