This is reposted from my feature at MotorcycleUSA.com
La Conquista: KTM Chases Glory in The Baja 1000
David Pearson and KTM prepare for a full assault on the 2010 SCORE Baja 1000
From the very first days of motorcycle racing in Baja, victory has been the elusive dream. From the first Mexican 1000 race in the late sixties, simply finishing proved the primary challenge. In the infancy of such grueling races, every aspect of the bike had to be reengineered; standard frames, lights, suspension all proved unworthy of the terrain.
Those were the days when a top team would start building a bike 6 months ahead of the race date. Vast bins of parts would be scrutinized to find the ones with the exact required dimensions. Lighting systems would be built by hand using the latest technology available.
Today, thirty some years later, many of these practices seem arcane. The level of technology in today’s bikes makes them incredibly durable. In fact the average rider could probably grab just about any new off road motorcycle, roll it to the start of a Baja race and expect it to finish. That may be suitable for a full ninety percent of the racers, but for those who expect an overall win there is an entire mountain of additional work necessary.
Looking through the history books, there are only a couple of brands with impressive winning records in SCORE racing south of the border. Husky, Kawasaki and of course Honda account for nearly all the major race wins. During the 70’s and 80’s Husky had a long period of success. In the late 80’s and early 90’s it was Kawasaki’s turn. Then came the period, up to today, where Honda has had sole ownership of the top step of the podium for a whopping fourteen years.
While this Honda win streak cannot continue forever, it will probably never be duplicated. Big Red’s key to success has been; durable bikes, great riders, hard work and an all out desire to succeed. Did I mention hard work? Since the departure of Kawasaki from Baja no one else has shown the kind of dedication required to mount a significant challenge.
There was a very competitive finish last year as a strong Kawasaki team came close to winning. As Steve Hengeveld rolled across the finish line first, there was elation from the entire team. Yet one look at Steve was enough to realize that he knew that he had not put enough distance between himself and JCR Honda’s Kendall Norman to win on time.
That team was tantalizingly close, if not for a few errors they might have tasted victory. That dramatic finish was enough to show others what might be accomplished. It also helped demonstrate just how great the lack of competition has been on Baja for many years now. The greatest challenge to Honda is simply the “other” Honda team.
One name that is conspicuous in its absence is that of KTM. For a company that has become synonymous with off road racing success, there is only a single check mark in the Baja win column. In 2003 Best in the Desert’s Casey Folks came to Baja to promote a race and it was won by the duo of Kurt Caselli and Joey Lanza. Yet in the SCORE record books there has never been a single overall victory.
This year things might just be different. An unusual collaboration of talented people have come together to make a dedicated effort to win. Here is a little about this cast of players.
The Bike: 2010 KTM 530xcw – KTM has committed to giving all the support necessary to campaign a race winning bike. With the help of the Austrian factory the motor has been developed to maximize durability. The team just finished a successful 18 hour endurance test, the last of a number of such tests, and feels very good about the bike. Issues surrounding oiling and cooling have been addressed so that the engine temperatures can stay low over extended periods of hard running. With its six speed transmission this bike is very fast, 114mph on the GPS. This is not a terribly important number in the scheme of racing, but the bike can cruise high speeds at relatively low rpms.
The Riders: This team is practically a “who’s who” of desert racing talent. The team has taken the unusual measure of using five riders; David Pearson, Mikey Childress, Shane Esposito, Steve Hengeveld and Mexican rider Ivan Ramirez. In short, it is the dream team of nearly every top Baja racer who does not currently ride for Honda. The combined list of accomplishments is huge. These guys have won championships in Baja, AMA National Hare & Hound, Best in the Desert and AMA District 37. Pearson and Ramirez have also competed in the ISDE, Ivan is in Morelia racing right now.
“I like racing Best in the Desert and SCORE. It’s not really what I grew up racing, but it’s what I grew up kind of liking–I like the fast roads and I like the sketchy whoops that everybody else thinks they’re sketchy. They are sketchy, but I’m used to riding them and I’m good at riding them so I like riding the SCORE series.” –David Pearson
“Getting [the bikes] dialed in, we’ve done tons of testing. We’ve been to El Centro four times; we’ve been up here [at Bell Mountain] doing this [24-hour test]. Each test has been 500-mile-plus tests testing suspension and motor combinations, tire combinations and I think we’ve got it all figured out… I won in 2005 with Steve Hengeveld and Johnny [Campbell], and then I won in 2006 with Steve and Quinn Cody. A lot of this 24-hour test is my idea, something I took from Johnny. We’re basically developing the 530 and making it a Baja bike. A lot of things that I do all come from what Johnny and Bruce Ogilvie did.” –Mikey Childress
“Actually, I’ve taken a little heat about that, having five guys [on the team]. When it came about with David saying he had someone that was willing to sponsor us, who would we want to bring in [as riders]? Everyone that we talked to agreed on the same five guys. That way we can all just do mini-sprints…. I want to beat Honda, but it’s not a revenge thing–it’s just so I can go down and say I won the 1000. I’m getting up there [in years (he’s 37)] so this is going to be one of my last chances [at the overall] so with what’s going on, I’ll take the chances that we have to. More of it for me is just the personal goal of winning; that’s the whole motivation.” -Shane Esposito
The Sponsor: KTM really had no aspirations to tackle a full Baja assault for 2010, there was just no money available to make it happen. Then along came Dean Potts, owner of Bonanza Plumbing of Mira Loma California. It takes a guy with some pretty unique motivation to say “Hey, I will put up the money, let’s go win this thing”. Not only that, but he then had to actually talk KTM into doing it. After seeing how close the Kawasaki team came to winning in 2009, he realized that it could be possible for someone else to pull off the overall win. He started talking with David Pearson about the prospects.
“We set up a meeting the next week in my office with David, Mikey Childress and Shane Esposito. Right off the bat I liked the chemistry and enthusiasm that these guys had. I knew then and there that if we can get KTM to play ball we have real fighting chance to pull this off.”
“We just put it together. I said, ‘look, here’s the deal, guys: $40,000. That pays for all your pre-running, the helicopter, everything. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. Second place isn’t an option. It’s win or nothing. If you can’t win, you’ve got to tell me now because I’m not doing this just to go participate. If we don’t win, I’ve lost all my money, guys.’
Needless to say, Dean is pretty pumped up about winning. He has had to really step outside the bounds of some of the traditional thinking to make this effort happen. Can you imagine being the guy who just calls up a manufacturer one day and say’s “I want to win Baja, are you interested?” KTM’s success in Baja over the past few years has been limited. The bike needed more development time and the commitment level needed to be much higher from everyone to win. Dean’s ace in the hole is the riders; he has a great group pulled together. This is an effort that has a legitimate shot at winning.
Joining Bonanza Plumbing on the team is THR Motorsports. Shane and Mikey both work for THR who has chipped in by getting the practice bikes as well as helping with their expenses for pre running.
Officially the team is called; Bonanza Plumbing/FMF/KTM Factory Off Road Racing Team. That means we have to give a shout out to Antti Kallonen, the off road racing manager for KTM North America. Antti has the challenge of taking this array of people and support and funneling it all into the context of the KTM race organization.
There is also the array of KTM mechanics that have been instrumental to getting the 530xcw race bike up to Baja spec. I am very sure that the motor builder “Sarge” has had a few sleepless nights along the way. Yet, now after two successful endurance tests, everyone feels prepared to tackle The Baja.
The riders will leave next week to start pre running and laying out all the necessities for the pit crew support. Stay tuned as I will be down helping out and bringing you updated coverage leading up to and during the race.
Photos by Mark Kariya