Pre-Running with Bryce Menzies: The secrets to winning the Baja 500 – race-deZert.com

Pre-Running with Bryce Menzies: The secrets to winning the Baja 500

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Pre-running is the secret pleasure of desert off-road racing. It allows you to explore Baja without the pressures of race day, and as history has proven it also is a primary key to winning races. Bryce Menzies has won three Baja 500’s and part of his success has been doing his homework. Menzies meticulously pre-runs every inch of the race course over the period of three weeks, completing the entire course over five times.

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We went down to spend a few days with Bryce Menzies and his crew to see first hand what his process for pre-running is. We discovered a few of the secrets to his success along the way. We chased Bryce and his teammate Jesse Jones almost the entire course in our Polaris RZR’s, stopping to shoot photos and video at some of the most dynamic locations. We will be releasing a video of the entire pre-run shortly so keep checking back.

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First order of business after crossing the border into Baja was to stop at a taco stand and reset our palettes. Our photographer Ernesto, who lives in Ensenada told us about his favorite taco stand “La Vianda”,  which just happened to be directly across the street from our favorite taco stand, “El Trailero”. He explained that we should try the “fancier style” tacos that La Vianda specializes in called “Carnes en su Jugo”.  Basically it’s beef, slow cooked in its own juices with onion, salsa, garlic, coriander and other various seasonings. The meat is then topped with bacon, onion, green salsa, pinto beans and the magical ingredient chicharron. The meat comes served on a platter with fresh tortillas so you can make your own tacos, and they are delicious.

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After a quick lunch we headed to meet Bryce and his crew on the south side of Ensenada near Estero Beach. We settled in and had a light BBQ chicken dinner at the hotel and turned in early because the next two days were going to be early to rise and late to sleep. We woke and started prepping vehicles and camera equipment at 6am. We replaced Bryce’s race tires with a set of the new KO2’s which are essentially a street truck tire intended for vehicles less than half the weight of the six thousand pound pre-runner. We wanted to see how the tires would hold up to the brutality of Baja. Pete Mortensen (Bryce’s Co-driver) looked at me with disapproval as he would likely be the one changing tires if we got a flat.

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We had coffee and a light breakfast, then headed out to Ojos Negros to begin our trip. After clearing the checkpoint, Jesse Jones’ A.D.D. kicked in and he bought a watermelon from a roadside truck and shared it with everyone. Once we got the RZR’s unloaded we headed north to start our pre-run with some fast graded farm roads, leading into a sandy wash, then into some technical and rocky switchbacks up hills heading toward the Ponderosa Pine forest. As the small town of Ojos Negros faded into the dust behind us we began to merge into the never-never of Baja.

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Many people think Baja is just a big flat desert and they couldn’t be more wrong. The diversity of the terrain and landscape is remarkable at minimum. Those of us who get to explore the vast unspoiled areas of Baja are truly the lucky ones.

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After making our way up through Ponderosa Pine forest we hit highway 2 and hung a right to La Rumorosa. We stopped for lunch at “La Cabana Del Abuelo”, they specialize in game meats and steaks. I had the Arrachera (Skirt Steak) which was awesome. A couple of the guys had some quail and rabbit which they seemed to enjoy as well.

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We gassed up at the Pemex next door and headed off to tackle “La Rumorosa Trail” which is one of the most feared sections of race course in off-road. Named for the whispering sounds made when the winds blow through the canyons, La Rumorosa trail descends over 1500 feet down to Laguna Salada in a series of ultra sketchy rocky off-camber switchbacks with corners so tight three point turns are required to make them. There is no margin for error or mechanical failure. We took the trail really slow, basically crawling down onto the rock laden valley below stopping periodically to enjoy the views.

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Once we got to the bottom of La Rumorosa the punishment wasn’t over as we had to tip-toe through a rock laden valley until we got to the edge of Laguna Salada. We picked up the pace significantly through a series of rock washes and sandy whoop sections until we got to the Highway 5 where we loaded the RZR’s onto trailers and followed Bryce and Jones down the highway to San Felipe. The bulk of route through Laguna Salada was closed due to recent rains causing ultra sticky mud, nearly impossible to drive through even with a four-wheel drive vehicle. We got into San Felipe around 10pm with just enough time to shower and pass out.

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In the night, the hotel’s generator had broken down so we got ready with no electricity which also meant no coffee. As a by product of my many travels I always bring my own coffee maker, typically if you want coffee at 6am you better be making it yourself. Despite my preparation, I failed to bring a generator as well. I know better. We have been stuck in the middle of nowhere before with no way to make coffee or charge phones and batteries. Rookie move. Next thing I need to invent is a portable coffee maker with a built in generator. I can go days without food, but if I am deprived of coffee and beer, I am going home. Finally the generators came back on and we got our coffee fix. Jones bought some tamales off some woman walking down the beach and we scarfed them down and headed out to the notorious Borrego jump. I have been nearly killed here multiple times because overzealous spectators stand on the course as race vehicles come through, as a result the racers adjust their lines trying and avoid the crowds. With no crowds we got to set up the shot we always wanted to take and Bryce hit the off-camber jump a few times and we moved on.

