Baja The Agony & Ecstasy Part I

December 18, 2005
Ken Hutchison
Ken Hutchison
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The ulcers keep piling on for the warden of the MotoUSA asylum. With the inmates running rampant around the globe, Hutch has opted to get in on the madness more these days than in years past and is back in the saddle again.

For those of you who have not been paying attention, MotorcycleUSA has just completed its first foray into the world of off-road racing by tackling the 38th annual SCORE Baja 1000. According to our friends and family we (and me in particular) are out of our minds and need to understand that it’s time to grow up. Well, as that cunning linguist Tom Petty says, “If you never slow down, you never grow old.” I sure hope that’s the case or else all these riding injuries and speeding tickets will have been for nothing.

Right out of the gate we were having a blast on our Honda XR650Rs. These bikes are meant to be ridden here  in the Baja.
Right out of the gate we were having a blast on our fleet of 2006 Honda XR650Rs. These bikes are meant to be ridden just like this, right here in Baja.

Flashback to four months ago when American Honda’s Ray Conway called to inform me that in fact we did get the go ahead for our proposed Baja 1000 Project. Honda would provide us a fleet of six 2006 XR650Rs, one of which would be a Johnny Campbell replica desert racer built by Precision Concepts, the driving force behind Campbell’s 9-consecutive Baja victories, which we would race in the 2005 SCORE Tecate Baja 1000.

As you might imagine, I was stoked. What I didn’t realize was just how much effort goes into planning this type of endeavor – and in the end – just how much of that planning is laid to waste once the reality of the situation comes into play. What you are about to read here is the abbreviated yet detailed recap of our Baja 1000 Project, and it all starts with pre-running the most grueling course in the history of the world’s toughest race.

According to off-road legends like American Honda’s Bruce Ogilvie, Precision Concepts’ Bob Bell, Baja Tours’ Tim Morton and many other dirt gurus, pre-running is the only way to survive Baja. My question for them now that it is over: How many people actually survive pre-running?

We loaded the trucks and made a run for the border – its time to take it to Baja, baby!

Our caravan hit the border crossing at Tijuana 10-days before the start of the 38th SCORE Tecate Baja 1000. The plan was for the group to ride the entire course then assign our half dozen riders to their respective sections and await the start of the race. At this point our spirits were high. After all, we were as close to factory off-road racers as we’ll ever be and life was good.

Here is a little sample of what the Baja has to offer: Beautiful scenery  blue skies and warm weather. A little closer examination will reveal the down side of Baja. Cactus of all different varieties  Joshua Trees  sage brush and weeds  lots of weeds.
Here is a little sample of what the Baja has to offer: Beautiful scenery, blue skies and warm weather. A little closer examination will reveal the down side of Baja. Cactus of all different varieties, Joshua Trees, sage brush and weeds, lots of weeds.

Three riders, Tom Watson, Steve Wilkinson, myself along with MCUSA’s newest scribe JC Hilderbrand and photographer Ty Maddox, made our way south on Mexican Highway 1 from Tijuana to Ensenada. Tom Watson is the only member of the team who actually has raced the Baja, although he did so as the driver and navigator in a buggy. Steve ‘Wilky’ Wilkinson is our resident class clown, obstinate bastard, or as others put it, the voice of reason. I am the ring-leader that would be accountable for what would transpire over the next two weeks. J.C. and Ty were along to capture the happenings by photo, video and the written word for you to enjoy.

Our destination was the humble abode of our fourth rider, and my long-time friend, Darin Hecker, who just so happens to be a resident of Ensenada. Once we were safely within his domicile there was no time to waste. We had about eight hours to put the final touches on the pre-runner bikes because the next day would be the true start of our Baja 1000 adventure. There was a load of work to be done and after cutting a few corners we managed to get to bed sometime after midnight.

I know this story is long but there was so much going on we couldn’t stuff into less than this without compromising the integrity of the story. Actually, the second and third installments will be posted during the next week. So, make sure to read it or Santa won’t bring you what you want. Print it out if you must, but make sure to check this out.

