Sunday, December 21, 2008

American racing team ventures into Baja racing in southern Baja Mexico and lives to tell the tale!

News from the Great White North. Bigfork Montana. Bigfork's Terry Leonard and Jay Manning left Novembers southern Baja off-road race in Mexico with the confirmation that a bad day of racing is still better than any day at work. However, they would have rather left with the first place finish it looked as though they had secured halfway through the race.

"The moral of the story is that it's always a good day racing, even if you don't finish," Leonard said. "It's always fun."

Registered under the name Team Exile, Manning and Leonard, as well as Roberto Zavala, also of Bigfork, competed in the race in the class one, unlimited open category. Their car is a Jimco Series 2000, which is specifically designed for racing. They do most of their own work on the vehicle, except for some of the engine work.

"The car we run isn't just a dune-buggy," Leonard said. "It's the equivalent of a NASCAR stock car if you threw knobby dirt tires on it and raced it in the desert."

The course took them from the coast of Cabo San Lucas up and over the mountains and down the other side to the coast. The Cabo races are unique compared to most of the desert races in all over the southwest, because of its hills and technical aspects, such as numerous tight turns.

Two members of the team are inside the car during the race. Manning, who has 15 years of desert racing experience, is the driver. Leonard and Zavala take turns acting as co-pilot, helping Manning with navigation and logistics, and acting as sort of a coach during the race. Leonard started desert racing four years ago, but he grew up racing dirt bikes and his dad was a professional dirt track racer for Harley Davidson.

"There's something surreal about strapping yourself into a vehicle that is going to go over 100 miles per hour over dirt and rocks," Leonard said. "It's like being five years old and having a dream come true. Even after the race when you're bruised and battered everyone still has a smile on their face."

By halfway through the Cabo race they had passed all but one of the trophy trucks that were ahead of them. As they approached the final truck they could smell it burning oil, and they knew they would be moving into first place. But as they passed the truck they shattered the front right rim of their car. Luckily they had a spare tire, and within three minutes were able to get back to racing. While making the repairs Team Exile was passed by a few vehicles.

"It was like a flaming red tape for Jay," said Leonard, who compared the dust trails they see as they approach vehicles on the track to a red flag being waved in front of a bull.

Unfortunately, while they were in the process of catching up, they slid into a boulder and popped their rear left tire. Since they had already used their one and only spare, they had to nurse it until they got to a pit area. Once there they had to find a team to borrow a tire from, since their pit was located at a different area. They put the borrowed tire on and headed down the course to their pit area. There they refueled the car, but found yet another problem.

During the race they had fried two or three coils on their engine and had lost a significant amount of power. At that point Manning and Leonard decided to drop out of the race rather than risk burning up the engine completely.

"It's a lot easier to swallow when you're not doing well and you have to pull out of the race," Leonard said. "It's a lot harder to deal with when you know that your vehicle and your driver is superior to all the others. Jay is a master with that car. Without a doubt if everything was going right we would've come out on top. We were able to pass any car out there."

But they made the best of it. They drove down the road and stopped their race car at a convenience store. Still dressed in their race gear, including their helmets, they went into the store and bought beer and burritos for their entire crew and met them at a nearby bridge to watch the rest of the race.

"It's a blast," Leonard said. "I love southern Baja, Mexico and I love racing. The racing is mind-blowingly scary and amazing. But I also just love the Mexican people. They are wonderful and the food is great."

Team Exile has had several successful races this season. They have collected first place finishes at several southern Baja races. The CABO 500 and the new CABO 1000, all in Cabo San Lucas. They are planning on competing in their next race some time in February.

Baja Racing