Without a doubt, the 50th running of the SCORE BAJA 500 was one for the record books. 55 UTVs in total entered to compete amongst 6 different UTV classes making it the largest UTV field for a BAJA 500 ever. The race took place on a 542 mile long course that circled around the northern Baja peninsula and took the lead UTV 14 hours & 26 minutes to complete. The slowest finisher completed the race in 20 hours & 45 minutes to put into perspective just how long and grueling of a race this can be!
As is the case in any off-road race in Baja, each team will have a lifetime of stories to share. Racing in Baja is an experience like no other. It is always filled with highs & lows and you are constantly facing uncertainty throughout your entire experience. Unlike stateside off-road races where you compete on a heavily defined and somewhat controlled race course, in Baja you truly are racing the unexpected as much as you are racing your competition and terrain. An animal, a mischievously placed “booby-trap”, local traffic, and of course the unplanned mechanical failure are all things you have to take into account when heading off into the race itself. To compete in Baja takes more than just racing ability or equipment, it takes a willingness to risk it all for the glory.
While we never can hone in on everyones individual story, that would be impossible, we will touch on the highlights of the race from our perspective. Our team was once again spread around the course, capturing the amazing images you see below, as well as some select videos for clients. We kept in conversation with what was happening, who was where, and who was leading the race. I was personally embedded in with the Scanlon Motorsports Group race program for the race and was able to participate as an active member of the team in addition to my duties here at UTVUnderground. I always enjoy the race team experience, lending my knowledge where applicable and experiencing competition from within a program. I truly root for everyone on the course, you want to see everyone do well, and get home safe. But its always nice, like gambling, to put yourself in a position to have a team to pull for, so like I have done with other programs over the years, this time I was able to once again be a part of a team and go down early, pre-run, and support a program that had immense hopes of winning. While the win didn’t come, like everyone in Baja, I did bring home a lifetimes worth of stories, memories and of course more education on Baja.
The course this year was not only challenging, it was also a great course for UTVs. I was able to pre-run the bulk of the second half of the course and had a ton of fun doing so. I always enjoy the pre-run experience and its helpful even for guys like me on the sidelines because it gives you a sense of where your race car is at when they call our a race mile on the radio, it gives you the ability to better calculate how long it will take to get from one area to another, and also helps in understanding how you could access them in case of an emergency and whether or not a truck or actual pre-runner type vehicle would be able to get into that particular area. But the best part of pre-running is being able to ride and enjoy the terrain in a more relaxed environment. I always say, the race only gets in the way of the pre-run.
The top story of this years race centered once again around Kristen Matlock. Kristen, a 37 year old professional racer is part of the Factory Polaris RZR racing team. She and her husband Wayne are two of the best in off-road racing and the UTV class ranks. Both Kristen & Wayne would lead their respective classes off the line, Wayne in the Pro-Turbo class, Kristen in the Pro-N/A class, and both would lead the majority of the race. The two put in not just days, but weeks of pre-running into their program each year. To add, they spend what seems like all of their free-time riding and vacationing in Baja. It doesn’t hurt that Wayne is one of the most accomplished ATV Baja racers in the history of the sport. It all equals out to the team having some of the highest levels of knowledge when it comes to the Baja. Their homework, race prep, team support and skills as drivers all paid for itself this year when the two both crossed the finish line first in their class. Wayne would end up being beat on corrected time by Branden Sims who put in his own valiant driving effort (more to come on that), but what was even more surprising was that he was also beat on corrected time by Kristen herself!
Kristen Matlock notched another record to her ever growing list of accomplishments at this years Baja 500 becoming the first woman to overall the UTV ranks. She not only beat all 13 Pro N/A UTV’s, she also smoked the entire Pro Turbo UTV class as well finishing almost a full 5 minutes over Branden Sims in his Polaris RZR XP Turbo. While its natural to focus on her being a female, I think from today forward she will now be recognized for the athlete and driver she is in this sport. Her performance was legendary by all accounts. She piloted her #1954 Polaris RZR XP1000 through the brutal race course passing almost all but Wayne & Branden physically, not to mention another massive bunch of competitors from other classes. She drove the entire race, never once getting out of her race car, and every time we saw her come by on course she was wide open! The word impressive is an understatement when trying to summarize her performance, I am just glad I was there to witness it first hand. There are a lot of female drivers in off-road who can compete, but its clear that Kristen is queen of the class right now, and for this year, she rules over all in the kingdom!
