The Baja 400
I have to say, it has been a year of huge highs and and tear spilling lows for the 3x Motorcycle of Mojave Racing, served up in the cruel fashion that racing seems to favor. Endurance off-road racing like the SCORE Baja races, show no mercy and ultimately fate wades in and it goes better for a random few, more than most. Personally, I have had an especially toxic relationship with racing in Baja. It dates back to my first foray as a rookie in the summer of 2015. The mechanical failures I’ve experienced over the years have followed like a black cloud since that first event. Back in the 2015 Baja 500 it was a teammate's mistake and the subsequently missing air filter that ended our race day with a cooked motor. Mind you, I was as green as could be and just happy to get some experience under my belt.
It took nearly two years before I was able to get back down to another Baja, this time the 2017 Baja 1000. I was there with my great friend, the legend, the late Carlin Dunne (RIP). This time we came into it more experienced, we had a great crew and a brand new motorcycle built by JCR Speedshop, a winning machine it was. Unfortunately, despite the reputable build and team experience, we lost the stator (freak failure) at around the halfway point and only salvaged a finish. Another tough go, but that is Baja and her reputation, in my mind, was building.
Yet another two years passed before I could again race in Baja. Let’s face it, this is an expensive undertaking and in reality, I had been super busy with other more tropical pursuits… However, this time would be different! Or so I thought. For one thing, I was partnered with one of Baja racing, all time, greats. Then five times Baja Champion, Colton Udall. A man who had won nearly every Baja Race he had entered. Not to mention built just about every winning motorcycle for the past decade. We signed up for the inaugural Baja 400 that year, to get some seat time and build as a new team, and after some transponder issues ended the day in a disappointing 3rd place. Me I was more than satisfied, but the team, well let’s just say they were used to the top step and anyway you look at it, we were not there. When the Baja 1000 rolled around we were a lot more tight and had our sights set on a win. With Honda’s all new 2nd Generation CRF450X under us we mounted up for a race. At about the halfway point our engine failed while running second overall. Damn the luck! ( We made a movie about it if you are interested in the details… The Desert Said Dance
Anyways, all that was all history and after spending most of 2021 away from racing with a torn ACL, I got a call from my friend Ciaran Naran in early 2022. He was fresh off a couple of wins and a class championship in the Pro Moto Limited division on a team that I had connected him with when I was down in Baja. At the time he’d been inexperienced in racing in Baja, had limited resources, just about winged it in every way he could and somehow, he’d pulled it off. First timers’ luck? I’m not sure, but I do know his positivity and determination would have had a whole lot to do with it, and let’s not forget he’s got a whole lotta skill that would have helped immensely to carry him through.
But, back to this year…. After that call from Ciaran we ultimately decided to team up and tackle this year's Four Round Baja Championship series. For all you folks that have been following along, you probably remember our experience at the first round, The Baja 250, where, after a stalled motorcycle shipment, we were left without any pre-running motorcycles (a crucial component, not only to Baja racing, but with any racing) Instead we were relegated to a few borrowed bikes which unfortunately ended up broken. On race day, while leading in the first half of the race, our race bike landed Ciaran on his head. With nothing left in our arsenal, we scratched that one off as bad luck with perhaps too large a dollop of overzealousness.
We rebounded for the second round of the year, the Baja 500, we went into it with our heads down and our eyes on the prize, our only goal being to execute a carefully crafted race plan, make zero mistakes, and get the bike to the finish line as quickly as possible. And as lady luck would have it, we did just that. Fate helped us to minimize the few errors thrown our way and we ultimately finish 2nd place overall. We were satisfied but not stoked with that result and knew that was what we had earned, but the feeling all round was the next round had to be OURS to win! Maybe that dark cloud had gone its separate ways!
We worked, we trained, and we built our race machine with every spare second we had. We rode together as a team, we trained together, we pre-ran the course like no other team out there. The motorcycle got a completely rebuilt engine, and just about everything else, we wanted to ensure that a mechanical failure would not be the cause of us losing. Race day for the Baja 400 came around and our strategy remained the same as the race prior. Execute a carefully crafted race plan, hit all our marks from our days spent pre-running, ride our arses off and get that motorcycle to the finish line as quickly as possible.
It was an exceptionally foggy morning in the hills above the start line in Ensenada, Mexico that day. 5am was our call time and I sat there, outwardly calm but with perhaps a little more nerves than usual. The desire to win for the team was stronger than ever and we all felt like we deserved it. We’d left no stone unturned in our preparation and we knew it. As the 4th motorcycle off the line, I rocketed down the Highway out of Ensenada at 113mph for about 5miles before hitting the dirt race course. Over the ensuing 70 miles I carefully picked my way through the dense fog and dust and made two passes getting the motorcycle into second overall. Suddenly I was smacked in the face, our Stella tracking device strap had broken sending the unit bouncing around wildly. I slowed slightly while trying to mount it back in the bracket, but of course the terrain was so rough that I couldn’t make it stay with one hand. After about a mile of fooling around with it I had to slide to a complete stop and rip the entire tracking device out from its wires and shove it into my vest. This became a job we would have to remedy at the next pit. Cursing, I regained my pace and screeched into our first pit where Ciaran would hop on the motorcycle. We got the tracking device remounted and off he went! In about an hour's time he had ridden the motorcycle into first place overall and quickly gapped the field with a 17 min lead. He rode flawlessly and pulled into checkpoint 1, the site of our full-service pit, where Nick Lapaglia would mount the motorcycle. Abruptly and unexpectedly, the motorcycle died and wouldn’t restart. We all had a mad scramble about to find a solution, determining that the piston rings had failed and a top end motor rebuild was in order if we wanted to finish the race.
The black cloud seemed to have blown back in or maybe it hadn't ever quite left yet!
Taz, our mechanic, set to work and what I still find incredible, got the motorcycle running again. A miraculous task considering the environment and circumstances. Nick mounted the motorcycle and started picking off a few riders from other classes and handed me the motorcycle at race mile 320, from where I took it to the finish. Another Baja race lost, but a hell of a lot of lessons learned.
Oh, and if you are wondering, I’ve decided to make friends with that dark cloud! You know the old saying… keep your friends close but keep your enemies closer!
- Forrest Minchinton / Team Deus Ex Machina
Photography by Brett Dickinson