2001 Baja 500
In the spring of 2001 plans came together for a group of Arizona riders to compete in the Tecate SCORE Baja 500 in the Open Pro motorcycle class. The race was to take place on the first Saturday of June.
Eric Brown provided the race bike, a slightly used Honda XR 650. It was subsequently outfitted with numerous aftermarket products that his sponsors provided or discounted greatly. The exhaust was upgraded to a full Yoshimura system to increase power. The handlebars and controls were changed for both rider comfort and improved handling, which included a Scott’s steering dampener. Acerbis hand guards were installed to protect the levers in the event of a crash and to protect the rider’s hands from branches and bushes. The suspension was removed and improved by a local mechanic so the bike could handle all the nasty Baja terrain. The engine was left pretty much stock other than a “power-up” kit that everyone did to their XR 650’s because the bikes were “de-tuned” to meet California emission laws. Yes, you read that correctly, off-road, race motorcycles must conform to emission laws in California. Leaving the engine otherwise stock increased the reliability and since it had plenty of power, major engine modifications were not necessary. Al Baker’s XRs Only aided with the engine tuning and a few other goodies for the bike.
The riders on the team consisted of Dayton Raper, David Gronland, Todd Johnson, and Eric Brown. These riders were some of the fastest and most reliable desert racers in Arizona.
Dayton Raper raced in the Baja 2000 the year before with Eric and was a threat to win every local race he entered. He was extremely fast, but at times pushed a little too hard which resulted in some hard crashes. But what he could do on a Kawasaki KX 500 was pretty spectacular.
David Gronland was slated to race the Baja 2000, but could not, due to a serious hand injury about a month before the race. He was an extremely reliable and fast rider. He wasn’t quite as fast as Dayton, but he rarely crashed and conserved his equipment.
Todd Johnson was the reigning Whiplash Off-Road Racing pro bike points champion. He was on track to repeat his championship for the second year in a row. He was fast and a very smart rider. He made few mistakes while on the bike and was always a threat to win. His dad was known affectionately to all of us as “Pops” and he was at most of the races manning Todd’s pits and helping anyone else that required assistance.
Eric Brown had many Baja races under his belt and rode extremely fast and smart. He and his teammate finished in second place in the 1998 SCORE championship. Standing 6 foot 5 inches, he could man handle the big 300 lb. motorcycle with ease. He was fearless in the high speed sections and loved to hold the throttle wide open.
Eric asked me to come along and serve as the team mechanic and all around team assistant. I was also the official team interpreter since I was fluent in Spanish. I gladly agreed to jump into the opportunity to experience another Baja adventure.
When the race course map was released in May the race strategy was planned. The team met to discuss who would ride which section based upon their abilities and riding styles. Honda would be sourced for their excellent pit services. Since a Honda motorcycle was being used we had the option of paying Honda to gas the bike and make minor repairs every 50 miles throughout the race. Their experienced pit crews and spare parts in the middle of nowhere were well worth the price. We would need several more people and pick-up trucks to manage our own pit stops. We planned to meet up on the Tuesday before the race and convoy to Mexico.
I was in business with my brother in those days. We had a landscaping company and I ran our crew of guys daily on the jobs while Walt took care of the design work and bid the jobs. It was hard to take off for the week. But I had a good friend that needed a bunch of work done so I farmed my crew of 6 guys to him for the week.
I met up with Eric and Dayton late in the afternoon on Tuesday of race week. I was running behind schedule and we quickly hitched Eric’s trailer to my pickup and loaded the race bike and Dayton’s bike on it. I already had my dirt bike in the bed of my 1999 Dodge 1500 4×4 extended cab pickup. We loaded up the rest of the gear and spare parts and headed south out of Phoenix. The others were waiting for us in the town of Gila Bend. Dayton knew of a back road we could take that cut off some mileage and save some time. We blazed down the two lane road across an Indian reservation as quickly as we could without attracting the attention of the local Buford T. Justice.
We met up with Todd, David, and their wives in Gila Bend. The excitement of the group was contagious. We were all on cloud 9 as we gassed up and bought some snacks for the rest of the drive.
We crossed the Colorado River at Yuma AZ at dusk and continued west toward the mountains. Not far west of El Centro California the freeway climbs 4,000 feet in elevation into the Sierra Nevada Mountains. My Dodge did not particularly appreciate the long steep climb. The engine guzzled the gas as my right foot held the skinny pedal nearly to the floor. After what seemed like an eternity we crested the mountain and I could see the lights of El Centro far behind and below us in my mirror.
About 15 miles of driving in the high mountains we turned off the freeway onto a windy, twisty road toward Tecate Mexico about 45 miles east of San Diego. U.S. car insurance policies are not valid in Mexico so we all purchased temporary policies from a small office on the north side of the border.
We crossed the border without even a blink from the Mexican authorities. They simply waved us by. Northern Baja is a “free zone” where passports and paperwork were not required to enter and exit in those days. Registration paperwork for vehicles was required, but was seldom requested by the authorities.
The road from Tecate to Ensenada twisted down through the mountains, descending toward the Pacific coast. Mexican roads are narrow with no shoulders. Guard rails in the mountains are few and far between and when found would probably not even slow a vehicle before allowing it to fly off a mountain. At night extra caution must be taken because the roads are often littered with livestock that like to bed down on the warm pavement.
We arrived around 10 pm in Ensenada and made our way to Eric’s favorite hotel, Hotel Colon. We didn’t have reservations but we managed to secure a couple of rooms for the night after some quick negotiations. We had rented a beach house south of town at a place called Estero Beach, but we couldn’t stay there till the next night. We would be cramped in the couple of rooms we stole from someone else, but since it was for one night we didn’t mind.
After checking in we all made our way down the street to a taco stand. The owner is extremely friendly and a major fan of off-road racing. The small 10ft by 10ft building sat on the edge of the sidewalk. The side of the building on the sidewalk side swung upward revealing a bar where the customers sat. The owner knew Eric and just like my first trip to Baja he was ecstatic to see him. His English was poor, but he tried hard to talk to us and tell us how much of a fan of Eric’s he was. A small tv hung on the wall showing a VHS recording of some off-road races.
After consuming about a dozen small tacos each we walked back to our hotel to crash. We had a full day planned for the next day as we would split up to start our pre-run of the race course.