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We couldn’t resist ripping down the road to El Diablo dry lake bed and ripping around for a bit. There is something about dry lake beds that begs for high speeds and sideways sliding.

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After Borrego the course goes on the pavement all the way to Valley de La Trinidad where you can get some of the best carne asada tacos in all of Baja. After quick bite at the El Rancho taco stand we headed out of Valley de La Trinidad to the famed “Cross Over Road”, a graded road that connects back to the pacific coast just below San Vicente. Being a rally nut, this is one of my favorite roads in Baja. You can go as fast at your mind will let you, there are huge cliffs and treacherous rock laden valleys below. The spectacular views of the unspoiled mountains and valleys are so stunning, it’s a little hard to concentrate on driving.

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At the end of the cross over road we hit the military checkpoint and headed north on the pavement through San Vicente. We stopped in San Vicente to buy some fruit. I always try to sample the local fruits and vegetables and this time I was on the hunt for some “Tuna” or prickly pear cactus fruit I wanted to share with the guys. While out filming at last years Baja 1000 a local walked up and handed me a few then showed me how to peel them without getting the cactus needles in your hand. The fruit is delicious. It’s a cross between watermelon and kiwi fruit and it grows everywhere in Baja. They have lots of seeds that you just eat with the fruit.

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After quick break we headed up the road and after San Vicente we turned off the pavement and headed towards the beach and picked our way through a silty technical section to the rocky beaches of Eréndira. We stopped at a few spots just to enjoy the view and even saw whales blowing off in the distance.

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The sun was going down fast so we hightailed it back to Santo Tomas where we put the RZR’s back on the trailer and headed back to Ensenada. Pre-running is magical, you get to drive off-road and enjoy some of the very best parts of Baja with your friends. I didn’t want to go home, but alas every trip comes to an end. Baja always leaves me with a seemingly endless yearning to explore more. If knowledge is power, then pre-running is the key to winning off-road races. But it’s not just about the win, it’s not the destination, it’s the journey that counts. After over 500 miles of varied terrain the KO2’s had held up, in fact they had very little wear on them at all. We had had no flats and had not been conservative with driving whatsoever. In fact the KO2’s on our Polaris RZR remain in very good condition despite having done two trips to Baja and one trip to Moab totaling to almost 1000 off-road miles.

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Secret to winning the Baja 500 #1: Shared Knowledge is key.

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It takes years to gain the proper knowledge you need to win off-road races, so having someone to help get you up to speed is clutch. For Bryce that person was Jesse Jones, one of the most underrated drivers in off-road. When he is on, he is a podium threat at any race. Jones puts in more time than anybody pre-running and precisely planning for races. When you realize Jones runs a multi-million dollar aerospace business then you can understand how he applies the same work ethic and discipline to off-road racing. In fact it was Jones who gave Bryce his first taste of the trophy truck class, by allowing Bryce to drive his truck at the Best in The Desert Silver State 300 in 2009. Bryce qualified 3rd and when on to win the race, Bryce’s very first race in a trophy truck. Prior to that race a Class 10 car was the most advanced car Bryce had ever raced. The pair hit it off and became fast friends pre-running and racing together. For Bryce, Jones became a living encyclopedia of off-road racing because of his prior racing experience. For Jones, Bryce is a catalyst, pushing him to perform better and better. From the outside looking in one would question the duo’s relationship, but once you understand the working dynamic you see how much influence they have over each  another to provoke increased performance and the relationship becomes clear. Our mornings in Baja were started with workouts and stretching rather than the cliche hangovers.

Secret to winning the Baja 500 #2: Having a good co-driver is critical.

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Pete Mortensen (Bryce’s Co-driver) is more than just a co-driver. He is one part triathlete, one part mechanic, one part navigator, and one part psychologist. He has dedicated his life to becoming the best co-driver he can and clearly he has succeeded. Essentially, Pete is the standard by which every other co-driver should be measured. When Pete is not prepping the trophy truck he is training to make himself physically fit for peak performance in the truck. Physical fitness is now a requirement to race at the top level in off-road. Pete can tackle tire changes in under a minute, (with a 135 lb tire!)  he is mentally sharp so he can diagnose mechanical problems and he can navigate with precision. Pete’s ultra fast tire changes helped Bryce win the Mint 400 in 2013 he was able to get a tire change complete before BJ Baldwin was able to pass them thus forcing BJ to take risks to attempt to pass which lead to a wheel failure. A good co-driver has to also be a psychologist to help keep his driver on task and positive even when things go wrong. More than half of racing is mental, it’s conquering your fear of losing control. So having a good co-driver helping the driver make good decision to slow down or speed up makes a tremendous difference. Pete will also be with Bryce during the entire pre-run so he too will engrain the course into his brain.

