The Long Road to the Baja 1000 [Video]
The sun breaks open the sky, as a cool breeze rolls across the beach and off in the distance the faint sighting of a dolphin pod cruises through the bay. Just out the window I see the Todos Santos Island off in the distance with the Pacific Ocean as its backdrop. Ensenada is across the water just in sight yet seemingly out of reach. Baja California is a beautiful place and today the greatest drivers, riders and chasers in the industry are here for the final race of the year. This is the 44th annual SCORE International Baja 1000!
As I thought about the possibility that I may actually get to cover the mighty Baja 1000 it didn’t take long for the excitement to build. I would be riding across the beautiful United States of America with friend and local racer Richie Brown, who was part of the Quad75 team that was trying to win the biggest test of man and machine in North America. Richie made his mark in the world of desert racing when he was the first to solo the Baja 1000 on an ATV. This young guy from Dahlonega, Ga. put down 1047 miles in just 39 hours. This was indeed an accomplishment.
The trip from Dawsonville, Ga. to Ensenada in Baja was going to be a bit longer though as we had 2275 miles to go before the first race vehicle would be even heard. We loaded up the van and left on Saturday morning after breakfast. It would take us until Sunday night and into early Monday morning to get to the home just outside Ensenada where we would be staying.
Our week was going to be spent pre-running each rider’s sections of the race. Joining Richie behind the bars was Brandon Brown, Jamie Kirkpatrick, Jorie Williams, and Kenny Sanford. The actual race was scheduled to start on Friday morning, but we would have plenty to us on our toes until then.
On Monday as we headed down into San Vicente off Hwy. 1 we noticed the van was losing ground clearance in the rear. This would be the first and only flat we would have all week, and thankfully so. The only problem was that in the rush to load the van in Georgia, the jack was not reinstalled in the rear. After being rescued by Sean McHugh and some other members of the Quad75 support crew we were back on the way to the section where Richie would get a firsthand view of the race course for the first time, along with support crew member Patrick Murray (you never go out alone when you’re pre-running).
Every seasoned racer in Baja knows that anything can happen at any time. Sean and his crew, who had come to my rescue, now found themselves in trouble that same day. The Ford heavy duty truck that Sean was driving would begin to break off wheel studs. Before they knew it they had almost lost a rear wheel completely. With the pickup situated on some rocks in the dark, the crew worked under the glow of a flashlight in the dirt trying to scavenge a few good studs from the side that wasn’t broken. It was official – the mental test had begun. I’m sure the guys had to wonder at least a few times if this would be the straw that broke the team’s back. Fortunately, I can tell you that it wasn’t.
The next few days would be spent finding spare tires for the van and wheel studs at the local auto parts store that would get the chase and support vehicles back in order. After enjoying plenty of authentic steak tacos we had some time to sleep and get ready for when the true test and final shakedown of the race would begin. But as luck would have it, this is where we found that the preparation for race day had just begun.
Building a race machine for a two-hour woods battle or a 20-lap moto is tough, but to get the same machine ready to race in the toughest terrain on our continent for almost 20 hours is just a little different. The crew of the Quad75 Baja race team had thought of everything from some small spare parts mounted on the machine to a very trick toolbox mounted just under the front of the motor. Things were being wrapped up and it was almost time to hit the race course and get the final tuning in.
The Honda TRX450R had been prepped and even though the typical items had all been covered, an unforeseen problem had the team pulling an all nighter just hours before the biggest race of the year. It seems some internal engine components had gone bad and it required the entire engine to be torn apart and completely rebuilt. This is when the team’s mechanical master Kenny Sanford and his expert building skills would come into play. Kenny painstakingly worked on the four stroke most of the night and around 2:30am figured out he was almost ready to fire up the beast again. What was most shocking to me was that the team ran the rebuilt engine for just 30 seconds before shutting it down so they could get a little rest before the race. At 4:00am we loaded into the race rig and hauled off to the start line. Yes, it can get crazy in Baja.
The Baja 1000 is a test of man and machine, but add in the difficulty of the terrain and the crowded roads as well as locals attempting to carry on daily chores and you have a huge pile of problems. However, as crazy as the lead-up too the race was for the team, the actual race went surprisingly well.
Mechanically, nothing went wrong with the race quad. Not only were there no engine troubles, but the team didn’t have a single flat tire through 19 hours of hard racing. The tires were swapped at one point, but that was only because the tread was wearing down and getting grip on the paved sections of the course was impossible.
The only real trouble the team had all day happened around race mile 300 when a rock snuck up on Jamie Kirkpatrick and he had a get-off. Fortunately, the ATV (and Jamie) was largely undamaged. The light rack was bent down and with the sun getting ready to set the team had to get the rack back into place so the lights could be installed at the next stop. All told, the crash only resulted in a stop of eight to 10 minutes before Jorie Williams hopped on the quad and continued the race.
The Quad75 crew ended up winning Class 24 and missed the overall ATV win by a scant 17 minutes to Wayne Matlock and the Matlock Racing team. In fact, of the more than 275 entries (including trophy trucks, dirtbikes and everything else) Quad75 finished an impressive 31st overall.
I’m sure each member of the team will think back to the race many times and try to figure out where they could have picked up the extra time, but for me I thought that they had really conquered Baja and everything in it. You see, it takes a great meshing of people to make this race happen. This team was packed with smart, savvy people who worked flawlessly together. That is just about the perfect recipe for a successful race crew.
When I was initially asked to attend the mighty Baja 1000 memories instantly came flooding back from years past and the mystic draw of the Baja Peninsula began to beckon me once again. It had been seven years since I last saw the towns and sights of Baja and I have to say that there is something about this place that keeps the desire to come back every year burning.
If you ever get the chance to attend this race be sure to stop in at San Felipe and look for the whales swimming north up the Sea of Cortez while you eat fresh seafood in the Rice and Beans restaurant. Also take time to go out to the La Bufadora (Blow Hole) just outside of Ensenada for live native entertainment and give the locals there a try as the freshest genuine Mexican food is just a step away. It’s also a beautiful place to watch as the sun sets off into the west.
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Whether he is in Mexico covering the Baja 1000, building ATVs for local racers, or out enjoying the trails, Rick’s passion shows in his stories. Learning to wrench his own machines from his grandfather, Rick also has an undying appreciation for the mechanics of off-road vehicles. Do not let the dirt and mud fool you, though, as Rick also has a deep love for street cars.
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