SCORE International bites back –

SCORE International bites back

redAfter much speculation and five days of review, I do not think words can explain the absolute astonishment I felt upon hearing the official results of the 2009 Baja 500.  Finally Sal Fish, President of SCORE International, has followed through on his promise of “putting teeth back into the sport.” The official results of last week’s Baja 500 were announced this morning and there were some major changes in the finishing order and results.

It looks like the proverbial silt has hit the fan at SCORE International!  After the well-publicized review of the IRC Tracker data, sixteen of nineteen finishers in the Trophy Truck Class have been penalized for course deviations or exceeding the mandated highway speed limit of 60 MPH.   Course deviation penalties, according to the SCORE website, were located at “one or more of-San Vicente (full or half), Uruapan Cemetery, Mile 375.”

With fingers pointing at the leaders, Robby Gordon and BJ Baldwin, it is now apparent that others were in violation of the rules as well.  In all fairness, some may have been following a competitor into the “cheater” lines and were unaware of their wavering from the course.  Speeding violators really have no alibi…the IRC data does not lie.

Sal Fish president of SCORE International talking to reporters
Sal Fish president of SCORE International talking to reporters

In today’s announcement, Robby Gordon was handed down a 90 minute penalty for the video-documented “illegal pit” on the highway section near Llano Colorado and a 10 minute penalty for exceeding the 60mph highway speed limit.  After factoring in the penalties, Robby Gordon’s No. 77 Monster-sponsored ride swapped finishing positions with the No. 71 General Tire truck of Rick D. Johnson.  Officially, Rick D. Johnson is now the winner of the Baja 500 Trophy Truck class while RG now claims the seventh position.

“I think it is going to bring integrity back to the sport and it is something that needed to happen.  It is a bittersweet victory.  This isn’t exactly how I would have liked to have claimed first place but I feel confident that we will all be on a level playing field from this point forward.” remarked Rick D. Johnson (RDJ) and he further added, “I still cannot believe it.  When one of the guys told me this morning that we had won the Trophy Truck class of the Baja 500, I thought they were kidding!”

Of the nineteen finishers in the Unlimited Truck Class, six gained position, seven lost position and six remained unchanged.  Kudos to the Trophy Truck drivers of the No. 84 truck of Nick Vanderway / Curt LeDuc, the No. 24 of Adam Householder, and the No. 11 of Greg Nunley for running the entire course with no apparent violations!

Nick Vanderwey, owner of the easily identifiable No. 84 “Got Milk” Trophy Truck, traded off driving duties with brother, Larry Vanderwey and long-time desert and short course racer, Curt LeDuc.  Earning a second place podium finish, the lack of apparent rules violations is impressive considering the driving duties were shared by three separate racers.  “We are all very excited with the 2nd place finish!  Prior to the race it seemed as though SCORE was putting an emphasis on rule violations and we would all be closely watched.  Larry, Curt and I made sure to keep our truck within the limits.  I believe today’s announcement will be good for the sport and the 60mph highway speed limit is necessary for the safety of the racers and local traffic,” commented Vanderwey.

Despite a sixty minute penalty for course deviation, the driving team of Roger Norman and Larry Roeseler maintained their respectable third place finish.  Looking back at this year’s San Felipe 250, Norman was the most prominent and vocal protester of Robby Gordon’s alleged course cutting and Roger’s penalty for the same violation was quite a surprise.  A review of the IRC tracking data would be interesting to determine if it was Norman or Roeseler who deviated most from the course resulting in the penalty.

An official statement by Roger Norman reads:

Roger Norman shows his IRC Tracker Course deviation
Roger Norman shows his IRC Tracker Course deviation

“Wow, I’m in shock. My hats off to SCORE, Sal Fish and all those involved. I did not think for a second that they would go to this level of enforcing the current rules. At San Felipe I was one of many who came forward regarding something that has been a big issue for many decades – major course cutting that can change the results of an event in a big way.