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Secret to winning the Baja 500  #3: Stay out of town.

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Ensenada has many attractions from great taco stands and restaurants to bars and strip clubs. For the anyone it’s a great place to spend night drinking and eating street tacos. Bryce has opted to stay just slightly out of town avoiding the distractions and focusing on the task at hand, winning his fourth Baja 500. His whole team comes down and stays together at a small hotel near Estero Beach keeping them all out of the city’s distracting grasp. The Menzies team, one of the biggest in desert off-road racing, stays together humble and focused on the the top priority,  winning. There is no trophy for partying, this is a serious race with serious competition, and potentially serious consequences. Just ask Jesse Jones who in the 2007 Baja 500 went sailing off a cliff down to the pacific ocean while trying to pass a 10 car. The accident, a sobering reminder of how dangerous off-road racing can be, was caused in large part to a lack of pre-running.

Secret to winning the Baja 500  #4: Pre-run as much as you can.

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Bryce will pre-run the entire course over five times spending almost three entire weeks in Baja prior to the race. He and Pete will take detailed notes first on a voice recorder, then peter will transfer the notes to GPS and run the course again to check accuracy. By running the course so many times Bryce will commit most of it to memory allowing him to push speeds even faster. Bryce and Pete will also be on the hunt for passing lines and alternate lines in case of bottlenecks or route changes due unforeseen circumstances. Bryce will even do the entire course in one day getting a feel for his stamina and acclimating to time of day. Doing your homework prior to the race pays off in victory.

Secret to winning the Baja 500  #5: Have the best equipment and prep.

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It’s no secret that budget is a primary factor in racing. Especially when you are racing in the unlimited Trophy Truck class. You need to have enough budget for the run perfectly set up quality equipment. Gone are the days of showing up half-assed and winging it. The level of competition is so high and now everybody has good equipment. If you are showing up with less than the perfect equipment with a less than perfect prep you are not going to win. Start with buying a truck from a reputable builder. Jimco, Geiser Brothers, Racer Engineering, and ID Designs are a few that come to mind. You can either have them prep your vehicle or hire someone with at least 5 years of experience preparing vehicles for racing. Bryce and his father Steve have built one of the best race prep programs in off-road racing. It took them years but they surrounded themselves with knowledgeable people, slowly bringing everything in house. Bryce’s pre-runner is a Stewart Raceworks built custom pre-runner and his current trophy truck is a Geiser truck that has been modified and prepped in house. He runs a Kroyer engine and transmission package and has input from multiple experienced advisors. Bryce’s co-driver Pete Mortensen preps all of desert vehicles, so he knows every part on every vehicle and can fix anything outside of engine and transmission failures. Bryce’s program also has the added advantage of participating in short course racing. It’s not the same as desert racing but there is a lot of shared knowledge. They prep a Pro-2, Pro- 4, two pre-runners, and two trophy trucks all in house. In addition, his father Steve is obsessed with off-road racing, bringing his business acumen from running a successful construction business and applying that skill set to off-road racing.

This years Baja 500 has some welcome changes adding a stretch off the start through Valley De Guadalupe, heading out to Ojos Negros. From there the course heads north up to the Ponderosa pine forest through the ultra technical section almost to the border just to turn south down the ultra sketchy La Rumorosa trail. From there racers will head south via Laguna Salada, (Which may now be changed due to rain producing nearly impassible mud) down through Borrego, into Valley De La Trinidad.

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The pace will pick up significantly leaving Valley De La Trinidad heading through the cross over road to Llano Colorado just south of San Vicente then out through the beach heading up through Erendia, then back to highway 1 at Santo Tomas. After a quick pavement section, racers get back on dirt at Uruapan crossing and travel over technical hills and mountains returning them back to Ojos Negros then into Ensenada. This years course will prove to be a good mix of technical and fast sections. The opportunity for bottlenecks on the narrow course will make qualifying even more important.

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The recent protests of farm workers demanding a raise from .40¢ an hour also may play into the race if negotiations scheduled to happen the day before the race breakdown. Previous protest have blocked highway 1 and resulted in violence towards police. So be sure to have alternate route or wait out the protest as the demand for cheap produce could change the outcome of the race. Just one of the variables to prepare for in the most dynamic form of motorsports on the planet, off-road racing.

 

3 Comments

  1. Even though I am an 81 year old woman , I was totally entranced while viewing this . Great reporting and writing! Super interesting! And, we are long time friends with father of Pete Mortenson: ” Pete Mortenson.”

  2. “We replaced Bryce’s race tires with a set of the new KO2’s which are essentially a street truck tire intended for vehicles less than half the weight of the six thousand pound pre-runner.”

    You might want to check your math on this statement, while it doesn’t state the actual sizes used the load carrying capacity of 4 37X12.50R17 KO2 exceeds 12,000 lbs. Which would carry a vehicle twice the weight of the pre-runner.

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