Andy McMillin Wins 2017 SCORE Baja 500 OverallSafecraft
Ensenada, Baja California, MX—Safecraft’s team driver Andy McMillin won the 49th Annual SCORE Baja 500 clocking in at 10:03:03.888 in his #31 truck equipped with Safecraft’s AT10 automatic and PB3 manual fire suppression systems. This year’s race covered 513.67 miles through the Mexican desert, beginning in Ensenada, across the Baja peninsula to San Felipe with a return loop back to the finish line in Ensenada.
“We toast Andy’s accomplishments,” said Pat O’Keefe, president & CEO of Safecraft. “He continually exemplifies excellence in the sport, outstanding endurance and perseverance in the face of challenges. We can’t wait to see how he attacks the BITD Vegas to Reno race in August.”
The following is Andy McMillin’s recap of winning the Baja 500:
This is my favorite race of the year, mostly because of the diversity of the terrain that we race on and the people and culture of Baja. I have had decent success in this race in the past. I won this race in Class 1 (Unlimited Buggy) in 2005 and finished 2nd Overall, and I won the race Overall in my Trophy Truck with my dad in 2010.
Prep and Pre-Running
Leading up to the race, I designed a new livery for my race truck with the help of the team of talented people over at Troy Lee Designs. I wanted something that stood out from the rest, but would also become an instant fan favorite, and I think we were able to achieve both!
The race for me starts with pre-running. Unlike the races in the States, in Baja we get to go over the race track in the weeks leading up to the race and mark way-points on our GPS’s. I mark things like BIG ROCK ON LEFT, RUTS ON RIGHT, GO LEFT LINE, etc. Pre-Running is fun but can also be stressful. I went down the day after pre-running opened, Sunday May 21st, and was going to pre-run the whole course one time and then come back down the week of the race and do the whole course one more time to tighten up my notes and lines. Unfortunately, on Day 1 of pre-running my pre-run truck blew an engine. Luckily, we have a backup pre-run truck almost identical to mine I was able to use and completed my pre-running with no issues.
I came back to complete my final pre-run in preparation for the race on May 30th. With so many racers pre-running the weeks leading up to the race, new shortcuts and different lines develop in sand washes that we have to know in order to keep track position and have the shortest distance to cover between two points. I finished my pre-running and felt confident going into Qualifying for the race.
Qualifying took place in Uruapan (about mile 75 of the actual race course). The qualifying loop in this location is tight and technical, and it is very easy to make a small mistake which could send you into a ditch or off a cliff. So to say, this qualifying course is pretty gnarly and nerve wracking. My strategy for qualifying was to have a clean run and make no mistakes. Sometimes, slower and cleaner is faster than on the edge and out of control. I finished my run and felt really good about it. I may have been a little conservative in a couple spots but I kept it clean and came away with a 5th starting position for race day. This was PERFECT and exactly where I wanted to be. Another good confidence boost leading up to the race on Saturday.
…After making a mental error at the Baja 1000 last November (I am still angry about that mistake), I wanted to prove to myself that I had the mental focus in Baja and I was ready to win this race. The first Trophy Truck started at 10am. Each truck goes off the line 1 minute apart; so I started the race at 10:05 am.
My strategy was to break the race up into different sections, similar to the preview of the race course. I pride myself on being a fast driver, but at the same time a driver who knows how to take care of and save his equipment for the end of the race. I am calm, cool and collected behind the wheel and I know exactly what it takes to win this race. I wanted to keep myself and truck together 100% for the first 400 miles so that I was ready to attack and go for the win in the last 100 miles of the race.
