Photo: Tony DiZinno

BFGoodrich SCORE Baja 1000 turns 50, as MacCachren goes for 4 in a row

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The mecca of North American desert off-road racing hits its golden anniversary this week, with more than 400 entries from 44 U.S. States & the District of Columbia, two U.S. Territories and 27 countries set to hit Baja California, Mexico for the 50th BFGoodrich Tires SCORE Baja 1000.

Baja isn’t just a race for most of its competitors but a proper authentic human experience, as the race traverses through the desert but fully engages with the fans who stand roadside as the Trophy Trucks, cars, quads, UTVs, motorcyles and other offbeat vehicles all make their way.

For most of the field that runs on BFGoodrich Tires, which is also the race’s title sponsor, it’s akin to a spiritual awakening, being one with the machine in the open desert where there almost no rules, nearly anything goes, and the test of endurance is met with the fact that you’re almost entirely on your own.

More than 100 teams that run on BFGoodrich Tires have registered to receive pit support from BFGoodrich, which entitles them to a bevy of free support including fueling, vehicle welding, tire changes, mechanical repair, bottled water and much more from a support crew of more than 200 people. BFGoodrich Tires will also award $50,000 contingency money to the overall winners of this year’s Baja 1000 running exclusively on their tires.

“This is a huge weekend for us as we’re excited to be with SCORE as its official tire, the entitlement partner for the 50th Baja 1000, and the 50th Baja 500 which is spring of 2018,” Chris Baker, motorsports director, BFGoodrich and Michelin North America, told NBC Sports.

“November this year at the Baja Peninsula is such a beautiful place, and for us, it’s such a key component of our brand heritage and our product development heritage.”

This year’s race is back to being a point-to-point race rather than a loop race, as the 2016 edition was. For this year’s course, it’s a 1,134.4-mile course with five physical checkpoints, 147 visual checkpoints and the finish line. There are 20 speed zones (either 37 or 60 mph) for a total of 162.87 miles. As per normal the race starts in Ensenada, and the race works its way south down the peninsula to La Paz. This is the race’s first time ending in La Paz since 2014.

It’s fitting that a historic event will have history-making potential on the line, as Las Vegas’ Rob MacCachren, 52, goes for his fourth straight overall victory at Baja, which would be a record.

Last year, MacCachren shared his No. 11 Rockstar Energy MacCachren Motorsports Ford F-150 SCORE Trophy Truck with Jason Voss en route to the win. The loop race was only 854.5 miles that started and ended in Ensenada, and the duo completed the distance in 17 hours, 12 minutes and 58 seconds, averaging 49.63 mph.

Using that as a reference, expect this year’s course that’s nearly 300 miles longer to take several more hours to complete. There is a 48-hour time limit for vehicles to complete the run but figure the win should be in the low-to-mid 20-hour mark.

MacCachren won in 2014 and 2015 co-driving with Andy McMillin of the powerhouse McMillin team and family, before McMillin branched off into a separate truck in 2016. This year, MacCachren will go for the quartet with Voss, of Cupertino, Calif. and Justin Smith, also of Las Vegas.

MacCachren qualified second for the event, after qualifications were held in late October at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway Off-Road Track. Pole man is Robby Gordon, who has extensive off-road experience and has three overall wins in the legendary Baja classic. He’ll be in the No. 77 Team Gordon Chevy Silverado, and will co-drive with Damen Jefferies.

The McMillin family out of National City, Calif. is spread nicely over four Trophy Trucks strong this year, with family patriarch Mark McMillin back behind the wheel himself. Mark McMillin is a five-time Baja winner, and will co-drive with his brother Scott McMillin (2 overall wins) and niece Jessica McMillin (Scott’s daughter) in the No. 43 SCORE Trophy Truck. Elsewhere Andy McMillin (No. 31), Luke McMillin (No. 83) and Dan McMillin (No. 23) are the headlining drivers in three other trucks. Luke McMillin will co-drive with Larry Roeseler, who has 17 class wins in this race, including a record 13 overall wins (10 on a motorcycle).

