Just a few more days and we will be headed back to Baja. It seems like I was just there. So let’s see what kind of musings I can come up with to talk about for the second event of the Mexico season.
I think it is fair to say that Baja is somewhat bigger than life. Motorcycle racing there has a life of its own that transcends the actual riders, bikes and teams that participate. That is the draw, the pull that keeps new people coming for their first race and old timers coming back for more.
For many of the competitors, race day will be nothing but a disappointment. This is even more so when you start to look at the cage classes (those with four wheels). Months of expense and preparation will all go down the drain in a ditch or with a small broken part. Yet many will come back again and again to tackle The Baja.
By the way, to say “The Baja” is of course grammatically incorrect, some personality started saying it and now I just use it as slang to poke fun.
Yes, many will be back. That is the nature of Baja racing. There are no great prizes to be won and like most motorcycle racing, the shot at glory is nothing more than a fleeting daydream.
So in many ways, the front page story for this event is the new SCORE management. The first race of the year saw the new group get off to a shaky start with last minute rule changes and post-race penalties that remain hidden from scrutiny.
New SCORE owner Roger Norman has dreams of far greater glory for Baja racing. Unfortunately his vision does not include amateur motorcycle racers. Other than entry fees, there is no money to be generated from this group. Trophy Trucks are where the future lies.
It seems probable that most motorcycle classes will see their role in SCORE deteriorate. As entry fees continue to climb, sportsman classes now find out that they will run a severely shortened version of the course. They will avoid the entire Summit, Laguna Salada, Borrego and San Matias, nearly all the challenging parts of the course.
The goal of this is to keep the motorcycles as far away from the pursuing Trophy Trucks as possible. It is designed for safety reasons, but the course for these riders is now so far away from the historical challenge of Baja racing, it would be hard to see many wanting to participate. The sportsman course will hardly be more than a casual day’s ride.
The course for this year’s 500 will feature some new terrain. Instead of going over the same old route to the coast via the cross over to Calentura, it will now go west down San Rafael canyon. It will add some mileage also, the last few years, the 500 has been pretty short.
Another new aspect will be the SCORE Dakar Challenge. Oh, you haven’t heard of it? No surprise, it seems hard to find anyone who has. ASO and SCORE are offering a free entry to the 2014 Dakar to the top driver and motorcycle rider from two combined race finishes; the Baja 500 and the Reno 500. Except motorcycles do not run at the Reno race, so their second score will come from the National Hare &Hound in July.
I have asked SCORE about the actual details of how they will combine a team race and solo event to choose one rider. I have also asked them for a list of those who have signed up for the challenge. As of yet I have no reply to either question. It is a great concept, but I am afraid it will fall flat without some additional support and promotion. Do you know any privateer riders who have an extra $60,000 or so to cover the rest of the costs to get to Dakar? The challenge excludes any prior Dakar participants.
So let’s talk about some racers. As I was saying, there are so many aspects of Baja racing that it gives us plenty to talk about. But when it comes right down to it, there is only one group of people that make this happen. The real heroes are the racers. Sure, it takes lots of support from many other sources to make this all happen. But if your ass is on the seat, you are the life blood of this sport. It doesn’t happen without you.
JCR Honda – As winners of the San Felipe 250, they come into the race as the favorites. If you missed out on the details of the San Felipe race, team manager Johnny Campbell got the heads up on the rule/course changes before anyone else and got his riders prepared accordingly. In the race, they were beat by KTM. But after penalties, they were handed the win and ultimately that is all that really matters.
I think David Kamo will be back to ride with Colton Udall and Timmy Weigand. Davey rode a crucial second stint in the Baja 1000 last year to help his team to the win.
I keep thinking the Honda 450x will start to show its age, but that is clearly not the case. Each of the top bikes have their strengths; weight, top speed, acceleration, durability and handling. But overall they are all very closely matched over the course of the entire race.
Bonanza FMF KTM – Kurt Caselli and Ivan Ramirez were nearly perfect in San Felipe, except for the off course penalties. One was so obvious that everyone was talking about it before the end of race day. Kurt put the team into the early lead and then held a pace at the front that no one could gain on. Getting the bike in the lead, Ivan rode solid for the second half of the race and brought the bike to the finish first.
With the injury to Toby Price, there will not be a second team bike for the 500. I expect Mike Brown to ride with Kurt and Ivan. This is the second year in a row that KTM has started with two teams but found themselves short of riders to fill both seats. It seems to be a theme with them.
As for Brownie, I just don’t see him continuing as a Baja rider. With his phenomenal success to start the Endurocross and X Games season, he is far more valuable in that arena. In comparison, he has had little to boast about after a year of racing in Baja. The San Felipe 250 saw him getting passed by a number of non-pro riders. I have to imagine that the paycheck for an X Games gold medal is vastly greater than anything to be won in Baja.
KTM has their bike well sorted out. It is still the old twin cam, carbureted Dakar motor. The team is supposed to be developing the new fuel injected 450xc-f, but I think they are so comfortable with the older chassis, that the riders wish to stay on it.
Kendall Norman – Will Kendall Norman and Ryan Abbatoye be riding orange for the 500? After their third place finish in San Felipe on the privateer Honda, they will be the spoiler team and again bump someone off the podium. I would not favor them for the outright win, but it might only take one miscue from another team to prove me wrong.
If they are riding a KTM, then they are working very hard to keep it a secret. It is one aspect of Baja that continues to baffle me. What is the difference between an amateur and a professional motorcycle racer? A professional races for the benefit of other people, while the amateur races for his own gratification. So why do so many supposed pros act like amateurs? If you want to get paid to race a motorcycle, you have to put yourself in front of the public, promote yourself and put on a good face for those who pay you. A little publicity can go a long ways.
THR Kawasaki – The boys in green are back once again to get a win. As the perennial underdog team, THR continues to be a threat at every race. At last year’s Baja 500 they put on a great show. Robby Bell had a hot line off the start, but lost time right away when he missed his first pit and ran out of gas. But the team never gave up and rode strong all day, taking a much deserved win.
David Pearson is back along with Steve Hengeveld. Joining them for the first time will be Taylor Robert. Taylor is of course very talented. He grew up riding in the desert, but does not have much experience when it comes to desert racing at the highest level. Success in Baja takes time and patience. It requires a skill set that is completely different from anything else. Taylor needs to use this race to ride smart and avoid trouble.
With a four rider team, THR has a deeper pool of talent, but more riders bring more variables. It is always a challenge to determine if more is better. I look for Robby and David to do most of the mileage, while Taylor has a chance to get his feet wet without too much responsibility to bear. Steve will probably only do a short section also and be the backup rider anywhere he might be needed.
Who is going to win? I don’t know, should I cop out on making a prediction or step up to the plate?
Okay, here is my guess: JCR Honda for the win. Last year the team lost because they had failed to have a contingency plan for the finish of the race. Colton crashed hard towards the end of his first section, damaging the bike and himself. The team did not lose too much time for this. But Colton was slated to ride the last 40 miles to the finish. He was too banged up to do so and that left Timmy Weigand to ride both his scheduled section, as well as having to stay on the bike for the last leg to the finish. He was not prepared and had not pre-run the section. Kamo was there to get on the bike if needed, but the team chose to leave Timmy on. It was a rare lapse of planning on Johnny Campbell’s part. I don’t look for them to get caught out like this again.