The race started out, well, not ideal. We figured out at the start line that we could not transmit out on our 2-way radio, but we could hear others talk to us on the radio. Not ideal, but we also have a backup satellite radio we only use for emergencies so that became our primary radio to use when we needed to get a message out to our chase and pit crews. I made it to RM 30 in Ojos Negros no problem, and kept pace with the leaders on corrected time. It was noticeably warm in Ojos, probably close to 90 degrees which surprised me as I checked the weather and only expected the temperatures to get up to 95 degrees in the deserts of San Felipe, not 90 degrees only 20 miles west of Ensenada! Anyway, at the Baja 1000 last year, I took it too easy on the section from Ojos Negros to Uruapan RM80. So, this year my plan was to actually attack in this section and try to put time on my competitors. It was all going to plan as I picked up my pace after Ojos, but the truck who qualified in 4th right in front of me is inexperienced racing Trophy Trucks in Baja, and I soon caught up to him (about 5-10 seconds behind him) but it was too early and risky in the race to try to close that last 5-10 seconds and bump him to let him know I was there. At about RM 70, his truck started shutting off randomly on him and I quickly closed the gap after he got it restarted and nerfed him and was able to get around him. Now I had a 2-minute air gap to the next truck in front of me, the 3rd place truck physically on the race course. We got on the pavement at RM 80 for about 5 miles and then back into the dirt at Santo Tomas headed towards the beach section. The beach section is notorious for chewing up rear tires because of the loose pebbles and rocks on the hard ground, so I paced myself and short shifted to reduce wheel spin and preserve my tires to my pit at RM 150. On my way to the beach out of Santo Tomas, I passed the truck that had qualified first with a blown engine. I was now 3rd truck physically on the course and in a great position.
Everything was going well until RM 145, 5 miles before my pit stop. There was a SCORE Checkpoint that was put in the wrong location and the checkpoint is labeled on our GPS with a 15 mph speed limit before and after the checkpoint. Knowing where the checkpoint was located and should have been located, I made certain during my pre-runs that I knew 100% where that checkpoint was supposed to be located. So, I came over a blind rise and into an s-turn and there was the checkpoint. I tried to stop to the best of my ability, but blew through the checkpoint and came to a complete stop about 50 feet past the stop sign. I was shaken up, and called our team on the radio to let SCORE know this checkpoint was in the wrong location and was a very dangerous situation and to let all other teams know this information, as well as to let them know it was in the wrong location so I shouldn’t receive a penalty for blowing through the checkpoint. This rattled me a little bit, but my co-driver talked me back into my comfort zone and we got back in our groove. We made our pit stop at RM 150, took fuel and 2 rear tires, and off we continued down the course. I passed the truck running in 2nd place in his pit stop around RM 165, and we were now in 2nd place physically.
We made the hard left at RM 175 and began our trek up to the Mike’s Sky Ranch loop. My goal was to be conservative in this section yet hold my ground on the other competitors. We made it through some of the nastier sections and all the way to Mike’s Sky Ranch where the course turns north on a very good and fast road headed down towards Hwy 3. About 2 miles after Mike’s, I came across the truck that was running 1st physically rolled over in the middle of the course. Luckily they were out of the truck and okay, and we barely squeezed by them to become the 1st truck on the road. This is both an awesome and somewhat worrisome feeling. Being the first truck on the road in Baja is an indescribable feeling. All the fans have been waiting all day for the big trucks to come through. and they all go crazy with excitement as you approach and drive by. The downside is that you’re the 1st truck on the road and the spectators may not be expecting you. Luckily, I use a helicopter that flies over the top of me for emergency, to both clear the course of spectator vehicle traffic and warn the spectators that a truck is approaching.
