Baja Wins This Round, But Team Says It's Not Finished Yet
Battling steering problems for much of the race, Cummins engineer Aaron Quinton understandably kept his eyes fixed on the narrow mountain road ahead as he drove Team Valvoline’s red truck at the 49th annual SCORE Baja 1000 endurance race in Baja California, Mexico.
So it was up to navigator Adam Sworski, Global Field Test Manager at Valvoline, to tell Quinton what he could see just beyond his passenger-side window as they made their way down the mountain.
“It’s probably about a 200-foot drop,” Sworski said calmly into the intercom connecting their helmets so they could communicate during the race.
“Don’t tell me that,” responded Quinton, Chief Engineer for the Cummins G Series Engines, perhaps only half in jest.
While they successfully navigated the mountain switch-backs, by that time in the iconic race it was easy to think that a dark cloud had been following the truck dubbed “El Tropico.” By the first pit stop just over 70 miles into the race, both mirrors were broken and the light bar on top was torn off after Quinton and Sworski rounded a turn and hit a tree branch protruding into the course.
The frame of the truck was also broken but no one was quite sure where that happened. With 3½-foot ruts, 2-feet or more of loose sand in places, rocks, boulders, washouts – it could have happened almost anywhere on the course.
A team of Cummins and Valvoline employees fixed the damage in less than an hour only to have many of their repairs break a second time farther into the race because of the rugged terrain. At that point, Team Valvoline decided to park the red truck around the 170-mile mark, about 12 hours into the race.
The team’s other truck, known as the blue truck or “El Arctico,” had even worse racing luck. Driven by professional drift drivers Chris Forsberg and Ryan Tuerck, it was knocked out at about the 96-mile mark with transmission problems.
THE SILVER LINING
The good news? The Cummins 2003 vintage ISB 5.9 diesel engines in El Tropico and El Arctico performed well. So did the Valvoline oil used in both trucks. In fact, the oil in El Tropico was the same oil the team used during test runs up Pikes Peak, Colorado (U.S.A.) in June. And El Arctico managed to pull El Tropico out of deep sand during the race before it succumbed to its transmission troubles.
Neither Quinton nor El Tropico co-driver Roger England, a fellow Cummins engineer, had a lot of off-road racing experience so the plan was to take it easy, figuring if they could just average 29 miles per hour they would finish in the 36 hours allotted each vehicle to complete the race.
“But the terrain was just incredibly rough, head and shoulders above anything we expected,” said England, who didn’t get a chance to drive in the actual race because El Tropico broke down before it was his turn.
“It was so rough in places you could only go 15 or 20 miles-per-hour. And then you had to stop frequently to make repairs.”
Valvoline, one of the world’s foremost producers of motor oils, entered two 1989 Dodge Short Bed Regular Cab trucks in the Baja race to celebrate its 150th anniversary and the company’s extensive research and development history with Cummins, the lead partner on the project.
The initiative was designed to provide Valvoline employees with the chance to test their own automotive skills and learn more about their product under the harsh conditions of an endurance race. The second truck was added so Cummins employees could have the same opportunity.
Their skills were tested and then some. A trailer on one of the team’s chase trucks, for example, got stuck in deep desert sand during practice. A chase truck’s transmission broke in the desert so it couldn’t go into reverse. A dune buggy the team borrowed to explore the course sunk trying to cross a stream after a veteran driver told them he thought it would clear without a problem. And those were only some of the challenges.
WORKING AS ONE
Valvoline worked on both trucks in the early phases of the project, with Cummins providing the engines and expertise on their installation. Closer to the race, the red truck headed to the Cummins Technical Center in Columbus, Indiana (U.S.A.) while the blue truck remained at Valvoline headquarters in Lexington, Kentucky, providing each group time to make final adjustments.
The larger team was back together in Ensenada, Mexico, where the race started and finished, for race prep and it was there that employees from the two companies began working pretty much as one. They turned their hotel courtyard into an open air garage of sorts.
Michael Wedding, Valvoline’s Lead Build Engineer, described the team’s efforts as “amazing… I was so glad to see the collaboration between Cummins and Valvoline.”
“That was one of the highlights for me,” said England, Director – Materials Science & Technology at the Cummins Technical Center.
There was at least one other highlight. The two trucks were a big hit with fans at the race. They were so different from the highly customized dune buggies and trucks that dominate Baja that crowds seemed to gather wherever the trucks went. Crew members answered questions and passed out stickers to fans clamoring to learn more. Team Valvoline arguably received the loudest roar at the starting line.
But while the truck got plenty of points for nostalgia, it probably didn’t have the frame and suspension necessary for the unforgiving Baja terrain, even with the work the team did before leaving for Mexico and then at the hotel in Ensenada.
England, Quinton and Sworski all say they learned a tremendous amount and would love to race again next year.
“You’d be hard pressed to keep me away,” England said. “The way I look at it, we have not finished – yet.”
Check out a multi-part video series on Team Valvoline’s bid for Baja. Valvoline will be posting additional episodes in the weeks to come.