- Nov 11, 2009
Leading up to the Baja 500 we were faced with much criticism and doubt. The 2016 Turbo RZR of Carver Racing that had competed throughout 2016 and into 2017 was finally retired and a new chassis was under construction at Rhys Millen Racing. The new chassis is a huge step to our race program as this would be the first chassis that we had built by a 3rd party company and the first car that would be a full custom build. In the past, our cars were built utilizing stock floor plastics and a stock lower chassis half. This time, RMR would be cutting the stock chassis down to essentially suspension pivots and main frame rails. This style of build is stronger, lighter, and a lot more work to put together/prep.
With the chassis build going down at RMR, the crew and I started to put together spare tires, parts, and organize the chase truck for a long journey. RMR guaranteed the chassis to be completed by 05/15, which meant we would have 18 days between chassis completion and lining up at the start line. 18 days doesn’t seem too bad until you start subtracting days for tech and contingency, traveling, ordering parts, loading up trucks and trailers, etc. Once you take these days out, you are looking at 15 days at best to mount every accessory on the race car, tab and build all the tin work, plumb, wire, and test. On 05/08 Rhys sent me a text saying that all my carbon fiber parts were completed and my chassis would be completed by 05/12, ahead of schedule. I think anyone that is in the off-road industry knows this is unheard of! Usually if a company employs fabricators, they don’t own calendars. To say I was thankful would be an understatement. I hooked up the trailer to the chase truck and eagerly awaited the 12th.
I took the day off work on the 12th and bombed out to Huntington Beach, CA to pick up my chassis. Since my entire crew has day jobs like myself, I was alone on this journey. The whole drive I was thinking about what parts I was missing, what parts I had ordered but not yet arrived, and how much work was ahead. My head was spinning and I didn’t know where to start. Do I work on the panels first or do I get the car rolling? Should I hire someone to wire the car or should I do it myself? Some of these questions were a joke considering anyone that wires race cars need at least two weeks with the car. That would give me about one day to do the rest LOL.
As I arrived at RMR, there were still two guys tig welding on the car. I went through everything with Rhys and JR and soon enough we were loading the chassis. At first sight I was thinking, did I just buy a go cart? As a bare chassis, this thing looked like it was made for one guy; it was tiny. She sat about 3’ off the ground and looked like a small jungle gym. Four of us carried it into the trailer with ease. At that moment, I knew this car was going to be epic. The chassis was light and the tig welds were perfect. Everything on this car was state of the art compared to what we had been running the past two years. We have had some success in the UTV class, but we have been plagued with bad luck this season. After seeing this fresh chassis, I had visions of a fresh start and many podiums to come.
With the chassis back at my home shop on the morning of 05/13, I began to get to work. I started to realize just how much work was left on this thing. My roommate Jesse and I slaved away and turned the car into a roller by midnight. The car looked awesome, but along the way I noticed how many pieces of hardware I was missing. I began to realize my parts list was growing. This same scenario went on for several days until the car finally could be rolled out of the shop to clean up the mess each night. The pile of opened boxes started to take over my yard. Every day UPS was dropping 5 or more boxes and I still felt behind. The pressure began to grow and the stress was setting in. I was sleeping short hours and having nightmares about not making the Baja 500. Each day after work I would look at the car before I got started, and it never seemed to look different. I knew we were making progress, but nothing was visual. I could see the doubt in every text message that I received. Each partner and each crew member wondering if the car could really compete at a race in under two weeks.
After putting in 20 hour days on May 20th and 21st, I started to realize just how far behind we were. The car could roll, but there was no motor, no trans, no wiring, and no tin work. I called Dan Fisher of Lonestar racing and explained my dilemma. Lonestar has supported us for years and of course Dan voluntarily jumped on board. The next day I woke up at 4AM and took the car to LSR. They knocked the tin work out in only two short days while Jesse and I continued to mount tires and load trucks after work.
