2020 Baja 1000, Can It Get Any Tougher?

Story by Mike Ingalsbee
Photos by GETSOMEphoto

For the last few years, we have heard tales about SCORE race courses, and drivers claiming “it was the toughest course ever!” Well at the BF Goodrich Score 53rd Baja 1000 it was again the toughest race course ever. The course ran counter-clockwise, starting and finishing in Ensenada as it typically does. It travelled down the Pacific Coast, over to San Felipe, then up through Cordillera de Molina, Ojos Negro, and back to the finish in Ensenada. It included tight mountain trails, deep silt, rocky uphill sections, the punishing whoops of San Felipe, and the dry river washes Amarillas, Chanate, Huatamote and Matomi. Once the racers were headed back towards Ensenada, many were greeted with low lying fog, and thick dust due to a total lack of wind. Every mile was earned the hard way. Along the course were four full-stop checkpoints, and 359 virtual checkpoints (VCP’S). The race route also had 20 Speed Zones for safety reasons that totaled 106.13 miles. The punishing course was also a record length for a loop race; 898.4 miles long. Competitors would have 40 hours to complete it. For many, that was not long enough. According to results, there were 99 finishers, 99 teams penalized, 70 DNF’s, (did not finish), and one disqualification.

Out front were the unlimited Trophy Trucks that were locked into a fierce battle. The pace was determined by sheer bravery, and the physical limits of each truck’s components. Flat tires are a regular occurrence in desert racing, that’s why the best companies compete offroad, but it wasn’t rubber that was failing, specialized metal alloys were disintegrating due to the intense pace, and unrelenting terrain. Driveline, and steering parts were breaking, and entire suspension assemblies were being ripped from the chassis. Bryce Menzies suffered a failure in the early going when his sector shaft in the steering got twisted. It put his steering wheel off center, but more importantly signaled that a total failure was imminent. He lost about 30 minutes replacing the parts at mile marker 196. With Menzies down, it was Justin “Bean” Smith in Dan McMillin’s truck first, followed by Pat Dean in number 19 of Tim Herbst. The tracker on the number 10 truck of Alan Ampudia was not updating so he was a wildcard in the early going, but firmly in the front pack. Larry Roeseler in the 83 of Luke McMillin was the 4th truck running out front. Robby Gordon, Chris Miller, Rob MacCachren, and Jax Redline were all chasing.

They charged on through the night and into the morning. Dan McMillin got a flat tire allowing his Brother Luke to get by, and into the lead. Luke said that as he raced past him, Dan came on the radio, and said to slow down; as a joke. Dan would eventually be out at race mile 750 with mechanical failure. He would have to settle for the Baja 500 victory this season.

As the sun climbed in the sky, it revealed some amazing discoveries. Running almost bumper to bumper for hundreds of miles, the number 10 Ampudia truck was pressuring Luke McMillin for the win. Following them was the veteran Rob MacCachren, and amazingly, Andy McMillin in the number 7 of Bryce Menzies. Both Bryce, and Andy ran a blistering pace to get the truck to the front pack after losing what seemed to be an insurmountable time deficit, and valuable track position. After so many miles, and so much running on the edge, the Ampudia truck was suddenly not moving on the tracker. Rumors began circulating that they rolled the truck. In fact, they hit a g-out so hard that the front suspension got ripped off. This allowed Rob Mac to move into second, and the number 7 to third. Luke McMillin held his incredible pace to the finish for the win, Rob Mac, and Josh Daniel were second, and incredibly Bryce, and Andy were on the podium in third.

This was an incredible win for Luke McMillin. He becomes a third generation Baja 1000 winner. His Grandfather Corky won his first in 1979, and Father Mark is a 5-time overall winner. Luke’s Baja 1000 win actually began 3 years ago. That’s when he teamed up with the winningest racer in Baja, Larry Roeseler. They ran up front every year, but always suffered a setback along the way. They were both determined to get the win this time. It would be Luke’s first, and Larry’s 14th overall victory.

“It is a huge honor for me to race with the McMillin family, and be a part of Luke’s first overall win,” said Roeseler. “Before the race Mark wished me luck, and gave me a big hug. We both had tears in our eyes. It’s a huge effort we put forth. We are one big racing family; the wives, the kids, and all the volunteers. I started the truck 3rd, 2 minutes behind Bean. We were going back, and forth with the Ampudia’s from the start. I got passed, and then passed them back. After running down the coast, the course was super tight, and technical. Pat Dean is a great driver, and he missed a turn, and slid right off the road. I was excited to give the truck to Luke in great shape, but there was still a Baja 500 left to race. Once he got past Dan, he had a little margin, but it was still a cat and mouse game to the finish. Ampudia knew he had to push hard if he was going to get by us. Luke did a fantastic job to get the win.” Not only did they get the overall win, but a 25 thousand dollar bonus for winning on BF Goodrich tires who are celebrating their 150 year anniversary.

