My Baja 1000 race report (Part 1)

I needed to split up the report due to post length limitations.



Those of you who read my Baja 500 ride report in June ( ) know that racing in the Baja 1000 has been a lifelong goal. On this November 18th, I, along with 4 other great teammates achieved this goal. The story began long before this date, as soon as the 500 was over our team began talking about doing the 1000. The three original riders, Mike Laenger ( ) , Kent Perkins and I discussed via e-mail the various possibilities. It became evident over time that Tim Morton, of Baja Bound Tours ( ), who had put together our fantastic 500 effort, would be unavailable for the 1000. I also realized that I was going to be unable to accomplish the incredibly complicated logistical coordination that would be required to successfully compete in the race from my home in Vermont. At this point Mike, with the assistance of Kent stepped up to the plate and said they’d take on the overwhelming task of putting our effort together. I imagine Mike had no idea how much work it would take, but he worked tirelessly attracting a long list of sponsors, finding other team members, coordinating the multitude of logistical details, designing graphics... the list is endless. Mike did a superb job, and the entire team owes him our thanks for devoting himself so tirelessly to our success. During much of the summer, I was unsure whether I would be able to race due to ongoing back problems. The team patiently waited as I worked my way through a number of options, both traditional and non-traditional. By August I was really concerned, I hadn’t ridden anything other than my trials bike since the 500, and my back wasn’t getting better. About that time I was referred to an Osteopath by my Physical Therapist. After two visits I began to see significant improvements, and soon after was out riding fast bikes again testing my new found pain free body. When I proved to myself that I wouldn’t break and leave the team hanging at the last moment, I contacted Mike and Kent and said I was fit and ready to race. By this time the team was complete with a total of five riders, the other two, Jim Curry and Kevin Ward had fine, fast resumes and proper zip codes (California vs. Vermont). Kevin would start, I would ride the second leg, Jim the third, Kent the fourth and Mike would bring it home for us. Since this years 1000 ran from Ensenada to La Paz, we were going to need a bevy of mechanics/chase drivers, in the end we had 5+.

