And so we have come down to this. Months of planning, preparation and overworked credit cards have come down to a either a few fleeting hours or almost two grinding days of mechanical insanity and life-confirming adventure. It all depends on your machine, your luck and your fortitude.
Off-road racing’s oldest and most prestigious competition has finally arrived, and so have more than 275 teams expected to take Friday’s green flag at Ensenada, Baja, Mexico’s familiar starting line. Ahead lies what by all accounts is said to be a brutal course chiseled out of granite and shale, punctuated by sand and silt, covering the 800.5-mile odyssey that will be this year’s 52nd BFGood-rich SCORE Baja 1000.
For safety reasons, motorcycle and quad classes will start at the ungodly hour of 3 a.m. PT on Friday morning, and the car, truck and UTV classes will begin their journey in the elapsed-time race at 10:30 a.m. PT on Friday. While the fastest vehicles are expected by SCORE to complete the course in approximately 16 hours (all signs point to this being highly optimistic), all vehicles will have 34 hours from the time each starts to complete the course and earned coveted official finisher honors.
Every Baja 1000 is tough, really tough. This week’s torrential downpours over much of the normally parched Baja desert has lit up social media with reconnaissance vehicles stuck in newly created culverts, mud pits and flash flood water crossings. What was tough has now become ominous and, in some cases, impassible. But that is the way it’s supposed to be. As they say, respect is earned a mile at a time.
Don’t like it? Go run your Miata at the next Walmart parking lot autocross.
History tells us that there will be compelling narratives throughout the field as men and women engage in a battle royal, a physical and emotional journey that is not for the weak of spirit. All eyes, however, will be at the tip of the unlimited Trophy-Truck spear as the days of a tough environment leveling the playing field are over. The best teams with the most resources will run up front, and one of them will run at the highest pitch without breaking and win.
The rain-soaked mess and its aftermath will play a key role in the outcome. Count on it.
As it has for several years now, the real question is whether one of current all-wheel drive Trophy-Trucks will finally break through to post the first overall victory for such a vehicle since Rod Hall and Larry Minor won the old NORRA Mexican 1000 in a Ford Bronco. The year was 1969. While much has changed in that 50 years, the advantages of high-performance four-wheel drives could (and should) breakthrough in 2019 thanks to the weather. That aside, here are our top picks for a wet and wild Baja 1000:
• Andy McMillin/Bryce Menzies (No. 31 Red Bull/Toyo Mason)
Winning the Baja 1000 is no longer a solo effort nor a so-so relief driver filing in for a primary star. It’s about a strong team capability of running nine and a half tenths all day and night. Andy McMillin has been on a roll all year, and his new Mason AWD truck is the right tool for this tough course. Now he is paired with Red Bull/Toyo teammate Bryce Menzies. Two great drivers in one top-notch ride with a pace set on “kill.” With a number two starting spot off the line and lots of pressure to win, they will be tough to beat.
• Cameron Steele/Ricky Johnson (No. 16 Monster Energy/BFGoodrich Mason)
Today there is no bigger advocate to Baja than defending 1000 champion Cameron Steele. For this year’s race Steele has joined forces with Team C, whose influence and resources made the entire Mason Motorsports all-wheel drive project a reality. Sharing driving duties with Cameron is the legendary motorcycle and off-road racer Ricky Johnson, whose run this truck at the front of several big Baja races in recent years. It’s tough to go back to back, but these two can make it happen.
• Ryan Arciero/Dan McMillin (No. 32 Levis/BFGoodrich Herbst Smith, pictured, top of page)
In any normal year, coming into a technical labyrinth like this year’s race offers the first truck off the line a huge advantage because of clean air (no dust). However, the downpours this week could make the number one starting spot detrimental as Arciero will be the first to find uncharted obstacles and hazards. He finally broke through a drought to win the recent SCORE 400, thanks in large measure to the team’s new 1,050hp Joe Gibbs Racing engines. Now Arciero will race with the always potent Dan McMillin, whose Racer-built truck burned to the ground in the same race. This combination may surprise despite having the traditional two-wheel drive setup.
The Next Best:
• Luke McMillin/Larry Roeseler (No. 83 McMillin Racing/BFGoodrich Racer)
Luke McMillin finally reached his racing goals early this year by winning the first ever Trophy-Truck race at the King of the Hammers. McMillin Racing has history and experience on its side, as well as one of the strongest teams in the sport. Luke’s race craft has gotten better and smarter with age. Joining him will be forever young Larry Roeseler. Roeseler has notched more Baja 1000 overall’s than anyone (14), and there would be no bigger sentimental favorite than seeing “LR” take home another one.
• Rob MacCachren/Justin Smith (No. 11 Rockstar/BFGoodrich Geiser)
No question that Rob Mac is the greatest overall off-road racer in history. His record proves that. But, 2019 hasn’t been the kindest for one of only true professional drivers in the sport. And while his now aging Geiser two-wheel drive truck still rocks, the biggest advantage MacCachren may bring into this year’s race is a lifetime of experience in any type of condition. Patience may be the ultimate difference maker this weekend, and MacCachren may revert to his time proven tactic of letting the race come back to him. Justin Smith is a solid choice to help bring the No. 11 team another win.
Surprises to watch:
• Jesse Jones/Toby Price/Nasser Al Atilyah (No. 76 Red Bull/BFGoodrich Mason)
What happens when you take a well-heeled American veteran racer like Jesse Jones and combine him with who champions of the only race in the world tougher than the Baja 1000? We will see. Dakar winners Nasser Al Atilyah and Toby Price may lack much experience in Baja (Price raced last year with Red Bull teammate Bryce Menzies), but they are the real deal. Jones has brand-new Mason AWD ready for the trio to shock and surprise. Should be a great storyline.
• Casey Mears/Doug Fortin (No. 42 Axalta/BFGoodrich Geiser)
Don’t laugh. Casey Mears is the son of 2019 Grand Marshal Roger Mears and is a real talent behind the wheel. Amazingly, Mears never raced a Baja event until April’s NORRA Mexican 1000, where he kicked ass. Now he arrives at the 1000 with a Geiser-backed truck and teams with Doug Fortin, one of the best in the business. This new combination may not win, but they will certainly be in the hunt for a podium despite a last place start in class.
Video: Watch Casey Mears talk Baja 1000 with Jeff Gordon:
How to follow the action:
Can’t make it to Baja? Tech and Contingency celebration will be held in downtown Ensenada and the entire 51st SCORE Baja 1000 race will be live streamed from the SCORE website (www.score-international.com). During the race there will also be live tracking of all vehicles displayed from the home page of the SCORE website.