Like a lumbering freight train finally reaching its anticipated destination, 2020 is finally and thankfully coming to a close. Even for those lucky enough to have found some measure of fulfillment and happiness during this strange year, all of that good fortune is tempered by the grey cloud of illness and anxiousness.
That holds true in the off-road motorsports world as well, but the one gift that the Holiday season always delivers on is the blessing of reflection. Frankly, the entire world is joyous about getting to the other side on January 1st, but for now we can take a few minutes and salute the great, the good and the ugly from a still vibrant sector of the racing industry. So, in the spirit of this special season, we offer up our yearly list of candy canes and lumps of coal.
The Off-Road Industry
When the call came for March’s COVID shutdown, it was as if the greater off-road industry went back to its ideological roots and began collectively circling the wagons. It is a lifestyle and sport that by nature is outside and most often physically distant. More powerful, however, are the core values of persistence despite any challenges, and a dependence on self-sufficiency to survive. There are no shortcuts in the off-road world, and for 2020 that basic premise helped us overcome.
To the surprise of all, industries ancillary to the sport such as motorhomes, trailers, and the exploding side-by-side market were all the rage this year. Gifted with time and opportunity, many felt the calling of nature and fresh air to overcome the endless news spin cycle of despair.
Even the hardcore suppliers and builders had, for the most part, unexpectedly strong years. If there was less racing, there were more people finally having the inclination to complete long-overdue project vehicles sitting under cover in garages and shops around the country.
All of that is more about an unexpected pivot from business as usual. In terms of off-road racing, the real heroes in 2020 are the sanctioning bodies, event promoters and their corporate partners for somehow advancing their operations like a quarterback – adjusting from long to short-term planning, calling audibles at the line and executing largely successful plays in an entirely new way. From Best-in-the Desert’s improbable Vegas To Reno race to SCORE International’s twin Baja races to BFGoodrich managing to continue its corporate cornerstone of supporting racers with an army of 100 or so volunteers (and no post event COVID outbreaks) at the Baja 1000, the industry did what the off-road world does best. It goes to battle despite the odds in places where few conventional people would dare tread.
Let us share a toast to a year that could have turned down a far darker path.
American pride in Dakar
Since it was founded, to American off-road racers the annual Dakar Rally was like the exotic French mistress you met at the corner dive bar. She was intoxicating and beautiful, but also completely unfamiliar and mostly unobtainable. Her way of operating was shrouded in mystery. She had strange rules. To make things more difficult, she would reel you in with a flirtation of potential only to turn away from things remotely grounded in the red, white and blue way of going desert racing.
For years, suitors like Rod Hall, Robby Gordon, Bryce Menzies, Darren Skilton, Robbie Pierce and Johnny Campbell tried to crack her code and add a real American presence to Dakar. Progressive companies like Red Bull, Monster Energy, Can-Am and Polaris help push that narrative on a distinctly European platform. Until 2020, those efforts were largely for naught, most glaringly for Robby Gordon’s characteristically rebellious approach toward the marathon and its rule makers. Think Ricky Bobby in reverse.
This year was blessed to have witnessed not one, but two all-American athletes finally get that mistress to the alter and to say yes. Ricky Brabec almost took home a win in 2019 riding the for the Monster Energy Honda motorcycle team, leading for much of the event before DNFing. Armed with more resolve and experience, the hard-working Brabec won Dakar in 2020. He was joined in raising the American flag by fellow Californian Casey Currie, a multi-talented personality driving a Monster Energy Can-Am to a win in the burgeoning UTV (or SSV) category.
Come New Years, the lure of Dakar will return, as will Brabec and fellow Americans Mitch Guthrie, Seth Quintero (Red Bull Polaris) and AJ Jones (Can-Am) in the SSV. Those efforts will be bolstered by a new Polaris factory backed team of Wayne and Kristen Matlock in specially built side-by-sides created by Jimco racing. These are hopeful first steps to an American racer and/or team finally taking an overall Dakar victory.
If there was a Christmas stocking of good tidings presented to off-road motorsports it would have been a fuzzy blue one with a famous “M” bedazzled on the side. In desert racing, the McMillin family is a multi-generational treasure that has so often set the standard since patriarch Corky McMillin began racing “just for fun” in the mid-1970s. Sons Mark and Scott McMillin evolved with the sport and became champions in their own right, often funding key developments to make the unlimited cars of the day faster and stronger.
