The Complex Business And Logistics Of Surviving The Baja 500: Ask any veteran of off-road racing and they’ll tell you, it’s not so much beating your direct competitors to the finish line as it is battling the environment itself. Sure, in races like the Baja 500, Baja 1000, the Mint 400 there are hundreds of racers all battling it out, but as Wayne Matlock puts it, “ if you’re good, and running a good pace, it’s you versus the terrain.” It’s about survival, and Wayne Matlock and his wife Kristen have made a family business out of it.
As a six-times SCORE International champion, Wayne has won both the Baja 1000 and 500 seven times each. Kristen, also a SCORE International champion, has won her class in the Baja 1000 and the Baja 500, once and twice respectively. So this year’s running isn’t the married couple’s first rodeo. To top it off, both of them “Iron Man” and Iron Woman” their races. Meaning, while they have co-drivers they don’t swap out for a breather. They drive the full race distance themselves.
This past June, I made my way down to Ensenada, Baja California in Mexico to tag along with the Matlock Racing team. I sat in on the team meeting and rode in one of the team chase trucks to see firsthand the physical and logistical challenges that a race like the Baja 500 entails. Since Wayne and Kristen drive their own race-prepped Polaris RZR UTVs, it means they double the team’s chances for good results but simultaneously multiply the odds of something going wrong.
I arrived in Ensenada the day before race day to meet the Matlocks and the team. The hotel parking lot was filled with other teams’ trailers and race trucks, all performing last-minute checks and adjustments. The Matlocks set up shop in a space conveniently right in front of their hotel room, making their own final adjustments. According to Wayne Matlock, what I saw was just the tip of the iceberg. “Preparation starts months in advance. The week leading up to the race is all truck preparation, pit plans, making sure the team is up to speed, hotel reservations.”
The Polaris RZR Pro XPs that the Matlocks race comes straight from the factory, but undergo a significant amount of modification at their shop to make the RZRs race-ready. “We use a lot of their factory parts, but for the most part, the whole chassis has been modified. We keep the factory frame rails and all the factory mounting positions,” said Wayne. The powertrains and drivetrain remain untouched, the bulk of the changes are race-regulated safety equipment like seats, belts, reinforced roll cages, fuel and suspension. The suspension gets the most noticeable overhaul and is reinforced for the type of punishment only desert racing can dish out.
From the outside looking in, off-road racing can seem crude and simple. It’s anything but. It’s certainly not as polished as road racing, but under all of the dirt, mud and plastic body panels sometimes barely hanging on with zip ties and duct tape, there’s an incredible amount of precise engineering.
The night before the race, the mechanics went over the diagnostics of the car, talking with Matt and Kristen. Deep detail numbers like suspension travel down to the millimeter, particular engine RPMs at certain speeds, brake pressure, air-fuel ratios, all can be adjusted with laboratory-like efficiency and computer programs. It was a discussion that seemed almost out of place, too delicate for desert racing, but it’s integral in gaining any advantage necessary.
It doesn’t stop with just the race cars either. Both Wayne and Kristen have their own chase trucks which are essentially pickup truck-rolling garage tool chest hybrids. According to Wayne, there’s “pretty much one if not two of everything. If you gave us a blank chassis, we could effectively build another RZR from the parts on the chase truck.” That level of preparation isn’t overkill, it’s par for course.
Kristen recited an old off-road racing adage, “If you have it, you won’t need it. If you need it, you probably won’t have it.” In Baja, Murphy’s Law seems to be as ever-present as the dirt on course, so ultimate preparation is critical. But how do you plan for race-stopping damage? “It’s difficult,” said Kristen. “If something breaks, you don’t know where it’s going to break. Depending on where and when it breaks, that’s when you come up with a plan. It comes down to experience and how many times and how many things you’ve broken.” That “experience” came in handy for both the Matlocks during this year’s Baja 500.
Around race-mile 180, one of the aftermarket brake calipers on Kristen’s car failed. The caliper then spun around and destroyed the suspension arm. Wayne, having begun the race further back in the starting order, was behind Kristen by a few miles, but happened to recognize her jack on the side of the course further back. As soon as he came across the stricken car, stopped and gave them his jack, then set off down the trail. Kristen, unfortunately, didn’t have the parts to make the fixes and was in a spot on the course too remote for the chase truck to bring her what she needed.
Earlier in the race, Wayne had his own problems to deal with on the fly. “I smelled something hot and electrical while trying to pass another car, I thought it was the car in front so I ignored it.” What Wayne didn’t realize, at least not at that exact moment, was that the wiring going through the top of the dash started to chafe from all the knocks, bumps and vibrations.
“Then, all of a sudden there were flames.” Being strapped into a race seat, there wasn’t much he could do, but he had to think fast. “I was able to reach some of the wires, so I just grabbed them and pulled them out. At that point, one of our radiator fans went down and we lost the fresh air pump to our helmets.” Not ideal when racing through the Desert in the middle of the summer.
If an inboard fire wasn’t enough, after Wayne lent Kristen his jack, three miles up the road, in an attempt to avoid another broken down car on track, he hit a massive ditch, obliterating his RZR and any chance of finishing the race. Luckily, Wayne and his co-driver Daniel Felix were unscathed, got out, and began to assess the damage.
Wayne’s car was in no condition to finish the race, even if he had the parts to somewhat fix the car. Fortunately, the parts on his car that Kristen needed were relatively unscathed. So, while Wayne got busy removing the damaged parts, his co-driver took off the parts Kristen needed (a hub rotor, suspension knuckle, brake caliper, as well as nuts and bolts) loaded up a backpack and ran back the three miles down the racecourse.
Four hours later, around 8:00 PM, Kristen and her co-driver Adrian (Daniel’s brother) gave Daniel a ride back to the scene of his and Wayne’s accident and then continued off down the racecourse. Due to the remoteness of where Wayne crashed, it took some time to get a hold of his support truck, the one I was in, via radio. Once we located him, we found the nearest entry point to the course, loaded up the spare RZR that we were trailering around all day with the parts he needed. John Bahl, the team mechanic then set out into the darkness in the loaded spare RZR.
We didn’t see Wayne, Danny and Bahl until 2:00 AM. When we did, we got Wayne’s RZR onto the flatbed and made our way back to the hotel. Kristen eventually finished her race, albeit around 4:00 AM and with only three working brakes, but, she was in one piece and thankful to be done.
No matter the final race place, just getting out of Baja alive is a remarkable achievement. The races in Baja are relentless because the terrain itself is so damn unforgiving. Whether it’s the Baja 500 or the longer Baja 1000, just surviving the race takes years of experience, months of planning, weeks of preparation, and also a heaping dose of bravery. Off-road racing isn’t for the faint of heart nor for the noncommittal, especially when it comes to Baja. It’s a full-time job and the Matlock’s have made a very successful family business out of it.