Off Road

2021 Baja 1000 sees Rossi’s first, Beetlemania

8 Mins read
Credit: Caleb Norman

The SCORE International Baja 1000 is a test of endurance unlike any other in North America. The 54th edition saw 302 entries push through 1,226.35 miles (1,973.62 km) of Baja California desert from Ensenada to La Paz. Throughout the three days of racing, stories ranged from longtime faces continuing to assert their dominance, such as Mark Samuels‘ stable dominating the motorcycles en route to his sixth win in the event, to newcomers making an impact, perhaps most notably Alexander Rossi claiming his maiden Baja 1000 win.

Samuels and his #1X Honda team of Justin Morgan, Kendall Norman, and Brandon Prieto dominated the Pro Moto Unlimited class and overall for motorcycles, as they were the only bike to complete the track in less than 24 hours at 23 hours, 7 minutes, 18.363 seconds. It is Samuels’ second in a row and third in the last four years, while Morgan secures his fifth straight and Norman gets his first since 2011 and seventh. The #5X of Derek Ausserbauer, Colton Udall, and Brandon Petersen provided the closest challenge, but had only reached the 1201st mile when the #1x finished the race and would finish after 24 hours, 22 minutes, 46.894 seconds.

Many of the first to reach La Paz were bikes like the two aforementioned teams, which is to be expected as such vehicles began the 1000 seven hours before the cars. Nevertheless, the fastest time elapsed from start to finish came from the cars as the top five overall times were filled by Trophy Trucks. Rob MacCachren, a 2011 inductee into the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame, added a fifth Baja 1000 to his trophy room after previously winning in 2007 and from 2014 to 2016 while team-mate Luke McMillin scored his second consecutive win. While the duo’s #11 showed plenty of speed throughout, they spent much of the early stages chasing down the dominant #7 truck of Bryce Menzies and McMillin’s cousin Andy McMillin. However, Menzies’ hopes of claiming his maiden 1000 were dashed at the 684th mile when an alternator bolt broke shortly after McMillin took over the truck. The MacCachren/McMillin duo finished with a time of 20 hours, 45 minutes, 58.908 seconds, over 33 seconds ahead of the #21 piloted by Tavo Vildosola, father Gustavo, and Ricky Johnson.

Fourth was 2019 overall winner Alan Ampudia, Jax Redline, and rally icon Ken Block; Block previously ran the 2007 Baja 1000 in the Baja Challenge class, with 2021 marking his first time racing in Trophy Trucks. The Ampudia/Redline/Block #10 was the highest finisher of the 172 that received a time penalty, getting eighteen minutes added to their time for speeding. It is a fairly light punishment compared to what others got, with eight having over an hour placed for multiple infractions like speeding and missing Virtual Checkpoints; the #264 Trophy Truck Spec of Pierce, Thor, and Riley Herbst were also slapped with a one-hour penalty for “deliberate, abusive nerfing”, while Samuel Araiza Vazquez‘s #2996 Pro UTV Forced Induction had two hours for speeding. Ironically, the #10’s finishing position came as the result of another rival being penalised as Tim and Troy Herbst‘s #19 TT was relegated from fourth to fifth for an eighteen-minute speeding infraction.

Credit: Hoonigan Industries

Three-time 1000 winner Robby Gordon finished seventh in TT alongside fellow ex-NASCAR driver Casey Mears and Steve Strobel. Gordon’s run ended with him being responsible what is one of the coolest acts of kindness in racing: with miles before the finish, he encountered fellow Trophy Truck driver Larry Roeseler, whose truck lost its transmission which prompted Gordon to tow him for eight miles closer to the end. Upon regaining power, Roeseler finished the race on his own, one spot behind Gordon; the 64-year-old, a record thirteen-time 1000 victor, was the oldest competitor in the field to attempt all 1,227 miles with no replacement drivers. These “ironmen” also enjoyed success stories in other divisions as six of thirteen finished in the Pro Moto Ironman class (won by Juan Carlos Salvatierra) while both Pro Quad Ironman riders Miguel Angel Arranz Lopez and Francisco Javier Villavicencio completed the race.

In addition to supporting a friend, Gordon’s gesture aided a familiar endorsement in Roeseler’s sponsor Baja Jerky, which supported Gordon’s son and co-driver Max Gordon in the Stadium Super Trucks race weekend at Long Beach in September. The Baja field featured fourteen alumni of Gordon’s SST series like Johnson, MacCachren, and Mears; fellow TT drivers Justin Lofton (DNF), Apdaly Lopez (DNF), Justin Matney (eighth overall, sixth in class), and Sara Price (31st overall, twelfth in class); Robbie Pierce of the Trophy Truck Legends (81st overall, fourth in class); Trophy Truck Spec’s Charles Dorrance and Larry Job (48th overall, tenth in class), Brock Heger (twelfth overall, fourth in class), Christopher Polvoorde (35th overall, eighth in class), and Toby Price (DNF); and Pro UTV Forced Induction’s P.J. Jones (62nd overall, seventh in class).

