2004 Baja 1000 Adventure - Part 1
"All desert races are great events, but the Baja 1000 is unique." - Ivan 'Ironman' Stewart.
SoCal Fab's Nick Nelson rolls to the first rider change at K77 just outside of Ojos Negros - before the end he will have tackled almost half the 1016 miles of the Baja.
To the majority of the competitors, just to finish the legendary Baja 1000 is a victory. For others, winning is the only thing that fuels their passion. Competition is the driving force that gives these riders that ability to endure more than 1000 miles of bone-jarring off-road riding in the hopes of earning the right to say they won the Baja 1000, whether they are a mega-buck factory-supported effort or an independent squad racing out of their garage.
Somewhere in the middle is the SoCal Fabshop
Team from Canyon Country, California. After narrowly missing out on the victory in the Pro ATV class in 2002, they were back for their fourth attempt at Baja 1000 glory, this time aboard a 2004 Honda TRX450R.
Riders Nick Nelson, Jason Greenhaw, Cesar Lopez and Jeff Henderson were optimistic about the mission they were about to embark on, ably backed by the support team consisting of Bill Nelson, Frank 'The Tank' and Jeff's dad, Ken Henderson. While waiting for their turn in the tech inspection line on the afternoon before the race, this group of friends and family members felt they had just as good a shot at winning their class as anyone else. After all, they have posted excellent results in Baja's three previous years. They finished 4th in their first attempt back in 2001, then nearly won the '02 event but finished as runners-up. And, had it none been for a broken sprocket hub in 2003, they may very well have come out on top. A year later, they are back and ready to get it on.
Before sunrise, the rural Mexican town of Ensenada was buzzing with the sounds of 283 race machines and at least twice that many support vehicles. A handful of helicopters whirled about overhead adding to the surreal feel of the opening ceremonies. Thousands of spectators lined the streets with countless thousands more in place along the 1000-mile course. The start of the 37th Tecate SCORE Baja 1000
was getting underway.
6:00AM - Thursday Nov. 18
SoCal Fab rider Nick Nelson set off on his own to the starting line while the rest of the crew and I headed out in the team's lifted Chevy Z71 pickup to the earliest road crossing at Ojos Negros. Once there, we would get our first look at the rest of the competition as we watched for our rider to come through.
Once past Ensenada's urban sprawl, if you will, Highway 3's surrounding scenery is an absolutely amazing sight. The ground and its foliage were still wet with dew on this surprisingly cold morning. Loaded up in the team vehicle, the crew on board (riders Jason Greenhaw and Cesar Lopez, along with Bill Nelson, Frank and his videographer/wife Diana, and me) tried to relax after scrambling to get the day underway at the crack of dawn.
Soon, traffic slowed to a crawl as we approached the road crossing. Flaggers, ambulances and a few thousand spectators gave notice that we had just arrived at the first of many viewing areas, and we took the opportunity to stretch our legs and take in the sights and sounds. This was my first Baja 1000 and it was just starting to set in. Although I wasn't racing, I was excited to be taking part of this amazing event by riding along with the SoCal Fab Team.
Nick Nelson crosses Highway 1 about 50 miles outside of Ensenada. The leader of the SoCal Fab Shop Team would definitely earn his money in this race.
It took about a good 30 minutes before we saw any action, but once it started it was like a tidal wave of enthusiasm took over the crowd as the motorcycles blasted their way through the checkpoint. The first signs of life came in the shape of a red helicopter cresting the hill from the north about 500 feet off the deck. Beneath them, the eventual overall race-winner Team Honda XR650R, piloted by Steve Hegenveld at that time, was already well on their way to victory.
A tiny terrified Kangaroo Rat caught my eye as it scurried to find sanctuary from the motorcycle madness behind the front wheel of a parked support vehicle. I watched for a moment as it trembled in terror when the first bikes and quads thundered past. It made me think about the rest of the innocent little critters who would come face to face with a Maxxis
tire or two before the end of the day. Ahhh. who really cares about that? Let's get back to the Baja.
A seemingly infinite stream of motorcycle riders was finally broken up with the arrival of the first ATV. Two quads came through before the SCF bike made its appearance. Hard on the gas, Nick Nelson blasted over the highway crossing, hit the dirt road on the other side, sliding sideways while pulling the front end off the ground and was gone a moment later. He was close to making a move on 3rd place after just these first 30 miles. (Even more impressive was the 10A Bombardier Team's move from 10th to first.) Things were looking good at this early juncture for team SCF. We high-tailed it back to the rigs and started the next leg of our journey. We had a couple hours to make our way to the pit stop on the highway just outside of San Felipe.
