Monday, October 08, 2007

Start of a new off road era, Baja Mexico, 1962. "A ride down the Baja". PART III




Dave Ekins

The Men Who Started A Whole New Kind Of Racing

Nearly 100 years after the acquisition of California North by the United States the Auto Club of Southern California surveyed Mexico’s 1000-mile long Baja Peninsula in an effort to make a legible road map. While in the process they planted small blue and white baked enamel signs along the way directing greenhorn travelers south. (An experienced driver would never even attempt the ordeal.) Left untouched by native Mexicans over the years, these road signs began to find their way into living rooms and dens when stateside adventurers trekked south during the heyday of “Jeeping”.

El Arco Sign

Adventuresome 4-wheelers would cross the Mexican border to experience this sparsely populated desert; now picked clean of those nifty little Auto Club markers; and promptly loose their way. Partly because of these perverse pleasure seekers Baja’s economy began to grow; Ensenada had become the second busiest seaport in all of Mexico and an observatory site found on Baja’s 9,286-foot Sierra De San Pedro Martir mountains boast as being one of the largest gathering of telescopes in the north western continent. Not an accident, the air is so pure one can see both the Pacific coast and, looking east, view the Mexican mainland seacoast on the other side of the Sea of Cortez; about a distance of 100 miles.

It’s not often the right people get together at the right time to make history. This whole idea of riding a motorcycle the length of the Baja Peninsula against a clock belongs to motorcycle racer-turned-Hollywood stuntman, Bud Ekins. And it was American Honda Motor Company (AHM) who supplied the vehicle to make it work. Actually, it was AHM Sales Manager Jack McCormack and Western States Sales Manager Walt Fulton whom Bud convinced a “Baja Trail Ride” with Honda’s brand new CL72 Scrambler would be a great way to kick off sales for Honda’s first dirt bike. Jack and Walt then had to convince AHM management to set the wheels in motion. (Heh, heh!) To the Japanese a failure of this magnitude made the idea “difficult sell’ for the U.S. team. Remember, there was no record to break, just a record to make. And the primary job would be to get it done.

Honda CL72

The plan was Bud and Dave Ekins would ride the new bikes and Walt Fulton would fly cover; not a bad idea. Then something happened to the basic plan. Triumph Motorcycle Distributor, Johnson Motors, would not allow their key, and most famous, dealer, Bud, to participate. So younger brother Dave, (who had been racing prototype 250cc Honda Scramblers), set out to find another partner. Then McCormack suggested asking Bill Robertson and Bill Jr., owners of Honda of Hollywood, a major retail operation in the heart of movie town. Bill Robertson, Senior, had spent many hours flying Baja on fishing trips and seemed a fit aboard Fulton’s chase plane as guide/navigator, co-pilot. Bill Jr., an accomplished desert racer at age 24, would ride the other Honda.

Honda management decided they needed editorial proof of accomplishment so they invited Cycle World magazine publisher Joe Parkhurst. Then Joe asked WW2 aviator and friend John McLaughlin to do the flying. John said, ”Great, you pay for the gas”. The year was 1962; groundwork for the Auto Club maps had begun in 1933. The team used 30-year-old maps of mostly dirt roads that would detour anytime a vehicle got stuck or disabled. As it turned out the whole event was a lot of guesswork and luck, both good and bad. There would be two motorcycles on the ground and one airplane flying cover with a second bearing witness; and an additional free-lance photojournalist. Then to add to the adventure no private airplane is allowed to fly after dark in Mexico. And all this would be done without radios, GPS, or any other modern navigational aid for the bike riders. The actual ride started at midnight then finished a day and a night and another day later, 39 hours and 56 minutes. Dave and Bill would go without sleep for nearly sixty hours.

Proof of these types of cross-country adventures began with Cannonball Baker’s famous pre-WW1 ride across the U.S., following railroad tracks and using available telegraph stations to confirm progress. Baker’s ride was done with an Indian motorcycle. For the ’62 Baja attempt telegrams would be sent at the start and finish. Those 1962 telegrams do exist as does the story and photographs published by Joe Parkhurst in the June ’62 issue of Cycle World magazine. This is not a fairy tale.

