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The 500 Experience

Posted in Features on November 21, 2005
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Photographers: Collette Blumer

"We were there!" Really? When we hear that phrase, we can't help but think of all the possibilities that "there" could mean. While moviegoers are unanimous in watching the same film as everyone else in the theater, racers and racing fans can be in the same place on the same weekend and have experiences that are poles apart - especially if that place is Baja. Team OFF-ROAD packed its bags and pointed its grilles south for the SCORE Baja 500. With cameras, food, bottled drinking water, and a stash of "steekers," we were ready to cross the border and absorb as much of the Baja 500 as we could. We were also lucky enough to need a driving suit and a helmet as well (see "Never Say Die," Dec. '05).

If only waiting was actually relaxing.

While the Baja 500 is considered the little brother to the marquee Baja 1000, it is still a race to be reckoned with. Baja's character of rugged terrain, unpredictable course conditions, and antics-prone fans means an adventure of some sort awaits everyone who shows up. As it turned out, most racing teams got more adventure than they bargained for.If anyone had an inkling of what lay ahead on race weekend it was Sal Fish. Sal is the persona of SCORE and undertakes the course layout as part of his duties. Each year, he faces the challenge of local government demands, racer concerns, and plotting a course that's different from the previous years' but still challenging and fun. It's a delicate balancing act that few can perform successfully.

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Taking trucks and buggies off-road means adapting. We've yet to see an off-road-specific floor jack, so most teams fabricate spacers to let their floor jacks lift long-travel suspension off the ground. Most off-road-prepped floor jacks also use a skidplate underneath to keep the jack on top of soft ground or tire-swallowing sand.

In the weeks prior to race weekend, prerunning officially opened, and teams ventured into Baja, official maps in hand. The course used routes largely familiar, but with a twist: Two of the steepest hills from yesteryears were being used, but this time, gravity was not on the racers' sides. One hill was near Race Mile 205, known as Simpson's, and the other lay just before Mike's Sky Ranch near Race Mile 230. Racers were now climbing what they'd previously descended. "So what?" you say, "race trucks and buggies are more capable than ever, so a little hill or two shouldn't be a problem." True, but when multiple vehicles are battling the same slope and one of them loses, trucks and buggies begin to stack up behind the stuck vehicle. So it was.For the fortunate ones who got through the pack early in the race, the tightest, steepest sections of the course lay wide open, allowing the lucky ones to combat the terrain alone without sparring with race traffic as well. Unfortunates had to frustratingly wait their turn at the bottom of the climbs or in mid-slope, mired in the powdery silt of Baja. In the end, more than 40 vehicles and their occupants spent the night on the course. That was their experience.

If you're a racer, you know that long, center-mounted A-arms add up to big suspension travel that's all the better to eat whoops and jumps with. If you're a fabricator, you know that you're looking at top-drawer skills put into living steel. King dampers control all four corners on Travis' new ride.

Others' experiences ranged from watching the racers blister the pavement at the starting line to chase crews whose job it was to find every access road along the course and be ready when their team's vehicle went by. Still others spent the weekend in an alcoholic haze - body present, brain absent.As for us at Team OFF-ROAD, we snapped as many photos as we could, walked around at contingency, rode in a race truck for 80 miles, and listened to the tales trickle in from the rest of the racing field about the brutality of the course.

Did we experience the Baja 500? Yes, parts of it. We weren't stuck on the Simpson's hill all night. We didn't get to experience crossing the finish line strapped into a racing seat with five-point harnesses. We got a taste of the 500, and the only way to slake the ensuing thirst is to go back again. What about you? Were you there? Do you know someone who was? Are you going back again? Are you good with a camera, or a keyboard? If your answer to one or more of these questions is yes, then contact us! We'd like to include your stories here in our pages. We'll all get to experience what "being there" is all about.

We found Craig Turner's Fabtech-backed Class 7 Ranger and F-150 prerunner lurking in a hotel parking lot. Look closely at the F-150: The wheelbase has been compressed to a point between the stock shortbed and SuperCab wheelbases. This trick makes for a more maneuverable truck with a comfy cab with plenty of room for three seats and assorted gear. On race day, Craig went about chasing down another SCORE Class 7 crown. The truck ran rich, to the tune of a dismal 1.8 mpg, and needed even more refueling than was originally planned for. The team adapted with additional fuel splashes throughout the course.

