Photos by Kato & Shogo
It took me quite a bit of time to reach my decision and commit to racing the Baja 1000. After the year that I had in 2013, crashing really hard at all three SCORE events, and then with the loss of Kurt at the 1000, I didn’t want to go back down anymore; the speed had elevated, the risks were greater, and the stakes had become all too real to all of us. But the closer the race came, the more I started to think of how I wanted to remember Baja, and I came to the conclusion that I didn’t want the 2013 1000 to be my last memory of a race and adventure that had made such an impact on my life. I wanted to go down one more time, put in a ride that would see me safely to the finish line, and enjoy the experience of one of the greatest off road races in the world; a race that has given me so much and so many positive memories. I was also fully aware that Ricky Brabec and Max Eddy were tied in the championship with the WFOx team, meaning that whoever won the 1000 was going to take home the 1X championship, and I felt I could help the team earn it.
The next piece to fall into place, making my decision to race feel even better, was when Steve Hengeveld committed to the team. Steve continues to be one of the fastest, toughest, and surely most experienced racers in Baja, he’s ridiculously fast when the sun goes down, and he and I still had some unfinished business in Baja. With Steve on board, and Ricky and Max racing on probably the best form of their lives, proving they’re two of the fastest racers either side of the border, I wasn’t short on confidence that if the four of us simply had a solid ride, we could put the 1x plate on a green bike for the first time since 1996.
We also had one heck of a team/race effort coordinator in my dad and I felt the race plan we came up with suited everyone’s strengths quite well: I’d take the bike the first 200 miles, then Ricky would get a 120-mile section before I would remount and ride another 185 miles. Max would take over from me around the Bay of LA, as the sun would start to fall for about 220 miles before handing the bike to Ricky just North of San Ignacio for a 260-mile section. Our ringer would be Steve, who would take the bike from Ricky in Loreto, and motorcycle gods willing, cross the finish line 310 miles later.
We had suspicions of how the WFOx team was planning on splitting the peninsula, and we later learned that they were spot on as Colton started and rode the first 650 miles (+/-), giving the bike to Ian Young around Viscaino, who would then hand it over to Mark Samuels in Loreto for the final stretch to the finish. No matter how the race would turn out, there was no denying Colton’s passion and desire for racing and winning in Baja; simply even considering riding for 12-plus hours straight, at race-winning speed mind you, would be unbelievably demanding on both the mind and the body. We never underestimated the reigning 1X team though, they’ve proven time and again to be fighters, and that they’re at their most dangerous when their backs are up against the wall.
As race day drew near I was noticing that my usual Baja-race nerves weren’t creeping in; I was pretty calm and relaxed. I think this was because I had made a conscious decision, and a promise to myself and my wife, to ride completely within myself, not push the pace like I had in the recent past, which is when I’d get in to trouble, and rely on the fact that I had such strong teammates; I didn’t feel I needed to go out and win the race from the start. Instead, my overriding goals were to ride safe and smart, and keep the bike in perfect condition, giving my partners the best possible opportunity to have a good ride, and I wanted to have a little fun while I was at it.
A four thirty a.m. alarm meant it must be race day and as I headed over towards the start I once again took note of how relaxed I felt. Of course there were a few butterflies fluttering around in my stomach, but it is the Baja 1000: it’s kind of a big deal. Since Ricky is the rider of record he has to either start or finish to earn points for the team and the logical choice was to have him roll off the line and bring the bike to me a few hundred yards down the course. Just after six a.m. I heard a purpose-built KX450 accelerating toward me, took a couple grounding deep breaths, mounted the 4X bike and took off for the start of the 2014 Baja 1000.
The early start time, combined with a sky blocked by heavy clouds left the morning conditions quite dark as the course wound through Ensenada. I know the start really well from years past so it would have been easy for me to get swept up in the emotion and grandeur of the event and start to ride above what I felt comfortable with, but I held true to my promise and stayed smooth, riding a good, but safe pace. Colton was definitely on another program as around mile fifteen I saw the flood of a headlight shining from behind me. As I checked up for a slightly blind rise, Colton stayed hard on the gas and made the pass by me, instantly pulling out a bit of a gap. Again it would have been easy for me to pick up my pace and try to race with Colton, but I kept the big picture in perspective and decided to let him go. I had confidence that we just needed to stay somewhat close to Colton through the daytime. I felt our team was really going to excel at night.