Day 1 – Ensenada – San Felipe

San Felipe by Morning

Our pre-running adventure started off with a freezing-ass cold ride out of Ensenada in a light mist. Ty snapped this shot over his shoulder at me. Little did I know how much hell we were about to endure.
Our pre-running adventure started off with a freezing-ass cold ride out of Ensenada in a light mist. Ty snapped this shot over his shoulder at me. Little did I know how much hell we were about to endure.

Six of us left Ensenada the next morning and headed East on Highway 3 to the road crossing at Race Mile 35 (Rather than say race mile from here on out, we’ll just use RM35). From there we would pre-run 165 miles of the course, making our way to RM200 just north of San Felipe where we would call it a day. It was on this first day that we would all truly begin to understand how complex, difficult and challenging the task before us was going to be. Make sure to pull up the map we provided in the photo gallery so you can follow along as I trace our route throughout this story.

Things were pretty uneventful in the beginning as we made our way north of Tres Hermanos to our first fuel stop at the RM75 road crossing on Highway 3. Our chase truck was being piloted by the seventh and eighth members of the team, Jerry and Jean Justus. We fueled up the bikes, made some necessary suspension adjustments and threw a PB&J down our pie-holes before parting ways with the chase crew. From that point on we would be without support through the treacherous netherworld between RM75 and RM200. In preparation for this extended stint we tossed an extra six gallons of fuel in two gas cans and stuffed them into some Givi saddlebags on my bike. According to our calculations this should have been enough fuel to get us through the next 125 miles. Of course, things don’t always go as planned now do they?

We were off in a cloud of dust and before long everyone was enjoying the amazing surroundings that make up the Sierra De Juare region of Baja. The steep mountains that made up the horizon were the least there was to draw your eye off the path ahead at any given time. Plateaus, canyons and other amazing landmarks were everywhere and it was awesome. Part of the pre-running fun is actually getting a chance to soak in the scenery before blasting past it in competition, so we weren’t in a big hurry to get through there. The riding was pretty easy for the next hour as we put miles of dirt road underneath our wheels, so much so that it had us all wondering if the claims that this was the toughest Baja course ever were merely meant to try and scare us off.

About the time we passed the RM100 mark the trails started to get increasingly more difficult and demanding. We were about to discover the first of many challenging obstacles this particular course would throw at us. For 2005 the Baja is all about rocks, lots of rocks.

Watson loved riding the rocky Summit so much that he volunteered to ride the first leg of the race. He said afterwards that there were so many riders and bikes mangled on this section that it blew his mind.
Our buddy Tom Watson loved riding the rock-infested Summit so much that he volunteered to ride the first leg of the race so he wouldn’t have do it again, leaving it to that crazy bastard Wilky. After the race Steve said that there were so many riders and bikes mangled on this section that it blew his mind.

“Sixty of the first seventy miles were on the pegs and hanging on,” explained Watson after less than 100-miles of our journey was in the books. “The stock 650 was awkward for me in the standing position and I was using muscles that were apparently unused when riding my personal bike. Not to worry though, only 170 miles of the Summit (rocks on rocks), sand whoops and silt beds to go.”

Yeah, the infamous Summit was looming just over the horizon and as anyone will tell you that has ridden it, it’s pretty awful. The summit is best described as a boulder field – a road comprised primarily of rocks ranging in size from billiard balls to bowling balls, a rock-filled highway or a trail of stones can all be interchanged as a description as well. In a nutshell – this is rugged terrain that would claim many competitors on race day. Our ringer, Steve ‘Wilky’ Wilkinson – a desert aficionado based out of Boise Idaho, made good time in the technical stuff and seemed right at home in the boulder-fest – in fact he may be part mountain goat.

