Baja 2000 Part 6
Race Day Part 1
A watch alarm interrupted my wonderful sleep. The noise was piercing through the dark room as someone’s hand begrudgingly felt around blindly searching for the hated sound. After what seemed eternity the beeping watch was silenced. Everyone was awake, but no one moved. We all wanted a few more minutes of shut eye.
I laid there in the warm bed thinking about what lay before us and my role in the race. I was extremely concerned about not doing my job correctly. We had 1734 miles of off-road to get the bike through. There were so many pieces and variables that all had to fall into place simultaneously that it seemed like a near insurmountable task.
I heard a motorcycle engine start outside in the parking lot. Down the street somewhere I heard the unmistakable note of a race bike accelerating down the street with the exhaust note reverberating off the block building walls. I looked at my watch, it was 4:45 AM. We needed to be at the starting line by 6 AM for the race start at 6:30. One by one we rose and packed up the last of our things. Dayton and Eric put all their riding gear on. Eric was the “rider of record”. The rules state that he must either start or finish the race. Since he was not planning on riding the finish he was going to start the race and then pass the bike to Dayton after about half a mile.
We left the pick-ups at the hotel and I walked to the start while Eric rode the race bike. Dayton and Glen walked down the street to where Dayton would mount the bike. The morning was quite cold and I shivered under my jacket.
The street in front of the Riviera Convention Center was packed with race fans and race teams. There was an overhead blow up sign advertising Tecate beer the riders would start under. Stoic faced policemen lined both sides of the street keeping back fans and team members from getting too close to the start line. I felt like the policemen were taking their job much too seriously. The first half mile of race course was on the city streets. Almost the entire distance was lined with spectators braving the cold morning air to watch the bikes leave.
Numbers had been drawn to determine the starting order. The motorcycles start the race one at a time every minute. Our number was 4X. This meant we were in the Open Pro class and the fourth bike off the line. Behind us were a number of other classes of motorcycle racers. The classes differed by engine size, age of the team, and riding ability. Richard Jackson, whom I had met a few days earlier, and team were riding in the 50+ Class which meant every rider was fifty years or older. The starting order of the classes was determined by the speed of the riders in the class. Typically the sportsman classes are the slowest and start last. The quad classes started after the bikes. Then there would be a three hour window before the 800 horsepower unlimited trucks called Trophy Trucks started. The Trophy Trucks were followed by the high horsepower unlimited buggies called Class 1. These were then followed by numerous other four wheel vehicle classes of varying speeds. There was even a class for slightly modified Volkswagen Bugs. It is called Class 11 and they are the slowest and most do not complete the course in the allotted time. Remove the windows, install some race seats and seat belts, fabricate a roll cage and you can race in Baja with a Bug!
Finally motorcycles began to roar to life. I walked with Eric as we moved closer to the start line. The police would not let me stay with him so I watched from the side of the street as the green flag waved for him.
Eric twisted the throttle and the 650 cc engine roared down the street. Eric being quite the showman turned the first turn and proceeded to lift the front wheel off the ground to the joy of the spectators. Down the street he went with the front wheel lofted high in the air, putting on a show. He was one of the best guys I knew when it came to riding on the back wheel.
Eric rounded another corner where Dayton and Glen were waiting. Eric jumped off the bike and Dayton jumped on. In his excitement Dayton proceeded to release the clutch lever too quickly and stalled the engine. It took a few hasty kicks to re-fire the engine. Dayton promptly slammed it into gear and with a handful of throttle rocketed off down the hill into the wide drainage wash that led out of the city.
Meanwhile, I jogged back to the hotel to meet up with Eric and Glen. We quickly removed the last of our belongings from the room and jumped in the pick-ups. We had a 40 mile drive to where Dayton was to hand the bike to Eric. As we made our way out of the city I was amazed at all the chase vehicles making a mad dash south. It was almost as if the chase trucks were in a race of their own.
The buildings thinned into farm land as we headed toward a low mountain range. At the base of a hill was a military check point. This was the first of many that we would encounter on the trip. Young men with M-16s and AK-47s hung around their shoulders stood guard as higher ranking men decided who needed to be pulled over for inspection. Much to our chagrin we were elected to stop, as was Glen. We were ordered from the trucks as two young men in green military fatigues searched the trucks for contraband. They were looking for drugs or any sign of weapons or ammunition, which were all illegal. Upon finding no evidence to detain us any longer we were released to continue our journey. I personally felt like these military check points were a way the government attempted to keep people in line and presented an opportunity to shake down the public.
