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SCORE Journal - The Official Publication of SCORE Off-Road Racing

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Page 54 of 102

THE TOUGHEST CHALLENGE YET Despite Being Some Of The Most Innovative Race Cars In SCORE History, Class 1 Buggy Teams Are Decreasing In Numbers By Larry Saavedra Photography courtesy of Jimco, Jefferies Motorsports History shows that Class 1 has a solid reputation as the ultimate vehicles in open-wheel desert racing. The general consensus among racers is that if your dreams are to one day drive a SCORE Trophy Truck, then Class 1 is the place to hone your skills. But that’s not what the hardcore “Buggy People” in the class believe, and bad news is Class 1 entries are declining. Despite its celebrated past, Class 1 is still one of the most competitive classes in SCORE Baja racing, and while it has always been a proven path to the upper echelon of professional desert racing, apparently it is now not considered the only road to get there. According to racing buggy manufacturers, some racers are avoiding Class 1 altogether, leap-frogging directly into TT Spec. The builders who design and innovate these vehicles, believe Class 1 buggies are a real racecar that requires years of skill and the talent to drive competitively. One reason for the decline in the class is the rising costs of fabrication and parts, according to builders like Robbie Pierce of Jimco, Mike Julson former owner of Jimco, and Damen Jefferies of Jefferies Racing. All of these buggy builders agree that Class 1 is an expensive race car, and to start with deep pockets, lots of sponsors, and then find a builder you trust, in that order. There’s no easy shortcut. Builders admit Class 1 fab work has slowed down after years of success. However, teams like Parkhouse, Wilson, Reid, Gaughan, and others, appear committed to race despite the smaller fields, and builders like Jimco and Alumi Craft have several Class 1 builds in their shops waiting for delivery. Some encouraging news is that Class 1 is a major fan draw in Baja, but race car manufacturers are also wanting to do something about it. One idea being tossed around is to add a “spec” division. Builders agree that it could have a positive effect, but longtime Class 1 racers are adamantly opposed to it, saying it dilutes the integrity of the field. Racers believe they remain competitive with fewer numbers. Despite their passion for the class, some on the sidelines doubt Class 1 can survive a further loss of entries. THE INNOVATORS Class 1 buggies have been one of the most innovative vehicles in the sport of Baja racing. It’s one of the things that make them great to watch and the advances in suspension, drivetrain, and chassis have helped the sport of off-road racing grow. One person who’s been there since the start of Class 1, is Mike Julson, whose dad, Jim, created Jimco back in the 1970s. Jimco came to everyone’s attention around the same time ORMHOF inductee Bobby Ferro was blistering Class 1 in a Gil George-designed Funco Sandmaster SS1 buggy. Seasons of racing passed before another Class 1 seriously challenged Ferro in his VW based Sandmaster. Malcolm Smith, Parnelli Jones, and Bud Feldkamp were just a few trying to unseat Ferro in Class 1. “The field in Class 1 was very large up until the present time,” said Julson. “In the early days, the Class 1 race car was built on the I-beam suspension, readily available anywhere. They were a Volkswagen-style build. Suppose you had $40,000 into a Class 1 build– that was considered the top-end back then. Going forward into the ‘90s, Jimco introduced the A-arm Class 1 suspension, and that was when the lid came off.” As the A-arm Class 1 buggies started winning more races and gaining sponsorship dollars, the demand for added performance grew along with it. Julson said the move from VW air-cooled to water-cooled engines became common, and with it, the costs to compete in Class 1 skyrocketed. In addition to that, off-the-shelf transmissions couldn’t handle the newfound increase in engine performance. “Albin transmissions were needed, but they cost up to $15,000 back in the ‘90s,” he said. “Then, racers wanted to get into more powerful LS1 V8s and everything began to escalate. In the mid-2000s, the Class 1 design from Jimco changed to a more upright seating position, and along with it, so did the expenses to build it. Back then, if you ordered a new one from Jimco, it would take you a full year to get it. Demand was high.” The teams buying these cars were all big names and still are. “Now, the buggies went from a $40,000 racecar to a $240,000 race car,” said Julson. As the need for speed continued to grow in Class 1, it required the use of SCORE Trophy Truck style front suspensions, longer rear-arms, custom-built racing engines, custom Brembo brakes, and state-of-the-art electronics. “That’s $150,000 in technology right there,” said Julson. “At that level you are now paying for a SCORE Trophy Truck Spec build, and you haven’t even factored in the possibility of using all-wheel drive technology.” “As a developer, our job is to innovate,” Julson added. “If teams don’t go out and break the bank, they are not going to beat an Unlimited Class 1 in Baja. But how does a team justify it?” With rising costs to stay competitive with teams like Wilson Motorsports, Parkhouse Racing, RPI Racing and others, it seems the costs are detrimental to the class. “I don’t have the answer for the future of Class 1,” said Julson. “I have talked to a lot of people about the smaller size of the class. Maybe there should be a spec class that runs alongside it. I think if SCORE did that it might survive, but that’s my opinion.” CHENOWTH AND BEYOND Lynn Chenowth was alongside