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

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Page 83 of 92

Bug Tales: Class 5 & 5-1600 The BaJa Bugs are iconic and ever-popular off-road race cars       Story by Stuart Bourdon Photography: Get Some Photo We’ve had many exciting races, but the best so far was the SCORE Baja 1000 in 2018,” said Class 5-1600 champion Ernie Negrete. “That year it was a loop race and ended up back in Ensenada. I started the race and drove the first 220 miles, from there on other teammates drove and co-drove. We were leading at our last pitstop, and I got in to drive the car for the rest of the way. It was scary dark that night, and the GPS wasn’t working. We’re going on memory, not seeing any course markers, and eventually realized we were lost. It was dark and cold outside. We kept going and out of nowhere we saw a white house, so we stopped. Out came this lady wrapped in a white blanket. She asked if we were lost. We told her yes. Then she told us to go back down the road, make the first right and that would eventually lead us back to the racecourse. We won thanks to that lady.” Stories like Ernie Negrete’s are common among those involved in the Baja bug classes (5 and 5-1600). Ernie has been racing since he was a teenager and is one of a tight group of competitors who love driving these VW-inspired off-road cars because of their size, relative ease of maintenance, their ability to negotiate technical racecourses, and the substantial power for their size. The 5 and 5-1600 classes also have a history that goes back to the very earliest days of off-road racing. We talked to a number of these drivers, multi-generational family racers as well as newcomers, and found it to be a group of enthusiastic competitors with interesting tales of both trouble and triumph in race cars that have a sense of nostalgia.  While he probably wouldn’t say it was his favorite race, Gerardo Ibarra’s most memorable Class 5 experience was the 2019 SCORE Baja 400. “Three days before the race our engine blew. We had to use a 1600 VW engine. We didn’t win that race, but we were able to get to the finish line. It sticks in my memory because the climb up to and on past Mike’s Sky Ranch and all the other obstacles did not beat us. We didn’t have enough power to go up hills very well and struggled as if we were driving a Class 11, but we managed to finish the race. That race meant so much to us as a team.” Mark McNeil remembers his first race in a Class 5 car, “It was the 2012 SCOR Baja 1000. I wasn’t even supposed to drive, but my dad had a long day of problems and was beat. When he got to El Crucero he told me to get my suit and to jump in. I was going to drive the whole night section to San Ignacio. We were in seventh place when I got in. When I turned the car back over, we were in third place. I was hooked.” Bill Hernquist races with his son Trey in Class 5. Bill told us, “I will never forget winning my first SCORE race (1990 Gold Coast 300) but banging doors with Rich Minga in his 911 Porsche 5 Car at the 1991 Willow Springs Off-Road World Championships (Lancaster, California). It was certainly memorable as Rich and I were fierce competitors. He pushed me off the track in a corner, so I came back and punted him off in the next corner. I won and there was trouble at the finish line. We’re good friends now, but it took a while.” The Racecars The cars are one of the reasons Class 5 and Class 5-1600 have a solid fan base. Many of them, at one time or another, had or still have a VW Baja bug. They were and continue to be reasonably affordable, and easy to work on and maintain. Luis Herrera talked about his Class 5-1600 race car. “The car was originally built in 2012 by Mike Boone of Wicked Creations for Mike King. I bought the car and named it “El Pony” after my 96-year old grandfather, Jose Luis Herrera, who had the first VW-only shop in Tijuana (El Pony Garage). During a complete rebuild in 2018, the car got a fresh Low Comp motor from Ensenada’s own Federico Montes of Montes Motors, and a race-built 091 transaxle from Transaxle Engineering in Chatsworth, California.” Herrera and Negrete teamed up in 2019, successfully riding “El Pony” to that year’s SCORE-International Class 5-1600 Championship.     