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Baja 250 San Felipe 2012

This was a crazy idea that just got crazier...

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My initial intention was to build from scratch a replica of the bike that Al Baker rode to victory in the Baja in 1981, the XR500 C&J Mugen "Baja Commander". To be really serious about it, the project had to be completed by taking it to the starting line of a desert race in the Baja.

As it happened, one does not just casually turn up in San Felipe, ask to stand on the starting line of a Baja race, wave hello and ... ride to the nearest beach for a Margarita. If you want to be in the race well, you have to be in the race...

There I found myself, having shaken Sal Fish's hand and acknowledged his "have a safe race, boy", kicking the bike to life, approaching the red arch that opened into the vast expanses of the Baja, thinking "I am actually gonna race the Baja, this is crazy"!!

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This was Saturday March 9, 2012 at 6:29 am. My heart was beating at least as fast as the 520cc Honda motor was revving under me. This was a unique moment, what a buzz!!!

How exciting, it was actually happening and I was certainly not prepared for what was to come. My last race had been an enduro, 30 years earlier which I had barely managed to finish. Desert racer I am not, but hey it was by then too late to bail out. I wanted to test the bike I had built, having run it for no more than ... 9 miles before showing up in San Felipe.

In fact, it was pretty much a miracle that on that Saturday, the bike started when I kicked the engine. The previous Monday, my latest test ride day in California, the bike would simply not run. It would stall every time I tilted it to the right. There was obviously something wrong with the 30 year old Lectron carburetor...

But that was only one of the problems. When we arrived in San Felipe on Wednesday morning, the list of things to do to get ready was dishearteningly long. We started with taking the motor out to reseal an oil leak on the rocker cover.
Only a few days before had I fitted the 91mm high compression piston, the brand new cylinder head from EdCo with +1mm stainless valves, RD springs and titanium bits, the Megacycle camshaft. And I had not even managed to ride the bike at all with its new engine configuration. The Baja 250 was to be the maiden ride with me a "Baja virgin" at the controls.

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The night before the tech inspection, it finally moved!
Then there was all the other bits that were new and unknown. What to carry in my backpack, what was an IRC tracker, what would happen in case of breakdown, of injury, finding a Wifi spot to download the GPS files and the maps tiles to the army of Android phones we had brought, making contact with the Mag7 the pits folks, learning how to use the radio handsets? If it had not been for Johann, a work colleague who decided to join me on the adventure, I dont think I would have made it.

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On top of the work and the anxiety over the bike not being ready, I also had to deal with the fear of the unknown. What the hell was I putting myself into? Should I write a will? What about my wife and two kids? How crazy was this. I certainly was in no physical condition to run a race like the Baja. I am just a garage chap who likes to tinker with old bolts and nuts and then, there I was on the starting line of the most "brutal" version of the most famous series of desert races.

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There was no escaping it, I had to take the bike through technical inspection and get my pass for the race. Saturated with anxiety, under the burning sun, but in the middle of the pre-race party, weaving my way through a sea of intimidating trophy trucks, scantily clad young women languishing on top of cars, dazed tourists and excited kids, I was one of the last ones to make it to the inspection. A very laid back, but rigid technical inspector went over the bike, ignoring all the hard work we had put into wiring the suspension bolts and noting that the rear light did not work (whaaaat??), tied a pink ribbon to the forks and a lead stamp to the frame.

Was it my imagination or did he send me on my way with a tear in his eye? Was that tear an omen of my upcoming demise or a sudden memory of him doing the same thing 3 decades earlier to an exact same bike??

I did not sleep much that night, so much going on in my head. As a relîef, the alarm clock rang. I was beyond fear, in fact I thought that I had taken the project far enough, I could now go home... But I did not. Slowly waking up while pretending to perform essential tasks such as checking for a wifi connection that I know did not exist, somehow I found myself riding the bike through the few miles of night into San Felipe.

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As light came from the east, I mingled with the other soldiers of the upcoming battle against the desert, looking for the polite spot for my number 260X. Finally, some humans to talk to about the race. It finally struck me, in my obsession with getting the bike ready, I had just forgotten to learn about the other fundamental part of this adventure... the race itself. Beside some beautiful videos captured on YouTube, I really had no idea what was ahead ... today... right now... The conversations did not help...
"Hey, how old is this thing? Do you really intend to race it?"
"How many riders will you share the race with. We are doing three changes"
"This year is bad, there are lots and lots of whoops, huge ones, scary ones"
"How did your pre-run go"
"But hey, good luck..."

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Then some scruffy looking dude came out of the crowd, he looked important, he was talking to people like he owned the place. He zoomed in on me and asked to see my helmet. I realized he was doing a safety inspection.

I proudly handed to him the expensive Skyracing F2 helmet in bright orange color with my name and blood type painted on the left (as per requirements), that I had bought the week before, pointing to the Snell decal on the back.

With no hint of a smile or emotion he dug inside the helmet looking for a sewn safety label that .... was not there. "You can't ride today with that helmet my friend, did you get it at Walmart?"

What, was that it? The end of the road? Wait, did I feel a deep sigh of relief come out of my lungs, or was that a snort of anger from being deprived from my prize or may be a hiccup of humiliation for having been conned by a low ethics merchant? A battle of words ensued, no I was not having it. Together we dug into the helmet, found various labels and stickers but not the one he was looking for. Eventually, may be because I was taller than him... he surrendered and applied one of his "Passe safety" stickers on top of my helmet, and sent me on my way with a dire warning "I got your number, dont come crying if you get hurt".

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To be continued

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