Going into the Baja 500 there were some changes to the rules regarding speed on the highway but I do not think anybody knew that the rules were going to be so well enforced for this event. Before the start of the Baja 500, Andy Grider (Gordon’s co-driver) and I spoke to Sal about major short cuts and their locations to make sure there would be a DQ for anyone who used them.  Sal confirmed that anyone who used them would be disqualified.  I never thought to ask about lines that do not make a difference on time. At the vineyards in San Vincente I was behind BJ and I saw him on the lower road. I followed him on the second half of it because it paralleled the course. Again, even though I was penalized 60 minutes for it, I am happy to see it. Sal just needed to take us all out to the woodshed… it’s all good. One thing is for sure, I will not make that mistake ever again.

This was a tough issue that needed to be dealt with and SCORE put a lot of time into it. I’m sure there will be changes coming for the rulebook regarding grey areas, contradictory rules, media helos versus non media helos and Mexico standards versus US standards. I’m sure we will all pay closer attention to Sal at the driver’s meetings and attention to the rules will give everyone an equal shot at winning.”

Included in Norman’s official statement was a Google Earth image of the alleged course cutting with Roger’s comment, “The photo I attached is of the area where I deviated from the marked course.”

Rising to an official fourth place finish was the No. 2 Trophy Truck of “Pistol” Pete Sohren.  When asked about his thoughts on the results Pete remarked, “From tenth to fourth place really means nothing to me but the fact that SCORE is enforcing the rules to even the playing field for the different size budgets is a step in the right direction.  I don’t like to wait almost a week for the results but if that is what it takes to analyze the data and keep people from cheating then I am all for it.  When I win, I won’t have to worry about the wait!”

In discussions with RDJ yesterday (prior to the official results announcement) he mentioned he had not intentionally or knowingly cut course but there was one section of the highway where he may have gone over the posted speed limit.  “When you are in race mode it is hard to keep it under 60mph on the asphalt but for the most part I think we ran a clean and honest race.  It will be interesting to see what happens tomorrow.”

The official results grid reflected a minor 5 minute penalty handed down to Johnson for exceeding the highway speed limit.  The two major offenders of the highway speed limit were the No. 74 Trophy Truck of Rob Bruce with a 140 minute penalty while the No. 28 Trophy Truck piloted by Alan Pflueger was handed down a 71 minute violation for the same infraction.  Johnson’s minor penalty pales in comparison to the above named offenders.  I would almost guess RDJ’s violation truly was a mere oversight (as he claimed) while Bruce’s and Pflueger’s were apparently intentional.

Winning some and losing some seems to be the theme for General Tire as SCORE International “Unleashed the Fury” with the unexpected penalties for rules violations.  General’s newly sponsored driver, BJ Baldwin, has fallen from an unofficial second place podium to an official eighth place finish.  Tony Talbert, Light Truck Product Manager of General Tire, declined to comment on either sponsored driver or the official results, “Until the dust settles.”

BJ Baldwin's 2nd place finish was adjusted to 8th place after review of GPS tracking device
BJ Baldwin's 2nd place finish was adjusted to 8th place after review of GPS tracking device

After the race and prior to the official results announcement, BJ Baldwin stated, “I took the exact same lines as I did in last year’s 500.”  In a follow-up conversation, BJ was very candid with his thoughts on the SCORE ruling.  “I am not ashamed of my performance.  I am not a cheater and nothing has changed in the way I drive and the course that I have taken in the past five years of racing the Baja 500.  I think this decision to penalize 85% of the Unlimited Classes makes us all look like fools in the sport and makes SCORE International look bad.  I have a professional team and we are professional racers and I believe SCORE has handled this issue in an unprofessional manner.  The lines I took that were off the beaten path were not necessarily shorter or provided me an advantage.  I was following Robby Gordon’s dust most of the day and took the necessary lines to try and pass him.  How does an established trail with no wrong way markings become a deviation from the course?  I also do not think that Robby Gordon should be penalized for his pitting violation.  There were numerous pitting infractions by many of the other teams and unless you are going to penalize everyone equally then it is an unfair ruling.  Regardless of the actions by SCORE, I would like to extend my congratulations to both Harley Letner for earning the overall and Rick D. Johnson for the trophy truck win!”

Robbie Pierce, driver of record for the No. 35 Trophy Truck, was handed down the largest penalty of 150 minutes for course deviation.  In sharp contrast to BJ Baldwin’s sentiments, Pierce stated, “I spoke with Sal Fish yesterday and he seemed distraught with the controversy.  I told him I whole-heartedly believed that credibility needed to be restored to the sport and if I was to be penalized for any violations, then so be it.  I support SCORE’s ruling 100% and will race how they want – whether that is checkpoint-to-checkpoint or by IRC data.”

