Kristen Matlock’s 2018 BAJA 500 Race Report
By Kristen Matlock, 2018 BAJA 500 Champion
Going into the Baja 500, I was still super pumped about winning my class at the San Felipe 250 and taking 2nd Overall to my husband, Wayne Matlock, by less than 3 minutes. That race made me realize that if I just pushed myself a little harder I could possibly get the Overall UTV win, so I decided to set my mind to it and go for it.
We headed south the weekend before the race and preran throughout the week prior. We saw every mile of the course at least once and had a great time doing it. Now it was Thursday and it was time to head to town with our race cars to go through contingency/tech inspection. In the past, all the racers would go to this on Friday, but this year SCORE decided to split it into two days, lessoning the wait times to be inspected. This turned out to be a really good thing, especially with 321 teams entered in the race. We were done by noon and headed out to prerun the start that didn’t open for practice until that day. We took the race cars out for one last shake down for this. We were about halfway to Ojos Negros where we would end our prerun when I hear Wayne on the radio saying something about hitting a dirt bank and bending up his front end. I was like, “What?!?” I was ahead of him, so I pulled over and radioed him back. He said he was just cruising and came into a turn a little too hot, locked up the brakes, and tapped the wall doing about 25 mph. He thought it would be just a flat or something, but he must have hit it just right and bent up his suspension. Neither one of us could believe it happened because it’s not something he’s known for at all, but it happens. His co-driver, Daniel Felix, is our mechanic. He had already busted his butt getting two cars ready for this event, now he had more work to do before race day Saturday. Luckily it was only Thursday and not Friday, so he had an extra day to work on it. While my co-driver, Matt Strandberg, and I were waiting for them to limp their car out to the highway we checked out our car and noticed tranny oil leaking out of the seal. It wasn’t a lot but something to be concerned about. We continued our prerun and checked it out again when we made it to Ojos and it was still leaking. We loaded everything up and headed back to our hotel in Ensenada where we decided that the seal needed to be replaced…more work for poor Danny but we didn’t want to risk it.
All our crew showed up on Friday morning. We spent the day packing up chase trucks and going over our pit strategy while Danny and the guys replaced Wayne’s front end and my tranny seal. The day flew by and before we knew it, it was time for my dad, Eddie King, to throw some burgers on the grill for us so we could eat before SCORE’s mandatory driver’s meeting at 7pm. In the meeting we learned that a couple of our lines were not going to be allowed and a small course change had occurred, other than that we were ready for tomorrow.
We all slept fairly well…as well as we could with the adrenaline already starting to kick in as we watched the clock all night long. I woke up that morning feeling more anxious than I ever have. I was trembling, nauseous, and felt emotional. I wanted to win so badly, but maybe I had set my goals too high?? Maybe I should just remain satisfied with winning my class?? No and No…you got this Kristen! Pull it together girl! I had all this running through my head. The positive thoughts always beat out the negative thoughts with me, so I pulled out of our hotel’s parking lot pumped and ready to kick some a**!!
We drove our race cars to the starting line and found the SCORE official that would line us up in order of starting position. Wayne and I both earned first-place starting positions after winning our classes at the San Felipe 250. He would start 17 minutes and 30 seconds in front of me with 34 other Pro UTV Turbo cars starting in between him and I. We had a few minutes to get out and wish a few of our competitors luck before we had to get in and buckle up for the long haul.
Now we were lined up and patiently waiting our turn to start. As I drove my car through the line of spectators, I noticed everyone smiling and cheering me on. I was stopped a few times by fans that wanted one last photo with me before I made it into the gated starting area. Matt and I gave each other a fist bump before I drove the car up and over the stage, then we only had one more car left to take off before it was our turn. Most of the time the 30 seconds that we have to wait in between starts seems like an hour, but today it felt like just a couple seconds. Once the green flag dropped for us, I put my foot into it and we were off! I knew my parents and our two boys were up on the second story of the Polaris Baja booth at the first turn, so I made sure to give them a wave as I drove by. My mom later said that the boys were super excited that I waved at them.
Basically, the first 11 miles of the race is practically all a 37 mph speed zone and there are steep penalties if broken making it very stressful. I couldn’t wait to get through it so I could relax and really start racing. Once Matt told me we were out of the speed zone, it was go time! I found my pace right away and started picking off the turbo UTVs that started in front of us. Our first pit was a visual in Ojos Negros approximately 32 miles into the race. We had put 30 seconds on 2nd place in our class and made it up to 21st UTV physically by passing 14 of them on the way there.