Branden Sims is the opposite of the Matlock’s when it comes to the knowledge & experience in Baja. While Sims has had his share of Baja success, he isn’t the guy you will see with a huge team down south weeks leading up the race. He’s usually back at his shop prepping his now three year old dinosaur of a UTV with his friends and family and tends to arrive only a day or two ahead of the race. He studies the race map, clocks a few miles to shakedown the race car, and if he’s lucky will get a chance to pre-run the start to make sure he knows how to get in and out of town on race day. From there, he applies every ounce of talent he has to his race day performance and relies heavily on his “small” yet very committed team to help him along the way. Sims also would drive the full race by himself, and would take his Polaris RZR XP Turbo from the 30th start position all the way to the front where he would remain for the bulk of the day. He had time on his side as he competed with Wayne Matlock for the class win as trying to catch Wayne physically for most of the day was virtually impossible. I heard numerous people throughout the day talk about how Wayne & Kristen were doing well because of their course knowledge, knowing all the sweet lines and having the talent to drive. But when it came to Sims all you heard was, that dude can flat out drive. His race car is tired, but he has the prep, the skills, and organization to run with anyone, and it all paid off in the end.
Another person we have to mention is Dodge Poelman. Kristen Matlock will naturally garner the bulk of the press, and she deserves it. But during the day when Kristen would go by us, not very far behind was the 18 year old kid from Utah. Poelman is another young racer who continues to turn heads. A Mormon by faith, Dodge will soon head off on a two year mission trip that will stall his race career, so he is wasting no time leaving a mark that upon his return will others remember where this guy was as a driver when he left. Poelman put in a run that not only got him second in the Pro-N/A UTV class, it was also a time that was good enough for 4th overall and would have put him 3rd in the Pro-Turbo class. He beat 3rd place Pro-Turbo class finisher Jacob Carver by 21 minutes. Dodge Poelman is not only a talented driver, he is also a hell of a person to boot. A solid personality, and a ton of driving skills will leave all of us waiting impatiently for his return to the race track.
Rounding out the podium in both pro classes was Jacob Carver in the Pro-Turbo class & Kaden Wells in the Pro-N/A class. Wells is another teenage resident of Utah who drove the wheels off his RZR XP1000 all day to capture the final podium spot, while Carver is a Factory Polaris RZR team member who has been making his mark on the class now for years. Both drivers and teams ran hard all day and challenged often to reach the top, but catching the Matlocks, Sims, and Poelman was just too much to overcome on this course. With that said, their efforts did not go unnoticed and both deserve credit for their performances.
The Pro Turbo & Pro N/A classes were the only classes to produce full podiums. The rest of the UTV classes essentially had a field that if you finished you got a trophy. With that said, Brad Lovell in the Sportsman UTV Stock Turbo class busted out a 15 hour & 38 minute finish time in a Polaris RZR that looked more like a pre-runner than it did a race car. That finish time would have had him in the 4th spot in the Pro Turbo class, but it should be noted that the sportsman classes did have a slightly modified race course allowing them to cut some of the more challenging sections out.
Baja is serious business and if you aren’t minding your P’s & Q’s you can quickly end up hurt, injured, or worse and while the drivers & co-drivers will always garner the bulk of the praise and glory during competition, I think its important to credit the team members and chase crews who enable these drivers to make it to the finish line. The highways are the most dangerous part of the race, much more so then the race course itself. The teams risk it all to keep their cars moving along the course and at times are the most unappreciated parts of the program. Majority of them are either family members, friends or simply volunteers who come along unpaid for the experience. Any good racer will tell you that without a solid team you have no chance at EVER finishing a Baja race let along win one. So to all of you who clicked off the miles chasing your race cars, dumped fuel, changed tires, or rebuilt your cars in the heat or dark, our hats are off to you!
