It looks to be a banner year for desert racing in Baja this season. The level of interest and participation is going to be bigger than at any time in recent memory. In fact, you would probably have to go back to the 1990’s when there were two full-fledged factory squads, Kawasaki and Honda, to find so much talent in one Baja race.
The unfortunate parallel between the two eras is the loss of premier riders from each. The passing of Danny Hamel ended Kawasaki’s factory presence in Baja. This past year saw the untimely passing of the two-time and reigning San Felipe 250 winner, Jeff “Ox” Kargola. It goes without saying that we wish for safe rides for all the participants this year.
The story lines for this race revolve around the incredible shake up of all the teams coming into the 2012 SCORE series. Technically, the same three big league teams are entered that took the start of the 2011 race. However, the rider line-ups are so different that they could have almost been the result of a random game of musical chairs.
The biggest headlines come from the JCR Honda camp. The defending 1x team of Kendall Norman and Quinn Cody simply vanished. The flamboyant and sometimes rowdy Kendall was quietly shown to the door. Teammate Quinn was expected to continue in a team roll, but made an eleventh hour jump to the Factory KTM squad.
The result is that JCR is now a one bike team led by heir apparent Colton Udall and brandishing the 1x champion’s plate. Backing him are Timmy Weigand and David Kamo. Kamo came to JCR mid season last year and helped the team to second place finishes in the 500 and Baja 1000. Timmy is back in a second stint with the team.
This will no doubt be a focused group of riders and crew. Without the “two team” dynamic, the resources will all flow to one effort. Colton has often shown the best speed in Baja, yet he still lacks wins in the bigger events. Kamo and Weigand rode solid in the events they participated in last year.
As a team, these guys are all very motivated to show that they deserve the 1x plate. The machine that is JCR Honda knows how to win, how to put together the best supporting effort, how to make the best game plan. Even as a one bike team, they have to be considered the best program coming into the race.
THR Motorsports / Monster Energy/ Kawasaki
Last year the THR Kawasaki took second place in the 250. Ultimately, the team was just one mistake in judgment away from winning the SCORE championship, a disqualification at the Baja 500 lost the plate.
This season the team comes back, but with an entirely different rider line up than they had at this event last year. It is a near dream team of Robby Bell, David Pearson and Destry Abbott, all great riders with a long list of accomplishments. Yet, at the same time, none of them are getting any younger. As I say that, Destry has just won the Laughlin Hare Scrambles this morning. Baja wins have eluded him and Pearson. So I know they are hungry for success. Just the opposite is true for Robby Bell and his dad Bob. They were both integral parts of the Factory Honda effort for many years and many wins. With the team strategy coming from Bob Bell, they will be in the mix, they might just need a little luck for a win.
FMF/Bonanza Plumbing/Factory KTM
KTM steps up in a big way for 2012 with a full two bike effort. According to the press release, this is the first factory effort since the 2008 San Felipe 250. Apparently, those races since then, where the bikes broke, were something other than a factory effort. If anyone remembers 2008, the team showed up with the new 530xc-w. The race bike and all three practice bikes went home broken. Interesting note, the riders on the ’08 team were David Pearson, Quinn Cody and Davey Kamo.
Kurt Caselli and Ivan Ramirez are the only rider line up that is the same since the 2011 event. Kurt is clearly the fastest rider on the west coast right now, racking up seemingly easy wins in the desert and GP’s. Ivan has just put together back-to-back wins in the WORCS Pro2 class and is clearly one of the fastest riders in his native Baja.
At last year’s 250, these guys were out of the gate like a shot, quickly catching and battling with Kendall Norman. Unfortunately, their bike only lasted 40 miles before its guts melted into a little ball at the bottom of the crank.
This year the team is running the Dakar 450RR rally spec motor. This is the twin cam carbureted motor, in a 450sx-f chassis. The team claims this motor will stand any abuse dished at it. The motors arrived directly from Austria, the team bolted them up and headed off to Baja, this is to say there was no testing or development in Mexico. But there is no lack of confidence on behalf of the team. If the bike can hold up, Kurt and Ivan will be a formidable duo.
On the second KTM, is the somewhat odd pairing of Mike Brown and Quinn Cody. I refer to them as odd simply because of the extremely unlikely series of events that had to take place to find these two on the same bike.
With his success in WORCS racing over the last few years, Mike’s speed is never in question. Last November he made his first trip to Baja and spent a couple of days riding the Baja 1000 course with Ivan as his guide. Apparently the trip went very well and Mike was on his way to becoming a Baja racer. This will be his first ever SCORE event.
In contrast, Quinn Cody is the probably the most experienced current Baja racer. He has now had TWO stints each with Honda and KTM. Quinn has plenty of race wins to his credit, but his greater value to KTM may simply be his knowledge of how to put a winning program together. Quinn is just coming off his injury at the Dakar Rally. I know he is a tough guy and an animal when it comes to training, so I am sure he will do well.
No matter how strong the riders stack up on paper, there is still the fact that, as a team, KTM has almost no Baja experience. Of the team personnel, mechanic Anthony Dibasilio is the only one who has ever been to a Baja race. It will be interesting to see if the support team is organized enough to be up to the challenge. The 250 is a short race, in one sense that makes it easy, but in another sense, every second counts and there is no room for error.
We still have one more significant entry to cover, Kendall Norman. I put him last on the list because there is really no information floating about on Kendall and his plans. Kendall was up for consideration for the spot on the KTM squad, but that went to his former teammate Quinn. This left Kendall more or less on his own to put a ride together.
For San Felipe, Norman is entered as 7x and I believe he is riding a Honda. I have heard rumors that he will be partnered with Logan Holladay. Logan rode on the winning 2011 Baja 1000 team with Kendall. Other than that, I have little idea what to expect and Kendall has been very quiet about his plans. If you have never been to a SCORE race, then you might not know that Kendall is the rock star of Baja. He gets plenty of attention. So, it is always possible that he could come out of this race with a big splash and grab all the spotlight.
There you have it. A look at the expected front runners for the coming Baja season. If I were a betting man, I cannot imagine where I would put my money. The level of talent is only equaled by the wide array of variables that come along. Great riders, new teams, new bikes, however it all works out, I am sure it will add up to some great racing.
Okay, I have a couple of quick postscripts. Shane Esposito is rumored to possibly show up, maybe with Steve Hengeveld. I see Mark Samuels is also entered, he has race wins riding on various JCR bikes, but I don’t know who he is paired with either. Be sure to stay tuned for 2012 San Felip 250 results as they come in.