I gotta be honest, this is a very special story for me. Ramon and Tomas Fernandez from Sombrerito Racing have a special place in my off-road heart. Sombrerito Racing is one of the greatest Class 11 teams in recent history and to me that means they are one of the greatest off-road teams in the history of off-road.
The Fernandez brothers are based at La Jolla Beach Camp, just five minutes south of La Bufadora in Ensenada, Baja California. The two grew up playing around the race shops of Miguel and Mateo Pabloff. Miguel Pabloff might not ring any bells but has several wins during his racing career spanning the 90’s. Mateo Pabloff is a popular race mechanic who has had a long and successful off-road career as a race car builder in Ensenada.
Long story short, they come from nothing, and have taken every opportunity they were given to grow their dream of one day racing in the Baja 1000. Since their very first race in 2007, they’ve won nearly every time. “The 2007 Baja 1000 was the best race of our lives. Simple as that,” said Ramón but we will get there a little bit below.
Ernesto (Neto): Hey guys, first of all, thank you for doing this interview. Let’s start from the very beginning. How did you guys get started in off-road racing?
Ramón (Monchi): Thank you for having us! Before we started our own team, I got invited by Miguel Pabloff somewhere in the 90’s to hop in as a co-driver in his 5/1600 car in a local race in Mexicali.
Tomas (Kibi): I started in ‘87 racing with Miguel too.
Monchi: We were raised here under his (Miguel Pabloff) roof running around the garage as kids. We were always around the racecars and tried to be involved any chance we could, until he invited us to race some Baja races like San Vicente Ferrer and a few SCORE races.
Monchi: I helped Miguel pre-running and codriving for a few years. Later around ‘99 he allowed me to drive and I simply fell in love completely with this sport. The following year, I was fortunate enough to get invited by another friend to start a team together racing his Class 11 at CODE series in Mexicali.
Neto: And how was your first season?
Monchi: Well, our approach was to try and have fun rather than winning. Our car was the simplest car possible. We didn’t even have a 1600cc engine! (laughs)
Neto: (laughs) Wow, not even a 1600cc engine. That must have been hard to compete with.
Kibi: It was (laughs)! We managed to rescue an engine from a junkyard and go race!
Monchi: To be honest, we didn’t have much competition at that time. There were less than 10 cars. We managed to get the championship nonetheless, which was a huge help to get sponsors.
Neto: Even without much competition, Champions as rookies is an accomplishment for sure!
Monchi: By 2001, we got a better engine to be competitive and started racing locally with “El Tomate” (RECORD) who had an amazing list of drivers racing in Class11. People like “El Indio” Gutierrez who’s another Class 11 legend, for example. We never got a win that year but we were in the fight at all the races. We never even thought we could win but at the end, we ended up winning the points championship.
Neto: And both of you were racing together?
Monchi: Not yet. The first two years it was more of my friends’ team. It wasn’t “El Sombrerito” yet.
Kibi: I was still racing with Miguel at that point, as well as a few other teams too.
Monchi: In 2003, we had to stop racing after the team owner passed away in a surf accident. His wife gave me the opportunity to have the car and his sponsors at the time helped us get all the other stuff we needed to start racing on our own program.
In 2004, we started “El Sombrerito” Racing. We must have had a big angel looking down upon us because from there it was win after win after win. After that, we started taking on bigger challenges and that’s where I invited my brother, Kibi.
Kibi: I remember my brother had to leave town before a race he needed points in, so he gave me the keys to the car. I ended up winning the race.
Monchi: 2006 was full of 1st places. One after another. In 2007, we decided to take a shot at SCORE.
Neto: By the way, where does the idea to put a sombrero on top of the Class 11 and name it Sombrerito come from?
Monchi: We wanted to be spotted easily during a race. The original late-owner had the idea to just glue a Sombrero on the roof of the car. Meanwhile, during the races the fans started calling us “Sombrerito” (little hat). So we just went with that name.
Neto: So from the beginning to 2006 it was mostly RECORD for you then?
Monchi: Yes mostly RECORD but we raced all over the place. We were invited to race SCORE, CODE and other series as guest drivers.
Neto: And then 2007 this is where the real story starts…
Kibi: We started with the San Felipe 250. That year, the start was moved to Ensenada. The race starting from there kinda gave us the final push to start competing at SCORE. It was closer and cheaper to race. We ended up winning. We never saw that much prize money before! It was expensive to enter compared to the local races but the payoff was better as well.
