By: Kenny Jimison
From Las Vegas, Nevada to Portland, Oregon is over 900 miles; 15 hours nonstop. Now imagine making an over 900-mile trek through the Mexican desert from Ensenada to La Paz, Mexico, taking almost 24 hours. Well, there are many from around the world who make that adventure through Mexico, in an all-out battle known as the SCORE International Baja 1000.
The Baja 1000 is the oldest off-road race and has mountains of history behind it. Baja is the top of the sport and it is the event that brings the best of the best. From motorcycles and quads, to buggies and trophy trucks, this is the event people prepare all year for.
When the 1000 rolls into Ensenada, it takes over the whole town too. The locals welcome the racers and love to watch the vehicles take off, turning the event into a big party. Thousands also line the hundreds of miles of course and sometimes camp out in the middle of nowhere, just to see the vehicles pass by.
Fans crowed the start line of the Baja 1000 (Image courtesy: Race Dezert)
The 2020 Baja 1000
The running of the 53rd Baja 1000 took place amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic though. With it came a new set of guidelines and regulations that changed the course of the race, as well as the fan interaction. The start and finish areas of the race in Ensenada, Mexico as well as all race activities, were under strict Biosecurity health and safety protocols, meaning that spectators were not allowed.
This was a huge departure from the average Baja 1000, as fans typically line the streets to watch the race and all the events. Spectators could still watch the race from elsewhere around the course, though, as usual.
This Baja 1000 was unique because it featured the longest and toughest loop course in the history of the race. Due to COVID-19, SCORE changed the course from a point-to-point race to a single loop race. At 898.4 miles, the course brought forth a new challenge to the drivers. 2020 Trophy Truck winner Luke McMillin gave his thoughts on the course.
“Part of the portion I drove was also part of the course of the SCORE Baja 500, so it was just rough. It’s hard to pick up your pace in a 1,000-mile race and don’t beat up the truck too much, so we tried to be strategic on that. It was a tough course, but a great course.”
2020 Trophy Truck class winner Luke McMillin (Image courtesy: Racer)
For many drivers, the course went from fast in previous years, to a more technical and slow-paced race. This allowed drivers a lot more chances to pass others both physically and on corrected time. It also presented a place where drivers could make more mistakes or have things go wrong to ruin their day.
One good example of this comes with Alan Ampudia, who was in the running to win the Trophy Truck class for most of the race until a flat tire set him and his team back. Mark Samuels was the first finisher on a bike this year and agreed the course took a lot more than prior races.
“This was a very tough course and extremely demanding, it was the longest loop race ever here. It was very technical, and they added some new stuff to it. You had to have good equipment and good riders to go, perform and win it, and luckily, we do have that we’ve built that over the years. For a SCORE Baja 1000, that was very brutal, tough and long and I’m glad to be the first one here.”
Mark Samuels, the 2020 Baja 1000 Pro Moto Unlimited Winner (Image courtesy: Dirt Rider)
Baja: The History
The Baja 1000 this year brought forth a new wave of racing in Ensenada, but the race is filled with history. Baja is the oldest, and longest running off-road race in the world, making it the pinnacle of off-road racing as well as one of the most prestigious races overall.
The first organized race took place in 1967, but the idea started several years earlier thanks to Honda’s American subsidiary. They wanted to prove the durability of their new motorcycle. Well-known racer Bud Ekins suggested a 950- mile route through the Mexican desert from Tijuana to La Paz, covering many different types of terrain. The first recorded run took a total of 39 hours and 56 minutes to complete. To put that in comparison, the winner of the 2020 race finished in 20 hours and 50 minutes.
The official first running was a part of the newly formed National Off-Road Racing Association (NORRA) and started on October 31, 1967. It was then known as the “Mexican 1000 Rally” and ran an 849-mile course. Very early on, the race was a spotlight in the racing world, and it attracted big names. From Mickey Thompson to Indy 500 winner Parnelli Jones and even movie stars, the Baja 1000 garnered a large following and become an instant success with sponsors coming on board in the first few years.
The 1967 overall winning Meyers Manx dune buggy (Image courtesy: 2040 Parts)
In 1974, the Baja 1000 became a part of Mickey Thompson’s Southern California Off-Road Enterprise (SCORE) organization. The race was cancelled though, alongside all race in the United States in 1974 due to a fuel crisis caused by the Arab Oil Embargo. This made the prices of crude oil increase by up to 70% worldwide.
The race continued on in 1975 and has continued to since with differing course layouts. 1979 marked a major milestone in the race history when the first truck won the overall title of the race. Today, the Trophy Trucks are the “stars of the show” when they roll into Ensenada.
The Baja Experience
The 1000 has two different layouts that are ran, a point-to-point and a loop race. When the point-to-point race is ran, the length can differ but is typically over 1,000 miles. The race traditionally starts in Ensenada, Mexico but has also started in Tijuana and Mexicali and ends in La Paz. The loop race varies from 600 to 850 miles depending on the course ran, typically starting and finishing in Ensenada. Moto racer Nick Acosta mentions how desolate the 1,000 miles of racing can be.
“That is a little of what has me addicted to racing in Mexico, is that 95% of the racing is unknown or blind. When we take off from a pit and head into the desert, only you and your vehicle know exactly what is going on throughout the whole race. We can have the best live feed coverage, hundreds of cameras all over the course, and there is still no way there can be coverage for 1134 miles.”
Trophy Truck driver, Robby Gordon, racing along the Mexican coastline in 2015 (Image courtesy: Mad Media)
The competition in the race has also ramped up throughout the years. Many drivers do not do the race solo, also known as the “ironman”. For most teams, there are different drivers lined up to take over at different points in the race. Trophy truck driver Ryan Arciero touches on what has caused this change.
“It’s too hard anymore to do the SCORE Baja 1000 by yourself. The attrition level, the pace you have to run is too fast now. One guy would be completely wore out. It’s not like it used to be. You can’t make any mistakes any more and still win; you need a second driver. There is no pacing anymore; it’s flat out. You run as hard as the truck can win for all 800 miles.”
Trophy Truck driver Ryan Arciero at the 2018 Baja 1000 (Image courtesy: Racer)
Another challenge racers have to deal with in their 1,000 miles are spectators throughout the course. Spectators line the course and may even be on course as vehicles come tearing towards them at 100+ mph. This, unfortunately, gives Baja a bad reputation, as spectators may be injured and even killed during the race. While spectator injuries and death has become less likely in recent years, the risk is still there.
Spectators also pose a challenge to racers due to boobytraps and sabotage. While they may not mean to cause harm, spectators dig holes or create jumps that are unknown to the racers. They do this to create better photos and videos for them watching.
Racing returns to Baja in February with the 34th San Felipe 250. The 53rd Baja 500 will run its loop in April before the 2nd Baja 400 in September. The SCORE International racing will finish with the 54th Baja 1000, featuring a point-to-point style race.