We made it down out of Mike’s Sky Ranch and hit Hwy 3 where I had my 2nd pit. It was only a 95 mile spread between my 1st and 2nd pit stop, but with the beach section know for eating up tires and the Mike’s section being extremely rocky, it was part of my strategy to get fresh tires sooner than later so I could continue to run a good, strong pace. We left that pit and continued south towards Diablo Dry Lake bed and the San Felipe washes and gnarly whoop sections, which is about a 150 mile loop to where we came back heading east on Hwy 3 past where the course came out of Mike’s Sky Ranch earlier in the race. My dad relayed over the radio to me that we were tied on time with our closest competitor and that a handful of others were between 1-2 minutes behind us on pace. I wanted to really pace myself and take it easy during the San Felipe loop. I knew it was critical to make it out of there with no problems and see where we were at and go from there. I hit all my lines and kept a decent pace through the grueling San Felipe loop. The temperatures were peaking at 105 degrees as we raced through here, so that coupled with the endless whoop sections, it really took its toll on the drivers and vehicles alike. Unfortunately, around RM 350 of the loop I punctured a right rear tire. I thought that was it. I didn’t have a lead and thought the truck behind me would be able to pass me as I changed the tire. Luckily, I remembered that we had a chase crew only (what seemed like) a couple miles up the course. I decided to chance having further issues with a brake line or getting the rim dented in to the brake caliper by staying in the truck and nursing it to that pit for them to change the tire for us. Looking back, I don’t know if this was the right or wrong decision, but they got the tire changed and we didn’t hurt a brake line and kept our 1st place physically position on the course so it ended up being a great decision. We left that pit 10 seconds down on corrected time to my nearest competitor, but another competitor started further back in the field was gaining time.
I made it to my final pit at RM 390, for fuel and tires and some much deserved peanut butter and jelly sandwich and cold water, haha! Here’s where the race gets good, I mean REALLY good! I left the pit and we had a 12-13 mile section of speed zone on the pavement before we jumped back into the dirt and up the famous “Goat Trail”. As I’m climbing the Goat Trail, it is communicated by one of the pit crew that I now had a 2-minute lead on the truck I only had 10 seconds on after changing my flat tire in the pit in the San Felipe loop. I told my co-rider Brady, “Okay, let’s keep a good pace and not have any problems and we should win this!” Just as we came up with that plan, they told me they were wrong and I actually had a 5 minute lead over that same truck. “Well that changes things,” Brady and I told each other. We thought “Let’s just cruise it in for the win!” While this is going on, my dad is calling the pit on the radio and is skeptical of their times since they were different. Then comes across, “Uh, Andy and Brady, the 11 truck has you beat by 1 minute, confirmed!” I say, “Alright Brady, we’ve got a race to the finish. Pull your belts tight, because I want to win!” I had my doubts about putting 1 minute on this competitor, but I was going to give it my all trying to beat him.
I put the hammer down from corner to corner, but left myself some room in the corners so as not to make a mistake and drive off the road and hand the win over to the other truck. Up to this point, I had only caught about 3-4 motorcycles and quads during the race which was really nice. Except now, I was getting into a lot of slower motorcycle and quad traffic and we were headed west right into the setting sun. Being the first truck and catching these slower motorcycles and quads, they aren’t expecting you yet because they haven’t been passed by a truck yet. So, I thought this was a definite disadvantage to me and I was going to have to not think about it and just keep doing my best and racing my race. We made it back to Ojos Negros, RM 485, and my dad told me on the satellite radio that he was going to sit there and get very accurate times for me and relay them back as the trucks in contention came by him. The truck that was closest to me started 19th, so I had to wait 14 minutes after passing my dad to know if I was ahead or behind (assuming I was still behind but hoping I had cut into his lead some). I kept pushing hard, trying to make up more time. Finally, my dad comes over the radio, “Bebooo (my nickname) … you are 2 minutes and 15 seconds ahead on time. Be smart, keep your truck underneath you and make it to the finish line. I’ll see you there!” Brady and I were silent for a few seconds, then in our own weird typical way, we both hummed, “mmmhhhmmm,” at the same exact time. Okay, lets just get to the finish. There was about a 7 mile speed zone ahead of me and then open speed on pavement pretty much all the way to the finish line. I’m listening for every little noise that my truck is making, but it is still running so strong that soon enough I stop paying attention to the sounds and start having a lot of fun as I come back through town and in the last sand-wash on the way to the finish line.