The narrow road zig zagged between the mountains. Tight narrow curves with no signage caused us to maintain a slow speed. It was not long before we were slowed even further behind a long line of chase trucks. Following a curve I was able to spot the back of a large slow moving Mexican truck up ahead. One by one the chase trucks passed the overloaded truck when there was room. Most of these passes would have been deemed illegal in the U.S., but we were in Mexico and in the middle of a race so caution and laws were thrown out the window.
We arrived at the village of Uruapan where Team Honda had set up pit number 3 at race mile 150. Dayton would be refueling here. We checked in with them to hear how the race was progressing. The pits had radio communication between them when conditions permitted and most pits had a dedicated radio person that would keep track of racers and announce over the air when riders cleared their pit. We discovered that Dayton cleared pit 1 in 3rd position. We were extremely excited about this, but we also knew there was still a long way to go.
Eric wanted to do the rider change just down the road at the top of a hill. The course joined the highway at pit 3 for about 10 miles. So we drove on down there to wait for Dayton. We were stationed at the top of a steep hill that was the location of a “legal” short cut. The highway turned to the right and made a switchback down the mountain and directly in front of us was a steep trail that dropped right off the side of the mountain. Before us was the fertile valley of Santo Tomas. A vineyard and winery could be seen off in the distance.
Sticking to the race course in those days was not completely enforced except at the check points. Creativity was the norm and while frowned upon, everyone did it. In fact, that was a big reason teams pre-ran the course. Everyone wanted to find short cuts and push the boundaries of what was deemed legal. However, this trail was noted as a legal short cut.
Waiting was always the worst part of racing in Baja, especially in those days. We had no radio or form of communication with anyone. We just stood there in limbo waiting impatiently as Eric tried to loosen up his muscles in the cool air.
Finally we heard a motorcycle coming. We could tell from the sound it was a race bike traveling at a high rate of speed. My adrenaline began to pump with anticipation. A motorcycle appeared around a corner as Eric donned his helmet. It was a cardinal sin for the waiting rider not to be completely prepared to jump on the bike when it arrived. While we doubted the first bike was Dayton, Eric knew it was better to be ready than not. As the bike approached we saw the number displayed was 1X. This was the factory Honda A team bike, the best in Baja. The rider slowed as he approached the drop off before blasting over the side of the mountain and down the steep short cut. There was a small ditch at the bottom of the steep hill and the rider effortlessly launched the race machine over it and onto the paved highway again. A huge handful of throttle was applied and the exhaust roared as he accelerated hard down across the valley. After a couple of gentle curves the road was straight for several miles and I am sure the speed of the bike was in excess of 100 mph as the rider tucked himself down behind the handlebars for improved aerodynamics.
And our wait continued. Soon another bike appeared and dropped over the mountain, although not as spectacularly as the first. His speed across the valley matched the first, however. This bike was followed by several more before we began to worry about Dayton. After an hour went by we decided to return to the Honda pit to check in and see where Dayton was.
We quickly drove the few miles to the pit with fear that Dayton would pass right by us. We found he had not arrived yet and they had no word of him. So we continued to wait even more impatiently than before.
Finally Dayton rolled into the pit. He had taken a spill in a corner and cracked the clutch cover on a rock. He was forced to ride about 5 miles to the next pit where a repair was made. But not far from pit 3 the clutch started to slip. We needed to change the clutch, but there was not one to be had. The decision was made quickly to remove the clutch from Eric’s pre-run bike and install it in the race bike. I ran to the pickup and frantically disassembled the bike in the bed of the truck while the pit crew did the same to the race bike. I returned to the pit about 15 minutes later with the clutch assembly in hand. Dayton was beating himself up for hindering our race, but I reminded him it was a long race and we were not going to give up.
Growing up I was not a spectacular athlete. But I found I enjoyed longer distance running and started competing in cross country races at my school. I did not exactly have the body type for long distance, but I was a terrible sprinter no matter how hard I tried. I was beat a number of times, but through perseverance I won a few races. And the times I won, it was by sheer determination and the drive to simply “not quit” when others did. I realized that morning right there in Baja that I needed to apply that same attitude to racing off-road. Over my years of racing, wins were attained, but the most memorable races tend to be the ones that we finished despite extreme adversity and against all odds by conquering what seemed impossible.
A Honda pit mechanic was fast at work on the race bike and soon the replacement clutch was installed. The bike was topped off with fuel and checked over for other issues before Eric fired the engine up. After a quick slap on the back and reminding him that we had a long race to go Eric turned out of the pit onto the highway. In typical Eric fashion he lofted the front wheel into the sky and kept it there as he disappeared around a curve. Everyone at the pit and the spectators along the road watched the show in amazement, some were whistling and cheering. I glanced down at my watch noting that we were more than 2 hours down to the leader.
