2001 Baja 500
Race Day! We all woke around 4:30 am. Tired and sore from two days of riding and sleeping in strange beds had taken their toll on the team. However, the race day excitement mixed with nervousness made all the sore muscles and sleepiness disappear.
Even though I was not riding I had quite a bit of responsibility for the day. A million things could go wrong and it was easy to focus on that, but I tried to focus on all the things that needed to go right so we could have a successful day.
Eric, Dayton, and I headed to the start line, while Todd, David, and their wives headed out toward their sections of the course.
In the pre-dawn darkness downtown Ensenada was bustling with activity. Racers, team members, and race fans clogged the closed off street in front of the convention center. I parked a few blocks away which was as close as I could and we unloaded the race bike. Dayton already had his gear on and rode the bike to the line while Eric and I made our way through the crowded sidewalks.
Our race number was 6X meaning we were the sixth bike off the line in the pro class. A bike would leave the line every 30 seconds and the bike with the shortest elapsed time at the finish line would win. The first two bikes to start belonged to the factory backed Honda teams. We didn’t stand much of a chance at beating them, but we were going to try.
The Honda entries consisted of the “A” team with riders Johnny Campbell and Tim Staab and the “B” team with riders Steve Hengeveld and Jonah Street. These guys made their living racing dirt bikes and had done all their homework on the race course. They knew where every rock and bump was located, and knew every short cut the rules allowed and probably a few that the rules didn’t allow. There were no tracking devices on the bikes, and the check point locations were not revealed ahead of time. “Creative” routes were often used, but if you missed a check point the race vehicle was disqualified. Everyone looked for short cuts back then and used them, but the factory teams did it best.
We knew the 5X team was our biggest contender and our race would be with them all day. Rider of record Philip Zeiger had put together a fast team of guys that Dayton had raced against in the past in California and Nevada. He gave us the low down on their speed and abilities.
We waited rather impatiently for the race to start. There was a chilly morning breeze blowing in off the ocean. Dayton had a borrowed a jacket from me to wear because he was cold. We could see a thick fog, also known as “marine layer” piled up against the mountains just east of town. This always wreaked havoc on the riders as they would not only contend with dust, but also fog. Instead of having some dust stick to the goggles; mud would form. But wiping with a glove was futile and would only smear the lens making a bad situation dangerous. The fog also grounded the rescue chopper so the race was put on hold for a few minutes while waiting for it to become airborne.
Finally we received the signal from the starting line that it was about time. Motorcycle engines roared to life as riders began to warm up their engines. Eric and I stood close by as Dayton was given the green flag and accelerated off down the street.
Eric and I quickly made our way through an even larger crowd of race fans and crew members back to my pickup. We needed to hurry to get out of town to race mile 64 where David and Lori were waiting.
I drove as quickly as I dared up and over the coastal mountain range to the valley of Ojos Negros (Black Eyes). It was a narrow two lane, twisty and curvy road. We encountered the same dense fog Dayton was riding through and hoped he was doing well. Race team traffic mixed with local traffic had clogged the road bringing the pace to a crawl at times. When we finally traversed the 50 kilometers we found David right where he needed to be. He was completely geared up and waiting. It was a cardinal sin to not be ready for your teammate when he arrived.
A short time later we saw a plume of dust in the distance and knew a bike was coming. The 1X bike was the first to the highway and without even completely stopping the bike a rider change was executed and the bike sped off down the highway with a fresh rider on board.
About 5 minutes later the 2X came racing past us. There was about a 15 minute gap before the 5X bike came by. David was watching up the road through binoculars for the next bike. This was his first Baja race and he was a massive ball of nerves.
After what seemed like an eternity a dust cloud could be seen in the distance. David immediately knew the rider approaching was Dayton by his stance on the bike. In that moment all the pressure he was feeling and his nervousness culminated and his knees buckled as he just about fainted. Eric was standing next to him and grabbed his arm and held him up while telling him to breathe and relax. With the encouraging words from Eric and a hug from Lori, David managed to regain his composure just in time.
A 500 mile race can’t be won in the first 64 miles, but it can be all thrown away if raced foolishly. He had made up two spots and kept us in contention with the much more experienced leaders. At one point his goggles became caked with mud created by the mixing of the dust and fog that he couldn’t see. He made matters worse by wiping the lens with his glove. He knew he needed to keep his goggles on so he stopped next to a spectator and motioned him over. The race fan was willing to help and came over to see what Dayton needed. He quickly grabbed the bottom of the man’s shirt and used it to wipe his goggles clean before the man could stop him. He quickly pulled his goggles back over his helmet and sped off leaving the man in shock as to what had just transpired. He lost some time cleaning his goggles, but he would have lost more time riding with goggles he couldn’t see out of.
