My Story of the 2010 SCORE Baja 1000
Preparing for the KTM assault on the Baja 1000 was a huge effort. It required a huge amount of work and coordination from many people. Fortunately my part of that effort was little more than watching and documenting the events as they unfolded. I did get assigned some of the last minute chores such as making sure the team photos got submitted to SCORE and writing a press release about the team and Mexican rider Ivan Ramirez. At the very least I wanted to see the team get as much exposure as possible for their efforts, regardless of the outcome.
The actual trip to Mexico and the race was to be more or less just a holiday for me. I traveled to Ensenada early in the week with KTM team sponsor Dean Potts. My duties were mostly to be his driver and tour guide. We had a couple of days free time before the race began and our plan was to have a good time, get some play riding in and then take care of any of the last minute details before the race began.
Within a few minutes of our arrival at the Hotel San Nicholas we spotted a new looking KTM 530xcw in the secure motorcycle parking area referred to as the cage. It was decked out in THR/Bonanza plumbing graphics similar to the factory KTM. That caused Dean and I both to pause and wonder who the bike belonged to.
We headed inside to see if they would let us check in early. A girl walked in and approached us asking if someone knew anything about Mousse tubes. She had a concern about the one in her bike not having a rim lock. I assured her that it was fine to run a front Mousse this way, but she still seemed concerned about the issue. I suggested she show me her bike so I could look at it. As it turned out the 530 we had just been eyeing was hers.
After a little discussion I explained to her a little about my racing experience and that I was sure her Mousse would be fine. I then noticed that her bike was literally brand new. She explained to me that she intended to ride the race solo, all 1,060 miles of the peninsula! I casually suggested that perhaps we should go out riding so she could get her bike broken in a little before the race began.
Thus began my association with female racer Talya Dodson. As fate would have it the two of us would spend a very hectic and crazy week together. Talya had attempted to solo the Baja 1000 the year before. Her bike broke very early in the race. Her crew was able to get it repaired and she continued on completing the entire course. Unfortunately she was not able to do so within the maximum time limit and therefore was not recognized as a finisher in the race. Needless to say she was very determined to do so this year.
As I had little else that I was required to do for a few days. I spent much of the time helping Talya work on her bike. For me it was sort of like the ISDE; picking up a new rental bike and prepping it to race in just a few days with whatever parts and tools are available. As it turned out, she had been given some support for the race by one of the KTM race sponsors, THR Motorsports. So we welcomed her into the team and everyone chipped in to help her get her bike ready for the event.
As race day neared the rest of the KTM crew arrived with the bike. Team racers David Pearson and Ivan Ramirez were also there preparing for the start. The rest of the team’s riders were spread down the length of Baja. Each had spent nearly two weeks prerunning the sections and double checking all the logistics and preparations for the race.
On Tuesday before the race we headed out to Ojos Negros to get some photos of the race bike and of Ivan. Just watching Ivan ride for a few minutes to get the perfect photo, it was very clear just how talented he is. He also had his own Red Bull film crew in tow, so he is well on his way to becoming a Mexican rock star. During this time Dean headed out with Talya so she could prerun the start and make any final adjustments to the bike.
The KTM team plan for race day was pretty ambitious. Ivan would start the bike in Ensenada. David Pearson would take over near Puertocitos and ride to San Ignacio. From there riders Mikey Childress, Shane Esposito and Steve Hengeveld would each ride relatively short sections to the finish. The idea was that each rider would simply be doing a sprint. They each would have more time to learn their sections and would be fresh for the entire stint.
As for those of us helping the team, we would leap frog along the course to see the race bike where we could. There were two of the team sprinters with mechanics Anthony Dibassilio and JR who would reach strategic locations to watch the bike come by and help if needed.
The day before the race I spent all morning finishing all the little details on Talya’s bike. By mid day that was done and she was ready to head off to tech inspection. Our plan was to drive to El Rosario for the night and be up early in the morning to reach a location along the highway called El Crucero before the bikes arrived. I said goodbye to Talya and wished her luck. In an offhand way I commented that it was almost too bad I couldn’t just ride along with her now that we had spent all this time getting her prepared.
The race day time table was going to be hectic. After El Crucero we were driving all the way to La Paz, intending to arrive near midnight just before the bikes were slated to finish. Based on our calculations it would just barely be possible to drive the highway in the same amount of time the bikes would take to complete the course. Driving Highway 1 in Baja is a challenging experience at even a moderate pace, so I was prepared for a long day ahead.
