I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting myself in to when I committed to racing a 500 mile off road race, but I have always been sure that I like adrenaline, speed, the desert, and an organization called Warfighter Made. Combining a few of the things I love, great friends, and a good cause was reason enough to find myself running all around Baja, Mexico for a few days.
When Robert Blanton, founder of Warfighter Made, reached out to me and asked if I would be willing to drive a stretch of the NORRA 500, I immediately checked my calendar and agreed without hesitation. Not that I need any more hobbies, but come on… the opportunity to race an old school light strike military vehicle used by the special forces of the world’s most elite fighting forces — it was a no brainer.
The trip started on October 9 and was meant to end on October 13. It was going to be tight with my work schedule, but I was going to make it happen. I flew in to San Diego late night on October 9, grabbed some last minute things and hit the hay pretty early. The morning of October 10, I loaded up in my rental car to swing down to pick up my dear friend and Navy veteran, Jackie Carrizosa, who would also be driving a stretch of the race.
Seeing Jackie is always special. She is a damn tough woman who has overcome a lot. I try to surround myself with women who inspire me to be the best version of myself — the women who support me, just as I support them. She is one who has never settled, and is consistently breaking down barriers. I wore a huge smile as she got in the car. While she tells everyone her “day job” is building guns, she also dominates on a dirt bike, all while making sure her eyelash extensions and manicured nails stay fresh.
We giggled and played catch up on all of the things life has thrown at us since our last visit in Vegas. The hour and a half drive from San Diego county to Ensenada went by like the blink of an eye. We linked up with fellow Marine Corps veteran, Danny Novoa, and followed him in to the start of the race where our hotel and race vehicle were also conveniently located. I was relieved to be there, simply so I could finally focus on the task at hand.
Smoke and the scent of street tacos and corn filled my nostrils. It made my stomach grumble. We ran through the race vehicle and what the race days would like, then went to the mandatory driver’s safety and navigation brief, Stella (gps monitoring system) training, and registration. We all laughed our way through the day, before grabbing some lunch at a spot close by. I was in heaven. Legit Mexican food… and the waiters actually gave you a bowl of sour cream when you asked for it, vice the tablespoon you get served in the States.
After lunch, we found ourselves right back at the race start for the driver’s meeting. My adrenaline was pumping and my nerves were dancing. I was the new guy amongst a sea of drivers who have been apart of this race for years, in some cases, decades. Drivers came in all shapes and sizes, ages and backgrounds. It was refreshing to see people from all walks of life come together for the love of a sport.
Race Day One
Sleep came easy considering I exhausted myself mentally yesterday. I woke up early per usual to sneak in some homework and real estate work so I could give all of my attention to the race. Breakfast was at 7 AM where we went through the game plan again. Rob would drive the first section today, while I navigated as his co-driver, and Jackie would drive the second section of today, while Danny navigated as her co-driver. We were going to be starting DEAD LAST so we didn’t have to make our way to the line until a bit after 10 AM.
I was feeling the pressure. I was going to set the tone for the rest of the race. If you have never navigated with a road book, it can be overwhelming with symbols, numbers, descriptions, and compass readings scrambling the pages. I tried to keep my strategy straight in my head as Rob introduced me to the iPad containing the Lead Nav gps system, as well as the Lowrance. We would be using the good, old fashioned military mentality of, “One is none, and two is one.” Basically, if we got lost, I would have really messed up.
At 9 AM we met up in the hotel parking lot to prep. I slowly got my Pyrotect race suit on, and piled my other kit up. We adjusted the seats to accommodate my short self, and ran through emergency procedures and last minute questions. As I loaded up in to the passenger seat of Flyer 22, I couldn’t help but smile from ear to ear. This was really happened. Rob jumped in the drivers seat, and threw us in first gear to head to the start. Flyer 22 rumbled beneath us and the race fuel fumes excited me.
At 1037 AM, the green flag dropped for Rob and I to start. The beginning was a transition section through the crazy, highly trafficked streets of Ensenada. I just kept reminding myself, if you can navigate this using the rally book, you will be able to navigate the dirt. I sighed with relief the moment we made it to the first point to start the special section. I actually think it was the first time I even took a breath.
The race officials documented times, and we got our second green flag of the day. WE WERE OFF! The dirt trails danced all over privately owned ranches, and tangled themselves up in a wide array of terrain. Rob masterfully handled the river rocks, washouts, thick silt, and dodged the tight sections of pine forrest. The helper in me wanted to stop and help the 15 cars we saw along the way that were either wrecked or in need of maintenance, but I reminded myself that this is racing.