By the time November rolled around my riding had come along and all the details were in place. Tim Morton had taken the time to recommend a very well thought out prerunning plan for my leg, which would take me from San Felipe to the Bay of LA. Also, for this race I was to have the support and accompaniment of the most important person in my life, my wife Maria. Early on she enthusiastically agreed to come along to check out the scene, and support me. Since we’ve been together for over 24 years, she knows motorcycles and racing and fits right in. By the end of the race she was a race net junky, she flipped around between Weatherman, BFG, Team Honda, etc to find out what was happening in this far flung race… she truly tapped into the energy that had brought us all to this race and was as involved as anyone. As Maria and I left for LA, snowflakes were flying in Vermont, but we were on our way…. We were met at the airport by our chase driver, Kurt Hathaway. Kurt is a soon to be retired LA fireman, motorcycle enthusiast extraordinaire, and a super nice guy with thousands of great stories to share. When I originally talked to Kurt on the phone it was obvious that we would get along, his great attitude and vast Baja experience convinced me I could do no better. Kurt took over all the prerunning preparations, so I only had to show up. All this for a guy he’d never met… thanks Kurt! After loading our bags in the truck, our crew of three headed down to Tim Morton’s in Escondido to pick up my prerunner. While there, Tim gave us a tour of his fantastic house and made sure I had everything I needed. From Escondido it was a long drive to Felipe, and we wanted to cover as much ground before nightfall as possible. By the time we got to the El Cortez hotel the time zone change had caught up to Maria and I, so we said goodnight to Kurt and got some rest for the next days prerunning. Maria and I were up ridiculously early (but not by our bodies EST tuned standards), so we watched the sunrise over the Sea of Cortez. We would end up doing this every day while Kurt would make the hot water for our tea… what a guy! At 7:30 I started to gear up for an 8am departure. The older I get, the more safety equipment I wear, to the point where Robocop and I bare a striking resemblance. My “job” for the day was to ride the “Old Puertocitos” road to Puertocitos twice. This would entail a 55 mile return ride on pavement both times. I had so many people warn my about the rocks embedded in the whoops on the later section of this segment that I figured it was going to be miserable. As it turned out I rather liked it, whether it was due to my prerunning pace or my New England perspective, the rocks didn’t seem bad and I love sand whoops as they remind me of my youth and riding on Long Island NY. I got back to the hotel at a reasonable 2pm where I found Kurt on the beach and Maria hanging by the pool. It looked like their day had been full of stress, actually I was glad they were able to relax as there’d be plenty to do in the coming days. The next day we were off early, I was scheduled to repeat the section I rode the previous day, and then continue on to Gonzaga. I really clicked on my third time through Old Puertocitos road and got some good fast miles in when I was in the rough stuff with good site lines. From my perspective, prerunning is the second most dangerous thing to do in racing Baja (behind driving at night). The roads are open to the public, as they should be since the locals need to use them, and there is often oncoming traffic. My greatest concern is other racers backtracking on the course for unknown reasons, I’ve heard many stories and have a few myself, but thankfully on this trip I had absolutely no problems. The ten miles north of Puertocitos is lousy broken up, chuck holed asphalt with numerous “vados” (dips for water to cross the road when hard rains occur). We would be restricted to 60 mph on this 15 mile section which I was thankful for, I’d much rather go fast on dirt and gravel…. There was a sweet little technical section around the town of Puertocitos that was just to my liking. South of Puertocitos the speed limit is eliminated and the road turns to a wide gravel road. This for me was the scariest part of my section. Fast, slippery and often with shear drops, this 20 miles demanded respect. I vowed early on to ride this segment with an eye on safety. As I headed south the road opened up, the fastest segments of my ride were before me. Although during prerunning I kept my speeds down, during the race I would often be going over 100 mph through here. Once I got to Gonzaga, I turned around, went back to Puertocitos and did it again. Upon my return to Gonzaga, I rode over to Alfonsinas where Maria and Kurt were hanging out on the patio overlooking Gonzaga Bay, with cold Pacificos in hand. This was a beautiful spot and would be our base of operations for the next two days. The next day (Monday) dawned blustery and wet. I needed to prerun the last segment of my leg, from Gonzaga down to Bay of LA twice. I got going around 8 am, and felt right at home in the wind driven rain, blasting down the wide open road… this prerunning stuff can be fun! Maria and Kurt followed down to Coco’s Corner where they’d hang with Coco and fuel me up after my first loop. Ahead of them, I blew by Coco’s, onto the Calamajue (Cala-ma-way) road. The rain had really picked up now, looking like a tropical deluge. The twin tracks of the road both were filled with flowing water, often several inches deep. I tried to ride the center crown as often as possible to keep everything dry and tidy, but the bald rear Metzler Karoo (not an ideal mud tire to begin with) and the saturated soft soil made this an interesting proposition. After seven miles the course split from the road onto a fast two tracked trail… nice whoops and some very exciting moments on saturated red clay (fast + bald tire + red clay = oh sh..!!). Still, I was in my element, mud, rocks, slippery soil, flowing water… hey that sounds like riding in New England! Of course the vegetation was a bit sparse…. Another seven miles and I dropped into Calamajue wash, the next 32 miles would be some of the most enjoyable riding I had ever done. Water was flowing down the wash, often over a foot deep, and the track hopped from one side to the other. The wash worked its way up to a cataract in the rocks, where rock walls loomed on both sides of the trail. From here the water flow was reversed as was the pitch. Slowly down the trail went, winding through brush with perfect berms at every corner. It was fast and fun, and I was enjoying every moment of it. Once we worked our way down to El Crucero, the trail turned to sand whoops again with the occasional rock outcropping and red clay patch. (see Part 2)

