Baja, Mexico Motorcycle Race Diary
December 12, 2002
By Johnny Campbell, Andy Grider and Steve Hengeveld
JOHNNY CAMPBELL: RECON RUN
Baja never ceases to amaze me. It’s always a spiritual experience in more ways than one and 2002 was no different. After 10 years of competing in Baja, you would think you might have seen it all. But each time I go I experience things that keep luring me back.
My story began with the course reconnaissance trip that I always look forward to, especially when the Baja 1000 returns to its original format: Ensenada to La Paz. The recon trip would be headed up by our fearless leader Bruce Ogilvie. Anybody who has ridden with Bruce knows that you better eat breakfast the night before because you’re going to be leaving before the sun comes up. Joining Bruce and I were my teammates for this race: Steve Hengeveld and Baja rookie Andy Grider.
I must have made Andy a bit nervous over stressing that Bruce doesn’t eat breakfast. He was up a 4:00 a.m. eating breakfast ... and lunch!. We took off for a chilly ride out to Ojos Negros and right off the bat we were going first gear through the Baja fog. Anyone who was experienced fog on an oil slick Mexican highway can relate to how sketchy this really is--plus it was still predawn. We all survived and were soaked. We dropped into Ojos Negros and so did the temperature. Now not only were we wet, but frozen too. Viva Baja. As we made out way down the course we had to overcome a few obstacles like an occasional locked gate or flat tire. Andy got the first flat on the goat trail just above Valle de Trinidad. I went ahead and told Bruce and Henge about the flat. Bruce looked at his watch. "Meet us at the pink restaurant, we’ll have breakfast." I had to have Bruce repeat it because I couldn’t believe he was stopping for food! I quickly went back to help Andy with the wheel and he was pleasantly surprised. Was Bruce softening up? No. We had made good time the last 100 miles and looked good for reaching our destination (Bay of L.A.) before dark. We stuffed ourselves, but had a fortunate 20 miles of highway to let it digest.
We dropped into the lower desert near El Diablo dry lake, then took a quick sprint down Zoo Road and through the dump into San Felipe. We filled the tanks and kept going south. The next 30 miles are possibly the most dreaded in all of Baja: sand whoops with wheel-size rocks and washouts. Nasty. I got the flat this time. Luckily it was near the end of that section, so we got to the highway above Puertocitos and fixed it .The next 150 miles were fast and sometimes quite panoramic, overlooking the beautiful Sea of Cortez. Along the route we would stop to check out some pit areas and Bruce would make notes and take a GPS waypoint. We arrived at the Gonzaga Bay mini-mart and grabbed some water and snacks. To our surprise, Gonzaga Bay has a computerized bar code scanner at checkout. No pavement for at least 100 miles but, hey, they can check your groceries quickly! Amazing. But that’s Baja. We continued past Coco’s Corner toward Calamajue wash This wash is one of the coolest things in Baja, with water running from a natural spring 365 days a year. A stark change from the 300 bone-dry miles we had just covered. We popped out of that and into the cactus forest near El Crucero where we met our chase trucks for the first time that day. We got a splash of gas and had 60 more miles to go before we spent the night in Bahia de Los Angeles.
The next day, like the previous day, we got up pre-dawn and left. Bruce told me to go first so the guys followed. Right off the bat I made two mistakes and ended up in some guy’s backyard. And of course Bruce waited for us to return to the correct corner. I had probably been through that section 10 times in my career, but never in the dark without course markings. Bruce doesn’t forget much. He’s amazing. Once the General got his troops pointed in the right direction we took off two riders each side-by-side. We usually don’t ride that way in Mexico, but the stock headlights were better doubled up, and the road was big and wide. We rode that way for 60 miles until the sun came up then regrouped and went down to the beach at San Rafael. The sun was coming up over a flat sea and we’re riding motorcycles on the beach. Life is good. And so is riding in Mexico. We sent Bruce on and enjoyed the scene. Continuing down the course we ran into some inland fog. From beautiful to spooky in a half hour, that’s Baja. We ventured onto a new section of course never used before and it was ready fun. Fifth gear over twisty sand roads.
