When it comes to desert racing one name rises above all the rest: Johnny Campbell. During the last ten years there haven’t been many races where the 1X Honda XR650 wasn’t the top bike.
At 6-feet tall and 180 pounds, the amicable and quiet Johnny Campbell doesn’t exactly portray the kind of burly brute you’d think it would take to be the greatest Baja racer of all time. Yet here he is, standing before me with a kid-in-a-candy store grin and that soft spoken confidence that only a true champion can exude. If you saw him walking down the street you might erroneously mistake him for a computer programmer or working at some other mundane kind of job. You definitely wouldn’t peg him as the premiere off-road throttle twister, winning almost everything he and his racing partner Steve Hengeveld enter.
Although in real life Campbell may not be the Mr. T character you’d expect him to be, on race day it’s a different story: He’s a calculating, precision machine aboard his bike. Every second of every race, on and off the track, at the starting line, or wrenching on his own bike – you name it and he’s calculating its weight on the end result of finishing first. He’s calculating myriad variables like tire wear, fuel consumption, his competition’s positions and all while blasting through one of the most treacherous landscapes known to man at 110 mph.
Whatever he’s doing, he’s doing it right. He’s won the Baja 1000 eight years in a row. Heck, in 2005 alone he’s won the Best in the Desert – Nevada 1000, Terrible’s Town 250 and the Parker 250. And if that doesn’t impress, you how about his 2004 accomplishments: 1st overall at the Baja 1000, Baja 500, San Felipe 250, Henderson 300, Vegas to Reno, 2nd overall in the Parker 250, Terrible’s Town 250, HYR 24 hours of Glen Helen, and was the SCORE Desert Series Class 22 (open) Champion as well as he Best in the Desert Open Pro Champion.
Johnny Campbell is a living legend when it comes to racing Baja, winning eight Baja 1000 championships since he began racing the series in 1991.
The list reads as if it’s someone’s lifelong achievements, yet this is only the past 12 months for Johnny Campbell. Looking at his rap sheet it just goes on and on and pretty much tells us one thing: the unassuming San Clemente, CA local is pretty dang good on a Honda XR650R.
But how do you get to be the greatest desert rider of our time and possibly ever? “Hard work and determination” says Campbell. I only wish it were that easy, but Johnny is quick to point out that an average rider who works his wheels off can best a naturally fast rider who doesn’t train properly. So maybe there is merit to this hard work and determination thing.
Growing weary of team sports in his youth, Campbell turned to motocross in 1985 and quickly climbed its ranks, turning Expert in 1987. It was this year that Campbell decided to turn his hard work, determination and focus on motocross and try to make a career out of riding dirt bikes. He took his brand new Honda CR250 that his father had bought him and set out to the track with one thing in mind: winning. However, a motocross champion he was not meant to be. Once he started racing GPs, he knew instantly that the type of racing he truly loved was longer than two 15-minute motos.
He started racing the Baja series at full tilt in 1991, albeit a hard year never actually catching the Kawasakis, It was an important year for him and the desert racing community. It was the year that Johnny “El Maestro” Campbell was born as a Baja racer, and it was the start of a wonderful career in the Mexican desert.
Campbell races with teammate Steve Hengeveld. Together the duo are the automatic favorite for every desert race they enter, like the Best in the Desert – Vegas to Reno which they finished about 4 hours quicker than our first-time efforts.
1993 was a milestone in his career as it was the first time that Campbell completely dumped two-strokes in favor of the monstrous torque of a four-stroke. In 1994, this bet paid off and came to fruition as he won $6500 cash and a Honda contract for the rest of the year for his second-place finish in the 2000-mile SCORE Nevada rally. This was also an important year for Campbell because it was the beginning of his life-altering relationship with Honda’s off-road head Bruce Ogilvie. In the coming years, the two of them developed and tested the XR650R (as well as Campbell’s riding) to the point of almost default dominance. Fast forward 11 years, 8 Baja 1000 championship and a plethora of other wins, and here’s Johnny and Ogilvie still working together and dominating the sport. That has to be one of the longest and most fruitful relationships in motorcycle racing history.
Despite all the racing wins and the sports glitz and glamour, Campbell still seems like just another guy having a great time riding bikes. The sport of off-road racing has been blessed with such a graceful champion, and few ambassadors are as well liked, or as well respected as Johnny Campbell. I spent a few moments with Campbell to pick his brain and bring to you his thoughts about racing, Baja and everything in between.
MCUSA: You’re having a great year so far, is everything just clicking together for you?
JC: Overall we’ve had a couple of hitches but we are leading the Baja series and doing well in the Nevada series. So, yeah, I’ve been very happy.
Honda’s desert ace is a soft-spoken champion. It is not a coincidence that the emergence of Honda as desert-racing powerhouse has mirrored Campbell’s own rise to dominance.
MCUSA: Honda has been alone in off road racing for so long, what are your thoughts on KTM’s recent efforts in off-road racing in the US? Is it almost like the Kawasaki years again?
JC: The competition is welcome ’cause competition breeds excellence. They have been putting together some good rides, they have a good support structure and they are learning.”
MCUSA: Your training and diligence is almost legendary by now. What do you do to train so hard and how much importance does your training have on the outcome of a race?
JC: I think training is a much needed asset to off-road racing. In long-distance racing I think the largest asset is preparation, and of course training is part of that. Nothing replaces time on the bike, but second to that I mountain bike and run. We usually start about two months in advance, preparing for a Baja race.
MCUSA: You’ve been so dominant in this sport for so long, is it hard to keep pushing yourself for that next win? What do you do to keep yourself motivated?
