Darin Hecker passes under the Red Bull bridge aboard the Precision Concepts Honda XR650R outside of Ensenada shortly after he started the 2006 Tecate SCORE Baja 1000.
In ’05 we had exactly zero riders with Baja motorcycle racing experience on their resume, and by the time we crossed the finish line in 146th place, that fact had made itself painfully obvious. Still, we managed to finish, which was a victory in itself, but we knew we could do better.
The 39th running of the Tecate SCORE Baja 1000 began with the same optimism as it did in 2005, only this time our Honda XR650R-mounted team had a bit more experience and was significantly better prepared for what we were about to get into.
On that note, we’ll pick up the story early in the morning of Nov 16, the beginning of our second shot at the Baja 1000. This is the story of the Team Hecker Racing/Precision Concepts/MotorcycleUSA.com/Tecate/Honda team 316x made up of five riders with one common bond: A love of Baja.
5:30 a.m. – Day 1
As with the 431 other people scheduled to start the race, our Rider of Record, Darin Hecker, was anxious to be at the starting line before 6:30 a.m., so he had us up an hour early to go over the plan and our supply-packing job one final time. He was soon geared-up and heading to Ensenada through the morning fog. SCORE officials were the only ones there when he showed up. A half hour later the street was packed with the remaining riders, teams and media types: The race was on.
6:30 a.m. – Day 1
The pro riders of Class 22 were the first off the line. The majority of everyone’s attention was fixed upon the Precision Concepts Honda CRF450X with the 1x plate piloted by Mike Childress. Would he and his team of Quinn Cody and Steve Hengeveld, who was attempting to extend his own streak to five, be able to dethrone Johnny Campbell and thwart his attempt to win an unprecedented 10th straight Baja 1000?
Not if Johnny’s new teammate Robby Bell, who started for the team on his 6x Precision Concepts Honda CRF450X, had anything to say about it. Certainly Bell was feeling some pressure to do well with a record of that magnitude on the line. A rider starting in this first wave who didn’t quite get the attention she deserved was Anna Cody. This fast female was attempting to become the first woman to ever solo the event as part of her effort to raise breast cancer awareness with her tribute ride in the name of her fallen friend Lillie Sweetland. She would be the first of 37 riders trying to do tackle Baja solo.
The 2006 Baja 1000 stretched all the way down the Baja peninsula, starting in Ensenada and ending in La Paz.
Hecker was the 39th bike off the starting line behind our friends, teammates and defending class champions aboard the 301x bike. They were six places ahead of us with their dream team consisting of Gerardo Rojas, Jorge Hernandez, Pancho Septien, and Italian Enduro ace Mauricio who would start the race and set the tone.
As the race developed outside of Ensenada, the chase-vehicle voyage was also underway. Hecker’s long-time girlfriend Robyn, and myself, were in command of his diesel-powered Dodge Ram 4×4 packed with tools, riding gear, food and our minuscule mascot, ‘Mayhem’ the Chihuahua. Our first mission was to retrieve Hecker after he completed the 100-mile stint and handed the bike off to rider number two, Carlos Mix, at Valle de Trinidad.
8:00 a.m. – Day 1
Out on the course, Darin battled his way through more than half of the Class 30 field, overtaking a handful of Class 22 riders for good measure. This was the start we were hoping for after pre-running this section a half-dozen times in the last 30 days. He had unofficially dispatched more than a dozen riders by our count in the first 100-mile stretch. This put the rest of the 316x riders in a great position heading into the heart of the race. The less dust the better.
9:00 a.m. – Day 1
We waited anxiously, along with a dozen other support teams, to see which of the riders would first show up at our remote pick-up point. I suggested wagering on it which sparked some entertaining conversation but didn’t result in any serious takers. After hours of anticipation the first rider finally appeared. It was a good thing we didn’t put any pesos on it because it wasn’t Darin. Covered in dust and grime, the 2x rider, Damon Cardon, who also was the first bike off the line, reported a vicious booby trap had collected him, Robby Bell on 6x, as well as the 4x machine, much to the dismay of the daughter of the 4x rider and his teammates we had nearly wagered with moments ago.
“I hit a booby trap around mile marker 40 or 42 something,” explained Bell after the race. “It was just like a 2-foot-tall curb or square or something that some guys built. I was behind 2x still, and he hit it and went down and then I was in his dust and I had no chance. I hit it. I cartwheeled and broke my chest protector off and lost my fanny pack. But the bike was totally straight. At first I was a little dingy and I started going backwards on the course. Then I saw Mikey coming so I got straightened out.”
In a surprise turn of events, Hecker was the next rider to show up shortly thereafter. He had obviously put in a strong effort to be so close to the rider who first started the race.
