BJ Baldwin airs it out in the rollers of Ojos Negros on his way to checking out from the rest of the field. Problems in the southern section of the course eventually put him in second overall until Vildosola’s penalty.
Author: Matt Kartozian Photos: Matt Kartozian
The Tecate SCORE Baja 1000 always produces adventure and countless stories every time racers take on the rugged and beautiful peninsula, and last November’s 1,121-mile sprint to La Paz would be no different. Surprising to many though, is that a race enjoying its 45th running can still produce firsts. For 2012, the Baja 1000 would mark the only time a woman would be first off the line in Class 1, and it would also be the first time a single driver would ironman the 1000 in its traditional Ensenada to La Paz format to take the overall win. And, more importantly, it would be the first time that the Internet and YouTube would help determine the winner of the race.
In stark contrast to 2012 being a year of firsts was Rod Hall, who has raced every Baja 1000 there has ever been, along with being the winningest driver in the history of the race with 22 class wins. Once again, Hall would add another victory to his collection behind the wheel of his Hummer H3 in the Stock Mini class. While Hall has brought his sons Chad and Josh into the sport, this year he teamed with his granddaughter, Shelby Hall, and Damien Michelin, trading off driving duties down the peninsula. Beyond winning, they were the only finishers in the class. Hall downplayed the win. “Our competition was not much, and they all tried to win it in the first 300 miles. They went by me right off the start. I picked them off down the road, and the next thing you know they are on the trailer and going home. We run production cars, and it takes a lot of finesse to keep them together and a lot of willpower not to just stand on the gas and use them up.”
Like many racers Hall was beat up and worn out after the race. He thought it might be his last, but after a few weeks of recovery he is ready to go again. “It’s like a bad hangover, but if you wait a while you are ready to go back again,” commented Hall who is still unsure on next year’s 46th Baja 1000. “If a guy does 46, that just means he has to do four more.”
Tavo Vildosola worked his way up through the field quickly and eventually reeled in BJ Baldwin well down the course to initially take the overall win. He was later penalized 90 minutes after a YouTube video surfaced showing the truck receiving aid on the highway, dropping the team to eighth.
Three For Three In 1
At the other end of the speed and age spectrum, third-generation racer Luke McMillin teamed with Justin Smith in Class 1 and drove to victory, making a clean sweep of the three Baja races this season. McMillin started as the third car in Class 1 and behind the entire field of 35 Trophy-Trucks. Amazingly, in the first 30 miles Luke was able to pass 15 Trophy-Trucks in the notoriously tight technical section between the start and Ojos Negros. By Race Mile 170 the team had a 20-minute lead on the next Class 1. As he headed into the huge whoops approaching San Felipe, Luke decided to back down and not chase the trucks through the rough as it would be hard to keep up and would wear the buggy out. At Race Mile 350 McMillin got out of the car and Smith took over. Smith had a clean, problem-free run to the north side of Loreto—aside from some small electrical gremlins that had plagued the car all day.
McMillin got back in the car at Race Mile 800 with an hour lead on the class and running seventh overall. With such a large lead he planned a conservative pace for the rest of the race, but just after the 1000-mile mark his car died. Coasting off the track, McMillin had no idea why the car shut off, but after 10 minutes of diagnosis the problem was found. Neither of the two fuel pumps were getting any power so they could not pump fuel to the engine. With their lead shrinking, McMillin and co-driver Chris Olimon were not sure what to do. However, Olimon came up with the idea to power the fuel pump with the wires from the Parker Pumper. With that Band-Aid on the fuel pump problem, the duo jumped back in the car after losing 20 minutes and cruised to the finish to take the win.
Luke McMillin has had an amazing first year in Class 1 Unlimited and backed up his San Felipe 250 and Baja 500 wins with another victory at the Baja 1000.
While McMillin has quite a bit of seat time and experience in Baja in his Class 1/2-1600 car, this was only his third race in Class 1. The prior races were this year’s San Felipe 250 and Baja 500, both of which he won. Many a racer has spent an entire career trying to finish a Baja 1000 peninsula run, only to retire without reaching the goal. McMillin achieved an impressive feat just by finishing a peninsula run his first time in a Class 1, made all the more so by taking the win and finishing 8th overall.