Finally about 5 minutes behind the 5X Dayton slid to a stop and jumped off the bike. Dayton had executed his ride perfectly and we were in an excellent position. David jumped on as Dayton yelled a few words to him about the condition of the bike. In less than 10 seconds David pulled out onto the highway and grabbed a hand full of throttle. His nervousness was long gone by the time he grabbed third gear and it was business as usual for the remainder of the ride. The big bore dirt bike roared off down the highway with a possessed rider on its back. David had the look in his eye a cheetah gets when chasing down a gazelle! He had seen the time gap the 5X had on us and he was determined to shorten it.
And shorten it he did! David rode the bike from mile 64 to mile 145. He had about two miles of pavement before going off road to mile 138. The course would then rejoin the highway until he handed the bike to Todd at mile 145.
Eric jumped in with Lori in David’s pickup and they sped off toward Valle de la Trinidad, otherwise known to the racers as “Valley T”. There was one road crossing in the middle of David’s section and they would do a visual check of the bike as he went by.
Dayton and I made our way back to Ensenada where we then headed south on highway 1 to the village of Uruapan. I dropped Dayton off at a Honda pit that was located right at the end of a highway section where he would remount the bike. I then continued south through the hills past the town of San Vicente. The course joined the highway for a few miles just south of town. I turned off the highway and drove backwards on the race course for about a mile to a Honda pit. Normally driving backwards on the race course can disqualify a team, but since there was no race traffic yet I had nothing to worry about.
Our plan was to change the rear wheel and tire at this pit. Unless the tire was flat the Honda guys would not give us one of their spares. So I removed the rear wheel off the spare bike I was carrying. I also secured the bike in the truck so I could leave right after Eric came through. That way, if the race bike had a worn out tire but was still holding air the Honda guys would install it for us. I had a several hour wait till Eric arrived and passed the time hanging out with the pit guys.
Meanwhile, David, riding like a man possessed closed the gap on the 5X bike. Just as he approached a section called “The goat trail” he found the 5X rider picking his bike up after a crash. David passed him putting us into third place. With less than 10 miles till he handed the bike off to Todd, he put the hammer down on the highway to put as much gap as possible between the competitors.
The highway sections are open to vehicle traffic during the race. Usually a police officer would stop traffic for the race vehicles entering or exiting the highway sections. But while traversing the paved section it was a free for all. Our bike would top 100 mph and David asked for every bit of speed the bike had while dodging and passing other vehicles.
Todd took over the bike at mile 145 and headed up into the San Pedro Martir mountains where the famous Mike’s Sky Ranch and the highest peak in Baja is located. The first 19 miles of his section heading into Mike’s is a fairly smooth road with some high speed straights. However, the farther he traveled the curvier, rougher, and rockier it became. After Mike’s the course became very curvy and twisty. It threaded up through a canyon and crossed a stream several times while making a big loop through the mountains to the south and west.
While at Honda pit 3, the 5X changed a seal they thought was leaking oil. This extra time in the pit allowed Todd to widen the gap between the two bikes.
Sometime after Mike’s, Todd hit a large rock with the front tire putting a hole in the tube. He pushed as hard as he could on the flat but could not maintain his fast pace. The reduced pace allowed the 5X to close the gap significantly.
Todd rolled into the Honda pit near San Telmo road with the 5X on his heels. While the pit guys struggled to swap out the front wheel the 5X was refilled with gas and sped off. Finally, Todd realized the pit guy was trying to install one of the factory bike wheels, which would not fit on everyone else’s bikes because they used a larger brake rotor. Once the issue was discovered the correct wheel was installed and it did not take long for Todd to get underway.
Now Todd was the hunter and his prey was the 5X. He muscled the big Honda 650 through the twisty, rough mountain roads. After crossing San Telmo road for the second time the course headed back up into the higher mountains toward Rancho El Coyote. Then the course dropped through Simpson Ranch and back to Valley T at race mile 278.
Todd was a smooth and smart racer. You don’t become a points champion in off-road racing by just holding the throttle open. You must know when to back off and not make mistakes. That is exactly what he did. He didn’t let the flat tire and lost time force him to ride too fast through the mountainous terrain. He rode mistake free while keeping us right in contention where we needed to be. David, Eric, and the wives were waiting anxiously for him on the outskirts of Valley T.
