by Skyler Howes
Baja has many definitions: beautiful, majestic, terrifying, all of which I have experienced firsthand. My father and grandfather have a lot of stories and history down there racing in the 60s and 70s. My Grandpa, Bill (William) Howes, built the famous race car named "Baja Boot" mostly famous because it was driven by Steve McQueen. My Grandpa and Dad raced that car a bunch, and if I remember right, actually won the Baja 500 one year when Malcolm Smith hit a cow. Anyway, even with all of that family history of racing in Baja, I had never been down there, that is until 2013 when I got a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Just a few weeks before the 2013 SCORE Baja 1000 Factory KTM Off-Road mechanic Anthony DiBasilio (famously known as Kurt Caselli's mechanic) was in need of a copilot for his trip down to Mexico. Luckily for me, I was riding for Blais Racing KTM and got recommended. Anthony gave me a call and I was in. Kurt had been putting a lot of work into getting KTM a Baja championship and to be a part of such an amazing effort was unreal.
I spent about a week down there with Anthony and gained a tremendous amount of respect for what he does, something I feel honored to have been able to experience. I would argue that Anthony is one of the best mechanics in the world, and he let me help him work on bikes, change tires, basically be an extra wrench for him, which is a huge deal to be trusted to work on that equipment. I basically got to see how a factory Baja effort was run; from pre-running to prep and all the logistics, almost everything besides their budget.
Kurt taught me a few things about where to look on the map for possible routes and a little art to pre-running and I got to run around with Anthony between San Felipe and Ensenada, working with Kendall Norman and Kurt on bike and light set up. I felt like I had it all figured out until race day. We were the pit at RM 200 where Kurt got off the bike and RM 779 where Kurt got back on the bike; he was to do the first and last leg of the race. I really got an idea of how crazy the locals and spectators were down there, waiting for riders to come in to our pit. But the real life lesson was when Kurt got back on the bike to finish the race. We were only 13 miles away from him when he had his tragic accident. We were out there for a long time, in the heart of the action and it never really fully set in until we got back into town and around Sarah, Jason, Timmy—all his loved ones—then I started to realize that it actually happened. My point is, there are two major things that you have zero control over in Baja: animals, and other people.
Earlier that year (my rookie year racing as a Pro) I was battling with Kurt, leading National Hare and Hound races on a 2 stroke and was feeling invincible. Long story short, I had a major reality check when I broke my back. I got extremely lucky that all I needed to do was wear a turtle shell for a couple months and I was good to go. Even after that, I still had this idea that I was supposed to prove to everyone that I deserved a factory ride and I was some prodigy. Well, I was lucky enough to have Kurt Caselli as a friend and mentor to really sit me down and wake me up. I got two extremely huge wake-up calls about racing and riding dirt bikes in 2013: my friend helping me understand the mental side of racing, and that same friend passing away from something you really don't have any control over. It really made a huge impact on me and gave me an understanding of how seriously dangerous it is to race dirt bikes. Most of all it put a big reality check on the amount of experience that’s required to be mindful of the dangers of Baja; and let me tell you, I figured I needed another 10 years to feel comfortable enough to race in Mexico.
Fast-forward to 2015. The last two years I made a few more trips on my own to Mexico to pay tribute to Kurt's memorial and gain more insight as to what the peninsula has to offer. In late July I got a Facebook message from my buddy Tyson Hannig. He asked if I would be interested in racing the 1000. I put a ton of thought into it and eventually accepted the offer. Tyson was ultimately in charge of putting a team together, which included him, me, Shawn Strong (former Utah desert racing champion and NHHA Pro), Dusty Humphries (AMA Motocross Pro), Joe Jepsen (owner of Diamond J, our sponsor) and Michael Goldman. Joe had some previous experience in Baja, racing the 500 with his best friend Albert Goldman. Just a bit before the thousand, Alby planned to race on the team with us and unfortunately passed away. That put a ton of drive behind us all to make sure we had a successful showing at the 1000, in memory of Alby.
