Sweat, Dust and Trust: The Baja 500

What began as a challenge among friends riding throughout Baja California has evolved into an international off-road cultural phenomenon that has become a big part of Volkswagens/ rich motorsport history. Today the Baja 500 is one part of the off-road Triple Crown, along with the Baja 1000 and the ultimate testThe Dakar Rally.

In addition to toughness and motorsport hall of fame credentials, off-road legends such as Ivan Stewart, Malcolm Smith, and Parnelli Jones all have one thing in commonoverall wins in Baja using VW power. Whether its the iconic Class 5 Unlimited Baja Bugs, the beloved Class 11 Stock VW Beetles/Super Beetles or Class 12 open-wheel buggies, VW has and continues to be a rich part of Bajas history and growth.

As we head toward the 45th running of the Baja 500 this June, were lucky enough to spend time with SCORE CEO Sal Fish to talk everything Bajapast, present, and future.

Q1: Thanks for taking time to talk with us. Can you take us back to how you became involved in the sport of off-road racing?

It was around 1969 or 1970, when I was the publisher of Car Craft magazine, a magazine focused on the drag racing scene. One of our main advertisers was Revell, the famous model car kit manufacturer. They were making a model car kit for a Baja Bug, and had also built a replica of a full-size Baja Bug that they wanted to race in the Baja 500 for PR. At a meeting in Marina Del Rey they asked me if Id like to race in it, knowing that it was likely to generate a ton of exposure. I jumped at the chance.

So VW entered the Revell Baja Bug that year. We had probably the best engine builder on the West Coast for drag racing engines, Joe Vatone, who had a company that specialized in Volkswagen performance productsEmpi, and we hit it off. I ended up in Ensenada, entered the race, and had the most incredible experience. I got hooked. I really just loved the sport, and it was something unique in that you didnt have to be Mario Andretti to race. You could go down there and find a class to compete in.

Q2: How did SCORE get its start?

The beginning of SCORE was a little more unusual. About 1972 or in the early part of 1973, a friend of mine in Mexicali, who I had met while racing, called and invited me and Mickey Thompson for a meeting with the then Governor of Baja, California.

The Governor indicated that it was important to open up the quarters of the Baja peninsula, and he thought that off-road racing was a way to do that. At that time, there was just one small section of a paved road from Tijuana to Ensenada. Then it went another ten miles, and after that, it was all dirt road. The Governor wanted our help in promoting the racing events in Baja and asked for my help, because of my publishing/publicity experience, and Mickeys since he was already a superstar in off-road.

On the plane flight back, Mickey pitched me on the idea of starting our own organization to sanction and promote off-road racing in Baja, which I was lukewarm to at that time. I said, Yeah, youre crazy, what do you mean start an organization? Ive got the greatest job in the world. Im the publisher of Hot Rod magazine, and I can go anywhere in the world and write up stories.

Mickey pressed on with this idea and created SCORE, managing to promote a race in Mexico and one at Riverside Raceway. Eventually, he wore me down, and I became president of SCORE at the end of 73.

After about six months, it was clear that our personalities were very, very different. I told him I couldnt continue in this way. And he says, Well, why dont you move out. Ill give you six months and then there will be no more SCORE. Youll bury it without me. And I said, Ill take that chance.

Q3: While off-road racing doesnt have the same level of widespread recognition, large sponsor deals, and big race-win paydays as other professional racing series, its hugely respected and draws a wide variety of names, such as Travis Pastrana, Jimmie Johnson, his cousin Rick Johnson, Hershel McGriff, Ted Nugent, Mike Nesmith, and Patrick Dempsey, to name a few.

What do you think draws them, and countless others, to off-road racing in Baja?

You may naturally think about people like Parnelli Jones, Robbie Gordon, Malcolm Smith, Danny Sullivan, Robert Guerreroor even celebrities like Paul Newman, James Garner, Ted Nugent, Jesse James, and Patrick Dempseywhen you think of Baja racing. But the Baja also attracts mothers and wives, priests, attorneys, cancer survivors, welders, doctors. Its incredible.

I think the reason people from all walks of life come here is because theres a desire to challenge themselves and the elements out there. Its not about how much money youre going to win, its about bragging rights. Its that you did this and youre in this elite group of people who have gone down and taken the challenge and beat the Baja.

To me, thats really what separates SCORE off-road racing from any other form of motorsports. Its about proving something to yourself in a truly amazing place.

Q4: VW and other manufacturers have played a big part in SCOREs history and continued popularity. Will SCORE soon embrace emerging technologies, such as turbocharged, direct-gasoline inject engines, diesel technology, hybrid technology, and all-wheel drive on a broader scale?

If you look at our new rulebook you can see that we do have classes that are already including some newer technologies. Thats exactly what we had in mind a couple years ago when we included the turbo diesel for the Touareg in the SCORE trophy truck class. Turbocharged motors are now back in the regulations. We were against that for a number of years, but now with more manufacturers coming with OEM turbocharged engines, were allowing the technology back in for certain classes.

And if theres something out there that we should be looking at, something that is going to help our society, help our environment, or do something differentwe [SCORE] want to look at it.

Q5: Is this years 500 a more open course or a more technical course layout? Anything new in store for participants you want to talk about?

There are going to be sections that are going to be very, very, very technicalmore so than last years because of this new section I have over in the San Vicente area. We had to place a new trail around the vineyard and the landowner was very kind to help us out. Actually, we were on horseback when we rode this section, and weve got that already completed.

Q6: Sal, we want to extend a big thank you on behalf of VW enthusiasts for spending time with us today, but before we let you go, where should we go online or to tune in to see the 2011 SCORE Baja 500?

You can follow the race live online at score-international.comlinks will be posted a few days before the June 3 race.

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