Racing Baja To Hell and Back Part II

December 28, 2005
JC Hilderbrand
JC Hilderbrand
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Hilde is holding down the fort at MotoUSA's Southern Oregon HQ. With world-class dirt bike and ATV trails just minutes away, the hardest part is getting him to focus on the keyboard. Two wheels or four, it doesn't matter to our Off-Road Editor so long as it goes like hell in the dirt.

Throughout the daylight hours, team MCUSA faired well enough by avoiding injury to rider and machine, but some problems were quickly on the rise. We had managed to get this far through careful planning, tenacity and a bit of luck. Read about the first portion of our race to see how things developed through the first five rider swaps. You’ll find, as we did, that what transpired early on set the course for our nighttime troubles.

With no hope of rigging up a stock light unit  we resorted to desperate measures. The video camera light lasted about an hour  that s four less than we needed it to.
With no hope of rigging up a stock light unit, we resorted to desperate measures. The video camera light lasted about an hour, that’s four less than we needed it to.

Since we were now in complete darkness and daylight was 10 hours away, it was decided that spending some quality time to attach a headlight would be worthwhile when Greg arrived. We had limped along up to this point, but relying on other riders to give us their light was not something we wanted to continue doing, especially since there weren’t a whole lot of bikes coming through. Instead of waiting around like a bunch of mother hens, clucking with concern for our riders, we had been busy transforming ourselves into electrical whizzes. We had brought one of the extra XRs with us in the chase truck, just for this kind of emergency, and we yanked the voltage regulator off in hopes that it would work.

After a helpful competitor informed us that a stock voltage regulator would only work if we had a stock stator, we needed to know exactly what components were in Pepe. I put my journalism skills to use and got on the horn to see what we could learn. After several frustrating attempts on the erratic sat-phone, I managed to get ahold of Diane Bell of Precision Concepts. Our conversation resulted in the phone number for the company who manufactured our lights, Baja Designs.

Talking with Baja Designs’ tech support while standing in the darkness of a Mexican desert as trucks and buggies roared by was a bit surreal. Since we didn’t have the bike yet, and all I could offer were second-hand descriptions, it was impossible to pinpoint the exact problem. I did know that the 903 Guys had checked the fuse and that was fine, so chances were that something was wrong with the battery. It could have been the voltage regulator, but it was more likely that the battery was shot. Not exactly what I was hoping to hear, but neither was the next bit of info. Because they had installed a super-duper stator, it was impossible to run any stock lighting equipment, regulator, battery, headlight – nothing.

They guys at Baja Designs had given us a killer prototype over-under system that provided retina-searing power. We tested the system the evening before the race when we were all in Ensenada, making sure everyone knew how to install the bright-assed lights. As it turned out, this was where we went astray. Instead of following the directions, step-by-step, we opted to do what any man would do, plug them in and turn em’ on. Well, that was all fine and dandy, but when we took them off the bike and sent them with the 903 Guys, we neglected to take care of one final detail.

The system was designed to run with or without day lights, but there is a difference between the two. Day lights allow for the massive amounts of energy produced by the burly stator to be disbursed as light. If there aren’t any day lights, then it is imperative to disconnect the wires so that all that energy doesn’t build up in the battery/regulator with no escape except in the form of heat. That’s right. We burned up our own battery because the yellow wire didn’t get disconnected after our pre-race test. And so our greatest gaffe took place hours before the green flag even dropped. What dumbasses. Ken’s eyes still well up at the mere mention of the word “lights.”

The Honda A Team Left to Right: Johnny Campbell  Steve Hengeveld and Mike Childress.
Notice how dark it is? These guys were already finished while we were still dinking around with zip-ties and duct tape. (Left to right: The Honda A team’s Johnny Campbell, Steve Hengeveld and newcomer Mike Childress.)