From there we joined the old course south of El Arco and arrived in San Ignacio ahead of the chase trucks. Our plan was to get to San Carlos to spend the night, but Baja struck and Henge’s gas tank began to leak. We had to wait for the truck. They soon arrived, we fixed the tank and kept moving. We changed our plan and decided our destination would be Loreto because of the time. It was a good choice because by the time we got to the access road we all were tired, even though no one would admit it out loud. San Carlos would have been pushing it. We got to Loreto and serviced the machines that were worked from two 350-mile days of wear and tear. The next day, we found there had been a lot of water down the canyon through San Javier and the road had many washouts. We continued down to Constitution where one of our chase trucks had a blown rear tire. We regrouped down below Medan Aramillo. Bruce decided it was best to split up and have us ride to LaPaz while he checked access roads to the pit. Bruce is a smart guy. He did need to find access to that location and he also knew the next 40 miles were all sand whoops. Ouch! We continued and found that SCORE had a new section to the finish at LaPaz. We had made it three long riding days. Steve and Andy had never done a ride like that and they were stoked. We loaded Steve and Andy in the truck and I rode back north to check an access road into pit 19. After that, I met the truck at the highway and we drove north to Loreto for the night. The next day we met Bruce for breakfast and made plans for pits and prerunning. From there, we left for our journey home, this time as passengers in the chase trucks. The two long days that followed were more painful than any five days of riding on the bike. But we had a good trip, only to get stuck in secondary at the border crossing.
About a week before the race I loaded up once again to go do the bulk of my prerunning. My section was to be the first third of the race, start to El Crucero. Prerunning this section takes a considerable amount of time and requires being away from the truck until you’re done with the section. My plan was to preride this section every day--330-plus miles--then load up in the truck, drive 300 miles back to Ensenada and do it again and again. For this prerun I had myself and Chris Blais, an up-and-comer who works in the service shop at American Honda. I also had TJ, my driver and special guest Walter Fortichairi, my mechanic from Paris-Dakar who works for Franco Acerbis in Italy. They were to drive the truck 600 miles a day from Ensenada to El Crucero and back. Everything went good prerunning and of course we had a couple memorable experiences.
The second day of prerunning, Chris and I left Ensenada at the crack of dawn and planned to arrive at San Felipe around10:30 a.m. About 20 miles before San Felipe, Chris stopped and was missing about half the teeth on his rear sprocket. This truck was on the other side of the peninsula and we had over 150 miles of remote Baja to go. Fortunately we had phone service and would call TJ each day when we would get to San Felipe to tell him we were okay. He was always stuffing his face about this time at Mama Espinoza’s in El Rosario. I told him the situation and that we were going to look for someone with bikes to see if we could bum a sprocket. We combed the tourist hotels only to find guys with Kawasakis. We looked high and low, but couldn’t find anybody. But in our search, we saw a sign that said "Jaime’s Cycle Shop, 3 blocks." I turned to Chris and said "Let’s give it a shot."
We found the cycle shop, three blocks just like the sign had said. Jaime’s was an old car port behind his house. It looked like a graveyard for ATCs, scooters, etc. I was optimistic. Could we find a sprocket for an XR650 in all this junk? Jaime came out and I showed him the problem. His response was "maybe nuevo, maybe used." I said anything was okay. We carefully stepped over mounds of broken three-wheelers and rusted chains and finally arrived at what looked to me like my book locker from junior high school. He opened a couple of lockers and pulled out a perfect, brand-new 46-tooth sprocket! Too bad it was a different bolt pattern--nothing could be that easy. We continued to the other side of the cycle shop/car port. Jaime produced a stack of used sprockets and I got my hopes up. Right on top was a half-used 48-toother.
I said "Yes!"
He said "No." Then he said "corny," and pointed at the bolt holes.
I looked at Chris. "Corny?" We figured he was talking about the type of bolts with countersunk heads. I said "Yes, corny is good."
