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Baja 500 E-Ticket Ride: Have Fun, Take Chances

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It’s no surprise that many gun owners are also interested in off-roading. Beside the obvious shared interest in ingenious mechanical marvels, the ability to confidently traverse the untamed wilderness has great appeal to those who value self-reliance and other principles common to an appreciation of firearms.

Add speed to the equation, and you have a recipe for testing the limits of man and machine, not to mention high-octane entertainment. The iconic Baja 500 off-road race takes place on the Baja California peninsula, first organized in 1969 and then run by SCORE International ever since the 1970s. Competitors from all around the globe converge to test their mettle and engineering prowess with all sorts of vehicles, both two-wheeled and four, careening through dirt, sand, and rocks.

baja 500 e-ticket
Checking for broken parts after running into a couple of dried trees during the first day of over 200 miles of pre-running.

Dan Cornwell, of Cornwell Brothers Racing, first experienced Baja back in 1969. He ran with the greats like Ivan “Ironman” Stewart, Walker Evans, Malcolm Smith, and Mickey Thompson — pioneers who gave birth to off-road racing and a slew of well-known companies since then. Over the last few years, Dan had become the technical director for SCORE International and has been helping his younger brother, Doug, and daughter, Emma, with their passion for desert racing.

Having been friends with Dan for a few years, I called him to ask about the UTV they were fielding for the 2020 Baja 500. “Dan, I just got the greatest COVID deal; I picked up a new 2020 Raptor for under sticker three weeks ago! Help me break her in by pullin’ support crew for Team Cornwell Brothers Racing.” 

Dan replied, “Perfect timing; but watch out, it’s a week-long adrenaline rush!” 

After hanging out with Dan and the rest of this privateer team during the 2020 SCORE Baja 500 that ran from September 22 to 27, 2020, this was clearly a huge understatement. 

After a long day, Dan Cornwell, Manny Alvarez, and Angel Tegardine grab a quick street dog for dinner.
After a long day, Dan Cornwell, Manny Alvarez, and Angel Tegardine grab a quick street dog for dinner.

For 2020, Cornwell Brothers Racing fielded a 2019 Baja Designs Polaris Razr Turbo XP in the Pro Stock UTV class. In order to make it Baja 500 capable and able to run 500 miles of rock gardens (boulders), sandpits, whoops that look like 6-foot potholes, and dry lake beds in sweltering 110-degree-plus temperatures, SCORE allowed some modifications to give these UTVs a fighting chance to finish the race in decent shape and reasonable time.

We converged at the backlot of Chula Vista Ford, loaded up our gear, did final checks, and left for the Calexico border. The two-hour drive and border crossing was uneventful. But once we crossed the border, traffic picked up in Mexicali, and our four-vehicle convoy soon got separated by signal lights and slow-moving vehicles. After a couple of wrong turns and finally asking for directions, we got back on track heading down Highway 5 from Mexicali to San Felipe, Baja California.

baja 500 e-ticket ride Team at first visual checkpoint.
Team at first visual checkpoint.

“Emma, you falling asleep? You’re swerving a bit … what’s up?” I asked. “Argh! I can’t get a hold of the house owner, and Airbnb isn’t being very helpful,” she responded.

Emma had found a beautiful house several months back and booked it for the team to stay during the week, but for some reason the owner was ghosting her. We figured the house owner found someone else willing to pay more during Baja 500 week and decided to pull it out from under us without any warning. Contracts be damned, thanks for your support, Airbnb. In the end, Emma was able to find another house for the team and Baja 500 week finally kicked off for Team Cornwell.

Over the next several days, we were busy pre-running, mapping out the track, fixing broken parts, and making last-minute modifications in the hopes of crossing the finish line and claiming the checkered flag.

I was moving some containers when Dan walked up. “Hey Mark, Erik wanted me to ask you if you’d be interested in co-driving? If so, Erik would give up his seat for you.” Whaaa??? Mind blown … my mind went blank for a second, then thoughts started flooding: If I f*cked up, the team gets f*cked-up, broken parts, getting lost, letting the team down… 

volunteer road crew baja 500
Volunteer road crew helping navigate a tight turn at dusk/sunset.

But then it hit me: I came down here to make friends, make memories, have fun, and take chances. Erik (Dan’s son) and Dan had handed me a chance at an e-ticket ride for my first Baja 500 go-around. “Dan, if you, Doug, and Erik are willing to take the chance, I’m in! Thanks for the seat!”

RECOIL Connection Number 1

In order to be a codriver, I had to sign up for a SCORE membership. And I met Roger Norman, the owner of SCORE International.

SCORE membership card
SCORE membership card

Talk about a small world. Roger had recently purchased GI Defense, a Scottsdale, Arizona-based company that designs, develops, manufactures, and sells M-134G Electric Miniguns to NATO countries and the U.S. Armed Forces. GI Defense’s next project is a slightly-over-10-pound civilian semi-auto SAW in six calibers: 5.56, 7.62, 300BLK, 6.5, 6.8, and 260. Keep an eye out; we’ll bring it to you here and on RECOILtv.