The Trophy Trucks category has several other notable drivers including Larry Connor, Bryce Menzies, Toby Price, Ricky Johnson, Justin Lofton, P.J. Jones, Troy and Tim Herbst, Armin Schwarz, B.J. Baldwin, Cameron Steele, Carlos “Apdaly” and Juan C. Lopez and more.

One legend outside the Trophy Trucks category is Rod Hall, 79, of Reno, Nev. Hall, who will turn 80 on November 22, is the only driver to have raced in all 49 previous Bajas, and will race in his 50th this week, co-driving in the Stock Full (truck) class with Chad Hall, Austin Hall, Chris Woo and Frank DeAngelo in the No. 8101 Hummer H1Alpha. He has 24 class wins.

The field also includes a wealth of past Baja winners both overall and in class, lots of family ties spanning several generations, fathers and sons both together and apart, brothers together, female racers and ironman riders (nearly 20 riders will attempt to ride Baja solo in Pro Moto Ironman).

There’s significantly more to consider when looking ahead to this race, but that’s a brief primer. Our posts from last year’s on-site coverage are linked here (race winners, week recap, McMillin chase vehicle recap, BFGoodrich celebrates 40 years at Baja).

The start times and planned order are below.

START LINE-Blvd. Costero in front of the Riviera del Pacifico Cultural Center

FINISH LINE-Adjacent to Grand Plaza Hotel on the outskirts of La Paz

START – Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017—12 a.m.-Midnight Motos, Quads (Pro Moto Unlimited & Limited two-minute intervals. All other moto, quad classes–one-minute intervals).

Order Subject to Change—Pro Moto Unlimited, Pro Moto Limited, Pro Moto 30, Pro Moto 40, Pro Moto 50, Pro Moto Ironman, Pro Moto 60, Pro Quad, SPT Moto, SPT Quad

START – Thursday, November 16, 2017—10 a.m. Cars, Trucks, UTVS (TT, 1, 10, TT Spec-one minute intervals–five-minute gap between those classes. Other classes-30 second intervals).

Order Subject to Change—TT, 1, 10, TTSpec, Hammer Unltd, Hammer Ltd, 1/2-1600, 5, 8, 7, SL, HM, 3000, TL, Pro UTV FI, Pro UTV, Pro UTV Unltd, PT, 5-1600, 3, BC, SF, 7SX, 3700, 1700, SM, 9, 11,  V-Trailblazer, V-Innovator, SPT Unltd Truck, SPT Buggy, SPT Ltd Truck, SPT UTV, Safari

TIME LIMIT: 48-hour time limit from the time each vehicle starts to cover the course

IndyCar: Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama Recap

Photo: IndyCar
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After two days, with both featuring a lot of rain, the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama is finally in the books for the Verizon IndyCar Series.

With Mother Nature intervening with rain and fury over both days, it’s understandable if there’s a sense of relief that the weekend at Barber Motorsports Park is behind us.

Still, as is usually the case, Barber produced plenty of thrills, and a few spills, across the weekend of racing.

A recap of big stories to emerge from the weekend is below.

Rain Drops Keep Falling on My Head…

Mother Nature was ever present on Sunday and Monday, dropping a lot of rain on Barber Motorsports Park. Photo: IndyCar

Rain races can be very fun and entertaining…if they’re able to run. Sadly, that just wasn’t the case on Sunday.

The undulating and picturesque Barber Motorsports Park is one of the most striking road courses in the country, and often produces some of the best racing anywhere. But, the nature of the track and its dramatic elevation changes can make it susceptible to standing water in heavy rains.

And that’s the exact scenario that played out on Sunday, with heavy and persistent rain hitting the track late in the morning, and hanging around the entire day.

While INDYCAR officials and Barber track crews worked tirelessly on Sunday to disperse the standing water, the rainfall was simply too heavy for them to make any impact.

While very unfortunate, postponing the finish of the race to Monday was the right decision, as several drivers explained.

“It’s tough because we have so many people that come out here to watch us,” said eventual race winner Josef Newgarden following the Sunday postponement. “We want to put on a good race. We want to put on a show. So calling the race, running around behind the pace car not running, it’s tough, it’s tough to do that. But I think it was the right thing in the end. When we started the race, the conditions were OK. You could run at that level of rain. Then, it intensified right before that first caution. I think when the caution came out, it got to a point where it was just too much.”

