Facing the challenges of Baja stresses the physical and emotional limits that the human body can endure unlike most other motorsport competitions today. In fact, referring to the Baja 1000 with the simplistic term of a competition doesn’t even scratch the surface of what the event is, what it means to those who have endured it’s rigors and what it demands of those hoping to pass its tests. It’s an adventure unlike any other that few people in this world will ever be able to grasp and it leaves a deep, lasting impact on those who have been through it forming bonds between participants that will last a lifetime.
To be honest, I’m finding it difficult to do the mystique and grandeur of the Baja 1000 justice in simple words. It’s a race in which the awe and beauty of the event can only be matched by the potential for tragedy and hardship. But that’s what the men and women who chose to face the trials are looking for: a challenge and adventure that will truly test them and give them a sense for their own limitations and what it feels like to push beyond them. It gives a sense of having lived life to it’s absolute fullest.
In these most heavy-hearted times, I’m also finding it tough to write about my own race; a simple competition seems like a trivial child’s game compared to the life-changing event that took place, but for those who want to feel closer to the race, or wish to have more of an understanding, I’ll give a bit of a recap…
Throughout all of my pre-running I was feeling uncharacteristically carefree about the entire event, I was really enjoying putting in a ton of miles practicing and wasn’t feeling any genuine nerves or pressure. It may sound odd to consider these feelings uncharacteristic, but in such a big event, with so many unknown possibilities and dangers laying concealed in the Baja desert, and the knowledge that so many talented riders were competing, which would demand a fast pace flirting with the edge of control and safety, the Baja 1000 usually hangs an opaque cloud of doubt and uncertainty, even if only a small one, somewhere deep inside the mind. It truly was a novelty to feel so positive and worry free before the race.
On race day my teammates David Pearson and Ricky Brabec would split up the first three hundred eighty-five miles, through the darkness, to El Crucero where I was scheduled to ride one hundred forty miles before handing the bike to Taylor Robert, then remounting and splitting up the final two hundred miles with Ricky. I knew the nighttime start would offer a different dynamic to the race, so it was great to hear that most people made it through the evening without incident. In terms of the race for the lead, we heard radio reports that the first three bikes were coming to El Crucero within minutes which was exactly what I had hoped for: a smooth evening run, keeping close and in the hunt, allowing for the race to be settled in the day.
The 1x Honda was the first bike through, followed a few minutes later by the 2x KTM. I watched both of them go by with a feeling of confidence; I knew the following section well, really enjoyed it and felt I had the potential to make up time on the leaders, all I needed was the bike. Unfortunately the clock kept ticking with no sign or sound of our bike. Minute after minute passed and some slight anxiety began to creep in. What happened? Was it a problem with the bike, or did something happen to David? It was utter agony as time relentlessly kept ticking on.
Finally after nearly forty minutes David came speeding into sight. We would later learn that a slight miscalculation of distance between pits left David’s tank empty just over a mile from the next gas stop. He said he pushed it for a while, which would have been a difficult task in the sandy conditions, before someone in a car was able to siphon gas out of their own tank to fill a little bit of Dave’s and get him going. I can’t imagine how frustrating that must have been for David, after he and Ricky had put in such a great ride and so many hours on the bike, only to run out of gas within a couple miles of getting off the bike.
This is where I feel I made my first mistake of the entire two weeks I’d been down there; leading up to the race, including during the morning of the race itself, I had told myself I was going to build into the pace of the race a little. I was going to have plenty of miles on the bike and I wasn’t going to win the race in the first few so I wanted to build into the event and get a feel for the flow of the bike and the course on race day. Unfortunately with the time that we’d lost, and the time I’d spent waiting and growing more frustrated, I began to let my emotions get the best of me. As I mounted the bike I wasted no time in pushing to the limits of what we consider a “safe” race speed in Baja.
Emotions aside, I felt fantastic on the bike. I was riding the course just how I had imagined, straightening out the two-track road where I could, sweeping the corners wide where it was required and looking far down the course in an effort to feel more in control. I honestly felt like I was flying.
And that’s when absolute disaster struck. About ten miles into my section I was cresting a fourth-gear rise and I hit something embedded in the ground real, REAL hard. It was either a hidden rock or a stump, but the impact was enough to break the rear hub and send me off course down the left side of the track in an uncontrolled swap. I was speeding through a mine field of rocks, bushes and small trees and when I hit a thicket of three stout bushes, I got positively ejected off of the bike and went flying through the air. I bounced off the earth a couple times and finally came to a stop in a field of small rocks where I struggled to get my breath. After a couple minutes of fuzziness the reality of what had just happened was beginning to sink in, and I was also coming to the conclusion that my Baja 1000 had just ended as I couldn’t lift my right arm more than a few inches into the air and my left ankle felt like it was quickly approaching the size of a large grapefruit. Luckily by this time the helicopter had landed and our medic began tending to me.
Steve Hengeveld, who was our banded back up rider in the helicopter and still recovering from an ankle injury of his own, realized that he was going to have to ride the rest of my section to keep us in the race and he began to suit up in his gear and get ready to go. Steve was definitely my hero for riding that bike over 100 miles, through the nasty silt of the “fish camp” loop, after I absolutely mangled it ruining the sub-frame, the pipe, the rear hub, the rear brake system and twisting up the front end real nice.
After a major pit to repair of the damage I managed to inflict upon the bike, David was forced to remount our steed and finish my sections for me since I was unable to continue. I owe a huge debt and thanks to my team, Monster Energy, THR Motorsports, Precision Concepts Kawasaki, and especially our mechanics in the pits, along with all of my teammates for working incredibly hard to fix the bike and keep us going in the race after my mistake. It’s amazing to think that we still managed a good finish with all that happened.
Of course, in light of the absolute tragedy that occurred later that afternoon, our finishing position seems rather trivial. It wasn’t until the early evening that we started hearing rumors about Kurt, and like most people, we didn’t want to believe the reports or even give them the time of day; it simply wasn’t possible. I honestly still don’t know how to feel about everything, it’s like a bad dream that I keep wishing to wake from but it keeps sucking me deeper down into it, proving more real. There are undoubtedly many people who knew Kurt better than I did and as much as it hurts me that he’s gone, I can’t imagine what those who were closer to him are going through right now.
It goes without saying that Kurt was an incredibly talented off-road racer, one of the best, but he was also an amazing human being who loved his friends and family, who had a smile that was infectious and who was the type of person that parents would encourage their kids to look up to and admire. The loss of Kurt has left so many, including myself, searching for answers and closure, closure that often times Baja unfortunately doesn’t offer. For me, a little comfort comes from knowing that Kurt lived his life on his terms, doing what he loved to do, which is more than most people can say. Kurt touched so many lives in our racing community, one of the tightest and closest communities I know of, and he will be truly missed by anyone who was lucky enough to meet him. Godspeed Kurt, I look forward to seeing you again when we learn what this life is really all about.