Race Day

The brothers and Emma put together a race plan:

Gas specs: 33 gallons of usable fuel
Estimated mpg: 7
Fuel: 91 octane (from gas station)
Avg. speed: 25-35 mph
Start: Roughly 8:30 a.m.
Finish: Roughly 11 p.m. (avg 35 mph)

Doug and Trent Kirby, his codriver on leg 1, got off the starting line at approximately 8 a.m. They had GPS issues and suffered a front left flat tire at Race Marker 80, but they fixed both issues and got to Checkpoint 1 at 11:45 a.m., averaging 6.57 mpg. They made great time, and now it was my turn.

Mark Han co driving baja 500 e-ticket ride
Mark, Heather, Emma, and Fabian waiting at Pit 1 for codriver change, fuel, and water.

Within five miles of strapping into the codriver’s seat, my heart sank. In the middle of the desert, what felt like another flat tire turned out to be a sheared suspension bolt. Doug spotted a group of spectators under their 10×10 EZ-Ups, barbecuing and enjoying the festivities. He proceeded to limp us over to the group and the most amazing thing ensued — like a well-honed pit crew, the spectators grabbed their jacks, pulled us out of the RZR, gave us water, and got to work helping to diagnose the problem. Within 10 minutes, our adopted pit crew found a replacement bolt, fixed the problem, and gave us a huge send-off. It was amazing; I’d never experienced anything like this. If this is the spirit of Baja brotherhood, no wonder this race has thrived and grown over the years.

Desert Vets racing truck baja 500
Desert Vets Wrecked Racing Truck speeding by at night.

We made good time for the next 80 miles, until our electrical system started to overheat from the 110-plus-degree temperatures. Our driver/codriver communication system went down, and with over 30 miles to go before Checkpoint 2, we fumbled to establish a new method of communication to make sure we stayed on track, hit the VCPs (trail markers), and avoided hitting dangerous turns or drop-offs. Within a mile or so, we had crafted our own makeshift sign language and proceeded to pass some slower moving and broken-down vehicles. Checkpoint 2, at race mile 282, couldn’t come soon enough. As we pulled in, Emma, codriver for the rest of the race, and our pit crew waited with big smiles, food, and water.

emma and doug baja 500
Emma and Doug checking in with Baja Pits and doing additional inspections after suffering electrical issues.

While Doug fueled up, I gave a status report to Emma, and the switch was made. The two would have to endure more heat, the sunset, and running at night for the rest of the race.

RECOIL Connection Number 2 

As if getting this e-ticket ride and finding out Roger Norman, the owner of SCORE International and producer of these premiere off-road racing events, had purchased a firearms company wasn’t highlight enough, while we were waiting for Doug and Emma to emerge at Checkpoint 3, I had the pleasure of meeting Travis of Desert Vets Racing.

Travis of Desert Vets Racing
Travis of Desert Vets Racing

Travis explained the organization helps military veterans with vocational skills and mental health support, as well as associating the desert with positive experiences, by getting veterans involved in off-road racing, even driving or codriving races. Desert Vets Racing’s goal is to “help military veterans of all generations, one race at a time.”

Blood, Sweat, and Tears

A little behind schedule, Doug and Emma passed Checkpoint 3, race mile 460 of 497, late in the evening without any mishap. Everyone started thinking about the finish line and ensuing tempered-down COVID celebration, but it wasn’t to be. I had committed an atrocity in the eyes of the Baja race gods and all those past racers — I celebrated too early, and karma would be a bitch.

Doug and emma of Cornwell Brothers Racing Baja 500
Doug and Emma driving by at night after an overheating delay.

With a mere seven miles to the finish line and our anticipated celebration, our Pro Stock UTV’s transmission completely locked up. She wouldn’t move even an inch. There’d be no finish line celebration for Cornwell Brothers Racing on this particular journey.

Cornwell Brothers Racing returning to America from Baja 500
Ready to come back to the U.S. after a long race.

It were as if the Baja race gods demanded some hard lessons be learned. If I wanted an e-ticket experience that included crossing the finish line, it’d have to wait for 2021 and a bit of humility. The Baja 500 was both a spectacle and an inspiration. It most certainly got under my skin, and I’m counting the days until the next one. 

Team Cornwell Brothers Racing
TEAM Cornwell Brothers Racing.
From Left to Right: Erik Cornwell, Cointa Cornwell, Yazeth Flores, Emma Cornwell, Heather Kirby, Doug Cornwell, Dan Cornwell, Mark Han, Trent Kirby.

[Editor's Note: Photography by Mark Han and eric Cornwell.


Cornwell Brothers Racing:
Desert Vets Racing:
Baja Designs:
SCORE International:

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