Baja 1000: The great backstory to Cameron Steele’s epic victory
By Marty Fiolka | RACER magazine and RACER.com editor at large
In a world hungry for uplifting stories, it’s hard to imagine one more welcome or universally popular than Cameron Steele’s now-official victory at this past weekend’s 51st BFGoodrich SCORE Baja 1000. Steele’s overall win is not only his career’s magnum opus, but comes after a lifetime spent generating a rare combination of mutual respect among his peers and unwavering passion — and compassion — for the legendary Mexican peninsula and its people.
Along with co-driver Pat Dean, Steele piloted his No. 16 Monster Energy/BFGoodrich Trophy-Truck to off-road racing’s biggest prize after promoter SCORE International disciplined past champion Rob MacCachren with a time penalty for an on-highway incident, dropping him to third place overall. Second place went to the team of Andy McMillin and Gustavo ‘Tavo’ Vildosola in their No. 31 Red Bull/Toyo Chevy Silverado.
Its very nature dictates that motorsports history is punctuated by far more tales of heartbreak and defeat than victory and conquest. Cursed (some say blessed) by a timeless challenge defined by an annual finishing rate historically hovering around 50 percent, the Baja 1000 has spent 51 years mostly breaking the spirit, backs and bank accounts of those who dare defy the odds.
Baja ambassador Steele admits that it wasn’t too long ago that he seriously contemplated stepping out of the cockpit and setting his racing career aside. Always an underdog in terms of financial resources that bless so many of his Trophy-Truck competitors, over the years Steele had managed to parlay his television persona and passion for hard work into the impossible dream of racing in the sport’s premier division.
His ragtag group of dedicated supporters was anchored by father Mark “Big Daddy” Steele, who had raised Cameron and his siblings against the eclectic backdrop of desert racing and the piercing blue ocean waters near their home in San Clemente, California.
A gifted athlete and understated salesman, Steele spent his youth competing in the highest levels of body boarding while racing VW-powered desert cars as much as possible. He eventually grew an interest in extreme sports and freestyle motocross, a path that led him in front of the camera at cutting edge events like the ESPN X-Games.
Together with wife Heidi and sponsors such as Monster Energy and Lucas Oil, the Steele family founded their team in the early 2000s. From the onset the goal was always to get Cameron into the Trophy-Truck division, and the effort soon landed them a Geiser Brothers-built chassis.
They weren’t corporate darlings, choosing instead to target youth culture by cloaking themselves in black t-shirts, flat bill hats and gray Dickies shorts.
“I don’t’ ever want to grow up. I just want to be a jackass forever,” he explained to me for a 2004 magazine interview. “I just want to be on television, race off-road cars and raise hell my whole life. I am all about being perpetually young.”
Like so many of us, the passage of time forced Steele to balance career maturity with youthful relevance. His efforts as a racer and team owner slowly evolved toward his own “Desert Assassins” team, which successfully fielded trucks for wife Heidi (named DirtSports Magazine “Driver of the Year” in 2009).
The Cameron Steele and Desert Assassins brands elevated themselves in recent years, both as a competitive force but also as a conduit to the beautiful Baja peninsula thanks to several annual adventure trips they host for motorcycle and truck enthusiasts. Sharing the passion for Baja was an important component to these trips for Steele, as was giving back. In 2018, Steele’s “Baja Beach Bash” trip raised just over $150,000 to the Rancho Santa Marta children’s orphanage near San Vicente.
Like MacCachren, Steele’s racing journey represents the ultimate achievement of the workingman. In a sport embarrassingly devoid of prize money, their ability to race and eat depend solely upon sponsor support. Despite that, several years ago Steele’s unstoppable quest toward victory dictated a change to the BFGoodrich tire brand and away from a more financially lucrative and long-standing relationship. Loyalty matters to Steele, but the change instantly brought competitiveness and a new mindset.
“I knew we could race, but we were not performing,” he shared. “The tire switch changed our whole paradigm and what we felt we could accomplish.”
At last year’s 50th anniversary Baja 1000 Steele and his team arrived at the La Paz finish second in the overall standings. Seeing Heidi and young daughter Kay’s excitement reminded Cameron of the important place racing had to his family, and the moment became a prime motivator to keep chasing his improbable dream. In September, Steele finally broke through, earning his first overall SCORE Trophy-Truck victory at the Tijuana SCORE Desert Challenge.
Sadly, “Big Daddy” Steele passed away in August, just before his son had a chance to share news that Cameron was to be inducted into Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame inductee at November’s SEMA show. Not surprisingly, Steele used the loss to refocus his team in bringing home the overall Baja 1000 title, including carrying his father’s ashes in the Trophy-Truck throughout the race.
Despite not having a first or reverse gear in his truck’s automatic transmission, Steele and Dean kept the faith, moving up the race’s standings all day and night only to take the checkered flag in second place once again — until news of MacCachren’s penalty rippled through the packed finish line area.
“I feel it’s been huge for my family, it’s been 47 years since my dad started all of this,” Steele explained. “We never had an overall. We were so close; we had to keep pushing. Before the race, our team engineer Mike Craft, who is a huge piece of our success, explained to my crew that we needed to give a 10% percent greater commitment to the effort from everyone. It paid off.”
“The whole team really deserves this,” he concluded. “This isn’t just about one driver or two drivers, it’s about everyone that puts their will into it. I just want to thank my wife and baby because they give up a lot for us to be here. And, I love the people of Baja. Thank you. Thank you Mexico, thank you Baja because this is our life, we come here, we love this place, we love these people.”
The best part of the story? The people of Baja, and the entire racing community, love the always-thankful Steele right back.
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