On the evening of 05/25 Jesse brought home a car that had all the tin work done. This was a huge weight off my shoulders, but I had one more weekend before the race to wire, plumb, and fully assemble a car; not to mention welding on all the mounts/tabs for brake reservoirs, exhaust, pumper, battery tray, etc. On the weekend of 05/27 and 05/28, I had 4 guys from the team (Fergie, Chris, Jesse, Austin) and my dad at the shop working on the car with me. We put in 20 hours each day. I headed off to work on the morning of 05/29 (yes, I worked on Memorial Day in the middle of all of this) worn out but eager to have made so much progress. On the night of 05/29, I started the car. She fired up on the second crank and the smile began to appear under the dark eye bags on my face. We had a running car with no accessories, but nonetheless a running car. We would stay up until 4 AM every night until 06/01 working on the car. The whole team slept for two hours and we put the car on the trailer and headed to Ensenada.
Arriving in Ensenada on 06/01 at 3:00PM after taking turns sleeping in the trucks, we hit MC Taco for some much-needed food and headed to chassis tech. We passed chassis tech with flying colors and headed to our house to check in. After checking in we took off to the Polaris party that was downtown. You didn’t really think we were going to rest up, did you? We had imagined hitting the party for an hour or so to make an appearance and then heading back to the house. Clearly that was just our imagination…
On the way to the party I was driving the chase truck packed with the crew. We were driving down the main drag in front of tech and contingency. There was a green light ahead and a car in the left turn lane. I stayed in my lane and proceeded to enter the intersection. As I got to the white line, a cop stepped out from in front of the car in the left turn lane and shined his mag light in my face. I locked the brakes up and the team members in the bed whacked the back of the cab like rag dolls. The cop started to yell and directed me to pull over. I hooked a right thinking I could say “no espanol” and keep rolling. The street happened to be a dead end, sh%$t. Soon we were being escorted to the police station with two motorcycle cops. Upon arrival, I explained to the English-speaking officer at the station that I had ran a green light as the motorcycle officers were telling him I ran a red light. To make a long story short, after an hour and a half of argument I paid $65 and was on my way. We hit the party for what was left and headed back to the house to get some rest.
On 06/02 we woke up and began working on the car. We still had to install the Factory UTV skid plates, wire the relay for the light bar, adjust the clutching, mount the tin work under the hood, install the hood, and install seat belts. By 5:00PM we were done and headed off to tech. We skated in right at the end and our entire contingency experience took 40 minutes. While the crew was at tech securing our race entry, I was at registration being notified of different plans. The ladies at registration had told me that I was withdrawn from the race as I was 2 hours late to registration, even though I had already paid in full. I thought registration closed at 6 just like tech, but it closed at 4. I begged and pleaded like a child and finally paid a “late registration fee”, and we were in! I was starting to get used to this bribe thing. We headed back to the house to check everything over one last time. We couldn’t find the Y-strap for our spare tire so I said screw it. With the confidence I had in my ITP tires and KMC wheels, we decided to run the Baja 500 with no spare wheel and tire. We sent two guys to fill fuel cans and we loaded the trucks. Sleep would finally be an option at 1:00AM on 06/03, race day!
I know you have been waiting for this part, race day! We woke up around 8 AM and ate turkey sandwiches for breakfast. The two chase crews headed out to the pits and we headed to the start line. The nervousness started to set in. Was every bolt tight? Was the suspension going to be ok? What was it going to be like to hit the first whoop in this car? Would we cartwheel off the first jump in the wash?
The green flag dropped, I floored the pedal, and all four 32” ITP tires spun on the pavement. My face lit up and the adrenaline pumped through my veins. We were off the line and the car was fast. We drifted the first corner and hit the brakes for the speed zone. The thump in my chest was real. The engine temperature was perfect and the clutch was dialed. What a relief. We headed off into the wash and had already made our first pass on a broken down UTV. We launched the wash jump and the car landed on clouds. The suspension was great for a wild guess from Shock Therapy. We headed out of town at 85MPH in a light and fast car. By the first speed zone, I could see the next competitor gaining on us. Knowing my car was new and that I still had some learning to do on the new platform, I pulled off and let him by. For the next 20 miles, the car would continue to impress. We made a couple passes and got passed a couple times by those over driving their cars. We pulled out on the pavement and the competitor who had passed us in the first speed zone was already dragging a left rear corner. The carnage had already set back two of the top teams. We pulled out on the pavement and cruised down the road. Everything seemed good and the car was solid. To be honest I was slightly surprised. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous about the prep on this car considering our crunch to get it going. The team pulled through and did an awesome job as always. I floored it out of the speed zone and back into the dirt. All the hard work had already paid off. Driving this car was amazing. The power of the light weight machine accompanied by the low center of gravity felt like I was driving something other than a UTV. This Polaris RZR race car was incredible.