The unprecedented action by SCORE International creates a barrage of unanswered questions and controversy.  Was Robby Gordon’s 90 minute “illegal pit” penalty for fueling on the highway and while on course?  Was the ruling a combination of one or two violations and what was the exact formula for these time penalties?

According to an excerpt of Rule GP3 of the SCORE rule book:

“The following schedule of penalties is a guideline used by SCORE in levying penalties to competitors.  These guidelines are a minimum only….”

(9) Intentional Short coursing.

(10) Illegal stationary pit or illegal support crew violation.
***One (1) position.

(11) Pitting in restricted area.
*** Disqualification.

Following the letter of the law of the SCORE rule book, RG’s pitting violation is grounds for disqualification.   Intentional short coursing is also grounds for disqualification according to schedule item No. 9 of GP3.  One could only imagine the repercussions of DQing 11 of the 19 competitors in the premier Trophy Truck class!  However the penalties were arrived at, one thing is for certain – SCORE International did not play favorites.

Highway speed infractions are specifically outlined on the SCORE International website.  The details of the penalty grid can be seen at:SCORE International Highway Speed Limit for Baja 500 One point, which can be argued by race competitors, is GPS units are not accurate gauges of actual ground speed.  While I do not recall the exact disclaimer on the popular Lowrance GPS unit used in many of the race vehicles, I do know the gist of the disclaimer states the information provided is “for reference only.”  Will race vehicles be forced to install accurate speedometers to gauge actual race speeds in order to abide by the rules?

What constitutes “short coursing” is not as clearly outlined in the SCORE rule book and this grey area provides room for additional controversy.  Is there an allowable deviation for obstacles blocking the official race course?  The No. 11 Unlimited Truck piloted by Greg Nunley created an early bottle-neck at race mile 17 and forced competitors to deviate from the course in order to navigate their way around the course block.  The chosen line around Nunley’s broken truck could easily be argued that it was not a “cheater line” but instead a necessary detour.

The age old question as to which is the faster of two four-wheeled Unlimited classes still remains unanswered.  Harley Letner claimed the overall win in his No. 114 Class One with a 2 minute and 34 second lead over Rick D. Johnson’s No. 71 Trophy Truck.  Letner completed the Baja 500 with an elapsed time of 9 hours, 5 minutes and 47 seconds while Johnson earned a first place finish in the Trophy Truck class and second overall finish with an elapsed time of 9 hours, 8 minutes and 21 seconds.  Eliminating the five minute speed penalty, Johnson would have also taken the overall.  In any case, Letner’s hard-fought finish and his overall title are well-deserved considering he ran an apparently clean race and successfully navigated his way through the ranks of the Trophy Trucks and early race obstacles.

As the remainder of the IRC tracking data is reviewed and the official results are posted, it will be interesting to see how the next few days play out.  Posting only the official four-wheel Unlimited Class results, the SCORE International website indicates, “More Classes Soon as Review Continues.”  Will the Honda bike teams experience the same results shake-up the Trophy Trucks and Class Ones experienced?  Anyone who has seen Dana Brown’s acclaimed documentary, “Dust to Glory” can attest to the Honda team’s creative course selection.

Further commenting on the results and the course deviation issue, BJ Baldwin remarked, “It scares me to think about tomorrow and the penalties the lower classes and motorcycles will be awarded.  The celebration at the finish line by the racers and the crew has been replaced with going back to the hotel room, showering and waiting five days for results.  How do we have awards ceremonies?  Does Robby Gordon need to ship back his trophy?  Why would enthusiasts (who cannot make it to the races) sit at home and track the dot on the screen when the results can change overnight?”

Whether you agree with the penalties or not, for many teams it is a “careful what you wish for lesson.”  It is now obvious Baja racing will never be the same.  The technology to track the alleged course cutting and speed violations is now available and apparently will be an integral part of future SCORE desert races.  One thing is certain, many teams and racers are anxiously awaiting the remaining official results….until then, I am sure the forums will be alive with speculation!