(CNN) — Many couples have an interesting story about how they first met, but few offer a window into their relationship quite like that of racing drivers Kristen and Wayne Matlock.
“We met in the desert,” Wayne tells CNN Sport, sitting by the glistening Pacific Ocean on a bright Baja California morning.
“I’d previously broken my arm about a week prior on a quad [bike],” Kristen adds. “It was a borrowed quad from a friend’s sister, and I was trying to keep up with the guys and came off of a jump and snapped my wrist on it.”
“I still wanted to go to the desert because it was fun, but I wasn’t able to ride so I was stuck at camp, and this guy was there and spotted me and decided that he didn’t need to go for a ride that moment. He wanted to hang out with Kristen,” she laughs.
That fateful moment in the desert was in 2003; a little over three years later, the two were married, sealing a relationship which has become the stuff of legend in off-road racing.
The Matlocks are a power couple in every sense of the word. Signed jointly to the factory Polaris team in 2015, between them they have come to dominate their segment of off-road racing, steering their cars to a string of wins and podiums in some of the world’s most difficult and dangerous endurance contests.
Last month, CNN followed them on the grandaddy of them all: the Baja 1000.
In the pantheon of off-road challenges, no race is more feared or respected. Dubbed the world’s toughest off-road race, its brutally challenging course takes in every kind of terrain, darting back and forth along the length of Mexico’s stunning Baja peninsula.
“Baja has everything,” Wayne Matlock explains, eyes wide with enthusiasm. “You’re crossing back and forth over the peninsula and the difference in the environments you go through is huge.
“I mean, there’s areas where we’re going through pine trees and then there’s other areas where we’re down in the salt flats, and other areas you’re up in these super unique cactuses, the boojum trees and stuff. It’s just mind-blowing and once you do it, it gets in your blood and you get hooked.”
The 2021 iteration of the race would be a gargantuan 1,226.35 miles, from Ensenada in the north, to La Paz, close to Baja’s southern tip.
Wayne was also debuting a brand-new vehicle, the Polaris RZR Pro R, launched to the public just days before the race. With a two-liter, 225-bhp (brake horsepower) engine, it is double the displacement of his previous race car, and spectators crowd around it for a closer look at the pre-race inspection.
He would be sharing the driving with his young protégé, Josh Row, “a kid I’ve known since he was in diapers,” he tells CNN.
The Iron Woman
Kristen would be doing the entire race solo, a feat she has accomplished before and one that has earned her the nickname, “Iron Woman.”
“They call me the Iron Woman down here because when I get behind the wheel, I don’t share driving duties with another driver. Typically, somebody would for this race, especially the 1,227 miles of this Baja 1000,” she explains.
“They would share driving duties with at least one other person, but some of them will have four or five drivers splitting up the run, and I’ll do the whole thing myself.”
Petite, blue eyed, and with blonde hair typically tied into twin plaits that run down the length of her back, Kristen Matlock looks nothing like her fellow competitors. While she is renowned as one of the grittiest endurance racers around, she admits that being taken seriously in the sport has been a process.
“Being a woman in this male dominated sport, it’s been progressive for me. In the beginning, I would say they may not have taken me that seriously, but as soon as I started winning and then proving to them that I’m out there to just be another athlete and a competitor, you know, not just out there for fun, they were okay, and they welcomed me.”
Her husband’s admiration for her shines through. “At first, [our colleagues in the sport] didn’t take her as seriously, but now, I think she’s probably respected more than 99% of the guys out there because they all know what she can do. And then the fact that she does it all by herself too — they definitely have a lot of respect for her.”
Wayne won his class in the Baja 1000 racing solo in 2018, but the 43-year-old says he is happier sharing the task. “I get bored. My attention span isn’t that large, so I start thinking about other things and I start drifting off; I’ve fallen asleep behind the wheel several times in the race car,” he says.
“For me, it stops being fun at a certain point and it’s just, when it starts to become not fun and then dangerous on top of that you say, ‘All right, it’s time to figure something else out.'”
Matlock Racing’s crew for the 2021 edition of the Baja 1000 comprised of four chase trucks, including a larger service vehicle — dubbed ‘Brutus’ — to follow them along the route, laden with gasoline, spare parts and endless supplies of pizza and fried chicken to fuel their endeavors.
Food is crucial to success, Kristen explains. “When your car is hungry and ready for fuel, most likely your body is too, even though your adrenaline’s pumping so hard at that moment you might not feel hungry, but you need to just force yourself to eat and hydrate and keep it going.”
For the Matlocks, preparation is everything, and the race is planned in meticulous detail with the crews. Drivers even hydrate with IVs before the start.
North America’s most dangerous race
The Baja 1000 is not known as North America’s most dangerous race for nothing.
Accidents involving competitors, crew members and spectators are common, and there have been several deaths over the five decades since the race was first run in 1967. Hurtling through the desert at night can be a frightening experience.
“You see fans where they’re not supposed to be. You see cows walk out in front of you,” Wayne says. “The cows are scary because you know oncoming vehicles make dust, and you can see the dust far ahead.
“At night, fans usually have campfires, flashlights, something so you can see that they’re out there. A cow has nothing, it doesn’t make any dust, it doesn’t have lights, and so it can blend in with the dirt, especially in the dust, so that’s one thing I definitely worry about, but you just kind of take it as it comes.”
The Matlocks race versatile Utility Terrain Vehicles, or UTVs, which offer four-wheel-drive grip and robust off-the-peg construction for teams to work with. Part of the Baja 1000’s appeal for spectators lies in the sheer variety of vehicles taking on its fearsome course.
