It’s Baja, but distilled and presented in a more compact, more intimate package. That’s Rounds 11 and 12 of the Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series in a nutshell. In the series’ first visit to a new course in years, there was sure to be a learning curve, both for the racers and the track builders. But as much as this event was about what the circuit was, it was as much as about where the circuit was.
The first LOORRS race outside the U.S., The Rockstar Energy South of the Border Battle at the Baja International Short Course at Estero Beach, happened in the spiritual home of off-road racing: Ensenada, Mexico.
Site of the starting – and often finishing – point of the famed Baja 1000 desert off-road race, as well as its sibling the Baja 500, Ensenada is home to a legion of rabid off-road fans. Where at many of the tracks Brian Deegan’s pit, or perhaps Jeremy McGrath’s, might be swamped with autograph seekers, here Rob MacCachren and Bryce Menzies, two racers as well known for their desert exploits as their short course victories, are the stars. But crowds outside both pit areas paled in comparison to the throng that surrounded hometown favorite’s Rodrigo Ampudia’s truck.
And that’s only right, because the Ampudia family was instrumental in bringing LOORRS to Ensenada. Businessman Rodrigo Sr., father of the Pro 2 racer, was the mover and shaker behind the event, and had his hand in making sure every aspect ran smoothly. That was despite the mass of fans that left practically every grandstand seat filled on Sunday.
The one thing Ampudia couldn’t control was the soil, or rather the sand, that the competitors raced on. While most of the drivers universally praised the course, much flatter compared to most due to the nature of the site, most admitted the sand was a problem. Kyle LeDuc described the roost as someone throwing shovelfuls of dirt at your face. And over the course of a few laps, the track developed holes with sharp edges that caught a lot of drivers out. That, and the tricky whoops section, meant several rolled trucks and a lot of time under yellow in the Saturday Pro Lite race.
Before that race, though, each event was trimmed to 10 laps to keep the track from deteriorating too much. After Saturday’s races, a couple of the rollers in the whoops section were trimmed down a bit. It seems to have worked, because Sunday’s Pro Lite contest ran caution-free.
There wasn’t much to be done about the soil itself, though, except to celebrate it. This is off- road racing, after all, and the drivers don’t expect the dirt track to remain the same lap after lap. The best adapted quickly, learned to put their best lap in on the the first lap of qualifying and watched the course closely throughout the race.
“I was just trying to survive the track because it was the hardest thing I’ve had to drive in a long time,” said Menzies, who won Pro 2 on Saturday and scored a couple of podiums in Pro 4.
“Down here in Baja it gets really torn up. You’ve got to change your line. You can’t run the same line over and over, the holes just get so big. Just try to read the terrain and move over a little bit more.”
It wasn’t Menzies, who does think his desert racing experience gave him an edge, that said it’s the sort of track that separates the real drivers from the rest, but it was a sentiment expressed by several competitors. Correct or not, there weren’t many surprises on the top of the podium; most were proven winners.
That includes LeDuc, who provided both one of the more boring races of the weekend when he started out front in Pro 4 and stayed there for the duration in his No. 99 Monster Energy/Toyo Tires Ford on Saturday, followed by one of the best on Sunday.
LeDuc (LEFT) laid down a blisteringly fast qualifying lap on Sunday morning, getting down to a 55.31 on the 1.1-mile Estero Beach track – more than two seconds clear of Menzies. The only hope for avoiding another runaway was fulfilled when the LeDuc team drew a six-place inversion, meaning LeDuc would start on Row 3.
Carl Renezeder, starting on the outside of the first row next to Adrian Cenni, jumped into the lead as Cenni faded. LeDuc made his first move at the end of the second lap, out-flying Menzies over the course’s solitary big jump, just before a caution for debris. On the restart, Deegan, sitting in third, made a big move to take second from MacCachren, then later in the lap he took the lead from Renezeder. Another caution for debris a couple of laps later saw the order as Deegan, Renezeder, LeDuc and MacCachren.