In 2020, it was Mark McMillin’s sons Luke and Dan that wrote a well-earned feel-good story for us to enjoy. Years of development and refining the overall operation in its El Cajon, California shop resulted in a season that rivaled any on record. The team showed flashes of brilliance in 2019, then thanks to an outstanding sponsorship package from 4WP, BFGoodrich, Method Wheel and others, they entered the year with a fresh outlook and appearance. Piloting a highly massaged but older Racer Engineering two-wheel drive Trophy-Truck, Luke McMillin and co-driver Jason Duncan claimed the overall title at March’s Mint 400. Brother Dan then took advantage of his new Mason Motorsports all-wheel machine to finally break out and win his first race overall at September’s SCORE Baja 500.
McMillin Racing then pounded their exclamation point to the season by teaming Luke with ageless legend Larry Roeseler for the SCORE Baja 1000. By all accounts the race was a brutal a Baja as there ever was, with an exhausted 64-year-old Roeseler needing help exiting the truck after a swift first stint. McMillin and Duncan then had to run at qualifying speed back to Ensenada, claiming a hard-earned and timely victory and the SCORE season championship. Amazingly, it was also Roesler’s 14th overall Baja 1000 victory. The “Big Blue M” dynasty has returned in a big way, and the sport is far better for it.
There is no other way to put it. After years of infighting and a tone-deaf lack of awareness with racers, fans and sponsors alike, short-course off-road competition stood on the precipice of death in September 2019 after the Lucas Oil group stepped back from the Midwest – and the chance to finally unify the sport. Banking on the support of well-established venues and the steady enthusiasm of a solid competitor base, a Minnesota-based sanction group responsible for the ISOC Snocross (snowmobiling) series stepped in at the end of last year to create the new Championship Off-Road series.
The timing may have seemed precarious, but the reality turned out far differently. With little time to waste, ISOC’s Carl Schubitzke made the correct call and hired Off-Road Motorsport Hall of Fame legend Frank DeAngelo as series director, as well as fellow ORMHOF inductee Bill Savage as tech director. Armed with instant credibility and the 2020 advantage of hosting events away from a far more constrictive west coast environment, the Champ Off-Road group moved into their summer season with a plan well-suited to the Midwest mentality and economic realities.
When former Pro 4 champion Kyle LeDuc announced his intention of racing in the Champ series to take on the Johnny/CJ Greaves juggernaut, the sport’s die was cast as the Lucas Oil Series suddenly found itself without the premier Pro 4 category. That aside, arduous efforts by the series and the tracks of ERX, Dirt City and Crandon allowed for fans, racers and sponsors to enjoy a complete season with only one schedule change and one venue change. Champ Off-Road’s top-tier and free live steams of all its races – including the groundbreaking use of live high-speed drone coverage of the action – attracted a reported live audience of 88,000 fans (46,000 at Crandon Labor Day weekend) and 1.15 million unique views. Be it fate or hard work or both, the future of Champ Off-Road was set into positive motion in the worst year possible.
LUMPS OF COAL
After March’s Mint 400 this horrible plague on our society affected each and every aspect of our lives, both personally and professionally. Like so many forms of the sport, off-road racing thrives on its social aspects as much as on-track competition. Yes, events went on, but they were not the same in form or atmosphere.
Lucas Oil’s Withdrawal
In last year’s Christmas Eve version of ‘Candy Canes and Lumps of Coal’, I wrote that “There is no single entity that has done more to lift the sport of short-course racing in America than Lucas Oil. It’s largely Southwestern-centric series has been the most consistent platform the often-fluid segment of the sport has known in decades…”
While history will certainly confirm that observation, the loss of the Lucas Oil Off-Road Racing Series at the end of the 2020 season was a stark wake-up call. To off-road veterans and racers, the announcement came as little surprise after the series was forced to run without spectators and endure multiple date and venue changes.
From a PR perspective, the news came after series officials released a schedule of events, which was also awkward. Despite understanding the reasons why, Lucas Oil, the series and the racers deserved better than that. The big question now is what to do with nearly 300 short-course off-road race teams and vehicles without the ability to join Champ Off-Road in the Midwest. Time will tell.
Too Many Cooks
Finally comes a precautionary stocking of coal to the off-road sanctioning groups of all forms. There is only so much bandwidth when it comes to competitors, dates, media, sponsorships and fan’s attention. For decades, there was an unspoken set of ethics that allowed promoters and organizers to work around date conflicts and not act with rogue abandon.
Throwing new dates and events on top of long-established ones is detrimental for all involved, as are too many classes operating under too many variable regulations. As we enter 2021, this is the sport’s next great obstacle in sustainability and, hopefully, growth. All this may well reflect the tumultuous times we live in, but history won’t look kindly on the next 12 months if it doesn’t change.