Part 2- This area was handling the deluge well and there were only puddles to avoid. All around were cool cactus that looked like they had been stolen from a Dr. Seuss book… “Toto, we’re not in Vermont anymore…”.The segment finished in a final sand wash with deep sharp buggy whoops. In these you can really feel the weight of the XR 650R, but if you keep the gas on and attack they’re surprisingly easy. As I pulled out onto the paved road, I stopped to say hello to a couple of guys, then headed north in pouring rain… to do it all again. After 13km’s I pulled onto Hwy 1 and headed north, my teeth were already chattering, and I knew this was going to be a long, cold one hour stint. When I pulled into Coco’s Kurt took the bike (OK, pried it from my frozen body), and gave me his warmest coat. Of course all my stuff was soaked, I was frozen and pondering the wisdom of doing it again in the unrelenting rain. Maria introduced me to Coco, a fine guy who was a fantastic host and something of a folk artist. If someone hasn’t documented his work I would be surprised. It was kind of like finding Portland Oregon’s “Church of Elvis” in the middle of the desert (Maria and I renewed our wedding vows at said church, in a drunken midnight visit with me in my Navy Choker Whites, her in a formal dress, during a Rose Festival gala…). I huddled in his shop looking at the visitor logs spanning years of people passing through. Some other touring riders were there, drinking some of Coco’s beer and looking at all the memories on the walls. A riders Oasis for sure! After some food and drink, Kurt fashioned me a garbage bag to go under my riding jacket. I mounted up and took off for another run, after awhile I warmed up and the second run was even more fun than the first. I returned to Coco’s relatively warm, met Maria and Kurt and said my farewells to Coco. Kurt and Maria had spent four hours hanging out at Coco’s Corner, they had a complete tour of the art as well as all the journals, they left vowing to bring back food from San Felipe on race day as they headed south to my exchange point. The next day I preran from Gonzaga to Coco’s Corner again, as I had only done it once, after that we all headed north back to San Felipe. The following day, Wednesday, we headed over to Ensenada for contingency and for me to check out the race bike. All the other team members had seat time on the race bike, but I, the geographic misfit hadn’t even seen the thing. The base of operations for all my friends was the (very pink) San Nicolas Hotel. Within minutes of arriving I had seen Mike Kay ( ), Rob and Denise Barnum ( ) and many other fine people that I had met in the last year. After a bit of socializing I met up with Kevin who was attending to some last minute details on the race bike. I looked the bike over and was impressed with how well detailed everything was. Mike and Chad (the main team mechanic, from our primary sponsor ESP) had done a superb job! Sitting on the bike, the bars felt lower and further back then what I was used to, but riding on a team is full of ergonomic compromises, and they felt like my moto set-up so I figured no problem. In getting to know Kevin I was convinced that our team might not have a chance to win the race, but if there was a competition for nicest group of guys, our entire team would be strong contenders. After I felt comfortable with the bike, I went to contingency where I bought a few gifts for friends and family, then we drove back to San Felipe. Before a race I usually sleep reasonably well, but the night before the 1000 was to be an exception. I felt a strong responsibility to perform to the best of my ability for my team mates, and the dueling priorities of speed and safety were heavy on my mind. I definitely wanted to get the bike to Jim in one unharmed piece, but I wanted to do it quickly! I thought through contingencies and searched for the right balance, oh yea and I slept a little…. Maria and Kurt were up at 5, and on the road by 6 am since they needed to drive down the course and wanted to transit that section before the first bikes came through. I was left with my set of wheels, my riding gear and a piece of plywood. Kevin told me he would take around four hours to ride his section, with a 6:45 am start time that would bring him through at 10:45. I had my suspicions he’d come through much quicker so I was glad when his chase driver picked me up a little after 9. We set up our pit, and I finished getting suited up. While I waited, the KTM team was the first bike that came through, but I understood that two bikes had passed before we arrived. In fifth on the road was Rob Barnum, on his way to an amazing solo victory and an inspiring accomplishment. I stopped counting and concentrated instead on reviewing my section and the main hazards I had identified while prerunning. Around 10:15 