On the restart, LeDuc made a bold move, and the top three were side by side coming out of Turn 2 and into the sand trap. By the time they exited Turn 3, LeDuc was in the lead and using his speed advantage to pull out a gap. Renezeder later hit trouble, leaving MacCachren and Menzies, who had his own difficulties and found himself at the back at one point during the race, to complete the podium.
LeDuc’s wasn’t the only outstanding performance of the day on Sunday. RJ Anderson had two of them. Thanks to a six-position inversion, he started on the outside of the front row for the Pro 2 contest, while fast qualifier Menzies started sixth.
Anderson wasted no time jumping out to a lead, and it looked like Menzies, who made quick work of those between him and the front, might be the only one who could challenge him.
“There’s something about Baja that brings out a little bit more in me,” he noted after his Saturday win.
However, on a restart, Menzies and MacCachren got together, with Menzies ending up watching the whole field go by before he could rejoin. That left Anderson to take the Polaris RZR truck to the finish, followed by MacCachren and Robby Woods.
After winning Pro 2, Anderson then jumped into his LoanMart/Walker Evans Racing Nissan Pro Lite, where he qualified on the outside of the front row, and pretty much repeated his Pro 2 performance, only with less drama.
“Yesterday we struggled a bit,” said Anderson, ABOVE, after taking his second victory of the day. “In Pro Lite we got third, we were pretty conservative. Really good starting positions is what helped us win today. I can’t explain what it means to put that Polaris RZR Pro 2 on the box. It was just adapting to the track, and no mistakes, which were able to do.”
Contrasted with Saturday’s Pro Lite race, the Sunday event was about as clean as one could imagine. The Saturday contest began with Justin “Bean” Smith rolling in the Whoops and getting tagged by another truck, causing a full restart. On that second start, Brandon Arthur jumped out front, followed by Sheldon Creed. The next roll came courtesy of Broc Dickerson, who landed on his wheels in Turn 4 and continued, bringing a huge roar of approval from the fans.
Creed continued to hound Arthur, eventually getting a good run through the Whoops to take the lead on the fourth lap. Creed, though, was the next victim, as he found a hole in Turn 1 that sent him tumbling and handed the lead back to Arthur. A red flag was thrown so officials could fix the hole that claimed Creed’s truck.
The old saying about yellows breeding yellows was in full force. Joe Gibb rolled in the Whoops. On the ensuing restart, Brad DeBerti went side by side in the Whoops with Cole Mamer. The two made contact, sending DeBerti into a violent barrel roll. Both DeBerti and Smith were transported to the hospital after the race to be checked out. Smith competed on Sunday, but DeBerti, with a concussion, took the green and parked his truck for the day.
After the yellow for DeBerti, the race ran clean to the finish, with Arthur taking his first victory of the season in his Competitive Metals/Toyo Tires Chevrolet after a three-race string of seconds. He was followed by Brock Heger and Anderson.
“We got lucky,” said Arthur, who had gone to Ensenada to look at the track the previous weekend and chose a taller gear because of the track’s length. “We ended up qualifying third and they ended up drawing a four for inversion, so that put us on the front row on the outside.
That was probably our biggest break that we got for the weekend – it got us out front, out of the roost. I kind of ran my own race, ran my own lines, so it allowed me to move around the holes.
After Sheldon’s big wreck, it was kind of survival mode for everybody. The track just kind of started coming apart. You just had to pick your lines wisely, make smart moves and not get caught up in anything.”
As usual, the Pro Buggy racers provided some of the least drama while still putting on a good racing show. Elliot Watson started Saturday’s race out front, and led for much of the race, but points leader Garrett George was charging through the field. He eventually seized the lead in his AlarmCo Funco, followed under the checker by Watson and Mike Valentine.
On Sunday, Darren “Hot Sauce” Hardesty was the early leader, but Kevin McCullough was stalking him in second. After the race’s only yellow for an upside-down Sterling Cling,McCullough, in his No. 62 Stapleton Roofing buggy, found his way around Hardesty, who then fell behind Valentine to finish third.
With a successful, standing-room-only event in Baja California behind it, the Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series heads next to Sparks, Nevada, and the Wild West Motorsports Park for a pair of day races on August 22-23