Logistics for this attempt were a nightmare. Going south, the last gas station is a Pemex all-nighter in Ensenada sixty-five miles into the ride. The next real gas station was on the outskirts of La Paz, nearly 1,000 miles away. Range of the motorcycles, as in all internal combustion contraptions, depends upon per-mile consumption and fuel tank size. These CL72s could empty their 2.4-gallon gas tanks in less than fifty miles if held wide open, but could cover eighty or ninety miles when running under half throttle. An additional one-gallon plastic gas can was placed inside a cargo bag mounted on the fuel tank, if needed.

In February of 1962 Fulton flew the team down the Baja Peninsula in order to see where they had to go. Unlike modern Baja Race pre-runs, this one was done in an airplane. Walt also needed to land on sections of the course at about eighty-mile increments to facilitate fuel stops. As it turned out there always seemed to be a rancho with a suitable dirt strip and a few 55-gallon fuel drums near these important sites. Fuel would be siphoned from these drums with an old garden hose filling what seemed to be one-gallon glass wine bottles. Splashing a couple of gallons into a waiting bike wasn’t a problem. But climbing the wing of a Cessna and filtering forty gallons though a chamois, one gallon at a time, did take a while. Airplanes need gas, too. Another reason for the pre-run flight was to determine which route would be better; the Gulf side with its more traveled road, or the Pacific side that seemed to be shorter and offered fewer rocks. Mistake #1; they chose the less traveled Pacific route.

Cessna Pit Stop

The decision was made to start this attempt at midnight, (Mistake #2 because both riders had worked a full day before driving three hours to San Diego.) on the 3rd Saturday of March 1962. Getting lost in the dark shouldn’t be a problem riding that twisting highway from Tijuana to Ensenada.

The Border

From there to the A.M. meeting in San Quintin is also well traveled. Both bikes had been refueled a second time at the end of the pavement in Santo Thomas. A raised corrugated dirt road from there to Fulton’s waiting plane was very straight and fast. The CLs were just skimming high spots as daylight broke to the left of the riders. Gas, a bite to eat, and they were on their way. The road became two deep ruts, as it turns inland towards a tiny village called El Rosario. A sharp left turn directly into the sun blinded both riders at the same instant a wire stretched across a driveway snatched Bill and Dave off their bikes. Luckily it was a slow-speed crash and only the bikes suffered damage, (Lucky incident #1. There could have been broken bones.) with Bill’s CL72 getting the worst of it.

Then the two rode another forty miles towards the Santa Inez airstrip. The team was on target for the predetermined 32-hour schedule as they slid up next to the Cessna. At this juncture Bill, Sr., noticed Bill, Jr’s, rear fender support had broken. Both bikes had lost their taillight lenses. The decision was made to remove the entire rear fender and run without, (Even though they had enough spare parts in the plane to put a new fender on.) Bill, Jr., then had to look forward to riding over 700 miles without a fender and the protection it offered. (Mistake #3).

A Pensive Dave Ekins

They had an unscheduled meeting of bikes and plane at Chapala Dry Lake when John McLaughlin and his Cessna 195 met up with the Honda team. The press was aboard and it became “picture taking” time. Needless to say, the schedule was out the window, from now on it was “please the photographer”. A couple of hours later Dave and Bill were chasing chickens around a small adobe house in the five-casa village of Rosarito. Everybody had fun except the chickens as precious daylight began slipping away. (Mistake #4)

Dave (L) and Bill – Laguna Chapala

The next stop was El Arco near the 28th Parallel; it also marks the separation between Pacific Time and Mountain Time. El Arco is absolutely the worst place to spend any time in Baja. Even the water well is planted downstream from the village’s only outhouse. Walt and Bill, Sr., waited as long as they could with no sign of the two Hondas. They were scheduled to meet the bikes in the middle of night at La Purisima, another two stops down the road; and they had to be there. Meanwhile Bill and Dave broke the crest of a hill on the road leading into El Arco just in time to see the Cessna 180 lift off the runway as the sun hurried towards the evening horizon. Incredibly, a Federal Soldier was there to check the rider’s papers, then led them to a five-gallon gas container and cheese sandwiches left by Fulton and Robertson.

Cessna and Crew

El Arco to San Ignacio is about the most miserable seventy miles there is to wrestle a bike. Long ago volcanoes spewed a bunch of nasty square rocks down there, and then the rocks got covered with sand blown in from the coast. The message here is rocks aren’t too bad as long as you can see them; invisible rocks are a different story. It took Bill and Dave the better part of four hours and many get-offs before they made it to the San Ignacio airport, where another “care” package was waiting.

