RACING FROM THE OTHER SEAT
Acting as the team communicator, mechanic, counselor, and onboard engineer, the role of the BaJa racing navigator has never been so important
By Dan Sanchez
Photos by Get Some Photo
Off-road racers dream about winning a SCORE Baja race, standing on top of the vehicle, the spraying of champagne, then the media rushes the driver, trophies are handed out, and his or her name goes on the record books as one of the victors. While the driver often gets all the accolades, most everyone knows winning is a team effort, especially the person who was sitting in the other seat during the entire race.
Co-driver, navigator, or mechanic, the role of the person in the “other seat” has changed dramatically since SCORE Baja racing began more than five decades ago. During the early years of challenging Baja, drivers and passengers co-drove various sections of the course. Each depending on the other’s driving and navigating skills to make it across the Baja Peninsula. Later, racers wanted to go faster and began to go solo into the desert. Legendary racers such as Malcolm Smith, Bobby Ferro, Ivan Stewart, Larry Roeseler, Walker Evans, and others, had the capability of both memorizing the course and handling their vehicles well enough to win over and over again.
As race vehicles became faster and more complex, teams began placing a mechanic in the passenger seat to handle any emergency repairs quickly to get back in the race. It was more efficient to have multiple drivers and mechanics in a long Baja race, so the switches were done at pre-determined pit stops. Once modern GPS came into play, however, it became necessary to have a full-time navigator in the passenger seat, one who marked points during pre-runs and on race day, informing the driver of upcoming turns, checkpoints and pits along the course.
The Modern Navigator
Today’s navigators are a unique breed of off-road racer who is humble, smart, and capable of running the entire team’s operation from the passenger seat of any race vehicle. “To be a navigator today, you play the role of on-board psychologist, navigator, mechanic and have the capability to be in touch with the situation going on in the race car,” says Steve Covey, navigator for the Ampudia’s 2019 SCORE Baja 1000 SCORE Trophy Truck winning Papas And Beer team. “Navigators and prep-guys are the unsung heroes of off-road racing but we’re okay with that. The drivers get all the glory until something goes wrong,” he says with a laugh.
Erica Sacks, navigator for 2019 SCORE Trophy Truck Spec Champion Sara Price, and owner of the Waypoint Nav-School agrees. “Navigators are used to being under the big shadow of the driver. Most of us actually prefer not to be in the spotlight. It’s a give and take and I personally don’t mind it.” Sacks has 20-years of navigation experience in a variety of rally and off-road racing styles. Her experience tells her that the navigator role is becoming increasingly important to winning races and it takes a special person to sit in the other seat. “GPS systems are becoming more advanced and the more navigators become familiar and learn how to use it effectively, it has become another method of winning more races. People are wanting to learn navigation and it’s growing. There are a couple of navigators who are good drivers too, but it now takes a dedicated and talented person to want that position. Not many drivers can sit there.”
But the duties don’t stop at navigating, as the role of the modern off-road navigator can now include multiple tasks. “We typically handle all of the logistics too,” says Cody Stuart, long-time navigator for Cameron Steele and the Desert Assassins. “This includes filtering and relaying radio information to the driver, calculating the vehicle’s mile-per-gallon average, doing all sorts of math, and much more.”
From A Chance Opportunity To An Essential Role
While these men and women are some of SCORE’s best off-road navigators and key members of several winning teams, they didn’t get their start in that position. As with most racers, they dream of driving to victory, but the challenges and opportunities given to them at the start of their careers, led them to filling the extremely valuable role of navigator. “I started by paying to ride in a 1600 car back in 2005,” said Javi Valenzuela, a long-time navigator for the Vildosola Racing Team. “I started volunteering with the Vildosola team and after eight months of being a prep mechanic, I was asked to ride in a SCORE Trophy Truck with Rob MacCachren, who was on the team at that time. Rob taught me most of what I know now, and I didn’t know a lot about navigating at first. He told me what he wanted to hear from me and I’ve used that ever since.”
Valenzuela’s opportunities came after working on the vehicle and ultimately progressed into being the team’s top navigator for Gus and Tavo Vildosola. Steve Covey’s story is much the same, starting by working on the race vehicles, then into the navigation role. “I worked for Bobby and B.J. Baldwin as a prep mechanic in 2008, said Covey. “The opportunity came to navigate with Bobby and it later opened the door for me to do that with racers such as Pat Dean, Chad Ragland, the Herbst team, Steven Eugenio, the Ampudia’s and many more.”
“I had always been riding and racing dirt bikes and learned how to navigate around a course,” said Stewart with a similar story. “I grew up with Justin “Bean” Smith and rode with him, as well as Pete Sohren. That’s how I got started with Cameron, helping to first prep the cars and eventually navigated for him and his wife Heidi. I’ve also navigated for Josh Daniel, Rene Brugger, Jamie Campbell, and Jake Batulis.” Stuart has won several championships with Heidi as well as the SCORE Baja 1000. He and many other navigators got their start in a similar way, but the duties have changed, and the communication is different on every team.
The Driver, Navigator Relationship
One thing that all experienced navigators agree on, is that working in this role requires a different approach for each driver they work for. Over the years, some drivers have become accustomed to having a navigator, while others prefer to rely on their own driver instinct and knowledge of the course. Therefore, experienced navigators know it’s important to nurture their relationship with the driver, as it’s an essential key to winning, especially under stressful situations like a SCORE Baja 1000 race. “The relationship is often black and white,” says Sacks. “There’s no gray area when it comes to drivers. You simply have to work with them and know what they want communicated. Some don’t want you to say anything, while others want you to tell them everything. The relationship goes both ways so there needs to be a lot of trust for both to have confidence in each other.”
