Chasing Down the Baja 1000 - Part 1
We were outside of Phoenix and were headed to points west and south. Our caravan consisted of a couple of pickups, a trailer with a race UTV, and a well-seasoned Isuzu NPR turbo diesel box truck. Our destination for the next several days was Ensenada, Mexico and the Baja Peninsula. Our small group was to meet up with the rest of the support and race team that was preparing to tackle the pinnacle event in off-road racing.
I was invited to join with Afraidium Racing and traverse the peninsula chasing a trio of vehicles. John Conelly would be racing a Honda CRF450X in the >250cc Sportsman Class. John would also be running his custom built UTV powered by a 1000cc Honda street bike engine. Jess Maier would be the driver in John's car. The trailer we towed behind one of the pickups held Mark Lindsay's 2008 Polaris RZR. Mark had won the Baja 500 UTV class earlier in the year and was hoping to do well in the longer race with the help from fellow drivers/riders Jason Spiess, Phil Holdsworth, and Derek Tungmala.
As we hummed along I-8 headed toward San Diego, we couldn't help but notice the occasional smoke puffs spitting from under the Isuzu truck from time to time. Soon we were witnessing a constant smoky haze coming from the rear of the truck and we figured we'd better pull over and check things out.
There's nothing like starting a trip early with repairs. We exited in Yuma and found a truck repair shop that could repair our hardline, so we took a lunch break and soon had repair #1 behind us.
Skirting San Diego rush hour we nosed our group towards the Mexican border and into the line of crossing vehicles. The officials waved us through and we exited the checkpoint and slipped into the bustle of Tijuana traffic. Our drivers navigated the narrow lanes through the city, careful of the various strolling pedestrians, vendors, and all manner of motorized rolling stock.
It was passing into the dark hours of the evening and a few hours later we were in a more settled world in a RV park outside of Ensenada. The other half of the crew had arrived nearly a week earlier to check out the race course, get in some good dirt bike riding, do some surfing, and enjoy the local cuisine and brews. When we hit camp the mood was relaxed, but we would soon be busy the next day. Wednesday was fading.
Thursday dawned a pleasant day save for some persistent clouds that kept a bit of chill in the air. The UTVs were loaded early to head into town and line up for contingency. Getting in line early means you get through a little quicker and before the crowds get too crazy.
The town was alive when we got to the hotel area. Contingency row was lined with vendors selling race wear and the locals were out checking out the race rigs. The wait to get to tech at the other end was a couple of hours, but we passed the time enjoying the sites and the people. Local schools must have let out early because in late morning the area was a swarm of kids eager to see the vehicles and collect memorabilia. The Afraidium team had a box full of stickers to hand out and the kids loved them. The team would push the car through the crowd a bit, then stop and give out a few goodies.
Tech on the cars went smoothly without issue and John got his bike through the much simpler inspection process a few blocks over and by early afternoon we were headed back to camp.
The rest of the day we spent gathering up spare parts and tools and dividing them amongst the various chase rigs. Along with that activity, there were a few last minute setup tweaks to perform.
The team had new tires for John's car and we spent a good while busting the old ones off the beadlock wheels with a Hi-Lift and mounting the new ones up. This time around, the tires were stuffed with Tire Balls to ward off a complete flat in the event of the inevitable puncture. We packed the final items away, gathered for a short meeting to finalize chase plans and hit the hay to get some rest.
John and his haul crew were out early to send him off at the start about 7:30 Friday morning. Joe and myself were headed north in the box truck while the sun was still low in the sky. We had to beat John to the first pit area in La Rumorosa. We wound our way up a highway under construction and paused at our first military checkpoint. The federales were young men and treated us cordially, while they eyed our truck and its cargo box looking for signs of contraband. We got a nod and a wave to proceed, and we followed the winding highway towards the small town.
Here the race course jumped off dirt and followed the highway through town for about three miles. We found a spot on the roadside to set up pit as we had agreed. Bikers were streaming through town and based on their plate numbers, we soon had a handle on the classes and had an idea when we'd see John. About twenty minutes later he spotted the sign on the side of our box truck and jumped off the road to stop and pit with us. He was fine on food, water, and gas so we just checked over his bike and sent him on his way. This was Race Mile 116.
As John left us I picked up our Motorola Iridium satellite phone and called into our central contact in Flagstaff, Arizona. He was fielding calls from the various chase vehicles while simultaneously watching the team's progress online at RaceTheWorld.net. Each racer was required to carry a satellite transponder that transmitted location data for each competitor. We would phone in the progress of our racers as they left each pit. Our cell phones often didn't work in the remote locations.
We jumped in the truck and headed east. We were to be his next pit crew again and had to chase him over the mountain range while he tackled the dustier, rockier terrain. We paid the toll on Highway 2 and wound our way up and down the curvy switchbacks to the next valley. The road here was nearly new and awesomely built. As we dropped to the other side we found ourselves at another checkpoint, complete with camo fatigued soldiers and automatic weapons. We got the nod and wave, and moved past without a problem.
Our next destination put us at Race Mile 146, where we parked the box truck and setup what we thought we needed for our rider. I knew with a phone call that he was about 5 miles out and coming fairly fast. The course passed under a concrete highway bridge and it was there I waited with one of our pit signs to flag down John. He came riding up and my frantic arm waving directed him towards the parking area and the waiting truck.
John had settled in and was riding well though he had fallen once and had some dirt stuck in an eye. He took a few minute break, wrapped his hands with tape to try to ward off blisters, and then was off down the wash. There was lots more racing and chasing to come.