By Aaron Waldron
Yesterday, I came across something on Facebook that made my blood boil. Naturally, I did what most Facebook users would do: typed up an angry response. What’s worse, though, is that it took me all of about five more seconds to think of just how this kind of situation directly applies to RC racing.
First, let’s go over what happened.
The irrationally ignorant and stupid post was published by BJ Baldwin, a multi-time off-road racing champion. He shared a short video clip from last weekend’s Baja 500 in Mexico, showing eventual race winner Apdaly Lopez crashing into a pickup truck that had entered the race course, pushing it off the road and onto its side.
UPDATE - 1:36 PM CT: As you can see, the post has since been removed from the page. Here's the original text.
It's all fun and games until we drive through you.
Let this be a lesson. Please for your own safety stay off the race course. These races are sometimes won by seconds, we do not have time to fuck around. I'm sure I'll get some hate from this video and that's fine but I believe our boy @apdalylopez, #Baja500 race winner, did the right thing here. I've done this before and I would do it again.
Let there be no confusion, we will destroy your personal vehicle in pursuit of that $29 dollar Baja 500 trophy, then go home and sleep like a baby.
We love Baja but for your safety, please, stay off the race course.
No one was harmed in the destroying of this pickup truck although I'm pretty sure they all blew their spokes out when they shit their pants. Lol.Posted by Ballistic BJ Baldwin on Tuesday, June 9, 2015
The fact that he posted a video of someone else’s bonehead decision isn’t the bad part, but his arrogant and childish defense of the maneuver is inexcusable. By the way, that background song also describes driving drunk and starting fights in the club (for the sake of full disclosure: I actually like the artist’s music).
Open-course desert racing presents plenty of unique challenges like long distances, route navigation, unruly terrain, and thrill-seeking spectators who choose to stand unnecessarily close to the intended path of the vehicles, but racing across the deserts of Mexico has always added extra difficulty. Not only are the races held across public lands, using existing roads that may not be properly marked to keep the uninformed off the track, but many racers are jaded by decades of spectators building booby traps along the course - some of which have caused serious crashes that have killed racers who plowed into them at race speed.
Winning the Baja 500 or Baja 1000, the two most important desert races in North America, can be a crowning achievement that highlights any racer’s resume. Baldwin didn’t have any problem downplaying that fact, however, by saying he has made similar decisions - and would do it again - for what he called “a $29 dollar trophy.” Now that’s a motor sports hero, right?
Let’s say, for the sake of taking this argument to its logical extreme, that the only person in the truck was the driver who knowingly made the irresponsible decision to try to race a trophy truck on a rough desert road. Even then, the best-case result of that “win at all costs” attitude Baldwin so brazenly defended is a torn-up truck and potentially stranding someone in the desert. At worst, he carries with him the guilt of killing someone - not to mention whatever legal consequences could result from such action. (By the way, it’s not entirely uncommon for such matters to be handled rather iniquitously south of the border.)
Remember, that’s just assuming the truck was only containing someone who knew the risks - which means he or she was at least aware of the race, and therefore among the spectating public targeted by the companies who sponsor Baldwin and his competitors. What if the truck contained a handful of people that were out watching the race, including innocent passengers who weren’t totally aware of the driver’s intentions? Or what if it was a local family simply trying to get from Point A to Point B? The gap between race vehicles on desert courses can sometimes be very large, so it’s totally reasonable that the driver didn’t know he was in the racing line - and if the driver of the trophy truck had enough time to decide to drive through the vehicle ahead of him, he had enough time to decide to go around as well.
I’ve watched plenty of desert races in my lifetime. It’s not uncommon for racers to ram the rear bumper of their competitors to tell them to move over, especially since they don’t have horns (and can’t just talk to the driver standing next to them on the stand). I’ve also seen drivers actually take alternate routes to avoid other vehicles - shocking, I know.
Now, for the RC connection.
Since there’s no one actually sitting inside an RC car, such aggression is unlikely to cause physical injury. However, the lack of serious consequences also means there’s less to discourage RC racers from developing a similar attitude - and if you do manage to blast someone off the track badly enough, you could even risk launching that car into a turn marshal or spectator.
