There’s no denying this was the most anticipated Baja 1000 ever as far as the Open Pro motorcycle division was concerned. With all of the advances in social media and the abundance of cameras capturing footage north and south of the border, the build up was front and center and fans worldwide were sizing up the teams, discussing their favorite riders and putting odds on the outcome. Popular opinion seemed to be that the KTM team possessed the most speed among their ranks between Mike Brown, Kurt Caselli, Quinn Cody and local favorite Ivan Ramirez. Many people put the Kawasaki team of myself, David Pearson, Steve Hengeveld and Destry Abbott pretty close to the orange team in speed, but saw the smaller budget and lack of pit presence as a big hurdle to overcome in a Baja 1000 that would span the peninsula. When people spoke of the Honda team (Colton Udall, David Kamo and Timmy Weigand), the most common statements centered on the fact that their program, preparation and experience were their strengths and they would be likely to capitalize on any mistakes the other two teams might make. But as with everything that happens in Baja, the outcome would be anything but predictable and once the clock hit 6:30am on Thursday, it was time to let the controlled chaos begin.
The scene at the starting line was quite typical of any SCORE race starting in Ensenada: the media grabbing a few last minute interviews, riders giving each other the customary thumbs up and “be safe out there” signals, fans leaning out over the barriers that line the edges of the streets, striving to get their final glimpses and pictures of the bikes before they would begin their 1120-mile assault on the demanding Baja terrain. The 5x KTM team would start a minute and a half ahead of me with Ivan taking the first forty miles. From there Mike Brown would hop on and take the bike around two hundred forty miles through San Felipe to Puertecitos where Ivan would remount and continue through the rest of my section before handing the bike off to Kurt further down the peninsula. I would be riding the first three hundred fifty mile of the race to El Crucero before passing the bike to Destry, and Colton (starting a minute and a half behind me on the 1X Honda) would mirror my section before handing over responsibility to David Kamo.
I felt confident on the line and as the bikes started revving up I had a wave of adrenaline pulse through my body; I was ready to get out on course and let it all play out. The green flag flew and I set out hard, aiming to pass the riders between the KTM and myself as quickly as possible. I rapidly made my way into fifth and as the racecourse wound through the outskirts of Ensenada I was soon able to make a second pass into fourth position. I had made a goal of reaching at least third position before the course left the city limits and hit a little dustier terrain and with a couple miles to spare I made my way into third. From there the markers lead us through Ojos Negros, one of my favorite sections in all of Baja. At this point Mark Samuels, on the 3X Honda, was leading the race ahead of Mike Brown (who had just mounted the KTM), myself, and Colton just a little ways behind me. I felt amazing through this section, the only thing limiting my speed was the hanging morning dust, but I was closing on the leaders and putting some time on the Honda behind; it was all going according to plan.
Just over 100 miles into the race and the unforgiving Baja mistress took her first casualty as Samuels ran out of gas before he could reach his pit; such an unfortunate turn for Mark as he was riding well and showing he had the speed to run up front. This did, however, work out well for myself and Brown as we now owned the first two spots and through our first lengthy highway section I could see him just 15 seconds up the road. We turned toward Borrego and hit our first stretch of whoops and that’s when my race took a turn that I wouldn’t be able to recover from. Normally I enjoy the whoops in San Felipe, I ride light on the bike and work with my machine as it skips from whoop-top to whoop-top, but this time it was different…I was struggling. I couldn’t get a good rhythm, and the more I tried to push the pace, the more out of shape I would get, the tighter I’d become. This truly showed as I was leaving pit three and the course turned onto the power line road, a five-mile stretch of rolling car whoops. As I left the pit, I looked back to see that Colton had caught me and by the time I had gotten up to speed he was just behind me. I tried to lift my pace, but again I was found wanting and Colton was able to find another gear and straight up pass me. I didn’t want to accept it, but I couldn’t push any harder without feeling like I was risking throwing the bike away and decided to keep my pace and get the bike to Destry safely.
