Baja 2000 Part 8
Race Day Part 3
It took Eric and I about 4 hours of driving to arrive in the town of Insurgentes. We needed gas and some food. The inside of the little pickup was filthy and the windshield dirty. A little boy at the station asked to wash the windshield. We gladly agreed, but quickly realized that the inside of the windshield had just as much dirt on it as the outside. So Eric instructed him to wash it as well. The boy was very perplexed by this, and proceeded to use his squeegee on the inside of the windshield. It worked great and we had clear vision again.
Harry was getting off the bike north of town a little ways and Mike Dellar was to take over as the course headed west again and south along the Pacific coast. Eric and I made our way north when we passed Harry’s pickup heading south. We whipped a u-turn and caught up with Harry in Insurgentes. Harry had a good ride and made great time. The bike was holding together and the clutch was still not slipping. The lever had too much free play no matter how it was adjusted, but as long as he shifted without it, it never bothered him.
We continued to make our way south through the town of Constitución where the course would cross the highway at approximately race mile 1300. Mike was to get off the bike at the road crossing and John Albro would take over. The plan was for John to ride south through the La Paz area and Mike would then ride the rest of the way to Cabo San Lucas.
We turned off the highway and found John and his chase truck driver along with Mike’s driver. They had made friends with some fans with a pop up tent set up and were waiting in the shade. The afternoon sun was warm and there was not a cloud in the sky. After discussing the condition of the race bike we decided that we needed to change the clutch again. We considered having a Honda pit do it while John was on the bike, but we feared that it might go out before a pit ending our race. John’s pre-runner was an identical bike so he donated his clutch to the cause.
As John moved his bike into the shade I grabbed my tools. The spectators were more than willing to let us use their shade for our pit and we graciously accepted. I quickly removed the clutch and noticed that a thin spacer ring was stuck to the inner clutch disk. I knew this spacer didn’t come with the clutch because we had not needed it the day before and I had put it back into Eric’s bike before reinstalling the cover. I made a mental note about this and reinstalled John’s clutch cover with his spacer ring.
Around 2:30 PM Mike came down the road toward us. We flagged him over and he leapt from the bike as it was still moving. He was utterly disgusted with the condition of the bike and made us all aware of it. He had nothing good to say and proceeded to badger us all about it. I managed to grab the bike from him before it hit the ground. I quickly wheeled it under the shade and tore into the hot engine. I whipped off the clutch cover and began removing the spring loaded pressure plate bolts. I could feel the heat coming out of the engine. I jammed my fingers into the hot engine burning them on the clutch plates as I pulled them out. I had some rags laid out to place them on and dropped them like a hot potato. I peered into the clutch basket to see that the spacer ring that should be there was missing. In the dark the night before at the Honda pit the ring must have stayed with the burnt clutch upon removal and the mechanic did not see it. I ran to John’s bike and removed the cover once again and fished out the spacer. As I installed the clutch properly Harry attacked the broken exhaust. It was falling off and he used some wire to tie it onto the trashed bike. I completed the clutch change in record time and felt the lever. It was perfect again. We sent John back onto the race course with instruction to get the oil changed at the next Honda pit. He was headed east and would then turn south before crossing the highway again after 115 race miles.
We packed up our tools and thanked our wonderful hosts, who wished us luck, and headed south. We did not have far to drive to the next road crossing.
Eric and I knew that we would not finish the race before dark. The headlight on the race bike would not allow for much speed or visibility. In fact it made night riding dangerous, and in Baja it made night riding treacherous. While we waited for John to arrive at the road crossing Mike offered up the headlight from his pre-run bike. I took one look at it and saw that it mounted the same as our light. His light was a single 8″ Piaa and our bike was set up for dual lights. Upon further inspection I determined that the plugs on the two lights were different. So I laid the two lights on the tailgate and started to operate. Harry assisted as we transplanted half of the wiring harness from our dual light to the single. Harry gave his approval and I laid out the tools needed to install the light. We also decided to change out the battered exhaust pipe. So I cannibalized the exhaust from Eric’s pre-run bike. His poor bike was in sad shape at this point with all the missing parts.
John rolled into the road crossing at race mile 1415 just as the sun was setting. He was struggling. His back hurt and he had some very sore muscles from his crash earlier in the week. He did get a little break while the oil was getting changed at the Honda pit. I quickly installed the light as the guys talked about the plan for the rest of the race. There were several road crossings after La Paz and John asked Eric if he would take over at the first of them. Eric agreed as Harry and I swapped out the exhaust.
