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April 16, 2014

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Bandits, booby traps in Baja

More hazards along the famed off-road route concern drivers but won’t keep them away

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Sam Morris

Trophy Truck driver Brian Collins flies over a jump at the SCORE Laughlin Desert Challenge on Saturday. Despite increasing violence on the Baja Peninsula, many drivers still plan to race there.

Off Road

Take a lap around the Laughlin Desert Challenge off-road course with Brian Collins and Billy Goerke of Collins Motorsports.

Racing on a 6-mile, man-made course near the banks of the Colorado River may seem to be a much less hazardous proposition than taking on the unforgiving natural terrain of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, but Rob MacCachren would beg to differ.

MacCachren, a longtime off-road racer from Las Vegas, saw his and co-driver Mark Post’s chances of victory in the Trophy Truck division of the season-opening SCORE Laughlin Desert Challenge go up in smoke when their Ford F-150 broke down after six of eight laps Saturday afternoon.

MacCachren had teamed with Post and Carl Renezeder to win the overall title in November’s legendary Tecate SCORE Baja 1000 — a race that followed a 1,300-mile route from Ensenada to Cabo San Lucas.

It has become somewhat of a tradition in the three SCORE races held in Baja California for locals to booby-trap the course, often adding jumps or water hazards along the route for their personal enjoyment and, more often than not, to the detriment of even the sturdiest race vehicles.

There also have been the customary run-ins with less than scrupulous law enforcement officials and Mexican banditos who are attracted to the races because of the millions of dollars some teams invest in their equipment. What was often merely an annoyance, however, escalated to dangerous proportions in November when a family traveling in Baja with a SCORE race team was detained and robbed of more than $70,000 in cash and personal property, including their vehicle and trailer.

Click to enlarge photo

SCORE President Sal Fish, pictured in Laughlin, has been putting on desert races for more than 30 years and doesn’t worry about driver turnout because “they’re unique, adventurous people.”

The incident was just another in a growing trend of violence toward American tourists in Baja — a trend that resulted in a dip in tourism last year and efforts by the Mexican government to step up security in the state.

“I take this very seriously because it’s my life,” said SCORE President Sal Fish, who has been putting on desert races in Mexico and the United States for more than 30 years. “Baja, without a doubt, is the finest place in the world to do what we do. There’s no place else we could do it, and without Baja, I think our sport is history.”

Although Internet chat rooms and bulletin boards are abuzz with rumors of racers refusing to take part in SCORE’s three Mexican races this year, an informal poll of about a dozen drivers in Laughlin found not one driver who would be boycotting the races.

Veteran desert racer Brian Collins of Las Vegas said he never has encountered a serious problem in Mexico and would continue to race there.

“I think it happens to the Mexicans more than we know about, but I think when it happens to people from the United States, it gets a lot of publicity, which makes it a big deal.”

But, Collins added, “if you want to find bad people, you can find bad people anywhere you go.”

Gus Vildosola Sr., a Mexican businessman and racer, said Mexican officials have begun to crack down on the violence against tourists and was hopeful that racers would feel safe at SCORE’s next visit to Baja, in March.

“I had a meeting with the mayor in Mexicali and tried, from a citizen’s and a racer’s point of view, to explain how important the off-road racing community was to our economy, to our state, to our tourism, and how I thought we needed to do something different,” he said.

Vildosola said he has been assured that security will be stepped up for the March race and that the new Mexican government was taking steps to combat the violence in Baja California.

But it wasn’t course sabotage or banditos that made life difficult for those taking part in this past weekend’s Laughlin Desert Challenge, which was won by Las Vegas’ Pat Dean.

“The amazing thing about this course is it’s only 48 miles but the abuse on the truck is as much as it’ll be at the Baja 1000,” said MacCachren, whose team was one of 19 in the 25-vehicle Trophy Truck class that did not finish the race because of mechanical failure.

But that’s exactly how the off-road racer likes it: the more challenging the better. It’s a mentality that still has Fish scratching his head after three decades in the sport.

“Anyone that gets in a vehicle and does any form of motor sports is a quart low,” Fish said with a chuckle. “But if you get in a SCORE race, you’re four quarts low to do what we do. They’re unique, adventurous people.”

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