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Bittersweet Redemption

Posted in Features on June 1, 2013
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Vildolosola San Felipe 250 Photo 68809098 Vildolosola_San-Felipe-250

Author: Matt Kartozian Photos: Matt Kartozian

The more things change, the more they stay the same. In the final race of the 2012 season and the Sal Fish era of SCORE International, the Baja 1000 was decided by protest days after the race. In 2013, SCORE is now owned and run by Roger Norman, but the first race of the new SCORE was also decided in an office. Our story begins in Baja, but in La Paz, not San Felipe. The Vildosola team led a large portion of the 2012 Baja 1000 peninsula run that started in Ensenada and finished in La Paz. Gustavo Vildosola Jr. (Tavo) was first across the line and won the race by 15 minutes over BJ Baldwin. Several days after the race, a video surfaced on YouTube of a man in a pickup truck adjusting the lights on Tavo’s Trophy-Truck. Baldwin facilitated the release of the video and filed a protest with SCORE. More videos popped up, thousands argued on the Internet, people were called names, and lots of paperwork flew back and forth with more protests. Seventeen days later BJ Baldwin was crowned the winner of the Baja 1000 after the Vildosolas were hit with a 90-minute penalty for pitting on the highway.

The Malecon was packed as usual as the location, ideal temperatures and easy course access continues to make San Felipe a popular race. Tavo Vildosola’s experience at the Baja 1000 left a bad taste in his mouth and he was eager to reclaim a top spot on the podium.

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The Baja 1000 understandably left a bad taste in Vildosola’s mouth. “The penalty we got at the 1000 was through a protest which gave the win to BJ. Even though we are not in agreement with the degree of the penalty, whether or not it happened or was planned or improvised. A 90-minute penalty at the Baja 1000 is big. What Robby Gordon did (at the 2009 Baja 500) was plan to and change tires on the highway, and a guy adjusted our lightbar. It’s not apples to apples. A preplanned pit on the highway like Gordon did was a 90-minute penalty. That was not what we did, but it was also a 90-minute penalty.”

Bad Blood? Among the top drivers in the Trophy-Truck field there has long been a rivalry on course, but with helmets off things were very friendly. The 1000 changed that, or at least brought to light the win-at-all-costs philosophy prevalent among some of the top teams. Tavo spoke of a simpler time in the Dirt Sports Nation. “BJ and I had several conversations after the 1000, and in some of the conversations I asked him to withdraw his protest. I think it was 1998 at Primm that my dad protested Herbst after finishing second to them. Herbst landed their helicopter on the track and worked on the racecar. My dad and Troy Herbst talked about it and reached an agreement. My dad said to them, ‘you beat me on the racecourse so there is no point in me beating you from behind a desk.’ I told BJ I beat you by 15 minutes, whatever happened during that highway maneuver did not save me 15 minutes. I beat you on the race course so I am asking you to withdraw your protest.” Obviously that did not happen and the protest went through. It was an eye-opener for Tavo, but the actual rivalry is not as heated as some make it out to be. “Before the 1000, BJ used to go drinking with us, he used to hang out with the team and we would have a good time with him. Winning by protest is not the right thing to do. There was a bit of a rivalry between BJ and us, but I don’t think it is any different inside the teams than the rivalry between Menzies and us or MacCachren and us. The whole Baja 1000 situation showed us who our friends are. We used to think off-road was a big happy family and everyone would join hands and sing Kum Ba Yah. After the Baja 1000 we realized you can count your friends on one hand. It has created a rivalry with everyone, not just BJ. Some drivers talked shit about us and we know who they are, and there is an extra bit of motivation for us. But that’s what rivalries are about, it’s how NASCAR got big. Sometimes they don’t like each other, even off the track. To a certain degree that is what happened after the 1000, there are certain teams we are a bit more aware of now.” After the 1000, BJ issued several challenges to Tavo for a rematch and showdown at the Best In The Desert Parker 425, which took place in February. Fans were looking forward to an epic rematch of the two great drivers on neutral ground, off road’s version of Ali vs. Frazier II. But like a celebrity boxing match, everyone was left disappointed as neither driver attended the Parker race.

Bryce Menzies charged hard at the San Felipe 250 and finished three seconds ahead of Vildsola taking the win. He would later be penalized for straying too far from the course giving the win to Vildosola.

Menzies San Felipe 250 Photo 68809101 Bryce Menzies charged hard at the San Felipe 250 and finished three seconds ahead of Vildsola taking the win. He would later be penalized for straying too far from the course giving the win to Vildosola.