“It has taken a few days for it to sink in, but you can’t even dream about a season like this,” McMillin said after the race. “I grew up watching my dad race this car, it’s nine years old. It’s an awesome feeling I wouldn’t trade for anything else. Racing is a big family event, it’s what we talk about at Christmas. This is it for us, we love racing. My grandpa (Corky McMillin) poured his heart and soul into this sport he loved and he taught all of us grandkids how to drive a car. I remember pulling into the finish at this race with a tear in my eye thinking about my grandpa, he loved the buggies, he never wanted to get in a truck. To bring home another win in a buggy, it was for him. He was watching over us all day.”
Class 10 expert Lee Banning was able to keep himself out front of the rest of the pack, showing up over an hour ahead of the next Class 10 to be the first to reach La Paz.
The Fight Out Front
In the premier Trophy-Truck class the 1000 would decide not only who was the baddest man in Baja, but also the season champion, with four drivers fighting for the title in a close points battle. Going into the race Rob MacCachren led with 271 points, followed by Juan Lopez with 265, BJ Baldwin with 254 and Steve Strobel with 240. A win would clinch the big trophy and eliminate a lot of number crunching, but in Baja things are never that simple.
MacCachren was in the catbird seat after drawing the third starting position off the line, Baldwin was sixth, Lopez 11th and Strobel 14th. To the shock of many, Gustavo (Tavo) Vildosola Jr. quickly worked his way through the field after starting 25th to battle at the front of the pack with Baldwin, MacCachren, Strobel, Bryce Menzies, Chris Kemp, Dan McMillin, Mark and Gary Weyhrich and Ryan Arciero.
Passing through Boreggo, Baldwin started to make his move on the competition. He pushed hard through the massive whoops, catching up to MacCachren as he finished a pit stop. The two raced through the multiple lines, catching glimpses of each other through the bushes at speeds near 100 mph as they chased down Menzies. As the course went back to one line, Baldwin caught MacCachren and pushed him out of the way. He then caught a lucky break with wind direction and was able to chase down and pass Menzies without dust. Five miles north of Zoo Road, Baldwin took a hard hit trying to catch Kemp, which put a bend in his steering shaft. The truck survived with a small steering wheel alignment issue, allowing Baldwin to continue passing Kemp while pitting to take over as first on the road near Race Mile 185.
MacCachren’s hopes for the title were dashed as he was plagued with problems throughout the day. After losing first gear and reverse the team swapped transmissions in Vizcaino. Later, Robbie Pierce took over driving duties but became stuck, balancing over the edge of a cliff at Race Mile 882 and had to wait for his crew to extract him. Despite the problems, the duo finished the race and claimed another Toyota Milestone award for completing every mile of the season.
Both Baldwin and Menzies pitted for fuel in Bahia de Los Angeles and had a mini drag race out of the pits with Baldwin edging away first. Baldwin continued to lead, putting minutes on the field on the way to his scheduled pit at Race Mile 795. Months before the race Baldwin began working with a new physical trainer, Kit Cope, to get in shape for this race and it paid off. Having only been able to prerun the Loreto section once and planning on being worn out by this point, 2007 Baja 1000 winner Mark Post was going to take over the truck then hand it back to Baldwin at race mile 950 for a sprint to the finish.
Eduardo Laguna had a stellar 2012 season and victory at the Baja 1000 netted him the Class 6 season championship.
Reeling in BJ
This section would turn out to be a key moment in Baldwin’s race. First, thanks to his training program, Baldwin decided to stay in the truck all the way to the finish. Second, the pit that was supposed to be at Race Mile 795 was not, and he kept heading down the course looking for his crew until he finally found them at Race Mile 835. Once stopped, the crew found they could not fuel the truck as the fuel rig had the wrong size nozzle and needed to be changed, making it a 10-minute pit stop. Baldwin also got lost several times near Loreto, costing more precious time for the leading truck. He eventually found his way down the course to Race Mile 950 for the final fuel stop, only to have another fueling problem with a bad hose cost him an additional nine minutes.
Baldwin’s problems allowed Vildosola to reel him back within striking distance in the final 150 miles. At Race Mile 1011 there was a short (less than two miles) paved section of racecourse, but it was specifically listed as not a speed zone in the course notes. Suffering from fatigue this late in the race, Baldwin thought it was a speed zone where drivers have to keep it under 60 mph or face stiff penalties.
