The 30th Annual San Felipe 250
Known to tourists as a sleepy little fishing village or spring break destination, San Felipe, Baja, Mexico is renowned for something entirely different with off-road racers. Harsh, endless, whoops that stretch for miles around. Whoops are the choppy, undulating berms that build up when wheels spin in the deep sand. The San Felipe terrain provides the perfect conditions for whoops to develop and the SCORE International, San Felipe 250 does not shy away from them. The whoops pound the cars and their occupants continuously during the race.
Due to the level of competition, San Felipe has evolved from a strategy race to a sprint race. Teams talk about saving the car, but that does not mean what it used to. Overall UTV and Turbo class winner Marc Burnett finished in 6:32:08; beating Scott McFarland’s winning time from 2015 by 10 minutes. If the whoops weren’t bad enough, Matomi wash was strewn with boulders and difficult navigation caused penalties that took their toll on top finishers in both Pro classes — Turbo (SCORE calls it Forced Induction) and Naturally Aspirated.
Monster Energy Polaris racer Marc Burnett had what every team hopes for, a flawless race. Despite a last minute thrash to complete his new car, they had no issues during the race. “The night before the race we were still getting the car together,” said Burnett, “We had no test time. When we did get a chance to try it out, we realized the suspension was so far out in left field we were terrified. We worked all night on the car and on race day it was flawless; the Fabwerx car didn’t skip a beat. The team and our pit crews are amazing; we could not have done this without them. It feels good to be back on top and we are working hard to win every race.” Keeping Burnett honest was the Can-Am of the Murray brothers, Jason and Derek, who finished six minutes behind. If there is any team that knows how to bring a car home, it’s the Murrays. “San Felipe is always rough,” said Derek, “Our Can-Am ran great; it really soaks up the whoops. It’s not about how fast we go; it’s about getting to the finish. We lost the GPS so we were running in circles trying to find our way home. A tree branch ripped our tracker off at mile 37. A Mexican kid found it and brought it to us at the finish line after the race. He and his family joined in the celebration; we gave him some schwag and took pictures of him in the car.” There are no better race fans than in Mexico.
Third place in the turbo class was former ATV champion Mike Cafro. His race was the polar opposite of Marc Burnett’s. As they were in line to take the start, they heard a noise in the front differential. They had done a full inspection before the race and it looked fine. So, they put it back in. It went out almost instantly once underway. They had to push their Polaris extremely hard to get through the deep sand washes and whoops for the entire race. “Getting a podium is great; things didn’t go so smoothly,” said Cafro, “We didn’t have the power and drive we should have without four-wheel drive. We were doing well so we kept a steady pace hoping that the leaders would have problems, but they didn’t. It was a hard race, not really fun. There were whoops so big they would eat up a razor RZR. We are building a new four-seat car for the 500. We have our suspension and engine tune where we want it; we hope it will work the same on the new car.” Cafro finished about 30 minutes behind the Murrays but received a 10 minute penalty for missing a virtual check point (VCP).
The secret to getting through the whoops smoothly is going fast enough to “get on top.” Getting on top of the whoops means you are skipping across the peaks, not dropping into the valleys and slamming into the faces. Maybe the extra snap from the turbo boost gave them an edge in the whoops. The naturally aspirated cars had a much tougher time during the race. The win was taken by David Nance, but only after second place Thomas Graves was docked 30 minutes for missing multiple VCPs. Nance also had lost 10 minutes in penalties for the same offence.
First place David Nance was competing in his first race. The team had been building a Turbo car but, when it wasn’t completed in time, they modified their Naturally Aspirated pre-runner and went to San Felipe to compete. The morning of the race, Nance tried on his new driving suit for the first time and discovered it didn’t fit. While the other half of Rustfish Racing, Ken Pfeiffer and co-driver Zach Goemer, lined up to start the race, Nance and his co-driver Jason Henninger were driving around town looking for a suit to borrow. He found one and took over driving at mile 175. The car had a broken sway bar and the spring rates were too light, but Pfeifer maintained contact with the Turbo cars and had them in contention for the win.