Kevin came blasting down the road into the pit. The bike went up on the stand, I got my gloves and goggles on (he was early!) and Kevin and Russell changed the rear wheel. All of this was being filmed by a crew for the TV coverage, although I am sure it will end up on the editing room floor. I climbed on, found TDC and kicked… nada. Three times around and I handed the bike to Kevin. He tried, expletives were invoked, and on his third try we got fire. I hopped on and took off. I eased into my desired pace, but from the word go I regretted not getting some miles on the race bike. The bars were too far back by my standards and it made standing very awkward, also I was getting a wicked tail wag in the flat fast sand that characterizes the beginning of Old Puertocitos Road. I played with the stabilizer, which was an RTT, so I had a convenient thumb adjuster, but I couldn’t adjust it out. By the time the whoops started I was pushing as hard as I dared, but I knew I was struggling a bit. Instead of giving into anger with myself and frustration, I put my head down and resolved to figure out how to adapt. This wasn’t going to happen right away, and as I worked the bugs out, I was passed by a 40 pro class entry (our class) from the Swede team of PG Lundmark. I tried to stay with him, but realized his pace was not going to work for me. I needed to ride my own race and concentrate on keeping the bike upright while covering ground quickly. The remainder of the Old Puertocitos road went uneventfully, if not a little slower than I wanted. Once we turned out onto the broken up pavement north of Puertocitos I took the time to get a drink and catch my breath. Later I would find out we were one of the few motorcycle teams running 60 mph on the pavement, we even had mounted a speedometer! I hope next season they strictly enforce the rule, otherwise why bother having it? My first Honda pit was along this stretch and they efficiently topped me up with fuel and installed a new airfilter. Heading south from Puertocitos was miles of fast wide gravel road, and it was just a matter of going as quickly as I felt safe. The bike and I had found a happy medium, and the engine felt strong and fast, so it was a fun blast south. There were many spectators along the way, cheering wildly and in here I passed a couple of bikes. Gonzaga came quickly, and from the Federale checkpoint in Gonzaga it was at least ten miles where the throttle was against the stop. I’ve never gone so fast for so long. It was fun, but I kept reminding myself to focus, a small mistake would have huge repercussions. It wasn’t long before I rode past Coco’s Corner where there were hundreds (OK, allot, I wasn’t counting) of spectators. There was a check as soon as I pulled onto Calamajue road and from here to the end of my section I knew I’d be having fun. As it turned out I finally had found my mojo and everything clicked. The groove is a wonderful place, and I was grateful to find it. The miles flew past and my smile grew. The tricky buggy whoops that filled my final wash went by unnoticed, I just hammered through them, and all too quickly turned out onto pavement. I’ve always been a slow starter, and at this point I was wishing for more miles, but it was time to find Jim and handoff the bike. A bit up the road I saw our deluxe pit sign and pulled in. Three guys (Kurt, Jim’s chase guy Bill and a borrowed mechanic from a trophy truck crew) immediately tore into changing the wheels and airfilter, while I briefed Jim on the bikes status… minutes later he was good to go, and after the requisite 3 kicks it fired up, stalled and took another 3. This time he headed out, with me shouting good luck behind him. I had finished my section in just over three hours, with an average speed of just under 60 mph. This was far faster than I had imagined, so despite my initial troubles I had held it together for a solid ride. In Ensenada we had started 24th on the road, Kevin, our teams fastest rider, had done a fantastic job and passed a plethora of people, I had passed a few more. When I got off the bike we were 9th on the road. 675 miles later, after many hard miles put in by Jim, Kent and Mike, we would finish 9th overall, 4th in our class. For me this was a dream finish, since I was seven years old I had wanted to race the Baja 1000, and now 37 years later I had competed on a team that finished in the top ten. Our team, ESP racing will be back, and I know that with more experience our results will improve, but on November 18th, 2004 five riders gave their best, and I am honored to be among them. Thanks guys, and thanks to everyone who made it possible.

wow, that was a great read!

Excellent job Wardo and ESP racing! Very good write up. Good to see a fellow New Englander involved.

:cry: Good job Wardo! :lol:


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