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Monday, December 03, 2007

CORE Baja 1000 Report

Blazing through Baja

Ben Mills walked out of the cinema, grabbed his cell phone and dialed up his big brother back in Grass Valley. Adrenaline rushing through his body having just watched Dana Brown's epic documentary "Dust to Glory," chronicling the blood, sweat and tears of the famed Baja 1000 race, Ben could hardly contain his excitement when his big bro picked up the phone."Scott, it's Ben ... We've got to do this. "Two years later, the Mills brothers - and apparently one of the largest motorcycle racing teams ever assembled - did just that." Growing up riding motorcycles," Ben said, "especially in California, it's your dream to ride in the Baja 1000."But the brothers, who both teach at Lyman Gilmore School in Grass Valley, didn't just ride the Baja 1000 in their rookie run. They raced the 40th annual event in impressive fashion. Team C.O.R.E. (Christian Offroad Racing Enthusiasts) was the 32nd team - among 450 trucks, buggies, quads and bikes - and just the sixth motorcycle to cross the finish line in the premiere dirt bike division, after speeding 1,300 miles through the desolation of Baja California, from the Ensenada start to the Cabo San Lucas finish.

And they did it in 29 hours and 51 seconds. Plotting a course. Before they'd make their maiden voyage in the Baja 1,000, Ben, 26, and Scott, 36, teamed up with two other riders to participate in the Baja 500 event in 2006, which apparently only made them more intent on returning to ride the Baja 1,000 last month. Though they would be flying solo across the sands of Baja, the Mills brothers weren't about to cover the 1,300 miles - with an additional 300 added for the 40th anniversary of the event -by themselves. They joined up with four other area riders - 35-year-old Jason Edie, 26-year-old Garrett Norton, 36-year-old Scott Englund and 37-year-old Joe Cochran - to form a relay team of experienced dirt bike riders who would get them to the finish in fine form. One of those team members, though, wasn't sure what would happened if they didn't make it Cabo San Lucas.After all, the bike was the only part of Team C.O.R.E. that would actually traverse the entire trek, being handed off like a baton between team members after each leg of the race.Having put up several thousands of dollars and having put in months of preparation, each rider has to hope his teammate is able to successfully complete their respective leg of the race.

"When you enter an event like this, with so much preparation and so much hard work that has gone into it," said John Mills, the boys' uncle who spearheaded the team's support crew, "the pressure to get the bike to the next guy is huge."Led by John Mills, who began plotting strategies for the ride ever since the 500 mile event the year before, Team C.O.R.E. was in the hands of some seriously meticulous crew members.From the GPS device mounted on the handlebars, helping the riders find their way through blinding dust and darkness of the night, to the helicopter and pilot watching over the riders during the day, it seemed as though Team C.O.R.E. had thought of everything."This guy," Ben said, pointing to his Uncle John, "pretty much did all the research. He was the backbone, for sure, of the team. He just went crazy with the planning."John, a retired agriculture biologist, has also been around motor bikes for most his life. He got to know his nephews very well through all the family trips he took with his brother, Jim Mills and the boys, whether to ski or ride motorcycles.An admitted "adventure junkie," John was up for this one as soon as he was called to duty by his nephews."I just love things that can't be put in a box or can't be planned out to perfection," John said. "Though we tried to plan for everything."No Sunday driveWatching the Baja 1000 from the side of the road - as some 200,000 to 300,000 people do each year - gives spectators a good glimpse of the speed at which the competitors fly through the desert.

But to get the best view of trail being blazed across Baja, one needs to see what the riders see from behind those handlebars or steering wheel.With all the dirt roads and Mexican highways remaining open to the public throughout the race along with the thousands of fans standing just a few feet from the course - and with several crossing the road right in front of machines racing in excess of 100 miles per hour - the drivers are forced to keep their focus for fear of killing someone in a collision.It's happened, even to the best.That's how former Baja 1000 champion Danny Hamel met his end in 1995, when a motorist entered the race course and collided with Hamel head on.And riding at night, with the world around them limited to the 30 to 50 feet illuminated by their headlights, only makes focus even more of a priority. "That was one of our biggest fears," said Ben, who joined his brother in taking care of the night-time legs of the race. "You don't know if something is going to come jumping out from behind a bush or you hit something you didn't see at 90 miles per hour."And then there were the "booby traps."

Apparently, some of those thousands of fans lining the course aren't just offering their applause to the racers blazing by. According the Mills brothers, some folks actually set up small ramps meant to get the riders to "catch air" as they race through that section of the course. They had heard of such traps prior to racing."And the riders go cartwheeling," said Ben, noting that very thing happened to their teammate, Garrett Norton, who suffered a rough case of "road rash" and some deep bruising."He was pretty beat up," Ben said. "It took him five minutes just to find the bike. And then he had another 100 miles to go - with 40 miles of sand whoops ahead."Knowing the potential pitfalls ahead, Scott said he has never felt focused as he did in the dark of the desert that November night.Total teamworkThe Mills brothers estimated many as 32 people actually served as crew members of Team C.O.R.E., whether on site, stretched across the Baja or even back in Northern California tracking each rider on computer screens."And I don't think we could have done it with one less," said Scott. It was a team effort from front to back. Every one of those people had a significant role."With helicopter grounded at night, the support crew had no bird's eye view as to where in the desert their rider was. Instead, they relied on folks back home, hovering over a computer, to keep them up to date."People in Grass Valley knew more about where the bike was than people on the ground," Scott said.At one point of the race, when Scott had made up substantial time while riding at night, a team member watching his progress from San Francisco called up the crew on their satellite phone to let them know that they'd better make an early pit stop.

At another stretch, the computer screen noted the blinking dot marking the bike hadn't moved in a substantial amount of time, causing concern for his safety. But after another quick call, they learned that one of the riders hadn't placed the tracking device in the next rider's backpack.In addition to the folks on the ground, in the air and on the computer, Team C.O.R.E. also had support in the form of a 35-person prayer vigil taking place back home during the race.Throughout the 1,300 miles there were many highs and lows, causes for concern and celebration. But overall, things went surprisingly smooth for the first-time team."And," John added, "we felt this blessing from the Lord."No doubt each members of the team were physically fatigued by the time their turn on the bike was through. But you'd never known it by asking them, especially as they stepped off the bike."It was an endorphin rush from beyond, the polar opposite of tired," said Scott. "I felt like I was a gladiator who just conquered every single foe."I was so jacked up I could have raced another 500 miles. I just didn't want to get off the bike."

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