Part two of – “When Bultaco Should Have Won Baja”
if you missed part 1 of the story read here
As we have started to outline the scenario for the 1969 NORRA Mexican 1000, I can’t help but marvel about the idea of Baja and Bultaco. Nowhere today do we consider the two even remotely connected. Baja history has been almost an exclusive Husqvarna and Honda show.
Kawasaki is the only other substantial winner, taking ten overall Baja 1000, nine consecutive from 1988-1996. Had it not been for the death of Danny Hamel, the Team Green tally would be even larger. In forty years of racing, Yamaha has been the only other brand to find the top step of the podium, with wins in 1970 and 1980.
But think about how different the world may have been with a Bultaco win. Who knows how the course of history may have changed. Today vintage Bultaco restoration is a flourishing business. Aging riders want to capture the highlights of days gone by. Pomeroy replicas, disc braked Astros, early Pursangs and even Alpina trail bikes are popular objets d’art.
Boat tail El Bandidos are perhaps the most valuable of all, yet I don’t imagine anywhere would a customer have asked his Bultaco builder for a “Baja Replica”. But in the 1969 Mexican 1000, it must have been considered a big deal, nearly all the motorcycle magazine photos I have found are just of Bultacos entries. With five Bultaco teams entered, four finished. They took 2nd in the Open class and 2nd – 4th positions in the 250 class.
The Team of Bergquist & Preston
Being a desert racer is a unique occupation. There has never been much money in it, nor much glory. It takes a special kind of person to fall in love with the desert and the challenges it presents. There is a kind of mental toughness required that few other disciplines can match. There is also a very difficult and unforgiving learning curve.
Desert racing isn’t about learning to go fast, it is about learning not to crash. Anyone can go fast; to do it consistently and safely is another thing. It takes years to learn. Consider HRC Dakar racer Ricky Brabec. One of the young guns of rally racing, he is hardly a newcomer to the desert. A decade ago he was one of the top District 37 competitors. That is how long it can take to go from top contender to race winner, years.
In the late 60’s Larry Bergquist and Gary Preston were a formidable team. After winning the 1968 Mexican 1000 they were named NORRA team of the year. In both ’67 and ’69 they were posed for Baja wins but struggled with mechanical issues. They also won the ’69 Stardust 711, considered one of the toughest desert races ever.
It is difficult to compare racers from different eras. But Larry Bergquist was perhaps one of the most accomplished desert racers ever. Over a 35 year span Larry won almost everything in the desert. He was given the nickname “The Desert Fox”. AMA National Hare Scrambles, District 37, California and Nevada State Championships, Larry won them all.
In a span of 106 races, Larry had 95 consecutive top ten finishes. In 1968 he was named the AMA Sportsman of the year. In one race, Larry stopped to help an injured friend who had gone into convulsions. He grabbed a piece of sagebrush to keep the rider from swallowing his tongue. Once help arrived, Larry calmly rejoined the race. That day he won his class and finished 5th overall. List of racing accomplishments just goes on and on.
Eric Bergquist shared an anecdote of a father /son conversation that took place many years after Larry quit racing. When asked why certain friend and competitor never beat dad in a race, Larry spent some time in contemplation and his reply was to this effect – At one race, in the riders meeting they talked about the big dangerous 20’ ravine at the end of the bomb run. I got a poor start and he was ahead of me, when we got to the end of the bomb, I just never let off. He slowed to ride through the ravine and I just went right over the top. That was the difference.
For me as a racer, I have heard the same kind of story many times. The difference between first and anything else is that ability to never let off. And the number of racers who have had the skill and talent to do that is very very small. David Pearson comes to mind, I have heard others say that of him many times. I was always the guy who was going to roll through the ravine.
But this is exemplifies how much of this story hits home for me. Here it is fifty years later and yet I have ridden the same trails, raced the same events like the Check Chase and Moose Run. As for Baja I have ridden much of what was the original course. Things have changed greatly through the years, but there is always a thread of continuity that links myself and many others to those early days of desert racing.
The 1969 Mexican 1000
Here is an interesting side note to the ’69 event. Entered were Steve McQueen, James Garner and Michael Nesmith. “He is an entertainer, appearing with the Monkees and he really digs bikes and racing”, quoted writer Evan Jones in the February 1970 issue of Motorcyclist magazine.