In the next 10 miles, we would roll through some brutal terrain and get to learn the car. Competitors blew passed as and we cruised right back by them with their machines parked off course. Learning the car was proving to be a great strategy. Our car was fresh and everyone else’s was beat. Our pace started to pick up just about the time we came to a stop. Our first bottle neck was a rolled over truck coming up the switch backs. We waited patiently as other teams tried to convince us to find a new line. There were no safe lines and I wasn’t about to risk the entire race over one small log jam. I looked up to where the truck was rolled and noticed we were missing a couple cars. I couldn’t see the top three cars and started to realize they were running away with the lead. I began to get frustrated but knew there was nothing I could do. I began to second guess our conservative approach. Should we have pushed to the front of the pack? If we did we wouldn’t be dealing with this bottle neck and we would be running away with the others. We kept our cool and my co dog reminded me that there was still a long road ahead. The truck was flipped back on its wheels within 15 minutes and we continued. There was a huge line of UTVs at this point and it was a dusty nightmare. Everyone was bunched back up and the car in front of me was almost missing each corner. We had to take our time and make our way through the dust. Just as the pack started to separate, boom, another rolled over truck right in the road. I looked forward to the front of the jam and noticed that the only missing car was the first-place car. He had made it through both jams and avoided the hold ups. From that point forward I knew if he ran a clean race, he would have the win in the bag. Baja is always and adventure and many times you need just a small amount of luck to determine your entire race. We waited in the jam for about 30 minutes until someone in front of us found a way around. Just as I was beginning to follow, a bronco pulled out and gave the new route a shot. He didn’t make it up, and he rolled backwards, flipping right into the road. We now had two rolled trucks in the road. Luckily, we could still make it around the bronco. We followed the UTV in front of us and passed up the entire jam by going over a hill climb. The 4wd in these cars is a life saver in Baja. As we decent from the hill climb, I noticed our belt temperature gauge reading an error message. We would now have to guess how our belt was doing and wing it the rest of the race.
We started in the 5th physical position and pulled out onto the pavement near RM 80 in the 5th position, not gaining or losing any ground. All the hard driving by others did not outweigh our patience. Cruising on the pavement I noticed a wobble in the front end. I was worried that we had missed tightening a nut during our prep. We pulled into our first scheduled pit and took fuel. I asked the guys to check out the front end. They found two a-arm bolts that had backed off the paint marks we left during the prep. They quickly tightened the bolts and changed the front tire. I think we screwed up mounting the tire and it was way off balance. The wobble had loosened our A-Arm bolts that had red Loctite on them. I couldn’t believe it but we pulled back out on the pavement and it was as good as new.
The next 100 miles were uneventful. We ran a clean race and took our time in the rough stuff. We used our speed and acceleration when possible but kept conservative as it was still the start of the race.
We rolled into our second pit at RM180 where Cody Rahders’ team appeared to be changing an axle. We thought sweet, let’s kill this pit and pick up a position. Right as we were done taking fuel and started to pull out they beat us to the punch. We had to jump out behind their thick dust. Navigating through the dust and silt we continued with no issues. The course began to get very rough and we were getting pretty beat up. The car was taking it like a champ so we kept rolling! Cody was now far enough ahead that the dust was out of our face, but the sun was setting and good vision was still hard to come by. We were approaching our 3rd pit at RM 245 so we radioed ahead to our second crew and requested Advil and red bull, the Baja essentials. The crew was pumped to hear from us as they had been sitting at RM 245 all day with no communication, just wondering if we would show. We rolled into the pit and slammed down some sandwiches and chugged our red bull and Advil. The red bull woke me up and I was ready to shred.