To all who finished congratulations. It takes guts to push on in the face of adversity and until you finish a Baja race you may never understand just how important that finisher medal really is. Sometimes, that medal feels as good as popping the champagne, but I can tell you from experience, no matter if you win or finish last, that beer at the finish line whether its at 5pm or 5am will always be the best beer you ever had!
We tend to dread the Baja 1000, we know how painful of a race that can be, but we absolutely anticipate with excitement the Baja 500. Its the best race all year in my humble opinion and this year did not disappoint. We already look forward to June 2019, and we are already stressing about November 2018… the Baja 1000 is coming….
Until then.. Adios
PRO UTV FI (two-seat Forced Induction, OEM engine UTVs) — (35 Starters, 21 Finishers)
1. 2913 Branden Sims, 32, Prescott Valley, Ariz., Polaris RZR XP Turbo, 14:30:14 (37.38 miles per hour);
2. 2971 Wayne Matlock, 40, Alpine, Calif., Polaris RZR XP4 Turbo, 14:45:06;
3. 2936 Jacob Carver, 27, Prescott Valley, Ariz./Ben MacDonald, 25, Peoria, Ariz., Polaris RZR XP4 Turbo, 15:18:20;
4. 2900 Marc Burnett, 47, Lakeside, Calif., Can-Am X3, 16:10:48;
5. 2912 Tony Riggs, 50, Newhall, Calif./Tom Melville, Anaheim, Calif./Darin McGuffin, 55, Agua Dulce, Calif., Polaris RZR Turbo, 16:14:27;
6. 2906 Phil Blurton, 31, Auburn, Calif./Beau Judge, 41, Sacramento, Calif./Tim Orchard, 62, Riverside, Calif., Can-Am X3, 16:25:19;
7. 2975 Mike Cafro, 48, Fallbrook, Calif./Jamie Kirkpatrick, 37, Olympia, Wash., Polaris RZR XP4 Turbo, 16:25:40;
8. 2919 Brandon Schueler, 29, Phoenix/Pat Stone, 49, Phoenix/Miles Martin, 29, Phoenix, Polaris RZR XP4 Turbo, 16:32:45;
9. 2917 Derek Murray, 37, Eastvale, Calif./Justin Murray, 35, Tustin, Calif./Monty Aldrich, 51, Las Vegas/Aaron Juarez, 38, Eastvale, Calif., Can-Am X3, 16:33:57;
10. 2966 Rhys Millen, 45, San Juan Capistrano, Calif. (New Zealand)/Mike Carpenter, 45, New Zealand, Polaris RZR XP1000 Turbo, 16:34:45;
11. 2918 Justin Lambert, 42, Bakersfield, Calif./Mike Alsup, 25, Bakersfield, Calif., Polaris RZR XP4 Turbo, 16:38:42;
12. 2915 Juan Martin, 39, Yuma, Ariz./Jose Aguirre, 39, Mexicali, Mexico/Julio Banda, 44, Mexicali, Mexico/Jose Anguiano, 41, Imperial, Calif., Polaris RZR XP4 Turbo, 17:19:30;
13. 2946 Jose Juarez, 34, Chula Vista, Calif./Alejandro Zuniga, 35, Chula Vista, Calif., Polaris RZR XP1000 Turbo, 17;26:48;
14. 2910 Scott Trafton, 37, Alpine, Calif./Dave Price, 60, Alpine, Calif., Polaris RZR Turbo, 17:52:19;
15. 2949 Alonzo Lopez, 44, Murrieta, Calif./Francisco Rodriguez, 46, Chula Vista, Calif., Polaris RZR XP1000 Turbo 29, 18:02:17;
16. 2940 Erick Kozin, 43, Yorba Linda, Calif./Francisco Verdugo Flores, 25, Can-Am X3, 18:39:00;
