Behind the Scenes | How I Cover Baja Racing

Mark Kariya reveals his journalist secrets

The crown jewel of desert racing in North America is, arguably, the SCORE World Desert Championship and its three legendary events: the San Felipe 250, the Baja 500 and the one that started it all, the Baja 1000.

Each of these races requires months of preparation and not just for the riders and their support crews. If you’re tasked with covering them for various media outlets as I am, pre-race prep is crucial if not quite as lengthy.

Fortunately, I can draw on more than 30 years of covering races and riding in the legendary Baja California peninsula, including successfully completing the 1000 eight times with Japanese magazine teams.

journalism, off-road, SCORE World Desert Championships
According to the thermometer in my watch, it was 104 degrees here in San Matias as he waited in the meager shade of this bush for the lead bikes.Photography by Mark Kariya

The primary component in my Baja prep is making sure my equipment is ready; that means both camera gear and vehicle transport. I usually carry three lenses for Baja—17-35mm f/2.8, 70-200mm f/2.8 and 400mm f/2.8—one for each Nikon body, as I really don’t want to be changing lenses in hostile environments.

As for choice of vehicles, two wheels is preferable at San Felipe as riding allows me to easily access a couple different spots without being held up in traffic on Zoo Road and I can follow or parallel the course elsewhere. The downside is being limited to two bodies/lenses since I can only carry what fits into my Moose backpack, though I can get away with leaving the 400mm home there.

journalism, off-road, SCORE World Desert Championships
Due to the start being delayed a good half hour because of suspicious flooding in the Ensenada wash, I had to wait longer than planned to get the first bikes (Ray Dal Soglio shown here) crossing Highway 3 at Ojos Negros.Photography by Mark Kariya

Due to distances to be covered at the 500 and 1000, I’ll opt for my truck since the long lens comes in handy in those races. If I had one, I might be able get away with an adventure bike, but I’d definitely want to make sure I had a secure, well padded case to carry the 400. In the unlikely event of inclement weather or if I’ll be out after dark and need auxiliary lights (plus light stands), it’s just way easier to transport everything in Mr. Truck (with Mexican auto insurance purchased via Baja Bound).

journalism, off-road, SCORE World Desert Championships
While driving to my planned second location, I spotted the course paralleling the highway and decided to shoot here instead, capturing Eizaburo Karasawa of Japan en route to an eventual second in Pro Moto 50 (riders 50 and older) with a wide-angle shot.Photography by Mark Kariya

Now comes the tricky part: deciding where to shoot.

The mission drives the decision. Since I shoot for several clients, I try to provide several options when it comes to choice of photos of the lead bikes. While it’d be nice to pre-run the course (which might take at least two days for the 500) and find an optimum location that provides the best chance of combining action and light, those places pretty much lock you into that location, thus denying me the opportunity to capture a greater variety of views.

journalism, off-road, SCORE World Desert Championships
It was hot in Borrego and I actually had to set my 400mm-equipped camera in the shade before I could get this shot of Ryan Smith.Photography by Mark Kariya

So, a day or two before the race, I’ll study the latest course map to give me a decent mental picture since I have a pretty good idea of the routes used most and surrounding topography. Getting suggestions for photo locations from those who’ve pre-run is also helpful, but it often comes down to ease/speed of ingress and egress. I usually can’t stay in one location for much longer than 15-20 minutes before I need to beat feet to the next location, so close access to one of the three highways in Baja is of paramount importance. Usually, there’s some terrain feature that’ll lend itself to decent action, which is another reason to have a wide-angle and a telephoto at all times. (It’s somewhat akin to what Malcolm Smith is purported to have said once: “A bad line done well is better than a good line done poorly.”)

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Colton Udall enjoyed about 17 minutes over second place at San Matias.Photography by Mark Kariya

Since I’m old and forgetful, I’ll circle the proposed photo spots on my map and mark a roughly estimated time of arrival for the first bike calculated for an average speed of between 55 and 60 miles per hour. That way, I can make a more educated guess at how long I can stay at a spot, taking drive time between locations into account of course. (In order to avoid a long wait at the military checkpoint at Ojos Negros—my first shoot spot—I got up at 4:00 A.M., the scheduled start time for the first bike being 5:30 A.M. and estimating a 50-minute drive.)

journalism, off-road, SCORE World Desert Championships
Mark Samuels (left) and Udall celebrate their win.Photography by Mark Kariya

However, there are times when plans will change on the fly, as happened at the latest Baja 500. While heading to my planned second location, I saw the course paralleling Highway 3. Since it looked like it might provide a better opportunity than the place I’d circled, I parked in the first available safe location well off the road, hiked down and waited a few minutes (killing some of that time by chatting with Ivan Ramirez and his dad who arrived there also to spectate with some friends).

Usually, I can count on seeing the leaders two or three times during a typical Baja race, but due to the course layout, this one provided four plus the finish back in Ensenada. It didn’t require any crazy driving on Mexican roads and I generally had at least five minutes before the first bike arrived so even if I wasn’t able to get the absolute killer action shot, I did get usable images and satisfied my clients. Now for the Baja 1000 on November 18!