This Was a Bad Idea..
Words: Matt Kartozian
It’s 30 seconds until I take the green flag in my very first desert race. The San Felipe Desert Mayhem 150, and I am thinking that I am in way over my head.
This story starts in 1995 when I ventured from my parent’s home in the Bay Area to Laughlin, NV to watch my first desert race in person. While Laughlin was only a 550 mile drive, at the time it felt like a world away. I had always been fascinated with desert racing and after seeing it live I was hooked. I started to formulate a plan to build my K5 Blazer into a Stock Full race truck. That plan never materialized, but I still went back to Laughlin every few years to watch the race – and I still had a dream of racing.
In 2007 I started Durka Durka Photo, and while I was not racing I was and still am loving working in off road racing. After 11 years I thought I had an idea of what it takes to do well. If I had a nickel for every time I watched someone overdrive a race car in the desert and DNF, I would have a shitload of nickels. For a few years now, I have had a theory that if you just finish the race you will do well. In other words, dial it back, save the car, get to the checkers.
Two weeks ago I called my friend and fellow media goon Art Eugenio of GETSOME Photo to see if he wanted to test the theory. We would race my work truck, known as the Goon Wagon, in the SFDM 150. The Goon Wagon is a 1988 Bronco prerunner. Its heavy, about 7300 pounds when loaded to cover a peninsula run, it has only one 2.5 inch shock per wheel with leaf springs in the rear, and rides on 35 inch Toyos. Bottom line, its slow. It will go anywhere, but not fast. We would be racing old school grassroots style. Drive the truck to the race, prerun, race it, then drive it home to Phoenix. No trailer, no pits, no chasers. Our “crew” consisted of a two and half year old jerkbaby and a not really into racing wife.
The SFDM 150 is a new race; 2018 was the second running. At only 150 miles this seemed like an ideal race to get my feet wet. The San Felipe Desert Mayhem 150, also known as the Mayhem 150 is a nonprofit race. Cesar Quirarte, Ledgar Osuna and Juan Gallo are the founders of this event. They wanted to hold a race that would benefit the town of San Felipe with tourism and charity during a slow month.
“In summer time Juan, Ledgar and I go to the qualifying course and mess around” said Cesar. While out there, Juan and Ledgar kept telling me let’s do a race! I finally said OK, but we need to find a date that does not conflict with any other race and it needs to benefit the community. We donate 30% of our proceeds to local groups.”
The Mayhem 150 has no sanctioning body like SCORE or CODE, yet people with ties to many racing organizations pitch in to put on this race. It is a true grassroots community event with more than 60 volunteers this year. After the race, donations are made to local groups such as DARE, Cruz Roja and Brigada del Sol.
The late January race date is ideal for many racers as it gives them a chance to shake down new racecars, and gives teams with upgrades and setup changes to their car a chance for a shakedown run. The race course highlights the best and worst of Baja racing with all types of terrain – crossgrain whoops, square edged holes, sand, silt, giant San Felipe four foot whoops and WFO graded roads are all included.
If you race in Baja, this is a must do event to shakedown for your racecar, pit crews, logistics and planning with time to make changes before the season starts. I liken it to a preseason NFL game. New guys get up to speed, veterans have a chance to knock off the dust and sharpen their skills all in a low pressure yet realistic competition situation.
Art and I are very familiar with the race course around San Felipe. As racing photographers we have shot and covered more than 30 races there. Even we were surprised at how rough parts of the course were during our prerun lap the day before the race. There were miles long sections where we could only go 5-10mph. That is when I started to think that we were in over our heads. Scouting access roads and alternate lines is a big part of the job for members of the desert racing press. During the entire prerun we were looking for smoother lines and Art found most of them. As a dirtbike rider and Class 9 racer he has a real eye for finding them. We had to be careful though as there were VCPs all over the course and everyone would be using a Stella tracking device to keep things fair and safe.
Just after we cleared race mile 40 during our prerun, the fast guys (TT, TT Spec, 1, 10, 12 and 16) started qualifying. The qualifying course was very close to the qualifying course used by SCORE at the 2017 San Felipe 250. It was also part of the Mayhem 150 race course, giving a great view of the action on race day.
Technical inspection and contingency started at 5 PM the day before the race. I’ve been to more than I can count, but never driving a racecar. It was really cool to experience it from the drier’s perspective. Handing out steeekers, signing autographs and posing for photos with the fans.
The race consisted of 3 heats. Motos and quads in the morning. Our group, the slow guys (8, 5, 5-16, UTV, 11 and Sportsman) went off the line at 9:30, with the fast guys starting at 2:30. All cars staged on the Malecon for a parade to the base of the dune where we would take the green flag. The cars would race along the base of the dune, under the bridge then out into the desert. The last 3 miles to the finish would be the opposite. That meant the possibility of two way traffic on the same section of race course but the Mayhem 150 staff did a great job controlling that section and keeping it safe.
As we staged to take the green flag I was nervous. I was concerned that we might get hit at speed in the rough where we were going slow. I was worried about breaking the truck, I still had to drive it home to Phoenix. I was both worried and amused at the thought of getting nerfed. I didn’t want to take damage from a nerf, but I thought it would be funny if a small 1900 pound car tried to nerf our 7500 pound Iceberg. Would we even feel it?