Vildosola knew it was not a speed zone and put the hammer down, closing the gap at over 100 mph. The two made contact as Vildosola passed, and Baldwin quickly realized it was not a speed zone and pressed his pedal to the metal, bringing the powerful V8 engine to full song while giving chase. Vildosola missed his braking point for the corner off the paved road and locked up his wheels in a cloud of tire smoke as he blew past the turn. Baldwin made the corner and was laughing in the truck, thinking he would immediately pass Vildosola back to take the lead again. The edges of the course were lined with hundreds of fans eagerly awaiting the arrival of “Los Trophies.” You may have seen what happened next on YouTube in what has been heavily discussed on many off-road websites.
After missing the corner Vildosola drove off the course and through a campsite that was dangerously close to the racecourse, throwing dirt, coolers, chairs and tents into the air to get back to the course. Baldwin was on the course behind Vildosola as he re-entered the course amid hundreds of shocked spectators, and tells what he saw in his own words: “People were running out of their camps and into the racecourse. I’m on the binders trying to slow down, and I am on the gas too, trying scare these people and let them know a truck is coming down the actual racecourse. They were running from Tavo, then seeing me and running back into their camps, not knowing where to go. It was mass confusion and mayhem. Tavo went through the tent and I knew there were people there so I backed off and pulled in behind Tavo and figured I would pass him later.”
Baldwin, hampered by the thick dust and unfamiliar with that section of the course, had no choice but to back off as Vildosola extended his lead. Vildosola stayed first on the road all the way to the finish, and in the final miles of pavement one of his chase crews pulled in behind the Trophy-Truck and followed them to the finish line in celebration. Vildosola completed the race in 19 hours and 45 minutes. The atmosphere at the finish was electric with celebration for the Vildosola team. They had become the only Mexican team to overall the famed Baja 1000 in 2010 on the last run to La Paz, and they had just repeated the amazing feat.
Baldwin crossed the finish 15 minutes and 59 seconds later, and would have to settle for another second-place finish in the 1000, but he did finish far enough ahead of his competition to claim his fifth championship in the elite Trophy-Truck field.
The amazing Rod Hall piloted the only Stock Mini to make it to La Paz in his 45th Baja 1000. While Rod has competed in every Baja 1000 held, he is unsure about 2013’s race. Half of the Score Lite field did not make it to the finish, but Otoniel Huerta was at the head of the ones that did. The win was also enough to allow Huerta to capture the season title as well.
Smile, You’re On Camera
After the race, fans and teams got ready to enjoy the coming Thanksgiving holiday. Little did they know the Baja 1000 was not over, and would not be for some time. On Monday November 19th, Baldwin received an email alerting him to a video showing the Vildosola team committing a penalty by pitting on the highway. It took two days for the video to get to Baldwin and on Wednesday morning a screenshot leaked showing a man leaning out the bed of a truck doing something to the front of the Vildosola Trophy-Truck as both drove down the highway. Baldwin sent the video to SCORE and the next morning, after not hearing back from SCORE, he sent it to Race-Dezert.com.
The video now has over 135,000 views on YouTube and appeared to show a man adjusting Vildosola’s bumper mounted light bar from the back of the other truck. The Internet erupted with comments on the video, with fans from each camp escalating things quickly. The Race-Dezert thread on the video had over 1,100 posts and more than 450,000 views. Early on, Tavo Vildosola posted a response to the video saying the lead truck with the man in the bed was not part of the team, speculating that they were fans. Many scoffed at the explanation while others supported the Vildosola team and story.
Baldwin spoke about the video after the race. “Whether the penalty was going to be enforced or not, my social media and Vildosola’s social media have had a ton of traffic and exposure. I would say it’s something that’s been good for us. I did not realize it would get as blown out of proportion as it did into a ridiculous and unwanted controversy. It started as this is against the rules, then to Tavo vs. BJ, then America vs. Mexico and then to white people vs. Mexican people. It’s total B.S. and has nothing to do with any of that. It’s a competitor not following the rules and beating another competitor. It’s cut and dry and very basic.”
On November 24th SCORE announced that it had accepted the official protest from Baldwin and would review all information. Days came and went with no further word from SCORE, which was in a tough position. Ninety-minute penalties were issued in prior races to both Robby Gordon and Rob MacCachren for pitting on the highway, setting a clear precedent. On the other hand, taking the win away from the Vildosolas was possibly a political time bomb that could have major implications on the future of racing in Baja. On Friday November 30, SCORE made its ruling public. Although unable to determine if the occupants of the truck in front of Vildosola were or were not part of the team, SCORE stated that it was not relevant. Vildosola did receive pit service on the highway, which is against the rules, and Vildosola was given a 90-minute penalty.
