By Jose Garcia:
The 5/1600 Class is not dead. Let me repeat that again… The 5/1600 Class is not dead…
I just had the most epic weekend at the San Felipe 250. For the second year in a row, I got to co-drive the most brutal San Felipe terrain, but this time in a 5/1600 Baja Bug with the Herrera Prepwerks/Negrete Boys Racing Team, the reigning SCORE International 5/1600 Class Champions. I got the opportunity of a lifetime to co-drive the first 155-miles, which took us through some amazing and rugged desert landscapes: Old Puertecitos Road, Matomi Wash, Diablo Dry Lake Bed and through Highway 3 towards Valle de Trinidad. Harsh and vast locations with breathtaking views. But how was the ride? Well, it wasn’t as plush and fast as a UTV, but the 5/1600 did deliver a more raw and dramatic experience than a UTV. Racing the San Felipe 250 in a 5/1600 was the true BAJA EXPERIENCE – and we took SECOND to top it off!
So, how did it all start?
It all started in the DM’s. No, really it did. Since Galpin Motors and I couldn’t sponsor a UTV this year due to racing in one last year, I had to find a VW/Porsche-powered race team to sponsor – plus, it needed to be a brand that Galpin carries. In this case, a 5/1600 and Class 10 buggy made perfect sense since we have a VW dealership, Galpin VW. This past January, when I received the blessing from my boss and Galpin VW GM about a sponsorship opportunity, I went ahead and sent a few DM’s to a few LA-based race teams about offering sponsorship money in exchange for a co-driver seat. Three days go by and no answer from any of the race teams. Until the fourth day, when I received a phone call from 5/1600 racing legend Ernie Negrete. Ernie couldn’t believe I was offering a sponsorship opportunity towards the team, and he kept asking me if I was for real and I kept saying “YES” to him. He then explained to me that he and Luis Herrera, owner of Herrera Prepwerks, had partnered up together to race SCORE in 2018 and 2019. With Ernie and Luis’ combined resume of racing experience, strong sponsors and hard working chase teams, they generated top three podium finishes in 2018, most significantly the 2018 Baja 1000 title, and most importantly, the SCORE International Championship. The idea of sponsoring a 5/1600 Team was shaping up to be a great idea. Soon after speaking with Ernie, I received a call from Herrera Prepwerks’ Team Manager, Michael Murray, who put this entire sponsorship together (Thanks again, Mike!). Three months fly by and I’m officially on the team with our eyes set on the San Felipe 250 – actually more like 350.
3-Days Before The Race – #JJPrep
For years I’ve spectated the races down in Baja with my family, but hardly ever with my best friends. This year’s San Felipe 250 was very special to me because I got the opportunity to take one of my best college friends, Julio, to help chase for the team (his first-ever trip to San Felipe). Just three days before the race, Julio and I went to the beach house where the team was staying at to work on the 5/1600 for the first time. For my friend Julio, it was the first time he had ever seen a 5/1600 up close, let alone see one race. Soon as we arrived to the house, Luis asked Julio and I to help him replace the throttle cable on the Bug – we both looked at each other like: “Uh… what?” Long story short, Julio and I went into it with little mechanic experience and helped Luis and the team replace the entire throttle cable and also torque lug nuts, torque CV joints and install a new gauge on the gauge panel. Very simple prep that allowed us to be more familiar with the race car days before the race. Once the car was finally prepped, we were both dubbed the “JJ Prep” duo, hence the first letter of our first names (Julio and Jose).
Heading To The Start
For this year’s San Felipe 250, I was tasked to do the first 155 miles of the race and I was ecstatic. I was going to pass through places I never raced before like old Puertecitos Road, Matomi Wash and Diablo Dry Lake Bed. Soon, I was going to race through the same iconic places that my heroes of the sport had raced in: Cameron Steele, Pistol Pete, Ivan Stewart, Mark Newhan, Parneli Jones, Herbst Family and Robby Gordon to name a few. I was like a kid in a candy store. After 10 minutes of leaving the beach house and heading into town, I quickly realized that I had left my kidney belt inside the house. Luckily, we had one of our chase teams driving behind us, which were nice enough to turn around to pick up my kidney belt for the race. After unloading the Bug on the street by the iconic San Felipe arches, Luis and I hugged our friends and said our goodbyes one last time before we made our way to the start. The feeling in my body leading to the start reminded me of my competitive running days when I would be full of nerves and peeing/pooping every five minutes. I was going into “race mode.” I remember being super quiet once Luis and I arrived at the start. But Luis was being extra quiet, like seeing a quiet Hawk ready to strike on its prey. Luis is an extremely competitive and detailed orientated person. If you look at the back of his 5/1600, it reads “Details Matter.” The meaning of his entire race program. I remember the week before the race, Luis asked me how you spell “Win.” I was dumbed by the question and I started spelling it out: “W….I….” Luis quickly interrupts before I spell out the last letter and says: “No. Win is spelled “P…R…E…P… Details Matter.” Five minutes before starting the race, I looked at Luis and said: “Lets do it.”
3… 2… 1… and we were off and we hit the first whoop three miles from the start. WHOOP! I felt the bump go through my back and I felt as if someone gave me a little rabbit punch under my kidney. Then I realized one important thing after that bump: “I forgot to put on my kidney belt.” Damn. For the next 155 miles, I was co-driving with no kidney belt – in true Baja style. Not really, though. I was sore for three days straight and I couldn’t lift anything heavy. Thankfully, I work in an office, so lifting wasn’t really part of my job responsibilities. But being sore in a second place winning 5/1600 is no different than being sore from winning a 3,000-meter steeplechase race. Being sore are just good reminders of winning.