“I’m a fan of his, he’s a fan of me. We have very mutual respect for each other,” said Roeseler. “But the fact that—I mean three or four cars passed him helping me—it was very cool of Robby to do that.

“As we were coming in off the stairsteps and everything, he told me, ‘I’ll do that.’ His hand’s out the window, giving thumbs up to all the fans and they’re cheering us on, and I’m on the tow strap all the way to the pavement. There, we got more oil and it was enough to engage and then I drove it in. Pretty epic day.”

Others took more unconventional approaches to teamwork. John Slavic was the pilot of two Class 3000/Trophylites, the #6069 and #6076, alongside son Elliot, both of whom were newcomers to the Baja 1000. The entries were fielded by the Trophylite Race Series, a programme that provides desert racing opportunities for affordable prices. The #6069 went off course after the first checkpoint and drove along the highway to link up with its partner truck, an egregious violation of course cutting that resulted in disqualification. As the #6076 was performing better than its counterpart, the father/son duo committed fully to it and finished second in the class behind Christopher Amos, the only other Trophylite driver.

In Class 1, Brad Wilson benefitted from Cody Parkhouse‘s twenty-minute penalty for speeding and missed Virtual Checkpoints to win. Wilson, one of the top Class 1 drivers in SCORE, rebounds after failing to finish his most recent attempt in 2019. Brendan Gaughan, a NASCAR driver-turned-team executive and 2019 class winner, was listed on trackers as completing 1226.9 miles but was unable to finish. Despite battling axle problems, the seventh and last Class 1 entry to finish was the #122 of Darren Skilton and Viry Felix, who were joined by two-time 24 Hours of Le Mans winner and Pikes Peak International Hill Climb record holder Romain Dumas under the Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus banner.

Credit: Ignite Media

Rossi’s Class 7 victory, in his third attempt at the 1000, adds to an already very impressive racing résumé. Although the NTT IndyCar Series regular has slogged through difficult seasons over the last two years as he has not won in the series since 2019, the Baja triumph means he wraps up 2021 with a major win after beginning the year by claiming the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona overall. He is the first Indianapolis 500 winner to score a win, overall or class, in the Baja 1000; Parnelli Jones, Rick Mears, Buddy Rice, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Danny Sullivan won the 500 but did not triumph in their Baja exploits. Team-mates Jeff Proctor, Richard Glaszczak, and Steve Hengeveld began and ended the race while Rossi ran the graveyard shift in the early hours.

“What a wild ride this race, this event, is. I can’t even begin to explain what it’s like: it’s equally chaotic, awesome and terrifying,” commented Rossi. “To drive this truck through the desert, and the mountains, in the middle of the night, through fog that’s rolling in from the ocean—with hundreds of other cars and their dust—is unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced. It’s insane, and it’s really cool.”

Although Trophy Trucks and bikes typically dominate the Baja scene, the Volkswagen Beetles of Class 11 caught eyes with a whopping eight finishers of eleven cars. Due to their nearly fully-production status with few modifications allowed and little resources, Beetles have often suffered in the grueling environment of the Baja 1000. It is not uncommon for the 1000 to end with only one or two, if any, finishers: since 2010, three 1000s including 2020 ended with no Beetles completing the race while 2018 saw the most successful performance of the 2010s with three. The Baja 500 in June also sported a zero-percent finish rate for Class 11.

Many of the Class 11 competitors won fans’ hearts for their efforts, which culminated in a close battle for the class win between Hector SarabiaJesus Alberto Ortiz LedezmaAlex Gonzales, and Eric Solorzano. The four were in close contention throughout before Sarabia took the victory, while Ledezma and Gonzales finished just one minute apart. Only adding to their newfound legacies, some like Ledezma and fifth-placed Emilio Osuna Jr. inadvertently took the Fred’s Tractor Trail route (approximately at the 393rd mile) that Class 11 drivers were not required to traverse, yet they made up the lost ground to notch strong finishes.

“We just finished within time. No shocks for the last… 400 or so miles,” wrote a team member for Class 11’s #1144 driven by Nico Samaras, the eighth and final Beetle to finish. “Holy hell that road in was rough, right when you’re wishing for a gimmie road. Kinda love they didn’t bring us in on a graded road. We’re all masochists that like desert racing.”