John headed back onto the race course just before dark. The borrowed headlight looked like it would work well, but it was definitely not as bright as the destroyed set up. Eric and I headed south to the east side of La Paz to race mile 1560. Harry and Mike headed south of La Paz on highway 19 to a road crossing where Mike was to remount the race bike for the last 90 miles of the race.
La Paz is the largest city in Baja Sur and somehow we managed to find the correct road on the southeast side of town. A few miles out we came to a large crowd on both sides of the road. Many campfires lit the night sky. Only a handful of chase vehicles were waiting here. Most teams chase vehicles were headed south toward the finish. Eric and I became instant celebrities when we stepped out of the truck. Kids and adults alike wanted autographs and “esteekers”. Most race teams had stickers to hand out and the kids snatched them up like they were gold. We unfortunately did not have any and the spectators had to settle for autographs. Eric and I were welcomed to a campfire to hang out as we waited for John. These fans were die hards, they would sit out there all night watching the racers go by. They would only see each one for a few seconds but they didn’t care. Whistles and cheers went up and we knew someone was coming. We watched intently as a bike approached and it turned out to be John.
Eric took over the bike and John gave him a good report about its condition. I reminded Eric that Mike would be waiting at the second road crossing as he rode off. A few spectators asked for John’s autograph as we were jumping in the pickup and he gladly signed a few t-shirts. They didn’t care that we were doing so poorly, we were their heroes nonetheless.
John and I made our way back into La Paz, stopping at a street side taco stand for some food. We were both exhausted and John was in quite a bit of pain. He had been riding in survival mode and that was fine, because we had been racing the whole race in survival mode.
After getting our bellies full of some delicious tacos we headed south on highway 1. Eric would be crossing this road and we wanted to check the bike over. We were so close to the finish that I didn’t want to leave anything to chance. And since Eric didn’t pre-run this part of the course and now he was riding it in the dark I had some concerns which would prove to be valid.
We arrived at the road crossing location at race mile 1610. The scene was pretty much the same as the rest. Many spectators milling about. Campfires on both sides of the race course and highway. There was very little traffic control and at this point many of the fans were quite inebriated. John and I were treated celebrities as soon as we stepped out of the pickup just like the other road crossings. Kids were begging for “esteekers” and wanting autographs. It was fun being the center of attention for a while.
Eric arrived after some time and we waved him down. A crowd of fans immediately surrounded us. He told us about more issues. Someone had booby trapped the race course with a large chunk of concrete. Eric, of course, plowed into it in the dark severely bending the front wheel and ruining the tire. In fact the wheel was bent so bad that the tire was rubbing on the fork tubes. Eric was extremely lucky to have not crashed from the concrete block. He limped the bike along very slowly to the next Honda pit where he was able to procure a replacement wheel and tire. Everything else looked good on the bike so we sent him on. Earlier I had not planned on coming to this road crossing so I told Eric that he was giving the bike back to Mike at the second road crossing. I reminded him of this very thing as he pulled away from us.
We made our way back north on highway 1 and then south on highway 19 and met up with the others at the road crossing at race mile 1650. As we waited for Eric, I noticed that Mike had changed out of his riding gear. I inquired as to why, and he told me that he was not going to get back on the bike because it was in such bad shape. I became furious with him. I had just met him earlier that day, but I was not going to give up on this race less than 100 miles from the finish. And I gave him a piece of my mind about it. Harry, John, and I realized that at this point we might as well let Eric ride the bike all the way to the finish.
I had been paying attention to what other race vehicles were running about our speed. So when a few came by I recognized I began to watch for Eric. Harry, John, their chase drivers and I chatted to pass the time. We were all so tired but determine to push on to the finish. I heard a bike coming so I moved to the middle of the race course so I could flag Eric down. He approached rapidly and when he got to me he rode around me like I was an obstacle and crossed the road and continued on without stopping. I stood there in disbelief at what had just happened. I was purposely standing directly in his path and he simply dodged me and kept going. Then I realized what the problem was. I had told him that we would be at the second road crossing and this was the first one he had come to. Mike then informed me that if I was going to catch up to him I had better hurry because the next road crossing took longer on the highway than on the race course.
I jumped into the little Nissan and lit a fire under it. That little four cylinder engine didn’t know what to think. I headed south in the darkness at breakneck speed. The two lane road twisted and turned through the hills. On the straight sections I was driving much faster than my headlights would light up. I didn’t look at the speedometer because I didn’t want to look away from the road. I passed several other chase vehicles that must have thought I was crazy.