Flyer 22 kicked up dirt and slid around turns with ease. I monitored gauges to make sure that they all stayed green, and that’s when I went green. My stomach turned, and I fought back the nausea. I wanted nothing more than to puke and for a moment checked out when Rob asked over comms if we were still on the magenta line. Fuck. “Where is the magenta line,” I asked myself. We definitely weren’t on it. In the midst of holding back chunks, I overlooked a turn. Through my embarrassment, we got back on trail and continued on.
I felt awful, and there was no way I was going to let that happen again, no matter what the distraction. We were there to have fun, but I also want the team to be efficient and finish the race. We sped through the rest of the course, and by 3 PM we were pulling up to Jackie and Danny to swap out our positions. It was clear that Jackie was in race mode with the game face she wore.
For the next few hours, Rob, Andrew (our kickass pit crew), and myself navigated the highways to see as much of Flyer 22 as possible at the crossings. Every time they passed, everything looked solid, and sounded even better. By 6 PM, we were chasing them down the final transition section and in to the finish line. Once in town, we waited in the hotel parking lot for their return. Everyone was ecstatic — it was the kind of energy that made you feel invincible.
The first race day was a complete success. It was time to do a daily inspection on our vehicle and get cleaned up to enjoy a hard earned dinner and maybe a celebratory drink.
Race Day Two
I slept like a rock, yet again. My nerves woke me right up though. I didn’t have to worry about anything right off the bat, considering I was driving after Danny and Jackie. After breakfast, Jackie and I went back to our room where she put on her gear, and I slowly packed my bag and folded my race suit up. At 920 AM, we were meant to be downstairs so that we could get Flyer 22 to the race start. Naturally, we got caught up talking and ended up down there a few minutes late. Amidst all of our giggling, she got situated in the passenger seat and they did a crash course on the navigation — then they were off.
Rob, Andrew, and I loaded up in to the chase truck. About 15 minutes outside of town, we got a call over the radio that Flyer 22 was no longer on course, and that they did not have the appropriate day’s map loaded in to one of the systems. We were not able to get clear messages out, or ones returned from Danny and Jackie. We bolted back to town hoping that the problem would be resolved. Luckily, they back tracked enough to be able to follow another car to the beginning of the special section. We were off to an interesting start.
Once off the main roads, and on to the dirt, Danny flew. We were all impressed with how much time they were making up. Three quarters of the way through their leg, we met them to do a quick fuel splash and once over before they made their way to Mike’s Sky Ranch — a new addition to the race course. We sent them on their way to only find out a few short moments later, that the Mike’s Sky Ranch access point was bottle necked and was requiring a nearly two hour wait.
Hours passed and the sun quickly set. I was already nervous thinking about operating a stick shift that I wasn’t used to, but now it was going to be dark on top of everything else. After destroying tacos from a local stand (I am sure the boys and I have had better ideas), dusk set and we received the call that 22 Race was a few minutes out. I rolled up my suit and grabbed my helmet, as I wondered if anyone else could sense my excitement or nerves.
I hopped in the passenger seat more wide eyed in my life than I have ever been in my life. I stared at Jackie standing off to the passenger side and giving me a thumbs up. They dropped the cone from the front of our vehicle, and signaled to hit the road. I swallowed hard, took off, and shifted gears. Steering was insanely sensitive on the roads. I swear I apologized to Rob at least a dozen times before asking where our first turn off of the hard ball was.
“Shit,” Rob said, “We passed it.” In the first five minutes, I managed to quickly learn how to shift, steer, and master the U turn in Flyer 22. We made it to the first special section and my hands were shaking. Now for the fun stuff. My blood was pumping, and adrenaline tore through my veins. My shifting could have been better, but before I knew it we were sliding through turns and kicking up dust. I bounced the belly of Flyer 22 off of every rock to include the pebbles it seemed. “Sorry,” I muttered to Rob on repeat.
I would be devastated if I messed up the vehicle and didn’t finish the race. Rob talked me through the manuenvers and how to down shift through the thicker terrain, and how to ride the turns smoother. After the first hour, I finally settled down. While my apologies were relentless, so was Rob’s colorful language. After driving straight for what seemed like miles, unusual for this course, I asked where the next turn was. Rob was having so much fun teaching me, that he forgot he was navigating, so I employed my now mastery level U turn.
Back on course, there was a dead cow in the road. It shattered me. For those of you who don’t know, cows are easily my favorite animal. Over comms, I said, “I can’t believe someone hit and killed a cow,” as we came around a corner. “HOLY SHIT!” I screamed as I let off the gas and tried to swerve. I was now a cow tagger. A cow was standing in the road. Luckily I wasn’t going fast and was able to move quickly. I know I gave him a little graze on the backside, but at least he stayed on all fours.