Eric jumped on the race bike and headed west toward the Pacific coast on what is known to most Baja racers as “The crossover road”. The 40 mile long dirt road winds through the hills and valleys connecting highway 3 to highway 1. I am sure there is an official name for it, but ask any Baja racer about it and they all know it by this name.
This road is smoother and more open through here with some longer straights and much higher speeds. Eric is the perfect rider for this section. He is fearless when it comes to high speed riding and he can slide the bike around corners with ease while holding the throttle wide open.
The 5X had a several minute lead on us again and the riders for both teams were pretty well matched. Eric tried as hard as he could and closed the gap slightly as he headed toward my location.
I hung out in the Honda pit and watched both the 1X and 2X come through in that order. There was about a 5 minute gap between them. I waited anxiously during almost an hour wait for the next bike to arrive.
My heart sank when I saw the number 5X come into view because I was hoping that we would be in 3rd place. But the situation began to swing back our way when the rider of the 5X leaped off his bike screaming about needing a seal for his kick starter shaft. The pit did not have one in their spare parts bin and he wanted me to give him one off my spare bike. Out of desperation he frantically grabbed some tools off a table where they were laid out for quick use and headed toward my pickup about 25 yards away. I was not about to give the competition that kind of help and yelled at him to stay away from my pickup. He then went to another guy’s pickup and proceeded to jump in the back and attack his motorcycle to retrieve the part he thought he needed.
It was about then that Eric came blazing into the pit. I knew it had to be him coming before I could see him because of the sound of the bike. He was wringing every bit of horsepower from the engine. I informed the pit guys that another bike was coming so they could fill the gas tank. I stood next to the race course with the spare wheel in my hand ready to assist with the tire swap.
Eric slid to a stop in front of me. As a rule of thumb they would always fill the gas tank and then perform any other necessary repairs. While the gas was being dumped in with the quick fill dry break gas can I looked down at the rear wheel and saw there was not much left of it. After 300 plus miles of racing it had withstood about all the abuse it could handle. The guys had done a number on it and I didn’t know how much longer it would last. But the fact that we could get back into 3rd place while the 5X sat in the pit dawned on me. And I made the split decision to take a chance and send Eric on with the worn out tire. It is one thing to catch up to the competition, but much more difficult to pass someone while racing at speed through blinding dust.
I yelled into Eric’s helmet and hit him on the back telling him to go. He looked confused because the plan all along was to change the tire, but I pointed out that the 5X was sitting there in the pit. He immediately understood and slammed the big bike back into gear. With a huge handful of throttle and a spinning back tire he sped out of the pit.
I ran to my pickup and threw the wheel in the back seat. I fired my Dodge up and sped off down the race course in pursuit of Eric. The course joined the highway for a couple of miles and I was close enough to see Eric speeding away on the rear wheel, putting on a show for the spectators and race teams that had gathered there. I knew then that he was completely comfortable on the bike and if nothing went wrong in the next 150 miles we would accomplish our goal.
I had about 40 miles to drive north on the highway to get back to where I left Dayton earlier. I knew I needed to cover that distance quickly because it would not take Eric much longer than me to arrive there.
Eric sped toward the Pacific coast from the town of San Vicente. This part of the race course was the smoothest and fastest. Long straights allowed the big bike to stretch its legs. This was the terrain the bike was best suited for and we had an excellent rider on board. He topped 100 mph numerous times along the picturesque coast line. When the course reached the ocean it turned north, paralleling the coast through the town of Erendira before turning northeast away from the ocean to rejoin the highway again at the town of Santo Tomas. From Santo Tomas, the course headed north on the highway for 6 miles to Uruapan where Dayton and I were waiting.
Eric made excellent time in his section. I have no way to prove it, but he was possibly the fastest bike along the coast. I had rejoined Dayton who had been waiting rather impatiently for about 6 hours for us to arrive. I knew the back tire would not make it to the finish line so I helped the pit crew guys get ready to install our spare wheel.
While we waited for Eric, I learned of the fate of the factory Honda bikes. The 1X ridden by the “A team” had suffered a clutch failure for the second race in a row. The “B team” on the 2X bike had closed the gap between the two to less than 4 minutes and managed to take advantage of the situation. The 1X lost the lead and fell about 9 minutes behind while being repaired in the pit. The 2X was able to hold the lead for the last 100 miles to the finish and won by more than 10 minutes.