Everything was going great! We started hitting some silty sections as we kept our fingers crossed that there weren’t any major bottle necks from the two-wheel drive vehicles that started in front of us. I hit one silty off-camber left that transitioned to an off-camber right and had the wheel jerked out of my hands during the transition. I heard my wrist crack as my thumb got stuck in the wheel and I said aloud that I thought I may have broken it. I wiggled it around to check and fortunately it was just a sprain. It was definitely painful, but it thankfully got better as the race went on.
The next couple hundred miles were uneventful other than us pushing hard and passing more cars and trucks. There were a few passes that I was super pumped about because I had never been able to pass them in the past, but I was putting the hammer down and on a mission to take that overall win!
By mile 250, I had made my way up to 2nd UTV physically and only had one guy in front of me…my husband Wayne Matlock! It was like déjà vu at the San Felipe 250, except now I was less than 17 ½ minutes behind him from where we started and was therefore the 1st overall UTV on adjusted time!! I was so stoked but tried not to get too excited because we still had 292 miles left to go and of course anything could happen. I knew that I needed to drive really smart and just keep the car together. We were having a flawless day…no flats, no belt changes, no axles. We hadn’t had to get out of the car once.
We made it to the bottom of San Matias wash and started working our way up it when I heard Wayne on the radio calling out that he had come up over a rise to find a race truck stopped on the other side of it and had wedged himself under it. He and Danny were ok, but it took them some time to break free. I knew exactly where they were on the course and I knew another line to take to get around that area, so I did. While we were going up the wash though, our car went into limp mode because it was overheating. It was weird though because we had already been through all the extreme heat areas. My immediate thought was to cycle the key and as soon as I did that the temperature started dropping, the car came out of limp mode, and eventually the check engine light went off and our hearts were removed from our stomachs!
Once we made it to the top of San Matias, it was time to head to Mike’s Sky Ranch. Branden Sims had caught back up to us in the wash and was now on our tail. He and his turbo blew passed us doing 85+ mph as we were barely hitting 70 mph on the same straight uphill graded road. I thought I was going to push the gas pedal through my floor and was wishing I had a turbo at that point. I wasn’t too worried though because I knew there would be plenty of turns ahead that his extra horsepower wouldn’t help a bit on.
We passed a couple of buggies and had caught a trophy truck on the twisty fire road leading up to Mike’s Sky Ranch. The Polaris RZR helicopter had found us and was filming us chase down these vehicles. They had just moved on when I was right behind the trophy truck attempting to make the pass. All the sudden I found myself in a complete white-out from his dust and I knew there was a turn coming up but couldn’t see a thing. I locked up the brakes in a panic, but the car didn’t stop before the cliff. We found ourselves riding down a 30-foot embankment full of manzanita trees and rocks as I screamed all the way down! Once we came to a stop, my fear instantly turned to disappointment…I was certain our race was over, but I looked around and saw there was a little wiggle room to possibly get the car turned around and try to climb back up. I put the car in reverse and moved a few inches back from the boulder we were nosed-up against until the car started to teeter totter towards Matt’s side, then I moved the car forward to the left a few more inches. I continued this 10+ times until the car was facing the right direction. Matt quickly hopped out to hike ahead to see if there was an area through the trees and up the canyon that we could climb out from. It seemed like he was gone forever as minutes went by before he came back with the great news. He waved me forward and said to follow him. I made my way through the trees and crawled up the bank in low gear and made my way out. Matt quickly looked around the car to make sure everything looked ok. He jumped back in and said the car was fine, so we got back into the race. If I were to guess, I would say we probably lost about 5 minutes during this incident. We thanked our lucky stars, talked about calling out turns a little sooner, and I drove in the dust more cautiously than ever the rest of the race.
Once we passed Mike’s Sky Ranch there were a few silty uphills that we knew when we were prerunning would become an issue during the race. We came up to the first one and there was Branden Sims trying to find his way around a buggy that had gotten stuck. There were two other buggies waiting at the bottom of the hill waiting there turn to get a run at it. As you know, UTVs are 4-wheel drive and can climb practically anything in low gear and that’s exactly what Branden did next. He slowly made his way around the left side of the two buggies sitting there and worked his way up the side of the mountain, going around the silty area. I tried following him only to be blocked by the first buggy that really didn’t want me passing him. I hit the siren to get his attention and yelled out that I have 4-wheel drive and to please let me go. I had to back up from where he blocked me and go around him on the other side. Since he didn’t block me again, I’m assuming he agreed to let me go. I followed Branden’s path and was back on track.
