To say that many FOX employees live, eat, sleep and breathe racing is an understatement. The daily demands of developing, designing, manufacturing and tuning world-class and race-winning off-road suspension products for our athletes is enough to tap anyone’s resources, but the thrill of seeing the “red mist” of competition through a helmet visor over the steering wheel is unparalleled. It’s no surprise that several FOX employees tasted glory or gave it all they had trying at the 54th running of the SCORE Baja 1000 in November.
As a 5-time Baja 1000 participant since 2015, FOX Director of Motorsports Bobby Smith finally nailed a victory in the Pro UTV Normally Aspirated (NA) class. As part of Jeff Proctor’s factory-backed Honda team from Race Mile 365-635, Smith and company crossed the line in 29:18:38.049, nearly five hours ahead of second place after 1,226 racing miles covered.
Smith piloted the No. 1290 FOX-equipped Honda Talon with navigator and FOX Engineer Isaac Chapluk during the second leg, called the ‘never-never’ section due to its remoteness and lack of communication.
The Honda team included first- and last-leg driver Elias Hann plus third-leg drivers Erick Kozin and Drew Stanton. Between 8:30 pm and 2:30 am, Smith and Chapluk navigated through heavy fog, extreme rocks and cliffs.
“Elias brought us the car in first place with a significant gap to second, so the pressure was on to keep the pace up,” Smith said. “We were able to extend the gap and keep pace with the faster turbo UTVs. We had a flawless run and executed our section perfectly.”
Other FOX employees who participated in the 54th SCORE Baja 1000 include Race Tuner Mike Kim (fifth in the TT Spec class with Jeff Bader and Dan Fresh); Applications Engineer Mario Gutierrez (DNF in the TT Spec class); and Race Service Technician Adrian Esparza (DNF in Class 11).
Additional race support came from Race Service Technician Shane Alfer (Baja Fools pit for overall winners Rob Mac and Luke McMillin); Design Engineers Nick Leone and Tyler Carlisle (chase and support for Team Honda); Motorsports Program Manager Bryan Harrold (chase and photography for Team Honda); plus Race Service Technicians Jack Tyrpin (chase and pit support for Justin Lofton) and Luis Torres (chase and pit support for the Class 7 team).
We interviewed Smith fresh on the heels of his milestone victory.
Tell us about your experience with the Baja 1000.
“I raced my first Baja 1000 in 2015 and have competed every year since besides 2020,” he explained. “My results weren’t stellar on paper: (2015) DNF – Pro UTV Normally Aspirated; (2016) DNF – Pro UTV Forced Induction (Turbo); (2017) DNF – Pro UTV Forced Induction (Turbo); (2018) 6th – Pro UTV Forced Induction (Turbo); (2019) 6th – Pro UTV Forced Induction (Turbo); (2021) 1st – Pro UTV Normally Aspirated.”
Walk us through the pre-race prep you were involved with.
“This year I teamed up with the factory-backed Honda team led by Jeff Proctor. He and his crew handled all the prep on the car and organized the race plan.
“As soon as the 2021 course was released the race plan was finalized and I was assigned to race the second leg, from RM365-RM635. This section happened to be the same section I ran in 2017; unfortunately, the car broke during my section and ended that race.
“So, I was excited to get some redemption and complete this section of Baja, which is commonly referred to as the `never-never’: it’s called that because it’s one of the most remote spots in Baja. There are no access roads and communication is dead, even with satellite phones.
“A couple weeks out from the race I began studying my section via Google Earth to learn as much as I could. My navigator Isaac Chapluk and I physically pre-ran our section twice: once during the day and once at night. We ran it during the day so we can see all the terrain and try and find smoother faster lines. Then we ran it at night to confirm all our notes and get used to what it feels like on race day.”
“We pre-ran Monday and Tuesday before the race and Wednesday was a rest day to get ready for the green flag Thursday.”
Tell us about your leg of the race: time of day, trail conditions, vehicle response, etc.
“The driver change took place at RM365 in Catavina. Due to schedule conflicts, I couldn’t test drive the car before the race, so I got in the driver seat during a highway speed zone to get comfortable in the car before hitting the dirt.”
“The drive change was smooth, and we took off at 8:30 pm. Elias brought us the car in first place with a significant gap to second, so the pressure was on to keep the pace up. The car felt smooth and tight; that’s when the excitement set in, so Isaac and I put our heads down and went to work attacking our section.
“As soon as we hit the dirt the dust was bad and visibility was minimal, so we put trust in our GPS and notes and charged through the dust. We came to our first small silt section and almost crashed into a Ford Raptor completely buried in it; luckily, we were able to swerve and make it around them.”
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“From there we began our decent of Fred’s Tractor trail, which is a super narrow trail with huge cliffs. We had a game plan to slow and get down the trail with no issues. At the top of the trail, we saw some headlights down in the valley and hoped it wasn’t a vehicle that went off the cliff.”
“Unfortunately, it was our good buddy Elliot Watson and Mario Gutierrez who went over the cliff to end their race. We slowed down to make sure they were alright; they waived us by saying they were okay, so we kept charging ahead. This portion of the course was very rocky, so we carefully picked our way through at a decent pace making sure not to damage the car.
“We had some good lines through the next 60-mile section, which we hit perfectly. The race car was working well, and we settled into a good race flow. We hit the big whoops at RM435 and the car’s suspension soaked them up well.
“At RM465 we got back on the highway to taxi into Bay of LA (the never-never). At the road crossing we met up with the chase team to get a splash of fuel and look over the car; all was good.
“At the end of the highway section we jumped back into the dirt and ran wide open through Bay of LA. This section is flat out as fast as the car will go with some tight corners, and we hit all our corner notes and clicked off miles. At RM565 we saw our first race car — an Unlimited Class 1 buggy — that passed us on the fast roads.”
“At RM595 we hit heavy fog all the way to the end of our section. Visibility was low and we had to wipe our helmet visors a couple times a minute just to retain the low visibility. This is where the stress level began to rise as I knew slowing the pace was not an option, so we kept charging through the fog.
“We were able to maintain almost the same pace and luckily didn’t have any surprises on the trail. From RM610-RM635 the course got tight and rough, and combined with low visibility from the fog and spectators lining the course it was hectic, to say the least.”
“At RM615 we saw our second race vehicle, a Trophy Truck spec truck who got around us. From there we kept pushing and made it to our pit at 2:30 am where Erick Kozin took over driving duties.
“We were able to extend the gap on second and keep pace with the faster turbo UTVs,” Smith added. “We had a flawless run and executed our section perfectly.”
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