A Baja Adventure: Part 1
by Bob Waitz
The Baja 1000 – Nov. 20-23, 2002
Marty Schneider approached me about competing in the Baja during the 2002 La Carrera. “Sounds great!” I said. “What kind of truck are we talking about?”
“Oh, no,” said Marty. “On a bike.”
“Yeah… sure…” Maybe he forgot about it.
The subject came up periodically over the winter and spring with me making various vaguely worded responses figuring this whacky idea would soon pass. As the summer wore on the subject came up several more times. Again I said I thought it was interesting but pointed out that I might not be the best candidate — the vast majority of my motorcycle experience being highway miles racked up in long distance events or tooling around town on a Norton. I mentioned that while I did, in fact, own a dirt bike, it’s a 1973 Hodaka Combat Wombat and that my dirt riding abilities are limited to putting around friends’ farms in BigLake and Delano and that I probably don’t have 20 miles total on a dirt bike. This did not dissuade Marty in the least. It would be a wonderful adventure.
Suddenly the summer was over and Marty was on the phone again. He needed to send in confirmation of our entry and get us signed up to pit with Team Honda. They would have fuel, tires, and other support every 50 miles. Sure we could do it! And Dick Laumer was on board. The reality was we had 3 weeks to mount a serious race effort including getting a bike! I actually owned a pair of MX boots and pants but that was the extent of our off-road equipment. A quick trip to Bob’s and an unsecured credit card cured this problem. And it could have been a lot more expensive. Heck, everything was on clearance! We looked just like last season’s best dressed riders at 40% off! We had a stroke of luck finding a 2001 Honda XR650R at Moon Motors. It had low hours on it and was covered with every sticker from the Honda sticker pack including the reed-valve ones. Mark Foster and the other guys at Moon gave us a great deal on the bike and threw in some shirts and oil. We had a number of accessories that we’d need and with the time crunch we ended up taking delivery of the bike only 3 days before we left for Baja. One problem was accessories. We’d need to field a competitive bike: Aluminum bash plate, Steering Damper, Pro-taper bars, 4.3 gallon clear gas tank, wider footpegs, desert tires, Moose-foam insert and tube for the front, rewound stator and giant headlights, extra throttle and clutch cables. The list was endless and it all had to be brought in 2nd or next day air. Moon installed a couple items that came in before we collected the bike but that left us only two days to get everything else on it – and we still had to show up for work at our day jobs! Thank God for Dan Cunningham. Luckily this is a slow time of year for bike mechanics and Dan was able to devote two entire days to getting the bike ready. He installed everything on our list, made a new wiring harness so we could change headlights quickly, and generally made us comfortable that the bike wouldn’t fail us. We’d have never been ready in time without him. Now, in Dan’s defense, he showed us how everything on the bike worked. We were a little rushed and maybe didn’t pay the closest attention to his instructions…
The story that we were going elicited only one of two responses: “Cool” or “You’re going to die!” To their eternal credit, the Promise Breakers Minnesota Motorcycle Monthly and TeamStrange members were firmly in the “Cool” camp and were very, very generous with their $$ in sponsorship. And from that group came The top bit of advice. R-A-W. Relax and Win. Don’t hold the bar in a death-grip and succumb to arm pump. Relax the grip and win. We modified this to R-A-F (Relax and finish) but hey, a tip ‘o the helmet to Chuck Banks for that one. It really helped.
We left Minneapolis around noon on Saturday the 16th. We drove straight through to Albuquerque, NM where we stopped at the Owl Café for breakfast where Dave Tall, a college buddy of mine, showed up on short notice. The owner/manager, an avid Baja dirt biker, noticed our trailer, gave us some advice on routes, and told us the best place to cross the border would be Tecate. He also told us about a ferry that ran from the area of La Paz to the mainland that might save us 500 miles on the return trip – if we could afford it! They charge you by length and with a trailer it might get a little spendy. We continued on to Eloy, AZ where we got a room. The next day (Monday) we got up early and headed for Tecate. In California we got some travel insurance. The advice from the Owl Café proved to be excellent. The border crossing at Tecate was quick and easy. One nice thing about Baja is that unlike the mainland, vehicle permits are not required. With only a few adjustments (ALTO means STOP) it was easy driving. By mid afternoon we made it to a foggy Ensenada and got settled in. We had two days to pre-run the course, dial in the bike, and pick up anything we might be missing.
