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DiZinno: Top 10 IndyCar Drivers of 2013

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It’s that time of year again when all the pundits rank the season just passed. With some time to reflect on the 2013 IndyCar Series season, my top-10 drivers are below, and my MotorSportsTalk colleague Chris Estrada’s will follow. Without further adieu:

1. Scott Dixon

If the rest of the top 10 and beyond is hard to separate – and really, from second through about 12th, it is – Scott Dixon stands alone at the top of my 2013 IndyCar Top 10 list. In a year where drivers and others were great in some areas but lacking in others, Dixon and the Target Chip Ganassi Racing were really the only complete package.

With four wins in total, dominance at the three doubleheader weekends and a resiliency to bounce back from both a rough first half of the year and back-to-back gut punches at Sonoma and Baltimore, Dixon embodied team principal Ganassi’s mantra that the No. 9 crew “never gave up.”

source: Reuters2. Will Power

Power in second may be a surprise choice but if we’re looking at drivers, not purely results, we have to take the Australian’s season into consideration. His results were erratic but consider his luck was abysmal for most of the year. He was speared at St. Petersburg under yellow, his engine grenaded in Brazil, he was taken out of Detroit Race 2, and saw other results go begging at both Toronto races and Baltimore after contact with the Target twins.

His wins were just reward for pace and persistence throughout the year, and apart from the actual results, Power’s stats were still otherwise phenomenal despite this being a year he didn’t contend for the title. He had the best starting average in the field by a full position, 4.31, led the most laps in the field, 351, and most notably upped his oval game as he finished all six oval races and scored a dominant, pivotal victory at the season finale at Fontana.

source: Getty Images3. Simon Pagenaud

Pagenaud’s qualifying left something to be desired (11.5 average, with a rough first five races) but other than that, the Frenchman was firmly best outside the established “power teams” of Penske, Ganassi and Andretti Autosport. Frankly if he and/or Justin Wilson had that level machinery, it would be hard for most of the rest bar Dixon and Power to keep up.

Outside of a DNF in the season opener at St. Petersburg that almost knocked him off the radar, Pagenaud blended consistency and brilliance in the remaining 18 races. He won twice, surviving both attrition-filled debacles in Detroit Race 2 and Baltimore, and added seven other results of sixth or better. He was no worse than 13th in any other race outside St. Pete. Consider him a championship contender – probably Honda’s best shot – in 2014.

source: Getty Images4. Justin Wilson

Wilson was the same way in maximizing his equipment, exceeding his car’s potential on a near-regular basis and hassling the regular front runners on a consistent basis. The chemistry of having a second straight season with engineer Bill Pappas at the Dale Coyne Racing team was obvious from the get-go and Wilson quietly hung around and got the results the first half of the season.

Team and driver were even better in the second half and were unfortunate not to bag a victory – same as his three-weekend teammate Mike Conway did in Detroit. Justin was also unlucky to have been hit and injured at Fontana, but hopefully it’s not a setback and we’ll see the lanky Englishman back to his winning ways in 2014.

source: AP5. Helio Castroneves

Considering he nearly won the title, you might be surprised to see Castroneves so far down this list in fifth. Why, perhaps? The epitome of consistent but never truly great, in the sense others ahead of him either blitzed the field on one or more occasions or regularly outperformed their machinery. Or did both.

Where Power always seems to extract the max and then some, Castroneves has become a more methodical driver in letting the results come to him, rather than pushing for them. He’s needed to throttle back after an erratic 2011 season where he seemed to hit everything but the pace car, and went winless for the first time since he joined Team Penske.

And until Houston, that strategy worked perfectly. He led the points for 10 straight races on the strength of that consistency and finishing every lap. But the mechanical woes struck him in back-to-back races and that proved his undoing. The other thing that hurt? Of his six top-five finishes, five came in the first nine races, with only one in the last 10.

When he had nothing to lose, as was the case at Fontana or early in the year at Texas, he was brilliant; sadly, those great performances were all-too-few in a year where “very good” simply wasn’t good enough. Even had he won the title, I still would have probably only placed him third or fourth on this list.

source: Getty Images6. Marco Andretti

7. Ryan Hunter-Reay

There was little to separate either of the next two on my list, Andretti Autosport teammates Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay. Consider if the top 10 was done after the first half, they may well have been 1 and 2.