Joe had an understanding of what it takes to get through a race in Baja and the funds to back it. That left the rest up to me, making sure the bike and all of the logistics were set. Joe had the bike, which was a 2013 KTM 450XC delivered to my house. They had raced the 500 on this bike and it ultimately sat in the garage from then till now. It was still pretty fresh actually, just needed a few extra goodies on and some prep. I took full advantage of this, I had Blais Racing Services do a full motor build on the bike to ensure power and reliability; Chris also went through the rest of the bike and added things here and there to make sure it could hold up to the abuse. That included some Bullet Proof Designs radiator guards, new fuel system, chain and sprockets; you know, all the stuff that could end a race. I also added all of the bling that basically matched my Hare and Hound set up, such as: Flexx Handlebars, Fastway steering stabilizer, hand guards, EXT foot pegs, the good stuff.
After all that, I figured the best way to test the bike was to race it. So I took it to a local USRA desert race for a full beat down. Luckily for me the bike worked and handled awesome thanks to Dicks Racing suspension and I was able to take the overall win! After that, some high speed tests to figure out proper gearing and the bike was mechanically set to go. Unfortunately for me, this was only about two days before we left for Baja to start pre-running and I still needed to test the light setup, change and prep all the wheel sets, do all the final prep to the bike, and make it look pretty. Joe picked up the bike on his way down to Mexico and I loaded up and headed down a couple days later—just enough time to halfway prep my bikes for pre-running and pack my gear bag.
The first three days in Ensenada were spent at the resort finishing up the bike, and let me tell you, I put more time and effort into making sure this bike was perfect than I did my ISDE bike! I seriously busted my butt and I’m proud of how the bike turned out. This gave me about two full days to pre-run my 250-mile section though, which if you ask any major competitors, is definitely not adequate. I pre-ran my entire section in one go on my 650, which took quite a few hours as I noted smooth lines and major dangers. My section started from old Puertecitos Road through San Felipe, which is known for its huge relentless whoops so you can imagine it took me a while to get through it all on that pig 650 while trying to find the smooth lines. After a long, full day of pre-running we drove all the way back down to San Felipe to do it again the next day. Joe was kind enough to let us borrow a RZR 1000 which helped a ton with pre-running. We ran half of the section during the day and the other half at night to make sure there were reflectors set up on major dangers. We made it back to Ensenada just before riders meeting, which was basically making sure that you knew if you were caught by a trophy truck it was certain death ... We tried to get some sleep but the anticipation for Baja race day is worse than waiting for Santa Claus!
We woke up bright and early and got ready to race. We drew 5th starting position, each rider starting 30 seconds apart. Joe was to ride the start of the race to RM 80. I drove up to mile 45 and waited for Joe, just in case he needed to switch or had any problems. We got there just in time for the first couple bikes to come through and then Joe—he was killing it! He broke his collarbone just a couple weeks before the race so we were all a little worried how it would hold up but it obviously didn't bother him at all. He did a great job getting the bike all the way to Dusty at RM 80 after losing only a bit of time due to a crash. Dusty killed it, stayed consistent with the leader’s time, rode all the way to RM 240 with almost no issues, and did exactly what he needed to do and dominated it. Dusty passed off the bike to Shawn who had a little rougher section, though he killed it as well and handed off the bike to Tyson who got all of the silt beds. Tyson did a great job and got the bike to Michael who rode the next 80 miles of highway in to me.
The one really awesome thing that was different about this year’s thousand, is the Kurt Caselli Foundation teamed up with Volocore to improve vehicle tracking. You could text a number and it would give you last tracked position, RM and speed of the vehicle. What sucked for us is the tracker turned itself off around RM 380 and we had no idea if our bike was still moving or what happened. The other thing is down in the lower half of the race course, no one’s phones worked and no one picked up their SAT phone so we really had no communication. Regardless, our bike and riders stayed true and got the bike in to me just a couple hours down from the leaders. Keep in mind that this was a for-fun team from the beginning, nobody had any pressure on them except to keep the bike together and get it to the finish. No matter our position, finishing was our one and only goal.
Michael got the bike to me and ready for our pit. I lucked out big time with my pit crew. The bike was good, with just a few little things like plastics falling off, rear brake not working, and then all of the stuff we planned to do like wheel and air filter changes. Brandon Anderson is a mechanic at Tunex in Washington, Utah. He came down with my pops and I'm really glad he did. He fixed every single thing on the bike and I was ready to roll in under three minutes.
