These days, when you think of off road motorcycle racing, one race comes to mind: Baja. Even squids and chicken strippers know what Baja is. That stretch of Western Mexico was put on earth by God herself for one purpose: to break men and machines as they attempted to cross it as quickly as possible. Yet so many men have succeeded. Those early pioneers like J.N. Robers, Malcolm Smith, Larry Berquist and Gunnar Nilsson would fling themselves into the desert two wheels at a time. You couldn’t keep them off the race, let alone keep them from winning it. That was then. Those were the glory days we still catch a glimpse of every winter when we re-watch On Any Sunday.
What started as barely more than an amateur scramble down a strip of unforgiving desert is now an international glory sport. Now run by SCORE (Southern California Off-Road Enterprises), the event is a sensation, attracting big money and serious racing. The biggest names in fast come to prove and disprove their off road racing chops on the sands of Mexico. The SCORE Baja is now a sport, sponsored by energy drink companies and big name corporate underwriters. That’s fine, I suppose, but it seems like that’s missing some of the event’s original magic. Sport is great, but adventure is even better.
That said, the heart of adventure still beats in Baja. In 2010, Mike Pearlman, an off road racer himself, son of the original Baja 1000 promoter, entrepreneur, and all-around solid dude took it upon himself to build an event that would capture the spirit of adventure that started it all back in 1967. How? He revived NORRA, the National Off Road Racing Association — the original organization that put on the Mexican 1000, as it was then known. This new race would go back to the Baja’s roots. The event was reborn as a 4-day Navigation Rally from Mexicali to Cabo, and the result was spectacular.
When Motoworks founder Johnny Scheff read an account of the 2012 race in an issue of Cycle World, it started him on an adventure that will soon take him from nearly one end of North America to the other on the back of a motorcycle. Specifically, a Triumph Tiger 800, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Looking at the event photos, Johnny recognized many of the locations from his own trail riding in Baja. Looking at the route map, he realized something else. Johnny had long wanted to ride from the border to Cabo on as little pavement as possible. The reborn Baja wasn’t just good reading in Cycle World now. Nope, now it was bucket list material.
Racing aside, Johnny feels the call of Baja often. Since 2001, he’s been going down there to trail ride, camp and just enjoy the area nearly every year. Those trips aren’t races. There’s no trophy to win, just a singular goal of enjoying the day and making it to the end of the trail where there will be beer and tacos in abundance. Meet something unexpected in the desert? No big deal, we’ll just camp out and ride back in the morning. So Johnny’s love for Baja was already well established, but the opportunity to race it — to run it balls out like Malcolm and Gunnar back in the day — that was a call he couldn’t ignore.
Since Motoworks is primarily a road bike shop, Johnny has a go-to resource for serious prepping of all his off-road bikes: Diane Bell at Precision Concepts. Hot to race the 2013 running of the 1000, Johnny gave her a call to ask a stupid question.
“Hey Diane, can you prep my DRZ for the Mexican 1000?”
“Sure.” Diane answered. Of course she could. This is what she does. Then came a much better question and Diane was definitely the right one to ask.
“Will I get killed doing this?”
“Probably not.” Diane replied.
Good enough. The bike prep began. Exhaustive, expertly done, and expensive as it should be. However, prepping the machine is only one part of the equation. You’ve got to prep the whole race. You’ve got to have tire, pit and support strategies. You’ve got to know how to navigate. You’ve got to prepare the rider. Diane introduced Johnny to Baja racing legend Mark Vanscourt. How’s this for pedigree?
• Mark first ran the Baja in 1970 as a navigator in a VW Burro. No big deal, right? Well, he was nine years-old and it was his dad’s car. So yeah, big deal.
• Through the ‘70s and ‘80s, Mark picked up numerous class wins, including the overall motorcycle championship.
So to say that Mark knows what he’s doing in the desert is an understatement. In prepping for the race, his long-distance planning help would prove pivotal. Johnny and Mark collaborated on a full racing strategy. The result: Johnny and racing partner Josh Muthart ran the race in 2013 — Johnny’s first off road race, by the way — and picked up the win in their class. Not too shabby. Wins are great, but more importantly for Johnny, the adventure of the trip was fully intact. it was the ride of a lifetime. Cross that one off the list. What next?
Well, Mark had an idea. Fresh off the Baja win, Mark suggested Johnny run the race again in 2014 — this time on a Triumph Tiger 800 — a bike we carry right here in the showroom at Motoworks. Now it’s unclear just exactly how much beer went into the final decision in building a racing Tiger, but you can probably guess where this is going. Johnny would set Mark up with a Tiger 800, and he’d do all the race prep in his garage in Norco in preparation for the Baja. Easy peasy, but why stop there?
Beyond Baja, Johnny saw an opportunity. If we’re going to go to all the trouble of race-prepping a Tiger 800, why not put it to further use? Why not use it to run the Alcan 5000, an even more bonkers off road race running from Seattle to Anchorage? Why not indeed. The race only runs every four years and 2014 happens to be one of those years. In fact while we’re at it, why not build two Tigers if we’re going to do all the R&D? So that’s exactly what Mark and Johnny have been working on these past few months. Johnny and Mark will run the Baja, and then Johnny will join six other Chicago-area riders to compete in the Alcan. Baja starts May 10th, and the Alcan starts August 18th.
What goes into prepping a Triumph Tiger 800 to run basically from one end of North America to the other? Let’s look at the laundry list:
• Woody’s Wheels
• Ohlins Suspension
• Prototype IMS foot pegs
• Highway dirt bike hand guards
• Safari 7-gallon fuel tank up front, and a 2 gal Rally Raid prototype auxiliary fuel tank in the back
• Full rally navigation cockpit with F2R road book holder and switchgear
• ICO odometer
• RMS brackets
• Arrow exhaust
• Re-gearing (-1 tooth on the front sprocket)
• New Triumph levers,
• …and the list goes on
It must also be said that this isn’t just a guy in a shed pulling parts of a shelf and bolting them on an otherwise OEM bike. This is serious, iterative race preparation. These bikes are being tested, tweaked and re-worked in preparation for these two epic adventures. This, all of this is just backstory. The real story kicks off in May, but keep an eye out for more updates on finishing the race bikes, and for some surprise collaborators you might not expect.