7:45AM - Thursday Nov. 18
Local fast guy racer Cesar Lopez was in the truck with Bill and I, trying to squeeze a few more minutes of sleep in before taking over for Nick at San Felipe. Lopez was scheduled to ride a relatively short but fast section from kilometer marker 77 through his hometown of San Felipe to Puertocitos. It was in Puertocitos that he would hand off the bike to Jason Greenhaw for the third leg of the race. The schedule from that point had Greenhaw, a Mickey Thompson MX ATV racer, starting his 300-plus-mile stint that would conclude with him riding in the dark for about an hour until Nick would take over near the half-way point outside of Vizcaino.
The first half of the 2004 Baja 1000 took riders from Ensenada to Vizcaino. Click to view a larger version.
I would soon discover that the ongoing battle to get to the next stop before the other guy takes place not only on the racecourse but on the highway as well. That meant speed limits be damned and full speed ahead for the racers and their support teams. To quote that infamous Smokey & the Bandit theme song, "We've got a long way to go and a short time to get there."
A short time later, we reached San Felipe and made preparations for the rider change and fuel stop. Quite a few bike and ATV teams were starting to set up camp along the highway, creating a sizable crowd on both sides.
Shortly after our arrival, Nick stormed out of the whoop-infested desert road and skidded to a stop alongside the trucks right on cue. He just completed the first 100 miles in three hours through the notoriously difficult section between Ojos Negros and Ensenada. According to Nick, the bike was running flawlessly and the Maxxis tires were holding up great. Although the 10A Team Bombardier was still in the lead, it wasn't by much.
"10A was fast," Nelson explained from behind a mask of dirt and grime. "Their bike was f@$#ing fast! He went by me in a place so rough I just couldn't believe he went through it at that speed. I couldn't keep up. From Ojos to here was really rough and I pumped up a little. I really just wanted to get us into a good position early on."
At this point team SCF was one minute behind third place. We needed Lopez to make up some time. A speedy refuel stop and a quick inspection of the dusty Honda TRX took all of 2 minutes and Cesar was underway, heading south towards the fast but whooped-out section of the race that is his specialty.
For the three of us in the support truck, things were about to get really interesting as well. You see, there are two sides of the Baja peninsula and we were on the Eastern one. The problem was that Nick was scheduled to take over at Vizcaino on the western side of Baja, 500-some miles away. We planned on saving a little time by taking a shortcut across the mountains towards El Rosario. Sounds like fun.
8:50AM - Thursday Nov. 1
Nick and I were now stuck in the truck with Nick's dad, Bill, apparently an aspiring rallycross driver. Bill believes in taking it fast and smooth on the straight-aways and blasting around corners with the hammer down. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy hauling ass and never complained once, but I did have a couple of moments of mild terror. This was just the first few hours of what would ultimately be 25 hours and over 1,700 miles of full-throttle off-road and highway driving. It felt like we were in some sort of Mexican Cannonball Run.
Each support vehicle was now going their separate ways. Jeff took off in his truck for Ciudad Insurgentes where he would take over for Nick around midnight and complete the final leg of the race. Meanwhile, Frank headed to El Crucero where he would meet up with Cesar in case the TRX needed any major repairs and to help Baja Pits install the headlights for the nighttime leg. Baja Pits is an organization of desert racers that takes care of the transportation of non-factory supported teams who need help getting their fuel and spare tires to each remote pit location during the Baja 500 and 1000 races. It is a pretty cool service, but not without its faults, as we would find out later.
Cesar Lopez looks over his shoulder to make sure the coast is clear before heading out of K77 and down the road to his hometown, San Felipe.
After a short time on the highway we made our turn off the beaten path and onto the road less traveled. The plan was to take a short-cut through Valle de Trinidad across to Colonet/San Vicente where we would hop back on Highway 1 for the long haul to Vizcaino. The infrastructure out there consisted of non-maintained, single-lane dirt roads that after decades of abuse had seen better days. We would spend the next hour entirely off-road and on the gas.
There were no speed limits, but plenty of blind corners, drop-offs and rises to keep things exciting. There were cliffs on the one side and an embankment on the other - and not much room to squeeze two vehicles past each other, especially when they popped-up mid-turn, but we still managed to do it again and again. At least three cars full of unsuspecting Mexican Nationals had their life and the grill of the massive 4x4 flash before their eyes as we navigated this remote portion of the 2004 Baja 500 course. We even had a local swing a shovel at us as we blasted through their work crew at one point. There are no DOT warning signs at Baja, baby.