But an absolutely abysmal second half plagued the entire Andretti team; it’s as if a lightning bolt struck the team after its front row lockout at Pocono and sent them into an irreversible tail spin of bad luck.

source: Getty Images

Andretti’s luck was much the same, except his bad luck struck on ovals. He reassessed his priorities in the offseason, working with a driver coach and altering his driving for road and street courses, moves that paid dividends. He should have won Milwaukee and Pocono but the races he did finish, he finished well. He ended with 15 top-10s and fifth in points. It was a career year, yet one that could have been even better if a few breaks went his way.

Hunter-Reay drove superbly in his two wins at Barber and Milwaukee and was due a third at Iowa after one of the drives of the season from the rear of the field. Street course results proved his undoing with only two results better than 18th in the nine street races. Those hurt and negated what was the second-best starting average all season, 5.3.

source: Getty Images8. James Hinchcliffe

Hinchcliffe I’ll place eighth because he was rarely as outright fast as Hunter-Reay or Andretti on most occasions, but he also bore the team’s bad luck in the first half of the season. It was a yo-yo of a year – win at St. Pete, followed by consecutive early race DNFs in Barber and Long Beach, dramatic win at Brazil, invisible at Indy, dominant at Iowa, wrecked first corner at Pocono – you get the point.

The second half brought at least a modicum of consistency with six top-10s in the final eight races, and the only two he didn’t was when adverse mechanical issues struck him on the grid at Toronto Race 2, and Houston Race 1. Additionally, it was commendable how well he managed to keep his cool on track while dealing with the pressure of being one of IndyCar’s two marquee free agents, before deciding to re-sign with Andretti. Make no mistake this was a better season for him than in 2012, and he can only get better for 2014.

source: Getty Images9. Sebastien Bourdais

10. Charlie Kimball

There was little to separate Bourdais and Kimball, as well, who I’ve placed in the last two spots ahead of Franchitti and Kanaan. You presume big things from Franchitti and Kanaan and relatively speaking, you expect less from these two given their equipment or experience level at their disposal.

Bourdais was excellent the second half of the year, and like Wilson desperately unlucky not to have secured a win, which would have been Dragon Racing’s maiden victory. The engineering switch to Tom Brown from Neil Fife paid immediate dividends both in qualifying and in the races. Yeah, we remember his podium trophy drop at Toronto, but my word it was great to see the Bourdais of old back. Three podiums included his near miss at Baltimore, and the outstanding ride at Fontana for his Dragon swan song. He had the best car in Champ Car with Newman/Haas but this was the best case of anyone in the field exceeding their machinery level – look at teammate Sebastian Saavedra’s season for a comparison.

source: Getty ImagesKimball finished just behind Bourdais in second half points (237 to 234, fifth and sixth most in the field the last nine races) and was arguably one of the year’s most consistent performers. Indeed he finished the most laps – 2,397 of a possible 2,433 – in the field. His methodical development included trips to the Firestone Fast Six on all three road courses, 10 top-10 finishes, and dynamic drives on four occasions: Barber, Pocono, Mid-Ohio and Fontana. Too often Kimball has just been known as “that driver with diabetes” but his talents beyond the advertising and marketing were on full display this year. It was a welcome sight.

Honorable Mentions: Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan, Mike Conway

Of the rest, Franchitti and Kanaan probably merited a spot if they had maybe one or two more ­­­great drives. Kanaan’s Indianapolis 500 win aside, he only had six other top-10 finishes, four of which were on ovals. He remains one of IndyCar’s oval aces but his team’s erratic performance on road and street courses, often in qualifying, left a lot to be desired.

source: Getty ImagesMeanwhile Franchitti went winless for only the fifth time in his illustrious 16-year career. He had the pace with four Verizon P1 pole awards, but for some reason or another couldn’t finish the deal on Sundays. His best stretch was a run of five straight top-fours from Pocono through Sonoma, but he didn’t look like winning any of them. He’s never felt entirely comfortable with the new DW12 chassis and for the first time since he came back to IndyCar in 2009, was further in Dixon’s rear view mirror than ever before.

