Photos: Durka Durka Photo
The modern version of the NORRA Mexican 1000 started in 2010. 2019 marked the 10th year of the popular rally race that traverses the Baja Peninsula from Ensenada to San Jose Del Cabo. It’s a fun event but it can also be grueling – covering over 1000 miles. Each night teams pack up and head to a new city every night for five days. A race that long is especially daunting for newcomers.
New for 2019 NORRA put on a new event, the NORRA 500. This race covered roughly 500 miles over 2 days. All racers would start and finish in Ensenada. The shorter format, and not having to move your whole team each day, made it less logistically challenging – the race itself was still very challenging.
111 teams signed up for the inaugural NORRA 500. 111 also happens to be NORRA CEO Mike Pearlman’s lucky number and the number he raced with at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. This is a great turnout for a brand new race. NORRA was pleased. The course featured two loops. Loop A went East out of Ensenada to Ojos Negros, then North through the pine forest and out near Heroes de la Independencia before returning to Ensenada. Loop B went South along the Pacific coast from Santo Tomas to San Vicente, then over the crossover road to Valle De Trinidad then a loop of Mike’s Sky Ranch before heading back to Ensenada.
On the first day the cars raced Loop A and the bikes Loop B; then they swapped for day two. The field was a mix of veterans, legends, newcomers and fan favorites. The competition was tight, and when the dust settled and all the beer was gone, new winners were crowned and new friends were made.
Racing with NORRA is often a family affair. That was the case for Lightning Larry Ragland, inaugural winner of the NORRA 500. Larry is no stranger to winning. He is a member of a very exclusive club, and to get in you need to win the Baja 1000 five times. Simply put, Larry is a Legend.
While Larry has many wins, his NORRA 500 win is the first one witnessed by his grandsons. “That was a wonderful thing!” Larry said. “They came to the start 30 minutes before I got in the car. It was their first time to Baja. It was great to see them at the start, I was very surprised. My wife and grandsons waved the flag for me at the start and when I got to the finish they were waiting to wave the checkers. It was real special. I told my wife on the way home, for a 76 year old man I don’t know how you could have a better day. I got to race off road, Jimmy Smith from Ultra Wheels was generous enough to let me race his car, and my grandsons got to see me start and finish. On top of all that I won the race!”
Larry raced the Ultra Wheels Evolution Unlimited Buggy which is a converted sand car. As a result, it is not ideal in the rough and it is better suited to high speed graded roads than giant whoops. The car has been changed over the years to be more of a desert car than a sand car, but like any racecar there are some things it does better than others. Power comes from a GM LS3 with about 600HP.
Larry took the overall win over Evolution Unlimited Truck driver Jax Redline by just under four minutes. Jax is just 14 years old, from Amarillo, Texas, and while he has raced in Baja before he is a relative newcomer. His racing history started with dirtbikes before moving up to desert racing in UTV’s, Stock Trucks and until recently a Spec Trophy Truck. Jax’s father Shane handles co-driving duties in the truck.
One week before the NORRA 500 the team purchased a 2011 Geiser Brothers Trophy Truck with a Dougans engine package. The team raced the NORRA Mexican 1000 earlier this year and had a ton of fun, so they jumped at the chance to race the new 500. Prior to the race, Jax only had a short 15 minute test session in the truck three days prior the race.
“I loved the format for this race” Jax said. “It great to be able to come back to where you started each night. With only 500 total miles it was a sprint race and we tried to go fast and it was great to come across the line both days. It was really technical both days. Finishing second to Larry Ragland is just mind blowing. It was my first time in the truck, so it was super awesome to go out and get a good finish. Our expectations were low; we just wanted to have a good time and learn the truck and we expected to finish in the back. So to finish second was really awesome. We ran BFG tires with Monster Seal and had no flats. My dad loved that since he is the co-driver and has to get out and change them. It was surreal racing against legends like Larry Ragland and Mark Post. It was great to talk to the other drivers at the end of the race. It’s really competitive on the course but once you are done everyone is friends.”
Being just 14 years old, Jax is not allowed to race in some of the bigger series; but when he does, he will be one to watch.
