Once upon a time in Mexico
When Colin Edwards and his merry band of Boot Camp instructors get drunk, they get crazy. How crazy? How about waking up to find you’ve entered one of the toughest endurance races on the planet, despite never having raced off-road?
Words: Shea Fouchek Pictures: Beau Nillson and Brandi teal
“Me and the amigos are headed south to Mexico to race the Baja 1000… No worries. I promise it’s safe, the people are cool, there are no drug cartels, no one gets kidnapped and what they say about the drunken locals setting booby traps on the course isn’t true. Don’t worry about the trophy trucks, they won’t catch us, and when I’m storming through a trail that I’ve hardly ridden… if I get hurt, the ambulance and helicopters are right there waiting on me with a big ole bag of “feel goods.” Mom…Dad, it’s cool—we got this… promise.”
Your loving son,
Baja — an undulating terrafirma that seemed to be straight out of the old cinema flick, “Land of the Lost.” It’s just like I was told – the Baja 1000 is a man’s race, not meant for child’s play or for those who wear skirts. To give you an idea of how truly “hardcore” it really is… the sanctioning body, SCORE-International was quoted as saying that this race was the “toughest in the history of the event.” Almost 900 miles of continuous racing– what the hell were we thinking?
It wasn’t that long ago when I heard the words, “so, how about it boys?” Words that still echo in my ear from months before the race. We were sitting around the campfire at the Texas Tornado Boot Camp. I seem to recall people saying “How many beers have we had? Shall we have some more?”
“We’re doing it” they said. The guys, especially Mike Myers, had been dreaming about racing this event for forever it seems. The thought of being able to compete at such a historical event was enticing, I must admit. So many legendary names in motocross and desert racing have graced this competition. It didn’t take me long to reply, “Oh what the hell, I’m in.”
So it began, Team Texas Tornado Boot Camp on a quest to conquer Baja. Did I mention that not one of us have ever raced off-road before?
Sure, each of us – Colin Edwards, Mike Myers, Joe Prussiano, Steven Bodak, Merle Scherb, and myself have all raced as professionals in one discipline or the other. Even though the majority of us six Boot Camp instructors are road racers, every one of us had our start in the dirt. I told myself, “Yea, we can handle it.”
As we were crossing the border into Mexico, we were committed. Welcome to the danger zone. We’d arrived as prepared as we’d ever be. Prior to the start of the 46th Annual Baja 1000, the team had a week to pre-run our sections and get familiar with the course terrain. Our friends, Race for the Wounded, invited us to stay at their beach house just south of San Felipe. Race for the Wounded is a grass-roots non-profit organization comprised of former United States military veterans. Their mission is aiding wounded U.S. combat vets through extreme off-road competition. It’s to them that we owe a great deal of gratitude and thanks. The R.F.T.W. crew housed us, fed us, and guided us throughout Baja for the next five days.
Daily, until Colin’s arrival, each team member split-up and pre-ran their sections; each section with their own unique set of challenges. Some of the stints had single-track trail through the mountains and others had water crossings, rock gardens, sand whoops, more whoops, and an infinite number of rain ruts. Not to mention that powdery, sand mix we all encountered. I think we can all say we would have much rather have had four wheels when it came to riding through the silt. Hold on and keep it pinned, otherwise it’s feet off the pegs and ass over the kettle. Baja had it all.
It was time for the team to make our way north towards Ensenada to meet up with Colin. Literally, the man arrived the day before the start of the race, just off the final MotoGP round and test in Spain. No pre-run and no time on the bike; he was going into the race blind.
Nevertheless, Colin was excited: we all were. Mike was to start for the team and blaze through downtown Ensenada. An estimated 250,000 race fans filled the streets; it’s a party. In Mexico, the Baja 1000 is their “Super Bowl.” They live for racing.
The race went green on Thursday the 14th of November at 11:00pm for motorcycles, trucks at 9:00am the following morning. Myers left the line at 12:30am on his 70 mile journey through the night. Eventually, he would reach me before our first pit stop and rider exchange. The plan was for me to catch some fuel and take the helm for my 80-mile run through the summit.
“I was very calm at the start line, but I knew it was going to get real,” said Mike. “On the way out of the city I kept it slow and actually stopped at a stop sign (laughs). Squid move number one. It was cold and foggy and I had to deal with slower guys who started the race in front of me. Once on the trail, it was tough going with all of the dust. It seemed like it took me forever to get around people. The smoke from all of the fires also added to the lack of sight. I was in second gear for a long time. I only had about five feet of visibility in front of me, and I was fucking around with the lights constantly trying to get a better visual.”
A couple of members of our chase crew, John Bell, Billy Click, and myself were in the chase truck. We waited patiently off the side of a random Mexican road. Campfires illuminated the area, “The Dump” as they call it. Looking around, there were multiple chase crews waiting on their rider, just as we were. I had time for an hour’s nap and then it was time to gear up and prepare for the bike. It was in the low 30’s Fahrenheit outside, cold enough to shrink your manhood and make you miserable. No matter what, I was ready to ride.