Crossing the line
I crossed the line, and immediately the cameras start flashing and the stopwatches come out. I have 8 minutes of time to beat the 3rd place truck and 14 minutes to be sure I beat the truck I was racing for the win. I took my helmet off, did a couple short interviews and immediately asked to talk to the race director, Jose G., as well as the owner of SCORE, Roger Norman.. They told me they had seen video of the incident and assured me I wouldn’t be receiving a penalty as they had verified through the video that the checkpoint was indeed put in the wrong location. I was SO relieved, even though I know I wasn’t in the wrong and shouldn’t be receiving any penalty. You just never truly know what might happen. The next thing to happen was SCORE had to check my tracker to ensure I didn’t receive and speeding penalties and that I didn’t miss any Virtual Checkpoints (these are checkpoints provided to us on our GPS File and we have to be within 120 feet of the or else it’s a 10 minute penalty for each VCP missed). Roger comes back to our window, “Yeah, the guys are reviewing the data and it looks as though you missed VCP 30.” I thought, “What!?!? Brady where is VCP 30, bring it up on the GPS.” I was very concerned, as this would cost me a 10-minute penalty and for sure the race if the other drivers didn’t receive any penalties. Brady scoured for VCP 30 and we found it, and we plotted a new trail during the race and my trail went right through the middle of VCP 30. I showed Roger and felt so relieved to see that we did in fact hit the VCP. He came back and told me I was getting any VCP penalties and the last thing to check was the speeding penalties. Around the same time, the truck that was close to me on time came into the finish almost 18 minutes after I had finished, so barring any penalties to each of us I should have him beat by just under 4 minutes. THAT WAS AN AWESOME FEELING! However, SCORE tells me that I need to move my truck off the stage and we need to figure out who won until they give out the champagne for the winner to spray. Finally, after waiting at the finish for almost 30 minutes, I get the word that we are the unofficial winners of the race and we can spray the champagne and celebrate. It actually worked out waiting for the unofficial word since my parents, wife and daughter didn’t make it to the finish line until just as I was announced as the unofficial winner. Man, that champagne and Red Bull have never tasted so good. WE DID IT!
I had a really good feeling about this race. I felt we were destined to win and I played the whole race out in my head of how I wanted it to go in the days leading up to the race. It’s quite eerie how that works out, but I’m glad it did! This was a team win and I owe a lot of the win to my co-rider Brady. He called out every turn, every straight-away, and not to mention the 1,937 way-points we marked while pre-running. We are a dynamic duo and a force to be reckoned with!
What a great first half of the 2017 season! I have won 3 out of the last 5 races I’ve raced, and feel we are really on a role and I’m going to keep the momentum going with support from partners like Safecraft. Now let’s go win more races!
My next race is the BITD Vegas To Reno on Friday, August 18th. We are the defending Overall Winners of this race and my plan is to do everything I can to win it back-to-back!
About Safecraft Safety Equipment
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Visit www.safecraft.com for more information.
About Andy McMillin
Andy McMillin is a third generation off-road racing prodigy. Andy’s passion for off-road racing began at the age of 2 when he started going to Baja to “pre-run” the race courses in the back of his dad’s Ford Bronco in a modified car seat. His racing career began at the age of 14 driving Class 1 Unlimited Buggies in the FUD series in Plaster City, CA. Andy officially drove his first SCORE Baja race in 2003, where he and his family were featured in the ‘Dust to Glory’ film. In 2006, Andy progressed to the premier Trophy Truck class and that same year became the youngest driver to win the Baja 1000 Overall title. At just 29 years old, he is tied for most Baja 1000 Overall titles in a four-wheel vehicle in the history of the sport with five (2006, 2009, 2011, 2014, 2015). Andy is also one of the few drivers in the sport who have won Baja’s Triple Crown Overall in a four-wheel vehicle: the San Felipe 250 (in his Class 1 car), Baja 500 and Baja 1000. Andy has had success in the United States races as well, having won the Parker 425, Nevada 1000, Vegas to Reno 1000 and is one of the few drivers who have won the infamous Mint 400 Overall twice. Andy has an unheard of winning percentage of 35% and podium percentage of 54%, proving his place among the greatest the sport has ever seen.