Oh yeah, body armor is a necessity when you’re riding the Baja. Over and over again I thanked the Lord for providing me with the proper protective equipment.
For the final day of pre-running we split into three groups after finalizing where each rider would best fit. Tom Watson and Steve ‘Wily’ Wilkinson would take care of the start through RM200, while Greg Gipe and Gordie McCarty would tackle the dreaded San Felipe whoops and Matomi Wash section from RM200 through RM400. That left Darin Hecker and me to bring the bike home from RM400 to the finish at Ensenada.
Initially I was planning to ride to the final section, but once Hecker and I finished pre-running it was obvious that someone with a bit more resilience and familiarity with the streets of Ensenada would be a wiser choice – one of the few I made on this mission. Hecker gladly accepted the opportunity to bring it home. Darin and I put in for day two at RM480 so he would be familiar with the Melling and Simpson’s area, since we were thinking at the time he was going to be running that section.
While we were gearing up at the truck I considered wearing only my Alloy jacket and jersey rather than the Azonic Body Armor since I hadn’t had a serious tumble all week. At the last minute I opted for the armor and a few minutes later I was thankful I did. Just three miles into the ride I highsided in fourth gear after getting crossed up in a rut.
I hit the ground hard on my right side and slid on my elbow and arm for so long I couldn’t believe I didn’t even get a scratch. The dust from the crash completely covered me for a moment afterwards and I knew right then that I had used up all my ‘Please God, don’t let me crash’ prayers during the first three days. Darin said it looked like I was sliding head first into home plate – only home plate was a mound of brush and some ruts. Of course the armor took the bulk of the damage, reinforcing my belief in how important it is to always wear maximum protection when it’s available. Amen. The XR forks were twisted about 45 degrees from straight so we had to loosen the clamps and straighten ‘em out before we could get back underway.
There were a few BMW’s out and about in Baja. This one was Jimmy Lewis’ HP2 that would ultimately snag a third-place finish in his class. Not bad considering he was facing off against both factory Honda teams.
The ride from there to RM570 was uneventful since I had just run this section two days earlier with the rest of the guys. There was a troupe of riders on enduros who went past while we were performing crash repair on the XR. I couldn’t tell if they were just pre-running or trail riding but they definitely looked like they knew what they were doing. We would eventually catch up to them a half-hour later at the base of someone else’s ruin.
I had put the fear of God into Darin with my recap of riding conditions while we drove in the truck to our starting point, so things didn’t seem quite so bad once we actually faced the scary obstacles. Things I believed were gnarly on the first ride weren’t nearly as bad the second time around. We had started to catch the riders that had passed us earlier when we came across one section that was still gnarly – a pair of nasty, rock-infested hillclimbs right before RM490. The first was a 100-yard-long rutted-out dusty mess that in the photos doesn’t look too difficult, but it was steep and ugly. When we got to it a rider was just successfully completing his 3rd or 4th attempt and the sky was filled with dust. The trail continued to be horrendous for what seemed like a mile. Once we got past the last two guys in that group there was a bigger group waiting at the bottom of the second climb with what looked like an ATV tipped over in the middle of the trail.
As we got closer it turned out to be an older dude on a BMW R1200GS that had crashed in the heinous rocks. His bike fell downhill and the rider was perched atop the thing while fidgeting with his radio equipment with a big grin on his face. It looked like the guy wasn’t in dire straights and the other group had it under control so we rode around and made our way to the west.
Things got a bit more interesting after we fueled up at RM560 and decided we could easily make it to RM640 in the 3-4 hours of daylight we had remaining. The course was basically a series of seldom-used dirt roads west of Cerro Solo through RM570 and it was fun. It reminded me of our basic riding in the mountains of Oregon during the end of the season when dust really makes for an irritating time. But once we neared the Pacific Ocean though to the stretch of the course that paralleled it around RM590, it was no longer old hat.
Mexican beaches are a sight to behold. The western coast of the peninsula gets plenty of sightseeing by the racers since the course runs right next to the beach.
This was arguably the most beautiful stretch of ocean front property I have seen in Mexico to date. Unfortunately, the camera batteries were dead so the only picture is the one etched in my mind. Sorry! You’ll have to close your eyes and imagine while I explain it. The rugged coastline was dotted with nasty looking black volcanic rock out-croppings, hidden coves, bright-pointy aguava plants and huge rolling hills. The ocean was blue-green with white caps atop the 5-6 foot swells that broke on the faces of those same rocks. The sun was getting low in the sky and the shoreline cliff that curved off into the water to the south of us was tempting us to go grab a hang-glider and leave the bikes there. The entire landscape, sky and ocean blended together into a missed picturesque photo-opportunity that is just one of the many things about this trip I wish I could hit the reset button on and do again – only better.