I actually ended up losing quite a bit of time to Colton through the entirety of my first section; he straight up dropped the hammer and left me, pulling out nearly eight minutes of a lead by the time I gave the bike to Ricky around mile 200. I have to admit I was pretty shocked I lost that much time; I knew I was riding safe, but I didn’t think I was riding THAT safe. Still, there were 1,070 miles left to run, it was slightly early to worry about the gap.
Ricky had a good ride over his 120 miles, suffering one minor crash in the start of his section, and after our first major maintenance pit I hopped back on the bike and took off for my second stint. This time I instantly felt better on the bike. The sun was now fully up, the course was heading into the open desert, and it’s as if my comfort level raised a few notches. It also didn’t hurt that I really enjoyed the type of terrain the course was heading towards, as I really like the fast, rocky sections around Catviña and the flowing washes heading towards El Crucero. After nearly fours hours on the bike, I reached our second major maintenance pit around race mile 500, where we would hang our headlights and I would hand the bike over to Max. Through my second section I was able to put a little time back in to Colton’s lead (I think he also had am issue with his rear tire), and after our pit the gap was down to around six minutes. We still had to remember that even at this point, ten hours in to the race, there were still almost 800 miles to go.
Now that my job as far as racing the bike was done, the real nerves could begin to set in. I feel it’s often tougher on the emotions to be off the bike, or in the position of the mechanics, as you’re not in direct control of the motorcycle. It also doesn’t help that it’s usually pretty difficult to get updates down the peninsula as cel service is sketchy at best, and radio updates are few and far between. Luckily we had a satellite phone and were in constant contact with friends and family watching the live timing on the internet, so we were actually able to stay somewhat up to date on how the race was unfolding.
Max was having a flyer of a ride as the first reports we heard were that he was catching the 1X bike, getting to within three minutes. Then the next thing we heard was that Max had passed the Honda in the pits around Viscaino, taking the physical lead back and our hearts were swelling with excitement. That’s when the bottom dropped out. We initially heard broken reports over weatherman that 4X had something broken on the bike and just as we were starting to decide how to change our chase plans and get to the bike, Max came over the radio saying that the tire had melted, but he had found another worn out tire at Baja Pits, was changing it, and would be moving in less than ten minutes. We later learned that Max had to use a couple screwdrivers to change the tire and get back going, pretty much summing up the perseverance required to finish the Baja 1000.
By the time Max came in to our pit location just north of San Ignacio our deficit to the 1X bike had grown to around twenty minutes. It definitely wasn’t ideal, but we still had over 500 miles left to race and two incredible riders to get it done for us. Then we suffered yet another emotional punch to the face when we received an update that Ricky had dropped to over forty minutes behind the 1X bike. As it turned out, not long in to Ricky’s section he suffered a light failure, but luckily he had made the decision to stick a radio in his fanny pack and was able to hail Max’s chase crew to meet him in San Ignacio and change the lights with a backup set they had in the van. Putting that radio in his pack saved our race and was just another example of what it can take to overcome the challenges of Baja.
At this point in the race I was starting to feel a little deflated, but there was still something in the back of my mind whispering that there were still a lot of miles to cover and truly anything can happen. That’s when we got a bit of a lifeline: we heard 1X chase crews coming over weatherman that the Honda had a problem. Ian had crashed and broken his wrist near San Isidro road, but showing the heart that he has, he was able to finish out his section and get the bike to Mark Samuels, keeping them in the lead. We were definitely benefitted by the situation as Ricky came in to our pit just over twenty minutes back, but a prolonged final major maintenance pit stop pushed the gap back out to nearly thirty minutes. From this point there were 310 miles to go, our race bike was good to go to the finish and we had the fastest night rider in Baja getting on: a thirty minute gap had never seemed so small to me.