The Funny and Not So Funny Stories from My 155-Mile Adventure
This little Bug skips over big whoops and eats up silt and sand like nothing! I knew choosing to race in this class was going to fun and memorable. The stories that came out of my 155-mile racing adventure were priceless, painful and funny! As you read through the stories, please keep in mind that the race miles may be off by more than a few miles. I’m writing these stories to the best of my memory.
In the first 25-30 miles, we lost the brakes going down a rocky trail and crashed into a dried up wash wall. We got stuck in the rocky sand for about 5 to 6 minutes until we got out, which cost us the lead. In return after getting out of the sand, we lost one of the MAXTRAX’s in the sand. No bueno. About 10 miles later heading into Matomi Wash, we came across Dan Chamlee’s Championship Class 7 stuck on the side of a rocky hill, which left two long and round cactuses on the course. Luis being the competitive and impatient racer that he is, ordered me to get out of the Bug and go push the cactus out of the course. Soon after, Dan Chamlee’s co-driver was out pushing the cactus with me too. Luis eventually got out of the Bug and started pushing too. I quickly realized that my hands were too soft to push the spiny cactus so I sat on my ass and started pushing the cactus with my legs as if I was leg pressing at 24-Hour Fitness – with a few more pushes, I got the cactus out of the course. But that was the smaller one, we had a bigger one to push out. At this point, it was three of us behind the cactus doing leg presses to get it out. And getting it out, we did.
Then, after getting stuck in the sand, at race mile 56 going into the notorious Matomi wash, a five car bottleneck put us about 200 feet away from the lead 5/1600, Borachos Motorsports, that passed us earlier. Unfortunately, after crawling halfway through the bottleneck, we got stuck again on a huge rock and lost our opportunity to regain the lead. When we got stuck, I noticed there was a famous legend driving a winch-equipped Jeep, Dennis Hollenbeck, pulling cars left and right. I went over to Dennis and asked him to pull us out. Being the Baja hero that he is, he graciously came to our rescue and pulled us out quickly. Unfortunately, after being towed out for about 50 yards or so, we got stuck again in the sand while driving out. Only this time, instead of pulling us out with the Jeep, Dennis got behind the Bug and helped me push it out. This is the true Baja experience, but I was tiring out. Running, lifting and pushing in a 2-layer suit, with helmet and a HANS device, made it extremely exhausting. And that’s coming from a guy who used to train at the highest level of elite distance running. Matomi is not for wussies.
Video by “The Best Bajas” of Luis and I trying to get out of Matomi Wash
After being in Matomi for about 15 minutes or so, we got back on course and started to gain time on the Borachos 5/1600. But knowing Baja’s unforgiving desert terrain, we rolled the Bug at race mile 75 in very sandy part of the course. Thankfully, it was a very light roll and we were both unhurt. Within five minutes after rolling, I went out and searched for help on the course. Soon enough, Baja did it’s magic on us and I was able to waive down a Wide Open BC-10 Buggy who was kind enough to stop and get us back on four-wheels. Fast forward to the finish, about 30 minutes after we crossed the finish line, I noticed a BC-10 Buggy crossing the finish line and I wondered if that was the BC-10 that pulled us out. I saw it and said to Julio, “Nah, can’t be.” As I was leaving the finish line with the team, the co-driver of the BC-10, yelled towards my direction: “Hey, we helped you out.” I looked at my friend Julio who was walking with me and said: “NO WAY! THAT’S THE TEAM THAT SAVED OUR DAY!” I went over to the driver and gave him the biggest hug. I was so happy to find him after the race, so happy that I had to take a picture of him. He did the full 349-miles, but co-drove the last part to help another BC-10 driver finish.
At this point of the race, we were down on time and on spare tires. For the next 45-50 miles after rolling, we ran on a flat tire and two bent wheels – we had no spares and needed one badly. Luis, the driver of record and owner of the Bug, got out at race mile 104, three miles from the nearest pit, and did some MacGyver work by switching the flat rear left tire with the aired front left tire, which miraculously got us to Baja Pits at race mile 107 – where we got fuel, new set of tires and a spare. From there, Luis put the hammer down and gained more time on the Borachos 5/1600.
After pitting at race mile 107 with Baja Pits, Luis and I finally arrived at race mile 155 to switch co-drivers with Jim Yourdon, Co-Driver #2. Soon as we arrived, our Herrera/Negrete Boys Racing Chase Team said we were 2 minutes from the lead 5/1600! Within a short period of time after pitting and switching co-drivers, Luis had caught the lead 5/1600 and was in the lead until race mile 257 where he had the final driver and co-driver change with Ernie Negrete and Michael Murray. Bad luck would strike again, and we would lose the lead heading to the last 92 miles of the race due to a faulty alternator that needed to get replaced. At race mile 308 in El Chinero, about 41 miles from the finish, our crew decided to play it safe by changing the alternator to get the lights working again so we can make it to the finish. Around 2 am, Ernie brought home the German-stripped “El Pony” #550 to the Malecon for a second place finish in class. What a freaking race.
Hoping to jump back in the co-driver seat for the Baja 500, and one day, the Baja 1000.
Big Thanks to Our Family and Sponsors!
I want to give a huge thanks to the entire SCORE International Champions, Herrera Prepwerks Team and Negrete Boys Racing Team for allowing my friend Julio and I to be a part of this amazing racing experience. I also want to thank Galpin Motors, Galpin Ford, Galpin Volkswagen and my bosses for allowing me to race with the best in the sport. I wish to continue racing with Galpin and the Herrera Prepwerks Team if the opportunity presents itself again. And last but not least, a big thanks to our sponsors: Yokohama Tire, Baja Designs, Transaxle Engineering, HeatShield Products, Trackside Performance, King Shocks, My Medic Official, Blud Lubricants, Best Bajas, Rulo Oraf and Forsaken Society. You guys are the best in the business!