THR/Monster Energy/Precision Concepts Kawasaki Tecate SCORE Baja 500
Photos by Mark Kariya
After such an incident-filled Tecate SCORE San Felipe 250, the goal of the top three teams would be to have a smooth, mistake free Tecate SCORE Baja 500. Of course pulling off a mistake free race, estimated to last around nine hours, is quite a proposition and adding to the story line was the absence of two of KTM’s riders: Quinn Cody (still recovering from his San Felipe get off) and round one winner Kurt Caselli, through injury. The KTM team consolidated their resources by combining Ivan Ramirez and Mike Brown onto the “A” team and adding multi-time Dakar rally champion Marc Coma. Honda’s effort was unchanged as the JCR team was again made up of Colton Udall, David Kamo and Timmy Weigand. My team, the Monster Energy, THR Motorsports, Precision Concepts Kawasaki, would be made up of myself, Baja veteran Steve Hengeveld and David Pearson, who was still looking for his first victory south of the border.
In my opinion the Baja 500 is the most enjoyable of the three SCORE Baja races; the San Felipe event is so rough and brutal, the Baja 1000 usually calls for such long days between prerunning and travelling back to the hotel, but the 500 is the perfect combination of enjoyable terrain and a more relaxed prerun schedule. This year’s course would wind out the more traditional start route through Ojos Negros, up over the rocky summit and down Laguna Solada. From there, the rough and rocky Borrego and San Matias sections awaited the riders before the fast and flowing Mikes Sky Ranch loop. Across to the pacific coast and the course would turn north, heading back to Ojos and back tracking the start route to the finish.
My pre run went really well, just one close call when I went bar to bar with a spooked horse that ran out onto the course right in front of me, but I felt good about my week and David and Steve felt equally as confident leading into Saturday. We would be third bike off the line, running the 4X, two places ahead of the 1X Honda and three ahead of the 7X KTM with thirty second intervals meaning we would need to beat Honda by a minute and KTM by a minute and a half to stand atop the podium at the finish.
Sitting on the line I was calm and focused on hitting my lines, getting into the lead as quick as I could and trying to pull a gap, but most important was my goal of staying safe and giving David a perfect bike at pit two. The clock struck six a.m. and the 2X bike hit the course, followed thirty seconds later by the 3X and I made my way up to the line. A few deep, calming breaths and as the green flag waved my Baja 500 had begun. I felt great up the wash out of town and got by the 3X bike quickly. A few miles later I could see the 2X just ahead of me and as we dropped into a wash I cut inside of him and took the lead; a perfect start. My ride out of town was smooth, I always keep my pace just under 100% getting out of town as the sun is directly in front and blinding and you’re never quite sure what’s coming up. Through Ojos Negros and I was nearing my first pit, which we had planned to be just before race mile 48. It was super crowded and chaotic and before I knew it I was through the area and never saw my pit. I panicked for a second, but then thought they might be at race mile 52, which was a second area we had talked about placing our pit. I made it to that area, but my pit was nowhere to be found and suddenly my heart sank. I rode a little further as the fact that I had actually missed my gas stop started to sink in and I began to feel so much anger at myself thinking I had just thrown away our entire race and I screamed at myself under my helmet. Now true panic arose as the reality that I was going to run out of gas within ten miles hit me and I made the decision to start looking for gas from spectators. I stopped at every little camp I came across but no one had any. After about the sixth time I stopped Colton had finally caught me and as I stopped at another camp, he sped right on by. I can only imagine what he was thinking as he saw me come to a stop and he inherited the lead. Finally after stopping a couple more times, two spectators had a five-gallon can of gas and were more than willing to give me a couple gallons. One of our pit volunteers actually knows who they are and said they thought I was a bit rude at first in my haste, but then they realized I was in the race and were stoked to help me out; I owe them a huge debt of gratitude for getting me back into the race and saving our Baja 500. It was at that point I made up my mind that we were GOING to win this race; for something like this to happen and to recover and stay in the hunt, it was destined to be our day. So I took off in second on the course, losing around about five minutes in the debacle, but we were still well within a shot at the win as I gave the bike to David at mile 100.
