Friday, November 23, 2007

Baja 1000 Class Victory for Bob Johnson

Bob Johnson is thankful that cattle stand just behind deer in God’s brain-bestowment line, because the cow that decided to put its head on Johnson’s lap while the motorcycle skimmed across a cattle guard could have, had it been quicker of brain and foot, placed its entire body in Johnson’s lap. Thankfully, the cow just stuck its head out far enough to get clipped by Johnson’s upper thigh. Didn’t even have time to moo before the lights went out.Bruised and bloody, only somewhat worse for the wear of various critters, humans and unexpected situations, Johnson made it to Cabo and scored a class victory last Wednesday in the SCORE Tecate Baja 1000. As for the cow? “I don’t think she was so fortunate,” Johnson said.

Welcome to Baja, where last week’s 40th anniversary run from Ensenada to Cabo San Lucas delivered almost everything imaginable and otherwise. Crazed livestock, confused passenger traffic, booby traps, angry federales, accidents among chase vehicles, even a strange incident that began with a helicopter crash.Shortly after the start of the race, a helicopter became tangled in power lines and went down just yards from the course. Two people were killed. One, a guy whose name may or may not have been Pablo Gonzalez, may or may not have been a drug lord nicknamed “The Shark.” Or possibly he just had some impatient relatives eager to get him back home in time for his own funeral.At any rate, the next day some bad people with guns stormed the morgue in Ensenada, stole the body of the guy who may or may not have been named Pablo Gonzalez and took off. The law followed, and shots were fired. Two cops were killed. The body of the guy who may or may not have been named Pablo Gonzalez may or may not ever be seen again. At last report, nobody was certain which Mexican drug cartel employed him, but the assumption was that he was someone important and dangerous. Formerly, anyway.

Encounters with livestock aren't unusual for Baja bikers... As that story made the rounds at the finish line in Cabo, the reaction of the Baja 1000 competitors was typical. A shrug, followed by the declaration, “Well it is Mexico.” True that, hombres. Such is the beauty of this race, that it is a reflection of its surroundings. Baja isn’t just brutal and striking and wild; it’s also corrupt, disorganized, inconsistent, filthy and overwhelmed by poverty. It’s both lovely and confounding, intriguing and maddening.The race, too, makes no sense at times, and that is its primary challenge and unfailing attraction. The course, which changes each year, is a mishmash of public roads, private drives, remote trails and no roads at all. It runs across public and private land, through mountains and deserts and washes and dunes. For a time, Johnson’s teammates rode through fog so dense, headlights only made it worse.

Then, of course, there are the booby traps. Most riders and drivers will point out that a huge majority of the fans who line the course are supportive -- in fact, the race and its economic benefits are beloved throughout the Baja peninsula -- but there is an evil element that lies in wait to be entertained by a gringo flying off a motorcycle or ATV. Or by the possibility of disabling a leading truck or buggy.“Mainly they do it because they want to see some action,” Johnson says. “They don’t realize they can paralyze someone. I had a friend who was in a coma for a month and a half after he hit a booby trap a few years ago. They buried a telephone pole in the sand. Normally they just pile up some sand and you can motor through it, but you never know if they’ve put rocks underneath it. They’ll have the cameras out and be waiting for you. You always have to be careful.”Like every competitor in the Baja 1000, Johnson, a 52-year-old from Temecula, Calif., has volumes of stories about the race that has given him a half-dozen class victories over the past 15 years. His bike once lost power shortly after beginning its descent from a mountain summit. Marooned with no hope of being found until daybreak, he attempted to burn tumbleweeds to stay warm. Another story has a rider striking a wayward VW Bus, flying over the top, landing unhurt on the other side, picking up the badly damaged motorcycle and limping it to the next pit, where it was fixed.

The rider, of course, went on to finish the race. It’s not an ordeal only to the guys who can be ejected from their vehicles. Last year, one of the series’ most prominent truck teams encountered law enforcement officers infuriated when they believed the driver intentionally spun a load of gravel in their direction as he passed. The driver went to jail, the team continued on, and SCORE CEO Sal Fish delivered cash to spring the jailed driver.As cars, motorcycles, trucks, buggies and ATVs crossed the finish line on a dusty soccer field in Cabo last week, one cyclist lumbered across, eyes wide, helmet smashed, balance nearly gone. Radio reports said he’d gone down hard a few miles short of the finish line. Dazed, he picked up the bike and continued.

Crowds are usually supportive, but booby traps can catch competitors by surprise. When he arrived at the soccer field, he had no idea where he was or what had happened. He knew only that he’d just finished the Baja 1000 and he wanted his finishing pin, the medal each participant receives upon completing the race. Not sure what day it was or what planet he was on, but he wanted that pin. That pin is everything, mi amigo.What is it that draws people to this event? It can’t be the money. The Ford driven by Mark Post, Rob MacCachren and Carl Renezeder -- the winning entry in Trophy Truck, SCORE’s premier class -- produced somewhere in the neighborhood of $15,000 in prize money, slightly more if you throw in product and cash contingencies. Barely enough to cover fuel, certainly not enough to cover fuel and tires.Some say it’s the sake of the accomplishment. They liken it to running a marathon, in which runners abuse their bodies to the point of delusion for the sake of accomplishing something few others have accomplished. Others say it’s the ultimate test of man versus machine.

Or man and machine. Still others claim it’s the endorphins. Or the adrenaline. Or the rush.For Johnson, though, it’s about the camaraderie and bonding. He and his teammates -- Brett Helm, Louie Franco, Jon Ortner, Jeff Kaplan and Craig Adams -- were the first to arrive at the finish line in Class 40 -- motorcycles ridden by people aged 40 or older. Most guys Johnson’s age are contemplating retirement, but Johnson and his friends are contemplating their next 1,000-plus-mile ride across Mexico on a dirt bike. It’s their little club, it’s unique, and only they know what it’s like.“It’s a milestone that a lot of people recognize, but for me it’s a week or two weeks with my really good friends,” Johnson explains. “It’s always an experience, but it’s also a neat camaraderie. The Baja people, when you get into these little towns, are really down to earth and treat you very well. It makes you appreciate a lot of things, like the friends you’ve made over the years. It’s more of that than it is a trophy. It’s a club you join. When you start talking to the different guys, they all know what you’re talking about -- different terrain and certain mile markers and hitting cows and such.” As he sits in a plastic chair in a tent after riding for several hours over the final leg of the unspeakable and remarkable 1,296-mile journey, Johnson is bloody and sweaty and victorious. Exhausted, dehydrated and thrilled.And stranded. He has to wait at the finish line for the rest of his team, following some distance behind, to catch up so he can get a ride to a hotel for a shower and a nap.And a few days of storytelling among friends about hitting cows and such.

Baja Racing