17. 2978 Luis Fortanel, 29, Mexicali, Mexico/Jose Ramirez, 28, Mexicali, Mexico, Can-Am Maverick X3, 18:51:59;
18. 2967 Anthony Perez, 32, Redondo Beach, Calif./Jason Farrell, Las Vegas, Can-Am X3, 19:05:14;
19. 2916 Cody Rahders, 23, Alpine, Calif./James Hill, 33, Lake Elsinore, Calif., Polaris RZR XP4 Turbo, 19:54:03;
20. 2903 Juan Martinez, 39, Monterrey, Mexico/Christopher Reyes, 24, Monterrey, Mexico/Ryan Edwards, 31, Yorba Linda, Calif./Francisco Diaz, 28, Ensenada, Mexico/Riley McGuinness, 20, Lake Elsinore, Calif., Polaris RZR XP1000 Turbo, 20:05:02;
21. 2989 Wes Miller, 48, Las Vegas/Donny Powers, 30, Morgan Hill, Calif., Polaris RZR XP Turbo, 20:45:11;
PRO UTV (two-seat Normally Aspirated, OEM engine UTVs) — (13 Starters, 6 Finishers)
1. 1954 Kristen Matlock, 37, Alpine, Calif., Polaris RZR XP4 1000, 14:26:47 (37.53 miles per hour);
2. 1962 Dodge Poelman, 18, Orem, Utah/Luis Dominguez, 25/Nick Tenbruin, 25, Polaris XP1000, 14:57:57;
3. 1995 Kaden Wells, 19, St. George, Utah/Travis Wells, 46, St. George, Utah/Jesus Gutierrez, 33, Ensenada, Mexico/Rory L’Hommedieu, 36, Mesquite, Nev., Polaris RZR 1000, 17:43:05;
4. 1938 Kolten Hustead, 19, St. George, Utah/Eric Hustead, 47, St. George, Utah/Brook Beckstrom, 47, Salt Lake City, Utah/Mitch Johnson, 20, St. George, Utah, Textron XX 1000, 19:57:26;
5. 1966 Steve Nottoli, 51, San Diego/Mike Shatynski, 61, Oceanside, Calif./Erik Ridens, 44, El Cajon, Calif./Marc Behnke, 44, El Cajon, Calif./Marco Gonzales, 55, Glendale, Calif., Polaris RZR 1000, 20:37:28;
6. 1955 Paul Champion, 46, Phoenix/Travis Casteel, Phoenix, Polaris RZR XP1000, 21:59:48;
PRO UTV UNLTD (two-seat unlimited UTV open-displacement) — (3 Starters, 1 Finishers)
1. 1872 Jesus Mendez, Jr, 20, Mexicali, Mexico/Francisco Pimentel, 33, Mexicali, Mexico/Antonio Ferla, 31, Mexicali, Mexico/Rodrigo Ferla, 33, Mexicali, Mexico/Jesus Mendez, 51, Mexicali, Mexico/Arturo Corral, 51, Mexicali, Mexico, Can-Am X3 XRS, 20:07:57 (26.93 miles per hour).
SPT UTV UNLIMITED — (1 Starter, 1 Finishers)
1. 1818 Jessalyn Farrington, 33, Ketchum, Idaho/Scott Sells, 56, Sun Valley, Idaho, Polaris RZR XP4, 16:03:58 (29.88 miles per hour).
SPT UTV STOCK FI — (2 Starters, 2 Finishers)
1. 3937 Brad Lovell, 41, Colorado Springs, Colo./Roger Lovell, 44, Colorado Springs, Colo., Polaris RZR, 15:38:59 (30.67 miles per hour);
2. 3929 Shane Redline,42, Amarillo, Texas/Jax Redline, 13, Amarillo, Texas, Can-Am Max RS, 19:55:39
SPT UTV STOCK NA — (1 Starter, 1 Finishers)
1. 3975 Torrey Rush, 28, Gillette, Wyo./Clint Petersen, 41, Gillette, Wyo./Ryan Burdick, 44, Deadwood, South Dakota/George Williams, Sheridan, Wyo., Yamaha YXZ1000, 16:40:50 (28.78 miles per hour)
Photos by Ernesto Araiza // Mad Media – UTVUnderground