I arrived in the beautiful town of Todos Santos like my tail was on fire. The residents appeared to be peacefully sleeping, but with all the race vehicles blasting through their town I don’t see how they could be. I was shocked to not find any spectators. I knew Eric would be looking for us so I pulled over where he could see me in front of a gas station.
It was not long before Eric showed up. He was thoroughly confused at this point. He had ridden farther than he thought he should have, and now the rest of the team wasn’t here. I explained my mistake and what was going on with Mike. We only had about 40 miles to go to the finish and he just needed to take it on in. Eric was exhausted. His “second wind” had come and gone. He sat there on the bike telling me of the last 100 miles of course. Many of the course markers were missing or pointing in the wrong direction. Spectators were everywhere. At one point a spectator shone a powerful spotlight in his eyes blinding him while he climbed a steep hill, somehow he didn’t crash. He was operating on sheer determination.
I don’t know what was keeping us going at this point, but I know I had a feeling of accomplishment welling up inside of me. We were almost there. We had almost conquered the longest race in Baja history. 40 more miles, that’s all that was left. One more Honda pit. I patted Eric on the back and gave him some words of encouragement. He fired the big Honda back up for the last time and rode off down the street. The loud exhaust note reverberating off the walls of the houses as he disappeared. There was no celebratory wheelie this time and for good reason, every ounce of energy he had left was needed to push to the finish.
I jumped back in the green Nissan for my last push to the finish line. I too was beyond exhausted. Other than a short nap, I had been awake and working on the bike or driving for nearly 48 hours. I had done all I could to help my friends stay in the race. I was an encourager, I was a motivator, and I was one heck of a chase truck driver.
I made my way into Cabo San Lucas. I pulled out the Honda pit book to get some directions to the finish line at the Bullring. I arrived at the Bullring and searched for a place to park. Chase vehicles were scattered every which way with no thought to organization. Loud music blared out from several large stacks of speakers. Drunk spectators were walking all over the place. I saw the finish line and a race truck I had seen many times over the last 24 hours was there with the drivers celebrating from the roof. Fans were whistling and cheering. The music would get interrupted by an announcer when another race vehicle came into the finish line.
I found a place to park and proceeded to cram all the stuff from the bed of the truck into the cab for safe keeping. Everything seemed to grow legs in Baja, especially in the dark. The only thing remaining in the bed was a poor XR650 that had been picked clean of many parts.
I walked toward the finish line when I heard my name being called. David Gronland came walking up. He had seen me pulling in as I was looking for a parking spot. He, his wife and sister-in-law had been waiting for hours for us to arrive. He realized that we must have had problems, but had no idea what we had been through to get there. I began to tell him the story as several more race trucks, buggies, and a quad came across the finish line.
We waited impatiently until we saw a motorcycle come around the curve and head into the Bullring. Eric was finally at the finish. I glanced down at my watch to see that it was a little after 2:30 AM.
We were elated! We did it! We had just completed a 1726 mile continuous off-road race. We had been racing down the Baja peninsula for 44 hours and 43 minutes. Despite all the odds and despite all the challenges we managed to finish in 7th place for our class. We finished 32nd out of 71 motorcycles that completed the race.
I had never felt such a feeling of accomplishment. I did not know at the time that five years later I would have this feeling again as I rode into the finish line of the Baja 1000 myself. But right then I had a well of emotions building up inside. I was so happy for the guys that rode the bike. I knew that I was also a huge part of successfully finishing the race. Eric sat on the bike for a few minutes as we were bombarded by fans wanting autographs and pictures. No one had phones in those days, but disposable cameras were all the rave in Mexico at the time. We hung out shaking hands, signing autographs, and taking pictures.
We were in no hurry to leave the finish line. While we hung out several more vehicles rolled in. Everyone was celebrating. Champagne bottles were being popped, spewing their contents over race cars, racers, and fans alike. The fans whistled and cheered in excitement. I wished our other teammates could have been there.
Finally we made our way to the unsung hero of the trip, the little green Nissan. We loaded up the race bike and then crammed all of our gear in and around the two bikes. I drove, following David out of town to the house he had rented for us. Eric and I needed showers and sleep.
The morning sun was beginning to overpower the darkness as we finally laid down to some much needed sleep. It was not long until everyone was sleeping deeply.