On the northeast side of the Baja California peninsula is San Felipe, a postage-stamp-sized town normally home to hard-working locals, fishermen, and the occasional tourist. But during the second week of March things get hectic in San Felipe. That's when the SCORE circus comes to town -- the MasterCraft Safety Tecate SCORE San Felipe 250, a 252-mile race that traverses rocky landscapes, seemingly bottomless silt beds, and dusty, sandy washes.
Celebrating its 25th running this year, the San Felipe event is the little sister to the mighty Baja 1000 endurance racing extravaganza. Where the 1000 has a 45-hour time limit that allows for pretty much anything to happen, the 250 has a cutoff time of 11 hours, which puts a premium on driving fast but careful, and smart but bold. With nearly 250 entries from multiple countries there's no shortage of racing heroes. But one name that sticks out on the entry list is No. 54, piloted by none other than Jesse James.
Yes, that Jesse James -- the tattooed custom bike shop owner and TV personality whose name was splashed across the tabloids and TMZ in recent months. But what you may not know about James is his involvement with the SCORE Baja series, which he has been campaigning in since 2002. After selling his bike shop earlier this year, he decided to race full time. He'd be competing in the Trophy Truck division in his custom-built Chevy Silverado.
James seemed to be the opposite of everything I had read and heard about him. He was quiet and polite, amazingly down to earth and almost shy. Throughout the weekend I kept calling him a hermit, an assessment he agreed with. He told me he usually gets a room away from everyone because he likes to stay centered throughout the event. James went down to do a pre-run on Tuesday, but his team never saw him until Friday when he strolled into the hotel to get a little one-on-one time with the Silverado race truck and talk strategy with his co-driver, Gerald "Smitty" King. Smiling broadly, he told King about his pre-run, recounting how he drove until motor and trans were practically falling out and the shocks were cooked. For many drivers this would be a scary sign of what's to come, but to James it was an indication of a job well done.
On race days James follows a routine to help him stay calm and relaxed. He gets up early and has yogurt, plain oatmeal, and one cup of coffee. About an hour before the race he does 15 minutes of meditation and slowly stretches his arms, shoulders, back, and legs. He told me that before the race he's trying to do everything as slow as possible to keep his heart rate down. Watching him before the start is like looking outside minutes before a storm. He's calm and cool, slowly taking deep breaths, but soon he'll be cracking his knuckles, slapping himself on his helmet, gunning the engine, and barreling through the San Felipe arches at the start of the race.
James started eighth in a field of 24 trophy trucks. He quickly found his pace, and using Smitty's keen skills the duo was able to navigate the course without fail. There were a few bumps along the route. The course was so rough that they lost a cylinder at about the 200-mile mark, had to get a tire changed after getting a flat, and the shocks started to give out toward the end. In addition, a miscommunication between the team and driver led to James having to wait until mile 170 to refuel, an act that seemed to defy science as other teams stopped far earlier.
Four hours and 35 minutes after starting the race, James came barreling down the final road at 110 mph and placed where he started, a respectable eighth overall in the Trophy Truck division. His goal was get into the top 10, and James seemed very pleased with the result -- a personal best for his racing career.
And then in typical James fashion, right after the race he packed up his car and drove the 400 miles home, avoiding the after partying and congratulatory back slapping for a nice, quiet night.