On The Pegs

From there the road is just two tracks on the Pacific side mostly of sand with a few rounded stones. They headed southwest then picked up the coast and turned due south. After dark the warm desert air pulls a blanket of fog in from the ocean and obliterates the moon and stars. Celestial navigation? Forget it. A little later Dave noticed tire tracks in his headlight beam. He stopped, took a look, and decided the tracks were their own. (Not even a good guess, who else would be down there on a motorcycle?) Lucky incident #2. The two adventurers had been riding in a circle. So without a compass or any other guidance the wiser move was to stop and wait for the sun to appear. The other choice would be to run out of gas. They were lost.

Meanwhile Walt and Bill, Sr., had spent the night tending a campfire and waiting for the two boys to make a showing. It didn’t happen; the two lost and exhausted riders had built a campfire then waited for daylight to appear. Then it would just be a matter of riding with one’s left shoulder being warmed by that welcome ball o’ fire, the morning sun.

When daylight broke Bill, Sr., encouraged Walt to take the plane and fly north to find Bill, Jr., and Dave. Fog was still hanging around so visibility was questionable; they over flew the two Honda riders in the morning mist. About a half-hour into the search and without any positive sighting, Walt decided to set the Cessna down and have a look at the road for motorcycle tracks. The chosen landing spot was far too soft for the Cessna and Fulton immediately reacted to mud trying to pull his plane into a quagmire. (Lucky incident #3, the plane should have crashed.) The 180 broke loose and, relishing their good fortune, the two flew directly back to the La Purisima meeting pace.


Meanwhile the pair of CL riders found San Juanico, a three-casa fishing village complete with barking dogs and curious children. They purchased two gallon bottles of green/grey gas and two warm Cokes. Then, after a few minutes, were on their way south running on stale fuel that didn’t agree with the high performance OHC twins.

San Juanico

Walt Fulton landed his mud splattered Cessna 180 just a half hour ahead of the Hondas at Purisima’s dirt air strip, the easy part lay ahead. It would be another eighty miles of solid road to Constitucion; gas, food, then the last 130 miles of Mexican pavement. Which offers no guarantee because that thin Baja Sur tarmac has a reputation for nasty hard-to-see potholes.

Bill and Dave spotted the airfield and Cessna as the dirt road abruptly ended. Relieved that the worst part was over, and with the plane in sight, they opened the Hondas up for the first time. As they reached about 70 mph one exhaust pipe started spewing black smoke when Bill’s CL lost a cylinder. Dave, without hesitation, planted a boot over the dead pipe and pushed Bill into the airstrip. Dave wanted to push Bill the last 130 miles; after all, they had ridden together for nearly two days solid. Bill, Sr., was for it but Walt nixed the idea. His reasoning was he didn’t want to destroy the other CL and blow the whole attempt. Walt was right because no one there knew at that time the removal of the rear fender led to a perforated paper air filter which caused the holed piston 700 miles later.

A Beat Bill

Running out of gas in Baja is not an option, and getting lost is easy. The last 130 mile leg is a little beyond the range of those CLs even when cruising at half-throttle. Dave did switch to reserve near the outskirts of La Paz then saved the day by using that last gallon stored inside the tank bag. There was additional panic when Dave lost a few more minutes finding the telegraph office. Still, he made it to the La Paz telegraph office in four minutes less than 40 hours. Bill Junior finished on one cylinder an hour and a half later closely followed by his Dad giving chase in a La Paz-based taxi.

Dave in La Paz

Did the ride pay off for American Honda Motor Company? You bet. From ’62 through ’68 AHM sold more than 89,000 CL-type motorcycles. Two major races have been held in Baja each year since 1967, thanks to an ex-Marine named Eddie Pearlman and automotive journalist Don Francisco. These two put the first half-dozen races on under the guise of National Off Road Racing Association. Then the Mexican Government disallowed NORRA future race sanctions and tried pulling the race off themselves. That did not work. Mickey Thompson and Sal Fish came in with SCORE and three well-organized races have been run in Baja each year thereafter. Subsequently Baja’s economy and development has been growing by leaps and bounds, much of it because of the Mexican 1000 race, which began in 1967, forty years ago!

(Note: They rode the same bikes back two days later ... with a new engine in Bill’s, but that's another story.)

The Modern Era