San Felipe Showdown So a showdown in Baja then? Sign us up. The rematch would take place at the SCORE San Felipe 250 and Baldwin would be third off the line and Vildosola tenth. The first ten trucks off the line were like a who’s who of the Trophy-Truck talent pool, with Mark Weyhrich, Dan McMillin, Bryce Menzies, Juan Carlos Lopez and Troy Herbst. It would be more than just a two-horse race between Tavo and BJ. Baldwin, however, was pretty much out of the race before it started. While doing some last-minute testing the day before the race, he had a shock and bump stop failure. New parts were brought down from the U.S. that night. An hour before the race the team was out testing and trying to dial in the setup, but never got it quite right. Vildosola’s Red Bull teammate Menzies started directly behind Baldwin and was quick to let Baldwin know he was there. “We knew we had BJ in front of us and that was my main goal, to smash BJ, give him a little love, it’s what he wants, so we did that.” Despite suspension issues Baldwin still managed a respectable 12th-place finish, 37 minutes behind the winner. While the Monster vs. Red Bull battle we all anticipated never fully materialized, Bryce Menzies stepped in to fill Baldwin’s role for a fantastic battle against Vildosola pitting Red Bull USA against Red Bull Mexico. But, like the Baja 1000 and the Parker 425, the San Felipe 250 would be the third marquee race in a row decided by penalty. One of the many changes to SCORE under new ownership involves new rules for the course. Baja racers have a long history of using creative lines between checkpoints, but that era is now over. Prior to the race Norman and staff briefed the drivers on the new 500-foot rule. Racers are now given a 500-foot leeway on each side of the marked course, and they must pass within a 100-foot radius of Virtual Check Points (VCPs). Several drivers expressed shock and disappointment at the new rules stating it took away lines used for decades by many in San Felipe. One team was so concerned that they used a helicopter to check how close their alternate lines were to the marked course.

The long awaited rematch between Tavo and BJ Baldwin at San Felipe never materialized with Baldwin suffering a shock failure in testing right before the race and not being at full speed.

BJ Baldwin San Felipe 250 Photo 67320670 The long awaited rematch between Tavo and BJ Baldwin at San Felipe never materialized with Baldwin suffering a shock failure in testing right before the race and not being at full speed.

On top of the new rules, the San Felipe 250 was comprised of 70 percent new racecourse. The traditional route of the last few years, where the drivers went north up Zoo Road and then turned west at Three Poles was not used. Instead, the 2013 edition featured more than 100 miles of racecourse on the north side of Highway 3, along with a new Morelia Road crossing that featured a much bigger jump. The San Felipe course has long been known for huge whoops and rocks, but the new course had even more. Trophy-Truck driver Jesse Jones was overheard joking with other drivers after his seventh-place finish, “I hit every damn rock on the course. All you guys owe me $100 each for clearing the rocks off the course for you.” For the first 150 miles the top drivers battled closely without a runaway leader. Near Race Mile 150 Menzies passed Weyhrich to take the physical lead on the course near Diablo Dry Lake. Meznies, Vildosola, Lopez and Weyhrich led the rest of the field to the finish, but the fight between Menzies and Vildosola came down to seconds. Menzies spoke about how close it was. “Tavo is always fast, and I knew he was going to be coming fast. At Race Mile 220 he had 22 seconds on us. From there I pushed as hard as I could. I got my last time split at Race Mile 250 and I was one second ahead of Tavo.”

Class 10 was actually the second largest class at San Felipe and Mikey Lawrence was able to beat them all

Lawrence Class 10 San Felipe Photo 68809104 Class 10 was actually the second largest class at San Felipe and Mikey Lawrence was able to beat them all

While some of the favorite sections of the course still existed, 70 percent of San Felipe was new.

RPM Class 1 San Felipe 250 Photo 67320673 While some of the favorite sections of the course still existed, 70 percent of San Felipe was new.

The rough conditions of San Felipe took their toll on the Class 1 field with over half of them never seeing the finish line. Cody Parkhouse was able to survive and finished first in class.

Parkhouse Class 1 Photo 67320676 The rough conditions of San Felipe took their toll on the Class 1 field with over half of them never seeing the finish line. Cody Parkhouse was able to survive and finished first in class.