I have been looking at all the magazine stories from the event to try to find more insight. Much of the moto journalism of the day was not all that high of quality or informative. But I was so taken with Mr. Jones account; I am going to reprint excerpts of it here. I have omitted extraneous parts to focus on our story. But everything else is just as it was printed in 1970.
It was the night before the Big Race – the Baja 1000 – and it was Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico. Tech inspection was over and done with, last year’s winners, Bergquist and Preston, had dutifully attended the drivers meeting in the usual stuffy, over-crowded hall and been fed the usual mixture of fact and fancy, information and misinformation typical of drivers meetings the world over. Item: “Laguna Chapala is wet and muddy and impassable.” Actually it was dry, dusty, hard & fast.
Now there came the let-down, the sort of calm-before-the-storm thing that always seems to occur just prior to a big event. You know – like late Christmas Eve when we were kids.
In this stillness Larry Bergquist and Gary Preston are gazing moodily at the colorful tee-shirt Charlie Stock had just tossed on the table. It was a new design, created just for this event, so new the ink was still a bit tacky.
“The Toughest Run Under The Sun”, Preston read musingly. His partner’s arctic-ice eyes sparkled, “And it ain’t so easy in the dark, either!”
The Baja 1000 is the daddy of ‘em all – the oldest, toughest, heart-brakingest, the longest and most expensive to put on and complete in of the lot. And the best. Right from the first it was a race, a hairy, Honest-to-Gawd race that pitted everything on wheels that could be reasonably expected to withstand the rigors of the trip against each other and Baja. From the standpoint of any given individual, Baja itself is always the strongest competition and the attrition rate is about the same as that suffered by the Afrika Korps.
The 1oo miles or so of good going at each end serves mostly to entice the high-power boys into trouble, but the hank of rutted dirt and rocky rock in between the ends of the black top are something else again.
This “road” has never been maintained in the century or so of its existence. When a stretch gets completely worn out and impassable, which means it is really lousy by oxcart standards, there are no repairs. Instead somebody climbs out of the grooves, knocks off a few cacti to one side, rolls the bigger pan-gouging rock out of the way and; Mira! The road is good as ever.
The Mexican pretty much takes the event as an opportunity to park beside the road, open a can of Modelo or Tecate beer, and watch some very expensive equipment being tested to destruction right thru his back yard.
Although the first 100 miles or so of the race is run on back-top pavement some of the contestants started getting their lumps early.
Take Larry Bergquist: Larry and Gary Preston were the official Bultaco-sponsored team. Bergquist was riding the first half, to El Arco, where he would hand his Bandit over to his partner. He is a highly-seasoned charger who was leading in the first Baja 1000 when his bike broke, and the pair had won the second. With a low (start) number, 15…..Bergquist was the favorite to take the whole bag of beans.
But he had the kind of racing luck that would tempt a Viking to leave the sea! Running fast on the pavement he dropped the plot (?) and lost a good hour getting back into contention.
I was shooting at the Slot just above El Rosario where the road leaves the mesa via a dugway when Larry came thru long after I’d given him up. He was running way back with the 50’s, which means he was well over an hour off his projected time. One of his (three) headlights was smashed to smithereens and another knocked galley-west. For just an ordinary, run-of-the-mill racer he was doing pretty good, but for Bergquist it was obvious he was hurtin’. I can’t’ put my finger on what it was exactly, but he sure wasn’t up to snuff.
About a hundred entries had passed thru El Rosario when we took off and headed for Rancho Sta. Ynez (Catavina). From the air the machines were strung out along a dusty road as far as the eye could see, looking something like dusty beads strung on a dirty string.
At 200mph we had plenty of time to repass all the racers and I was particularly anxious to see how Bergquist was doing – or if he was doing. When we caught him just south of La Virgen he was really pouring on the coal, sliding the turns in that twisty, two-rut imitation of a road like a hungry short-tracker.
Under ordinary circumstance there really isn’t too much to Rancho Sta. Ynez, just a comfortable ranch house with an airstrip, about a kilometer off the main road. I was dumbfounded to see planes of every description, from elderly J-3’s to Mix-masters, parked wing-tip to wing-tip……The ranch house was an ant’s nest of activity. At least a dozen support crews had set up shop there. It was the NORRA checkpoint and fuel dump.
With the arrival of a flock of motorcycles, dune buggies and Jim Garner, things really got hectic at Sta. Ynez, and I walked down the road a piece to get a few shots without the dust-cloud obscuring the action.