“The first part was a blast,” explained Wilky while sipping from his Camelbak and waiting for the rest of the guys to emerge from the rock pile. “Holding an XR650 pinned in fourth and fifth gear, railing throughout the washes and over the hills was a riot. Then we reached this (the Summit) and it turned to work. First and second gear rock climbing puts your skills to the test. When you see a pre-runner truck team with the co-driver walking in front and guiding the vehicle through a rutted-out, rocky descent, you know it’s nasty.”

Once that the rock-hell was behind us things opened up a bit as we made our way south. This is where some faster and more unique terrain started to come into play. With so many races being run in Mexico the ground has been thoroughly abused and it shows. The course is sunk into the earth which in turn creates berms and ruts that make railing fun as hell but the dust hides things beneath it. It reminded me of a slot-car set track I had as a kid. But, about the time you would get confident and really start to wail, bam – something rears its head and hurts ya. A hidden rock, a dust-covered rut or a slick off-camber turn no matter what your weakness is there’s something waiting for you here.

The dust was thick as tortilla soup and it wasn t even race day. As you can tell by the location of the sun in this picture  this was about an hour or so before things took a turn for the worse.
The dust was thick as tortilla soup and it wasn’t even race day. As you can tell by the location of the sun in this picture, this was about an hour or so before things took a turn for the worse.

The course kept us heading south and before long the groovy roller-coaster of a trail gave way to the flat, featureless Laguna Salada dry lake bed ahead of us, so it was time to truly hold it WFO for a good five or six miles. It was cool to see the dust clouds, stirred up by the first riders, which looked like dust-devils scurrying across the horizon, before being absorbed into the lingering brown haze overhead. Sometime around this point the sun was starting to get low in the sky, but I remember thinking at the time that all was going as planned and that we were going to be fine. That’s when things started to take a turn for the worse. I had a 3.4-gallon IMS tank on my XR and everyone else was set up with the 4.6 gallon IMS so, as usual, I was the root of the next problem. 

Somewhere a half hour or so past RM140-150 was where I started to get concerned about fuel, so we figured it was time to turn it up a notch and make up some ground – no more stopping for photos and sightseeing. The sun was too low for comfort and our fuel was, too. At this point all I could hope for was to have made our calculations correctly since the spare fuel was gone and we still had about 50 – or more – miles to go.

Fortunately there was still some natural light lingering once the sun disappeared behind the mountains, but about that same time we got our first taste of silt. The terrain leading up to it had beckoned us to speed up after the dry lake and the road had some rises and falls which made for some entertaining jumps – until the last one anyways. I was bombing along with Maddox riding off to my right when we both saw a rise so we gassed it and leapt off the top and down into 2-3 feet of silt on the other side. Poof! The stuff felt like water hitting your boots and it completely obscured the horizon as I tried to regain control while the ruts and tire grooves hidden beneath it were dictating my path. When the silt settled, we looked at each other, shook our heads and proceeded to trudge through this dry, dirty mess. Since I wasn’t the first to drop into this filthy hole, it came as no surprise that Wilky had a similar experience.

“At the end of the fast, fun trail ride was a totally new experience awaiting this mountain-riding boy,” explained the 46-year-old Wilkinson while sipping a beer on the patio of El Cortez resort the next day in San Felipe. “Silt. Wow! Dropping into the silt at speed was like dropping into three or feet of water. It just grabs a hold of your front wheel and tries to throw you over the front. After the initial shock of the silt wave cascading over my head like a wall of brown water, my instinct was to keep the throttle pinned – which saved me from certain silting.”

There s one thing for sure about Baja: This is some of the best riding I have ever done. The scenery was amazing  it was similar to things I had seen before  yet it was different too. Plus it had a sense of danger about it that added to the enjoyment.
There’s one thing for sure about Baja: This is some of the best riding I have ever done. The scenery was amazing, it was similar to things I had seen before, yet it was different too. Plus it had a sense of danger about it that added to the enjoyment.

