By Rory Ward
On February 12th, I got a text from Mark McMillin that I will never forget. Getting a text from Mark is not uncommon as he is the Chairman (and inductee) of the Off Road Motorsports Hall Of Fame (ORMHOF) and I’m a board member. To say I was a little taken back would be an understatement….
I’m a Vintage off road geek, no question. I love everything about Vintage off road racing. I have 3 Vintage off road cars, have built 4 and 1 more in the works….so yes, I have a problem. So to get this text from an 8 Time Baja 1000 winner (5 of those Overall), needless to say I was annoyingly excited.
After getting the call, the problem was to try not to jinx it by opening my big mouth and putting it all over social media. This was a pretty big deal for me and I didn’t want it to blow up in my face by the race getting cancelled by COVID or some other stupid reason.
For those of you that are unaware of Macadu, let me give you a quick history lesson. Macadu was one of the first Chenowth 1000 unlimited 2 seaters built in 1979 with the sole purpose of winning the Baja 1000. This car would do just that in 1981 and 1983, not only winning its class but also winning the race OVERALL in 4 wheeled vehicles. Macadu was replaced at the end of the 1985 season with the new single seat Chenowth Magnum chassis. Macadu, the most successful vehicle in the McMillin stables would get a second lease on life once the NORRA Mexican 1000 came around in 2010. More wins would soon follow.
Fast forward to April 23rd, I was meeting the team at the McMillin race shop in Lakeside. Macadu was all loaded up and ready for the 2021 NORRA Mexican 1000. We arrived in Ensenada, got the hauler, Macadu and chase vehicles parked and checked into the hotel. Tomorrow would be Contingency and technical inspection at the Horsepower Ranch.
Tech and Contingency went off without a hitch, then the crew of 8 headed back to the hotel to have a pit meeting and maybe a cocktail….or 3.
Race day was now upon us and Mark would handle the first stage on day 1 (approx. 121 miles) with the run from San Felipe to the Mike’s Sky Ranch road. Mark would have a flawless run and bring Macadu in for a driver’s change and some fuel. My stage would consist of the 41 mile run to San Felipe with a 3 mile transit stage. This was only my second time in the car as I had tested with Mark in early April but the power steering was having issues and Mark was still messing with air pressures on the BFGoodrich tires. My stage would run across Diablo dry lake bed and some mild terrain so it was hard to get a good feel on how Macadu was going to respond. I could tell right away that the car was working a lot better than in testing, mainly due to the power steering issue that caused a lot of feedback in the steering wheel. My goal for the entire event was to “Try not to F&@K up”. Nick Rivaldi would be riding shotgun the entire race and he is very experienced on the right side of the car. We meshed almost instantly and had a smooth run into San Felipe. It was nice to get some miles in Macadu so I knew what to expect, but to get the full “Macadu experience” wouldn’t happen for a few more days.
Day 2 was all Mark McMillin. He loves the run from San Felipe to Bay of Los Angles (BOLA). It might be because he knows he can beat the chase truck there and have a few victory adult beverages before we arrive, or then again maybe it’s just the view out that front window. Mark’s biggest problem was trying to figure out where he was going to put his flip flops in the car so he would be comfortable once he reached BOLA. Turns out David Rainey found just the place for them…
Mark would race the entire 243 miles on day 2 as we chased him down to BOLA. This was actually pretty fun as you could have a visual of the race car for at least half the race. What made it even more enjoyable was Mark getting on the radio and giving us “Did you know…” quick facts about Baja and old race courses while he was racing. Oh yeah, and when we passed that little convenience store across from the Pemex at Gonzaga Bay, Mark made sure to tell “Twinky” that he needed to stop and get ketchup…while he was racing of course.
Another flawless run for Mark and Macadu as the crew prepped the car for day 3. The only real issue was a CV boot slipped off the CV so Chris and Nick tackled that problem while the rest of the crew finished up checking over the Chenowth.
Mark was doing what he does best, staying out of trouble, not hurting the car and reeling in positions. We started day 1 in the 66th position and Mark had moved us up to 35th by the end of day 2. This is how you win races in Baja, don’t abuse your car, keep your butt in the seat (don’t get flats, don’t get stuck, don’t break the car) and don’t drive faster then what you can see. People might argue some of that, but I can bet THOSE people don’t have 8 wins at the Baja 1000.
Mark decided to take a break from the race on day 3 and put me in the car. This would be the BOLA to BOLA loop and consist of 257 miles. I would get to stretch the legs on the flat 6 Porsche engine (but not too much) for the first half of the race, then I would get to see what Macadu was really built for, the tight twisty stuff on the later stage. Nick and myself would have a relatively easy day, nothing exciting, and get back to BOLA in about 5 hours from when we started. Mark’s day off would consist of enjoying breakfast with Barbara Rainey, and then visiting with Roger and Carol Mears at their place south of BOLA.