As the course wound through Borrego towards San Felipe, line selection came into play and unfortunately for me, Brown was taking my line. I was right in his dust and knew I had more speed than he did, but I couldn’t punch through the wall in front of me. Meanwhile, Colton was in a line out to the left and not only did he pass for the lead, he was pulling time. I continued to battle with Brown through San Felipe as we went back and forth a few times; it wasn’t until the course turned onto Old Puertecitos Road and the KTM stopped for a rear wheel that I was finally able to make the pass stick and by the time I would hand the bike off they’d be a further five minutes behind. I had already lost about four minutes to Colton by the time I’d finally laid claim to second place, and with the next twenty miles being some of the roughest in Baja, mixed with my current form on the bike, the odds weren’t looking good for me to cut back into this lead. Again I just couldn’t seem to find my flow on the bike, I was grazing rocks I’d normally miss and having a few heart in mouth moments that would take energy and time to recover from. By the time I had finally reached the long stretch of pavement that followed I’d lost another four minutes and now found myself over eight minutes behind the lead. In the final sixty plus miles of my section I was able to find a little form and get back on pace, but the damage was done and after a slightly lengthy pit stop, I’d given Destry the bike with nearly a ten minute deficit.
I was horribly disappointed in my ride; I’m not used to getting beat in Baja, but it’s times like these when you need to lean on your teammates and luckily, I have three of the best in the business. Destry showed why he’s still a world-class rider and by the time he handed the bike to David Pearson, the lead was down under eight minutes, and he had stretched our lead over KTM to around nine.
As darkness fell over the peninsula this is when most people say the race truly begins; there was still almost half the race-distance to run and things can get even more unpredictable at night. David was riding so well and eating into the lead of the Honda. In the chase van, we could only get scattered reports, but each time the lead was smaller: down to six minutes, then four, and by the time he had finished his section he’d cut the lead down under three minutes. We were well and truly in the race. The KTM was still hanging about, but they had dropped to over twenty minutes behind us and as Steve mounted the bike, going head to head with Timmy on the Honda, I had absolute confidence he could make the pass and pull out the minute and a half we needed to take the win.
Again radio updates were sketchy at best, but we heard Steve was reeling the Honda in and it was getting close. We set up a pit just outside San Carlos and as the Honda came through, Steve was barely ninety seconds behind and I could tell he knew he had it. Then disaster struck…
First we heard a report that the Honda had cleared Baja Pits, but no sign of our Kawi, and within the next nail-biting half an hour our worst fears were confirmed… Our bike was broken down at race mile 995, just about 130 miles from the finish. Everyone’s heart sank; especially when we reached Steve and he said he could see Timmy’s head light just fifteen seconds up the course when it happened. After nearly 1000 miles of ups and downs and one epic comeback, our race was over.
It’s true heartbreak for something like this to happen, especially when our entire team was on such a high, feeling this was finally our year to get that elusive Baja 1000 victory; but, of course, it’s a part of racing that can happen at anytime to anybody and unfortunately it happened to us. I’m so proud of the team though and want to say a huge thank you to the entire THR Motorsports, Monster Energy, Precision Concepts Kawasaki team for working so hard all year, putting in countless hours of preparation and making this effort championship-worthy. Thank you to my teammates: Destry Abbott, David Pearson and Steve Hengeveld for working their butts off and riding so well, getting us back in the race after my slow start. Thanks to Phil, Ty, Bob, Mikey, Rob and Scott for everything they do day in, day out to make this effort possible. Thanks to Ryan Abbatoye for being “so freaking fast” as our back up rider, everybody who volunteered to help out in the pits and Joe Feely for being our designated taxi in Ensenada. Big thanks to my personal sponsors for supporting me this entire year: Fox Racing, Asterisk, John Burr Cycles and HookIt.com, and of course my wonderful fiancé for all that she is and all that she does for me.
I want to congratulate JCR Honda on the SCORE championship, as there’s no denying they earned it. After getting beat at San Felipe and the Baja 500, their backs were up against the wall, but I feel that made them more dangerous. They were backed into a corner and absolutely had to win and they showed they put in the time to get the job done. Congratulations to KTM for a successful first true year in Baja showing they were competitive and the bike was solid and I’m looking forward to another year of close battles. And I want to say huge congratulations to Sal and everyone at SCORE for 45 years in Baja. This was once again a top class event and I know it wasn’t easy to pull off with all of the hurricane destruction down south. Finally, it’s getting frustrating saying, “we came so close but…” yet again, but the entire team put in such a fantastic effort and we’ll dust ourselves off, come back again, stronger and more determined to show what we’re made of and get that 1X plate.
Photos by Mark Kariya & E360