Many rejoiced that a winner had finally been declared, but they were jumping the gun. Shortly after the announcement Vildosola lodged a protest with SCORE against Baldwin, again with a YouTube video. The video showed both Vildosola and Baldwin driving through Checkpoint 7 at Race Mile 994.5. Reports from those on scene were that the checkpoint was not marked properly and that the people manning it did not even have a radio. On Monday December 3, SCORE issued a ruling on the Vildosola protest concluding that the checkpoint was not properly marked so no penalties would be issued. SCORE also declared that no further protests would be accepted, reviewed or even acknowledged. Seventeen days after crossing the finish line, BJ Baldwin would officially win the Baja 1000 and the championship. Mark Weyhrich was second, Ryan Arciero third and Dan McMillin moved up to fourth, while Vildosola’s 90-minute penalty dropped the team to eighth.
“It’s a crazy, crazy feeling to win a race you have been dreaming about for 25 years,” Baldwin said. “I have five championships now. If you have a good team and you are a reasonably skilled driver and you have a good year, you can get a championship. Maybe I’m better at it than other people because I have so many, or maybe I got lucky. I guess I am good at getting championships, but the one thing I am not good at is winning the Baja 1000. I have three second-place finishes, and in each one I led on corrected time for hours then something happened. To get this win, the 45th Baja 1000 win, the way we won it, Ironmanning the whole thing, I can’t even put it into words. This is above and beyond the most monumental accomplishment I can ever do. It’s an amazingly difficult task to win it, and I just feel so good about it I can’t really put it into words.”
Commenting on the protest Baldwin said, “I am happy that SCORE decided to enforce the rules, even if I was not in a position to gain from it. In the end, it’s so hard to win races when everyone plays by the rules. If some are not playing by the rules, then what is the point of even racing? I don’t mind getting my ass kicked, it’s a learning experience, but I want to get my ass kicked fair and square.”
While the Baja 1000 is over, the battle between BJ and Tavo may not be. Baldwin has issued a challenge to Vildosola to come out to the Best In The Desert Parker 425 in February for a head-to-head rematch on neutral ground. Baldwin has thousands of test miles in the Primm and Jean area and Vildosola has the same in Northern Baja so Parker is the perfect venue as neither driver has home field advantage. “Bring it!” said Baldwin. “BJ that has not been in the truck for 18 hours is a different BJ all together. He is far more ferocious in a truck when he is not worn down to the bone. I welcome a challenge from Tavo, any day, any race, any challenge. I really hope they decide to race BITD so I can race against them all season. I texted him, and I begged him to race the full BITD series. I cannot wait to race against Tavo again, I owe him for dooring me and making a big deal out of passing me. I think that’s what his fans and my fans and the people want to see. They are demanding competition between BJ and Tavo!”
The 45th Tecate SCORE Baja 1000 Class Winners November 14-17, 2012 // Baja, Mexico
Trophy-Truck 97 BJ Baldwin 20:00:59 1 Unlimited 103 Luke McMillin 21:30:42 1/2-1600 1604 Arturo Velazco 25:04:17 2 219 Clyde Stacy 43:57:29 3 304 Donald Moss 36:15:40 4 403 Jason LaFortune 31:48:22 5 501 Sandy Hall 26:32:39 5-1600 578 Trevor Anderson 32:48:38 6 619 Eduardo Laguna 24:42:03 7 718 Guillermo Galvan 31:42:48 7-2 724 Billy Wilson 26:12:31 7SX 740 Ellias Hanna 33:33:12 8 839 Rodolfo Iribe 26:03:59 Super 8 Truck 842 Nick Mills 36:25:36 Protruck 1350 Chelsea Magness 29:32:16 10 1048 Lee Banning 23:14:19 SCORE Lites 1248 Otoniel Huerta 26:37:15 Baja Challenge BC2 Bud Brutsman 28:48:35 11 1103 Giovanni Allicano 42:09:52 17 1701 Perry Coan 33:56:39 Stock Full 861 Joe Bacal 38:22:58 Stock Mini 762 Rod Hall 39:43:37 Sportsman Truck 1500 Randy Swink 40:31:37 Sportsman Buggy 1401 Todd Welling 29:28:59 Sportsman UTV 1802 Chris Koch 34:37:37 22 1X Colton Udall 20:09:30
The Battle of the Bikes
The THR Motorsports team was in the hunt until a mechanical problem struck late in the race.