We ripped out of our pit and headed to the dry lake bed. I held the car at 75MPH for a while and then backed down to 65 and back up to 70 trying to take it easy and conserve our belt. Unfortunately, my efforts were failed. About half way through the lake bed, Baja had struck. We were on the side changing a belt in the silty dry lake bed as a half dozen of cars blew past us and dusted us out. The sun was basically down and the silt was covering our car. I started to get nervous about getting hit. The frustration started to kick in. A clean race turned to catch up, and a flawless car turned to a car that potentially would plague us with belt problems throughout the night. We grew tired changing the belt as the heat was wearing on us and our restless nights started to catch up. The belt was fixed in 5 minutes or less although it felt like an eternity. We jumped back in and took off.
We immediately began picking off cars. We passed two or 3 cars in the next 10 miles and things were looking up. I constantly monitored our belt gauge to see If it would start working. The gauge remained in error state, but all other vitals on the car were on point. We were now rolling through the infamous woops heading towards San Felipe. Don’t worry, they didn’t disappoint. They were as big as ever and our lights were rarely pointed at the ground for more than a split second. Our necks were springing forward and back with little control. Occasionally I would hear a “holy S%$t, really?” from my co dog. This terrain is relentless, and this was his first Baja experience. As we pulled into the night the car was running great, everything still seemed solid. I started to think about how many people ahead of us would push their cars to failure. I realized we had one more pit stop, and then it was the home stretch. Right as I was calculating our chances at a podium finish, the car began to lose power. I guess it was karma for thinking about a podium before a finish. My number one rule is to never think of the coulda-woulda-shoulda finishing positions. Desert racing is about first finishing, anyone can be at a podium spot throughout the race, but it means nothing until the finish line.
I was forced to pull the car off to the side as it wouldn’t get out of its own way. Loud noises were coming from the drivetrain and I had no idea what was going on. At one point, I contemplated if our exhaust had fallen off. I had no idea what was happening. We got out of the car and pulled the clutch cover. The belt looked good. I had my co dog try to drive forward but every time he gave the car throttle, the cvs racked back and forth and the secondary clutch seemed as if it was locked up. In the past couple of months, I had blown two transmissions, so I immediately thought this was the third. We called the crew to head out to get us and we waited. Approximately two hours later, the crew would show up in another 4 seat RZR. We tried to tow the race car but it seemed locked up. I started it up and put it in low. I limped it over to the truck about ¼ mile away. We cranked on the chase lights and I wanted to punch myself in the mouth. What I saw was one of the worst mistakes I had ever made during a race.
The belt was simply missing several cogs. The missing cogs were evidently in the secondary clutch and I didn’t previously notice the issue in the dark. Now that the belt was clocked differently and we had good light on the car, it was clear as day. We all instantly went into panic mode and began to scramble to change the belt and put our gear back on. We were back in the car and heading off to race mile 335 at midnight. The rest of the race I played out different things I could have done to avoid the improper diagnosis of the issue. All of them turned to us being worn out and not looking hard enough. Nonetheless we were not willing to give up, no matter what place we were in. We raced through the night towards Ensenada. When we rolled through RM 410, the crew radioed to me and mentioned that SMG and Jagged were not far behind. My body got an instant shot of adrenaline and I woke up. We pinned the car and did some awesome racing to the finish line. This was the most fun I had during the whole experience. We drifted around blind corners and floored it up high speed straightaways at 4:00AM.
When we finally crossed the finish line at roughly 4:45AM we were pumped. We had just finished the Baja 500 in a brand-new car. No, this was not the position we wanted to finish in, but for the cards we were dealt, I was proud of the entire team for our accomplishment. My co dog and I asked the crew for a beer and they replied that it was 5:00AM. I said WHAT!?!?!? IT IS 5:00AM ON SUNDAY!? They replied with YES!!! They were all staring at me as if I was that guy buying a forty on Sunday morning with 4 quarters. I said wow lets go to bed!!!! The second wind of the night had gone by so fast that I thought it was roughly 2:00AM. Our Baja adventure had finally come to an end. All of the people who doubted the crew and I were wrong, and that was all that mattered.
I want to give a huge thanks to all our partners for the continued support. Even when we decide to put a race car together in record time, they still support us and have faith. I would also like to give a huge thanks to my crew – Jesse, Fergie, Brad, Tommy, and Chris. Thank you to Gunner Savage for keeping me company and navigating along the ride. Finally, thank you to my family and girlfriend for supporting me through these long nights.
Industrial Metal Supply