I’d have to give Mike Conway the “part-time driver of the year” award, unofficial though that may be. The Englishman jeopardized his own career, resigning himself to criticism after deciding the risk of racing on ovals was simply too much for him. But RLL Racing gave him a shot at Long Beach – Conway promptly stuck a third, previously unraced car in the Firestone Fast Six – and we immediately remembered what a silent ninja assassin this guy is on a street circuit.

Dale Coyne snapped him up for the three doubleheader weekends as it turned out. Conway was simply sublime at Detroit. He did things with that previously unloved, geriatric second DCR Honda that didn’t seem humanly possible around the 2.3-mile street course. The win and third-place were deserved results. He added three other top-10s from his other four starts, and when all was said and done had the second-highest point total in the field on doubleheaders. His 180 trailed only Scott Dixon’s 263. There should be a bidding war to secure his services for the entire 12 road and street race schedule in 2014.

Chilton back for sophomore season with Ganassi

SONOMA, CA - SEPTEMBER 17:  Max Chilton of England driver of the #8 Gallagher Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet Dallara during practice for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway on September 17, 2016 in Sonoma, California.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
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Max Chilton will return to the Verizon IndyCar Series with Chip Ganassi Racing Teams for 2017, into a second season.

The 25-year-old Englishman finished 19th in this year’s standings with a best finish of seventh at Phoenix in the No. 8 Gallagher Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. The team switches to Honda next season.

“I think we were able to build a solid foundation in my rookie year in the Verizon IndyCar Series with the support of Gallagher and the team,” Chilton said in a release.

“The learning curve is very steep here, and the field is separated by just a few seconds from top to bottom with really talented teams and drivers, which makes the competition incredibly close.

“Having a year of experience now to adapt to the car and learn all of the courses on the schedule is huge for us. Chip and Gallagher give us everything we need to be competitive and go out to contend for wins, so I’m optimistic for the direction of the No. 8 Gallagher team heading into next season.”

There were moments where it looked like Chilton had the potential for greater results but a mix of bad luck and occasional tough qualifying efforts left him playing catchup over the course of the weekend.

Chilton spent the entire 2013 and most of 2014 in Formula 1 before heading Stateside in 2015, when he competed in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and finished fifth in points racing for Carlin. His win on the Iowa Speedway oval opened doors for his graduation into IndyCar last year.

NHRA: Chevrolet takes wraps off new Pro Stock Camaro SS

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Photo: Chevrolet
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A new look for the Chevrolet Camaro SS in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series’ Pro Stock class has been revealed. See the release below for the details:

The Gen Six Chevrolet Pro Stock Camaro SS makes its public debut at the Performance Racing Industry trade show in Indianapolis on Thursday, Dec. 8

The new model builds on the success of the championship-winning fifth-generation-based race car. It’s more athletic-looking and aerodynamically optimized bodywork draws its styling from the Gen Six Chevrolet Camaro SS.

“Our goal was to minimize aerodynamic drag within the NHRA guidelines and incorporate as many design cues from the production car,” said John Mack, Chevrolet Camaro exterior design manager. “The result is a sleeker and more aerodynamic Camaro SS.”

The new race car makes its competition debut this February in Pomona, Calif., at the kickoff event for the 2017 NHRA Mello Yellow Drag Racing Series.

Chevrolet Pro Stock Camaro drivers won 23 of 24 events in the 2016 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. Jason Line won eight events, capturing his third world title — and the third straight championship for Chevrolet. Runner-up Greg Anderson won eight events in a Camaro SS race car.

Track testing with the 2017 Pro Stock Camaro SS begins later this month.

In addition to the new Pro Stock Camaro SS, Chevrolet’s 2017 COPO program offers specialty race cars designed for NHRA’s Stock Eliminator classes, and earlier this fall Chevrolet announced a drag racing development program for production-based Camaro models.

Corvette Racing retains same full-season lineup

Corvette Racing; Laguna Seca in Monterey, CA; April 29-May 1, 2016; C7.R #3 driven by Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia; C7.R #4 driven by Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner (Richard Prince/Chevrolet photo).
Photo: Richard Prince/Corvette Racing
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From the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” department, Corvette Racing has confirmed the same four full-season drivers for its pair of Corvette C7.Rs in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

GT Le Mans class champions Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner will be in the No. 4 Corvette with Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia continuing in the No. 3 Corvette.

