The Best in the Desert series General Tire Vegas to Reno off-road race took place Sept. 14 to 15, and Fallbrook drivers took third and fourth in the Unlimited Sportsman class.
A Sidewinder driven or co-driven by four Fallbrook drivers making their behind-the-wheel racing debuts took third in the class while the 1971 Baja Bug driven by Fallbrook’s Mike Zavos and Rob Caveney of Kailua, Hawaii, finished fourth in that division.
Mike McLeod, J.C. Bergholz, Don Ericsson and Mike Groscup had a time of 18:03:57 in their first race. Zavos and Caveney had a time of 23:21:32.
“Put a lot of prep work into it, and it held together,” Zavos said.
“It was a great experience. We had lots of fun,” McLeod said. “I was ecstatic that we had the staying power.”
Zavos and Caveney had previously finished the course in 2010, when they were also fourth in their class. (They raced in 2011 but did not finish.) Although McLeod and his driver team had never previously raced, McLeod’s son drives an Unlimited Buggies vehicle in the Best In The Desert series. “This was the old guys’ turn rather than just sign checks for the young guys to do it ourselves,” McLeod said.
Andrew McLeod drove 77 miles of the 534-mile race. He started 46th among the Class 1 cars and had moved up to 16th when he was trying to pass another car in zero visibility and heavy dust. McLeod hit a rock and tore off his car’s rear suspension.
Mike McLeod turned 60 on Sept. 6, making him the youngest of the four drivers on his team. “I wanted to do it on my own,” he said of driving this year.
Caveney is 65 years old. “He drove that thing like a 20-year-old kid,” Zavos said.
Zavos is 43. “I felt like I was about his age when I was out there on the course,” Zavos said.
Zavos and Caveney traded off driver roles approximately every 100 miles. McLeod and Ericsson were drivers while Bergholz and Groscup were navigating co-drivers; they switched approximately every 200 miles.
“We actually had so many things happen to us. The car broke down 50 feet from the start,”
The drivers and crew were able to get the Sidewinder back on the course. “We spent an hour and a half out in the sun,” McLeod said.
McLeod was tired from the heat after the initial repair. “I was surprised I made the first leg,” he said.
The Sidewinder broke three more times during the race. “The car literally was down for five hours of the 18 1/2 hours it took us to finish,” McLeod said.
That included a broken power steering pump. “We thought we were completely out of the race because there were no spares,” McLeod said.
The crew fabricated a pump from a fire suppression system. McLeod and his team had 26 crew members, including those from his son’s buggy. “Once his car was out everybody rallied around the old guys,” he said.
Zavos and Caveney first pitted early in the race due to throttle cable movement problems. During the mandatory stop just prior to the pit at Mile 307 their engine stalled; the alternator worked but the battery was dead. Zavos and Caveney knew that another stalled engine would mean the end of the race for them, so they reduced the drain on the electrical system by using only two of their 10 lights.
The drivers encountered rain during several portions of the course. “You get so much traction when the ground is a little bit wet,” Zavos said. “Wiping mud off the face of your helmet, though, is a new sensation as well.”
McLeod and his team also had to adjust to the rain. “I’d never done it before. I’m not sure I was prepared for anything,” McLeod said.
Zavos and Caveney became stuck in a silt bed early Saturday morning, although a race official saw them from the highway and pulled them out.
Zavos and Caveney had a team of five pit crew members. “It’s just great to have this group together, all working together in their different disciplines,” Zavos said.
The course closed at 11 a.m. Saturday morning. “We had literally one minute of official time on the course when we finished that race,” Zavos said.
“I’m really proud of the team,” Zavos said. “The team did such a great job.”
In 2010 Zavos and Caveney had a time of 23:14:47 and finished four minutes before the course closed (a particular vehicle’s starting time may vary depending on how many other cars are entered). “This year it just seemed to go a lot easier,” Zavos said.
“We destroyed the front end of it. We were lucky that we did finish,” McLeod said.
“It was an incredibly long day,” McLeod said. “It was incredibly hot. It was dusty. It was rough. Everything about it was a tough one.”
McLeod and his team spent about five months preparing the Sidewinder for the race. “We rebuilt every component on it,” McLeod said. “Obviously we didn’t do enough maintenance.”
The race was the first for the Baja Bug since last year’s Vegas to Reno competition. “We really worked it over quite a lot,” Zavos said. “You just can’t take anything for granted.”
McLeod was satisfied with third place. “I think our goal was just to finish and to say that we’ve done it,” he said.
McLeod added that such satisfaction was after the race was over, noting that he had other goals during the race itself. “I don’t care how old you are, you start actually getting competitive,” he said.
Zavos and Caveney plan to rebuild the Baja Bug and drive it in next year’s Vegas to Reno race. “I don’t know what we hit,” Zavos said. “I don’t know what’s going to be left of that car.”
McLeod will continue to be involved in his son’s racing, but he and his driver team have also set next year’s Vegas to Reno race as their next competition. “I not only want to finish the next time, I want to win,” McLeod said.