Eric blazed into the pit and jumped off the bike. I immediately threw the bike up on a large wooden box and held onto the bike while several pit crew guys attacked the bike with fervor. One man refilled the gas tank while two others deftly swapped out the rear tire. Once the tire change was completed we quickly changed the air filter. It was completely clogged with dirt and causing the bike to lose some horsepower.
Eric was talking to Dayton while the bike was being worked on. He told him to ride fast but take it easy and just get the bike to the finish. We were 100 miles away from completing the Baja 500 in 3rd place. We needed Dayton to ride a smart and smooth race. A mistake here would be heartbreaking after all we had overcome to get in this position.
As soon as the repairs were completed I pulled the bike off the box and Dayton jumped on. After a couple quick kicks to the starter the engine roared to life and Dayton was gone in a flash.
He had 100 miles left to maintain our lead over 4th place. The course was pretty twisty through some small valleys and over some small mountains. He headed east through the Tres Hermanos ranch where he turned north to Ojos Negros.
After Dayton was gone the 5X came flying into the pit about 5 minutes behind us. To beat us they would have to physically pass Dayton and finish more than 30 seconds ahead of us. We were confident that Dayton would be able to hold them off as long as he rode smart and mistake free.
A little way into his ride Dayton crested a small rise to find a rancher had shut a gate across the race course. Dayton slammed on the brakes and slid sideways into the fence. He dropped the bike and began to undo the extra wire the rancher had wrapped around the posts. Clearly the rancher was not happy with the race traffic, but that was of no concern to Dayton at the time. Suddenly the rancher appeared wielding a pair of pliers and yelling at him. Without hesitation Dayton deftly yanked the pliers from his hand and proceeded to cut the wires holding the gate closed while the rancher continued to protest. When the wires were cut he threw the gate and the pliers down and picked up the bike. It took several kicks to re-fire the engine before leaving the rancher in a cloud of dust.
Fifty miles into his ride he would cross highway 3 in Ojos Negros where David and Todd were waiting to spot check the bike. Dayton didn’t even slow down. The bike was performing flawlessly and he was on a mission.
Eric and I raced back to Ensenada from Uruapan. Eric was the “rider or record” and the rules state that the rider of record must start or finish the race. And since Dayton started, Eric needed to ride the last little bit. The rules did not specify how far he had to ride, just that he had to cross the finish line physically on the bike. We arrived with about 30 minutes to spare and waited rather impatiently about 30 yards before the finish line on the edge of town. Many fans and race teams were waiting. Both of the factory Honda teams had already finished the race by the time we arrived. Eric donned his helmet and gear to be in compliance with the rules and chatted with fans while we waited. We both signed autographs for anyone that asked for one. One woman approached me with her young son who looked to be dressed in his “Sunday best” and asked me to sign his white button up shirt. I felt bad doing it, but the boy insisted and his mom agreed so I obliged them. Barricades and police officers did not allow us to wait on the race course so we stood as close as we could.
Finally we heard a bike coming at a high rate of speed. Dayton was standing, leaning out over the front of the bike with the throttle wide open as he appeared around a fast smooth corner. Eric and I jumped the barricades and started waving frantically to get his attention. Dayton underestimated the required stopping distance and slid past us before he came to a stop. He jumped off and Eric jumped on and rode the last thirty yards to the finish line as fast as he could. Dayton and I ran behind him to the finish line to celebrate.
We finished the race in third place. It took 11 hours and 4 minutes for us to traverse the 476 mile course with an average speed of 43 mph. We finished 59 minutes behind 2nd place, which was an accomplishment in our book. Even though we were competing against the factory Honda bikes, we really didn’t consider them competition. The likelihood of beating them was slim. We were much more concerned about the rest of the class and where we finished in relation to them.
When the times were calculated we learned that we finished more than 3 minutes ahead of 4th place. The 5X had made up some time in the last 100 miles but it didn’t matter because Dayton had ridden exactly the way he needed to so we could hold onto 3rd place.
We talked to Philip after he finished on the 5X and it turned out that they never needed the seal they changed twice. In the crash at the Goat Trail the engine case developed a crack that was leaking oil. The proximity of the crack to the seal gave it the appearance the seal was leaking.
Eric, Dayton, and I hung out at the finish line for a bit watching a few other bikes cross the line. We then headed south the beach house to rendezvous with the rest of the team. Everyone was elated to learn how we finished.
After we all cleaned up we headed into town to celebrate our “victory”.