This will mark the sixth consecutive year that the full-season lineup features the same four drivers. In their combined Corvette Racing history, they have combined to win 105 races and 10 Driver’s Championships in IMSA competition. Corvette Racing also has amassed class 11 Manufacturer and Team championships and an IMSA-record 102 race victories.

“Consistency is a key component in a successful endurance racing program,” said Mark Kent, Chevrolet Director of Motorsports Competition. “Retaining our core driver lineup for a sixth straight season gives us the best opportunity to repeat the phenomenal results from 2016.”

“It’s great to be coming back and joining Tommy again in the No. 4 Chevrolet Corvette C7.R,” Gavin said. “It was a great season for us with four victories, a number of podiums and of course sweeping the GTLM championships. The mindset and motivation is there for everyone on board. We want to start 2017 the way we ended 2016 – running at the front, leading races and challenging for victories. That has to be our goal. That’s what everyone’s aim is on our team.

“You have a little more spring in your step coming into a new season on the back of one like we had in 2016. You feel confident. I hope that’s the way it carries over into 2017.”

Milner added, “More than anything, I’m excited to start a new season again with Corvette Racing. Each year always presents new challenges, and fighting hard to conquer those challenges is what makes it easy to get excited for the season.

“Being with Corvette Racing for this many years and having the same core team, I find we hit the ground running from the first test to the first race, almost as an extension of the previous year. With the success we had last year, let’s hope that translates to a strong start for 2017.”

Third drivers for the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup races and Le Mans will be determined at a later date. This year, Audi factory drivers on loan Mike Rockenfeller and Marcel Fassler were in the U.S. races, with the Taylor brothers added for Le Mans.

Porsche recently announced Patrick Pilet and Dirk Werner for its No. 911 Porsche 911 RSR and Laurens Vanthoor and Kevin Estre for its No. 912, with Fred Makowiecki and Richard Lietz in the Nos. 911 and 912 cars as endurance race third drivers.

BMW Team RLL may have inadvertently revealed one of its lineups upon its “Art Car” release, as the names of Bill Auberlen, Alexander Sims, Augusto Farfus and Bruno Spengler were listed on the No. 19 BMW M6 GTLM.

Ford is expected to have a similar full-season lineup with its pair of Ford GTs run by Chip Ganassi Racing Teams. It leaves the second BMW and Ferrari’s GTLM entries via Risi Competizione and potentially Scuderia Corsa as yet to formally reveal their lineups for the class next year.

Chasing Baja 1000 glory, via a McMillin Racing chase truck

The No. 83 McMillin Racing truck at speed, with helicopter in background. Photo: Art Eugenio/GetSomePhoto
Photo: Art Eugenio/GetSomePhoto
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Last month, I had the opportunity to take in my first SCORE Baja 1000, the 49th running of the off-road classic. Trying to chronicle the experience took a bit more time than just doing a day-of report.

In part one of my reflection, I looked back at the event itself on the whole. In part two, I’ll reflect on my ride-along in a chase truck with McMillin Racing, one of the preeminent teams in Baja history. Sincere thanks go to to the team and to BFGoodrich Tires for making this all possible.

And now, without further adieu, part two…

Imagine for a moment you’re embedded with Team Penske at Indianapolis. Or Porsche at Le Mans. Or Hendrick Motorsports at Daytona.

Except you can’t really imagine it, because unless you’re either a wunderkind who is the best 20-something prospect out of university or a grizzled veteran with enough years experience to make it into arguably the crème de la crème of any of these teams, it’s probably not going to happen.

Such a tantalizing and unattainable prospect though is turned on its head when BFGoodrich Tires tells you, “you’re going to be embedded with McMillin Racing at the Baja 1000.”

This is the off-road equivalent of getting your masters’ degree at the legendary university that is Baja.

And when I heard I’d be embedded with these guys for this year’s race, my already stoked, piqued interest was taken to the next level.

BACKGROUND ON “BIG BLUE”

The No. 23 McMillin Racing truck at speed. Photo: Art Eugenio/GetSomePhoto
The No. 23 McMillin Racing truck at speed. Photo: Art Eugenio/GetSomePhoto

There is so much more to San Diego than its mere inclusion in Anchorman, with Ron Burgundy’s rather legendary/infamous description of the town far from giving the town justice.

