Luke McMillin charges through the Baja terrain behind the wheel of the TSCO Weyhrich Trophy-Truck.
Author: Matt Kartozian Photos: Matt Kartozian
The iconic words of Obi-Wan Kenobi to Luke Skywalker as he flies through the trench of the Deathstar instill confidence, poise and daring. In the end, Skywalker is able to fire his proton torpedoes into the small thermal exhaust port, starting a chain reaction that destroys the Deathstar in a glorious explosion. Baja, like the trench run on the Deathstar, is full of hazards. Instead of TIE fighters, laser turrets and crossbeams, it is full of g-outs, square holes, silt, rocks and booby traps. Most of all, Baja is like Darth Vader, both hero and villain, merciful and vengeful. Another similarity between 20-year-old Luke McMillin and the young Jedi Skywalker goes beyond just a shared first name. Luke McMillin, a third-generation racer from the McMillin Racing dynasty, learned to drive off-road cars in the deserts of California’s Imperial Valley and Baja. A 1/2-1600 buggy racing around the barren trails of Plaster City does not look all that different than Skywalker cruising Tatooine in his landspeeder. It would be easy to imagine the young McMillin telling a group of fans, “These aren’t the steeekers you’re looking for.” Luke started racing in a 1/2-1600 buggy and had early success. After four years, many wins and a championship in his 1/2-1600 car, he moved on to Class 1 for the 2012 season. It was a year of transition and learning as well as one full of victories as McMillin won all three races in Baja, the San Felipe 250, the Baja 500 and the Baja 1000. The season filled him with confidence, but he still had some doubts about his ability - much like Skywalker after training on Dagobah with Yoda. For 2013 McMillin is taking yet another large step forward. As Skywalker faced his fears and fought Darth Vader on Bespin, McMillin raced the 45th Tecate SCORE Baja 500 in the premier Trophy-Truck class, stacked against a field of 37 other TTs, with less than 200 test miles under his belt. Thankfully, he didn’t lose his hand like Skywalker.
For 20-year-old Luke McMillin, racing is a way of carrying on the famous family name that has dominated the deserts of North America and Baja for three generations.
The McMillin racing tradition started with Luke’s grandfather, Corky, a true Baja legend and innovator. Corky’s sons Mark and Scott continued the legacy racing in Class 1 buggies for decades, and in recent years racing in Trophy-Trucks. That long and storied tradition now continues with newest generation of McMillins, including Andy, Jessica, Dan and Luke. Luke got his first taste of racing in Baja in a 1600 car while following his dad Mark during prerunning and he has never looked back. Though now only 20, Luke has already amassed 11 years of experience behind the wheel of off-road cars - all of it beneath the McMillin Racing banner with his family. For the Tecate SCORE Baja 500, Luke not only stepped into a new class with little room for error, but he also did it with a new team, the TSCO Racing Team of Mark and Gary Weyhrich. The Weyhrichs campaign two Trophy-Trucks in the SCORE series, the #9 and the #98. During the timeframe for the 500, Mark was to take part in the wedding of Max Theriot, son of Cameron Theriot of the Lucky Sperm team, and would not be able to take the wheel of Trophy-Truck #9. However, the truck still had to race the 500 due to sponsor obligations and, in the end, Luke was given the nod to race it. Though Luke preran the 500 with his dad Mark and brother Dan, on raceday he was with the TSCO team. No McMillin chase or pits as it was all TSCO. “It’s what Andy did his first year with Robby Gordon, but it is kind of weird to step away from the McMillin team. The guys at the shop were a bit taken back by it. It’s fun being down in Baja with the family, but at the same time now I am racing for someone else and hopefully it leads to other rides. It’s definitely more serious now. Mark Weyhrich is in the running for a championship so I asked him if he wanted me just to cruise, but he said he wanted me to go for the win and that he put me in the truck because he thought I have the best chance of winning. That puts pressure on me even though the whole TSCO team is behind me. It makes it more like a job because they are expecting me to do well.”
Special hats were made to mark the one-time blending of Luke McMillin and the TSCO racing team to form the new McTSCO” super team. Luke’s original plan for 2013 was to race in Class 1 again and go for a championship, but when the opportunity came up to drive a Trophy-Truck his plans changed quickly. “Overall I only have 200-300 miles in any kind of truck,” Luke said before the race. “This is totally new to me, I don’t even know what the truck pace is, I will be learning as I go. I’m pretty nervous. When I stepped up to the Class 1 from 1600, it was similar because they are both buggies; with trucks I have an idea of what to do but I have zero experience other than some testing.” “I had lunch with Andy (McMillin) and he was giving me little tips. He was telling how to drive a truck, where they are faster and when I need to make time, but really it was very little. My family really doesn’t give instructions. People think growing up my dad taught me how to race. The way we believe in learning is going out and getting seat time and figuring it out for yourself. Other than some little tips from Andy I’ve had no coaching.”
