Mario Gutierrez’s day job at FOX in El Cajon, California is overseeing engineering application integration with all our top Motorsports desert racers. Like many FOX employees, he also ‘moonlights’ as a racer, where the 28-year-old just earned a UTV class championship with a privateer effort behind the wheel of his Arctic Cat Wildcat XX, supported by several co-workers.
With a third-place finish at the 2021 CODE Off-Road season opener, two first-place finishes at the second and third races of the season, and a second-place finish at the Mexican Logistics 300 in October, Gutierrez’s No. 1993 was tied for the points lead of the Naturally Aspirated 1900 class with his competitor, Ricardo Malo Jr. heading into the Polaris Baja 275 season finale December 18.
A racer’s favorite, the course takes competitors from the Laguna Salada dry lakebed near Mexicali 240 miles south to San Felipe.
“Going into this last race of the year it was going to be winner-take-all for the championship,” Gutierrez said. “Knowing that, I knew it was going to take the best preparation on the car, the best logistics and crew, and the best pre run notes of our abilities to ensure we had something to fight with on race day.”
Here’s his diary to shed light on all the work that goes into a driver’s pursuit of victory.
Race car prep
After finishing the October race, we tore the car down to the chassis to service the drivetrain and suspension components. After replacing wear items and lubricating and oiling others, the car was back on the ground and out in the dirt for a shakedown and belt break-in the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
Next on the to-do list: dyno session at Alba Racing the first week of December, where Nate was able to find a bit more mid-range power. On December 4 we did a day trip out to Plaster City East with the race car, the prerunner and a couple of friends’ cars for an entire day of testing. We made some clutching adjustments and a single rear shock adjustment while logging over 80 miles on the car, massively improving speed, performance and handling. With zero issues it was ready for race day!
This prerun was going to be a bit different than the other races this season as it was a point-to-point race starting at the Laguna Salada and finishing in San Felipe. Not a loop race like the other four races. Luckily, I had my dad and fellow Wildcat XX buddy Shane Drake chasing me down the highway with fuel and spare parts, while my good buddy Scott LeSage navigated and took some notes in the right seat because my navigator, Nick Almada, was out of town on work and unavailable. I also had Pete Mercado in his Chevy diesel prerunner “Rosie” chasing us on the racecourse so that we were not out there alone.
The first 40 miles of this course were identical to the previous race in October so we had some relatively good notes and lines to confirm were still legal, faster, and safe. We actually found a couple more that would help us out. We refueled and went from RM 40 to 128 to get fuel again (we found the mud at the bottom of the lakebed trying to use an old line from an old race, oops!) and then continued to RM 175 where we would call it a day.
We had some great lines that were legal from previous racecourses and some notes that were shared with me from a great buddy of mine that I knew were going to help on race day. Sunday we woke up and ran the last 63 miles from RM 175 to 238, which would end up taking us more than three hours just due to the numerous amount of lines in there and running multiples to ensure we marked and ran the fastest and smoothest line on race day. We made it to the finish line of prerunning and I was pumped! I knew we had some good stuff and I was actually excited for the homework I had to do before heading back down to see it all over again.
We made it home late Sunday night and had a pit meeting scheduled for Monday with my guys to discuss pit strategy, logistics, and what everyone on the trucks needed to have with them and where they needed to be on race day. We also went over fueling the car properly and a few key things about the race car I wanted everyone to be familiar with. The meeting went well and there were over 20 people that showed up to show their support for our racing effort.
I’m forever grateful to the family and friends that I have that take the time out of their lives and bring their equipment down on their dime to come support myself and my team’s efforts. It truly means so much to me! This form of desert racing really isn’t possible to be successful without a knowledgeable and prepared team behind you. The driving part is relatively ‘easy’ when simply driving is all you worry about.
Wednesday of race week and we’re heading back down south to prerun for a second time. We loaded up both my chase trucks with all the spare parts and tires that will be heading down with my dad and crew Friday at noon and straight to tech inspection towing the race car.
This was the first time I’m leaving the race car and all the parts and necessities out of my hands, so I was a bit stressed hoping I did not forget anything. Once we got on the road, I calmed down and realized all of this was going as planned and all was great! Cade Garcia was kind enough to take his truck and trailer down hauling my prerunner as well as his Class 5 race car to follow us down the racecourse. We had Nick on board for this prerun as well as Shane and Scott again down for round two of prerunning. We got to El Centro at 10 pm and my good friend Eliott Watson’s parents offered us a place to stay when we stopped by to pick up a few satellite phones they were loaning.
Thursday morning we were up early and straight for the Calexico border crossing and then directly to Laguna Salada to begin prerunning. Same plan as before: did the first 40 miles and stopped for fuel at the chase truck before continuing to RM 128. Again, finding more lines, refining our notes as well as cleaning up some other notes. We made it to RM 128 a bit later than anticipated but fueled up and continued to arrive at RM 175 right before it got dark.
Went into town, got cleaned up and had dinner before waking up Friday morning to continue from RM 175 to 238. We were a bit quicker this time around for that last 63 miles as it was just dialing in the notes with Nick on all the lines we developed and connecting them all together smoothly. Once we got done with the prerun we loaded up the prerunner, dropped Cade’s buggy at the house and headed north to Laguna Salada to meet with the race car and do tech inspection.
I was so stoked that we got to see the entire course a second time! It was a huge advantage and quite the confidence booster to know we had some great lines that avoided some nasty parts of the course and Nick had logged a total of 2,190 notes for only a 238-mile race! We were the send car through tech with flying colors and we got loaded back up, into town to top off all the fuel jugs and then to the hotel to have a final pit meeting with everyone there and get a good night’s rest.