While it’s an incredible city filled with great beaches, food and culture, it’s not particularly known for racing – at least circuit racing.

But this is the city where the McMillin family laid its roots and began its conquest. From when Macey “Corky” McMillin began to explore the local deserts near his home, they figured out very quickly this was a terrain to be conquered.

And when McMillin started a small construction company in San Diego, it wasn’t just a construction empire they built. It was also an off-road one.

This year marked BFG’s 40th year at Baja but for the McMillins, this year also held that same 40-year significance.

From the humble beginnings in 1976, for more than 30 years, McMillin and the desert have been synonymous with success. No, they weren’t the only team of dominance but they’re one of the legendary outfits.

As of 2014, the team had 667 total race entries with 303 races entered. In that span, there were 236 class podium victories, 100 race class victories, 45 overall race victories, and 40 team owned or prepped race vehicles.

The story began with an “old” hi-jumper class 9 1200cc VW Type 1 buggy in 1976; today, McMillin Racing is known for its Trophy Truck presence for third generation drivers Dan and Luke McMillin. It’s a custom tube frame truck from Racer Engineering, with a Kroyer Ford V8 engine under the hood. It exudes power and strength at every opportunity.

The unofficial “godfather,” as you were, is their father Mark McMillin, who was a standout driver and Baja winner in his own right and is now the team principal. In just a three-day period, I got to see firsthand the level of dedication to his team, his craft and his people. It was one of the most engaging experiences I’ve had in 11 years reporting and in 21 years in motorsports since I first became a fan.

Much more can be found about the team’s history in the “Big Blue” book, which does over 500 pages of storytelling. Without even really getting going, I’m already just at over 500 words here in building up the intro.

RACE DAY LAUNCH

The two McMillin Racing trucks at contingency. Photo: Art Eugenio/GetSomePhoto
The two McMillin Racing trucks at contingency. Photo: Art Eugenio/GetSomePhoto

So when you’re embedded with a race team at Baja, you become one of the crew. With a team of 53 people at this year’s Baja, I’m treated no differently than any of McMillin’s full-time crew, or its volunteers – this is to say that I’m already part of the family almost from the off.

I met the guys I’d be riding with on Thursday at contingency. The order was simple; get yourself to our hotel before 8 a.m. on Friday, race morning, and we’ll take it from here.

Race day dawns. It’s weird, first off, that you’re going to a hotel first and not to a track. Everyone loads up here and then heads out to our first checkpoint, which the trucks won’t be hitting for several hours.

“HURRY UP AND WAIT”

It's time to play "spot the Baja rookie." From left to right, Steve Schuler, Shawn Huddleston, myself, Tom Calhoun. Photo courtesy Shawn Huddleston
It’s time to play “spot the Baja rookie.” From left to right, Steve Schuler, Shawn Huddleston, myself, Tom Calhoun. Photo courtesy Shawn Huddleston

“Get where you need to go first, then dick around.”

This is the first lesson of race day at Baja. When you’re in a chase vehicle such as the Ford F-150 Raptor we were in, your goal is to get to your checkpoints before the truck arrives. If ever you are behind, this is bad.

I was in a truck with our driver, Shawn Huddleston, with support from Steve Schuler (co-driver, passenger’s seat) and Tom Calhoun riding with me in the backseat. In the truck, we have all sorts of supplies. It’s primarily parts for the trucks to ensure we’ve got whatever they might need out on the course, but it’s also parts for us, most notably lunchmeat and desserts.

“You’re going to be eating on the fly, and possibly doing other things on the fly, so get ready for that,” Shawn says.

The race doesn’t begin for the trucks until 10:30 a.m. local time, but the race morning preparation is already well underway hours before that.

Mark, who’d offered me a ride with the crew in a helicopter (I declined, because doing my first off-road race was enough before adding yet another variable), set off in the helicopter at 8:21 a.m. to get in position. The two chase trucks left the hotel at the same time.

More importantly, I devoured my first Clif bar.

