In June of 2001 I assisted some good friends race the Tecate SCORE Baja 500. We had an extremely successful race finishing third in the Open Pro class and third Overall for the entire race. And while I didn’t race, I spent two days riding the race course with one of the guys named Dayton Raper and helping with pit stops. On the drive back to Phoenix Dayton and my other friend Eric Brown began encouraging me to enter a race myself. I was convinced to enter into a 100 mile race outside of the town of Snowflake Arizona organized by Whiplash Off-road Racing that was held on Labor Day weekend every year. This was by far the most popular race of the year for regular Whiplash racers with more than 100 bikes, fifty quads, along with car and truck classes.
I had a few hurdles to jump before I could enter the race, and the biggest being financing. The entry fee was around $100. But my Yamaha YZ 400 needed new tires, new chain, and new sprockets. I was broke. At the time I was working two jobs. I was a partner in a landscaping company with my brother. We employed 5 guys at the time and they expected to be paid for their work. The landscaping company had suffered a few financial setbacks that year which are a long story on their own. So I had taken a second job in the evenings and weekends to alleviate my burden on the company.
My financial situation brought on some depression and I had plenty of time to wallow in my misery alone in a machine shop every night turning out parts until I about fell asleep. The owner trusted me and I was the only guy there in the evenings and could stay as long as I wanted. That second job was a blessing in disguise, however. Shortly after returning from Baja, a trip I really couldn’t afford at the time, I met a man named Terry Glass. He was an occasional customer of the machine shop. Terry owned an aviation parts distribution company which actually led to my next career path, which is also a long story.
Terry was a former Baja racer himself and had raced off and on from the 70’s all the way to the mid 90’s. At the time he was 58 years old and still ripped across the desert. He invited me to join him one Sunday morning for a ride. Terry lived in far north Scottsdale/Carefree Arizona. We could ride our dirt bikes right from his garage into the desert of Tonto National Forrest. So I met up with him and his neighbor Troy for a ride about the middle of June. Terry proceeded to school me in the art of riding dirt bikes. That old man could twist the throttle! That first day of ridding with Terry would also introduce me to Cuffy Crabbe. Cuffy is the son of Buster Crabbe, the actor (Flash Gordon) and Olympic gold medalist, and quite the character himself. He met up with us about half way through our ride. He was the same age as Terry and still rode dirt bikes. He wasn’t as good or as fast as Terry, but he still held his own. The two men were childhood friends from California and a lot of fun to be around. After we finished riding I went home and laid on the couch for the rest of the day because those old guys had worn me out!
That first Sunday ride with Terry started me on a new journey. I was either at a desert race or riding with Terry every Sunday for the next year. Holidays to us were just another reason to take off work and go ride in the desert. I also started riding mountain bikes to aide in my training and my depression disappeared quite quickly. It is amazing how simply getting up off the couch and being active can change your perspective on life.
As the date for the Snowflake race approached Eric and Dayton were pressuring me to enter. I could afford the entry fees and some needed parts, but I still needed tires for my bike. I mentioned my situation to Terry and he said that if Cuffy would buy one tire he would buy the other. So I saw Cuffy a few days later and told him what Terry had said, and to not be out done by Terry he agreed to purchase one of my tires. I felt like a young child pitting his parents against one another to get his way. Both Terry and Cuffy took me under their wing and treated me like a son. They enjoyed living vicariously through me and relive their own racing days watching me ride and race.
I stayed up late a couple of nights before the race going over every inch of my bike. I had learned a few things from the guys that race in Baja and I prepped my bike in a similar fashion. Finally, with new tires mounted, new chain, and new sprockets for high speed it was finally ready to go.
Snowflake AZ is located in the higher altitudes of the state a couple hour drive from my home. The cooler temperatures were welcomed by all the racers as most lived in the Phoenix area and summer temps hover around 110 degrees.
My friend Eric Brown and I drove up to the area the race was to be held a couple of weeks before to ride the race course. While this was frowned upon by Whiplash, they could not stop us because the area was not restricted from riding. We took a few laps around what had been used for the course in the past and I was able to keep up with Eric pretty well. I felt confident and began to get excited about my first off-road race.
I drove up to the race on Saturday morning of Labor Day weekend. I borrowed my brother’s extended cab Dodge pickup so I could sleep in the back seat. During that time of year rain is pretty common and I didn’t own a tent. While the pickup didn’t allow me to stretch out, it was better than getting rained on sleeping in the bed. My single cab Dodge was impossible to sleep in.