David had an awesome ride over the “Summit” section and brought the bike to me at Borrego, mile 200, with over a minute on the Honda. We had planned a full maintenance pit there and the crew did an awesome job changing the front and rear wheels and air filter and getting me out forty-five seconds ahead of the 1X team. At this point in the race the KTM was around five minutes back as Ivan Ramirez had suffered a crash off the start, but they were still in with a shot. I took off out of Borrego, ready to tackle all of the whoops on the eight mile power line road and the sketchy sand wash section of San Matias where thousands of rocks are just waiting for you to clip one the wrong way and it only takes one. My back was burning through the whoops, but I just kept telling myself to stay strong, keep pushing and stay focused. Through the wash and into the Mikes section and I felt fantastic, pushing the edges up the twisty mountain roads I was having so much fun on the dirt bike; I didn’t feel any pressure, nerves, just the flow of the course and it felt amazing. Having said that, David Kamo put in an inspired effort on the Honda through that section as he only lost maybe 10-15 seconds to me over Mikes. After adding some oil to the bike when I handed it to Steve at mile 266 we had about two and half minutes over the 1X Honda (with Timmy getting on) and around seven or so minutes on the 7X KTM (with Ivan mounted) as the course headed to the Pacific.
Radio communication is always hard to come by when the bike is on the coast, but we were getting reports that the Honda was closing the gap on us slightly and the KTM would catch and then lose a little as they were struggling with a fuel screw problem. Steve was riding a fantastic pace up the coast, but Timmy was really hanging it out and had the gap down just under a minute. David was scheduled to get on at Urapan and ride around thirty-five miles to me at mile 407 where I would take it to the finish. The Honda got close pretty close at times, but then David was able to pull a gap again and as he got the bike to me I knew the margin would be close and I would need to push it to the finish to make sure we got the one minute plus gap we would need to secure victory.
I mounted the bike and took off for the finish line in Ensenada, feeling great again, pushing the corners like a grand prix race and taking some risks in the silt. I had a few close calls: the front tire would hit a rock hidden in the silt and send the bars to the stops a couple times, but I was able to save it and keep the momentum going forward. Behind me Timmy was still on the 1X bike as Colton had suffered a crash over the summit earlier in the race and injured his shoulder, forcing Timmy to ride the finish, with which he wasn’t too familiar. This was allowing me to pull time to the line, but I didn’t know the gap so I pushed all the way to the finish and as I crossed the checkers the stopwatches began! I must have had three or four iPhones shoved in front of me when the clock hit a minute, showing me that we were the unofficial winners of the Baja 500! The Honda crossed the finish line three and a half minutes behind and the KTM was around ten minutes back at the line. A quick note that we did get nicked for a speeding penalty of a minute and half and I believe it was when I was on the bike; I was a little fired up after the gas fiasco and was a bit too hasty on the highway. I’m sure now that I was too quick to get up to speed and trying to keep it too close to 60mph. All it takes is hitting 61 or 62mph for a second or two to get a penalty, but it’s a serious part of Baja racing that we all have to respect and I need to take a few deep breaths before I get on the highway next time. Luckily it didn’t affect the end result as we maintained a 58 second margin of victory at the finish of it all.
This is a huge victory for me, my teammates and the entire team, from the pit volunteers to the sponsors who support us and it feels fantastic to finally achieve what we’ve all been working so hard for. A huge shout out to the team: Monster Energy, THR Motorsports, Precision Concepts Kawasaki for building an amazing bike and fielding such a big effort. The bike performed flawlessly all day, even on the spectator gas, which I’m betting was some quality Pemex, the suspension worked so well in the whoops and rocks and cornered like a dream over Mikes. A big thanks to my personal sponsors: Fox Racing, Asterisk and Hookit.com, it feels great to get them such a big win. Thank you to the pit crews and our mechanics, Phil and Ty, for the amazing effort they put in all week long, leading into and throughout the race. Thanks to Sean Reddish for all of his help and to everyone close to me who kept telling me this win was going to happen. A big thank you to all of the team sponsors for putting so much into the team and all of their support. Thanks to my fiancé, who I proposed to on the night before I left for Baja, for keeping me strong when I needed it and always being my biggest cheerleader. I can’t put into words how great this win feels for myself and the team; we’ve been working so hard and to see it all pay off, especially with the drama that unfolded, makes it so much sweeter. The Honda and KTM team were excellent and they’ll be stronger at the 1000, but so will we and the culmination to the SCORE series couldn’t be any more hotly anticipated as the team that wins the Baja 1000 wins the 1X plate. After such a tough San Felipe for us, it really is amazing to be one win away from the championship; it’s going to be tough, it’s going to be brutal, it’s going to be nail biting. Can’t wait for November!
Thank you to all the Monster Energy, THR Motorsports, Precision Concepts Kawasaki team sponsors: FMF Racing, IMS Products, Hoosier Precision Machining, BRP, Renthal, Dunlop, VP Racing Fuels, Kalgard, DT1 Filters, Hinson, Matrix Concepts, ZLT, QTM, RK/Excel, Acerbis, Works Connection, Zip-Ty Racing.