The glamorous food you get in Mexico ends when the race starts. It’s a steady diet of ‘Merica from there.

img_4989
Photo: Tony DiZinno

We arrive at our first checkpoint at 9:30 a.m., slightly more than an hour after we left the hotel. In that time, we’d passed a military checkpoint, saw the bikes that were racing (they start earlier), while a car behind us honks its horn. Yes, because we were going to go ahead while the police – who were directly ahead of us – were holding us.

Once to “La Grulla,” the first checkpoint, the reality of how vastly different Baja is compared to any other race sets in.

You’re not watching a race. You’re watching men push carts trying to sell you various chotchkies or food while standing inches away from early 1990s Ford Pintos or equivalent cars. You’re watching to make sure none of your newly discovered friends are using the support truck as a temporary restroom. You’re talking politics.

At 11:30 a.m., we get our first radio call that Car 23 – Dan McMillin’s truck – was already at mile marker 20 at 11:02. Luke McMillin is in truck 83. We’re at mile marker 80 and change. So they’re on target to get here within an hour or so, likely a little longer. Things are going to plan.

It got busy at checkpoint one. Photo: Tony DiZinno
It got busy at checkpoint one. Photo: Tony DiZinno

Just under an hour later, our “pit” has grown as other support trucks keep parking on the side of the road. Pitting now is bad, because the race has only just begun. At this point, you’re just hoping the trucks blow past with no issues.

12:25 p.m. “Car 23, Mile 70. Everything OK.” These are the standard radio messages. If it’s anything different than this, you have a problem. If it’s the same, just with the mile marker updated, you’re good.

12:47 is when everything springs into action. Both the 23 and the 83 trucks fly by, the eighth and ninth trucks on the road, and mere seconds after they’re through the four of us scramble and jump back in the truck for our next chase to the next checkpoint.

Everything is good through checkpoint one. Of course, there’s still another 16 hours and change to go, but that’s irrelevant at this point.

THE CHASE BEGINS

This is Baja. Flat out over rough terrain with road cars on highway as backdrop. Photo: Art Eugenio/GetSomePhoto
This is Baja. Flat out over rough terrain with road cars on highway as backdrop. Photo: Art Eugenio/GetSomePhoto

At 1:06, we’ve long shifted from typical speed into “Chase Speed.” What this means is that we’re driving safely – but as quick as safely possible – through dirt roads, twisty uphill sections, some with barriers, some without, to get to the next checkpoint.

Laser focus is engaged by all four of us. The small talk stops.

This is what Baja means.

1:25 p.m. “Car 23, Mile 120. Everything OK.”

1:26 p.m. We’ve hit our first town of note, called San Vicente. The fish taco stands along the route are calling my name. Yet we cannot stop, no matter the lure of the pesca. The chase rolls on.

At 1:57, the team hits its first proverbial speed bump of the race. You’ll have issues in Baja – it’s just a question of what it is, and how or when it will hit. Luke’s truck, the No. 83, has had a flat tire and lost a brake caliper.

It’s important to note here Dan’s truck, the No. 23, runs on 39-inch BFGoodrich Tires, and have red-rimmed wheels. Luke’s are on 40s, and have blue-rimmed wheels. So we have to be extra careful to ensure the right size tire goes on the right truck.

By 2:06, the 23 was clicking along at Race Mile 160. The 83 had lost six minutes but completed a successful change of the tire and wheel.

Big air. Big fans. Photo: Art Eugenio/GetSomePhoto
Big air. Big fans. Photo: Art Eugenio/GetSomePhoto

Just over an hour later, the first official pit stop beckoned. This required us to veer off the highway onto the dirt area where the pits are set up, and where we saw the rabid Baja fans in person. The noise of the fans screaming is as loud, if not louder, than the trucks. Both the 83 and 23 trucks came through.

This offered the rare opportunity to scramble into the cooler in the back of the truck, then grab the lunchmeat, mayo, waters and soda. We had to complete this task in under a minute, because the race wasn’t stopping for us to do our best Dale Jr. mayo-and-banana sandwich imitations.

At 3:26, we witnessed the first instance where our chase would put us directly behind the No. 23 truck on the highway itself, thus watching its progress and reporting back to the co-drive inside the truck. Everything was OK.

THE RUN FROM DUSK TO DARKNESS

As the sun started to set, my note detail started to set along with them.

4:10. 83. 260. OK. 23. 280. OK.

Why write more if you don’t need to?