As cars, trucks, and even bikes crossed the finish line throughout the day, and long into the night, amazing stories began to emerge. Cody Parkhouse replicated his strong class one win at the Baja 500 with another impressive victory at the 1000. He finished 10th place overall, with a gap back to 2nd place Gabriel Torres in the V6 Nissan motored car of nearly 2 hours. The team of Mario Fuentes, Bob Lofton, and Justin Lofton were 3rd in their new Jimco “Hammerhead”. Justin said it was the most technical course he’s ever done.

In the Spec Trophy Truck class it was a typically competitive race. Like the old saying goes, it was won back at the shop. First place (8th overall) Jeff Bader said, “It was definitely the most technical race we have ever done, but despite that we had ne mechanical issues. The truck performed beautifully from the Fox shocks to the BFG tires, and Vision wheels. Everything worked as it should for almost 900 miles which is nothing short of miraculous.” Pierce Herbst ran a great pace to finish 2nd to Jeff Bader, and 9th overall. Elijah Kiger was 3rd.

Class 10 winner Jeremy Davis said that his Brother Justin got stuck in the silt 6 times, and that he looked like a sugar cookie when he turned the car over to him. One of the drawbacks of a single seat car is not having anyone to help push, or dig. They lost all brakes except the turning brake on one wheel, and were behind by 2 hours at race mile 200 with the brake issues, but never gave up the fight.

With such a long, challenging race, and having cars strung out for miles, it made it easier to track the battles in some of the more limited classes. Certainly not limited in horsepower, or traction, the hammer cars had a fierce battle going until the front runner Shannon Campbell suffered a transfercase failure at race mile 497 that left him with no drive to the rear wheels. The team of Paul Horschel, and Loren Healy, two of the fastest Ultra4 racers in the sport, took the win driving Horschel’s car. Paul took the green flag, and handed the car to Loren at race mile 440. Loren drove through the night, and then Paul got back in. He said started back in 120th position, and it was so dusty for much of his race that he couldn’t see the hood for miles, and miles, and miles. It was his first Baja race.

Rhys Millen took the win in class 7. His main competition Jeff Proctor hit a cement pipe in the dust in the early going that broke the front, and rear suspension on the right side of their Honda Ridgeline; taking them out. “We slowed down to see if they were ok, and after getting a thumbs up we would still have to race Baja in order to get the win,” said Rhys. It was the biggest mind game knowing when to go fast, and when to save the car.”

In the UTV’s Jason Murray took the early lead in the turbo cars with Justin Lambert, Wes Miller, Craig Scanlon, and Mike Cafro behind. At the finish Wes Miller was the only one left out of that group, and took the win. Matt Burroughs finished second place and secured the championship. Marc Burnett was 3rd. Both Burroughs and Burnett were beaten on time by a pair of naturally aspirated cars. The brand new Raceco Honda Talon of motorcycle champion Francisco Arredondo could have won the UTV overall, but unknowingly they missed a VCP along the way, and received a time penalty; quite an accomplishment for a new team, with a brand new car. Adrian Orellana finished 2nd in NA UTV, (3rd Overall UTV), and Kaden Wells was third.

One battle that piqued everyone’s interest was the Boot against the Bronco. The Glickenhaus Boot is a modern high-performance homage to the car originally built by Vic Hickey and driven by Steve McQueen in the 1960’s. They beat the modern day Bronco R race truck that pays homage to the original Ford Bronco. The Bronco had to deal with a couple issues that cost them time; however it was not exactly smooth sailing for the Boot either. It was the Boot’s second win over the Bronco.

Those who finished during the daylight on Saturday were lucky. Some went through the mental anguish of watching the sun disappear for a second time while still racing. 98th place overall Justin Park finished after 39 hours, 17 minutes, and 15.161 seconds in his Bilstein Ford Ranger. Justin has an international team consisting of his guys from the states, and Mexican locals. The Mexicans wanted to take the first leg of the race in order to go down the coast past their towns. Justin would get in for a long second leg, and then his teammates would take it to the finish. “We ran great all day but kept getting stuck in the silt,” says Justin. “One time, they got so disgusted that one of the burly Mexican guys did a full dead lift of the rear of the truck to get out. Somebody must have hit something solid because the steering box was ripped off the frame. They had to limp it along until someone had a good enough welder to fix it. There were a lot of big rocks hidden in the loose dirt. I drove through the San Felipe whoops. They are challenging because you have to stay on top or you can get stuck. We were stuck in a bottleneck behind a UTV that broke a rear trailing arm, and was hanging next to the edge of a cliff. We had to move it to a place out of the way, and keep it from rolling down because he had no brakes. After a long race we thought it was smooth sailing but with only 13 miles to go we lost the rear diff. Luckily the Mexican guys were in the truck, they are our best mechanics, so they had it disassembled when the chase truck got there. We slammed it together and snuck across the line giving us the win!”

There was tons of carnage along the way, but the race went off well for everyone involved. Those who came up short were at least safe, and any day in Baja is a good one. With such a demanding course laid out by SCORE international again, how will they ever top it? We’ll have to see what 2021 will bring.

Race results: – Overall finish order – Results by class – Penalties