Truthfully, on-track contact between two competing cars is easily the most contentious aspect of our hobby. I can’t remember going to an RC race, whether a club night at my local track or a major international event, without hearing at least one complaint of overly-aggressive driving.
It’s not a new problem - in fact, our niche’s lexicon contains a globally ubiquitous word for such crashes: hack. RC racers are the only group of English speakers who use the word “hack” to mean “wreck, either negligently or maliciously” - otherwise, various meanings include “to cut, break, damage, cope with, modify, or break into.”
As RC racing equipment has improved, surfaces have become stickier, tracks have become more one-lined, and speeds have increased, the windows of opportunity to pass someone without contact have shrunk dramatically. Getting around another racer often requires waiting for that driver to make a mistake, even if it’s just missing a tricky rhythm section or blowing past the braking point of a difficult corner. Forcing the issue inevitably leads to contact, whether it’s the pursuing racer trying to squeeze a 10-inch wide vehicle into the 9-inch gap between the leading car and a track barrier, or the leading car turning hard toward the apex in a last-ditch effort to “shut the door.”
At least one car goes flying, and at least two pulse rates skyrocket.
“Hacking” is so prevalent in RC racing that many events have tried arranging for a referee to help make objective judgements on the fault of such crashes. Once a ruling has been made, penalties can be administered in order to preserve fairness and deter intentional belligerence. However, as anyone who has ever witnessed a sporting event will understand, human referees not only make mistakes but often turn into a scapegoat that ends up shouldering as much blame for the situation as the participants. Get a single call wrong, and you’ve got an entire event scarred with controversy. Add in the fact that there’s no way one referee can possibly watch ten cars at once, and racing events with such officials can actually be worse!
The only way for on-track incidents to be handled fairly, is for racers to take it in their own hands and do the right thing. Try thinking of an on-track collision from an insurance adjuster’s point of view: unless the leading car intentionally “brake-checks” the trailing vehicle, it’s more than likely the fault of the pursuing car. (Now if the leading car spins out or crashes, leaving the trailing car nowhere to go, that’s a different story.) That doesn’t mean the leader is always right, though: if the leading car misses a corner, he should concede the right of way to a pursuing car closer to the racing line rather than cause an unnecessary collision trying to defend the spot. That's especially true when heading toward a particularly difficult section of the track, like a big triple jump or tight, high-speed chicane. When the choice comes down to "lift, give up the spot, and try to get it back in the next corner" or "punch it and probably wreck us both," choose the former.
In either case, the driver at fault needs only to yield the contested position and continue on with the race. You’ve never heard someone complain that another person was too polite, have you?
Stepping back to the original topic in Baja for a bit of context, I also take issue with Baldwin’s assertion that the white pickup truck had no right to be on that distinct stretch of dirt road. Again, we don’t know how far the organizers went to stop any non-racing vehicles from entering the racing area, but that particular attitude isn’t uncommon among RC racers, either. All it takes is one driver that’s off the pace of the faster competitors in an informally esteemed racing division to illicit cries of that driver “not belonging.”
That complaint is way easier to squash: until the RC racing community, as a whole, institutes some sort of “license” or graduation system required to enter certain racing classes (spoiler: neither will ever happen), every driver who pays the entry fee deserves an equal opportunity to drive their toy car. Period. Don’t wreck that person, don’t berate him or her on the stand or in the pits, and don’t single that person out. Drive your car, do your best, and go home.
Like most points of contention within RC racing I’ve addressed within previous Where’s Waldo columns, the best way to handle hacking and drivers racing outside of the class that best fits their abilities can be summed up easily: just don’t be a jerk. Would you rather win a race you didn't deserve, or finish second and maintain a shred of dignity? Not only do you risk driving people out of the hobby, but the trophy you might win will almost surely cost less than the $29 dollar awards that chump BJ Baldwin has in his closet.
By the way, the winning ATV team at last weekend's Baja 500 included Josh Row - a local San Diego-area RC racer!