"Ten dollar," said Jaime.
In 10 minutes we were on our way. Good thing Jaime didn’t know I would have paid $50 for that old, steel, shark-toothed sprocket. We called TJ and told him we were on the way and everything was good. Only in Baja. Later that evening we returned to the hotel. Walter in his broken English was trying to tell us he was going to take a shower, but it came out like this: "TJ, you wash me!" We cracked up and "Wash me" became the quote of the trip.
After logging nearly 2000 miles of prerunning, I felt confident with my section. I knew I had to ride smart and make no mistakes. My goal was to get the physical lead as soon as possible. I stared 10th bike and by the first pit, I was up to third. I chased down my protege, Blais and he made it easy on me as he tipped over in a rocky section. Next was Scott Meyers, riding for the Temecula team. I reeled him in and made my move at about mile 62 in a twisty sandwash. From there I backed it down a bit because I knew we had control of the race. I changed a wheel in San Felipe at pit four and took it easy on the rough, rocky old Puertocitos road. Every pit I was gaining time, so I left it at that pace. My trusty XR650 was just motoring along. I gave the bike to Andy at Honda pit seven. We changed another wheel and the rest was up to Andy and Steve, the two best partners I could have. Around midnight, Steve came roaring across the finish line and we were mobbed by locals wanting us to sign shirts, hats, foreheads and a whole array of odd items. I was relieved to finish and win the Baja Mill again; my sixth overall victory. Viva Mexico.
It was noon on race day, 30 minutes before I was to get on the bike for the middle part of the 2002 Baja 1000. Johnny Campbell had started and was riding 337 miles to Honda pit seven. I would race from Seven to La Purisima, 348 miles to where Steve Hengeveld would take it to the finish. All of the preparation for this race and the hours put into it by my father and family were with me now. This was the biggest race of my career so far. Honda had only one team this year, so they were relying on us to win. That added pressure to my first Baja 1000, but it was also what I’d been training for my whole life.
The blood got flowing and my heart began to pound when we heard over a fuzzy radio that bike 1x was experiencing rear shock problems. The pit was expecting the bike any minute so adrenaline was high. When the bike arrived with an 18-minute lead and no problems, I smiled, took a deep breath and began to do my job.
When I jumped on the bike, the radio connection got damaged. After a mile of warm up time, I could focus on the motorcycle. It was working well. The bike had just raced 300-plus miles and felt brand new. One hundred miles into my ride, the rear brake began to fade. Since my radio was damaged, I had to relay messages at pits to organize a brake change. At the third pit, they were all ready for me. We had planned to install light and change a wheel there anyway, so the brake work didn’t require any extra time.
Leaving San Ignacio, you end up racing into the sun for about 20 miles. When you turn south you are close to some silt beds and I desperately wanted to get through them before the sun set. I had crashed there during a pre-run and felt more comfortable moving through there before it got dark. I barely made it. As the sun went down, the desert temperature dropped about 20 degrees. Leaving pit 13 for my last 20 miles on the bike, I heard a loud bang and something hit me in the back. I didn’t know what it was and thought I was going to jump right off the bike. Then the 650 started to swap from side to side and I realized I had a flat tire, The tire had exploded, ripping the fender in half and hitting me. I was glad to get off when I did. My hands were done after 20 miles on a flat. After some quick work, Steve got on, and the whole effort was in his hands.
STEVE HENGEVELD: PRERUN
My journey began on November 13, 2002 at about 2:00 a.m. That’s when I left my house and ventured my way down to the border. By the time I got gassed up and bought my tourist cards, I crossed the U.S. / Mexico border at around 7:00 a.m. This is when the real adventure begins; days of prerunning followed by the race itself.