This was the Erendira area, a place where the local kids were out in force and they all wanted the same thing: stickers. It started with an old rusted-out Datsun pick-up with no windows driven by what looked like the grandfather of the kids perched in the bed and on the roof drove out to where we had stopped to soak in the view. I waved them down and gave the kid a couple stickers and they all seemed pretty happy with that as they drove off. It was the start of a sticker-giving extravaganza like I never thought would happen.
The pine forests and creek crossings that surrounded the course outside of Mike’s made for phenomenal riding. JC enjoys the scenery and contemplates waiting around to give Ken another misting.
At every road crossing and intersection we were bombarded with youngsters who would swarm out of the woodwork like bees to honey, asking for stickers. It was that way anytime we came into view of the public from there to Santo Tomas at RM630. Of course we obliged and burned through a stack of 80 stickers in less than two hours, taking every opportunity to spread goodwill to the locals. But it was costing us time and it was beginning to get dark.
A couple particularly interesting exchanges that took place between us and the Ninos, as I started to think of them, included a group of a dozen or more little bambinos who spoke a wee-bit of English and were very keen on us doing wheelies when we left what looked like their back-yard after stopping at the T in the road. Well, we obliged. They were screaming and cheering as we left and I thought to myself how cool it must be for them to have the Baja 1000 run through their yard – unless of course Robby Gordon’s trophy truck was to smash into the side of their home, which was only 50-feet off the beaten path.
On the opposite end of the spectrum was a group of a half dozen boys who were opening and closing a gate for the riders/driver, requesting a sticker as their fee. By that time I had handed out the last one to a little girl on a pink bicycle that had ridden as fast as she could down her driveway to catch us after Darin went by. I had to explain in my best Spanish, ‘No mas stickers.’ I motioned back down the track and muttered, ‘muchos ninos,’ trying to convey that I had given them out to all the other kids. Now, in reality, these kids couldn’t have put out the bulletin on us, but from here it was us versus the Ninos because the booby traps were waiting.
At the beginning of this adventure I was skeptical about the booby-trap phenomenon in Baja, but now I know it’s true. The first episode was more funny than anything else. We rode through a deep sandy wash that skirted alongside a neighborhood which the Ninos had easy access to. They stacked big rocks in a line across the course, which was no big deal. The funny part is that 3-4 kids would try to hide behind one tiny bush just off the road and you could see them plain as day. Then we came across mounds of gravel placed intermittently throughout the track. I slowed past one and it was a tire laid on its side with big rocks stacked in the middle. The kids scooped gravel over it to try to blend it in. I think quads would be the ones most affected by these paltry traps, as it didn’t really faze us. But there was more to come.
Before getting into the rocky whoops along the coast, we spent more than a few miles traversing this burn section. Winding through the charred cacti and scorched boulders makes you realize how many little rodents must’ve lost their squeaky lives in this blaze.
The more dangerous traps were now coming into play. Directional arrows were moved, but it was obvious the course went a different way. This might become a problem in the dark or if you were delirious from a long ride. Then there was a huge trench dug across the road at the exit of a blind corner. This was a fast section so if you hit it on the gas it would likely not do a thing. But if you flinched and tapped the brakes you would eat it bad. It was about 10 feet across and at least a foot deep – like a back-hoe had done the deed. Just about the time I started dwelling on the prospect of dealing with the bigger and better traps set by teens and adults through the night, I started to question if I would have the ability to overcome something like that during the race.
Then we came across the most peculiar stretch of rocks I have seen since riding at home on the railroad tracks. It looked like a couple hundred dump trucks had piled aggregate rocks into a half mile long whoop section. The rocks were loose and the whoops were deep – plus the track was about just wide enough for one vehicle before it dropped 6-7 feet to a sandy beach. Here is where I pictured my Baja race coming to an end. When we first entered the section I slowed down and that weighted the front end of my XR. Things got squirrelly for a moment or two until I got my momentum going again. I started to jump and double the mounds, keeping the front end light as I could when I saw Darin get out of shape in front of me. As I jumped into that same whoop I saw that the bottom was filled with huge bowling ball sized rocks that the kids had placed there.
