The 2017 racing year got off to a great start, and it all happened in Parker Arizona. Newly named, the GMZ UTV Winter Nationals – Best in the Desert Parker 250 Presented by Polaris, took place on January 6-7, 2017, in the desert areas surrounding Parker and the BlueWater Resort and Casino.
There were technically two separate events as GMZ was sponsoring the UTV Winter Nationals, which was two grand prix–type races that had a dead-engine start with the participants lined up next to each other. When the flag dropped, everybody hit the switch and gas and hustled to the first corner, hopefully ahead of the guys next to them. And each race lasted an hour. Once the time was up, the leader was given the checkers and everybody else behind was waved off, no matter how many laps they had done. The first race consisted of Production 1000 racers, while the second was formed by the Turbo, Prod 900 and 700 cars.
The other big event was the Parker 250, and the big news is that it’s only for UTVs. The course was nearly 80 miles long, and all of the big teams were there. Drivers ranged from champions like Polaris stalwarts Justin Lambert and Branden Sims, to Trophy Truck specialist/Arctic Cat designer Robby Gordon, to LOORRS short-course racer Corry Weller in her Yamaha YXZ. There was also the son of a multi-time King of Hammers champion who was looking to make a name for himself in his own right, one Mitch Guthrie Jr.
The weekend started with Friday’s Tech and Contingency in the lot of the BlueWater Resort and Casino. The weather was perfect, and everyone was looking forward to the racing, which actually started that afternoon as the Youth races were held at the Main pit. Stockton Bullock of Cedar City Utah took the overall and Class 250 win over a hard-charging Dallas Gonzalez, who took First in the 170 class. Luke Knupp came in Third overall and Second 170.
Saturday broke overcast and cold, cold, cold. That didn’t stop the bikes, who took off at 7:30 sharp and hit the big course. Over the next four hours, the lead would swap, but in the end it was N11 Jacob Argubright on his Husqvarna taking the overall win over N1 Troy Vanscourt and N95 Taylor Stevens. Eric Kirby was Fourth overall and First Open Expert, Jesse Canepa First under-30 Pro, Chad Thorton First over-40 Pro, and Sam Wasson First Open Amateur. First quad and a respectable 14th overall was Andrew Simmons.
While it was called a short-course, the laps for the two GMZ UTV Winter National races were close to 15 miles around. The leaders did seven laps in an hour as winner Nicholas Granlund pushed his Yamaha YXZ to the win in 1:00:49. Granlund settled for Third Place off the line, but soon was in the lead. It wasn’t until the fifth lap or so that Second Place Gareth Dihel caught up. The two diced it out for a while, but in the end Granlund put a full 7 seconds on Dihel to take the win, and what we think is Yamaha’s first win at any Best in the Desert event.
“Moto” 2 saw an Arizona takeover as Garrick Lastra (Mesa), Matt Hancock (Tempe), and Dan Fisher (Gilbert) took home First, Second, and Third respectively in the Turbo class. One difference is that Lastra and Fisher were in Can-Am Maverick’s while Hancock drove a Polaris RZR. Jeremy Goodall was Fifth overall and First 900 while Skyler Bullock took First 700 honors.
All in all, great racing and possibly something of a wake-up call for Polaris. Yes, the fields are still dominated by Polaris RZR drivers, and again we’re going to have to look into whether Can-Am has ever won a BITD event, but either way both Yamaha and Can-Am have produced season opening winners that has to have Polaris a little worried.
When the racers lined up the 250, it was two by two as usual with a timed start. The first two off the line were pre-race favorites Branden Sims and Justin Lambert. As they headed out onto the course, the rest took their turns at the “Christmas Tree” and soon all were racing. Conditions for the racers was as good as we’ve ever seen as the temp was around 50, there had been ample rain in the area so dust was not a factor, and traction was at a premium. At nearly 80 miles a lap, however, it was not going to be a cakewalk. Most teams spent the short off-season putting cars and drivers back together again to get ready. Some teams were ready, some weren’t, and some were just unlucky. That’s racing, as they say.
But one who didn’t have too much trouble, either with the course or the other competitors, was Mitch Guthrie Jr. At only 20 years old, he drove with a lot of poise and speed. He had to; he had a lot of very fast guys behind him. Ending up leading both on-course and on-time, Guthrie put his Polaris RZR XP Turbo ahead of Can-Am’s Cory Sappington while Branden Sims, also in a Polaris, finished a close Third. Robert Beuchat was First in Class 1900 while Sheldon Creed finished just behind Beuchat, but First in UNLP.
Racing was tight. In fact, on time, Sims finished only around 8 seconds behind Sappington, who finished a scant 6 minutes behind Guthrie who did the deed in 4:37:26. All the winners finished three laps.
Only one thing marred a potential perfect weekend. During the short-course races, BITD’s Casey Folks took ill, and was transported to the local hospital for observation. Our prayers are with him and the Best in the Desert family.
Next up for BITD is the BlueWater 425 followed by the Mint in March. This year looks to be great, and UTVs will apparently make up a lot of that greatness. Know that we’ll be following all things UTV, so stay tuned and hang on. We’re in for a bumpy ride.