Photos by Kato and Enduro360
I’ve come to the realization that I am rarely in my life more focused and aware of my current reality than when I’m on a race bike in Baja. In those moments, nothing else exists; it can’t exist. There is too much at stake to allow my mind to wander. Around any corner, blind rise, or cloud of dust awaits an obstacle be it a vehicle, horse, cow, dog, person, rock, or ditch that I need to be prepared for. Failure to be prepared, present in the moment with unabated focus, can lead to unforgiving consequences. Consequences anyone who has ever raced in Baja is very familiar with.
Perhaps that’s part of the draw of the experience.
In the current form of reality we all experience on a daily basis, complete with endless distractions, experiencing a complete focus, an unyielding awareness of the current moment, is quite a novelty. But in Baja it’s a requirement; It demands this of each rider, each team member, chase driver, even spectator. In its own way, it produces an altered state of consciousness, a heightened state rarely experienced these days, and I believe that’s part of what keeps racers and team members flocking south of the border: the novelty of that experience.
And then, of course, there is a race that unfolds within that experience, and here is an account of mine:
I was incredibly confident in my team; with Steve Hengeveld, David Pearson and the addition of Taylor Robert, I felt we had a team full of experience, speed and heart that was going to be unmatched; even with the way it all played out I still feel the same, actually, I feel stronger in those convictions.
We were doing a slightly different strategy from the two- and three-man KTM and Honda teams: they were opting for longer sections that each rider would complete in one stint, but with our four rider team, we had the ability to shorten our sections, switch off a few times, and in doing so, allow our riders to sprint harder, then get a little recovery. I believe it was a good plan, it’s unfortunate we didn’t quite get the chance to see how it would have unfolded.
With the luck of drawing the first start pick, I had a clear course right from the off, free of dust, allowing me to ride at whatever pace I decided. As six o’clock am was drawing near I had the usual pre-race nerves coursing through my body, but I felt prepared and strong. As the thirty-second countdown began, the nerves began to fade, and as the green flag waved, the acceleration of my machine left all of those nerves behind me at the starting line. All that remained was focus.
Most racers can attest the idea that within the first few minutes of a race, you know whether you’re feeling the “flow” with your machine; whether you’re in control of your bike, or it’s the other way round. This was one of those times when I felt in control, and as I rode through the dirt roads leaving Ensenada I was hitting my lines and flowing through the corners just how I had visualized and practiced, dodging almost a dozen vehicles on what was a busy morning as far as traffic was concerned.
Colton Udall started on the Honda (thirty seconds behind me) and in what has become typical fashion he was riding really well. As we reached the Ojos highway crossing, he had lost just a handful of seconds to me, arguably due to the dust, and Kurt Caselli, who started the KTM (a minute-thirty behind me off the line), was pretty even on time as well. For anyone who followed my race last year, they know I had a slight issue with tunnel vision as I raced past our first pit stop and had to get gas from some locals. I’m happy to announce that I was able to not only see the pit, but stop at it as well, and the Vanscourt crew did an awesome job getting me in and out in a hurry.
From the pit one location the section that awaited me was terrain that I’m incredibly familiar with, and some of the most enjoyable in Baja. I was sweeping through the corners, maintaining my momentum and felt that I was riding really smooth and fast. I wasn’t making too many mistakes, I actually can’t remember any, and with each corner I just felt better and better. I entered a sweeping right-hander in fourth gear, sitting back on the bike, maintaining as much momentum as I could, and then upon exiting the corner my front end clipped a tiny rock. It wouldn’t have upset my trajectory too much but for the speed I was carrying and the lean angle at which I hit it. The rock sent my front end up into the air and I knew instantly I wasn’t going to be able to bring it back. I hit the ground on my right side as I slid, baseball style with my bike for quite a distance before we finally came to a halt. I picked the bike up quickly, noticing the only damage was that I had bent the brake pedal up slightly and after starting the bike and then quickly stalling it, I was able to re-fire it, downshift thrice and then take off, happy to have maintained the lead over a charging Colton. As I accelerated, I realized my ankle was quite sore and that’s when I knew it had gotten trapped under the bike in the crash, twisting my ankle backwards and spraining it. No time to worry about that however, as I raced on to mile one hundred, our second pit.
I gave the bike to David, our mechanic Phil was able to bend the brake pedal back into a position somewhat resembling normal and David took off about fifteen seconds ahead of the Honda. Kurt was still pretty close to even on time with us, maybe losing a few seconds and then Kendall came through a couple minutes back as he prepared for quite a day (he did about 370 miles of the race).