After staying with Branden for miles, we made our way over towards the coast to Vicente Guerrero. As soon as we hit the pavement, he pulled into pit and I got by him. This was awesome because we were almost to one of my favorite sections from Camalu to Santo Tomas. The scenery in this section is breathtaking, but the course is high speed and can be very dusty. With the sun nearly gone, it was time to turn our lights on and I was excited to be in clear air. I know this section very well from our group rides that Wayne and I put on each year down there and felt confident that I would be able to hold him off even though the turbo car should be faster through there.
We were ripping around the turns and the car felt brand new as the motor seemed to really like the cool ocean air. We were nearing out last fuel pit as Wayne radioed me to tell me that they had caught fire while fueling. I couldn’t believe my ears!! Fire?? It seems the dump can probe was stuck open slightly and fuel shot out onto the turbo when they went to fuel the car. They stuck the probe into the car before realizing it and pulled it back out in a panic shooting more fuel onto the fire. One of our crew guys, Kiki Gonzalez, caught fire but was wearing the proper safety apparel and sustained no injuries. Wayne’s co-driver, Daniel Felix, also caught his shoulder and seat on fire but also sustained no injuries. They were able to put the fire out with minimal damage to the car and were able to keep racing.
When we arrived at our pit, our crew was ready and waiting. We pulled in, grabbed some chicken and water for the road while they fueled us, but unfortunately Branden was able to sneak by while we were in the pits. This was a bummer because I really wanted to have clear air for the next section. I pulled out a few seconds behind him and did my best to keep him in my sight for the next 100 miles.
Once we got to the field above Ojos Negros, we were only 32 miles from the finish line. I heard Wayne on the radio once again saying that he was coming into the pit and I knew we weren’t too far behind him. In fact, we came in 3 minutes after Wayne and only 2 minutes after Branden. This meant that we were still on track to take the Overall UTV win! I knew now it was just a matter of getting to the finish line. Over half of the remaining section was a 37 mph speed zone that I would be able to baby the car in, but the first half I had to focus on keeping the pace without making any mistakes. The fog was rolling in from the coast and our shields were becoming impossible to keep dry. Matt and I both fought it for a few miles before giving up and lifting them up. I could see Wayne and Branden just a few hills away as we made our way through the hills of Ensenada. Something was making a noise in the rear of my car and it sounded like it was coming from the clutch. I prayed that the original belt that we started with would make it just a few more miles to the finish.
We made it to the speed zone and were just cruising. The locals were lined up on the sides of the roads cheering us on. I don’t think Matt and I were breathing as we finished our last few miles. Once we popped out of the wash and onto the pavement, my heart started racing! Is this really happening?? Are we going to not only win our class at the 50th Anniversary Baja 500, but take 1st Overall UTV and beat out all the turbos in our naturally aspirated Polaris RZR?? Yes!!!! Yes, we are!!! As soon as we crossed the finish line and pulled up to the stage, everyone rushed over to congratulate us!! Everybody was there – our whole team, my parents with our boys, and Wayne and Daniel jumped out of their car and hurried back to us to give us high fives!!
It was such a dream come true!! I proved to myself that anything I set my mind to, can be accomplished with enough hard work and determination. What I had done hadn’t really sunk in until I got back home and received all the phone calls, text messages, social media correspondence, interviews, and even the principal and teachers at my boys’ school knew all about it!
Thanks to EVERYONE for your support!! I’m so impressed with our crew – they are absolutely amazing, and we are very fortunate to have them on our team! Thanks to: Our mechanic Daniel Felix for always working so hard to ensure that mine and Wayne’s cars are prepped and ready to race! My parents for taking care of our kiddos and making sure they are a part of this!! My fans for giving me the inspiration to reach for the stars! And all my sponsors that make it all possible – @polarisrzr #teamrzr #rzrlife #matlockracing #maxxis #fox_shox #steelit #cognito #dwt #albaracing #bajadesigns #simpsonraceproducts #cryoheat #ruggedradios #factoryutv #monsterseal #airdamclutches #imsproducts #maximaoils #summersbros #blackrhinoperformace #motionpro #unifilter #necksgen #particleseparator #satellitephonestore #mtvtd #utvunderground #sandcraftrcr #btiperformance #copyboyprinting