I hopped on the bike around 8pm at night and started my journey up the Baja peninsula. As I originally stated, my section started first thing with old Peurtecitos rd, which is the worst thing on the face of planet earth. It’s got 4-foot sand whoops, in pea gravel dirt mixed in with huge boulders trying to kill you any time your tires touch the ground. I had a couple close calls but kept it all under control and moving forward at what I thought was a decent pace. After 30 miles of that, we got into some of the mellow sand whoops and on to a power line road. Note: the roads I had in my sections were not smooth enough to sit down, but too fast to stand up so if you wanted to go fast you basically had to take getting jackhammered in the butt the whole time!
Well I guess I was doing good because I was over 20 minutes back from the rider ahead of us and I caught them just as we hit those roads. I was going so fast, and passed that rider hauling—at night! This is the first time I have ever been excited and pumped enough while racing to literally scream out in my helmet YEEEEAAAHHH. Going 90mph+ at night in Mexico and passing other riders is exhilarating! I came in to my first Baja pit, got some fuel, and jetted out. Just as I clicked 3rd or 4th gear, I saw some kids with shovels and a campfire and then a big freaking curb/booby trap that they had just built. With no time to react I nailed it and was sent straight in to a flying W. With the throttle WIDE open trying to save it, I somehow brought it back and ended back down on the seat moving in a forward direction. I about cried it was such a close call. I made a mental note that all through San Felipe was going to be stuff like this, and within the next two miles I came upon another one that wasn't too bad, car tires buried in the sand, then another which was a trench that someone had dug but it also was not too bad, then a final one.
In pre-running, I was pretty damn good at remembering certain dangers, especially giant rocks buried on top of whoops. Well I made my way what I thought was away from spectators and out in the darkness and NAILED a huge rock that had some dirt built up against it. I crashed ... hard ... and when I got up there was about 10 locals standing around me filming it. Whether that was intentionally set as a trap or not, the locals that ran over helped me out a ton. They picked my ass out of the dirt, got me straightened out and on my way. However, I did some major damage to the bike. The subframe was mangled and our GPS data logger that was fastened to the rear fender was totally smashed and missing. Our tail light was broken off, and my working GPS that I fastened to the front of the bike also broke off. I pulled out my pack and we duct taped everything we could back on the bike. The locals went and found the data loggers and the smashed box and put it all back into my jacket and got me fixed up enough to continue. If I didn’t have those data loggers, it would have resulted in a DNF. I really have to give it up to the two guys that really worked hard and fast for me—thank you.
I started going, but the rear shock was really soft for some reason and with the now bent subframe, any whoop I hit, the rear tire hit the fender and about made me come to a stop. I stopped again, adding more compression to the shock hoping I could stiffen it up and avoid bottoming so hard. I figured I'd have to just deal with it and let it ride. After a few more miles through the whoops, I came upon another racer, who had a truck out on the side of the trail and looked as if they were loading the bike in the back. I slowed to ask if they were okay, they gave me a thumbs up and I headed on gaining another position.
I hit a second wind somehow after that crash and opened it up once I got out of the whoops. I had lost the position while I was fixing up the bike (big thanks to the rider that stopped and made sure everything was ok) and even though there was absolutely NO pressure on me to go fast, I wanted to get them back. Just before we hit the highway at San Matias, I caught another rider through a whoop section and was able to put a pass on them and open up a good gap. My chase crew was stopped at a check point as well so I made sure to let them know to have tools out at the next pit up the road in Valle T to straighten out the bike.
As we were fixing up the bike, that same rider passed me back and headed up the goat trail. I got back on and got a third wind and caught that rider by the time we got to the top of the goat trail. Literally a mile after I caught that guy, he passed me back ... my fuel filter had clogged and I was not getting any power out of the bike. I was really nervous that it was the pump and I would have to ride it like this all the way to the next pit! I stopped and got the only thing small enough to try and pick the fuel filter out, which was safety wire. The wire bent any time I tried to pick the filter out and it took me forever to finally get it out. I clipped the fuel line back together without a filter, the bike fired and ran perfect so I decided to just run it and hope for the best that nothing would ruin the injectors.