We bounced all over the dirt road, and my laugh roared over ICS. There’s nothing quite like it. After a brief road crossing, we rallied followed by me smashing the brakes as we came in to a 20 foot ditch. I held my breath and sent it. When we made it across, I couldn’t believe it. I actually made it through smoothly as Rob commented on my down shifting and accelerating. It’s almost like I was actually listening the entire time!
We passed kids lining the streets and responded with a few horns and sirens. Shortly after, we received a call that our counterpart needed a tow out. I thought to myself, “Wow, I guess they do really trust me if they are going to let me be responsible for another vehicle too.” We navigated the winding roads slowly looking for lights, but fearful that we would never see them. Eventually, we saw a flare and Admiral Mike jumping around ferociously. I stayed in Flyer 22 while Rob crawled out to assess the situation, and confirmed that they would need a tow out to a road. Rob and I decided to be team players and tow them seven miles out.
The tow strap jerked us and slung us from side to side as we never broke 15 MPH in the soft sand with dead weight behind us. It was fun, but painful. I guess, like in all things, theres a balance in life. For my first race, I gained a ton of experience. I caught race fever, but also the monotonous side of it — and learned what it is to be apart of a race team.
For what seemed like an hour, we drug our way to the large intersection where the pit crew would be waiting for their broken down buggy. We unhooked from the RZR, and Rob and I were off again.
The next couple of hours we kicked up dust, and I laughed through the radio to Rob. My fingers froze as the cold and wind nipped at my bare skin. With my eyes up, I felt like we were going 80 MPH — but as I caught the bright colors from the gauges, we were barely going 40 MPH. We were so close to being at the end. I was going to be successful in making my two goals… don’t break Flyer 22 and finish the race.
My eyes lit up when we made it to the finish of the special section and on to the final stretch of transition section. My heart thumped as our crew pulled off in the trucks ahead of us. As much as I hate to admit it, my eyes welled up. But, I snapped out of it quickly as Flyer 22 likes to get squirrelly on pavement.
The last thirty minutes through town were anything but smooth, and I am embarrassed to say that I still never figured out how to shift smoothly. While I was close to missing a stop sign or two, we never stalled. So, at least I have that going to me.
As we finally made it across the finish line nearing 11 PM, every sensation of being tired had passed. Reenergized may have been an understatement. We rolled through the arch and were welcomed by checkered flags and the flashes of cameras. And almost like she knew me, Jackie thrust a beer in to the driver side and pulled my helmet off. She hung on to the side as we crept through the roads swarmed with people and race vehicles. I could tell Rob and Jackie were both proud of themselves, but proud of me too. Being apart of a race team, especially with close friends and people you admire, is something that is unexplainable. There’s no one else I would rather sit in the desert with, risk food poisoning with, or rally a Chevy Impala through Mexico with. This is Warfighter Made. This is family.
Bug Out Bag Must Haves:
Back Country Medical Kit:Better safe than sorry. Most of the time you can find these kits in my mountaineering or hunting pack. However, at times where I know help is going to be scarce and that I will be hard to track or find, I keep these compact trauma kits on my person. There is no worse feeling than to be helpless when injuries could have been treated. Favorite item: Tourniquets
Tact-Med Info Cards:Created by public safety professionals after their founder was involved in an on-duty injury. These cards provide quick information to assist first-aid responders and medical personnel in making important tactical and medical decisions about your care. These were designed for those customers uncomfortable with disclosing any personal or medical information. Risk of injury and death was real in this race, having quick access to information is crucial in case the worst possible outcome becomes a reality.
Wilderness Athlete Hydrate and Recover: There’s no way to drink water when you are on the move so it is important to get hydration is when you can, and as fast as you can. Since this product is full of l-gluatamine, BCAA, and electrolytes, it was my go to before getting in the vehicle, while in the pits, and even after the race (ya know, to prevent the headaches from celebratory beers). Favorite Flavor: Lemon Lime
Wilderness Athlete Pack Out Bars:These bars were an absolute life saver in the desert. They pack enough punch to keep you full for hours and in between meals. As you drive or navigate, no one is even pulling over to take bathroom breaks, let alone eat. These bars were small enough to keep accessible at all times, and even fit under the helmet should someone find themselves hangry.
Wilderness Athlete Energy and Focus:While most of us were running on adrenaline and excitement, there were times when the heat and even dehydration would get to you. Being able to stay alert and vigilant on and off the course was vital to the teams success. I personally chose to use Energy and Focus. Like Hydrate and Recover, the single serve packaging was convenient and ensured this fuel was always close by. Favorite Flavor: Mango Bango