We were up early, myself along with Dean, JR and Keith Pearson. After a quick cup of coffee at Mama Espinosa’s we hit the road. An hour and a half of driving found us arriving at the designated location with plenty of time to spare, plenty of time to wait and hope for the best.
As with many locations along Baja there was no cell phone service here and communications were spotty at best. Yokohama tires had a large pit set up here for the Cameron Steele trucks and they had good radio reception from the “Weatherman”, who gives the play by play call from an airplane to cover the race. The call came through from San Felipe; ..1x..7x…8x.. That translates to Honda A team, KTM, Honda B team. Just about as expected it was Kendall Norman, Ivan Ramirez and Colton Udall riding in order. That was great news, but the bikes were still well over a hundred miles from our position.
About an hour later the team Honda Satellite phone rang and I could overhear the call from Coco’s Corner: 1x…8x.. and nothing more. Later the Honda team member came over to me and privately told me that they had not told him any more information. He did not know if the 7x bike was not there or if they simply had not told him about its position. This is when I first began to get concerned.
About 50 minutes later we got the first indication of the bikes coming towards us, the first helicopter appeared. It would be in view for a full five minutes before the bike would arrive. Then like a flash Kendall Norman streaked by, only barely slowing for the corner where we were standing. He was only in view for a few seconds, but it was certainly impressive to see the speed he was going. 55 seconds later Colton Udall came into view on the second Honda. He looked just as impressive and after a quick calculation it was determined that he was running within just a couple of seconds of Kendall on elapsed time, possibly even slightly ahead.
Then there was nothing. As the minutes crept passed we all slowly began to have doubts arise about the status of the 7x KTM. Every few minutes there would be the noise of a bike, but it would always turn out to be just some play rider on the course. Plus we knew that the Helicopter should come into view long before the bike.
Finally the relayed call came in; the KTM had broken near Puertocitos. No other details other than to say that is was the motor. It is difficult to describe the how crestfallen everyone was. All this time and all the work involved, then for it to be over so soon, so early in the race. The only possible bright spot here was that we knew that there had not been any accident or injuries. The only injury was to the bike.
Now the only question remaining was what to do next. The bike had already been recovered and was on the way back to Ensenada. JR and Keith climbed into the Sprinter and were off, headed back north. I spoke with Dean about what he wanted to do. He said that he was so disappointed that he just couldn’t really think about continuing on to see the race progress. I could understand his position, as team sponsor he put a tremendous amount of heart and soul into the effort.
As for me, I just couldn’t see heading back so soon. As there were really no responsibilities left, why not enjoy the day. I told Dean to hold on a few minutes while I unloaded my bike and put my gear on. I grabbed my backpack and sent him on his way. He was pretty down. I told him that today, while he was driving alone, would be a good day to write that hit country song, something sad and mournful.
I did not really have a plan of what I was going to do, but I had a jacket and good headlight and all my Baja kit, so I was pretty free to do anything I wished. I spent the day hanging out there at El Crucero watching riders come through and talking with people that I met. In the Afternoon a nice Mexican family must have thought I looked hungry, so they invited me to join them for a meal of ceviche and various seafood specialties. I was in fact quite hungry and it tasted very good. They were very pleased to learn that I spoke passable Spanish and we all had a good time.
I was still considering what I was going to do when Talya came rolling in on her 530 around 4pm. She told me things were going well for her. She seemed happy but surprised to see me. I briefly explained to her the plight of the 7x bike and told her I had just decided to hang around for the day. Then she said, “so… do you want to go for a ride with me”? I thought why not? I guess I remember vaguely thinking this would be a way to make something good come from what had been a disappointing day. Little did I know what an adventure the next two days would be.
Part Two: The 36 Hours of Baja
We made a quick plan that I would run down the highway and meet her where the course hits the pavement going into Bay of LA and off we both went. As I headed down the road I really did not put much though into what I was doing, or even how much I intended to ride with her. As it got dark I was glad to see that the new Silverstar bulb that I put in my glass lense headlight put out reasonable power because it was likely to be a long night.
I waited for her to reach the pavement and then just dropped in behind as we headed to Bay of LA. It was full dark now and the first Trophy trucks had just started to catch up to her. As we hit town I ran into the Pemex to fill up, but I knew that would not get me very far. Once on the dirt and headed towards El Progresso I started to think just a little about what I was doing. I realized that I did not even know what kind of tubes I had in that bike. I had one spare and that would have to be good enough.
After awhile we worked out that it was best to just ride side by side so I could stay out of the dust and take advantage of her HID lights. She was to just concentrate on riding and I would keep an eye behind to watch for approaching trucks. Then I would hit my horn to signal her to pull over and let them by. This worked well but we would often have to wait for 3 or vehicles to pass and then for the dust to settle a little before moving on. So overall the progress was not very fast.
