Pro racer and master fabricator Phil Blurton transformed his Can-Am UTV from a weekend toy into a Baja 1,000 animal.
The Baja 1,000 is one of the most grueling off-road competitions in the world. The race generally starts and finishes in Ensenada, Mexico—though the organizers will stage a point-to-point race every three to four years, moving the finish line down to the southern town of La Paz. Either way, the 1,000 is a landmark event, comparable to the Indianapolis 500 or Daytona 500 of the off-road racing world. Winning it is a big deal. Compressor Cooler
While the trophy trucks at the front of the field are million-dollar behemoths that can blast through the gnarliest terrain at mind-blowing speeds, there are a number of other classes that compete in the race—including Utility Terrain Vehicles (UTV), along with other buggies, electric trucks, and even dirt bikes and quads.
We recently talked with Phil Blurton, a UTV racer who won his class in 2021’s 1,000. There are many permutations of UTVs able to compete in Baja, and Blurton’s machine sits in the middle of the regulations when it comes to performance. This is noteworthy, as he finished well ahead of some of his much more capable open-class competitors. Though he came in second at this year’s race last month, we discussed Blurton’s modifications to take his Can-Am X3 from a fun weekend toy into a desert-racing machine.
Phil Blurton is one of the few drivers who build and race their own desert-racing vehicles. This involves a full tear down and rebuild of the standard UTV, sussing out a new wiring harness, plumbing a new rear-mount radiator, and fabricating new components. Alongside racing at Baja, he runs a shop called No Limit Race Development, which fabricates aftermarket parts for Can-Am UTVs.
Can-Am’s X3 is already a capable package out of the box. Sitting at 1,699 pounds, it’s a featherweight machine with surprising amounts of power and traction. Four-wheel drive helps it scurry through sandpits, supported by a rambunctious 900-cc Rotax engine with 200 horsepower. With 22 inches of front suspension travel and 24 in the rear, it’s also no slouch through bigger bumps and whoops.
Blurton has meticulously tinkered with his Can-Am X3 to make it race-ready for the desert terrain. At the front—and really throughout the rest of the vehicle—you’ll notice that nearly all of the factory bodywork has been stripped away. The competition vehicle keeps that standard bottom chassis but features a fully custom top chassis for added safety and security in the event of a rollover. You’ll notice last year’s build (pictured) was bright, painted in a stark yellow. Other safety additions include solid sheet-metal doors (with welded-in door bars), as well as window nets to keep bigger debris out of the cockpit.
At the back, there’s a massive rear-mount radiator along with the 32-inch spare tire. “We put the radiator in the back because in desert racing you often use the bumper to pass people,” says Blurton; this generally means bumping other vehicles out of the way. And he ends up doing a lot of passing, given Baja’s vast field of competitors. In fact, traffic management was one of the major factors that cost Blurton a class win this year.
The rules allow Blurton to expand the width of the vehicle to measure up to 80 inches, but he feels they’re much more competitive at the standard 72-inch track width. “I keep my cars at 72 just because I feel they simply work better in factory trim,” says Blurton.
He also mentioned reinforcing the factory trailing arms (suspension components on the rear axle), which need to cope with big impacts for extended periods of time. These big knocks can come from hucking over jumps, blasting through bumpy terrain, and even booby traps that fans set out to sabotage unsuspecting racers. All of the springs and dampers need to be stock, but Blurton is allowed to work with Fox Suspension to tune the shocks for each race.
This is important, as a race like Baja presents a completely different set of challenges compared to other landmark events like King of the Hammers. “For a Silver State race, we’re going to run a really stiff rally-style shock package,” says Blurton. “For the Baja 1,000, we’ll run a softer, more comfortable setup that won’t beat the car up for so many miles.” Per the rules, this level of fine-tuning can be achieved by changing the valving of the damper and the spring rate of the shock (valving alters how much force it takes to compress or extend the shock absorber). There are plenty of other settings that influence the behavior of the car, but Blurton and his mechanics are coy with the details—understandably.
One of the most iconic features of Baja is the whoop sections. These feature a series of big bumps in close succession where vehicles (and motos) skim across the top of them at speed. Blurton mentioned that his race machine can blitz through the San Felipe whoops at speeds of up to 65 mph. Given that the whoops at Baja can each be multiple feet tall, that’s no joke.
In last year’s Baja 1,000, Blurton finished ahead of even the much faster open-class UTVs, which aren’t beholden to keeping the same engine as a standard side-by-side. Class 10 buggies have turbocharged 2,000-cc engines (yes, that’s double the displacement), yet Blurton still smoked them. Along with engine displacement, the Class 10s are allowed to have a fully custom chassis, unlimited suspension travel, and a much bigger tire (up to 35 inches). The only real disadvantage of these machines is that they’re only allowed two-wheel drive, while Forced-Induction class UTVs can be four-wheel drive.
This provides a substantial advantage for Blurton in some of the deeper silt beds on the course. Their four-wheel-drive systems can dig and claw through the deep sand much more effectively compared to the more rudimentary rear-wheel-drive Class 10 machines. Other areas of the course involve flat-out running on dry river beds, where Blurton’s X3 can stretch its legs, reaching speeds north of 100 mph.
Blurton mentioned that he and his team are very close to extracting the maximum amount of performance from these competition UTVs, without pointing to one singular area that was lacking. Throughout the race, he says they’ll maintain an average speed of over 50 mph, which is fast given the terrain around Baja. We’ll look to the 2023 race to see whether he and his team have reached the limit of what’s possible with Can-Am’s X3 platform.
Matt Crisara is a native Austinite who has an unbridled passion for cars and motorsports, both foreign and domestic, and as the Autos Editor for Popular Mechanics, he writes the majority of automotive coverage across digital and print. He was previously a contributing writer for Motor1 following internships at Circuit Of The Americas F1 Track and Speed City, an Austin radio broadcaster focused on the world of motor racing. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Arizona School of Journalism, where he raced mountain bikes with the University Club Team. When he isn’t working, he enjoys sim-racing, FPV drones, and the great outdoors.
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