Graham Rahal echoed Newgarden’s sentiments, also emphasizing poor visibility as a big factor in making the conditions too treacherous.

“It was a tough beginning, but when we kind of got going it was OK and kind of fun to challenge for a while, but visibility was a major issue (on Sunday), no doubt. I’m glad that the series postponed it. I would have like to get it in (on Sunday), but that’s life,” he explained.

Rest assured, Firestone makes a strong rain tire, and IndyCar teams, drivers, and track crews are more than equipped to handle a rain shower from Mother Nature. But, Sunday’s weather was simply too extreme.

Newgarden Shines in the Rain and the Sun

Josef Newgarden in Victory Lane at Barber Motorsports Park. Photo: IndyCar

About the only thing as powerful as Mother Nature during the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama was Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden.

Last year’s IndyCar champion was quickest at the end of Friday’s practices, scored the pole on Saturday, and led all but nine laps across Sunday and Monday.

And his leads were always decisive. He quickly gapped the field when racing started on Sunday, holding down a gap of as much seven seconds over teammate Will Power in the early laps. And on Monday, he gapped the field by as much as 27 seconds during the second half of the race.

Only outside circumstances could have prevented Newgarden from getting to Victory Lane…and that nearly happened. A late rain shower in the final minutes created split strategies across the field, with Newgarden among those opting for rain tires, while Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay and Dale Coyne Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais gambled by staying out on slicks.

Hunter-Reay, however, jumped into the pits soon after for rain tires, a move that helped him eventually finish second, while Coyne and Bourdais gambled that the track would not get wet enough to force them to pit.

Alas, with only a few minutes remaining and the rain getting heavier, conditions became too slick and Bourdais was forced to pit, handing the lead back to Newgarden and dropping Bourdais to fifth.

“More hectic than you would want at the end,” Newgarden quipped when asked about conditions at the end of the race. “It seemed like it was pretty straightforward all day. We weren’t having yellows. It was dry. Then that rain made it very nerve-racking.

Newgarden added that pitting for rain tires, and doing so early, was their best option, even though it opened the door for others to jump ahead.

“I think for us we did the only thing we could,” he said of their strategy. “We went to rains as soon as it intensified. We had to. I think it was the right thing to do, just because we’re in the lead, we have the most to lose by not putting on rains early.”

The victory, Newgarden’s second of 2018, moves him back into the championship lead with 158 points, 13 ahead of Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi.

Misc.

  • Ryan Hunter-Reay enjoyed a solid weekend following a troublesome day at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. The Andretti Autosport driver ranked in the Top 10 through practice, qualified a strong fourth, and ran a very clean race to finish second, his best finish of 2018, and he now sits only three points out of third place in the championship – he is currently sixth, with 113 points.
  • While teammate Robert Wickens has made more headlines, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe is having one of the best early-season efforts of his IndyCar career. With finishes of fourth, sixth, ninth, and second to his name through four races, Hinch sits fifth in the standings on 118 points, and is keeping himself well within reach of the championship lead. A race win would do wonders for his championship standing, but the consistent start puts him in a good position heading into the month of May.
  • Conversely, four-time champion Scott Dixon has yet to finish on the podium in 2018 – his best finish is fourth at ISM Raceway. Still, at seventh in the standings with 107 points, Dixon is within striking distance despite the quiet start.
  • Elsewhere, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud have had comparatively disastrous starts to their seasons. Power has hit the wall in three of the first four races, while Pagenaud only has a best finish of ninth, coincidentally at Barber this weekend, through four races. Power sits tenth in the championship on 81 points, while Pagenaud languishes down in 15th on 66.
  • He made not have made many friends out there, but Zachary Claman De Melo gave viewers some thrills after the Monday restart, pushing his way through the field despite being two laps down. It also created one of the highlights of the race, with he and Spencer Pigot going for a slide through Turns 7 and 8 (video below). For his efforts, Claman De Melo recorded the fastest lap of the race on his way to finishing 19th.

The Verizon IndyCar Series now has two weeks before their next race, the INDYCAR Grand Prix on May 11-12. However, the series will be plenty busy, with testing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway kicking off next week.

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