Near El Progresso Talya had arranged to have dinner at a Checkers club pit. These guys has barbequed tri tip and garlic mashed potatoes waiting for us when we arrived. I want to tell you that may be the best meal I have ever had. The earlier seafood was the only meal I had had all day and I was quite ready to eat. A wire had broken on my headlight and I had ridden the last hour with no light, the Checkers were able to diagnose and repair it before we were ready to leave. One great thing about riding with a girl, everyone wants to go out of their way to help you out.
By this point I had really made the decision that I was in this to the finish. It was Talya’s race, but I was there to do whatever I could to make her reach her goal. There were many places she struggled but she was determined to do it herself. Shortly after leaving the Checkers pit she got stuck on an uphill shortcut. It offered to help her with her bike, but she would have no part of it. She was going to ride every foot of the course herself.
As we continued we came upon a buggy that had crashed into a ditch. As the vehicle was already halfway up the other side, I jumped off and asked if a push would help them get going. As it turned out the driver had a severely broken ankle and needed assistance out of the car. I helped him out. We gave them our extra food that the Checkers had sent us with and some fire starting materials. Then we headed off saying we would pass on their position and situation at the next check.
As we climbed towards El Arco the fog set in heavily. At many points we could make no more than a few miles per hour. When we reached the Baja Pits they gave us fuel and then we found some other friends of Talya’s that had traveled way out to this remote location to support her. It was getting colder so she grabbed another jacket and some food and we were off again. At one point near here the fog got so bad that it was nearly impossible to see the ground.
Nearing Vizcaino we hit the first silt beds. In the dark it is very difficult to find a good line around the silt so for the most part we had to ride right through them. In many places it was near the top of my foot pegs deep. Talya struggled quite a bit here and our progress was really slow. Finally I could see that we were nearing the highway and would be on the pavement soon. Talya said that she never thought she could be so happy to ride down the highway.
But before reaching it we had to wind through a village area. The locals had built campfires all over and it was a strange sensation working our way through this little town with all these people out in the middle of the night.
We had a long transfer section of pavement. The cold had really set in. We pulled into a BF Goodrich pit along the highway looking for some way to get warm. Fortunately they had coffee and hot cocoa going. Talya was able to get some additional clothes from the pit crew. By now I have lost count of how many layers she has on. I had two jerseys, the Klim Revolt pullover and Stowaway jacket on. I was a little cold but not too bad.
When we hit the next Baja Pit at San Ignacio I realized that we are finally back in cell service. I had not talked to Neena all day and she expected that we would be driving towards La Paz and giving regular race reports. I call her a 2:30 am to tell her that basically I am riding the race course with Talya and will hope to be able to call again sometime late the next day. She took it all quite well considering the circumstances.
As we leave San Ignacio the fog sets in with full force. We briefly hook up with another solo rider, Lance Kane. But as we work our way out of town he slowly disappears in front of us. The fog gets so thick that Talya has difficulty staying on the windy paved road. Finally she pulls off saying that it is really freaking her out. Keep in mind that it is now 3:30 in the morning and she has been riding for nearly 20 hours straight.
I volunteer to lead for a while. As we go to pull out, she tips over. As we get her bike up it is dumping gas out of the carb vent hoses. The float is stuck wide open. We try all the normal fixes, revving the bike, tapping the carb etc, but nothing seems to slow the flow of fuel. I know that she cannot stand to lose much fuel without worry of running out before the next pit.
Finally I decide the only choice is to take the carb apart and clean it. On the 530 removing the carb requires taking the subframe and exhaust apart and is a huge pain. I find a piece of cardboard to put under the bike so I don’t drop any of the small parts into oblivion. So I find myself working by my Petzel light on a dark cold night, hoping things do not get any worse. The bright spot is that Talya lies down and falls asleep next to me as I work to repair the bike. The carb did have some dirt in it, but I never get the problem completely solved. Through the rest of the race the float sticks each time she falls and that also floods the bike making it difficult to start.
As we get going the fog has started to lift and we are making better time. It is still dusty and difficult to ride in the conditions. The first signs of fatigue are starting to set in for me. At one point I see Talya stopped beside the road so I pull to a stop ahead of her. I patiently wait for her to get going again. As the bike starts I realize it has a single round headlight, not the twin rectangle lights of her bike. It takes a second to register that I have actually stopped with a different rider! Off I go to catch back up to her.