Then our sponsors started asking if we will race the Baja 500 that year. It was a dream for us to race a 500+ mile race with our own team. We prepared for it and ended up winning that too.
Monchi: That race was a lot tougher than the usual races. Luckily we had a lot of people who helped us without asking anything in return. Most of them had 4×4 vehicles that were a huge help when we got stuck behind other race cars. Remember, in that time Class 11 wasn’t allowed many modifications so we needed as much help as possible.
That year we raced Primm and got 2nd to Andy (Eric Solorzano) after running out of gas. We beat him at the 250 and 500, however. Beating Solorzano was unthinkable at that time. He is THE Class 11.
Right before the Baja 1000, we and Andy were close in points. The Baja 1000 was the 40th anniversary and went all the way down to Cabo that year. It was the best race of my career.
Neto: Yes, I know this story and to me this is one of the greatest moments in off-road racing history, tell me everything about that race…
Monchi: (laughs) Thanks. I had to sell all my extra stuff and borrow a lot of money from friends. All the crew members on the team were spending money from their own pocket.
We paid the entry fee and we were ready, except for the hotel bookings in Cabo. After all, we were thinking we wouldn’t be able to get to the finish at all! (laughs!)
Neto: I still remember when I heard that you guys made it to the finish, 3 days after the start! I was speechless.
Monchi: Nobody could believe it. We almost didn’t believe it. The car was broken in half for most of the race!
Kibi: At San Ignacio, the chassis was already giving up. We got hit by a Class 7 trying to reach the top of an uphill section half way through the day but we kept pushing and fighting, especially with Solorzano, and by Santa Rita we found out that he was out of the race. At that point, it was just us versus time.
Neto: Out of curiosity, what’s the story with that Class 7 before you continue?
Kibi: I was waiting behind a Class 7 who was struggling to get on top of a steep uphill section. He tried like 10 times and in one of them he hit us while backing up to get enough speed. I asked for them to let us go but they didn’t, so after they hit us I asked the guy for another chance to go. I remember the codriver telling the driver some stupid joke about “might try but it’s still a Class 11”. At that point I was over it and I made it to the top in the first try. We stopped the car at the top, flipped them off then moved on.
Neto: I love happy endings.
Kibi: At the checkpoint in Todos Santos, the last checkpoint of the race, the SCORE official told us we had to average over 50mph if we want to get to the finish line on time while we were pitting. We decided that no matter what we were the Champions already by points (since Solorzano was out already) so we decided to give it all trying to get to the finish.
In the middle of the rush and chaos, the team members let the car go without putting enough fuel in the tank. Our fueler guy was the first to drop the can when he was supposed to be the last one to move away. When we realized our mistake, the car was too far gone.
Monchi: We were at the finish line waiting. Sal Fish was there looking at his watch. We knew the car was close because of tracking. People were there waiting for our car as if it was the first Trophy Truck to reach the finish line two days prior. Everyone was on their toes waiting…
Kibi: And then we ran out of gas a mile out of the finish line. Of course.
Monchi: Yeah, amidst all the chase we forgot to check the gas gauge. They only put 5 gallons of gas in. Big mistake.
Neto: How was the pressure at that moment? One mile away from the finish line after 3 days of racing and 1200 miles behind you?
Monchi: How do you imagine!? I was waiting at the finish line when we found out that the car was a mile away, without gas. I was trying to get a ride with some random guys but I saw a friend, so we got into his truck and went to find our car.
Kibi: Meanwhile we were trying whatever it took to get to the finish line. Some lady brought a hose and another guy took gas out of his daily driver to give it to us. The people down in Baja Sur are the best. With their help, we headed to the finish. We met Monchi a little bit after to get another splash of gas to get us to the finish line.
Monchi: So the car made it to the finish but nobody celebrated. We weren’t sure if we made it on time. We were really excited to be there nonetheless but the anticipation of seeing if we made it or not on time was killing us. Finally, Sal came up and announced as an official finisher with 7 seconds to spare.
Kibi: It was 16 seconds, with a record longest time of 53:00 hours.
Monchi: So when Sal made the announcement, you can imagine the celebration.
Neto: I really wish I was there. So epic.
Monchi: And that was when Volkswagen was the main sponsor of SCORE, so we received 3 checks. The win, the championship and the VW purse. We paid off all debt of the race and we even got a new race car because of it!
Kibi: The VW purse was the 2nd biggest prize of the race for “the most stock winner”. (laughs)
Monchi: That was the best race of my life. Lots of sacrifice and problems to get to the finish but we did it.