When you’re assigned to ride the last section of the Baja 1000 peninsula run, life is different. Just ask Timmy Weigand, who drew that assignment for the Johnny Campbell Racing Honda team. “I’ve never been put in that situation,” he said. “I eat breakfast and the race is going on that I’m involved in! And having lunch, then hanging out—it’s like so weird! I couldn’t really get too many updates. I really never knew what was going on (during the race) so it was kind of strange. It was hard for me, in a way, waiting in limbo not knowing what’s going on, just hoping and praying everything’s perfect.”
Weigand would get on at Race Mile 798 in Loreto and take it to the finish in La Paz 348 miles later, meaning all his riding would be done at night. Teammate Colton Udall had come from his next-to-last start in Class 22 to get the lead by San Felipe, less than 200 miles in. The JCR Honda maintained a slight edge over the THR Motorsports/Monster Energy/Precision Concepts Kawasaki all day with the FMF/Bonanza Plumbing KTM lurking a few minutes farther back in third after leading early on.
“I got to the pit where I was getting on the bike probably a few hours before (the bike’s estimated time of arrival) and I got dressed, like, an hour before,” Weigand shared. “I was just waiting for the word that (Udall) went through the Loreto dump so then I knew the bike would be there within 15 minutes, but I probably had my helmet on 30 minutes prior!” he laughed. “I just knew the race was close and I wanted to be ready.” And the race was still very close at that point.
“When I got on the bike, the Kawi guys were a minute and a half behind us.” That didn’t faze him, though. “I was pretty confident. I knew that if we were the bike in the front, all I had to do was just ride my own race and maintain and not do anything stupid—don’t crash, don’t get lost, know where I’m going, stay focused and just ride at a pace that I’m comfortable with. I didn’t need to ride fast; I didn’t need to ride over my head. I just needed to keep it on two wheels and bring it to the finish.”
But the THR Kawasaki anchorman was possibly even more motivated to cut that gap down. Acknowledged night master Steve Hengeveld, who had roughly the same section as Weigand, began his sprint to the finish about five minutes behind the eventual winners. “Just (in the roughly 100 miles) from Loreto to Insurgentes, (the gap) was down to two minutes,” he reported. “When the bike broke (about 100 miles from the end), I could see him! I was already planning my pass, where I was going to pass him—and it would’ve worked because I wasn’t going to have to push him. Where he pulled into his pit by Santa Rita (around Mile 1000), I was just going to go right around him.” When his bike broke, Hengeveld pushed it through the sand until he was too exhausted, and Kurt Caselli on the KTM rolled up. After making sure Hengeveld was okay, Caselli continued on to seal second overall while Hengeveld ended up getting a ride for himself and his stricken machine from some locals at 3 a.m. and found his pit crew at the next road crossing.
Weigand ended up finishing the race for the JCR Honda team in 20 hours, nine minutes and 30 seconds, with Caselli bringing the KTM in at 21:12:50, the orange squad losing time with a fueling issue early in the race and then Quinn Cody crashing awkwardly and breaking his femur about 10 miles before he was to hand it off to Caselli.
The triumph marked Honda’s 16th consecutive Baja 1000 victory, sealing the SCORE championship and its attendant 1X number plate for the JCR Honda boys who, by many accounts, weren’t favored going in. After all, they had “only” three men—Udall, Weigand and David Kamo—while both KTM (Caselli, Cody, Mike Brown and Ivan Ramirez) and Kawasaki (Hengeveld, Destry Abbott, Robby Bell and David Pearson) subscribed to the keep-fresher-guys-on-the-bike theory. “Nobody gave us a shot,” Weigand pointed out. “All the media, all the magazines, everybody was talking about KTM and Kawi, and nobody gave us a shot. It made winning it even that much better. I like being the underdog; I don’t like having all the pressure.” But that’s something he may have to deal with next year because all three teams are expected to return for the entire three-race SCORE series again, and with the experience Honda’s challengers amassed in 2012, they’re likely to be even more formidable. —Mark Kariya
Once again, the JCR Honda team was first to La Paz.
The FMF KTM team taking second place.