Right away we received reports that Steve had closed to within fifteen minutes of the Honda, though we suspected they might have had to do some maintenance of their own, possibly repair some crash damage or fix some light issues. Then the reports kept coming that Steve was closing in: we heard twelve minutes, then six minutes, then three and a part of me couldn’t help but start thinking of the 2012 Baja 1000 when we were in the exact same situation only to suffer the heartbreak of a motor failure. I did my best to keep my emotions in check, not get too excited about the possibility of winning and not think too much about the potential what ifs, but when we stopped on the course for a visual check of the bike and saw Steve come through with over three minutes on the Honda and 120 miles to go, I started thinking to myself that this was finally our year.
Steve continued to pull away to the finish, crossing the checkered flag after over twenty four hours of racing with a twenty minute gap over the 1X team, finally taking the win that we had been working and waiting for since 2009. It was such a mixture of emotions for me at the finish line; I had been trying for half a decade to win this race, only to come up short and suffer so much disappointment, that I almost couldn’t believe it was real, that we had really just won the Baja 1000! I was so stoked for Max and Ricky, as they’ve just added their names to an incredibly elite list of racers who have won this granddaddy SCORE event, and I couldn’t help sharing a moment with my dad, Steve and our chief mechanic Phil: this is something that we’ve put our whole hearts into for so many years and I still get a combination of chills and tears at the thought that we finally achieved it.
There are so many people to thank for helping to make this happen. I want to thank our major team supporters: Dean and Bonanza Plumbing, Monster Energy, THR Motorsports, Precision Concepts, Hoosier Machining, Kawasaki, my personal sponsors: MSR mx, Shoei helmets, Sidi boots, Spy goggles, Focus apparel, EVS sports, USWE hydration systems, ATP Mechanix sport supplements, Ryan Abbatoye Designs, Northland Motorsports, FMF racing, BRP, Alamo Alarm, IWC Motorsports, and A’ME grips and all of the team sponsors for stepping up for this event. Thanks to Phil, Ty, Bob and John at Precision Concepts for building one heck of a race bike, to Sean, Kendall, and Bob for watching over me in the helicopter, everyone involved with the KC66 Foundation for the improvements, especially having their helicopter switch between lead bikes when our heli’s had to land for fuel, meaning the race leaders were rarely, if ever, without aerial support. Thanks to Baja Pits, and to our own pit crews and chase drivers for putting their lives on hold for two weeks to help us achieve this dream, and to all of our supporters for believing we could do this. Thank you to Joe Feeley for coming down and being so gracious in helping us when we literally dumped a laundry list of to-do’s in his lap, thank you to Scott and Rob for continuing to believe in this effort, supporting Ricky and Max this year, and giving us another chance to make it happen. A huge thank you to my teammates for all of the work they put in, having the fantastic rides that they did, and wanting me to be a part of this with them. Thank you to my parents for everything they’ve done to help me get to this point and lastly, and most importantly to me, thank you to my wife. She’s believed in me in so many different ways, not just that I could ride well, but that I could keep our promise and she supporting my decision to race when it was a difficult thing to do.
I want to congratulate the WFOx team for everything they’ve achieved this year and wish them the best of luck moving forward. Colton had a ride that I doubt will ever be repeated, holding the lead of the Baja 1000 for over 600 miles by himself; he definitely needed a cape and a big S on his chest for that. I also want to congratulate SCORE on a successful event; I can’t imagine how much work it was to make the peninsula run a reality after all of the damage caused by the hurricanes. Lastly I want to touch on the fact that this race meant we’ve been without Kurt for one year now. The motorcycle community, and undoubtedly the lives of his friends and family, isn’t the same without him and not a day goes by that we don’t think about him. I do believe he was watching everyone racing down the peninsula, with that smile that we all miss so much.
Winning this Baja 1000 feels like it truly has closed a chapter in my life. It’s something that I’ve wanted so badly and to come so close to winning it twice previously, only to suffer the most bitter disappointment, makes being involved in this win that much more special. I’ve achieved more than I ever could have dreamed in Baja and I feel this was my last time racing for the overall pro motorcycle win, but I’m sure it wasn’t my last time heading across the border. There’s still just something about racing in Baja, the adventure, the challenge, and the achievement of crossing the finish line that keeps those who have raced it coming back year after year.