The first stop was at Mama Espinosa’s in El Rosario for a bite to eat and some gas for the truck. Mama Espinosa brought out this lobster that was as big as my rottwieler . This thing was HUGE!! This was the biggest lobster I had ever seen. Even my pit crew was amazed. After lunch we proceeded down the peninsula. It seems that when you make the left hand turn after Mama E’s the highway literally gets smaller. I mean the lane you are driving in shrinks about 25%. In Mexico that’s a lot, especially since there are no shoulders on the highway in Baja. This is especially interesting when you’re cruising down the highway and a tractor semi is coming at you, and you know that you both can’t fit by each other without swapping some paint. Talk about a thrill.
Our first day of travel ended in Catavina. Catavina consists of Hotel La Pinta, a little "mini super Mercado" and of course a 1970 Ford Courier pick-up with about 750,000 miles on it with three 55-gallon drums in the back end of it selling Pemex at about $4.00 a gallon. That’s all the civilzation there is for miles in either direction.
On day two our destination was Mulege. On the way to Mulege the second van in our caravan (Honda pit #19 crew) had some brake problems coming into San Ignacio. Their truck had lost the clips that hold on the brake calipers on the front rotors. We ended up having a two-hour stop in San Ignacio so that we could try and find these parts. We ended up going to a mechanic and he took it all apart and then disappeared behind his palapala. About 30 minutes later he appeared, and behold he had [brand new] parts that we needed. Of all places to have brand new parts and the correct ones. Weird things happen in Baja and this was one of them. So our journey continued down the road to Mulege. We stayed at the Serinidad Hotel there. We had our first BBQ. We whipped out the little grill and cooked up some chicken, tortillas and of course the Frijoles.
Day three we left the Serinidad at about 5:00 am. We were headed down the road about 50 miles to the turn off to San Isidro/ La Purisima. I wanted to be able to do my whole section of the race course that day. We unloaded the bikes and took off to La Purisima down the dirt road while our chase truck drivers were off to Insurgentes for the first scheduled gas stop for pre-running. Nothing too exciting went on but we were able to see a lot of beautiful country going through towns such as La Purisima, Comondu, and San Javier. This section mostly consists of mountains. In San Javier there’s a mission that has been there for 202 years. It is beautiful. A must see if you are in the Loreto area. Past San Javier you head back out towards the Pacific to Insurgentes, then Constitucion, Santa Rita, Santa Fe, Punto Conejo and then La Paz. All of this I enjoyed deeply; it was so beautiful riding along the beach and through the mountains. I soaked all of it in because the rest of my pre-running and racing was going to be done in the dark. The dark rides were fun, too, mostly because they went smoothly and according to plan.
I got on the bike at about 6:15 p.m.. This was approximately mile marker 685. My section was about 335 miles in length. When Andy apeared, he had a flat, so we had to put on a tire when I got on the bike. We had another wheel change approximately 100 miles into my section. The purpose of this was to give me a freash rear tire again, and to give me a new front tire with a 752 with a Mousse for the front for the sand whoops in my section.
During the first 110 miles, the bike worked flawlessly, but at about mile marker 785 I began to have light problems. The flood light quit working, so all that I had was the pencil beam, and that was a little hard not being able to see depth. But I managed. Before pit 16 and on the way to 17, fog had rolled in on the course and there were pockets that you couldn’t see past your fender, and also there were these pockets of hot air where it must have been 30 degrees warmer. It was really humid in these pockets as well. I had never experienced pockets of heat that were so drastic before during racing. At Pit #18 I pulled in and they did an air filter, and installed a whole new set of lights. We thought by installing the new light bar that this would solve my light problems. This worked for about two miles. After that, the light was once again out. So I focused on riding as fast as I could without the light and pushed on.
When I reached the summit, (the Stair-steps) I could see the lights of the city of La Paz, and I knew that I was almost to the finish line. Oh, what a feeling. The last 30 miles of the race was lined with people three deep. No exaggeration!! This is the greatest feeling when you’re racing through all of these people and they are all cheering for you. I remember one guy twirling this rag that was on fire when I was coming into the finish. Just an [awesome] experience. I arrived just before midnight at the finish line. There must have been 10,000 people lining the streets for the finish. This was one of the best experiences in my life and best of all I won the Baja 1000 first overall.
It’s great to see so many people into off-road racing.