10:15 a.m. – Day 1
We were heading south on Highway 1 before Hecker even got out of his gear. The butterflies in my stomach were more like biplanes at this point because my over-zealous co-pilot was jacked-up on adrenalin and rambling on about how he barely survived the heinous booby trap and how dusty and gnarly it all was. It was starting to get in my head. In a section notorious for local intervention, a well thought-out ambush he described as a telephone pole strategically placed across the narrow race course covered meticulously with brush and branches to entice unsuspecting riders to blast through it. On the other side was a 10-foot wide trench meant to collect anyone lucky enough to make it past the first part of the gauntlet unscathed. A few made it, Hecker included, but many didn’t. I was thinking to myself, ‘Great, can’t wait to see what’s waiting for us in the truly lawless lower half of the course.’
10:40 a.m. – Day 1
Trophy trucks had been unleashed back at Ensenada and within an hour were wreaking havoc on everyone in their path.
Baja is a lot like a dangerous reality show. SCORE’s “the Weatherman” provided narration from his vantage point in an airplane 30,000 feet overhead. All the competitors had radios tuned to him for the all-important updates. We were all hoping we would not hear our number announced for fear of what type of crisis we might be caught up in. No news is good news here.
It took a few hours to get to our second objective, making slow progress while driving through the myriad of villages full of children probing us for stickers at every turn, dawdling jalopies and sight-seeing support drivers. We showed up later than anticipated at the second rider-swap near El Crucero. Keeping up with the race bike was imperative, as we were carrying the spare bike, and we were already a few minutes behind.
2:00 p.m. – Day 1
Time was going by so slowly for us in the truck, but out there on the course it was moving at a perilous pace. Our rider Mix had managed to keep us in the top half of Class 30 before handing off to Alberto Ruiz, a.k.a. ‘Catchetone.’ This was his first Baja 1000, and he was making his way down the technical eastern edge of Baja below Bahia de Los Angeles.
Our A-Team 300x, with Pitufo now at the controls, was battling for first place in Class 30 along with the Ron Wilson 307x machine. Both teams were also in the top half dozen overall. The first bikes cleared Co Co’s Corner by 3:00 p.m. and Catchetone was about an hour behind them.
Behind us all, Travis Pastrana, who was trying his luck in a car this time around, had passed Check 2; Robby Gordon has his Red Bull Trophy Truck past Check 5 at RM377 around 5:30 p.m., averaging more than 70 mph. They are a couple hundred miles behind us and are closing in fast. Ruiz was scheduled to be arriving soon at the Vizcaino Highway crossing after 160 miles of hell between the Bahia de Los Angeles and Vizcaino.
6:00 p.m. – Day 1 (It’s dark now.)
We had just made it past an endless stream of slow-moving traffic, and the orange and white lights from thousands of vehicles at the Vizcaino highway crossing lit up the black Baja skyline. Spectators lined the highway for miles, with the support vehicles and their signage and lights along the road after the crossing. Once we failed to see anyone we recognized for a second time, we agreed that we should head out because I needed to get into the next rider-swap position within the next three hours. About a second after dropping the hammer we heard someone screaming at us to stop. One of those unscheduled fiascos we were hoping not to experience was fully underway.
Ruiz had crashed on the right side in the rocks and had punctured the water hose. We drove the truck down the steep, silt-lined highway shoulder and started sourcing parts off our spare XR in the pickup bed. Our team replaced the hose and filled the radiator in a matter of minutes, and without further adieu the bike was back on track and heading south for a 40-mile highway stint at 60 mph or less – exceeding the limit would result in a 15-minute penalty per infraction. Our Garmin GPS from Precision Concepts ensured we would not lose any time here.
6:15 p.m. – Day 1
Unfortunately, the bike had sat idle while we were making our way through traffic and our other riders searched in vain for a spare hose, losing about an hour of time. This would turn out to be the least of our worries. Hecker was in a hurry to get back on track, so after he tried unsuccessfully to drive up the steep bank onto the highway, he put the truck into 4WD and gunned it. What we heard at that moment was very, very bad. We hopped out with flashlights only to find that the front driveshaft bolts had sheared off and the loose shaft had smashed a gaping hole in the transfer case which was spewing its remaining drops of fluid onto the ground. This was a big problem. Darin went into full meltdown and was ready to throw in the towel. After a brief rant we removed the damaged driveline and whipped-up a shabby patch of the hole and were back underway within an hour, but the bike was well ahead of us now.
7:15 p.m. – Day 1
Get the hell out of his way! Red Bull’s Robby Gordon is flying as he makes his way out of Ensenada and onto the course. The 2006 SCORE Tecate Baja 1000 is about to get interesting.
Weatherman reports 1x has passed Check 7 and is an hour ahead of the problem-plagued 6x team. Team Rojas and team Wilson are in an epic battle for the Class 30 win behind the Precision Concepts Honda super-team’s but well ahead of us at this point. Out on the course Johnny Campbell’s 6x teammate and Rider 2, Kendall Norman, has suffered a broken arm, so Robby Bell is on the bike at night in a section he has never seen before while Norman is headed back to the U.S. The best riders in the world aren’t immune to the Baja effect. Campbell’s record looks to be in jeopardy at this point.