In the Evolution Modified Turbo UTV class, Scott Steinberger, aka WeatherBoy, of PCI Race Radios teamed up with his kids to race the 500. “When I finished building my new Can Am UTV my first thought was oh my god, these kids are going to wreck my new racecar.” Scott said. “I know what it takes to learn and that takes experience, and getting cars upside-down is part of that. I bought them a used UTV racer for them to race. My son Ryder has never raced before and his brother Race has never co-driven before. They flipped the car in the pine forest on the first day after doing a bunch of things wrong. They were OK, and with some help got the car back on its wheels and continued the race about an hour down on time. At that time I was racing, and when I heard on the MSAT satellite radio that they went over I was really worried. I was trying to both race and make sure they are OK, and in a safe spot not on the course, I was freaking out a little bit. Once I knew they were OK and they got going again I realized that I could not listen anymore. I had to turn off the MSAT during the specials because it was so distracting. Once I turned it off I was able to focus on my race and just check in during the transit stages. With the PCI MSAT radios you don’t have a range issue anymore like the standard VHF radios; you can talk to your crew anywhere on the course. My kids loved the race. For three of them it was their first race. Ranger rode the first day with me and my daughter Sierra rode with me on day two; they did a great job. Even with family, there is always competition. Going into the race my boys Ryder and Race were saying they were going to beat me. I told them I have been racing in Baja a long time and you have a lot to learn.”
Scott finished the race third in class and eighth overall while his son Ryder finished seventh in class and 44th overall.
The Rothsport Racing Porsche 911’s have been a fan favorite since they first raced at the 2017 Mexican 1000, and they were back for the 500. I was able to catch up with Jeff Gamroth who built the cars and also co-drove in the red number 89 Porsche. It started life as a 1989 four wheel drive Porsche C4. One of the first steps was to convert the car to two wheel drive as the four wheel drive system is too complicated and heavy and you can’t get different gear ratios for it. The car has 11 inches of ground clearance and nine inches of travel on 29 inch tires. Both cars have FIA spec roll cages and are raced in gravel rallies. They have stock style suspension with original hubs, axles and brakes. The aluminum ball joint control arms on the front were replaced with steel uniball units. The shocks were swapped for rally units which are much stronger than the stock units.
“20 years ago I started my shop, Rothsport Racing, building street and racecars.” said Gamroth. “We have done lots of road racing, Daytona and Sebring, basically endurance and road racing. In 2016 we decided we needed to do something different. We heard about the NORRA race and thought we should build two 911s for it. The first year we showed up and everyone laughed and said we would never make it. We learned a lot and finished the race. We have 100 pounds of skidplates on the car; we changed the nose for a better approach angle and the engine puts out 325HP on pump gas. Wet, with both people in the car they weigh 3100 pounds. It’s a really fun car to drive and it tops out at 140 mph.”
Gamroth won his class, Vintage Stock Production cars, and finished 64th overall while the other Porsche driven by Cameron Healy finished second in class and 71st overall.
While the NORRA 500 featured two days of racing, there was also a race within the race. On Loop B cars were stopped in San Matias and then raced to Mike’s Sky Ranch in a separate time trail event called the King of the Mountain. There were awards for the fastest time in each class and a giant trophy for the overall winner. Gay Smith and Matt Loiodice took the top honors in a Jimco Class 1 Baja Bug with a time of 16 minutes and 32 seconds – just 19 seconds in front of young gun Jax Redline in his Geiser Trophy Truck.
At the end of each day of racing there was a fiesta in Ensenada. “Saturday night was the best party I have ever been to, that food was outrageously good.” Said NORRA CEO Mike Pearlman. “Everybody was really having fun and there was a great vibe.”
Mike was very pleased with the turnout and how the race went but he also realizes that it was not perfect. They entire NORRA staff learned a lot and they are already planning on how to improve the race next year. There were delays during the King of the Mountain (sweeping the course for safety) what most don’t know is that due to recent weather the course had to be changed. The original plan was for the racers to take an alternate road from Mike’s back to highway 3, but recent storms had torn up that road making it impassable. “We did the best we could changing the route a week before the race,” Pearlman said. “The backside was so rough, we could not use it. We already have the Mike’s part figured out for next year. Stop momentarily for your time at the bottom, again at the top and keep going. We just need to grade the road.”
The first running of the NORRA 500 had a few small issues, but overall it was a great event and it will no doubt grow in 2020. The next NORRA event is the 2020 Mexican 1000 starting April 17 in Ensenada.