It was just getting dark when Nance came to a fork in the road. He went right, hit a huge berm and flew into a tree. The car came to a stop resting on its side. They climbed out and assessed the situation. Nance gave Pfeiffer a call on the Sat phone. Ken Pfeiffer is an experienced Baja racer who knew just what to do. He asked if they were ok and Nance answered yes. Pfeiffer told them “Great, now get back to work, we can still win this thing!” They were pulled back on all four wheels by some locals and began limping the car to the finish. They had a broken wheel and lower control arm, the spindle was bent, they had no GPS and it was dark out. They could only manage 21 miles per hour before the car would begin shaking uncontrollably. They ran out of gas, but only after they crossed the line. After inspecting the car after the race, they found it is four inches shorter on the side that hit the tree. Their incredible win changed the team’s plans. With the point lead, they will hold off on the Turbo car and race the Naturally Aspirated car at the Baja 500.
Thomas Graves would start on the pole and figured everyone would have to go through him to take the lead. On the pole line road, he was caught and passed by a couple Turbo cars. He also noticed a few cars that were way off in the distance on what looked like a much smoother track than the whooped-out mess he was on. “We saw Burnett go by and had a great back and forth battle with Sappington all day,” said Graves, “We didn’t pre-run so we ran the GPS file we had. We knew we missed one VPC when we got off course a little, but I can’t figure out how we got 30 minutes in penalties.”
To add to their consternation, there were cars that got ahead of them on course that they never saw go past. Prerunning in Baja is a legendary part of racing on the peninsula. Some spend a week or more checking out the entire course, sometimes two or three times. Racers will try to run sections in the same conditions they will experience during the race. Every turn, every silt bed, and the endless miles of whoops all have an optimum line that will be the fastest way through. Then there is what is known as “creative lines.” That’s why they have the VCPs. Apparently, some have figured out creative lines that also go past the VCPs.
“At about race mile 180, the car felt strange, we almost rolled,” Graves continued, “We pulled into a Baja Pits and they gave it a quick look but found nothing. We kept going and it got worse. We pulled into Brenthel’s pit but they couldn’t find anything either; we thought it was the steering. We finally made it to our pit that had 12 guys looking at the car. They found a pair of bolts on the rear trailing arm that were broken; they jumped on it and we were back underway in no time. Our car was so fast in the whoops. It’s great to get a podium, but we just can’t believe the 30 minutes in penalties.”
Rounding out the podium was Alonso Lopez. “We had a good pace for most of the first half of the race,” said Lopez, We didn’t know it, but only Marc Burnett in his Turbo had passed us up to race mile 150. Around race mile 220, Derek Murray in his Can-Am Turbo passed us while we changed a flat tire. Around race mile 240, #1209 hit us from behind and broke the upper frame, bent the tranny support and one of the axles got messed up. We lost all the tranny oil. The tranny fried, so we had to tow the car to Baja Pits 4, which was a couple of miles away. We welded the frame back in position, welded the front left spindle which we broke hitting a rock while being towed, and we changed the tranny. Back on the course, we were able to finish 3rd. What looked like a beautiful day became something hard but we made it to the finish.”
Everyone who finished the San Felipe 250 earned it. Those on the podium are sitting on a good points tally going into the Baja 500 on June 1st. If they can repeat their strong finishes, it will be time to start talking about a championship. Those who didn’t finish or finished poorly have nothing to lose. They can go all out for a win. Either way, the Baja 500 will be just as tough and twice the mileage.
SCORE 2016 San Felipe 250
1. David Nance #1992 Polaris
2. Thomas Graves #1915 Polaris
3. Alonso Lopez #1949 Polaris
4. J. Romero, Sr. #1903 Arctic Cat
Pro UTV Forced Induction
1. Marc Burnett #2905 Polaris
2. Derek Murray #2917 Can-Am
3. Mike Cafro #2975 Polaris
4. B. Schueler #2931 Polaris
5. Scott Trafton #2910 Can-Am
By Mike Ingalsbee | 03-04-2016
Photos by Art Eugenio