Meanwhile, I tried to stay as far away from Ty as possible in order to avoid the choking dust, or as Wilky also described it, a ‘silt wave’ when my XR started to choke and sputter before coming to an abrupt stop and tossing me over the bars and into the silt. Good freakin’ Lord, that stuff is nasty. Not only was I covered from head to toe in the ultra-fine dust but I was out of gas and Ty was riding off into the distance, leaving me alone and dirty in the darkness.

I gathered myself up, tipped the bike over to the right in an attempt to get any excess fuel to the petcock side of the tank and began the process of firing the bike back up. I started stressing out thinking about being alone out there in the dark – with no damn gas, no light, no radio and worse yet, no TV! Shortly after I began frantically kicking it over, Ty came back into site with this patented Cheshire Cat grin beaming out of his helmet. “Bet you’re glad to see me aren’t you?” he asked. ‘Yeah, sorta,’ I thought to myself.

We moved fuel from his bike to mine and got rolling after 10-15 minutes, then eventually caught up to Wilky, Hecker, JC and Watson who had been awaiting our arrival. At that point we knew it was inevitable that we were not going to make it to RM200 without a few more stops. About this time I was getting frustrated at how much drama we were enduring on this, the first day of the trip. It had been dark for an hour at this point, so we made a pact to stick in pairs so no one would be left alone to fend for themselves.

Basically we were riding on a 100-foot-wide dry river bed that was comprised of thick gravel molded into an endless sea of whoops with a myriad of routes through the patches of trees and shrubs placed intermittently along the route. We sent the speedy riders (Wilky and Hecker) off first and waited for a few minutes while their dust settled before JC and I took off. That left Watson and Maddox to sweep. Within the next hour and a half I ran out of gas three times. We had not seen hide nor hair of the other riders and, frankly, I was starting to get deliriously upset with myself for not making sure to cover all the bases. To calm myself down I started singing a tune in my head. It was my own unique version of George Strait’s country song “Amarillo by Morning.” I unconsciously changed the words to “San Felipe by Morning” and had it churning through my mind over and over again since those are the only words to the song that I knew – in the hopes of getting into some sort of a trance and waking up at the truck before things got worse. It didn’t work.

Don t believe the ghost stories  Watson s just messing with the MCUSA duo.
Tom: “Have you guys ever heard of Chupacabra?

J.C. Chupa-what? What the hell is that?

Tom: Some flesh-eating creature that’s rumored to live in this area.

Ken: I hope we have enough gas to get to the truck. I’d hate to be stuck out here with that thing running loose.

J.C. I wanna go home…

I wasn’t the only one having a breakdown. Between the second and third stops, we had a hand in Wilky’s own personal drama. Apparently he too had run out of gas, but he and his bike were on the far left side of the course. The two geniuses decided to send Hecker off alone with his awesome quartet of Trail Tech lights for the final 15-20 miles to secure the truck and more fuel. Meanwhile, Wilkinson was left unaccompanied in the dark – no flashlight, no lighter, nothing. And we’re heading his way on the far right side of the wash.

Here’s the tale from Wilky’s perspective: “So there I am, it’s been 20-30 minutes since Hecker left and the rest of the group was still nowhere to be seen. About the time I’d given up any hope of being found I heard the sweet sound of thumpers approaching. As they got closer I saw they were on the opposite side (of the course) from me so I started running to the other side to try to intercept them – screaming the whole way. ‘Mother F@&@$! Hey, I’m over here, you F@&@#^ a-holes!’ I was busting through branches, stumbling in my boots and screaming as loud as I could, but JC and Ken just rode right on by me like I wasn’t even there. Five seconds later I was standing in the spot they rode through, waving my arms as they disappeared into the night. At this point my heart sunk and I thought for sure I was going to spend the night alone in the Mexican desert.”

What Wilky didn’t realize was that we rode about one more minute before I ran out of gas for the third and final time, right in front of the RM185 sign. JC and I knew our fate was sealed so we got out of our gear and started to make preparations for the long night ahead by collecting wood for a fire like good Boy Scouts do. In the middle of deliberating ov