¡Lo Siento, Amigos!
Cesar gained time when riding in familiar territory to him, but then lost some when he missed his refueling stop and subsequently ran out of gas while trying to locate some petrol. Eventually he did, but team SCF was now 15-20 minutes behind the leaders after that mistake. It is a long race, though, and the tough portions were still to come for the riders.
Once we hit Highway 1 we started to make some good time again but we were still a long way from our destination. An hour or so later, traffic came to a stop just as we were about to go up another twisty section through a mountain pass. As we neared the bottleneck we could see tractor trailers off in the distance, driving out into the desert. It looked like a scene from another '80s movie, Convoy. Meanwhile, the clock was ticking and we were all growing antsy knowing that we needed to get somewhere fast. When we finally reached the point that allowed us to join the caravan of semis and support vehicles that were creeping along the deserted bypass, we saw the cause of the delay.
Here's the view from the truck while we took a 30 minute detour around an accident that included a support truck.
A white Ford Bronco support vehicle was upside down at the bottom of a 50-foot bank. It was crushed to hell with the trailer hung up on the mangled guardrail on the edge of the road. According to the reports on the radio, the driver cut the corner and was clipped by oncoming traffic. That deflected him through the guardrail and over the edge. From our vantage point, things did not look promising. It could have happened to anyone, including us.
1:00PM - Thursday Nov. 18
We continued to make our way south through Federale-manned checkpoints and towns full of children clamoring to be the first to arrive at the truck and ask for stickers every time we stopped to re-fuel. Stickers are a hot commodity during Baja season.
The sun was just starting to settle into the western horizon which meant the race was about to become even more difficult for everyone. In the dark, things happen faster - no HID headlights light up the course like the sun can... or do they? Lurking in the shadows are ruts, rocks and the all-important course indicators. It's hard enough to spot that stuff in the day, and ten-fold more difficult in the dark. According to Nelson, a rider's pace never drops off.
"You go just as fast at night, I swear to God."
3:00 PM - Thursday Nov. 18
By this time team SCF's third rider, Jason Greenhaw, was already on course. According to reports from our other team members, we were still in fourth place, about 20 minutes behind the leaders but a mere 2-3 minutes behind the second- and third-placed bikes with 300 miles of his ride yet to go. The 1A bike was now in the lead followed by 10A then 6A.
The 10A Bombardier Team consisted entirely of Mexican National riders. Their familiarity of the area would truly pay dividends for them before the end.
"The first 90 miles I was flying blind," explained Greenhaw after the race. "It was a last-minute logistical fix after one of our riders cancelled due to family illness. Luckily, it was very fast and smooth compared to the other 250 miles that I would ride later in the evening, a winding coastal dirt road at 80 miles per hour with a 100-foot drop-off into the Sea of Cortez on my left was pretty much a white-knuckle way to start my day."
Jason was well on his way to Vizcaino when our first support truck called us and complained of being hassled at the checkpoint at Guerrero Negro after they failed to come up with the proper Visa paperwork. The next bit of bad news came an hour or so later when reports that the fuel that was supposed to be available from Baja Pits, whom many teams rely upon was being held at a checkpoint for some unknown reason by the Federales. This was not good.
For the next three hours we drove and we drove with only stops for refueling to break the monotony of our gulag. The fuel sapping V-8 under the hood of the support truck forced us to stop and barter for gas from a roadside fuel truck vendor during a particularly long stretch between towns. Coincidentally, the team SCF riders would end up doing a similar song and dance as well, just to make their destination.
Finally we reached the government checkpoint at Guerrero Negro (where our first truck reported having some trouble). In front of us was an intense looking soldier dressed in a sort of biohazard suit, brandishing what looked like a chemical bug-sprayer you might pick up from your local farm and garden store. The clean-cut Federale that approached the truck window requested our passports, which of course none of us had. This prompted an onslaught of our weak explanations about why we didn't have them and a discussion regarding what to do about it as the rest of the AK47-toting fellows milled about the back of the truck. After a few tense minutes of dialogue the whole thing was settled once we volunteered to hand over some stickers. Other officials darted to the driver window to get their share of the booty with the same glee we saw in the eyes of each and every kid at every stop along the way.
We were cleared to pull forward so that bio-man could spray down the truck before being waved on. Exactly what we were sprayed with is up for debate, but if we're betting on it the consensus was that it is a substance often referred to as H2O. It had to all be for show. I would have taken a photo, but I did not want to push our luck with the armed soldiers.