Kibi: And we were the only drivers!
Monchi: We had 6 codrivers but only Kibi and I drove.
Neto: Oh, why so many codrivers then?
Monchi: They paid to sit as codrivers. That was the only way to get enough money to race!
Neto: Ah, makes sense! Duh. So what happened after the race?
Monchi: Well, remember that we didn’t have a place to stay! (laughs). You know that sort of thing always works out one way or the other. Luckily for us, somebody put stickers of two popular teams in Baja Sur on our race car. We didn’t know them personally at that time so at the finish line they fought (friendly, of course) each other for our entire team to stay in their respective places. I don’t even remember with who we ended up with but they managed to fit all our crew in a ranch they opened up for us. We didn’t even settle yet when they brought a truck with all, and I mean ALL, the necessary stuff for a carne asada tacos. It was amazing.
Neto: Nice! How many people did you guys have in your team at the time?
Monchi: We had six vehicles with four persons each, give or take…
Neto: So you guys partied hard or what?
Monchi: Kibi had a family appointment, so not really.
Kibi: A baptism…
Monchi: All of the guys from the ranch wanted us to stay but “when we arrive together, we leave together” so next morning we started our drive back home. We celebrated after some rest at home of course.
Our goal for the following season was to get the Toyota award (race and finish all SCORE races in one season) but “El Sombrerito” was falling apart after the Baja 1000. The new car wasn’t ready yet, so I had to put together the old car as good as we could for the first race of the season in Laughlin. We ended up winning that too!
Kibi: We finished 2nd place in our new car at the San Felipe 250. We had a few issues but it was another great fight with Eric Solorzano. For the Baja 500, SCORE modified the Class 11 rulebook so we could now run bigger shocks. Before that we were only allowed to use the stock size shocks.
Monchi: Our suspension sponsor gave us a set of new shocks and I remember they were awful! (laughs)
Kibi: When I got the car for my section, I immediately realized that these shocks didn’t work at all! We had to replace the “new and fancy” shocks for the “old crappy ones”. After another great duel with Solorzano we won that race too.
We didn’t have any issues at the Baja 1000. We won and we managed to get the Toyota award that our sponsors wanted. Only 12 drivers were on the list that year. A lot of people were surprised when they saw a Class 11 making the cut.
Neto: You guys make sound so easy. It’s really hard to grasp what all this means for a Class 11 team or even any other category…
Kibi: This class is no joke. Right now I’m getting used to racing in bigger classes. Way more comfortable! (laughs) We kept racing locally and still earning championships until 2014, when we retired as champions.
Monchi: (during the interview, he was prepping a Class 11 for another team) This team took one championship from us because my buddy (Kibi) rolled the Class 11 one time and we lost the Championship by one point.
Kibi: Oh well…
Neto: Oh well indeed. What else happened during this time between 2008 and when you retired in 2014?
Monchi: We kept getting invitations to race with other teams all over the place. The most important was RPM Off Road for example.
Neto: Let’s talk about your time with RPM. How did it happen?
Monchi: We got invited by Mateo Pabloff, who prepped some of RPM’s racing fleet, including a Class 9 that he offered to race with. At that point, we didn’t know Mr. Stacy personally but he knew us. We always got them while they raced their Class 8 truck in the sportsman category. Clyde couldn’t believe that a top-notch Class 8 couldn’t beat a humble Class11 (laughs). They knew it had to be about the drivers, so they gave us the opportunity to race their Class 9. The goal was to just make it to the finish line but we ended up winning that race too.
Kibi: In 2011, RPM built a Class 11 and we were hired to race it for the next couple of SCORE seasons. We ended up as Champions both year.
Monchi: We failed at San Felipe but it wasn’t our fault really. Both rear arms in the ‘vocho’ broke. When BOTH break you know it was a mistake made before the start during the car prep.
Neto: It happens… Then?
Kibi: We went to Laughlin and we won.
Monchi: For the next race, the Baja 500, the car was prepped much, much better. New everything in the usual unlimited-budget fashion of the big teams such as RPM Off-Road. We won both the Baja 500 and the Baja 1000. By then, our relationship with Clyde was much better and after that season Clyde asked us which category we wanted to race next. 5/1600 was a natural pick for us.
We raced two years in that category. During the first year, Clyde had an accident non-racing related and missed one race. Because he was the driver-of-record we got penalized and we couldn’t get the championship, even when we had the points.
