The Joy Of Coming In Last At The Baja 1000.
Words Kris Regentin Images Dave Coy
The 10,000-lumen headlight on my Honda race bike dances across the arroyo southwest of San Felipe in Baja California, Mexico. My pace is good, my mind is clear, and I feel relaxed and strong — until I recognize where I am. Exactly one year ago in this exact spot, the motor of my Honda CRF450X blew, and I watched with slumped shoulders as trophy trucks blasted by me under wide-open throttle and I contemplated the fate of a DNF in the Baja 1000. Now, as I pass through the same section with a wide smile, the bike is running stronger than ever, roaring into the endless darkness ahead.
This journey started in the summer of 2019 after I posted a message on an online forum: “A long-time goal of mine is to build a team and race in the Baja 1000. I'm hoping to find a motorcycle team heading to Baja in 2019 that I can join as a member of the support crew. I figure joining a crew would be a great way to get a lay of the land down there, understand the race and logistics and the process, and just learn from those that know. I'd prefer to join a motorcycle team, but any team would really do.”
To my surprise and delight, Mike Frick responded. An experienced Baja racer with six motorcycle class finishes under his belt — including an Ironman finish in the 2011 Baja 1000 — Frick invited me to be part of his support team. Then Frick’s racing team had a last-minute reorganization (which I learned is very common with huge race efforts like the Baja 1000) and he asked me to be one of five riders on his race team. Of course, I accepted. That November I drove 1,100 miles from central Oregon to San Felipe to ride two legs of the 2019 Baja 1000: from race start to race mile 40, and from race mile 455 to race mile 580.
The resulting DNF stung like falling face first into a cactus, but it also made me hungry for more. I returned home with the broken race bike, pulled the motor, and started a top-to-bottom rebuild with a new crank, fresh bearings, KPMI stainless valves, and a head and camshaft from a CRF450R. After installing a suspension from AHM Factory Services, I drove the Honda into the central Oregon desert for reliability testing and flat-out flogging, while also organizing our plans to return to Baja: building a team calendar, studying race mileage maps, booking hotel accommodations, and recruiting a third rider to split race costs and mileage with Mike and I.
While Baja Pits fuels my bike at race mile 535, a crew member wipes my headlight, and yells over the idling thumper: “¡Los trophy trucks estan unas tres millas atras!” I hold up three fingers and yell, “Three miles?” He responds in heavily accented English, “Yeah, and there’s one leader, and then two more a mile behind him!” I give a quick thumbs-up and pin it out of the pits, knowing that I have five miles to ride before there is a safe spot to swap with teammate Cort Smith. Even though the section is a long stretch of sandy whoops and I’ve been on the bike for over 100 miles, I ride with perfect rhythm and focus, doing everything I can to avoid getting passed by the pack of trophy trucks behind me.
When I see our support van, I lock up the rear brake and skid into our pit. Smith is getting geared up for his turn in the saddle. A badass desert racer from Las Vegas, this is his first Baja 1000, and he is as driven as I am to finish this race, and maybe even end up on the podium. I tell him that the trophy trucks are minutes behind me, and that he should wait and get passed in the safety of the pits; he doesn’t heed my advice and instead, he immediately jumps on the bike and speeds off into the remote and infamously difficult Matomi Wash. Moments later, a pair of million-dollar trophy trucks burn through the rows of pitting teams, with motors screaming and transmissions whining. I stand with mouth agape, terrified that Smith is about to be run over; fortunately, he pulls over to the let the trucks pass by before restarting and heading into the tightest sections of the wash.
At race mile 579, 24 hours in, Smith hits a toaster-sized rock at full bore, which rips the chain guide from the swingarm and bends the rear sprocket out an inch, rendering the bike unrideable. Frick volunteers to find Smith and the bike, riding a pre-runner bike with no headlight in the middle of the night, dodging high-speed race traffic as it nips from behind. The rest of the team impatiently waits in our chase rig on the side of the highway from midnight to 5 a.m., listening to the VHF radio for any updates on our guys, the fear of returning home with another DNF looming heavily over our heads.
An hour before dawn Frick and Smith emerge from the wash on two bikes, and as they pull into the pit our team immediately starts to transplant the swing arm from our pre-runner CRF450X to the race bike. Smith says that after he hit the rock, he hunkered down in Matomi and drained race gas from the tank to ignite some dry cactus. He camped out next to the fire with a space blanket, while trophy trucks and Class 1 buggies sped by all night, until Frick found him.
As the sun comes up over the Sea of Cortez, our race bike is once again functioning. We are back in the running, albeit the last bike in our class, trailing behind the slowest motorcycle teams in the race. We had lost eight-or-so hours, but it didn’t matter; we were going to finish this race. I gulp down a cup of coffee and a sandwich, and prepare myself for 100 northbound miles of notoriously brutal washes, g-outs, and whoops.
The rear wheel bearing goes out at race mile 740 — maybe due to the grit and dirt present in the work area during the swingarm swap — but the chase rig quickly delivers a spare near Laguna Salada, where Frick takes the handlebars and rides through the mountains to race mile 820. At this point we are 35 hours into the race, and our breakdowns and repairs have put us in danger of exceeding the 40-hour limit to finish. Despite mental, physical, and psychological exhaustion, at race mile 820 I get back on the Honda and haul ass through the gorgeous farmland south of Ojos Negros.
Baja makes one final effort to send us home with a DNF: the bike runs out of fuel 15 miles from the finish line, and there is absolutely nowhere to buy gas. Fortunately, I stumble upon Weatherman's Ojos Negros radio relay station, and the crew gives me some generator gas. Soon after, I speed into downtown Ensenada and roll across the finish line. It’s a bleak scene, with no fans in sight, and race crews and media outlets packing up their last few pieces of equipment. My chase team isn’t even there, because they’re stuck in traffic, so I give post-race interview by myself, thanking my team and our few humble sponsors, then roll the race bike toward an empty parking lot.
We finished dead last in our class, and overall: the 99th vehicle out of 99 finishers. It doesn’t matter, because we finished, and that’s enough for us. When the team eventually arrives, we high-five, hug, laugh, and share a bottle of cheap champagne. We pass around the “finisher” medal — a cheap piece of cast metal on a nylon strap that our team suffered for — and to me, nothing has ever felt so hard-earned or rewarding.
This is the Baja 1000, and Baja wants nothing more than to destroy you and send you home dejected and broken. But the chaos of racing here is true peace, true presence; it melts reality, and 40 hours becomes one long, painful, perfect moment. You come together as a team and push through hardships to overcome the unforgiving desert, and you are alive and fighting through the chaos because maybe, just maybe, you will cross the finish line.