“I had to get back on the bike and ride from Vizcaino all the way to race mile 724,” reported Bell. “I had no idea where I was going, and it was at night so it was kind of sketchy at times, and I had to ask for directions a couple of times. But I got it back to Johnny in one piece. I wanted to keep the streak going for Johnny. The goals had to change, and I tried to make it a Honda 1-2 and finish the race to get the 1x plate.”
Our fourth rider, Victor Villalobos, was making his way through a brutal, rocky, rutted and silt-infested 175-mile night section from San Ignacio to where I was scheduled to take the bike next after Check 7 at RM 724. It was going to take a miracle for us to get there on time after our driveline incident. Then traffic came to a standstill just outside the town of San Ignacio. In the middle of one of the most dangerous stretches of canyon on the highway, a semi-truck had flipped over and was blocking both lanes of traffic. I had been freaking out, worrying that as the only rider to have not yet ridden, I wouldn’t even get an opportunity to ride at this point. Fortunately, one lane was re-opened, so traffic was being pushed through in groups of about 20-30 vehicles at a time. But there was no indication we were going to move anytime soon.
I decided I should get geared up to prepare for my stint, so I hopped in the back of the truck and started digging it out when the traffic started moving. I had just pulled all my stuff from my gear bag and taken my pants off so I wasn’t getting back in the cab. Instead, I was forced to hang on to the bike while keeping loose gear from falling out as we rolled past the incident carnage. The chase truck behind us hit the high-beams and started heckling me for good measure. Anyone ever geared up in the back of a moving truck at night on a twisty highway of death? It’s fun, really. To say we hauled ass after I got back in the truck would be a gross understatement. To paraphrase Charlie Daniels, Mario Andretti would have been proud at the way were moving when we passed that crowd.
10:00 p.m. – Day 1
Robby Bell had a bitter-sweet Baja experience. First he hit a booby trap and narrowly escaped with his life, then he had to sub for his injured teammate and ride a section he did not pre-run – at night. Plus, they came in second, so Campbell’s streak was stopped at nine. At least he won the Class 25 title and will run the 1x plate for 2007
It turns out that we managed to beat Victor to the spot. He was having a bitch of a time. We got into position for the rider swap in front a Trophy team’s lights to help illuminate our rear tire and air-filter changes. I was carrying the wheel over when Victor showed up in a shower of rocks and dust. Villalobos had made real good time through his long section, proving that he was indeed a night rider to be reckoned with, but he had one spill that damaged the front brake. Meanwhile I am standing there holding the spare wheel with half my gear on. My heart was racing and I ran around in circles like a deer in the headlights for a few moments until I came to my senses. I ran for the truck and frantically geared up while super pit crewman Darin got the bike in order. The lights needed to be secured by zip-ties because the mount was coming loose, and the broken brake lever was replaced. Once the bike was fired up I was headed off into the night for my first section, wide-eyed and furry tailed.
The lights were sweet, so I had no trouble seeing what was in front of me. But as soon as I pinned it the clutch started slipping, but I was able to get the bike rolling along just fine by easing on the gas and letting the bike build momentum slowly.
The first dry-river crossing came up on me suddenly, so I had to get the bike slowed quickly, but when I grabbed the front brake lever it just squished back to the grip! The brake master cylinder was an apparent victim of the earlier crashes. So instead of braking I rolled back on the gas and held on for the ride. Looking back on it, it was probably a good thing that I was forced to go through it that fast, as it alleviated any concern I had about surviving the rough stuff. When I hit the other side, half the zip ties broke and went flying off and the lights cocked to the left.
Last year I was stuck with basically a flashlight taped to my helmet for my midnight run so I wasn’t gonna let that slow me down any. This section featured hillclimbs and lots of switchbacks through a canyon that normally was a small river. The surface was deep gravel and millions of large river rocks – not a great place to have a fading clutch. But I could tell I was making good time since I was forced to ride fast and smooth or suffer the consequences, and as I neared the area where I was scheduled to meet Ruiz and Hecker for the swap, I got the warm-fuzzies knowing that we were doing pretty damn good this time out.
Miles behind us, the #116 car piloted by Travis Pastrana was upside down and burning, so I guess things could have been worse. I was actually enjoying myself and thanking the lord for the bitchin Baja Designs HID headlights. Before I knew it I was being flagged down by Ruiz who, like me at the last swap, didn’t have his gear on! I had showed up about 30-minutes sooner than they had anticipated so when I pulled up to the front of the truck, only Robyn and Mayhem were there.
“He’s taking a dump,” Robyn replied when I asked where Darin was. She said the look on my face was priceless. We were instantly surrounded by locals when a voice started barking orders from the darkness. “Turn off the gas and put the bike on the side,” shouted Hecker from the weeds. “We gotta change the clutch right now!”
While I started on the clutch swap, Ruiz got geared up and Darin stumbled into view and went to work. Like a machine he extracted the searing hot clutch plates, replaced them, topped-off the oil and fired the bike up. In less than 15 minutes Ruiz was heading off into the night much to the delight of the crowd from Loreto that had been watching this entire episode unfold. As Catchtone wheelied off into the darkness the crowd was cheering us on, patting us on the back, shaking our hands and generally being the kind of fans you wo