A lot of people said that we were the champions anyway. Even Clyde said to us, “you are the Champions and we will prove it next year.” Next season we only had one small issue at the Baja 1000 with our transmission that made us finish 2nd. Besides that, only 1st places and the championship.
Neto: Unbelievable. Was that your last season with RPM?
Kibi: We got invited to help drive Clyde’s friend Jim Bunn’s sportsman truck. They didn’t have much experience and couldn’t get any good results. We helped give them some pointers about driving skills, then they managed to get much better results.
Neto: If I remember correctly, that was a Class 8 truck, right? Is that the biggest class you have raced?
Monchi: Yeah, it’s much smoother and so much easier to drive (laughs).
Kibi: You drive that sh*t with one hand… (laughs). We did two seasons in that truck and won the championship both years. That was the last season with RPM.
Neto: Considering you guys were champions with ever single car you guys touched, did they never offer a chance into a bigger category?
Monchi: One time we were chatting about it but it didn’t happen sadly. I would just love to test those bigger vehicles but we are thankful for such an amazing opportunity to just get paid to race. That was a dream come true.
Neto: I guess you guys are probably the only Class 11 drivers to ever race professionally for a team, right?!
Monchi & Kibi: We guess so (laughs)!
Neto: And what do you think is your secret? How do you prepare before a race?
Monchi: The most important thing is to prerun. Knowing where you might get stuck is crucial. If the bigger trucks can’t make it in some areas, imagine us! Sometimes our team had to help other teams to get unstuck so we didn’t lose time waiting for them. Stuff like that.
Neto: How much do you guys prerun?
Monchi: Only one lap but we take our time observing everything specially possible alternate lines.
Kibi: Also, as mechanics we know every square inch in the vehicle and we carry essential spare parts. Brake rotor, CV joints, spindle, engine rods, a whole bag with screws and bolts…
Neto: How about any physical preparation before/after a race?
Monchi & Kibi: … well …
Neto: … just beers?
Kibi: Not really. Prepping the car, prerunning and getting rest is most important. You can’t sleep before a race, sleeping is for when the race is over.
Monchi: After the race, it’s back to work. You rest on Sunday after celebrating if that’s still the case but either way, it’s back to work on Monday.
Neto: Let’s talk about your vehicle, any secrets?
Monchi: Before they changed the rules, it was fairly easy keeping everything stock. Now, money is a big factor. You can modify the transmission to become stronger. There are specialized race engine shops that can give you a big difference in performance if you have the budget. My Class 11 right now is pretty outdated. Today’s Class 11’s are a whole different animal.
Kibi: We never had the best parts tho. My brother preps the engine here and we always used small carb, low compression and even regular pump gas. We didn’t have the budget for the top shelf parts.
Neto: Top speed in the Class11?
Monchi: We used to reach 85mph. Today it’s probably 80…
Kibi: …on pavement, going downhill… (sad laugh)
Neto: I hear you, Speaking of today’s racing, how do you see the off-road scene for you as Class 11 drivers?
Monchi: When Roger acquired SCORE, we noticed a difference for sure. They said the entry fees would get lower for us but we never noticed that (laughs). They are giving us less miles than the big classes but the race tracks are getting tougher and tougher. You aren’t allowed to have a single mistake or you’ll fall behind. We would like a little bit more of support in this case for sure.
Either way we love to race Class 11. Everyone tells you the same “You’re the true Baja warriors”.
Neto: F*ck yeah you are. Now in these last few years you guys had another opportunity to race now in Class 5 Open, how was that?
Monchi: We raced with them for 3 years. Greg (Greg Sullivan is the owner of the team) invited us to the Baja 1000 as support drivers. We got 2nd at the first Baja 1000, then won the following year. Last year they brought two cars and we teamed up with Miguel Pabloff to drive one car and the other was driven by Greg and his team members.
Kibi: We had a lot of issues at this last Baja 1000 but we still won.
Monchi: It’s funny when you think about it. We invited Miguel Pabloff to race when he was the one who invited us to race for the very first time. We both were really pleased that we completed the circle.
Neto: The circle of life. Amazing. How about your relationship with each other as brothers and drivers?
Monchi: We don’t need to teach each other how to drive or race. We have all the confidence in the world in each other. Of course we get angry sometimes and that’s when mistakes happen but nothing we can’t deal with.
Neto: That’s good to hear. Families that race together, stay together. I think this is a good conclusion for our interview, something you guys want to add?
Monchi & Kibi: We want to say thank you to Miguel Pabloff, Mateo Pabloff, our family of course and all our friends who supported us throughout our whole career. We owe a lot to them.