That brevity was briefly interrupted by my own stupidity.

When we’d made a stop along the road, I got back in the truck only to feel that my foot had an inadvertent sharp “resting pad” underneath it.

The offending cactus. Photo: Tony DiZinno
The offending cactus. Photo: Tony DiZinno

The note here reads: 4:31: Discover you stepped on a cactus.

Now the concern isn’t just whether we’ll get to our next checkpoint before sunset. It’s whether I’ll have the opportunity to take the damn thing out of my shoe in time.

Many things are changing at this point, as the race had been going about six hours or so. The temperature is dropping along with the sunset; it had been in the mid-to-high 70s ambient but was now 65. The specter of reliability issues and with most of the race run in darkness began to rear their ugly head. At least if you go out early in an endurance race, you don’t have the heartache that exists the longer it goes.

At 4:56, we’d stopped to ensure our trucks were going strong as the night was about to be long, at the southernmost tip of our journey. I used a rock to remove the cactus and by 5:00, we were set to turn around and head back north for the chase.

THE DARK RETURN HOME

The last vestige of light before darkness. Photo: Tony DiZinno
The last vestige of light before darkness. Photo: Tony DiZinno

Maintaining focus and composure as the night falls is extra important. We refuel as a team at 6:04 at a Pemex for gas, food and more, and are back on the road shortly thereafter. At 6:21, the 83 was at Race Mile 350, with the 23 at 380. Almost halfway in this 854-mile marathon.

Why is focus so hard to maintain? When at 6:51, your note reads of a Seinfeld distraction: “The Big Salad” spotted in San Quentin.

At 7:16, it becomes apparent that Dan’s truck, the 23, is actually in with a shout at winning this thing. “23 P4. +11 (minutes) to leader. 415.”

Billy Joel’s line from “Summer, Highland Falls” on Turnstiles enters my head a few minutes later.

“It’s either sadness or euphoria.”

The high of the 23’s potential win hopes start to erode at 7:36. The report is that the truck’s water temperature is running warm at over 250 degrees. The concern is there’s a voltage issue or a serpentine belt stalling out.

This is the mystery of Baja. Because you have no way of seeing what’s happening to the truck, you’re left to know only via radio – which you may or may not have considering you’re out in the middle of freaking nowhere and it’s pitch black out – you have to rely on whatever little information you get to ensure the truck is running well.

A mix of brief relief and new concern comes on the next transmission. “23 voltage good. We’re at 420 Race Mile. Transmission temp at 153. Possible cooling issue.”

But the 23 presses on. By 7:45, the gap is closed to just 7 minutes to the leader at Race Mile 438. The temps are a little better, but there’s a report that dirt might be creeping in. The radiator will need to be checked at the next stop.

THE LONG STOP OF DOOM FOR THE 23

All hands on deck as the No. 23 truck's race ends. Photo: Tony DiZinno
All hands on deck as the No. 23 truck’s race ends. Photo: Tony DiZinno

At 8:44, the dream for Dan’s No. 23 team at this year’s Baja ends.

A theoretical normal stop is taking much longer, and the water pump is leaking. Meanwhile, the McMillin team has to ensure enough space is cleared for when Luke’s No. 83 truck pits not much longer afterwards.

We watch the truck numbers 3, 91, 11 and 200 go past. No. 11, Rob MacCachren’s truck, is the ultimate race winner. Even though they’re flying, the passes happen in slow motion.

At 9:03, Dan climbs out of the No. 23. The truck is taking in too much water. The hood has climbed back off.

Mark, who’s long since landed in the helicopter a few hours earlier, calls us to check the status.

It’s game over at 9:11. The note in the notebook? 23 – SHE DONE. Ouch.

BAJA GIVETH, BAJA TAKETH AWAY

As night fell, so did the No. 23. The No. 83 became McMillin's lone hope. Photo: Art Eugenio/GetSomePhoto
As night fell, so did the No. 23. The No. 83 became McMillin’s lone hope. Photo: Art Eugenio/GetSomePhoto

At this point, we make a crew switch in the chase truck. Tom Calhoun is moved over to the transporter that’s set up where the No. 23 truck is parked, while Cameron Parrish, a likable, humorous and tall individual who’s the co-driver of that truck, will now chase with us for the remaining No. 83 truck.