It took Mike a little over two and a half hours to reach us. He had arrived; it was about 2:30am. That’s one leg of the journey down, I thought to myself. Now it’s my time to step up. We took a few minutes, handed off the backpack and tools, a few words of encouragement from Myers and I was on my way.
Now I was alone, just me, the bike and Baja. The trail wound through a valley system, sand whoops, and sweeping sand berms before making the climb. I’d randomly pass camps of people thinking to myself, “how in the hell did you folks get out here?” Eventually, I made it towards the mountain pass and summit. The summit wasn’t a joke; reaching it at about 3:30am and noticing the wind picking up. It felt like 50mph with the gusts. On top of this mountain, it might as well have been a hundred. Good thing I couldn’t see off into the abyss. It’s a long way down.
To say it’s tough to maintain a focus that late at night is an understatement. Up and down and around this rock infested hell-hole of a mountain side. I had to keep my thoughts at bay and push forward. A few miles later, I made it to my first fuel stop at Baja Pits. Only 40 miles to go to the dry lakebed where I’d meet up with Colin and crew. “Keep it going Shea,” I told myself. I had my head down in top gear, say 70mph plus over the dry lakebed; hauling ass and a bit out of my comfort zone, but I made it. I could see the lights in the distance, it wasn’t far now to my second stop at Baja Pits for the team’s third hand-off to Colin. Stay-up-and-finish – words I had told myself throughout my racing career – never more important than here. It’s just you, your machine, the trail, your instincts, and a big set of huevos. This is even more amplified while racing during the blackness of night.
It was 4:54am. I remember pulling up to the crew and telling CE with a big smile, “that sucked dude! Be safe and good luck.” A quick splash and go and he was off. No clue of which way was which, his trust only in the GPS unit centered on the bars. Reflecting back now, I can see his eyes behind the goggles, a bit wide eyed like we all were for our first go. He had 100 miles ahead of him through one of the most physical sections in Baja, in my opinion. 100 miles of endless whoops; sand whoops, rock whoops, and inconsistency for as far as the eye can see.
“I was amped up and ready to go, waitin’ on you, Fooch,” says CE. “Once I got on the bike, the nerves calmed down. I knew I had some miles ahead of me. Once I got into the whoops, it wasn’t as enjoyable as I thought it was going to be (laughs).” He goes on to say, “I think a hundred miles of whoops is too much for anybody. You know… I survived it.”
As the sun started to rise over the Sea of Cortez, about three hours later, CE made his stop and handed the bike to Mike. For Myers, this time around was more comfortable. He was now on his second stint, which he knew well from pre-running; he was ready to put the hammer down. In fact, Mike moved us up in overall position, passing a handful of teams that were leading us.
It was then on to Joe P. to carry the torch for Team TTBC; 230 miles he took it through the southern half of the race course, eventually carving his path due north on the west coast of the peninsula. The man pushed through 50 miles of grueling silt beds and everything else in between that Baja had to offer. The team’s ‘Iron Man’ award most definitely went to the old salty dog.
“This was the hardest thing I have ever done on a motorcycle…period!” says Joe Prussiano III. “It was a great challenge, and I’m proud that we were able to say we finished the race…”
From Joe, the bike was then handed off to Bodak. “For me, it was riding the unknown; a test of mind and body,” says Bodak. “At times, with the monotone sound of the bike and the elements of riding at night, your mind takes you places that you could only ever experience out there. I had to stay super-focused and dig deep to keep the wheels moving forward. It was exhausting and overwhelming at times. Bad ass, you know? It was the experience of a lifetime.”
Steven’s stint ended and Merle’s began. Scherb knew what he was up against, the famous Mike’s Sky Ranch. For anyone who knows Baja, you know Mike’s is an extremely technical and treacherous trail system through the mountains. Lined with rocks, river crossings and sometimes a trail only wide enough to fit a single truck or motorcycle, Merle had it coming… and he had to do it at night, all 80 miles of it.
I had the hand-off from Scherb at Valle de Trinidad. Plan was for me to hit the “Goat Trail.” That’s 80 miles of trail system that led west towards Ojos Negros. Eventually, I’d hand it off to CE who would take the last 40 miles to the finish; all to spare him after his long San Felipe “purgatory” stint of whoops.
The time waiting on Merle near Valle T. was eerie. On the way to the meeting point, my chase driver, John Bell, and I heard the unpleasant chatter over the radio channel 1. The Weatherman, the all Seeing Eye in Baja, was calling for booby traps close to Ojos. My section. “Great” I thought. A rider ahead of our team had already wrapped himself up in a barbed-wire trap. Someone had gone out there thinking it would be funny to string the wire across a cattle guard. Scary, right?