Trucks and buggies were racing when I arrived and it was fun to watch them battle it out. I met up with Eric and a few others before heading to the signup area. They convinced me to enter the “Expert” class even though the organization actually had a rule that I was supposed to race in the “First time racer” class. The first time racers were the last class to start and I was much faster than any of those guys. At the signup table the ladies handling registration didn’t ask me any questions and I didn’t offer any information. They allowed me to sign up as an Expert. I had used the number 142 for motocross races and since it was available I claimed it. I returned to my truck and applied numbers to my bike and proceeded to tech inspection. My bike passed tech with flying colors and I was ready for my first race.
That evening Eric and I hung out at a campfire nearby. Many racers came by to “bench race”. Many of those guys that I met that evening are still friends to this day. I was introduced to a number of my Expert class competitors which made me even more nervous. Eric would talk about how fast this guy or that guy was and with every passing story I began to doubt my ability to compete in the Expert class. The last thing I wanted was to be beaten badly. I had no grand illusions about winning, I just wanted to be competitive in which ever class I raced.
I woke up stiff and sore the next morning from my cramped sleeping arrangement and immediately put on my riding gear. About 7:30 AM there was a “pre-run/poker run”. Racers were allowed to throw ten bucks into a hat and take a lap around the race course. Afterwards we drew 5 cards and the person with the best hand won the jackpot. I didn’t win any money, but my lap around the course boosted my confidence. My bike was fast and handled perfectly. The marked race course was almost identical to what Eric and I had practiced a few weeks before. I went over the course in my head time and time again trying to memorize every turn, rock, rut, and bump.
The quads raced first on race day. The motorcycles were split into two races because there were so many. I was in the first motorcycle race and the first class off the line. Because I had signed up late I was in the second row. We lined up four wide and were sent off in thirty second intervals. It was a live engine start. Eric had joined me at the start line for moral support. I am sure he could tell I was nervous and excited all at the same time. I was confident in my riding ability, but I really didn’t know how good the competition truly was. I looked around sizing up the other Experts, but it was not helping calm my nerves. A number of the guys had flashy riding gear and immaculate looking bikes. While my bike was mechanically sound, it wasn’t really attractive, and my riding gear was a couple of years old and not all the same brand. Eric kept telling me to just go out and have fun and that I was going to do great.
The green flag flew and the first row of bikes roared off leaving us in a cloud of dust, I shifted my bike into second gear out of habit from my motocross racing days. First gear is useless on a motocross track and never used. But I had failed to practice a start with my new higher speed gearing. The flagman held up his hand indicating 5 seconds and I grabbed a handful of throttle and dumped the clutch as he vigorously waved the green flag. I quickly learned of my mistake when my engine nearly stalled and I watched in horror as my competition left me in a shower of rocks and dirt. I quickly yanked in on the clutch lever and revved the engine some more as I slowly eased the clutch back out. I should have used first gear instead of second and now everyone on my row had at least a 25 yard lead on me. I saw Eric out of the corner of my eye wildly waving me on yelling to “Go!” I pinned the throttle and shifted through the gears quickly while griping myself out for a stupid, rookie mistake.
The start of the race course allowed the racers to drag race for about half a mile around a sweeping gentle “S” turn before hitting a high speed jump. I hit the jump at 70 plus miles an hour and it must have been quite the sight from the look on the spectator’s faces. Right after the jump was a sharp right turn that I managed to slide through with throttle still on. The dust was extremely thick and out of fear of crashing I backed down my speed a little to allow the dust to clear.
A few miles into the race the dust was clearing and I was able to pick up the pace. At that point I was only eating the dust of the bike in front of me as he had slowed his pace to stay out of the dust in front of him. I could see through the dust of one bike, so I started charging hard and over took my first rider right at the five mile marker where the course dipped through a creek bed next to a cattle corral. From there the course climbed a hill with a switchback turn to the left at the top and followed the ridge for a mile or so. As the course dropped back off the hill I could see several miles of race course ahead because of a sharp right turn and a long straight away. I counted the other two bikes from my row and like a bull to a red cape I charged down that hill and around the next turn as fast as my bike would allow me. I caught the next bike on that straight away. I assume he was having an engine issue, because I went by him about twice his speed.
The race course was smooth and fast as it wound over gentle hills and through the pasture land. Occasionally there would be a bump in the road to divert rain runoff water into ponds. These “water bars” as they are called could be treacherous at times and had to be navigated carefully. Most were treated as jumps and didn’t slow me down much. Clumps of juniper trees littered the area with an occasional ponderosa pine tree. Most of the curves were gentle, but occasionally there would be a hard turn that could sneak up and if you were going to fast an off track excursion would occur. I focused extremely hard and did not stray from the course. It was not uncommon for our speeds to exceed 80 mph on the straight sections.