After a codriver change at Race Mile 176, Turner was one of the fortunate few to make it up the dreaded Simpson's hill at R.M. 204. Simpson's hill was riddled with sharp turns, rocks, and powdery silt, but Craig was prepared with his 4.5L Grand National V-6 backed by a C6. A few miles later, a broken truck blocked the course, leaving no alternate lines. After waiting for the way to be cleared, the Fabtech Ranger made its way to another silty hill 20 miles farther. Stuck vehicles meant Craig had to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting them. He, too, became stuck in the silt. It took a full hour to get free and moving again. After the final silt hill was conquered, Turner's journey to the finish line was only momentarily delayed by a rear flat. Final tally? Second in Class 7 and once again in the lead for the SCORE Class 7 points championship.

Ted Monecure's 7s Tacoma sustained heavy photography damage at the San Felipe 250. What's photography damage? In a whoop section at the edge of Diablo Dry Lake, Ted saw a photographer poised at the ready with a camera. Ted's right foot mashed the floorboard, hoping for a better action photo. The Toyota delivered in spades, flipping in spectacular fashion. After San Felipe, the needed repairs were so extensive that the Long Beach Racers almost didn't make it to the Baja 500 starting line in time. The Tacoma looked flawless; the team obviously believes in taking the time to do it right.

Robby Gordon slammed victory's door open after a lengthy dry spell. "It's nice to win one; we've come close so many times. It was a good run for us. I just drove at an easy pace. I'm sick, so my ears kept popping." Gordon's racing world spans both dirt and pavement across both international borders and time zones. "We race (Nextel Cup) tomorrow in Dover, Delaware, so I have a long day ahead of me. The only bad news today was the private plane we were going to use is broken. I've got some good friends here, so I have to see what I can do." Gordon took the lead early in the race, and thus was fortunate to escape the stuck vehicles and race traffic that clogged the tight canyons and steep hills that waited on the course. Robby and codriver Gregg Till never got out of the truck, and finished in just over nine hours.

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Coyne Motorsports brought out its Robby Gordon- built TT and left with high honors in the 29-strong Trophy Truck field. "We started 26th," Marty said, "so we had to get by 22 other Trophy Trucks. Definitely, given where we started, it was a great race. I tangled with Tim Herbst at Santo Tomas, and bumped a few guys. Starting 26th and finishing where we did, that's a miracle. We didn't have clean air all day. I am very proud of my sons." Marty teamed with codriver James Ornelas before the two handed off the Pro Comp Trophy Truck to Travis and Brandon Coyne. The Coyne TT effort landed a Fourth Place finish, topping Trophy Truck standouts such as Tim Herbst, Scott Steinberger, Carl Renezeder, and Mark Miller.

We caught up with Coyne Motorsports a few weeks after the Baja 500 in its San Diego-area race shop to see what takes place to get ready to race. The Coyne shop is now home to a pair of Trophy Trucks. TT number 6 was recently purchased from Steve Sourapas and is being prepped for Travis. Both trucks share a mid-engine design, with a backwards-facing engine feeding forward to a V-drive, which turns the power 180 degrees and points it at the rear axle. Sourapas's last race with number 6 was the San Felipe 250, where the rear 'cage self-destructed. Led by lead mechanics Paul Mischel and Jake Velasco, the Coyne Motorsports crew is rebuilding the back half of Travis' new truck for its racing debut under new management.

If you're a racer, you know that long, center-mounted A-arms add up to big suspension travel that's all the better to eat whoops and jumps with. If you're a fabricator, you know that you're looking at top-drawer skills put into living steel. King dampers control all four corners on Travis' new ride. While it's entirely possible to build and prep a truck at home in a garage or even a driveway, having a roomy shop with a dry roof overhead makes life considerably easier and the workflow much faster. In addition to the welders, chop saws, and tube notchers, big-time machinery such as a mill, lathe, shear, turret punch, and Burr King sander allows Mischel and crew to create, repair, and modify parts that are worthy of the trucks they're being installed on. Machinery and generous workspace is nothing without the skills and knowledge that the Coyne crew puts into action while building and prepping the two trucks. In the short time we spent at the Coyne shop, we learned a few new tricks that kicked our truck-building skills up several notches. The lessons learned? A pro shop is a great classroom (just don't get in the way or take up too much time) and skills can be brought home and honed in a driveway.

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