Last year, I raced the RECORD 250 Ensenada to San Felipe with Justin Park in his Bilstein #7147 truck and was amazed at the capability of these vehicles, especially for the cost. If you want to go off-road racing without spending a fortune, the 7100 truck class is the way to go. American off-road racing was forged in garages and backyards by car enthusiasts and grease monkeys all over the country who modified stock trucks and made them into stronger and more reliable race vehicles. No class represents this spirit of “do-it-yourself” racing better than the 7100 class.
It may not look like it now but this truck was once a stock 1998 Ford Ranger. It was purchased used fifteen years ago and slowly built by Justin Park into the weapon of choice for the Bilstein #7147 Racing Team. The 7100 class was designed to be a budget-conscious class, built on production mini or mid-sized pickups and SUVs. They are modified to race but unlike their big brothers, they must be built with a chassis and motor that are readily available to the general public and must retain stock steering.
The suspension of these vehicles is the same configuration as originally produced. They are strengthened and reinforced but the original stock geometry must be left intact and are limited to 18 inches of suspension travel and a 35” tire. As part of the safety specifications for the class, a race fuel cell is installed, as are race seats, a racing harness, and of course a roll cage.
While the brake, hubs, and rear differential components can be upgraded, the hoods, trunk lids, doors fenders and bedsides are required to resemble the original stock vehicles. The vehicles must weigh a minimum of 3250 lbs. in order to compete. All these class restrictions keep the class affordable to race and push the drivers to focus on becoming better drivers, instead of relying on their trucks for a particular advantage.
Our crew consisted of a mix of the Mad Media crew (Carter Gibbs in MM Chase #1 and Mad Media photographer Ernesto Araiza and his fiancé Thayra Flores), Justin Park’s team, and some local friends. I was drove the first 120 miles with cinematographer Derek Eldredge as my Co-Dawg.
Justin’s Bilstein #7147 Racing Team crew consisted of Jordan Adams running chase #2 and Don Aumann riding co-dawg for the second stretch. Justin & Don were set to get in at Valley de La Trinidad and take the truck to the finish in San Felipe. Justin had invited his friends and local photographers Mafiin Cambell and Danny Curiel to chase with us as well. It’s always good to have locals who speak the language fluently and know the lay of the land. After all that’s how you find the best food!
The field was stacked with over 300 racers and 28 Class 7s trucks. My goal was really just to go drive the truck to see how it felt and hand Justin a clean truck at the halfway point but everybody knows when that green flag drops everything goes out the window! Just like Mike Tyson said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.” Racing is the same. You plan. You prepare. But there are always the realities of what you are facing with and how you deal with it.
Contingency at the RECORD 250 was a bit different than American races. It started at 6pm and went on until almost 2am. Packed with people and a few dozen vendors, people were super friendly and glad to see us racing with them. Robert Acer had come down and agreed to be the grand marshal. After a couple of hours of meeting people, handing out stickers and a beer or two, we headed back to our home base at Horsepower Ranch.
Before we left town we stopped for some tacos at one of the local hot spots for fish and shrimp tacos at El Fenix. Unbelievable. A few fresh shrimp and fish tacos washed down with a Tecate and we were all ready for bed. We arrived at Horsepower Ranch and had a quick team meeting to outline our chase plan and then we were sucked into the vortex of friends at the bar. After a few shots of Mezcal we barely escaped the all-nighter that was evolving. I went to my room and tried to hydrate and fall asleep. Tomorrow was going to be an early and long day, but I couldn’t wait!
The organizers lined us up on Avenue Reforma (Highway 1) and paraded us all the way through town out to the old Pepsi stand along Highway 3 east towards Ojos Negros. We turned off the highway onto a long graded farm road and topped off our gas and got strapped in. I sat at the start line knowing that I needed to drive 60% and let the race come to me. The advice from seasoned off-road racers swirled in my head. From Rod Hall to Rob MacCachren to Scott McMillin, they essentially all have told me the same thing. “Get to the finish in one piece.”
We were set to go off 28th out of 34 trucks. As vultures soared overhead we crept forward to the starting line which was down a farm road next to some sort of small shack like house. The flag dropped and we launched down into a small ravine, then up onto some rally style farm roads. Derek called the first major corner backwards yelling “Left!” when I knew we were to go right. A visual check of the course marker confirmed and I slid the truck into a nicely apexed rally style turn only to be stopped by our first bottle neck. We were less than a mile in and we had already hit a bottleneck. Damn! Derek apologized for the bad call and we sat and waited for the trucks in front of us to get through a tricky silt ravine and silty uphill. Bad calls by your navigator are a common mistake, especially off the start. This is why pre-running and taking notes are critical as well as getting your bearings. All the adrenaline that was pumping through me crashed into a weird zenish calm.
We rolled through the silty ravine and climbed up the hill after the dust cleared and started clicking off miles on the way to Ojos Negros. I had pre-run once which is not enough but I know this area so I took my time, as I knew it was a windy and twisty technical section. Right away we started seeing broken and crashed cars at almost every corner. That’s the thing about off-road racing, sometimes your biggest obstacle is your ego. Overconfidence leads to over driving which leads to… well the race being over. Somehow you have to keep it in check just enough to win. As we passed dozens of broken cars I could hear Rod Hall’s wise words. We popped out of the blue gate at Ojos and dropped the hammer on the graded farm roads of Ojos, only checking up for the 30 mph speed zone through town. I could only get the truck up to 78 mph which I thought was weird. It should top out around 100 mph. The two wheel drive platform was a little skatey at top speed but nothing scary.