SCORE racer Gerardo Ibarra described his current racecar. “The engine was built by the Torete VW shop. We kept the VW 2200 engine because we wanted to stay with the original Class 5 idea,” he said. “We wanted to prove we can still win with a VW engine. Our car uses four-tube bypass Fox shocks and they work great going through the whoops. The race car was built at Monstro Motorsport Shop (in Mexicali, B.C.) and was originally going to be a pre-runner, but the more we did with it the more we got excited about racing it. It took us a few years to make it what it is today, but this car is very competitive.” “Our 5-1600 chassis is all Chromoly and built by Memoman of Ensenada,” said SCORE racer David Heredia. “The motor was built by Rulo Solano at ORAF, the suspension is all Fox bypass, and the car’s tuning and prep-work were done by Wero Loco Cesna of Ensenada. The entire car is a winning combination, made for technical races with difficult terrain, and has helped us get to the podium many times.” Mark McNeil told us about his Class 5 car, “It was built by Lothringer Race Cars, and from what I’ve been told it was one of the first 5 cars they ever built. This chassis is amazing, and the car works well in the bumps. Our engine was built by Jimenez Racing Engines in Anaheim, California. We’re running King shocks all the way around, with 2.0/2.0 bypass coil overs in the front and 2.5/3.0 bypass coil overs in the rear. The shocks were tuned by Simon over at Shock Pros. This car is pretty old, and definitely isn’t the prettiest car at the start line, but it’s probably the most winning 5 car in Baja.” What’s Old Is New Some of the “5 cars” are modern-day race cars. As an example, SCORE racer Bill Hernquist revealed his new car. “Our General Tire/Salty Crew-sponsored Curry Race Cars Class 5 was recently built in Mexicali and assembled by Paul Mischel of Racer Services in El Cajon, California,” said Hernquist. “It’s a state-of-the-art Chromoly tube chassis, wrapped with an original 1960 steel VW convertible body (most new cars use a fiberglass body). We used a steel body because it keeps the body lines clean as they should be. The chassis uses a cab-forward design for better weight bias, and it allows for longer rear trailing arms and better suspension geometry. The rear suspension has 24 inches of travel, and upfront we’ve got 15 inches of travel. The new motor platforms (Ecotec, Subaru, and Honda) make them very fast, reliable, and much more affordable to race than the VW motors of the past. Because of that, we (and many others) jumped back into the class. Our car is powered by a CBM 2.4 direct injection Ecotec motor that puts out 200hp, and the transaxle is a Mendeola S5 sequential built and maintained by McDowell Performance.” SCORE racer Ben Swift described their team’s car. “Our newest car was built by Jake’s Fabworks in Anaheim, California. They also handled our suspension set up,” he said. “It was their fifth Class 5 car build, so it had thousands of miles of feedback before it hit the ground. The engine is an Ecotec 2.4L direct-injected (direct from GM and sealed per class rules), but it was tuned by Redline with a LIFE ECU system. The suspension is all Fox with Eibach springs. Our biggest advantage is Jake and his crew. They are the brains behind the car geometry and design, as well as the prep routine. In its first year, we finished four out of four races with three podiums.” Dustin Grabowski has a long family history of racing in SCORE’s Class 5. “The original Grabowski Brothers, my father Neal and uncle Mike, started racing Class 5 in the late 1980s. Their best overall year was 1996 when they took home the SCORE Championship for Class 5,” said Grabowski. Cousins Dustin and Peter Grabowski along with navigator Cody Woodruff carry on the Grabowski family tradition racing a one-of-a-kind Class 5 known as the Subaru Motorsports USA Crosstrek Desert Racer. “It’s a custom chassis with a 2.5-liter Subaru Boxer engine built by Crawford Performance,” said Grabowski. “Our 5 car runs an Albins AGB 5-speed sequential transmission and Coan torque convertor. We’ve taken home wins at the Baja 500 and Vegas to Reno, but our favorite races are in Baja because it’s not entirely about the competition down there, it’s about beating Baja.” BaJa Bug Popularity The Baja bug has been an icon of off-road racing for many decades, and its competitive history is legendary. That racing heritage is carried on today by many more drivers who continue to create new Baja bug racing traditions. SCORE Class 5-1600 racer Luis Herrera talked about the nostalgia of racing a Baja bug. “Our Herrera Prepwerks racing team enjoys racing in this class because it is what we consider a true driver’s class,” he said. “To seriously compete, the driver and co-pilot have to carefully balance taking care of the racecar while pushing the limits of control. The difference between 5-1600 and many of the faster, unlimited classes is technology. The engineering of our suspension is over 60 years old. The parts are designed for the punishment that Baja puts on race cars, but ultimately the design and technology are old. That makes it fun.” “There is also the relatability to the fans,” Herrera continued. “You would be hard-pressed to find someone over 25 or 30 years old that hasn’t owned or driven one of these ‘punch buggy’ cars at some time in their lives. And best of all, these cars feel like