Merle said, “To sum up my stint in one word? ROWDY! Temperature outside was in the low 30’s. I went through a low water crossing, about 20 feet long, only a few miles into the trail. I was soaking wet. We could hear over the radio that the trophy trucks were coming and I knew the trail was tight. I was going to get passed which isn’t a good feeling. On top of that, I had a gnarly 30-mile rock climb, with silt. It was brutal. The clutch started slipping and to add to that, the lighting system was giving me fits due to the water crossings shorting it out. Only high beam worked on the lights, and that was draining the battery. After it was all said and done with, I felt like I had my own 1,000 miles wrapped up into 80.”
I had to do what I do best, and that’s ride. The team needed me. I would go on no matter the circumstances. However, this go around had more weight to it; it was heavy. I decided that I’d play this one even more carefully. If that meant I had to go slower, so be it, our goal was to finish.
I had no idea of what this section of trail was like, no sense of direction. I took a deep breath and said, “Here we go, bike don’t fail me now.” I didn’t want to be ‘that guy’ that didn’t bring the bike back to CE and Myers.
I recall saying a short prayer and crossing myself before throwing a leg over the bike. I was worn-out. I think I only had a few hours of sleep over the course of a couple of days. The bike was tired too. She had at least thirty something hours of non-stop Baja on her at this point.
“Fuck it… man up,” I said out loud. I fired-up the bike and off I went. I had 14 miles on the highway towards Ojos to get to the Goat Trail. It was freezing cold, 3:00am, my hands and fingers were numb, it was foggy and to top it off, like on Merle’s stint in Mike’s Sky Ranch, the high-beam was draining the battery. For 80 miles I had to toggle the lighting switch. On and off and on again, continuously I had to this to keep the battery out of the red. It was a fight to keep the bike running long enough for Colin to bring it home and it was brutal. I remember having a few choice words for the bike periodically throughout the trail.
After 30 or so miles into the trail, I could see lights flickering behind me. Sign number one of the trucks. A few of the lead trophies were on the move and heading in my direction. That was my cue to pull over and get the hell out of the way. I was almost praying to see my last fuel stop at Baja Pits 70 miles into the stint. I knew it was only a few more to go until I saw the crew. It was 5:15am or so, I had finally arrived. As soon as I saw everyone, wow, what a relief. I told CE and the crew about our lighting issues and the battery straight away. My journey on the bike in the Baja 1000 was over, my job was done.
After pitting and refueling, Colin fired-up the bike, or I should say, barely got the bike fired-up. The battery was low and the lights wouldn’t turn on. With no beam and no time to waste, Colin was off. Into the blackness he went with only his Clearwater headlight atop his helmet to guide him to the finish; although, the headlight battery had 16 hours on it now and was starting to fade. Edwards says, “The last stint I had 40 miles to go. When the bike came in, it was having a couple of problems with water in the electronics. I left there with more or less no lights, only the helmet light. It was a bit scary but it was either go or sit there.”
We loaded into the trucks and hauled ass towards town to see the man bring it home. The entire ride back, we couldn’t help but to think of Colin. How was he doing without the headlights? The sun was coming up by the time we got to Ensenada. Thankfully Colin had a bit of day light to work with leading into the city. Finally, we heard the #145x Yamaha round the corner. The entire team was there to watch CE ride through the finish line. Edwards goes on to say, “We did it! Baja, we conquered it. I have no immediate plans on going back there anytime soon (laughs). It was one hell of an experience, the whole thing. Just glad everyone made it safe.”
Team TTBC completed the 2013 SCORE Baja 1000 in 30 hours and 38 minutes. The team finished fourth overall in the Pro Class 21, just 10 minutes behind third place and a podium finish. 270 motorcycle teams entered and less than half finished.
It was around 8:30am by the time everyone made it back to the house. With everyone on a high, it was time to celebrate—drink beer, bullshit, and talk about which stories we’re going to tell around the campfire next.
We owned the night, and the 2013 Baja 1000. Cheers.
Kurt Caselli, the factory KTM rider passed away while leading the 1000. Initially, we heard a booby trap was the cause of his passing, later to find out it was a high-speed collision with an animal. This proves that no one is invincible in Baja. I’m not saying he thought he was or mean this in a negative light. What I’m saying is, it can happen to anyone, even the best. Kurt’s death was a tragedy and major loss to the motorcycle community. He was well-respected, not only for his racing success, but for who he was off the track.
From all of us, condolences go out to the Caselli family for their loss—R.I.P. Kurt.
BAJA FACT BOX
The Baja 1000 began as a timed endurance trial in 1962, with the first race set in November 1967. Currently, there are nine motorcycle classes and two ATV classes, but the biggest part of the race is the trucks. The top-spec Trophy Trucks are unlimited-class desert racers, with 800bhp V-8s, space-frame chassis and 30-inch suspension travel.
Set in the Baja California region of Mexico, the race covers over 1,000 miles of desert, mountain and scrubland. The added spice is the booby traps: some idiot ‘fans’ dig holes, build ramps and even put obstacles out, in order to make more of a spectacle as the racers try to negotiate them.
More info: www.score-international.com