From the ferocious Trophy Trucks at the top, which can cost six figure sums to build and race, down to the ‘Class 11’ stock VW Beetles, which offer a charm unique to Baja. Like the Dakar rally, these days held in Saudi Arabia, motorcycles also compete in the event.
“Everyone’s got their own unique challenges, you know, every vehicle,” Wayne outlines. “You’ve got motorcycles, and those challenges are painfully obvious, painfully. You know, a little rock will take them down, but they can also get through little areas.
“Then you have vehicles like a Trophy Truck, those things will get stuck in the silt really bad, they’re two-wheel drive; then you have Class 11 Volkswagen bugs, I have no idea how they get through this stuff — none. It baffles me.”
One such racer is Eric Solorzano, the undisputed king of Class 11, who has won the Baja 1000 eight times. “This is our 31st Baja 1000,” the Tijuana native tells CNN Sport, gesturing to his vehicle. “This is a production Volkswagen, brought from Germany; it’s a 1969.”
Class 11 starts last in the race, after the path has been chewed up by the other vehicles. Solorzano says this presents the greatest challenge for the VWs, along with the 50-hour time limit to complete the course.
“We have limited time to finish, we have the same time as the Trophy Trucks, and I feel that is not fair at all,” he says. “Because they have 50 hours and we have 50 hours, we have 70 horsepower, and they have 1,000 horsepower, so this is the difference between them and we.”
Silt is another legendary aspect of any Baja race.
“Silt’s nasty,” both Matlocks laugh in unison. “It’s kind of like the same consistency of baby powder but it can be six inches deep, or it can be three to four feet deep,” Wayne continues.
“There’s certain sections where you’re going through it and it’s coming over the hood of the car like water, and it just fills the cab of the car, but it’s so fluffy and airy, it dissipates and goes away; but at the time, you cannot see anything, it’s like someone taking baby powder by the snow shovel full and throwing in your face.”
It’s also a great leveler. “There’s been times too when you’re stuck in a silt bed, and you’re stuck there with six different vehicles and there are six different classes of vehicles, but you’re all stuck in the same hole,” Wayne laughs and gestures to his wife.
“She was stuck in a silt bed just because her battery went dead one time, so the person that she was stuck with knew that she was an all-wheel drive car, so he came to her and said, ‘Hey I’ll jump start your car, but you need to tow my car once we get out of here!”
“We worked a deal,” Kristen deadpans.
Nearly 300 vehicles leave Ensenada in a staggered start on race morning. The battle starts brightly for both Matlocks, Kristen even appearing to lead her class at one point. But the Baja 1000 is nothing if not unforgiving, and the terrain soon begins to exact revenge on any sense of early optimism.
Wayne’s vehicle is first to need an emergency pit: his chase crew working frantically under a wildly spectacular Baja sunset to fix a shock absorber apparently broken by a large rock.
Just a few miles after the team sends him on his way, the same thing happens on the other side, and the crew are under the car once more. Crucial time is lost.
Kristen’s car breaks a wheel bearing later on, and then another. The second time, she finds herself behind her chase crew.
Race rules don’t allow chase trucks to go back down the course, so her mechanics are forced to carry the parts to her, traipsing through the pitch-black desert on foot. All the while, the clock ticks; by the time she is on the move again, four hours have gone by.
At each planned stop, the chase trucks prepare for their car’s arrival: water bottles are readied, bags of chicken and pizza are opened; drivers and navigators prepare to switch in; and fuel or spares are lined up.
Spectators line the route and gather at pit stops, often several generations of families sitting on the backs of battered old pickup trucks or on deckchairs under umbrellas. Children and adults alike crowd around the chase crews asking for stickers, a Baja staple. At one stop Wayne’s veteran navigator, Sam Hayes, busily hands them out of the chase truck window into eager palms.
“The farther south you come, even the adults, the parents, everybody loves stickers,” Wayne’s co-driver Josh Row explains. “They’re as good as gold down here. It’s kind of like their currency, it’s like who they’ve met and who they’ve got to see. It’s kind of cool to see on all their vehicles down here.”
Daniel Felix, who doubles as an engineer and a navigator for the team, is from Tecate and knows how much the race means to the peninsula. “We’re native from here, it’s amazing to share this with my family, the people here, all our friends from Baja, especially all the way down to La Paz, it’s just an incredible feeling.”
A day after they left Ensenada, 205 cars finally arrive in La Paz. The 94 DNFs (did not finish) is the fifth fewest in Baja 1000 history, which gives an idea of just how challenging the race can be.
Rob MacCachran and Luke McMillin are the overall winners in their Trophy Truck, in a time of 20 hours, 45 minutes. The winning Class 11 car, driven by Hector Martínez, crosses the line in 42 hours and one minute. The Slam Racing team, led by Mark Samuels, is the winning motorcycle, in 23 hours, seven minutes.
Wayne Matlock and Josh Row ultimately take third in the Pro UTV Open class, in 33 hours, 10 minutes. An exhausted but characteristically cheerful Kristen eventually crosses the line in just under 37 hours, taking fifth place in her Pro UTV Normally Aspirated class.
“We were just down on time, and we couldn’t make it all up,” the 41-year-old explains in La Paz the day after the race, before the full results are in. “It still ended up decent. I know that we finished, and that makes me extremely happy, super proud of our entire team.”
Speaking at the finish line, Wayne is philosophical. “Our goal was to get this car to the end. It’s a brand-new car for Polaris. We wanted to race a car with stock components, stock drivetrain, stock suspension and here it is, sitting here.
“The car has a ton of potential. Just a few things we’ve got to work on, but it has a ton of potential. It is extremely fast. The course was fun, rough. It’s always rough,” he pauses and smiles.
“It’s supposed to be rough. It’s Baja.”