This is an important race, with a large number of people and some very important amounts of money involved. Under the circumstances it was to be expected that there would be some examples of fine sportsmanship, and enough scheming and chicanery to make a Lebanese politico feel right at home.
With the exception of Bultaco’s fuel drops, there was very little support for the bikes, whereas for the cars there were often parts vans, factory-trained mechanics from the Old Country, helicopters. The four-wheel part of the pit scene looked like the Monte Carlo Rally transported to Baja.
As I’ve mentioned, only Bultaco troubled to establish fuel drops, and these were at approximately 90-mile intervals all the way from Ensenada to La Paz. The fuel pits at Sta. Ynez were manned by a couple of old stagers who performed their duties with dispatch, dumping Bardahal/gas mixture, checking their bikes over and watering their riders and generally doing their bit to get their riders on the road just as fast as possible. And closing up shop the moment the last ‘taco came thru.
One of the Husqvarna team was quite put out when he couldn’t get anything from the Bultaco pit and he had to fuel out of the NORRA pump like everyone else, adding oil out of the bottle in his pocket. I thought this rather odd at the time, but about half the things that happen in racing are odd and so didn’t really give the situation any serious consideration.
But the Huskies didn’t have any trouble south of Sta. Ynez – they just roared up to the Bultaco layouts, jerked the lids off their tanks and the ‘taco crewmen did their thing with the petrol like good little boy scouts. In only one instance did one of the Bultaco hands cavail, saying, “but you’re riding a Husqvarna, not a Bultaco.” The rider, with rare presence of mind, roared back, “I started on a ‘taco, but it broke and I’m finishing on this for the Bultaco team. Fill ‘er up right now!” (I have to laugh because I have done this in Baja too- Chilly) and, so help me, the pit man did just that!
As a Bultaco executive told me thru his teeth a few days later, “It just proves that all Husky needs for their 720cc machine and their 8-speed 250 to beat our production 360 and 250 bikes is Bultaco help!”
I could not help but be impressed with the visual images conjured up while reading the Motorcyclist magazine coverage of the event. The story is somewhat incomplete due to the fact it is impossible to cover the entire race. By today’s standards, having one journalist at both El Rosario and Catavina would be impossible.
I left out some entertaining bits about both McQueen and Nesmith who stopped at Sta Ynez. While an exhausted Nesmith slept, motorcycle racer Al Rogers arrived in a broken buggy he was campaigning. Al saw the Nesmith/ Skip Van Leeuwen bike leaned against the wall. Unsure of the situation, Al just hopped on the bike and took it El Arco to hand off to Van Leeuwen. He kindly left a note with someone to give to Nesmith when he could be found.
McQueen’s Baja Boot broke down near Sta. Inez. The entertainer spent much of the following day entertaining everyone in the pits by racing around on a borrowed Hodaka.
As for our heroes, the Bultaco team was plagued with fuel problems. Their custom made oversize fiberglass fuel tank arrived in Ensenada just before the start of the race. When they started, they were unaware that there was still a significant about of manufacturing debris in the tank. A number of stops had to be made to clear debris from the fuel system.
Nevertheless, they soldiered on to finish second to Gunnar Nillsson and JN Roberts, losing by just 45 minutes. As for the ill handing Bandido, here is a journalist quote from the time, “Nobody could win on this thing, unless your Larry Bergquist, But that doesn’t count, because he could win on a tri-cycle!”
Ultimately it was probably Bultaco’s sportsmanship, helping pit the Husky riders that cost them the win. “The double win for Husqvarna was greatly aided by what must be one of the finest examples of sportsmanship when they were refueled at Bultaco’s mid-check fuel stops. This was very sporting as they were in direct competition with each other. Nillsson publicly acknowledged the help he received from Bultaco at the awards presentation by stating that he probably wouldn’t have won without it. – Popular Cycling March 1970.
And that brings our story to a close. What would the world be like today if Bultaco had become one of the icons of Baja? Would they have survived a few more years? Probably not, but it is an interesting bit of our history to think about.
1969 NORRA Mexican 1000 Results
Here are a few of the credits for this article –
Motorcyclist Magazine – Februrary 1970
Popular Cycling – March 1970
Eric Bergquist Ravenwestguitar.com
Neil Fergus, Doug Fergus