I gassed it over the next set and landed in one that was clear – the following set I plowed through a pile and nearly went over the bars, much to the delight of the little twerps lining the edge of this field of rocks. I went slow, plowing the front like a rookie with my feet down until I felt I was clear of the danger zone. Surely, Johnny Campbell blasts through there at a 100 mph and could care less about these things, but all I could imagine was auguring in and not being able to get back on track.
The XRs get fired up as the evening falls on our final days of pre-running. Soon enough it would be time to test our mettle.
Shortly after the rock-pile the sun had slipped into the sea beside us and we were riding in the dark once again. At the time I remember thinking how little a field of vision the stock lights provide and how great it was going to be riding at night with our bad-ass lights during the race on the Precision Concepts bike. Surprisingly, I would give a finger to have had these puny little lights a few days later.
Eventually we made it to Santo Tomas and loaded the bikes for the trip to Ensenada with a swarm of Ninos trying to get in on the sticker hand-outs. The next day we checked out the terrain outside of town. With the booby-trap-fest already taking place in ‘Shit Creek’ (The first mile or two of the course went through the dry canal that snakes through Ensenada which is affectionately know to the locals as such) added on to the prospect of navigating town on race day with the pressure of finding the finish line, I decided I might be better off handing this section over to my colleague Darin. Like I said earlier, it turned out to be a good decision for more than one reason.
Friday – The Day Before The Race
The streets of Ensenada were absolutely filled with spectators, racers and partygoers the day before the race. Sign-ups were a breeze compared to finding a parking space and actually getting there.
I could not believe the utter pandemonium that is the town of Ensenada on the day before the Baja 1000. The street was full of party-goers and support trucks, pre-runners and school girls (not necessarily in that order) jockeying for position in the vendor row and along the line of trophy trucks and rails lined up for technical inspection. While the drivers and riders jumped through the necessary SCORE hoops, the rest of the population was gettin’ their freak on in the city center.
Once we finished installing the mandatory GPS tracking system, numbers and SCORE stickers on the Precision Concepts race bike we took the opportunity to check out the party. I waded through the hordes of race fans while a band pounded out lively tunes off in the distance. I was drawn to the sound and got nearer. Beautiful Tecate girls were dancing on multiple stages around the perimeter of the party while the band pounded out the beats to which they endlessly gyrated to. Below them the men lined up like puppies, hoping to catch their eye and get singled out and receive a sly smile from one particularly luscious lady. Or at least that’s what I was doing anyways.
The band was playing on a stage perched precariously on the edge of an amphitheatre that was dug 20-plus feet into the ground, with concrete steps carved into an oval shape all the way around it. At the bottom was a dirt floor with a couple hundred people milling around inside it. It was a mosh pit on par or even more-crazy than any I had seen in my concert-going history. I gained access to the Federales scissor-lift on the edge of the crowd in order to get a better view of what was happening. As you will see in the video, it was unbelievable. Thousands of spectators lined the amphitheatre with thousands more spilling into the paddock area and onto the streets – it was awesome to see. The mosh pit was going off like a whirlpool with lines of people destroying each other and kicking up dust like crazy.
There was plenty of bling rolling around as 340 entrants anxiously awaited their turn to register their vehicles. Over half of them might as well have signed their pink slips to the local wrecking yard.
After an hour or two passed and the booze started to kick in, things began to get a little hairy. The crowd started tossing beer cans, pop cans, beer bottles and anything else they could grab into the pit and onto the party-goers. Fights started to break out here and there while young ladies were having a good time being on display in their best get-ups and the young men were busy pounding on each other and acting the fool in an attempt to attract them. It was fun to watch but I started to get the feeling things were getting out of hand. Sure enough, about that time it started getting ugly and I was asked to leave the lift so the riot control police could get into position. Apparently, they were ready for this.
Off in the distance the trophy trucks were slowly making their way through the crowd with family and team members perched on the roof safely out of the way of the party. As the police regained control the party started to fizzle out. The red-and green spandex adorned dancers had all disappeared and were replaced by police with machine guns dressed from head to toe in black riot gear. I thought to myself, “What a buzzkill” and spent the next half-hour rounding up the MCUSA team and getting everyone to agree it was time to get our game faces on.
At that point it was time to get back to the house and begin preparations for the race the next morning while Greg and Gordie made the trek to San Felipe where they would await Wilky and the race bike the next afternoon at RM200. We were all anxious to get it going, but we were all freaking our lids at the prospect of the colossal expedition we were about to embark on.
The great Mario Andretti spoke these words in the popular Dust To Glory movie: “Racing the Baja is like being in a 24-hour plane wreck.” We would find out just how true this statement would be in the next 48 hours, and we would do it willingly.
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