Shortcuts result in long faces for Baja cheats

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Speed Week
Shortcuts result in long faces for Baja cheats
By Bill Center
Union-Tribune Staff Writer
2:00 a.m. June 18, 2009

As it turned out, there were no winners in the SCORE Baja 500 off-road race.
Scratch that. There were a few winners.
Kudos to Harley Letner.
The buggy driver finished the June 6 race without speeding in restricted areas or deviating from the course. When the dust and protests settled, he became the overall and open buggy winner of the 41st annual event.
High marks also for TrophyTruck drivers Rick D. Johnson and Nick Vanderwey, who wound up 1-2 in the official results when the majority of the superstars in the division – including Robby Gordon – were caught cheating.
But SCORE today finds itself dealing with a scandal that is off-road racing's parallel to steroids in baseball.
For more than three decades, SCORE turned a blind eye to allegations that many racers were illegally short-cutting sections of courses and speeding in controlled zones.
But in the days leading up to this year's Baja 500, SCORE President Sal Fish warned everyone that the rules would be strictly enforced for this year's race. This time, Fish had GPS and speed-monitoring technology in place to back up the threat.
So when the unofficial results were posted June 7, they came with a notation that SCORE would be reviewing the path and speeds followed by every finisher in the race.
The fallout has given almost everyone associated with the Baja California race a black eye, including SCORE.
Sixty-eight of the 81 finishers reviewed thus far have been penalized. Only four of the winners in the nine classes examined to date were the same as those posted in the unofficial results.
Gordon went from being the overall winner in the race to seventh in the TrophyTruck class. B.J. Baldwin went from second to eighth. Both drew more than 100 minutes in penalties. One motorcyclist drew almost 800 minutes in penalties.
The original results posted by SCORE were rendered meaningless – giving SCORE a bigger problem.
How can it expect the news media to pay attention to its races in the future? SCORE has to find a way to make its decisions immediate, and there are ways.
Deviate from the designated course and you are immediately disqualified. Speed and you are disqualified. One violation and you are out. That way, the results could be posted immediately – and be meaningful.
Gordon and Baldwin railed against SCORE's ruling. Baldwin's argument was almost humorous in its stance.
“I am not a cheater and nothing has changed the way I drive the course that I have taken in the past five years,” said Baldwin. “I think this decision to penalize 85 percent of the unlimited classes makes us all look like fools in the sport and makes SCORE International look bad . . . I think SCORE has handled this in an unprofessional manner.”
What, the professional manner would have been for SCORE to look the other way – again?
Two racers from San Diego County caught in the dragnet backed SCORE.
Robbie Pierce of Santee was hit with the largest penalty in the TrophyTruck class and fell from fourth to 11th. But he took the high road.
“I told (Fish) I whole-heartedly believed that credibility needed to be restored to the sport and if I was to be penalized for any violations, so be it,” said Pierce.
And Roger Norman, who teamed with Larry Roeseler in November to win the overall title in the Baja 1000, was penalized for a course deviation after being one of the more vocal advocates of rules enforcement.
“Wow, I'm in shock,” said Norman. “But my hats off to SCORE and Fish. Even though I was penalized 60 minutes, I'm happy to see it. Sal needed to take us all out to the woodshed.”


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