Now I must add something here about Marty and his ability with languages. He speaks Spanish as a native–so well, in fact, that everyone we talked to stopped him in mid conversation to ask where he learned it. This really greased the skids in a lot of situations. We began referring to it as “turning on the Schneider.” There was always the shaking of hands and the slapping of backs whenever we talked to anyone. I’m surprised he never had to pose for a picture!
Joining us in Ensenada were Ed and Randy Gaven who had come down from southern California to help us out as a chase vehicle. The next day Gary Briggs arrived. He flew in to San Diego from Minnesota and bummed a ride all the way to Ensenada! That’s the sort of thing speaking Spanish does for you, I guess. We stayed at the SanNicholasHotel &endash; mainly because it had a large, fenced-in parking lot with 24-hour attendants. Martin, the head attendant, and Lassaro, the head bellhop were great guys and helped us a lot. If you ever get down there, ask for them.
The lobby of the San Nicholas was covered with pictures from the glory years of the 1000. The hotel was nice, if a little past its prime. The parking lot was filled with competitors’ vehicles. There were buggies of every description, things that looked like pickups from a distance but were total race vehicles with a fiberglass shell, Hummers, ATVs and bikes. Lots of bikes. Lots of bikes just like ours. Since Honda is the only manufacturer running a factory pit, you’d be crazy to ride anything else.
At Baja you’re allowed to pre-run any section of the course. Many of the teams brought down an extra trailer of bikes just for pre-running. We brought Marty’s 250 so 2 of us could go out at once. The serious racers would leave in the morning, drive 1 or 2 hundred miles down the highway, which translates into 2 or 3 hundred miles on the course, run a section for the afternoon, and be back by evening. But it’s not exactly safe, either. Traffic is going both ways on some of these sections and I don’t just mean competitors – there is both local foot and vehicle traffic. One rider had a head-on with a local car within a couple of miles of the beginning of the course and broke his shoulder and thumb. He had to walk back and the bike was never seen again. Our plans were a little more basic: Let’s learn to start the bike and see what the first 20 miles of the course is like. Trouble started almost immediately. Anything Dan had told us was lost in the distant past of 3 days ago. We’d kick and kick and kick and the damn bike just wouldn’t start. And when it did start it ran terribly. It would barely idle and had no top end. Now here’s where it gets a little embarrassing… I notice the Honda truck has arrived when we return at noon from pre-running. I mention it to Marty and Dick who immediately head over there while I change to see if Bruce Ogilvie, head of the Honda Pits, is there. They run into some of the team riders and mechanics including Johnny Campbell, the eventual winner of the race. They describe the problems we are having and Johnny asks them to bring the bike over. Ignoring the laughter from the peanut gallery, he kindly points out that we are running on the choke and teaches Marty and Dick how to start the bike first kick every time. The drill is simple: Half choke, kick it up to compression, pull the compression release and go one click past. A spirited kick lights it up every time. He asks if we have the power up kit. We say no. He turns to Bruce and asks him to install the kit for us. Bruce looks at his watch and says, “Bring the bike back at 2:30.” Woo Hoo! Our cares just melted away! At 2:30 we were back with the bike and Bruce installed the Power-Up kit. It involved new boots for the carb, removing some baffles from the airbox, a new insert for the muffler and a change from a .125 main jet to a .175. A couple of the team mechanics loc-tited everything else on the bike and pronounced it ready to race. It made all the difference in the world. The bike started easily, ran cool, and the throttle was very smooth and responsive. Our test rides from this point on were just great. And the cool thing is you can just ride around the city of Ensenada with a full-race, unmuffled bike, ATV, truck, or buggy and people wave at you and wave you past like you are some sort of international celebrity! Jeez, don’t even enter the race, just get your dirt bike down there, slap a few stickers on it, and ride around town the week before the race! No one will know! This event is a giant party for the whole town.