By the time Greg came limping in alongside his kooky southern friend we had quit trying to fix the lights we had and were focused on finding a different light source all together. Unfortunately, the best we could come up with was a set of Trail Tech headlamps and a video camera light to strap to the front fork. Ken loaded up four hours worth of batteries for his headlamps in the front pockets of his vest while the rest of us worked on duct taping the video light in a usable position. With a five-hour battery for the video light, we figured it would be the only thing Ken had left by the time he reached the crew at RM470, who were waiting for him with some fresh Trail Tech batteries. With a howl from the clutch and a volley of half-hearted cheers from our group, Ken lurched into the darkness, quickly fading into oblivion. Without any taillights, we only hoped that Robby Gordon and the rest of his 4-wheeled brethren wouldn’t run his ass over.

It didn’t take long for Ken to realize that trying to ride with his make-shift lighting system was going to blow. Due to a faulty connector on his headlamps’ cord, the Trail Tech units would cut out every two or three minutes, forcing him to stop and wiggle the wires until he could see again. After an hour, the bulb from the video light disconnected from all the abuse that comes with being strapped to the front end. Being the adaptable individual that he is, Ken soon had the Trail Techs, now his only source of illumination working consistently. If you can call it that. The cord was disconnecting itself because of its weight causing the lights to go out intermittently, usually at the most inopportune times.

As he rode, the heavily-constructed wire would bounce and pull itself out of the battery socket. To fix the problem, he routed the extra wire up through his helmet and held it in his mouth, giving the connecting end a straight, steady shot to the batteries held in his vest pockets. However, this limited his abilities as he couldn’t stand up to ride without pulling out the wire and he couldn’t drink from his CamelBak without losing his lights, nor could he shut his mouth. Wide open, sucking the dust from passing vehicles and without any water to rinse, his pie hole was quickly transformed into a litter box full of Mexico’s finest filth. Mmmm.

We all had to cross the creeks during the pre-run  but it was way worse at night when you couldn t see the slippery rocks. Ken plowed through like a champ only dabbing his stubby legs once in the freezing water.
We all had to cross the creeks during the pre-run, but it was way worse at night when you couldn’t see the slippery rocks. Ken plowed through like a champ only dabbing his stubby legs once in the freezing water.

Into Mike’s Sky Ranch and on the way out, the course is littered with creek crossings. They had been cold enough when we pre-ran, but the air temperature in the wet areas seemed sub-zero after the sun went down. Luckily the crossings were smooth and not too deep, and he avoided crashing in the frigid waters. Much of the course in this section runs through valleys and small canyons that wind back and forth through the rocky terrain. The road seemed like it had been graded at some point, but that was obviously long ago. Rocks jutted up from the hard surface and refused to budge when the front tire smashed into them. Combine that with a serious deficiency in lighting and blinding dust, and our pace slowed dramatically.

The canyon walls were perhaps the worst enemy Ken would face as he voyaged through Mike’s Loop. While the dust is generally bad everywhere on the course, the canyons were the ultimate worst because they prevented any wind from clearing the airborne particles. Getting passed is when the dust situation really comes into play, but soon enough, riding through the canyons was like being passed constantly by trophy trucks, only without the heart-stopping noise. When they actually did come roaring by there wasn’t much he could do. Under normal circumstances you could pull over and wait for a minute while the dust settled. After trying this method a few times, Ken realized that the dust wasn’t going anywhere and that he simply had to keep moving forward.

Just about the time Ken would get into a rhythm there would be another passing vehicle. Fortunately, all the guys would come ripping up, hit their brakes and go by at a reasonable pace before tearing off again as soon as their wheels cleared Pepe’s front fender. All, that is, except one.

Hengeveld is the night riding specialist for Honda. Apparently he does his job fairly well.
Ken would have loved to have been lighting things up like Hengeveld was here. Oh well, maybe next year.