According to Sacks, nurturing those relationships allows navigators to better deal with a variety of driver types as they come across them. “I was navigating for five drivers last year in a variety of different types of races, and all of them were different,” said Sacks. “Some are overconfident and will tell you that they’ll remember everything and to not call out sections of the course. If that’s the case you still need to be ready to give them the information if they need it. There are various ways to tell your driver he or she is overdriving without saying it and without frustrating them. In turn, they trust your instincts as much as you trust their driving skills.”
According to Valenzuela, everything he learned riding with veteran Rob MacCachren completely changed when he began riding with the Vildosola’s. “When I started with Rob, he didn’t want to hear the course,” said Valenzuela. “But with a driver like Tavo, I call out everything. I learned to adapt and as I got better at it, I saw how he became a better driver and how much he depends on me as his navigator. I believe the relationship has helped him become faster over the years. I want to win just as much as he does and he knows I will do whatever is best for the team. We got a flat one time during a race, and I was able to look at the electronic vehicle and driver data to show why it happened. It’s those details that are turning the role of a navigator into one that also provides critical feedback to win races.” Stuart at the Desert Assassins team agrees and says that it’s often necessary for drivers to rely on what the navigators are telling them to do. “We all have a need to win and when it gets to a point in the race where we’re in so much dust, we’re driving blind,” he says. “Cameron is relying on me to drive by the GPS and letting him know he can go faster or that he needs to set-up for a turn even though he can’t see it in front of him.”
“I’m as competitive as some of the drivers I’ve raced with,” adds Covey. “But as a navigator, you have to have an understanding of what your job is, to succeed. Although we’re navigating we’re also directing the driver. You end up learning the breaking and acceleration points on the course and can call them on your notes. For example, if a driver successfully goes deep into a corner during pre-running you can add that note on the GPS. As someone who has prepped the vehicle too, I can also see the relationship between the driver and the vehicle, and I can comment on the capabilities of both to ensure we can finish the race.”
Traits Of Success
While many navigators have learned their way around using a GPS, it’s still extremely important for them to play the mechanic role when necessary. “Being a mechanic is key,” says Sacks. “I don’t think you have to be a full-on mechanic to be a navigator, but being mechanical and knowing how to fix things is vital. I’ve been lucky to work with Sara who is also mechanical but most drivers won’t get out of the vehicle during a race. So to be a good navigator you also need to know how to change tires, belts, and ‘MacGyver’ just about anything to stay in the race.”
“I think you have a better chance of winning with an experienced navigator who is also a mechanic,” says Covey. “Being able to diagnose a problem with the vehicle has become a key element of what navigators can do for the team. For me, knowing the vehicle’s electronics and what the ECU tells you can inform you if everything is working properly or not. It’s just as important as knowing how to change the power steering pump or alternator out in the field during a race.”
Although Valenzuela is a top navigator, he also still preps the Vildosola Trophy Trucks and knows the strengths and limitations of the components from that day-to-day experience working on them. “I still prep the front side of the Trophy Trucks,” says Valenzuela. “I also work on testing and R&D on the truck too, so I know the limits of it as well as how to fix it if necessary.”
Knowing how to make repairs in the shop is different than doing it in a stressful situation on race day, and in 100-plus degree weather. This is why Stuart suggests it’s important to constantly practice. “We practice everything over and over again,” says Stuart. “From tire changing to laying waypoints on the GPS at speed, you get better and faster at everything with practice.”
Calling The Game Plan
In many ways, the modern off-road navigator is similar to being the head coach of the team. They see the race develop and unfold in front of them, telling the driver to adjust their speed on the course, to the detailed waypoints placed on their GPS, as well as responding to communications from the team and other input on the course. “Originally teams didn’t think of a navigator as making you faster,” says Valenzuela. “Now it’s different. The navigator is there to make you drive faster as well as be safer, and know everything from the next pit stop to how much time you need to catch up to the lead vehicle.”
“On race day there are also many outside variables such as spectators and more that are a distraction for the driver,” says Covey. “I’ve raced enough to recognize where they are on the course and can tell the driver when to go fast or to check speeds. Also knowing what the vehicle can do and how it will react, I can also call two or three corners ahead so the driver can set the turn in advance.”
From the passenger seat, navigators know the race can change in an instant, and they must adjust to the changing conditions by knowing what’s ahead. “In a changing race, the win can be in the details of your notes on the GPS,” says Sacks. “For example, taking the time to name the latitude and longitude on your waypoints allows you to send the chase team your coordinates if you break down. By marking pit areas and calculating if you have more than enough fuel, you can recommend not to stop to stay in the lead. It’s almost like having the playbook in your hands and making key decisions that could lead to winning the race when everything is done correctly.”
A good navigator will put themselves in a position to win by setting up fuel stops, knowing where it’s safe to pass or go fast, and learn the limits of the race car,” says Covey. “It’s also very important for you to stay upbeat and positive for the driver.” An example of this happened at the 2019 SCORE Baja 1000 where Alan and Aaron Ampudia won the race with Covey as navigator. “We had a team meeting with the boys and Rodrigo Sr. before the race start and I told them to focus on the moment,” said Covey. “During the race, we had a couple of times where late in the race, we gave up the lead to Luke McMillin. I told them not to be concerned about it, race corner to corner, and focus on the moment, and we eventually got back by him to take the lead again. It was important not to start thinking of the race finish too soon and take the race step by step.”
While navigators know they will not see their names in lights anytime soon, or receive any special award for their efforts, the fans and teams know the important and ever-changing role navigators are making in off-road racing is critical for winning. Now more than ever, top navigators have demonstrated they can mean the difference between winning and losing a race. It’s a responsibility they all take very seriously, however, and one which deserves proper acknowledgement when it leads to victory. SJ