JC: You know, sometimes you want to get complacent. But I’m lucky because I don’t actually race every single weekend, so I don’t get burnt out on the riding and racing. A lot of guys race every weekend, every week and get burnt out, which is exciting for me because I don’t have to worry about that aspect as much.
MCUSA: Who has been your toughest competitor this year?
As far as Campbell is concerned the strongest challenge to Honda’s dominance in the sport has come from the KTM team of Andy Grider and Chris Blais (seen here at the start of the BITD – Vegas to Reno).
JC: The toughest competitor this year so far has been the KTM boys, (Andy) Grider and (Chris) Blais.
MCUSA: Are there any up and comers you’re keeping an eye on?
JC: Absolutely, we took on a couple of young guys in preparation for the future, Kendall Normal and Robbie Bell.
MCUSA: The XR650R has been around for quite a while now with almost no major changes, what keeps it so competitive?
JC: I believe it was built for exactly what we use it for and being that it doesn’t change a lot, over the past 5 years we have been able to really get to know the bike and how it reacts to certain things. A lot of times the manufacturers will make major changes, usually for the better, but you really don’t get to know the bike that way.
MCUSA: A little about your past: Around the time you switched from 2-strokes to 4-strokes, you also decided to give the Baja series your full attention. Was the transition from motocross and GPs to Baja difficult, and looking back is there anything you could have done to make it easier on yourself?
Looking to the future, Honda has brought in B-team youngsters Robbie Bell and Kendall Norman – getting groomed to receive the torch once Campbell is ready.
JC: I think changing from GPs to the off-road racing wasn’t that difficult, but the major thing I did lack was terrain reading at the higher speeds. I mean, I did have some terrain reading experience in GPs, but there was a certain amount of confidence that I had to build up to. So I rode District 37 races every weekend for two years.
MCUSA: What’s your favorite place to ride in Baja?
JC: Favorite place has to be around Catavina. Scenic with huge rock formations, lots of fun, roads are gorgeous white sand. Not too rocky, real fast.
MCUSA: What it’s like to race at night?
JC: It’s exciting and dangerous, almost like being in your own world, in a tunnel. I went down in a rain rut in 1999, because the dust was so bad from a Humvee I was following. On the second lap of the Baja 1000 I was chasing down this Humvee for miles, he was going so slow but I couldn’t pass because I couldn’t see. I finally tried to pass him and slid into a rain rut, the light bracket was bent almost 90 degrees left and I had to waste time twisting the lights back so they actually lit the road ahead of me.
MCUSA: What is the biggest challenge of Baja?
Desert racing is test of both skill and endurance. Campbell excels at both but feels fortunate that he doesn’t get burned out by the need to race week in and week out.
JC: Overcoming your own fears – there are so many obstacles that you don’t have control over. Baja isn’t a closed course so it’s kind of like uncontrolled chaos. There’s livestock, locals, mom and pop coming from the ranch. So many variables you have neither fair warning of nor control over. When I first started I didn’t have the fear or respect for Baja that I have now. I also didn’t have as many near death experiences, so I have matured and see things differently. I see how fragile and easy to lose life is.
MCUSA: How Important is pit and air support?
JC: For success in Baja you need it. Prep is key, reliable pit personnel and crews, attention to detail, etc. In the Baja 1000, we have 100+ volunteer personnel, friends, family, some Honda employees, maybe a moto club that wants to help. Honda has had a privateer pit support program for over 30 years there. If one of those pit crews is in the wrong spot or isn’t prepared his whole race is screwed. Need all the parts and reliable people waiting for you. Air support is vital to this type of racing for radio communications, to know where you are in the race, how hard you have to push. In Baja there are so many risks, you want to win the race riding as slow as you can. When you see a crowd or are going through a village, you want to slow down ’cause they build booby traps, a hole, a ditch, a jump, they want to see some action, not hurt the racers, although it happens. Preparation, we go into it with over a month and a half of prep for that one race. Each pit crew, 2-5 people, has about 10,000 bucks worth of equipment. A private rider can go up to their same pit support and pay a fee for its services. They carry 110 gallons of fuel and enough parts for 40 teams.
MCUSA: Any crazy stories from Baja?
In just over a week Campbell will be back in Baja doing what he and Hengeveld do best: jumping back and forth across the Mexican desert as they race towards another Baja 1000 championship.
JC: I was held up at gunpoint – that was the wildest and hairiest thing. I was pre-running a section for the 1998 Baja 500 near Mike’s Sky Ranch. I was coming up the road and I thought I saw something, so I slowed down in case it was a horse, and there was a guy with a gun pointed at me. He had a purple sock on his head, and I was going too slow to get away. I was alone, and then two other guys jumped out of the bushes. They spoke to me in Spanish and they told me to get off the bike. They ditched the bike over the side of an embankment, and they wanted me to take my fanny pack off. Then they basically wanted me to walk up the road, and the guy shot a couple rounds in the air, and to me it was almost surreal. So, they wanted me to go off into the bushes, and one guy started going through my fanny pack, and the other guy wanted me to pull down my pants. It was surreal. The whole time I was praying. “If they want something else than money, I’m going to die, because I’m not giving it up.” The other guy who was going through my wallet got about $500. I ran back down to my bike and was going to go back down the hill to where my truck was, and the banditos said I had to go back to Mike’s. I was pretty freaked out. A few minutes later, Larry Roeseler and Dan Smith showed up in their pre-runner trucks, and I was freaked. I went to the police station and they didn’t even care. The cop sat there watching a cheesy black and white TV, and he couldn’t care less. So I went and told the Federales approximately where they were and they went after them in their Humvee and assault rifles. But the next day they apparently shot someone in a Baja bug in the leg. I heard they got the guys later on after they robbed some other motorcycle riders. It was pretty much an isolated incident that doesn’t happen often, but It took me about six months to get over the ordeal.
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