After escaping from the clutches of the Bio-Federale unit at Guerrero Negro, this enormous Mexican flag blowing in the evening wind struck a chord with us. The Baja 1000 is no game.
We kept heading south and, as the time ticked away, we did some quick calculations. It appeared that we were really cutting it close after the time lost circumventing the accident earlier in the day and haggling with the pseudo haz-mat squad.
On the course, the sun was now setting and Greenhaw was only about halfway through his segment of the race. He had just bolted on the light bar during his pit at El Crucero and would be on his own for the next four hours.
"I had to get to the Bahia de Los Angeles to pit and then to San Francisquito Bay, then to El Arco and eventually get to Vizcaino to pass the bike on. Before Bahia de Los Angeles I got a rock stuck in between the wheel and the brake caliper. I was passed by a Yamaha YFZ450 (12A) but later passed them back while they broke down."
Back in the truck, our long drive was about to come to brief end. The sun had set about an hour before so we were driving in darkness for quite some time. As we crested a low hill we finally started to see signs of life off in the distance. What started as a glow on the dark blue horizon turned into rows of burning orange smudge-pots lining the center divider, indicating the need for prudence at the upcoming road crossing at the Vizcaino checkpoint. Thousands of lanterns, flashlights and campfires now dotted the horizon as floodlights from the team pits lit up the pit area like a football field during a night game. This lent some legitimacy to the Mexico Tourism Board's claims of nearly 300,000 total spectators.
We had survived hauling ass from outside San Filipe all the way to Vizcaino, and it was a good thing too. Just about the time we located our roadside pit manned by Frank 'The Tank' and rounded up the riding gear for Nick, Jason came into view on the TRX, headlights blazing a blue-white swath through the cold and dusty darkness. He skidded to a stop and hopped off while everyone scrambled to complete their assigned tasks: check tire pressure, oil-level, change the air-cleaner; and fuel-up the bike. Nick hopped on and took off down the highway with both trucks following close behind. The Baja rules dictate that the speed limit of 60 mph must be maintained during all highway sections. This was the beginning of the most critical portion of the race.
7:00PM - Thursday Nov. 18
The soft-spoken Jason Greenhaw was covered in dirt from head-to-toe, but he had no time to clean up as we scrambled back into the truck again, tailing Nick down Highway 1. He was going on about how the lights kept cutting out and how at one point he had flipped the quad over and crashed pretty hard. Apparently he was lucky to escape uninjured and with the bike in running order.
"An hour into the darkness I accidentally hit the off switch for the lights while I was riding through a rocky rough section," Greenhaw explained. "The bars yanked from my hands and I went down hard into a bush."
Jason Greenhaw hops off the SoCal Fab Honda TRX450 moments after rolling into Vizcaino. After the team was finished inspecting and refueling the bike it was Nick Nelson's turn to ride again.
Jason was clearly happy to be done with his stint as we began the second half of our journey in the truck. We were on our way to the checkpoint at Ciudad Insurgentes where Nick would hand the TRX off to Jeff Henderson, the 1999 AMA District 37 Grand Prix amateur champ, who would bring the bike across the finish line at La Paz the next morning.
Out on the course, everyone in the ATV Pro Class was starting to struggle. A big crash by the 1A leaders handed 10A the lead. That incident moved us up into third place, possibly even second. Nick spent a lot of time pre-running this section and it was paying dividends. We were informed by radio that he was once again closing in on the leaders and to expect him to be in second or third at Ciudad Insurgentes.
A few hours of driving led us to our second night time stop at the Baja Pits at Ciudad Insurgentes where Jeff was anxiously awaiting Nick's arrival. We were there for about 20-30 minutes before a few trophy trucks and buggies broke the silence with their distinct wailing exhaust notes and massive light bars blinding anyone in their path. This is one of the great spectacles for the thousands of fans we could see through the darkness, lining the track opposite our pit area. Cheers would erupt every time a racer would come into view, but they were particularly ecstatic over the cagers.
The first ATV had already gone through just before we arrived, and it was quite a while until the next ATV went by. It became obvious that something was amiss. A short time later, Nick slogged his way through the dust and into the floodlights of the Baja Pit where Jeff Henderson was patiently awaiting his turn at the Baja. The same routine, of air-filter, fuel, oil and tire check revealed nothing was amiss. Incredibly the Maxxis tires were still in good shape at well past the halfway point. Jeff took over and set off to reel in the leaders who were 45 minutes ahead. However, second place had only recently gone by, and an excellent finish was within reach.
Check out Part Two of the 2004 Baja 1000