Cameron is known as an eating machine around these parts, and Shawn advises me to tell him we don’t have much food left in the truck for that reason.

At 9:24, Luke’s No. 83 truck arrives in the pits. Three other trucks – the Nos. 6, 15 and 31 trucks – pass on the road. All hands are now on deck for the No. 83.

Cameron’s a mix of winded, exasperated and devastated all at once when he steps into our chase truck.

“Baja… she’s so cruel, but you just can’t quit,” he sighs, at a higher than normal octave level for a sighing remark.

EXHAUSTION TAKES OVER

Cameron makes a phone call, looks at his GPS coordinates, then passes out in the backseat.

I’m told going into the race that if you need to rest, rest, in the backseat of the truck. Having covered both Daytona and Le Mans’ respective 24-hour races, rest is part of the program there. But I was determined to make it all the way at Baja and I…

ZZZZZZZZZ

The next note in my notebook I think read, midnight: back in Ensenada, headed to Highway 3. Then ZZZ.

At this point we had to head East from the starting and ending point in Ensenada, where the course continues.

I wasn’t sure whether it was 1, 2 or 3 a.m. from there, depending on what state I was in.

Anyway, 3 a.m.: 83. 755 miles. 3:01: 83. 770. OK.

3:40: A Jar Jar Binks voice comes out. Why remains a mystery. It’s 36 degrees and freezing.

In no other race can you manage to weave in cactus, Seinfeld and Jar Jar Binks.

THE FINAL RUN TO THE LINE

The radio call comes at 4:51 a.m. “Car 83 is at the finish line.”

We didn’t know if we were sixth or seventh, but we did know we’d made it.

Cameron, much like Cameron in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, reflects a bit on his life at this moment of glory.

“There’s another two weeks of my life, gone,” says Cameron.

“And that’s with another two weeks of pre-running and prep. So that’s three or four weeks a year for maybe 15 years.”

“That’s a year of my life I’ve spent chasing this damn race.”

I ask in my somewhat awake, mostly asleep stupor whether he’d had enough of it.

“This race, you never get enough,” he replies. In that moment, Cameron Parrish is my Baja spirit animal.

Additionally, Shawn and Steve deserve thorough shoutouts at this point. Shawn he drove all 19 hours himself with no relief drivers. Steve stayed awake all 19 hours to navigate and communicate on the radio.

THE GLORY OF FINISHING

Finishing the Baja 1000 isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.

Because there’s more than 260 entries into the race, roughly half finish. And if you’re not in contention for the overall win, finishing is the singular goal.

After attempting to sleep, I stumbled back down to the finish line around 3 p.m. on Saturday afternoon.

Seeing more vehicles roll in, including a couple of the Baja Challenge entries, was the pinnacle of seeing Baja at its zenith.

A chat with stunt man, tire genius and wheelman Andrew Comrie-Picard, better known as “ACP” in BFG circles, revealed the raw emotion of what finishing this race means.

His team of drivers had all got sick at some point, and their bodies were turned upside down, inside out and sideways over the near entirety of the treacherous off-road terrain.

Yet seeing his colleagues with him up there on that stage, all having given their all for each other and in the pursuit of finishing, spoke volumes of their dedication and their desire to bring it home.

His team was but one example of what it means to finish at Baja… there are many different examples.

The winning Baja Challenge team. Photo: Art Eugenio/GetSomePhoto
The winning Baja Challenge team. Photo: Art Eugenio/GetSomePhoto
More finishers at this year's Baja 1000. Photo: Art Eugenio/GetSomePhoto
More finishers at this year’s Baja 1000. Photo: Art Eugenio/GetSomePhoto

The glory and pursuit of Baja is what keeps you coming back, or piques your interest for more.

Watching a team as prepared as McMillin undertake it gives you a sense of the operation it takes to win. Yet watching the smaller outfits finish and cross the line hours later is part of the soul of the event.

Baja will thrill you, inspire you, cut you and break you all at once.

All the while, it’s daring you to get more notebooks for the next time you head back down.

Baja matches beauty and treachery at once. Photo: Art Eugenio/GetSomePhoto
Baja matches beauty and treachery at once. Photo: Art Eugenio/GetSomePhoto