I returned to the pickup and re-installed the clutch cover onto Eric’s engine where the clutch was now missing. I didn’t want any unwanted dirt to get in it. I quickly packed up my tools as Glen and Dayton waited. Our plan was to drive to the town of Colonet where we could head west off the highway for a few miles on a dirt road to the location of Honda pit 5 at approximately race mile 250. This would allow us to check Eric’s progress.
I turned the little green Nissan off the highway in the town of Colonet followed by Glen and Dayton. The Pacific Ocean was only a few miles away. I consulted my Honda pit book which contained directions and maps to every pit location. This book would prove invaluable throughout the race. It was chock full of information that I wished I had access to just a few nights earlier. The dirt road was bumpy and I took my time even though I wanted to rush for fear of missing Eric. We finally reached the race course and turned north for about a quarter mile to reach Honda pit 5.
Upon consulting with the radio man I discovered that Eric had not passed by yet. We began to wait impatiently. I was really beginning to not like the waiting. At this point Eric was late arriving and we were wondering if the bike was having clutch problems again.
About an hour later Eric finally rounded the corner before the pit. I could immediately see something was wrong with the motorcycle by the way he was riding it. I was relieved to see him, but I was full of questions. He rolled to a stop and shut off the bike. He was disgusted with himself and apologized immediately for slowing us down again.
Shortly after pit 4 Eric was ripping right along the coast when he came into a curve that had a large water puddle in it from the rain two nights earlier. The puddle was not there when Eric pre-ran and it was right in the line he planned on using. In his attempt to avoid crashing in the water puddle he laid the bike over and slid across the hard packed dirt. He became separated from the bike and watched in horror as the bike fell over a cliff toward the ocean below. After a brief silence he heard a crunching thud as the bike landed on the rocks. Eric knew our race was over and he had just literally thrown it way, into the ocean.
He ran to the edge of the cliff to discover the bike laying on the rocks about 30 feet below. The ocean waves were lapping at the bike. Some local spectators were nearby and rushed over to have a look too. Eric and a couple of guys found a way to scramble down to the bike. To his dismay the bike was not completely destroyed. The only major issue he saw was the handlebars were snapped off and dangling by the cables. One of the locals produced a rope and they used a pickup to drag the bike back up the cliff. They then loaded the bike in the pickup and returned to pit 4. Eric knew that was his best bet to repair the bike.
The pit guys were shocked to see Eric arrive with his bike in the back of a pickup, but they jumped into action. There was one giant problem, they had no spare handlebars! Eric thought our race was over and was ashamed that he had just ruined everyone’s race.
When competing in team races in Baja you must make sure that you get the bike to the next rider. I often found that I would dial my speed down a little to ensure I didn’t ruin our race. You can’t win the race in the first 200 miles of a 1734 mile race, but you sure can end your race there.
Eric was scrambling for a solution to his predicament, when one was discovered. An American spectator was sitting there at the pit watching the action from the seat of his quad. He had a vacation house nearby and his neighbor’s house belonged to our teammate John Albro’s mom. He recognized Eric and offered the handlebars on his quad so he could continue in the race. They were not exactly interchangeable, but they would be better than nothing. Eric knew he only needed to get to pit 5 where we would be waiting with two spare XR 650s that he could rob parts from. So after a few minutes of wrenching the handlebars where swapped out and Eric was back under way. How the Good Samaritan managed to get his quad home I never heard, but his help saved our race.
Eric told us the story of what happened while we were frantically wrenching on the bike. I yanked the bars off the bike in the back of the Nissan, while one of the pit guys stripped the race bike of the quad bars. The exhaust pipe was smashed and bent, but it was not bad enough to change. The radiator was bent as well, but not leaking, so it was left alone. The rest of the damage was all cosmetic that we could see. About 30 minutes later the bike was repaired. The steering stabilizer was damaged which would affect the handling for the rest of the race, but we didn’t care. We were just relieved that we would be able to continue. We watched in excitement as Eric rode off. The engine still sounded great and the clutch had worked flawlessly since replaced.
I installed the quad bars on the spare bike so I could secure the bike in the bed. Glen and Dayton assisted me as I packed everything back up. We had little time to spare. The next miles of the course continued to be very fast. We wanted to get to a highway crossing south of San Quintin to check Eric because that would be the last time we saw him for a while as he turned inland before the course headed south to another road section.