Seeing the bouncing lights reflecting off the canyon walls around him, he frantically searched for a spot to pull over as the unusually rowdy sound of the approaching trophy truck grew louder. Having no luck with the turnouts and the truck breathing down his neck, Ken skidded up as tightly as he could to the bank, pinning his leg against the sidewall. An instant later, the trophy truck tore by him, only a foot from his left leg. The guy never let off the gas and the wail of his truck was at a fever pitch. A bat out of hell would be warm and fuzzy compared to this. It was more like Satan had just shat out an F-16 devil-spawn. Turns out it was Robby Gordon. Close enough.

Nearing RM465, about 10 miles from the checkpoint where fresh batteries were waiting, Ken’s worst fear (aside from being passed by a certain Red Bull trophy truck) came to life. The batteries on his sole-remaining Trail Techs finally expired. Knowing that there wasn’t much else he could do, Ken forged on, riding by moonlight. It was an act of God that he happened to pop out on a graded road only minutes after losing his lights. Riding with his feet down, in perfect moto-Braille he managed to keep moving forward, avoid the wheelbarrow-sized boulder laboriously placed in the center of the road by Mexican hooligans and eventually emerge into the bonfire light at RM475 where our sleepy support crew was waiting.

A quick drink of water, some new batteries and an extra Niterider bicycle light strapped to his head, he was off and running again. Due to our painfully slow pace, the Honda Pits had begun to close ahead of us. Ken would more than likely have to borrow gas as he took on the rocky hillclimbs and silty burnt ridges that made up the area between there and the rider swap at the Highway 1 road crossing at RM570. At that point his odyssey would be over, leaving the final 139 miles along the coast to his fellow mullet, long-time riding buddy, and Ensenada resident Darin Hecker.

Only 15 miles into his second stint, Ken wadded in a patch of silt during a white-out, banged up his ribs and irreparably damaging the already fickle cord of his Trail Tech lights. Despite stopping and spending time in an attempt to catch his breath and fix the lights, the headlamps had kicked the bucket, leaving him with only the bicycle unit to lead him through the next five hours of darkness. In a way it was almost a relief since the weak light didn’t have the strength to reflect off the dust, eliminating the white-out sensation that led to the crash. Of course, actually piercing the gloom was out of the question.

This is the amount of dust that a single vehicle kicks up on those nasty  silt hillclimbs. Just imagine what Ken had to deal with after being forced to wait for five or six to scrap their way up immediately in front of him.
This is the amount of dust that a single vehicle kicks up on those nasty, silt hillclimbs. Just imagine what Ken had to deal with after being forced to wait for five or six to scrap their way up immediately in front of him.

“I was so happy to have lights again that I had picked up the pace about 20 minutes after the stop at RM470, and that ended up biting me in the ass” explains Hutch. “The next thing I know, I’m dreaming about everyone telling me to keep going and not to stop. About that time I realized that I couldn’t breathe, and when I went to get up my face was buried in the silty rut I just crashed in. I could hear a truck coming so I scrambled to get up…that’s when I knew this was going to be a long night. The cords to the lights were wrapped around my neck, the lights were dangling like a freaking necklace and my right knee and ribs were killing me. I managed to push the bike out of the way and turn the puny Nightrider light on so I could signal the truck that I was there so he wouldn’t run me down. I spent the next 15 minutes trying to start that damn bike without a decompression lever after crashing, and frankly I was wishing for a reset button on my life at this point. My leg was killing me and I could not give full effort on my kicks because my ribs felt busted. About the time I stared swearing and feeling like I was gonna cry is when it finally fired up.”

Without any riders to assist him and offer additional radiance, Ken motored on, arriving at Honda Pit 11 long after they had closed but by the grace of God they were still there. The bad news was, there would be no gas at pit 12 – they were long gone. Despite knowing that he would not have enough gas to make it in, he soldiered on, also knowing that the most challenging part of the section was ahead of him: Simpson’s.