The race plan was for me to take over for David at RM200, do thirty miles, then have him jump back on and ride thirty miles before handing the bike to Taylor, but as we got to our pit four location we started to hear reports from pit three that he went down pretty hard, lost time to the Honda and may not be able to continue. David later said he hit a rock with the rear wheel that sent him sideways and then he got thrown to the ground hard, hurting his back. Dave’s a warrior and he pushed himself all the way to pit four, keeping us within seven minutes of the Honda team and I mounted our bike and took off.
I pushed up to our pit-five location where I got conformation that David wouldn’t be able to continue and after some maintenance on the bike, I headed up towards Mikes Sky Ranch to our pit-six location at Rancho El Coyote. I hadn’t pre-run this section, but I knew everything up to Mikes pretty well and pushed hard, determined to put some time on the Honda team, now piloted by David Kamo, and try to get us back in the race. I hadn’t ridden the section after Mikes since 2007 and I was taking some sketchy chances over some terrain I didn’t know too well. I’d come over a rise into a minefield of rocks, probably thirty miles-per-hour faster than the section demanded and would have to slam on the brakes in the middle of all the rocks, getting really squirrelly, but pulling it off. Then, just before the pit, the course was on a fifth-gear wide-open straightaway and there was about a four-foot ditch perfectly concealed by the horizon ahead of me. I didn’t see it until late, slammed on the brakes, but realized I wasn’t going to be able to slow down enough to roll through it. I downshifted to fourth, twisted the throttle, lifted the front wheel and splattered the backside of the ditch at probably about seventy mph. The rebound from the impact sent me maybe fifty feet through the air, sideways and panic-revving, but I was able to land just straight enough to pull it off and I came into the pit and handed the bike to Taylor, adrenaline still pumping from hitting the ditch.
Taylor had a fantastic ride in his Baja debut, pulling time on the Honda team and just before he handed the bike to Steve, we had heard reports that we were back to within four minutes. It could be a race again.
Steve took over and was absolutely determined to make up time. From what he described, he had a line through some bushes that he could hit at 90mph, then jump a ditch and never lift. Unfortunately he clipped a rock just before he got to the ditch, which sent him swapping toward it at scary speed. He said he high-sided into the ditch and got utterly ejected, cartwheeling and landing some forty feet away from the bike. We later learned he crushed his tib/fib into his ankle, but surgery went well and he’ll make a full recovery.
The fact that Steve went down in this way shows just how committed he was, and here’s a further example: he was laying in the bushes, realizing his ankle is crushed, and when a sportsman comes up to him, he has the guy help him onto his bike so he can ride it up the course to an area that we can chase Taylor into, in an effort to keep us in the race. Steve is a beast.
Unfortunately for our race, between realizing Steve had crashed, getting a hold of Taylor and then getting him down to the bike, we had lost well over an hour and were now just looking to finish and get some points. Taylor got the bike up to me at RM420/Uruapan area and I had an uneventful ride to the finish, coming across the line in fifth position.
The Baja 500 is a unique style of racing: the team plans for months, the riders practice for weeks and it all comes down to less than half a day’s worth of racing. It’s definitely disappointing not to be able to repeat our victory from last year for ourselves, for the team: Monster Energy, THR Motorsports, Precision Concepts, Kawasaki, and for all of the sponsors, volunteers and people that put in the time and capital required to make this effort a possibility. Even though we didn’t finish as well as we wanted, I’m incredibly proud of the team: David rode for around seventy miles with a back injury that would end his day, Taylor (the Baja rookie, who was the only one on our team not to crash) did a great job coming to grips with the event and what it takes to excel, Steve showed how committed he is to winning and the size of his heart when things can go wrong. The team did an amazing job leading up to the event and all week, Scott, Bob, Ty, Phil, Rob, everyone who makes this effort happen, the pit volunteers, the chase drivers; it really is quite humbling to see the amount of effort that goes into a nine-hour event. Thanks to my personal sponsors: Fox Racing, Alamo Alarms, PODmx knee braces, USWE hydration systems, THR, Northland Motorsports and Ryan Abbatoye Designs for continuing to support me.
We’ll definitely be back in November, determined to put the bad luck behind us and committed to pushing for that ultimate goal of winning the SCORE Baja 1000. Congratulations to Honda for again proving how good they are in Baja and to the KTM teams for dealing with their own adversities and ending up on the podium. I’d definitely like to thank my family and friends, my fiancé for dealing with the emotional burden that accompanies me being in Baja for a week and a half and especially all of the fans and enthusiasts that were cheering us on the entire race, even when we were so far back. It’s an amazing experience seeing how devoted and excited everyone is about racing in Baja California, MX. Can’t wait for the 1000!