that wooden roller coaster at the theme park, the fast one that rattles your head and your back hurts when you get off the ride.” SCORE Class 5 Champion Victor Ceseña has won many races in SCORE and characterized the typical “5 car” racer when he talked about his family racing history. “I race in Class 5 because my dad founded the team in 1982 and he never switched classes,” said Cesña. “He bought a second-generation car in 1998, and it became one of the most successful cars, (the Ceseñas’ hometown is Cabo San Lucas). A third car was eventually built and that’s the car we race today.” “My dad had his own 5 car in the late 80s/early 90s and it was like a part of the family,” says SCORE racer Ben Swift. “It was something about the body lines, skinny front tires, and big ol’ Type 1 motor that I thought was the coolest. At one point we built a full-body Baja Bug pre-runner with no intent to race it. With a dad who has racing in his blood, we knew that would not last. We slowly threw parts at it when they would break and raced it for years. Unfortunately, the class adopted the Ecotec engine package, which made that car obsolete. We built a new one, but I still miss that old car.” Greg Sullivan, another SCORE racer, chose to compete in Class 5 for a few reasons. “I think the 5 cars are the sexiest looking cars out there, having a limited wheelbase helps keep the cars a little more competitive with each other, and the people that race that class are some of the friendliest and most helpful to each other of all the classes,” he says. “It is a competitive, sexy, classic car that can be challenging to drive.” For many in Class 5 or Class 5-1600, racing is all about family. Class 5-1600 competitor Ernie Negrete told us he got interested in off-road racing very early because of his uncle Danel “el Vampiro” Rosete. “I started racing at Sahuaros Park in Tecate, Baja California in 1991 with my brother Larry and later with my uncle Danny,” said Negrete. “We now have two 5-1600 cars. “Zeus” was built by Gerardo Iribe in 2000, and it uses King shocks, a Montes Low Comp motor, and Transaxle Engineering transmission. Our 1956 oval-window car was built in 1995 by my uncle Danny (who passed away in May 2020), and it runs a Raul Solano Low Comp motor and ORAF transmission. The backbone of our team has always been family; my wife Martha, kids Alexa and Ernie, my father Rafael Negrete, and mother Rosario Negrete, my brothers Larry and Rafael Jr., uncle Danel Rosete, uncle Arcadio Negrete Sr., and nephew Larry Negrete Jr. But Negrete Boys Racing is made up of friends too, and they are all family.” Zeus is the car in which Negrete and Herrera shared driving roles during the 2018 season when it won the SCORE Class 5-1600 Championship. Winning With Class Much of what keeps Baja bug racing alive is that the cars are classics and they are fun to drive, and the teams are a very competitive yet friendly group of people. They aren’t distracted by concerns of winning overall but instead are keenly focused on enjoying the ride, driving a good race, getting to the finish line, and winning their class. SCORE racer Rodolfo Martinez talked about why he competes in Class 5-1600, “This is a very fun class with a great connection between the driver and vehicle, and the margin of error is very small. Winning or complete failure can happen in the blink of an eye.”  “I have vivid memories of the SCORE Baja 500 in 2012,” said Class 5 driver Jose Luis Lopez Gonzalez. “We got first place, but it was a race that had everything; there was a lot of emotion and excitement. We drove smart and managed to stay in first place until we had a sudden failure in the car at the height of the Doña Petra canyon two miles from the finish. It had rained all day and night, and the course conditions made our car wet and muddy everywhere, and that caused an electrical failure. We finally got the car started again, but those last two miles felt eternal with the pressure of a competitor right behind us. We crossed the finish line and got our first win in a SCORE-International competition. It was greatly satisfying at that time and it has remained a motivation to continue competing today.” “Class 5 is fun to drive,” says Ceseña. “They’re short, they can be tricky, and they have a lot of power for their size. They are great on technical and tight racecourses. We love Class 5 because of its old-school feel, and the cars are admired by a lot of off-road race fans who appreciate that the class is being kept alive. Our first SCORE-International race was in 1984 and we have continued to race through the years, but our win at the 2015 San Felipe 250 was something close to a miracle. That was repeated at the SCORE Baja Sur 500, SCORE Baja 500, and SCORE Baja 1000, making 2015 our dream season.” SJ

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