As the first rays of light start to appear on the western horizon I cannot help but be reminded of Homers’ descriptive verse of sunrise: “And the dawn again shone her rosy fingers”. I don’t know if I have ever been so happy to see daylight. Everything is looking better. The day is warming quickly and I expect the riding to be much easier ahead. Little did I realize that we were just about to hit one of the more difficult sections.
Once again we find ourselves in the silt beds. Now we are coming upon more buggies that are stuck in the section and riders who are also having difficulties. Fortunately in the daylight I am able to guide Talya around many of the worst areas. Still there are some places where there is no choice but to plow right through the middle of silt. It is a struggle, but we work our way through. Near the end I realize I have a flat front tire, clearly from all the cactus we have been running through to avoid the bad lines. I have everything to change it, so I wave my partner on and tell her I will catch up.
Once I am up and running again I am by myself so I can set my own pace. We have been making slow progress and it is challenging for me at times. On my own I can open the throttle and have a little fun on my own. I roll into the next Baja Pit and they fill me up. Talya had left them with strict instructions to give me anything I needed. I thought that was kind of humorous.
As the morning passed we roll through San Juanico and La Purisima. As it warms up I ask if she is getting hot. She says yes, but has too many clothes on to set them off by herself. I relive her of all the extra layers and throw them alongside the road. I also find her kidney belt has ridden up around her bra so I discard it also. Racing together like this requires that certain proprieties be set aside at times, the desert just doesn’t always provide a secluded place to go to the bathroom. As you might imagine her hands were getting tired enough that they wouldn’t always work a zipper or buckle properly, that is where I come in.
We have a mid day meal planned near El Rosarito before making the turn south again towards Loreto. As the miles pass I start making mental calculations of how long it will take us to reach the finish. We will be riding well into the night again. We stop to take quick nap under the shade of the tree in a cow pasture. It is amazing how much just a few minutes of sleep can be refreshing.
The next section to Loreto will be the hardest of the course. There are more large silt beds and then a rocky canyon that has to be negotiated. Our progress is slow and we are falling behind on schedule. In Loreto we have a quick regroup and pep talk. The road to San Javier will be next and it is easy riding for the next two hours, time to get caught back up while the riding is good.
I am dismayed to see that the sun is starting to get low on our second day of riding and we still have nearly 300 miles to go. This is the spot were, just for a minute, I start to wonder about reaching our destination. Over the next two hours I pull Talya over twice to tell her that she is riding too slow for the conditions. Frankly I am not even very polite about it. This is crunch time. The second time I tell her she is riding like a pussy. I don’t know if I made her mad or if it just clicked with her, but off she goes. From there to the end of the race she rides with an absolute determination not to be beat by the course.
As we start into the second night we just push and push to make time the best we can. She is riding faster and I have to work just to keep pace with her. Of course I am limited a little by my headlight. On the long whooped out sand roads she is doing really well. I think she was so happy to be out of the silt that whoops are a pure joy.
In the last two hundred miles we are now just riding with the other solo riders, most of who we have seen regularly over the previous two days. As we reach the last 100 miles she really turns it up and we leave most of them behind.
She falls in a silt bed and the 530 now refuses to start. The battery had not been putting out enough charge for the electric starter to work properly and it always required a kick to assist it. Now it is flooded and just will not start, even with plenty of kicking. Finally she suggests we put the battery out of my bike in hers. As it turns out they are not the same size, mine is larger, no wonder it works better. I can bend her seat to make it go on with the large battery but I am concerned that it will break. She simply says she will stand the rest of the way.
Over the last 100 miles she rode the strongest of the whole race. Now even I am getting a little goofy. I am having yawning fits and cannot stop. I am not seeing things very well and she has been riding at least six hours longer than I have!
The final section is over the “mini summit” to La Paz. It turns into another long strange silt bed. It is narrow and there are buggies stuck in the silt with lights and screaming motors, sort of like something out of a war movie. But it gets our blood pumping again. We lose some time making a wrong turn on the summit. But once headed the right direction again, the finish is now tantalizing near.
We pass through the last check on the course and work our way down the stair steps of the summit. We are going to make it! We roll into the finish in La Paz at 1:30 am. We are both so elated to arrive that it is difficult to describe. The last 36 hours have seemed almost like a life time. When you pack so many events into one short time period and combine that with all the adrenaline that comes with racing it is just an amazing sensation.
For me, I have a whole new appreciation for the riders who choose to solo the Baja 1000, especially on the years when the race covers the entire peninsula. It takes a special kind of person to do that. Talya becomes only the second woman to do it. I have to say that I was very proud of her, especially because I am the only one who really got to see just how hard she had to work and how much heart she put into it. I was glad that in some way I got to be a part of it.