After we hit the road crossing at Ojos and hit the two famous rollers, that’s when it got real! The course deviated off the main road and got whooped out and nasty right away. Then we were routed up a silty, rocky uphill section that I had to creep through. Just shortly after that, we dropped into a ravine with a sandy wash that I knew would be a bottleneck from pre-running. Bingo! It was a massive bottleneck. There was no alternate line at all.
A couple trucks were buried in the sand and completely blocking the course. After about a half hour digging, they finally got moving and the dust train began. Right as we started moving a UTV got out of line and went around everybody. Bad move. Now you have 20+ pissed off racers behind you because everybody else stayed in their positions. But at least we were moving. The worse thing about bottlenecks is that after you get going you are immediately in everyone’s dust so of course this would be the perfect time for our parker pumper to die. That’s racing! Anything that can go wrong will. Let the sweating begin!
Every time I am faced with a challenge I categorize into two columns and then I move on. One, it could kill me or two, it’s not going to kill me. Thanks to Mark Mcmillin for teaching me that philosophy. A parker pumper is one of those magnificent inventions that you take for granted until it’s gone. Now I was reduced to driving with my visor open until we got into the dust and I would flip it down and sweat. The good thing is it was only about 90 degrees out not the 100+ as during the Baja 500.
A truck up ahead of us missed a right hander and as we approached the turn, he had already turned around and was racing us to the turn. I dropped the hammer and just barely beat him as we almost doored one another! Derek was yelling Go! Go! Go!. We kept working our way through the silt, whoops, sand, and rock trying to avoid getting flats or overdriving. About 15 miles later we dropped into a sand wash and low and behold that UTV was in front of me. I understand we are not supposed to nerf smaller cars so Derek flipped the siren on so he knew were were coming. As the UTV turned out of the wash into a slight uphill whoop he lost momentum and bobbled. I couldn’t let off the gas otherwise we would get stuck in the wash as well. Bam! We hit him. It was just enough to help him out and for us to keep our momentum moving forward. He rabbited off and we didn’t see him until a couple miles later when he was pulled off the course. Hopefully it wasn’t due to the unintentional nerf.
Just as I was relaxing into the pace again. Bam! We got nerfed from behind with no warning. We pulled off a couple seconds later and let the faster truck go by. Not sure what he had under his hood, but he was definitely way faster than us. That motivated us to step on it when we got back on course! Shortly after that we came flying around a corner and a big white cow was on course and I mashed the brakes as he just barely cleared the truck. Missing that cow was pure luck. “Just another obstacle,” I told Derek. His response was classic. “Go! Go! Go!”
We stopped for splash of gas at the road crossing at K77 because I was worried we burned a bunch of gas in the bottleneck. Carter Gibbs from our Mad Media crew was running chase so he fueled us and sent us on our way. Once you cross highway 3 and head northeast the course starts to open up and the brush gets less tall and dense. You can see mountains off to your left that look like folds in a green velvet blanket. After a while you come into these foothills covered with stunning rock formations. It’s easy to forget you’re racing when you are enveloped in the beauty of Baja. It’s this weird zen that’s happening in the middle of a 300 vehicle war.
We were still seeing broken vehicles parked off to the side every so often and kept clicking off miles when I realized we were approaching the notorious “Goat Trail” and I felt a little sad that my stint was coming to an end. As we bounced through the whoops leading to the “Goat Trail” I was searching for a reason to not get out of the truck but as we made our way down the narrow rocky trail and hit the pavement, I was just glad to hand a clean truck to Justin. We drove just past Valle de La Trinidad and pulled off the pavement to do the fuel and driver change.
Derek and I jumped out and Justin Park and Don Aumann jumped in and off they went. We jumped into the chase trucks and pre-runner and headed toward San Felipe. Jordan Adams was running chase on the San Felipe side so he led us toward San Felipe.
We stopped for a visual check at San Matias wash and then followed the truck along the road as it skirted “El Diablo Dry Lake”. We got a call from Justin that he had lost power steering. It would have taken over 45 minutes to change out the power steering rack, so Justin decided to muscle it in. Fortunately regardless of the rough, most of the San Felipe side is relatively straight. We passed through the military check point and pulled off for another visual check point. Justin pulled up to us and started yelling “Fix the leak!” I took one look at it and told Justin he was just going to have to muscle it in. He didn’t want to hear it and started shouting different ideas to fix it. I am hardly a mechanic. I know enough to be dangerous and I know that when these stock steering racks break they are usually done.
After a few minutes and a couple of crew telling him it wasn’t fixable, he drove on. We did another visual check at Zoo Road and eventually made it to the finish. To our surprise we finished 4th in class, off the podium by only two minutes. Apparently, the two lead trucks were in front of the bottle neck so they had a 30 minute gap between them and the third place truck. It’s just a reminder to never quit, and every minute counts.
The 4th place finish was a great bonus but I was just glad our whole team had made it to the finish line safely! My goal was to get the truck to Justin and for him to get it into the finish line. We had done that and more. Best beer you will ever have is at the finish line of and off-road race!
It was nasty hot and humid in San Felipe. I couldn’t help thinking “Why did the race end here?” Kind of like driving to hell. We got to the the hotel and jumped in the warm pool in a futile attempt to cool down. After a few beers it didn’t matter. We showered and headed to the malecon for some of San Felipe’s famous mariscos. After a few rounds of spectacular ceviche, oysters, fish tacos, and shrimp tacos I remembered why San Felipe is still a destination even in the heat.
I can’t tell you how much fun we all had. I think the hardest thing about racing is coming home and realizing it’s going to be months before you get to do it again. Go race anything you can with your friends and family. It’s doesn’t matter what class of vehicle. I promise you, you will have more fun than anything you have ever done in your life.
The 2017 RECORD 250 takes place this weekend in Ensenada so if you are in the are be sure to check it out!
For more info go to the RECORD website: recordoffroad.com