Growing up in Ensenada, Baja California, pretty much guarantees some exposure to off-road racing. The seaside town is the usual starting point – and often ending point – for the Baja 1000 in addition to the Baja 500. It doesn't hurt that the restaurant and bar that is the family business, Papas & Beer, in addition to being a favorite destination of Southern California college kids, is a popular hangout for the off-road racers, teams and fans around the events.
It's pretty much destiny that Rodrigo Ampudia Jr. would follow his father, Rodrigo Sr., into desert racing. A little less likely is his addiction to short course off-road as practiced by the Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series. Now 25, the budding racer started his career in Pro Lite – in which he still dabbles – before moving to the Pro 2 trucks. Last year, he ran both classes. In 2010, circumstances, including a knee injury, dictate concentration on the big trucks.
It paid off with his first Pro 2 Unlimited victory at Miller Motorsports Park in June, driving the No. 36 Lucas Oil/Papas & Beer Ford. Ampudia is third in the class points heading into the second Surprise round, despite nearly having his season ruined by the above-mentioned knee injury. It was still hurting at Miller, but one would hardly guess when he climbed out of the truck to celebrate victory.
It was paining him even more at the previous event in Las Vegas, where Ampudia had an alternate driver lined up, just in case. He cites it as one of his best races, given the circumstances.
“I still couldn't use my left leg, it was so hard to recover from the therapy and it was such an invasive surgery,” he says. “I'd been working every day to improve so much to be able to race, and with everyone thinking I wouldn't be able to race. I just kept pushing and one week before the race I still wasn't sure. Just being able to race and finishing second, my best finish in the Pro 2 at that point, that was a highlight that made me cry.”
The Lite has been parked since Rounds 3 and 4 at Surprise, but just like several drivers who compete in both Pro 2 and Pro 4, Ampudia enjoys the challenge of competing in two classes.
“I don't think it's hard,” he says. “I wish I could race more. I just love being out there racing every time I have a chance. All the top racers are racing in the Lucas Oil off Road Racing Series, and it's good to be battling for the podium with them.
“I just love the door-to-door action,” he adds. “It's 15 minutes, all-out, just banging doors and going at it. And the fastest driver with the least mistakes is the one who's going to be on top.” Ampudia says the key to not making mistakes is keeping a calm head, maybe even being half a second slower every lap than what the fastest lap could be – but more importantly, being consistent.
It's a common theme among short-course racers, the direct competition against other drivers, and the ability to capitalize on another driver's mistakes. It's why many drivers add short course to their desert racing. But as important as Mexico is to desert racing, and as many Mexicans compete in the events in Baja, it's a wonder that more don't venture north to try their hand at short course. So far, Ampudia is mostly alone in that regard, and he's the first international driver to win in the sport.
International defines Ampudia, as he makes his home on both sides of the border. But as an avid surfer and beach lover, he's always near the ocean, whether in California or Ensenada. He spends time in Baja California working in the family business, and then working on his degree in business administration with a minor in marketing in San Diego.
And then, when it comes down to real business, it's desert racing in Baja, and short course up north. Bet that passport gets quite a workout….