For most people Baja racing remains an enigma, a dream of something fantastic but out of reach. Everywhere I travel, people talk about the inspiration of Baja. It has a mystique that touches racers everywhere. For these individuals it is much more than a race, it’s challenge that beckons – something to conquer.
Dana Brown’s 2005 movie Dust to Glory brought Baja racing into the living rooms of enthusiasts everywhere. Much in the same way his father’s On Any Sunday did back in 1971. In the 2005 version, racing is dominated by high-dollar factory teams with all the latest tools at their disposal. Helicopters, satellite phones, radio communications and GPS tracking are standard fare for today’s Baja racer. But flash back to the ‘70s version of the race and the picture is very different.
That was the inspiration for this unique event, the NORRA Mexican 1000. As a rally-style competition held in three stages for vintage vehicles, this event presented many of the same challenges as the early days in Baja. NORRA was the organization that promoted the first racing on the peninsula. The rally was designed to be a slightly more relaxed form of racing. This made it possible for average enthusiasts to participate on a small budget. It also saw all kinds of vintage race vehicles shake off the moth balls for one more shot at glory.
The event was originally scheduled to run in the fall of 2009 but had to be postponed due to hurricane Jimena. Fortunately it worked in my favor because the first date conflicted with the ISDE in Portugal. When the new date was announced I decided to jump in and race with Baja legend Ron Bishop and my dad, Gordon White. Ron raced every Baja 1000 from 1967 through 2007, an amazing record. As a longtime Husky dealer, he has an entire collection of mid 80’s desert bikes in his collection. He suggested we run his 1986 500XC, his own personal bike for racing in that era.
Ron was convinced that the bike could do the whole race just as it sat, but just for good measure perhaps we should go through some of it to ensure it was in proper race condition. My first lesson learned: there are no “little” projects involving vintage bikes.
Suffice it to say that when we were finished this was as close to a brand new bike as possible. Every part had been disassembled, cleaned, painted or powder coated. Anything that showed any sign of wear was replaced. In many cases this meant buying the very last gear, gasket or bearing left in the Husky North America inventory. But when we were finished, the 500XC was the exact replica of the factory Baja bikes of the period.
After the rebuild the Husky fired to life on the very first kick, a positive omen. Out to the desert we went for a little test riding. Unfortunately our initial ride came to a very unceremonious end when the base gasket blew after just a few miles. As it turned out, the aftermarket gasket we used lacked the metal core of the OEM version (which was no longer available). Fortunately Ron was able to secure the correct one from another dealer’s secret stash.
All of this work consumed most of our preparation time prior to the event. We hadn’t even considered how we were going to follow the GPS route of the course. The original Mexican 1000 courses were not a marked, just a general route. The organizers for this event chose to use a GPS-only route. Like many racers, we had no previous GPS navigation experience. I bought the suggested Lowrance model, downloaded the route and hoped for the best.
The organizers also provided a road book for navigation. We mounted an odometer and created our own roll chart for backup navigation, sort of like riding an enduro or dual sport ride. By the time we had everything mounted, the bike looked like something prepared for Dakar.
When the bike was all together again, I took it out to the local track for some seat time. Overall it wasn’t too bad. Considering its age, things felt pretty good. As a 500cc 2-stroke it had plenty of power, sometimes too much, or in the wrong place, but plenty of it. The brakes were decent, but the front lever was so far away from the bar that it took my entire hand to grab it. I put some stiffer springs in the forks and the suspension seemed like it was going to make a pretty decent desert ride.
While we were getting our bike prepped, there were also a couple of other local riders getting bikes ready for the rally. This included a couple of other Huskies and Baja Bound tour guide Tim Morton was putting together a very nice ’89 Honda XR600. All of these bikes would be competing in the late model class for bikes 1989 and earlier.
In the early model class, for bikes prior to 1975, Joe Desrosiers, of “Joe
Hauler” fame, was preparing a 1972 CZ400. While our late model class bikes bear a strong resemblance to modern equipment with their long travel suspension, water cooling and disc brakes, the prospect of tackling Baja on the old school CZ struck us all as very daunting. None of us gave much hope to the prospects of Joe’s ride.
As we packed to leave for Mexicali, all of us were feeling the excitement of the coming race, but also the uncertainty of what lay ahead. More than once we had discussed just how much we take modern bikes for granted. The level of comfort and dependability is such that failures are rare. These vintage bikes made us keenly aware of how much more important bike preparation was just a few years ago. The Husky had at least a hundred little details of preparation, all of which were needed to make it work just right.
When we arrived in Mexicali it was a spectacular scene. There were a great variety of entries for the event. Many of the competitors had gone to great lengths to show up with some impressive vehicles. Some of the cars entered where ones that had originally been raced 35 years ago, while others were great reproductions.