While staged, I reminded myself of our race strategy. The plan was to run our normal prerun pace when scouting photo spots. Just drive what you can see, don’t push. The other part of the plan was if we were caught by a faster car, just move over and let them go. We would not pull off course and stop to let them by, instead we would move over, give them room but keep moving ourselves.
All these thoughts are running through my head as we get the countdown to start. The green flag waved, and I punched it. I knew the truck would handle the bumps at the base of the dune at high speed, so I was mostly flat out until braking for the corner before the bridge. Seeing all the fans cheering definitely inspired me to push a little harder than I should have. I came into the really rough section past the bridge a little hot and Art reminded me to back it down, save the truck, drive it home. The first car caught us, a 5 Open was on us within the first mile. There were multiple lines in that section so we just held ours as they drove around. We were passed by seven more cars in the first six miles. No one nerfed us, all the passing drivers were courteous, so I started to relax and just drive what I could see. That meant slowing way down after being passed and sitting in the dust.
Then a funny thing happened. We passed a car back that was on the side of the course, then another and in the next 5 miles we passed six of the eight cars that had passed us – including one that had a front corner ripped off, facing the wrong way with the front end up in the air held up by a tree. I began to think our theory had merit.
Prerunning pays off. We were in the sand wash around race mile 22 on lap 1 and truck 760 caught us. We gave them room to pass and they slowly started to pull away from us. Little did they know that we had one of our best lines coming up. A mile or so later they stayed on the main line and we took our freeway alternate and passed them back with lots of room to spare. A few miles later they passed us again and slowly pulled away. A couple miles later we passed them again while they were pitting. Again, they ever so slowly reeled us in and passed. This time though, they pushed hard after the pass to get away from us. So hard that we watched the 760 do a massive sky wheelie after not checking up for a large hole. They ended up pulling away and we lost sight. Around race mile 36, in the massive square sand whoops that led into to the short course, we passed them a final time as they were broken down on the side of the course.
This was by far the highlight of my day. Using prerun knowledge to make a good clean pass, and against a local to boot! The rest of lap 1 was uneventful. We stayed in cruise mode and kept the truck together. At the end of lap 1 Art and I switched spots and he drove lap 2. He had never driven my Bronco but he took to it like a fish to water as he has his own Bronco that is similar but without a cage.
The first few miles he was pushing pretty hard and as he did when I drove I reminded him it had to be driven home. We passed more broken cars that had passed us and just kept trucking along.
We went through checkpoint 2 at 2:16 PM, 14 minutes before the Trophy Trucks and other fast classes would start. The course workers sent us down the two way section to the finish due to safety concerns and we were fine with that. Had we continued on our third lap the TTs would have caught us in the deep crossgrain, the slowest part of the course for us, and it would have been dangerous. Many other cars from our group were on course and they were pulled at Checkpoint 1 and sent to the finish off course for the same safety reasons.
Before heading to the finish, I got back in the driver’s seat – the benefit of being the car owner. Again, I was mostly flat out around the base of the dune. For the fans man! We crossed the official finish just as the TTs were staging for their start. We continued to the Malecon to take the checkers and we were given our finisher medallions.
We had done it! We finished my first race, the truck was almost perfect (several trees knocked a mirror loose) and there were no incidents. Since we were already on the Malecon we pulled into Bar Miramar to celebrate with some friends who were there. The day after the race we picked up our 2nd place trophy at the awards ceremony at the Rockodile.
I am now home in Phoenix (after driving the Bronco home without incident) reflecting on what I learned and experienced at the race:
A lot of people over drive and push too hard, our tortoise and the hare strategy allowed us to beat 21 other cars;
In a bigger race we would have needed to push a little harder and go a little faster if we wanted to be competitive;
The Bronco needs bigger rear shocks with more valveing – that is what kept us from going faster;
I am not a real racer. Ayrton Senna said it best, “If you no longer go for a gap that exists you are no longer a racing driver because we are competing.” I was not going for the gap, using the GPS to drive through the blinding dust, or trying to catch and pass other cars. This could change with more experience, a real race car or a huge budget and a team to fix broken parts and tow it home if needed. I was not racing, I was participating.
Art also had some closing thoughts on the race. “We seriously had a good time here. Matt and I had talked about running a race before with the idea of if we just drove around and finish, we’d podium. We’ve both seen it a million times over the years of shooting races, the fastest guy to check 1 very rarely wins at the end of the day. We took our time, picked good lines and finished with a podium spot, mission accomplished. Beyond that this was a chance to be on the other side of the lens and experience it as the racers do. We weren’t flogging whoops at 110 but we got to come here and participate in a way we aren’t use to. We had our family and friends cheering us along, we could see our photog friends taking our pics, it was great. Cesar and everyone here in San Felipe put on a first class event, everything was on time, hassle free and ran smooth. The atmosphere reminded me of the FUD races I grew up with in Plaster City. I’d highly recommend this race to anyone. I’ll be back next year in my 9 car.”
The San Felipe Desert Mayhem 150 is great race. Despite not being run by a professional sanctioning body, it is a professionally run race. Everything went off on time, all racers were tracked with Stella units, all road crossings were manned and controlled, three ambulances were stationed around the course and more.
Make no mistake, this is a real race and a real race course.