Vildosola started the race with a conservative pace, and from Morelia Road to Hautamote Wash he traded positions with Menzies, each one leading by 10-15 seconds at various points. When Vildosola exited Hautamote the team had him leading overall by 22 seconds on corrected time. Gus (Gustavo Vildosola Sr.) is the driver of record for the team, and in SCORE that means he either had to start or finish the race. Tavo would have to pit for a driver change so his dad could get in the truck and take it to the finish. With only a 22-second lead he knew he had to increase the pace to allow for the driver change. “I knew we had to put more time on Bryce. I started pushing the truck hard, but within the limits of not doing anything stupid. By Race Mile 248 we were 51 seconds ahead of Bryce.” With that 51-second lead, Tavo pitted for the driver change and Gus jumped in the truck. Lopez passed Vildosola while they were changing, but when they took off behind Lopez they still had a 19-second lead on Menzies. That works out to a 32 second pit for a driver change, which is staggeringly fast and right up there with Formula 1’s sub-three-second tire changes that require 17 crew members. Unfortunately for the Vildosolas, being behind Lopez meant lots of dust in the final five miles and Gus lost time on the way to the finish. When they crossed the line the team learned that Menzies took the win by three seconds on corrected time. Tavo was not happy with the situation. “I think we drove a perfect race, a good pace, we just stopped one more time than anyone else and it ended up costing us the race by three seconds. Obviously at the finish line we were pretty damn pissed off knowing we basically gave the race away. To do the driver change was the smart thing to do for the championship.”

While Vildosola’s win came after yet another victory that was overturned by a penalty, he was comfortable with it as the penalty was not the result of a protest.

Vildolsola Trophy Truck San Fleipe 250 Photo 67320679 While Vildosola’s win came after yet another victory that was overturned by a penalty, he was comfortable with it as the penalty was not the result of a protest.

Even More Penalties On Saturday night after the race the Menzies team celebrated while the Vildosola team were bummed, but at the awards Sunday morning, penalties were announced. Menzies was given a five-minute penalty for course deviation, which dropped him to second place. The penalty gave Vildosola the win by 4 minutes and 57 seconds for a total time of 4:13:39 at 59.85mph. Defending San Felipe champion Rob MacCachren was third, Lopez fourth and Weyhrich fifth. While penalties took away Vildosola’s 1000 win and gave him the 250 victory, he sees them differently. “At San Felipe it was an un-protested penalty. I have been watching videos from the race on YouTube, and Bryce was not on the same course that all of the other guys were on. He was on different lines and that is what we all used to do in San Felipe. That is how it used to be, but to me it was made clear on Friday at the Drivers Meeting that they were going to strictly enforce the 500-foot rule. Every time there is a regime change, like we have with SCORE, they are going to put their foot down with the rules. We decided to forgo all the lines we found prerunning and stick to the course; 80 other racers decided not to and it ended up biting them in the butt. At the end of the day it was not a penalty brought by a protest from us. It was just something SCORE mandated and enforced so I am comfortable with it. I would rather have the win at the 1000 back over San Felipe, one million times to one, but that is not the case and there is nothing we can do about that now. I think the new rules were pretty clear. For example, at Race Mile 22 I was speaking to some guys at the meeting about the McMillin line. They have taken it for years along with many others. They asked if I was taking that line and I said ‘Hell no.’ I’ve never taken that line, and I am staying on the course. After the humiliation at the 1000 where we were called cheaters, I was not even going to attempt to be creative with lines, even though there are lines we have taken for 15 or 20 years. We respected that. It’s the spirit of the rules and we just played it by the book.” Tavo sees a need to improve the course deviation penalty system though. “There is one thing that Roger and SCORE really need to do, and they are working on it. There is the technology to where on the racecourse if you deviate outside the boundary or miss a virtual checkpoint by more than the 100-foot radius then there will be a penalty assessed that second. When Bryce got to the finish, they should have had the data right there and said, ‘you missed a checkpoint or deviated outside the course, so you have a five-minute penalty.’ The problem is you have people dancing on the roof of trucks like us at the 1000 and Bryce at the 250 without them being the real winners. It sucks, it’s bad for the fans, it’s bad for the racers and it’s bad for everyone. If SCORE can figure out a way, with IRC or another company, to be able to level penalties on the spot, then when you get to the finish you know. I think Casey Folks did that with Robby Gordon at Parker. As soon as he crossed the finish he knew that he was penalized. SCORE needs to get there. The technology is available and it’s not Star Trek stuff, it’s out there and we need to use it for the 500. I know Roger is working hard to make sure we have that tracking and penalty data at the finish line. It’s not acceptable. When you cross the finish you should know who the winner is in terms of GPS penalty data. Technical protests, like with a 16 car engine, there are time limits for that.” Despite the recent highs and lows for the Vildosola team, Tavo is upbeat on 2013. “We started the year off on the right foot by winning San Felipe. Our goal this year is to win the SCORE, HDRA and World Championship. We are making steps every day to get there. We are excited about the season and the new SCORE regime. They are taking it in the right direction, but there is some polishing to do. I am 100 percent sure that Roger will take this where it needs to go. He understands what the racers want and I’m happy. If I had lost by three seconds I would have been pissed at myself, but I would have been happy with how SCORE ended up making the rule changes.”

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