Jimco and Funco in the effort to make a mark in buggy classes with his Chenowth-designed kits. Thanks to many racers such as Mark and Corky McMillin as an example, the Chenowth buggies became one of the most popular Class 1 buggies. The McMillin Chenowth two-seater called Macadu would sweep the field much like Ferro did years earlier, adding to the popularity of the class and the Chenowth chassis. Decades after Macadu, Herbst/Smith Fabrication would challenge Class 1 in a big way with another innovative vehicle. The Truggy, also known as El Tiburon or the Land Shark, was a front-engine big-block V8 race car that closely resembled a SCORE Trophy Truck build, framed in a buggy chassis and had a solid rear axle. It was outfitted with its now iconic fiberglass panels and a paint scheme of shark jaws clamping down on the field. It proved to be unbeatable thanks to Troy Herbst and co-driver Larry Roeseler, who won numerous Class 1 championships with it until the rules required Class 1 buggies to have an independent rear axle. Fast-forward to today, where only two major Class 1 builders are still in full-time operation. Jimco and Alumi Craft, both from Santee, California. These builders are continuing the tradition in Class 1 and also pushing the vehicle design to the next level. There are also independent Class 1 builders like Jefferies Racing out of Poolville, Texas that have been competitive in Baja, too. But compared to the exploding UTV market, the number of race shops qualified to build a Class 1 is small. Robbie Pierce, who took control of Jimco a few years ago, said he agrees with Julson about the declining Class 1 teams. “This downturn in Class 1 is because of the amount of SCORE TT Spec entries,” Pierce said. “A lot of Class 10 racers have moved on to spec trucks. That’s good for TT Spec, but not for Class 1. Then there are the guys that are staying in UTV because it’s much more affordable to race on a regular basis.” Pierce admits that Class 1 race cars have gotten very sophisticated and pricey. He said the Jimco Hammerhead is pushing $500,000 for a race ready vehicle. “We are working on the ninth variation of it, and they aren’t cheap.” Despite builders like Alumi Craft having an all-wheel-drive vehicle like the one RPI racing currently competes with, Jimco hasn’t built an AWD Class 1, and has reservations about doing so. “The rules don’t allow live axles in Class 1– why would they allow all-wheel-drive?” he said. Pierce sees firsthand how much Class 10s have improved, followed by the performance of UTVs. But those classes too are increasing in cost. “UTVs aren’t as cheap as they once were,” he said. “But there are many more ways to deal with the costs to race them than a Class 1 buggy at mid-six figures. I think UTVs have taken away some of the shine of Class 1.” Aside from the costs to compete, Pierce said a SCORE TT Spec is much more forgiving than a Class 1 buggy. “You’ve got guys that can’t drive an unlimited open-wheel race car, so they jump into a truck,” he said. “You’re shifting constantly in Class 1 and a lot is going on for the driver compared to a TT Spec. When the costs to build are so similar and the learning curve is so steep, it takes away from Class 1 in some instances.” Damen Jefferies, who raced SCORE TT with Robbie Gordon, and now races in Class 1, agrees. He owns a shop fabricating race cars for select clients and said, racers aren’t working their way up through classes like he used to do. “When I started, it was in limited classes,” he said. “I went from Class 9, to Class 1600, to Class 10, and then Class 1. It doesn’t seem that racers are doing that today. Racers aren’t learning their way up­– they are simply diving in with both feet.” Jefferies has 30 years of experience building desert race cars and once worked for Jimco, so he’s seen it all in terms of classes coming and going. It is difficult for him to understand the reasoning behind the decrease in the class, and thinks it could be a generational thing. He does admit that some younger drivers may be second or third-generation desert racers, and they already learned the ropes by growing up in the sport. “They didn’t go through the school of hard knocks driving a swing-axle car to learn to drive Class 1,” he said. Jefferies’ love of Class 1 is on full display with his latest race car design, which he thinks it’s going to push him beyond 150 miles per hour in the dirt. He’s smart enough to know, he said, that it takes more than horsepower to win in Class 1, and that’s where the advances he’s made in electronics like traction control will be a benefit. “We want this Class 1 to be drivable and fast. The all-wheel-drives in other classes are getting away with murder because of the amount of traction they have going on. I’m not sold on a Class 1 race car with all-wheel drive. There are ways to improve handling like using gear selection. Class 1 cars are like flat-bottom boats, they understeer, where the rear end comes out.” Jefferies compares a Class 1 at speed to a rock skipping across the lake. “You steer with the rear tires and throttle. It skims over the desert. That’s what I love about Class 1. They are an E-ticket ride the entire time, and nothing else compares.” NEW CLASS 1 PURSE PROGRAM As the 2022 SCORE season continues with the 3rd SCORE Baja 400 Presented by VP Racing Fuels, Class 1 competitors are joining together to form a coalition, raising money for a side purse that currently consists of $25K, an idea headed by RPI racing and joined by five other teams at the time of this writing. Their efforts, along with the innovations of Class 1 buggy builders, will hopefully reignite the class and draw more teams willing to take the challenge. SJ

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