San Felipe is a small town on the north east coast of the Baja California peninsula. A charm drenched Mexican fishing village that calmly awaits its most anticipated happening of the year, The SCORE San Felipe 250. A race that is round 1 of the World Desert Racing Championship, and highlighted and bookended by the infamous Baja 1000.
The week leading up to this race is a steady stream of trucks toting buggies, motorcycles, and trophy trucks to the village. The local kids line up to see their racing heroes, patiently waiting for autographs and stickers. The local parents pull up chairs on the Malecon with an ice chest full of cold cervezas to watch the absurdity of machines that have become modern offroad racing.
My two best buds Ciaran Naran and Nick Lapaglia and I are generally happy enough to be simply lounging beachside drinking Mai Tai’s or having a romp on some vintage two wheeled machines out at my ranch. Every now and then though, we get the hair brained idea to test ourselves at some these events, ones that can only be described as the most brutal desert racing events this side of North America.
So, we made a few calls. That led us to picking up a brand new Husqvarna FE501, and all the best goodies and parts from our favorite brands and kind supporters that we could lay our hands on. With all this kit we built a race machine and registered for this year's San Felipe 250.
Like everyone else, we loaded our vans with everything we could think of to tackle a race like, squeezing last little bits in over the top leaving just enough room to get the doors shut.
Well, nearly everything…. As it turned out, the 3 pre-runner motorcycles that we had ordered from Husqvarna didn't arrive in time. “Pre-Running” the race course is crucial when racing in Baja. It gives the racer an opportunity to familiarize themselves with their section of the race course, strategize specific pit service locations, access points for chase vehicles, etc, etc etc. With no time to spare, I loaded up my trusty 2019 Honda Baja 1000 race machine, Ciaran borrowed a bike from a generous friend and Nick dusted off the cobwebs on his Dad’s 2007 KTM 525, lovingly nicknamed the “Peterbilt”, a real tank among the modern machines. As we have grown accustomed to doing, we all had a chuckle and made the best of the situation. After all, we are riding motorcycles in Mexico, what's not to like?
The part about what is not to like? Well… that part is only understood when you’re out there clicking off miles on the San Felipe race course. Don’t let the shorter distance fool you, the San Felipe 250 is one of the most dangerous and grueling races of the year. Nonstop whoops, bumps, rocks, cactus. All of these obstacles are just one small mistake away from creating a real bad day. Before long the boys' borrowed machines started showing the lack of prep and age. A faulty transmission in Ciaran’s motorcycle manifested itself followed by a dodgy wheel bearing in the Peterbilt and that was only day 2… Mind you, with only three quarters of a bike between the two of them, Ciaran and Nick still made it happen. Just goes to show that the spirit of adventure pushed them forward. Or perhaps they were thinking a few sketchy days in the Mexican desert makes for great bench racing stories back home at the local pub.
I started the race and quickly handed the motorcycle over to Ciaran at race mile 1. We were in the lead, which Ciaran maintained till roughly race mile 30. While clipping along at 65+ MPH, a curious rock peeked out from underneath the sand and sent Ciaran flying through the air in spectacular fashion. He hit the ground hard and lost consciousness as well as the lead. With his left shoulder dislocated and his head fuzzy from the impact, it took him some time to gather his wits. It is in these moments that grit and determination are crucial. While our chances of winning were most likely over, the desert racers spirit always strives for a finish, as that alone, is half of the battle. Ciaran managed to pop his shoulder back into place, gather himself and ride the next 16 miles to the first pit. A huge feat that must be experienced to be understood.
The motorcycle had taken a big crash. Bits and bobs were hanging off or broken. The front brake spewed brake fluid, both front and rear fenders, snapped. The subframe was cracked and the taillight and headlight were left hanging by their wires. The front rim, which had taken the brunt of the initial impact, was more oval than round. And to all of our dismay, the race tracking device was missing in action as well, likely obliterated into a dozen pieces across the desert floor.
The pit crew (Ciaran’s dad, sister and a local Mexican bystander) and I arrived at pit 1 and got to work, beating the bike back into rideable shape. We lost considerable time, but made the machine worthy of the remaining 230ish miles to the finish and Nick and I did just that. Clicking off each mile till the finish. Not as planned and not ideal, but at the end of the race we were 6th place pro motorcycle in the unlimited class.
Sure we were way off the lead bikes, but weren’t the last either. There were those who had more of a challenging day than us. The desert is unforgiving and got the best of us today. Surprisingly I've never felt more motivated to return for the next one and gather up some more stories to tell.
Photos by the always impressive Ed West & Mounce.
Words by Forrest Minchinton