Race morning! I’m a bit nervous as I knew today was the day where all this hard work mattered. It came down to this! That was until I got out to the parking lot of the hotel and got the car cover off the race car. A majority of the nerves went away and I sighed with relief because I knew we were the most prepared we have been all season for today. The car, the notes, the prep, the logistics, the team and me. I FELT GREAT! It was our day and we just had to execute the plan.
We got to the Laguna Salada about two hours before the green flag and Nick and I got suited up while the rest of my crew dispersed the last of the pit boxes, tires, and parts. Warmed up the fluids on the car and the driveline and we went to staging. Because CODE starts the classes based on the cars numerical number, we gave up our #1993 number this race and entered into the draw for rear start, with hopes to start dead last and have better control of the race on corrected time. We ended up drawing the third rear start so that gave us #1997. However, the team that we were tied with for the points lead drew the fourth rear start so he was number #1996 and would start right ahead of us, which worked perfectly into our race strategy.
The green flag drops at 11:25 am and we’re the seventh car out of nine (in our class) off the line. I wanted to run a solid 80% pace for the first 35 miles and then back it down a bit through the rough stuff from RM 40-60 and see where we were at our first fuel stop at RM 70.
By the time we were at RM 15 we were already second on the road and only 32 seconds behind the #1996 car. I stuck with my plan and we trailed his dust all the way to RM 70 when Nick and I stopped with our “RD Racing” pit crew and got full of fuel and sent off in less than 40 seconds. They muffled over the radio that we were first on the road. I was surprised to hear that, so I pushed a bit to make dust because I wasn’t sure where we made the pass for the lead. A few miles later we heard on the radio that the #1996 car took off and was heading backwards up the access road and not down the racecourse behind us. That was also a bit surprising information, but Nick and I quickly zoned it out and ran our race.
From RM 70 to 128 it was mostly fast terrain but I knew I needed to save the car as help wasn’t going to be close for this next stretch. We ran a 70% pace and just continued to hit all of our lines and quite honestly we were having a blast! We got to the bottom of the Laguna Salada lakebed and where we could really get the car going and next thing we knew we were going 88.5 mph as shown on the GPS, the fastest our car has ever gone! I rolled out of the throttle a bit and rolled back in as I was nervous to break a belt or just any weird issue that we didn’t need to deal with. Passed my cousin Daniel Gutierrez who was there ready at RM 114 with a tire if we needed one and we continued to the second fuel stop at RM 128. We made a few more passes of other classes right before the pit. Got a full tank of fuel again and this pit felt like we were in and out in less than 25 seconds. Great pit kudos to my team!
Back on the road and I was asking my guys for split times on second place. They radioed back that it had been over 20 minutes at the last visual and second place had not been by yet, but they had to leave or they were not going to beat me to their next spot. That was when I knew we had more than a comfortable lead and we could really ease the pace and get to the finish line.
At about RM 145 when Nick started getting a stomach ache and was trying to unhook his head and neck restraint because he thought he was going to get sick. He couldn’t get it unhooked unfortunately and he ended up getting sick inside of his helmet (turns out it was food poisoning, and not my driving). I felt horrible and slowed way down to try and help make it easier for him, but he soon came back onto the intercom and said “I’m good, I feel better” I had already radioed to the team to have my buddy Scott LeSage get ready to get in at RM 169 but Nick said “I’m not getting out of this car, we’re finishing this.” Which of course I was totally okay with. However, his helmet microphone seemed to be messed up so we requested to have a helmet ready to be switched out with the one that Nick was wearing.
We stopped for no longer than 10 seconds at RM 169 to exchange the helmet and quickly took off. This was the part of the course where I planned to “start racing” and make up time on the competition because Nick and I developed some amazing lines in this last 70-mile stretch to the finish. Fortunately enough for us, we didn’t have to push, but ran practically a “prerun pace” to save the car in the bumps to our final fuel stop at RM 196 and on to the finish.
From RM 196 on, I don’t think we passed or got passed by another racer. It was just us, the Wildcat, and the beautiful Baja terrain. Nick continued to call off mile markers as we got closer and closer to the finish line. Sure enough, we were in our last Race Mile and we were in the infamous San Felipe Sand Dunes and I couldn’t see anymore. My glasses were filled with tears and I was bawling my eyes out. This was a moment I have played over and over in my dreams since I was a toddler: coming up to the last corner, I grabbed Nick and screamed “WE DID IT NICK, WE DID IT!!” We made the last right hand turn and we could see the checkered flag and all our friends and my family right there cheering for us. It is a moment I know I will cherish for the rest of my life!
The actual results came out the following day. We won the 1900 Class, averaged 48 mph and completed 238 miles in 5 hours and 0 minutes. We finished 2 hours and 29 minutes ahead of second place in our class, sixth overall 4-wheel vehicle and second overall UTV. To top it all off, we won the Naturally Aspirated 1900 Class championship and I was nominated for CODE’s Rookie of the Year!
I received compliments all season long on how incredible our car worked, either from my team, competitors or random fans who would message me and to ask what shock package I was running and who tuned it. I’m fortunate to have support from FOX Factory Motorsports and my boss Bobby Smith who allowed me to design and develop my own Internal Bypass shocks for the Wildcat XX. Without the help of Fernando Ramirez and Mike Kim, I wouldn’t have been able to get the car as dialed as it was all season long. Little tweaks here and there during each test before each race to dial it in better and better. I give a huge shout out to all the service guys in the shop who helped me with quick turnarounds all year long: thank you Brandon, Jack, James, Justin, Ulicez, and Erik!
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