Monday, June 24, 2024

The Baja 500 revs up for 56th annual offroad race

The Baja California peninsula’s rugged terrain and stark desert landscapes have provided the setting for seven decades of off-road racing, and the Baja 1000 is inarguably the most famous of these races. The legendary event dates back to 1967 and is still the longest continually operated desert race in the world. But the Baja 500, also run under the SCORE International banner, has been around almost as long. It celebrates its 56th race this year, only one less than the Baja 1000.

The green flag symbolizing the start of these iconic competitions typically drops in Ensenada, hence the city’s nickname: the Desert Racing Capital of the World. Forty-nine of the previous Baja 500 races began in Ensenada. So will the 2024 version, which kicks off on June 1 and will feature an estimated 280 racers in 45 classes. Competitors have 20 hours to log an official finish in the 483.06-mile course. Misleadingly, it’s not always 500 miles exactly, as the course can vary from year to year.

While the Baja 500 is considered the junior cousin to the more famous Baja 1000, the race has remained popular well into its sixth decade. (BFGoodrich)

What to know about this year’s race

The BFGoodrich Tires 56th SCORE Baja 500 officially happens from May 29 to June 2. The first day, however, is dedicated to technical inspections of participating vehicles and pre-race celebrations on Boulevard Costero in Ensenada. An estimated 50,000 people turn out to see the cars, trucks, motorcycles, quad bikes, UTVs, and other off-road racers. Local vendors and sponsors are also represented on the “Manufacturer’s Midway,” which is free to the public.

The next day, Saturday, June 1, the race begins on Boulevard Costero, with vehicles departing every 30 or 60 seconds, depending on the competition class. Although 20 hours are allotted to finish, the winners in each class will need only about half that time. The course is routed as a loop race, with the finish line also in Ensenada. After the clockwise-running race through a large swath of Baja California, an awards ceremony will be held at 12:30 p.m. on June 2 in the Cathedral Hall at the Riviera del Pacifico Cultural Center. It’s located on Boulevard Costero near the starting line.

The Baja 500 is the second of four races that comprise the SCORE (Southern California Off Road Enthusiasts) World Desert Championship series. The 37th San Felipe 250 was run in March and the 5th Baja 400 is scheduled for September, followed by the 57th running of the Baja 1000 in November. All are set on the Baja California peninsula.

The history of off-road racing in Baja California

The Baja 500 and Baja 1000 races weren’t originally organized by SCORE but run under the auspices of the National Off-Road Racing Association (NORRA). Founded in 1966 by Ed Pearlman, Don Francisco and other enthusiasts of the sport, NORRA’s first Baja 1000 was held in 1967, running from Tijuana to La Paz. Francisco, the mapper of the original course, was a veteran of the Carrera Panamericana, the notoriously dangerous highway race that spanned Mexico from north to south before being canceled in 1955. It has since been revived, safely. Francisco’s more rugged off-road Baja 1000 routing and the first Baja 500 in 1969 helped to set the template for Baja-style desert racing while connecting it to a national tradition. 

The race takes place across (roughly) 500 miles of Mexican desert. (BFGoodrich)

NORRA, however, was removed as the sponsoring body for these races by the Mexican government in 1972. The Baja Sports Committee organized the Baja 500 in 1973 before SCORE’s long-time owner Sal Fish and promoter and former world land speed record holder Mickey Thompson took over in 1974. The first race on July 26 of that year was won by a Hollywood stuntman named Bobby Ferro, who drove a VW Sandmaster open-wheel race car. But for legal reasons, the race wasn’t referred to as the Baja 500 again until 1991. In the public mind, though, it was never anything else. 

The Baja 500 and Baja 1000 races have long fascinated Hollywood movie stars and famous race car drivers. Steve McQueen, James Garner and Paul Newman each tackled the Baja 1000, the latter setting the record for oldest-ever competitor when he was 80. The Baja 500 hasn’t drawn as many actors as the Baja 1000, but it has always been considered a serious test by the pros on the IndyCar and NASCAR circuits. Indianapolis 500 winners Parnelli Jones, Rick Mears and Danny Sullivan also tested themselves in the Baja 500, with the former winning the overall title twice. So, too, did noted Nascar drivers like Jimmie Johnson and Robby Gordon. Gordon was the most successful to do so, winning the Baja 1000 three times and the Baja 500 on four occasions, most recently in 2013. That doubled the record set by father, Bob Gordon, who won the Baja 500 in 1980 and 1987.

The defending champion returns

The headliner for this year’s race is Bryce “Golden Boy” Menzies from Las Vegas. The 36-year-old is the defending SCORE series Trophy Truck title holder — he has 10 career victories in the Trophy Truck division — and the defending 2023 Baja 500 overall champion. He and his Menzies Motorsports Ford Raptor all-wheel drive truck are sure to be favorites again, although the estimated list of 260 entrants also includes racers from around the world, including countries as far-flung as Australia, Indonesia and Japan. Mexico will also be represented, of course, with Tijuana native and Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame member Eric Solorzano among those seeking to dethrone Menzies in 2024. 

The course map for this year’s race has been released. So Baja California locals and U.S. visitors who make the 80-mile journey from the border to Ensenada now know where the finish line will be: on Boulevard Costero, in the same place as the starting line. 

The Baja 500 course map, showing the ruggest terrain that racers must cross to claim the top prize. (SCORE International)

For those who’d like to monitor the upcoming race online, SCORE International tracks results on its website. Live coverage is also featured on SCORE’s YouTube and Facebook social media platforms, with a recap forthcoming in the monthly SCORE Journal Digital Magazine.

Chris Sands is the Cabo San Lucas local expert for the USA Today travel website 10 Best, writer of Fodor’s Los Cabos travel guidebook, and a contributor to numerous websites and publications, including Tasting Table, Marriott Bonvoy Traveler, Forbes Travel Guide, Porthole Cruise, Cabo Living and Mexico News Daily. His specialty is travel-related content and lifestyle features focused on food, wine and golf.

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