The evening before the race we attended a driver’s meeting where we were warned that, as usual, there were some reports of sabotage and booby-traps on the course. The booby-traps generally involve things like digging holes or burying logs to make the vehicles jump around &endash; not so good if you are on a motorcycle. Sabotage means someone has moved or changed the ribbons and arrows that mark the course. Race officials work pretty hard to make sure everything is right for the race and as it turns out, we had no problem with either. We did get one warning that proved to be excellent advice. If you see a bunch of Mexicans standing around, slow down. With a 1017 mile course, there aren’t people watching at every corner, but you’d better believe if there is a particularly exciting or dangerous bit, no matter how remote the location, there will be people watching there. When you see a bunch of Mexicans standing around, they are hoping to see some action.
We went to a nice but cockroach infested restaurant and made our final plans. We decided that Dick would start the race, I would take over at Mile 337 and Marty would finish it. We had hoped the trucks would start ahead of the bikes because we figured the less big things that wanted to pass us, the better. It turned out that the bikes would go out first but there would be almost an hour’s head start to get us past the first 40 miles which were rather like a motocross track. I was a little apprehensive since I’d be riding mainly at night, but this was tempered with the knowledge that anyone really fast would have passed us before I got on. Plus, we had those big lights. How bad could it be? Ed and Randy rented 3 satellite phones for the week. These, while slightly more cumbersome than a cell phone, are something that you should consider for any event like this. Cell service wouldn’t be available in most places, but we’d be able to leave messages back and forth or talk at predetermined times. As it turned out, they saved the trip for us. We also brought along 2 GPS’s. One stayed in the truck, the other with the rider. The combination of the phone and the GPS meant we’d always be able to locate each other.
The start of the race is on one of the main streets of town riders and drivers are sent out in 30 second intervals by class. From a spectator’s standpoint this is fantastic. You get to watch each machine, clean and new, accelerate down a city street at full whack without the competing sounds of another motor. Since so many different types of vehicles compete, you get to hear just about every kind of race motor imaginable. It’s also the only point in the race where you are guaranteed to see everyone! The race winds through town for half a mile then takes to a drainage ditch where another half-mile through town dumps it out onto the well-suspecting countryside.
The morning of the race Marty, Gary, and I got up at 3:00 AM to drive down to Honda Pit #7 and the 337 mile mark where I would take over riding. We arrived just before noon and discovered that the pit was not in radio communication with the other Honda pits because we were on a plain between sets of mountains.
This was the location many bike teams planned for their first rider change. It’s about a third of the way through the race, and most importantly it’s the first Honda pit on the course where there is road access to Highway 1. If you change riders in San Filipe near the 200 mile mark, for example, you have to drive back to Ensenada to get on the road to the finish. Team members changing at San Filipe can never catch up to the race.
Since the road access was so close, there were some people there with different radios. They were hearing that the start had been delayed some 50 minutes. Somehow the drainage ditch at the start of the race had been flooded and was now a mud pit. There was talk that either a water main had broken or locals had purposely flooded the course. We tended to believe the latter. The start was changed to a parade through town to the point where the course exited into the countryside. The delay meant the bikes didn’t get a big head start over the trucks. Dick was overtaken early and forced off the road. He had trouble restarting (the extra big tank adds so much fuel pressure, you have to shut the gas off when you kill or tip or you’ll be flooded before you can restart). This was and example of how our inexperience and short prep time worked against us.
We could tell when the leaders were coming because helicopters started appearing overhead. It was around 1 PM the first rider, Johnny Campbell on 1X came roaring up the path. His back tire was worn out and he was low on fuel. He jumped off and the pit crew got to work. They dumped a giant can of gas into his tank, NASCAR-style, changed the front and rear wheels, and threw in an air filter and spent a couple minutes bleeding the brakes. A new rider jumped on and he was off. Talk afterward was that the trick brakes weren’t exactly all that trick. Johnny jumped in a waiting van and they took off for the finish line.
The next bike down the path was 4X. Finally some extra drama. 4x got the same service treatment but the replacement rider wasn’t there! Man was that guy mad. He said some things to one of the guys in the helicopter through a walkie-talkie and had to jump back on the bike and take off!
After this there was steady traffic in bike, ATV’s, Trucks, Hummers, and Buggies for the next several hours. We expected Dick sometime around 4-6 PM and every time we saw a bike coming we got all worked up. But Dick never arrived…
To be continued next month.