Prerunning is a huge part of any race and plenty of it was performed before the Baja 500.
While Luke is one of the young rising stars of the Dirt Sports Nation, he is not the only one in the family. His older brother Dan is an accomplished racer, and his cousin Andy is one of the top Trophy-Truck drivers in the sport, earning Dirt Sports’ Driver of the Year honors in 2009. Luke gave his thoughts on continuing the family legacy and the being the latest young gun McMillin. “I thought about it a lot because Andy started in Class 1 and did really well,” Luke explained. “I am looking up to him and I want to be just as good or better. I was excited to light the world on fire in Class 1 right away, winning all three Baja races in a row, it’s something that has not been done before. Now going into Trophy-Truck I am looking at how good he was when he started. It’s in the back of my mind. There’s not so much pressure like in the Class 1; Andy had a rough first couple of years in truck. Basically I don’t think about the pressure, I just drive a comfortable pace, what I can see, and usually that works out. I don’t think of myself as a rising star at all. I pretty much doubt myself in cars. I’m hard on myself and always think I got lucky. I just drive my race, I don’t think about other people or their opinions. I focus on my driving and stick to my own agenda. I don’t like to get cocky or talk trash on other racers. Talking trash on the Internet like BJ Baldwin is not what I want to do, I just want to go out and win and that’s it.” “I am very proud of our entire racing team, my dad, my brother, myself…myself…myself,” Mark McMillin joked before turning serious. “Luke right now is the guy to be watching in the #9 Trophy-Truck. I’m very proud of Luke and extremely impressed with what he did in Class 1. Luke right now is in a groove, he is very focused at the races and in between the races, he’s focused at the shop and he asks the right questions. Even Superman has kryptonite, and Luke will find out what his is. Luke started in a sand car when he was eight then followed me in his 1600 car when he was 12, prerunning to La Paz three times. All that experience absolutely pays off.”
While his older brother Dan (on left) and Andy were able to share a few tips, Luke relied on his experience behind the wheel of a Class 1 for making his Trophy-Truck debut.
Mark is no stranger to off-road racing. He started in a Class 9 in 1976 and has overalled the Baja 1000 five times. “Baja is about focus and prep, and knowing that you first have to finish, before you can finish first. Nobody has won the race at Race Mile 250, 350 or 450. I think my boys know how to find the finish line. My dad Corky used to say we never ever quit. He made me finish races after we had timed out and my boys have learned the same thing.” A full Trophy-Truck prep takes place weeks before the race and takes hundreds of man-hours. Each driver also spends a significant amount of time prepping. For Luke it started back in March when he did a short test session in the TSCO Trophy-Truck right after the Mint 400. With nine days to go before race day he started prerunning, tackling half of the course each day. Each day of prerunning typically starts at 8 a.m., then once done for the day his co-driver Chris Olimon spends an average of two hours transcribing his voice recorder into race notes for each waypoint they mark on the course. In total they preran the entire course three times leading up to the race, and in the first few days of prerunning the duo marked about 200 notes for that section of the course. Olimon marks a point on the GPS with a number then records a voice memo describing what it is. He then goes over those recordings and types the notes into their GPS file of the racecourse. While Baja is a like an amusement park for many, for the McMillins it’s about winning, and that requires homework. “Ninety percent of the time we are in Mexico we are out in the middle of nowhere prerunning,” said Luke. “Prerunning is about getting ready for the race. We take breaks, but when we are driving we are making notes full time.” While the GPS and course notes are helpful, they are just a reminder as they more or less memorize the course. Luke summed it up, “It’s mostly memory, the GPS and the guy next to you are just reassurance.” Larry Roeseler, or Mr. Baja as many of the locals call him, earned his first Baja 500 class win in 1972. Since then he has become the winningest active driver in desert racing, which includes 16 class wins and 11 overalls at the 500. Roeseler is still a threat to win any race he enters and likes racing the new fast guys. “In the last few years it’s been very apparent that the young guys are coming,” Roeseler said. “We have seen it with guys like Andy, BJ, Tavo and Bryce. For me it is an honor and a privilege and just awesome to race against guys like Luke and Dan because Mark and Scott and I go way back to the beginning. The new guys do not worry me, but I am applying myself more now than four or five years ago. The whole game has stepped up; there are more good teams. Before, there were only three or four guys you had to worry about, now it’s seven or eight. To have Luke in the mix now, it’s exciting for me to witness what is happening while I am still a threat.”
Luke ran in the top five Trophy-Trucks for much of the Baja 500 before a low-speed roll pushed him back to 13th.