Credit: Isaac Diaz

In contrast to the Class 11 octet, many drivers were marred by misfortune and accidents. For example, Pro Stock UTV ironman David Clay had to retire on the 630th mile due to a motor failure. The Hammer Truck Unlimited of Michael Leggero exited after just 22.5 miles to conclude a difficult week in which his team struggled to fix “things that shouldn’t have broken”, making it to technical registration just a minute before closure, and suffering terminal damage to his communications after hitting a hole; Sky Johnson, the other Hammer Truck in the class, also failed to finish. Perhaps the biggest wreck of the race occurred when Justin “Bean” Smith went sideways and hit a berm, causing his and Dan McMillin‘s (Andy’s brother) #23 Trophy Truck to flip onto its roof.

Four classes including Hammer Truck Unlimited did not have a single finisher. The Class 1400 Sportsman Unlimited and Class 2300 Sportsman Limited Trucks had one driver each, with the former’s David Pryor only reaching 155 miles while the latter’s Michael Tuba hit 307.9. Chris Greenwood was the lone representative of the Vintage Era 1982 & Earlier division in his “Big Oly” Ford Bronco, and he bowed out after 707.7 miles.

In spite of the retirements, many pointed out the finish rate was higher than in previous years as 187 of 302 were officially classified as having completed the course (61.9%). For comparison, the 2020 race saw 99 of 185 finishers (53.51%) and 2019’s was even lower at 124 of 264 (46.96%). A rough count of those who crossed the line totalled over 200, but a handful were knocked out due to penalties that caused them to eclipse the fifty-hour time limit or because they were ruled as not having run the full distance. Some suggested the lower attrition may have come as the track did not run through as many silt and bottleneck regions as previous editions, or that the 1,226.35-mile distance (the fourth longest in race history) could have resulted in a more forgiving layout.

Class winners

ClassOverall FinishNumberLead DriverTime
1400 Sportsman Unlimited TruckDNF1423David PryorN/A
4700 JeepSpeed Trophy1644733Andrew Hulse44:49:58.182
Baja Challenge85BC1John Williams33:08:10.460
Class 114153Brad Wilson24:10:15.020
Class 1/2 1600681600Eli Yee31:02:23.134
Class 10611046Ethan Hagle26:58:54.834
Class 111421145Hector Martinez Sarabia42:01:31.992
Class 2300 Sportsman Limited TruckDNF2303Michael TubaN/A
Class 3186319Cesar Gutierrez49:09:23.404
Class 3000/Trophy Lite1233006Christopher Amos38:01:02.723
Class 578523Don Chase28:31:31.388
Class 5 1600133598Jorge Gutierrez35:48:19.576
Class 734709Jeff Proctor27:10:00.080
Class 7F126714FJustin Park38:05:57.373
Class 7SX128758Armando Duron38:33:29.239
Hammer Truck UnlimitedDNF4482Sky JohnsonN/A
Pro Moto 3026308XGreg Bardonnex26:19:25.437
Pro Moto 4045408XRyan Liebelt28:37:02.189
Pro Moto 5065510XGiovanni Spinali30:48:16.854
Pro Moto 60152625XCraig Wear43:01:18.385
Pro Moto Ironman101725XJuan Carlos Salvatierra34:39:12.821
Pro Moto Limited51109XChristopher Gil29:01:15.889
Pro Moto Unlimited61XMark Samuels23:07:18.363
Pro Quad Ironman17299AMiguel Angel Arranz Lopez46:17:54.432
Pro Quads368AOskar Espinoza27:12:28.600
Pro Stock UTV523955Mike Cafro29:16:36.494
Pro UTV Forced Induction332944Phil Blurton26:58:56.767
Pro UTV Normally Aspirated531920Elias Hanna29:18:38.049
Pro UTV Open501870Justin Elenburg28:53:09.763
SCORE Lites771229Doug Satterfield32:05:27.063
Sportsman Moto1 (Group B)235XDave Dusendang30:56:27.111
Sportsman Quad2 (Group B)177ADavid A. Nunez Ortega30:58:39.115
Trophy Truck111Rob MacCachren20:45:58.908
Trophy Truck Legends1037LRolf Helland23:38:52.708
Trophy Truck Spec7238Elijah Kiger23:12:15.494
Vintage Era 1982 & EarlierDNFV35Chris GreenwoodN/A
Full results available at SCORE International website
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Justin is not an off-road racer, but he writes about it for The Checkered Flag.
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