The Making Of A Driver’s New Favorite Desert Race Unfolds
Story By: Mike Ingalsbee
Photos By: Brandon Bunch | Jason Zindroski
***CORRECTION 5/19/21 15:35PST – Story edited to reflect post-race penalties applied in the Turbo Class***
The Legacy Racing Association’s Baja Nevada race just concluded and after its inaugural running, and it has already established a reputation.
Competitors knew the race would be tough going in. The Baja Nevada was set up as two straight days of racing on 630 miles of desolate Nevada terrain.
We all know what that means; rocks, ruts, deep silt, horrible dust, heat, cold at high altitude, and wind.
Day one of the Baja Nevada was pure torture. Right out of the start, the course was fast graded roads, but the dust was blinding. Drivers then reached a 40 mile long speed zone that limited their pace to just 35 miles per hour. Imagine getting caught behind a clueless Prius driver on the freeway for over an hour.
Once everyone was put to sleep, the adrenaline got pumping again with a nearly straight road that went for miles. Past a quick dip in a water crossing that ran through a silt bed (no joking), the terrain got tight, technical, and rocky. You can imagine how mentally taxing day one was.
It was also hard on the vehicles, some made it all the way to Tonopah for the overnight stay, but could not answer the bell for day two.
Most desert races are a one day event. Whatever you get from the car, and the course on that day, is what you have to settle with. While it’s true that being able to stop, and make repairs overnight is a benefit, it has its own challenges.
Did you bring the right parts, and tools to fix things? Will your field repairs last through day two? Can you maintain your speed, or even find another gear, and will your luck hold out?
Considering how tough it is to reach the podium, just think how demanding it is to do it twice in a row, running 300 miles each day.
Mother Nature threw in some additional challenges like rain on the second half of the odyssey just to make things worse. At first it seems like a blessing since the rain helps to keep the dust down, making it easier to catch the car ahead.
Once the rain starts though, you are on limited time. The surface of the dry lake beds get very slick in light rains. If it rains hard or for a long time, they become impassible. Not only were competitors hearing every rattle, and squeak as they pushed towards the finish line, but in the back of their minds they had to worry whether they would have only a slippery mess ahead of them or a foot of silty water.
Rain entices many to be too eager in terrain that requires patience and precision to navigate. One new section of course snaked through huge boulders that offered no room for error. Going wide in a turn or pulling out to pass in the wrong place could have easily ended a driver’s day and ruin any chance of them winning. Miles of the course are nowhere near what would be considered a road. Break down out there, and you might be camping overnight.
The Turbo class featured some fast drivers starting up front and some more fast ones in the back. The top 3 on day one saw Vito Ranuio leading the way with Dan Fisher, and Ryan Piplic just behind. Lurking in the back were Chris Blais starting 11th, and Cory Sappington 12th.
The final pair of starters were Cameron Meister 15th, and Mitchell Alsup in 16th. Starting in the back on a fast and dusty day one course should have been insurmountable, but Chris Blais charged all the way up to second and Cameron Meister finished 6th. The day was won by Dan Fisher. Ryan Piplic had some major issues, but miraculously maintained his 3rd place starting position at the end of the day. The pole sitter Vito Ranuio was unable to continue.
On day 2, Fisher, Blais and Piplic all established themselves as potential winners. Blais and Fisher were neck, and neck out front with Piplic waiting to pounce. Blais had to stop a couple times, dropping him back to as much as five minutes behind Fisher, but finally got around him for the win.
“Day one we held back a little bit,” said Blais. “We wanted to have a flawless day, and we did. We try to do it in the shop ahead of the race. My crew has been working their butts off. Lonestar had some problems of their own at the last pit. You never know in a desert race. There are a lot of rocks and stuff out there that will get you. You never know until you cross that finish line.”
Fisher was able to replace his drive belt, and finish ahead of Piplic to take second.
Although Dan Fisher did not know he was the winner, he was gracious directly after the race; congratulating Chris Blais on what everyone thought was the win. He still finished ahead of Piplic on day 2. “It was great,” said Fisher, “A couple days of racing out here was awesome. We had a plan, and Garrick Lastra and I, we split up the tasks. I raced to pit 4 yesterday and then he took over. He started this morning, and I took over at pit 10. We had a pretty good lead. I played it safe through some sections and we lost a little bit of that. We just threw a belt at the wrong time. Once you get passed out here it’s really tough to get around people. We had some pretty high speed stuff, but we just couldn’t catch them.”
Ryan Piplic went off the course in the dust on day one leaving him with only 2-wheel drive and high gear, but still managed to finish 3rd. Day 2 was much better for him, as he finished 1st on corrected time, but after the penalty to Blais and time adjustment from Day 1 had to settle for 2nd over both days.
“Day one we wanted to just take it easy and let the race come to us, but it was so dusty,” said Piplic. “We were stuck behind people for three quarters of the race. We started pushing to get out in some clean air. We made a couple mistakes, lost the 4-wheel drive in a section, and when we were in the lead we almost drove off a cliff. We had no reverse, all we had was high gear and 2-wheel drive. Everyone got by us so we just put our head down and ran in high gear to the finish. The dust was so bad out here. Day two was much better. We just drove smart and made it to the finish.”
In the naturally aspirated cars, both days were won by Maddie Wedeking. The lead spot marked her first professional win of her race career.
“I loved it,” said Wedeking. “It was completely different from anything I’ve done with the 2 day format. Strategically we loved it. We were able to prepare the car half way through and fix anything that went wrong after day one. Yesterday we were dealing with the dust, but today we only had a Trophylite ahead of us, and we picked him off pretty fast. From there on we just had to deal with the class ones and 6100 trucks. Matt Lasher killed it in the passenger seat. My pit crew was amazing! I liked the big rocks. It took me back to my King of the Hammers days, I loved it. The scenery was awesome. I loved seeing all the different types of rocks. I like the rough technical sections way more than the fire roads. When I see that, I get excited. All that hard work we have put into my race program has finally paid off.”
Austin Bolton was second on day one, and Bret Ward was third. On day two the results were the same which cemented all three positions in the NA class overall.
Ward commented that “There were plenty of high speed sections, technical stuff that was really rough, and lots of silt.”
The course dished out plenty of frustration for the drivers, but Stock U900 winner Jack Olliges had a unique issue. He was in school on Friday, taking final tests. Can you imagine how hard it was to concentrate?
“My co-driver Mike took the first day for me,” said Olliges. “He did really well. I loved it. It was one of the best courses I’ve driven. There is every single type of terrain you can imagine out there. Big rocks, hard packed, graded roads, just everything.”
Richard Rockrohr finished second. The Unlimited 2900 class podium had George Pondella in first, Jim Beaver was second, and Justin Lambert finished third. Jimmy Rodriquez was the only RS1 entered, but he managed to beat the desert to cross the finish line. Something that is never taken for granted.
The thing about off road racers is that they thrive on challenge. The Baja Nevada race was tough, but everyone loved it. Being the longest off road race in the United States now, and seeing how well it went off, it has already been established as one race you don’t want to miss.