by Thomas Day
I am not a film festival guy, but last April I stood in line at the Riverview Theater to buy a ticket to Dana Brown’s “Dust to Glory.” It was worth it. It was worth it twice. This year, I’ve written a few movie reviews for this magazine, but I rarely think twice about most of the movies I’ve seen. I think about “Dust to Glory” often. I own about a dozen movies, only three of which I’ve watched more than twice. As of this writing, I’ve seen “Dust to Glory” five times. I’m not even close to tired of this movie.
I don’t know who are the most incredible characters in this documentary; the riders and drivers who competed in the World’s Toughest Race, the Baja 1,000, or the people who filmed it. Brown had a huge cast of folks involved in this film. Over fifty cameras and a ninety person crew. The race was filmed from cab-cams, helmet-cams, helicopters, hand-held high-def gear, and tripod-mounted traditional cameras. Most of the unbelievable bike-cam footage was filmed by bike-riding cameramen and their riding skill is so close to that of the competitors that you can’t tell one from the other. One cameraman, Lou Franco, strapped on a video camera and hung with Mouse McCoy for an incredible distance. Later, Franco rode 12 hours after he breaks his hand slamming it into a road overhang. Franco doesn’t slow down, but he holds the hand in front of the camera a few times and curses his luck.
Mario Andretti, the honorary race marshal, took a turn in a pickup and tore up the road fiercely enough that he killed the vehicle. Another of racing’s monsters, Parnelli Jones, is in the film long enough to introduce Robbie Gordon. Robbie, NASCAR’s money man, got his start in Baja and he’s still into the desert in the PROTRUCK class; a vehicle well described by Alan Pflueger as “a controlled explosion”. Gordon blew a tire and stayed near first place for thirty miles on three good wheels. Ricky Johnson, the SuperCross champion, was there riding a PROTRUCK and supporting Mouse McCoy. The trucks are, in fact, unbelievable. When they hit the dirt, it’s “a 20,000 horsepower free-for-all.”
An old hero of mine, 62 year old J.N. Roberts from the original off-road documentary On Any Sunday, is riding with his son, Jimmy. J.N was the winner of the first Baja 1000, in 1967. J.N. would be signing up for Social Security the January after the race. The short segment of J.N. ripping by riders, making up time after a crash, was beyond inspiring. J.N.’s old “On Any Sunday” riding buddy, Malcom Smith is in Glory, too. These guys are the first two champions of Baja.
In his brief moment on screen, enduro great and 12 time Baja champ, Larry Roesler, describes what it’s like to ride at this level. He still rides Baja, but he doesn’t ride to win it. Johnny Campbell, Honda’s top rider and the Baja two-wheel hero, is ruthlessly in the hunt and always rides to win. Andy Grider, on Honda’s B Team, snagged the top spot from Campbell and hung on to it till he handed over the bike to his co-rider, 350 miles from the end of the race. Grider, on the 11x bike, stole the lead from 1x and hung on to it through the silt beds and over hundreds of miles of ridiculous terrain. The footage of this one-on-one race is my highlight of the movie. This two-team competition is at the top of the best motorcycle racing footage I’ve ever seen.
Mike “Mouse” McCoy is the heart of the story, riding all 1000 miles by himself. What McCoy planned to do was, according to a lot of experienced people, impossible. Almost halfway through the race, McCoy was holding on to third and having fun. The outcome of his ride is amazing.
All of the racers in this film are totally out of the ordinary. For starters, there is next-to-no prize money involved ($4,000 for the Class One Unlimited Buggies) and only limited sponsorship cash for the winners. The Sportsman Class entry fee is $1500 and practically every kind of racer imaginable rides this event; everything from ratty old 1960s VW Beetles to totally freaked out high-buck SUVs in the four-wheel classes and bikers from the hobby class to the top off-road pros in the country. The film is peppered with low-budget racers and their perspective on the race.
For off-roaders, the Baja 1,000 is a rite of passage. Some folks argue, “If you haven’t done it, you haven’t done anything.” I haven’t done it and, judging from this movie, I never will. Probably the closest I’ll get will be when I’m on the edge of my seat during “Dust to Glory.”