Course cutting, penalties and protests. Oh my!


Photos by Mark Kariya

This year’s San Felipe 250 was chalked full of incident. Everyone has their opinion on what happened during the race, and the week leading up, and there’s really not a right or wrong point of view as it’s all in how the events have been interpreted by each individual. Having said that, here’s my take on our side of the drama.
Over the past few years it seems the athletes racing SCORE have become more “creative” with their line choices and it’s become more noticeable lately as the competition has elevated, the stakes have risen and more exposure has come into the sport of Baja racing. Line creativity has always been a part of racing south of the border as it was looked at as the Wild West, a last bit of freedom in an ever-condensing world. Even before Dust to Glory publicized Johnny Campbell’s “beach line” I’d heard stories of some extravagant course deviations. Bruce Ogilvie once told me that instead of using the nasty Old Puertecitos road, he jumped out onto Highway 5 for the forty-mile stretch without giving it a second thought.
The difference between then and now, of course, is that technology has allowed race officials and fans the opportunity to see these lines and since raised discussion in public view over whether taking them is fair or not. In my personal opinion I do believe in regulating how far racers can stray from the course, but I also feel it’s a bit of a sticky wicket because there are so many lines that have developed over the years that have previously been deemed legal and not every racer pre-runs with a GPS to know if he or she is within the limits of the racecourse. The obvious answer is to tell everyone to beat right down the arrows, but in the pro class, with money on the line and sponsor expectations high, it’s only natural to push the edges of what’s legal. I know from personal experience how salty of a taste it leaves when I’m working my butt off hitting a section of whoops only to later learn that I lost time to another rider who was on a smoother, faster line over half a mile off the course. At the end of the day, though, if the rules are in place, it’s up to us to follow them to the best of our ability.
Coming into the San Felipe race it was assumed that the “classic” SCORE rules still applied for this race; spreading is acceptable so long as you make the Virtual Check Points (VCPs). We had a meeting with SCORE and Johnny Campbell and left with the understanding that it wouldn’t be until the Baja 500 that a course width would come into effect. Flash forward to Thursday afternoon, less than a day and a half before the race, when I sign up and receive my race bulletin that states any course deviation further than 500 feet from centerline will be penalized. This came as a bit of a shock as my teammates and I (and a lot of other racers) had been pre-running with the classic rules in our minds so we had an informal meeting with Roger that night, which Johnny attended as well. We were informed that the rule change had been posted on Monday, on the Internet, but unfortunately for us, we had been in San Felipe since the previous Thursday without Internet or a way to understand that a change had been made. Johnny had an advantage as he was still in the States at that time and saw the changes online, so he informed his riders to pre-run both within the 500 foot limits and classic SCORE lines, and as a result was in favor of keeping the 500ft rule in place. My team and the KTM team both agreed the best thing to do was to revert to the classic rules, as the Honda boys still knew the wide lines and it would be a more even playing field, but the decision was made to keep the 500ft ruling.
After learning all of this, I had to go run my sections again Friday morning to measure what lines would be legal and also just to see the course, as in some spots with many parallel lines, I had to learn which one was the centerline racecourse. I got a basic grasp on what I was going to do on race day, but then another announcement was made at the rider’s meeting that made things even more vague than before: spreading would be allowed in the sand washes, the silt beds and lines deemed to be parallel. David and I both had “parallel lines” further than 500 feet off course, so we just left it at being a race day decision as to taking them or not. Come race day and I know all of us, the Honda included, took lines that were further than 500 feet off the course, it seems more of a judgment decision which lines would end up being penalized. As of right now I don’t know what lines we, and the KTM team, got penalized for and I’m also not saying the Honda took any lines that should have been penalized. It is my personal opinion at that the results should have stood the way the race ended. The KTM was the best team on the day, the Honda beat us fair and square and I think Kendall and Ryan were probably the only open pro team to pound the arrows around the entire track. I don’t feel we took any lines that “cut” the course so I’d be interested to see what lines we took that were deemed to be illegal.
Moving forward I am a fan of the 500-foot course width, but I feel their needs to be open discussion about it and the rules need to be solidly in place before pre-running starts. I feel the tracking data should be visible to all of the teams after the race so we can have a candid meeting over any deviations and more of a consensus rather than blaming and finger pointing. I believe narrowing the course boundaries will make the sport more competitive and affordable as racers who can’t spend a week and a half pre-running to find all of the lines will be on a more level playing field. Hopefully it will have an added benefit of pre-runners (cars and bikes/quads) putting in fewer miles over the already beat terrain, allowing the racecourses a little more recovery and it will also be safer from the standpoint that a rider won’t crash a quarter of a mile off course, making it difficult to find him/her. I feel there are a lot of positives that can come out of this rule change and I applaud Roger and SCORE for implementing it. It’s unfortunate all of the controversy that arose from San Felipe, but I feel it will improve our sport in the long run and allow us to continue to enjoy racing the sport we love in an ever-developing country.