“I was so worried about riding through that hell-hole in the dark that I didn’t realize how many other obstacles were between here and there,” explained Hutchison. “Twice I was forced to wait in line with trucks and buggies while a four-wheeled vehicle and crew dragged their vehicle off the side of some remote hillclimb. In the second case I was able to go around without stopping, but the first one was blocking the entire trail. One of the truck drivers told me I officially had experienced being ‘stuck in the elevator’ with this particular a-hole who, as he put it, obviously didn’t have an eff-ing clue.”

His next couple stints in the elevator didn’t take nearly as long to get moving again as the first, but the silt and dust at this point were beyond reproach – it was downright inhumane – and that would bite us again. A second get-off about did Ken in, and from that point on he goes into a zone of sorts, to block out the pain. As he mentioned in the pre-run story, once he’ll get a tune stuck in his head it will play over and over again as he tries to cling onto a shred of reality during this sort of Gulag. This time he reverted way back and the only tune he could pull out was Barney the Dinosaur’s “I Love You” theme song that his brood of children watch incessantly at home. Oh, the horror.

Hecker was on the gas for his 139 miles along the Western side of the peninsula. He reeled in the closing Honda Pits and brought us home under the 30-hour time limit  despite the locals  best boobytrap efforts.
Hecker was on the gas for his 139 miles along the Western side of the peninsula. He reeled in the closing Honda Pits and brought us home under the 30-hour time limit, despite the locals’ best boobytrap efforts.

After so much working against us, it was a good twist of fate that the Mexican-based Vildosola Racing pro-truck team had set up a pit deep in his section. Half the crew was asleep in bags on the ground while the other two were keeping an eye out for their rig. Thanking his lucky stars, our Baja leader was suddenly in his element as he begged them for fuel. His brilliant groveling skills were refined enough to overcome even the language barrier, and race fuel was soon splashing into and all over Pepe. Gracias, amigos!

“It was so cool those guys helped us out,” he said. “Once they realized what I was asking for they sprung into action, searching for a funnel that would allow us to fuel up. Out of nowhere one of the dudes in a sleeping bag popped his head out and barked some instructions to the other guys who followed his lead to the missing funnel. Thank God, too. I figured that I could make it the last 60-miles now and it was going to be light pretty soon, so things were looking up.”

From that point on the speeds increased to a race pace as the darkness gave way to the light. The final stretch of road to the rider swap at RM570 would be done as fast as humanly possible – we were still alive, but the rest of us didn’t have a clue.

I had joined Darin and his girlfriend, Robyn, to wait at the rider swap at RM570. She and I attempted to doze as the early morning light began to crest the mountains from which we could only hope our rider would emerge. As dawn turned into a full-on beautiful morning, there was still no sign of Ken. The course leading into our swap area was nothing but fast, graded roads for miles and miles. The road skirted along the mountainside was bordered with┬ácactus and cliffs on the riders’ left, and it wasn’t long before Mexican farmhands began heading to work. We were passed by several vehicles driving backwards on one of the fastest sections of the course, one of which was an old flatbed truck with metal side panels. The three of us were just praying that they didn’t get into a head-on with one of the racers.

Bruised, battered, exhausted and well on his way to bat-shit crazy, Ken’s mental state was seriously deteriorating as he entered the final 20-30 miles of his ride. With Barney’s “I Love You, You Love Me” song prancing endlessly through his muddled grey matter, it was a miracle when he and Pepe appeared on the hill leading a dust trail straight towards us with the sunlight cresting the mountains behind him. Hecker threw on his boots as I waved joyfully, frantically at Ken.

It had been long and arduous, but he had done it. The sunrise had coincided perfectly with the dying Niterider that flickered into uselessness nearly an hour before reaching the truck.

The buzz overhead had died down long before we made it in  but some of those guys who had helicopters didn t even fare as well as we did. Next year we ll take a chopper along with us just to run one of those high-powered spotlights.
The buzz overhead had died down long before we made it in, but some of those guys who had helicopters didn’t even fare as well as we did. Next year we’ll take a chopper along with us just to run one of those high-powered spotlights.

From there on out it was balls-to-the-wall racing again! Without being hindered by the darkness, a fresh and slight