The entire next section, from the goat trail, through Jamau, to the "honda house" I was most familiar with because this is the section that Kurt passed away in. It was actually pretty emotional! It gave me a better idea of how fast he was actually going and more of an understanding of how it all happened. However, just before Kurt’s memorial, I came upon a downed rider, it was Jim O'Neal. He had hit what he thought to be a booby trap. He had barbed wire completely wrapped through his rear wheel and he took a heavy digger. His helmet was all smashed, his hand definitely broken and he was out of it. He waved me down and asked for help so of course I stopped. The earlier riders that passed by had radioed it in that he was crashed and threw him a tool to help with the wire but didn't actually get off and assist. I parked the bike, got all of the wire out of the wheel, got the bike picked up, helped him get his gear back on and ready to get back on the trail. He was able enough to ride the bike and make some forward progress and that was really his only option of getting out of there. Once he got going, I got back on my bike and pinned it hoping to catch back up and gain some more positions. I came by Kurt’s memorial, gave him a thumbs up and put my head down. Let me tell you, I would have been totally screwed if I didn't have my Task Racing helmet lights, they were not only amazing to have while riding but especially when I was stopped to work on bikes, they are so insanely bright it was amazing how easy I could see things while working on stuff.
Let me emphasize again that there was zero pressure from my team to go fast, but the feeling I got and how comfortable I was, I wanted to gain as much time as I could. I stopped two more times to make sure that people knew Jim was hurt but making forward progress, he had a teammate headed out to switch him out so I knew he would be good. I stopped at the next Baja pit to get fuel and they said I was about one minute behind the next rider. I let it hang out, which probably wasn't the smartest because this whole section was notorious for having a lot of animals out there. With that being said, the ONLY animals I saw were a couple bunny rabbits and one cow chilling eating some trees, which was a huge relief.
Anyway, I caught the guy in front of me again, who was awesome by the way, any time he saw my light bouncing behind him, he slowed and pointed to the side I could safely pass. I made my way to Ojos Negros, which was where we had to stop pre-running (they had only opened it up for pre-running like the day before the race and I never got time to pre run it.). To add to my woes, my working GPS did not have the course map passed Ojos because they didn't want anyone pre-running it and the GPS that had the updated course map wasn't working! So from here to the finish I relied totally on course marking.
Luckily for me, the locals only switched them up like three times … I went the wrong way on three different major intersections because they had switched up the arrows. After riding some ways without seeing noticeable course markings or tracks, I flipped around to try the other direction which ended up being the right way. That happened three times, and then two more times major corners had no markings at all. I went, found locals, asked them where the course went, they pointed and somehow I ended up going the right direction. Plus, anytime I crested a hill I could see little camp fires lining the race course so I knew which direction I needed to go. The other thing that sucked is they added a speed zone through this section; well, I saw no speed zone markings except for one, way the heck in the middle of nowhere so I got way nervous that I was going to get a speeding penalty and went about 40 mph all the way to the finish!
Anyways, I made it, our team made it, and we successfully finished the Baja 1000. The last road up to the finish stage I did a huge wheelie and felt super cool, then bounced it off the rev limiter for a while and that got a bunch of attention so I felt really famous. All in all, I passed around four people through my section and finished 5th physically overall. WHAT?!?! I'm super pumped on that, officially with speeding penalties and missed VCP's, our team finished 7th Pro Unlimited bike and 28th overall (including the trophy trucks, which by the way almost caught me! They started like four hours behind us and almost caught me, terrifying!)
I really have to give it up to Joe, without him and Diamond J, none of this would have been possible. He is a super cool dude that just loves to go fast in the desert. All of our families that came down and helped us out, my pops, Brandon, Kadin and Chase (they were my amazing chase crew) the Humphries family, the Jepsen family, Tyson, Regan Sinclair for getting super rad photos and footage and the Goldman family, thank you all for everything.
Without my amazing sponsors who stepped up big time to help us out, it definitely would not have gone as smoothly as it did. Diamond J Management, Blais Racing Services, KTM, Fastway, Pro Moto Billet, Fasst Company, Ride Life Industries, Bullet Proof Designs, Dubya, Dicks Racing, AMS Oil, Task Racing, Rocky Mountain ATV/MC, IMS, Samco, Kenda, FMF, Baja Designs, A'ME Grips, Troy Lee Designs, Xbrand Goggles, Alpinestars, Asterisk, Leatt, Rekluse, and of course the amazing people that put a ton of work in to these events, SCORE and the Kurt Caselli Foundation.