ROBBY BELL – “HOW WE WON THE BAJA 1000”
The Baja 1000 is one of the most gruelling and physically demanding – not to mention dangerous – off road races on the planet. This year’s race took competitors on an insane 1250-mile point-point race down Mexico from Ensenada to La Paz.
This is race winner Robby Bell’s incredible tale of just how Kawasaki won the Baja 1000 for the first time since 1996…
MAKING THE DECISION TO RACE
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 1x team was planning on splitting the peninsula. Colton would start and ride the first 650 miles before 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.
A 4.30am 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 6am 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.
RACE MILE 320
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 an 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.
800 MILES TO GO
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.
INTO THE DARKNESS
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 chequered 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!
RACE MILE 1250: THE FINISH LINE
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.
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.