Dust became a problem again as the course entered the forest. It dropped down a hill to a “T” intersection where we took a hard left onto another road. From there the course stayed between two hills with tall trees along both sides. Extremely thick dust from the previous riders hung in the air making it difficult to see. I slowed my pace again and because there were a few sharp turns with trees on both sides of the course. Around race mile 12 the course turned left up a hill following a power line right-of-way. A number of steep hills had to be ascended and descended. After three hills the trail descended gently with a number of water bars that sent my bike sailing through the air. I was finally able to see the next rider ahead of me. At the bottom of the hill there was a hard right into the trees. For the next 10 miles or so the course twisted back and forth through the ponderosa pine trees before returning to the open grassland and fast roads. I charged hard through the forest and passed the next bike just as I left the forest section. By the end of the first lap I was sitting in fifth place. I felt great on my bike. My Yamaha was running great and handling like a dream. I twisted the throttle all the way open every chance I got. I blazed by my pit without stopping and my friends were all standing there cheering me on. This started the adrenaline pumping again and sure made me feel good to have the support of my friends.
My second lap was better than my first. I had built confidence and held the throttle open even farther and deeper into the turns than before. I knew where the treacherous water bars were and which ones I could hit at high speed safely. I managed to pass two more guys on the second lap before pulling into my pit. Eric and my friend Harry quickly helped gas my bike. I had planned on changing my goggles too and Harry crammed a fresh pair onto my helmet smashing my nose in the process. I know he meant well, but it didn’t feel very good. I think they were more excited about how my race was going than I was. After what seemed like a long pit stop I slammed the transmission into gear and sped off. I tried not to throw a bunch of rocks on my pit crew, but in my excitement to get going I am sure they were pelted by a few. I had two more laps to go and the adrenaline was pumping. The course snaked back and forth through more pit area before crossing the start/finish line and heading out for the loop. People I didn’t know were waving and cheering me on and it made the adrenaline pump even more.
My third lap was pretty uneventful. I didn’t catch any other bikes in my class but I continued to push as hard as I could. I was still feeling great and my bike was handling perfectly. My friends were all standing by the course cheering me on as I came through the pit area at the end of the lap.
I raced out of the pit and spectator area faster than ever before. Just as I entered the wooded section I saw a rider up ahead. I pushed as hard as I could and passed him just as we were entering the final high speed part of the course. I twisted the throttle harder and farther than earlier and held it on longer into each turn trying to distance myself from him. I was now in second place and I knew it. I had been counting the bikes I passed.
I came back into the pit area and my friends were standing by the course cheering me on. I had a few more turns to get to the finish line and the leader was in my sights. Spectators and pit crews were waving me on and cheering as I sped by. I worked as hard as I could but I was unable to catch the leader. After I crossed the finish line I glanced over and saw that the first place finisher had started on the first row. The winner was determined by “adjusted time” so if I finished less than thirty seconds behind him I would be the winner. I knew it would be close, but I figured I was close enough.
I returned to my pit area trying to hide my excitement. I did not want to celebrate a win without knowing for sure. My friends were pretty sure I had won, but they were preoccupied with getting ready for their race which would start soon. I changed out of my riding gear to be ready to help Eric with his race. Eric was starting on the first row in the Open Pro class along with several other friends. They were some of the fastest guys in Arizona at that time. Eric was racing a Honda XR 650 just like the one he raced in Baja.
I helped him with his pit stop as fast as I could at the end of the second lap. Eric had a “dry break” gas tank and gas can so pit stops could be performed very quickly. I expertly stabbed the can down on his gas tank and in about 15 seconds the gas transfer was complete. Eric was yelling about something rattling on his bike, so I looked and couldn’t determine quickly what it was. He didn’t want to waste any more time in the pit and took off. He unexpectedly stopped again at the end of the third lap for me to look for the rattle. He could still hear something and was scared it was going to fall off and get tangled with his wheel and make him crash. The noise was messing with his head. Once again I couldn’t see anything and off he went.
Eric finished in third place. He had been beaten by some fast guys, but the rattling noise he heard didn’t help his confidence. It turned out that his disk brake guard had come loose and was flopping around. I felt bad, but at the same time the guys that beat him were blazing fast.
After the racing was over a small award ceremony was held. I was announced as the winner of the Expert class. I could hardly believe it. I knew I was a fast, capable desert rider, but now I could consider myself a fast capable desert RACER! I was hooked on desert racing at that point and immediately began planning for the next race a month later.
On my way home after the race I called Terry to let him know how it went and thank him for his assistance. He informed me that since the next day was a holiday he was going riding. So I stopped off at a car wash and cleaned up my bike that night. I met up with Terry at 6 am the next morning for another ride through the desert and improve my skills.