A ratchet strap was needed halfway through the run as a couple of the mounts holding the wing on top of the car was coming loose. It was on the second stage of the day that I got to see what Macadu did best…the tight stuff. The Chenowth handles like it’s on rails in the technical stuff. The short wheelbase helps the car turn and it just sucks itself to the course. I can’t tell you how much fun I was having driving this historical racer, I found myself giggling behind the wheel for a majority of the time.
A huge weight was lifted when I crossed the finish line at BOLA. I had a hard time sleeping the night before as the last thing I wanted to do was screw up in someone else’s car, especially Macadu which is Mark’s baby (the other reason was it was Barbara Rainey’s birthday). The crew told me before the start of the stage to not screw up Barbara’s birthday celebration and dinner that Mark had planned for 6:30. Barbara is the glue that holds ORMHOF together, without her we would be lost.
Day 4 Mark would get back behind the wheel for the run back up to San Felipe. He would once again drive the entire day as we started in the 30th position (Overall). Another flawless run from Mark and Nick while our biggest problem sat on the highway near Puertecitos. Seems the dually towing the enclosed trailer decided that the motor had just about had enough. With a loud BANG, that was all she wrote. Mark was already formulating a plan from the driver’s seat of Macadu while I drove Mark’s Ford F-350 back to Chris and the dually. We were able to slowly and safely tow the dually AND enclosed trailer approx. 60 miles back to San Felipe while Mark made arrangements with his son Luke to have a new tow vehicle delivered that evening.
Even after all the problems we had getting to San Felipe, Macadu would have an uneventful drive once again with Mark behind the wheel. The crew jumped on the prep for day 5 and we had everything buttoned up well before 5pm, which was amazing since that included having the dually and enclosed trailer towed back in San Felipe for the prep. Light maintenance was all the Chenowth needed as we headed to Pete’s camp for dinner with the Navarro family.
Day 5 was upon us and the daily team meeting was under way. I would do the first 134 miles to K77 near El Alamo, and Mark would do the final 78 miles to the finish at Horsepower Ranch in Ensenada. Macadu had been preforming well and I was looking forward to my section as it included the Mike’s Sky Ranch loop and the tight stuff near Jamal. As excited as I was to get back into the car, that ugly thought in the back of my head would keep coming back, please don’t let me _____ up. I strapped into Macadu and Nick and I would head to staging at the El Dorado resort for the start of day 5.
One thing that I had noticed on the days of starting in Macadu and sitting in staging was the number of people that would walk up to the car with a smile on their face, only to stop when they realized it wasn’t Mark behind the wheel. Nick and I would laugh as you could see them mouth the words “That’s not Mark”. They would turn around and walk away and Nick would slap me on the shoulder as if to say “well, maybe next time”. We had a sharpie in the race car so Nick decided to make a sign…
My last stage was a blast, I was more comfortable with the car after my third stint behind the wheel and the tight stuff on the Mike’s Sky Ranch road was what Macadu was built for. It’s no wonder why this car was so successful in Mexico, the McMillin’s knew what they were doing when they built this car.
As I came into the pit you could see that Mark was really itching to get back into the car. Even though Mark can be found chasing his boys Dan and Luke in the helicopter at the races, the fire still burns deep and you could see it in his eyes as he climbed back into Macadu for the finish.
The Grand Marshal (or Grand F’in Marshal as Mark likes to joke) pulled into the Horsepower Ranch with a smile on his face and a 1st place trophy to go with it. The old girl carried Mark to another Baja win and could probably do another 1000 miles. After a few ice cold Piston Pete’s beers, a finish line interview, kissing babies and shaking hands, Mark and the team loaded up and headed north. With only a 40 minute border wait, the team was safely back in the good ol’ US of A with a lifetime of memories to take home.
In closing, I’m going to get a little corny here but I’m thinking if you were in my shoes you’d feel the same way. Mark could have had anyone drive with him at NORRA but I got the nod. I’m pretty sure it was Barbara Rainey that put my name in his head and for that Barbara, I Thank you. To be part of the McMillin team is a huge honor, I consider them one of the First families in off road racing. To see them on TV and magazines in my younger years, to racing against them at NORRA starting in 2010, to now racing WITH them in 2021, I can’t tell you what it means to this old Vintage off road racing geek. I mean, what could actually top off this glorious weekend of racing? How about the Bilstein Madonna trophy…….B O O M ! ! ! !