There were a number of Bronco’s, including a great reproduction of the “Big Oly” made famous by Parnelli Jones. There were two versions of the Olds 442 originally piloted by James Garner, although one blew the motor the day before the race. Numerous vintage Baja bugs and Meyers Manxs’ buggies were in the group. Perhaps the most striking was the 1958 Ford Edsel, looking very much like the Batmobile with long travel shocks and big tires. There was event an actual dirt track sprint car entered.
As race morning dawned each of us headed off in our own directions. As Ron was riding first for our team, he went to the starting line. I left for Laguana Salada where I would take the second section and Gordon was off for Lake Chapala were he would ride the bike into the finish of the first day. As I sat waiting at my section on the south end of the dry lake bed, I had the opportunity to chat with Malcolm Smith who was co-driving a buggy with Bud Feldkamp of Glen Helen Raceway. As the first vehicles came by I waited anxiously. Our number was 57 so that meant Ron left the line 57 minutes behind the first vehicle, bike and cars mixed together. Shortly he arrived, having lost time to one bike but still in good position.
I had to do a 50 mile paved transfer section and then the test section across Laguna Diablo and down the sand whoops into San Felipe. Riding down the road, all was going well and I had the opportunity to play with the GPS settings and figure some of the navigation out for the first time. Riding along I rolled off the throttle suddenly for a corner and then it happened, the motor died abruptly. I pulled in the clutch and let it out again, the motor fired and I continued down the road. I suspected that chopping the throttle had caused a small seizure; the bike must have been jetted too lean.
I continued to the next designated fuel point where I waited for the chase crew to catch up and fuel me prior to entering the test. When I was ready to leave the bike had little compression and would not kick start. Ron told me not to worry too much, sometimes this would happen, the single ring piston of the Husky would stick, but would often free itself again. We had to give the 500 a quick tow to start it and I was off again, but of course now I was afraid to shut the bike off.
As I started into the test I just took it easy. The tall gearing would let the bike cruise across the El Diablo lake bed at 65mph at just half throttle. As I got more comfortable I increased the pace. Staying out of whoops, I picked the smoother lines towards Morelia Junction and I was really starting to have fun, passing a few cars in the process. As I made the turn towards San Felipe things were going great. I was getting the feel of the bike and starting to let it hang out a bit.
I was almost at the end of the section when I heard a very distinct “clank.” It happened three times and the bike started to coast, as if the clutch was gone. I shifted into a higher gear and the bike seemed to be running ok again. I nursed the bike to the stage finish. As I got gas again in San Felipe, I told Ron that I knew something wasn’t right on the bike, but I would continue down to Puertocitos and the next rider change. One mile later in downtown San Felipe it all came to an end. The rear wheel locked up solid as the tranny finally broke for good.
I guess there are worse places to end up than in the middle of one of my favorite towns on a sunny afternoon, but nevertheless it’s a hard way to end a race. It always amazes me that things just have a way of working out. Minutes later a pickup pulled up with some locals who were following the race and they offered me a ride. We threw the bike in the back and they hauled me all the way to my waiting crew at Laguna Chapala.
So that was it for my race. After a tremendous amount of work and preparation, we were left with a broken motorcycle and a race that ended way too soon. Sixth gear was one of the few cogs that we had not replaced in the transmission. The debris on the drain plug would tell the story, one tooth stripped off clean but the other one showed signs of having cracked long ago and was just waiting for the right moment to shear off.
We treated the rest of the trip as a vacation, following the race into Bahia de Los Angeles and on to Loreto the next day. We cheered on our friends who were still racing and helped out where we could.
Tim Morton and his Honda XR600 were proving to be the class of the field along with the very pristine-looking ’84 XR500 of Ruben Hale’s team of Mexican riders. Dakar veteran Jonah Street showed up to ride another of the Husky’s, but it broke on Day 1 also. As longtime friends, Tim graciously invited Jonah to partner with him for the remainder of the event. No doubt they had a significant advantage, not only due to their overall talent, but both had logged tens of thousands of miles riding similar Honda 600’s in Baja over the years.
When the riders paraded into La Paz, the Morton/Street duo had bested all the motorcycles, putting nearly 50 minutes on the Hale team. Joe Desrosiers and his CZ400 also crossed the finish line, coming in an astonishing 23rd out of the nearly 90 total competitors, and winning his class. Also there was Scott Whitney with his amazing Harley side hack rig. All very much a sight to see considering the mileage and terrain they had to negotiate.
Overall the event was hailed as a complete success by all the competitors. The rally style stage format gave each crew a chance to rest at the scenic overnight stops. The atmosphere was that of a great adventure, almost as much of a party as a race. You can bet that if the event is held again next year, the turnout will be huge, as the word is now out among the Baja crowd of what a unique and entertaining event this was.