With all the homework and prep done, Luke and the TSCO team went out to Ojos Negros early on the Thursday before the race for the first qualifying session ever for a Baja race. The 4.5-mile qualifying course was run on private land adjacent to the racecourse. The qualifying circuit had open prerunning which started at 7:30 a.m. and racers could take as many laps as they liked during the two-hour window. At 9:30 there was a drivers meeting and then they each took a single timed lap to determine the starting order. All the Trophy-Trucks ran first followed by less than half of the Class 1 entries. When the dust settled, Robby Gordon took the pole position by 1.8 seconds over of Jason Voss. Bryce Menzies, Juan C. Lopez and BJ Baldwin rounded out the top five. Luke McMillin qualified 15th out of the 32 present. In Class 1 Randy Wilson was the fastest, followed by Corey Keysar and Lalo Laguna. While Wilson’s time would have put him fifth overall, buggies and trucks would not be mixed for the start and the times only counted in class. At 10:30 a.m. on June 1, Gordon took the green flag, officially starting the Baja 500. Just a few miles into the race, while still in the Ensenada wash, Robby hydroplaned at over 100 mph and spun out onto the embankment, allowing Voss to take the physical lead. Luke McMillin followed a few minutes later, but was taking things easy at the start of the race, given his limited truck experience and unsure of what the pace would be for the top drivers in the class. He had started behind Rob MacCachren and his early plan was to pace MacCachren while getting used to the truck, but MacCachren had a flat near Nuevo Junction at Race Mile 100, allowing McMillin to pass. McMillin continued to work his way through the pack and was in the top five trucks after crossing over the Summit. Shortly after the Summit, he pitted and the TSCO team did an outstanding job fueling the truck and changing the tires in under 30 seconds. Coming into Borrego at Race Mile 200 he suffered a flat front tire for unknown reasons. McMillin had another flat on the road to Mike’s Sky Rancho at Race Mile 240 (a flat he qualified as “well deserved”). From Mike’s to the coast, McMillin worked his way back to the front, passing Justin Davis, Gary Weyhrich and Lopez who were all stopped for various fixes. By the time he hit the beach section at Race Mile 325, McMillin was the fifth truck on the road and third overall on corrected time behind Robby Gordon and BJ Baldwin. Split times at Erendira confirmed that McMillin was still in third and he began to push the truck a bit to keep up with the leaders. Roughly four miles from Santo Tomas at Race Mile 395 McMillin came into a soft right turn a little too fast. “The back end got off the road a little bit,” McMillin said describing the incident. “I overcorrected and the back tire caught the inside of the wall and shot me off the track. I got hard on the brakes as I went through some bushes thinking I was all good. Then I hit a ditch, we bounced off the ditch and had a super slow rollover, onto the roof. And that was that.” The rollover was at such a slow speed that all the antennas on the truck remained intact as well as the lightbar and all body panels. “There was nothing I could do, I was already at low speed so I couldn’t save it. We climbed out of the truck. Chris and I were both fine and called the chase crew.”
A packed contingency shows the popularity of the Baja 500.
After a rough start and spin in the flooded wash, top qualifier Gordon recovered quickly and cruised to the finish and victory. He finished in a time of 10 hours, five minutes and 44 seconds for an average speed of 49.73 mph over the 502-mile race course. The win marked Robby’s fifth class win at the 500 and his 10th SCORE Trophy-Truck win. BJ Baldwin finished second, nine minutes back with Bryce Menzies in third, 17 minutes behind Gordon. Gordon took the physical lead on the course from Voss near Race Mile 130 and kept the position all the way to the checkers. Voss, who was involved in a head-on collision with a spectator vehicle going backward on course at Race Mile 46, later suffered a transmission failure, handing the lead to Gordon. Gordon voiced safety concerns after Voss’ collision. “I can promise you I’m not racing without a helicopter above me ever again. We got lucky, at the start of the race we got lucky and were not opening the road at Race Mile 46, because that was going to be me, not Jason having the head-on collision. Take the water out of the wash and the head-on collision and I thought Roger and SCORE did a good job. The podium ceremony was great. I really appreciate Monster putting up that nice stage so we could park all of our first-place cars on top of it.” Gordon had a smooth race after taking the physical lead. “The race played right into our hands. The guys did an awesome job on pit stops. We did some fuel strategy early, which gave me track position for later. I knew it was just a matter of time before Voss and the other guys had to pit, and when they did we were first on the road again. It was a good day for us.” Throughout the day, Baldwin was pushing to catch and pressure Gordon for the lead. “I knew after qualifying that if I can beat him ten seconds in five miles, all it takes is about 50 miles to put two minutes on him. I controlled the race, I only had to race at the speeds I wanted to race, and I was going to let BJ sit there a minute back all the way to Erendira. I knew that from Erendira to the finish, even in clean running, I could beat him by eight minutes, so I was not worried,” noted Gordon. After a great race at the 45th Baja 500, we in the Dirt Sports Nation are now salivating anticipating the battles to come at the 46th Baja 1000 this November. For young McMillin it might as well be Endor for his penultimate showdown with Darth Vader, but who will emerge with the victory?