One Very Special Night in Baja/Gold Medal In Italy

By Scot Harden


HUSKY RECLAIMS BAJA GLORY

I have one of my Baja best races ever and win a Gold Medal in Six Days

Baja/Desert racing is a risky business, and by 1981 I was becoming increasingly aware of the dangers involved. I had seen and heard enough horror stories, gruesome tales about guys getting badly injured and worse. I counted on at least one really big get-off a year in addition to the routine tip-overs and crashes. You accepted the fact that bumps, bruises, and broken bones were part of the deal but hoped you avoided serious injuries, injuries that required lengthy hospital stays, or worse. I had visited plenty of friends at hospitals recovering from serious injuries, injuries that took six months to a year to recover from. I'd also, at this point, had a few close friends paralyzed from the sport. Mitch Mayes, Mitch Payton, my good friend Pat Friel and  other people who I knew by name only who had to deal with this life-changing reality. Of course, there were occasional fatalities as well. As a professional off-road racer, you knew the risks and accepted them. My biggest fears weren’t necessarily from crashing on my own; I accepted responsibility for my actions. My biggest fears came in the form of head-ons with cars/trucks, livestock, booby traps, and other things out of my control. As I mentioned in an earlier chapter, we didn't have air support in the ‘70s and ‘80s. We rode by the seat of our pants. Because we spent so much time pre-running, learning the course like the back of our hand, it was more like motocross than off-road racing. I knew where every rock, ditch, danger was located, where the optimum line was in every turn. This meant you could pin it with no reservations about what was around the next bend because you knew, except for, of course, things you couldn’t control. By 1981 I had had plenty of very close calls with traffic on the course. Incidents where a rancher was returning from market, a pre-runner lost and going the wrong way, a race support vehicle late getting into its pit meet me head-on at the worst possible moment. There were plenty of times where I had to take evasive action, lay the bike down, straighten up and fly off the course just to save my life. In addition, there were the boobytraps built by the locals. It wasn’t enough we were racing over some of the roughest ground on earth, the locals felt compelled to dig trenches, pile rocks across the road, cut down trees and stack them in the middle of the course. Personal safety was starting to weigh on my mind at the start of 1981. You had to be brain dead, not to realize what you had signed up for. My biggest fear was if I could deal with that moment where you had suffered a major injury, a broken femur, internal injuries, a life-threatening situation. Given the remoteness of the places I was racing in and the complete lack of medical support by SCORE, you might lay there for hours, even days. I spent some pretty sleepless nights before the start of the Baja 500 and 1000 thinking about those things. It was always in the back of my mind. These issues and the sorry state of Husqvarna’s product development weighed on me as we started 1981.

When 1981 started, I didn't know it would be my final year living in Las Vegas, my hometown since birth, the only place I ever lived, and that the following year I would be living in California. We struggled once again at the Parker 400 with LR and Bruce Oglivle leading a 1-2 sweep over Chuck Miller and Jim Fishback on the mighty Yamahas dominating the race with Brent and I in third some three minutes back. We couldn’t wait for the Las Vegas 400, which by now had become our race to win or lose. Once again, we put in a steady race, leading from the start and winning by a wide margin. I loved that race. Not only was it held in my backyard, but it was a real rider's race. It was rough, tough, and relentless. You had to be in excellent shape, have a great bike under you, and great support. There was no faking a win. It was perfect for Brent and me.  In five years of racing the event, I was never worse than 2nd overall, and after 1981 I had two wins under my belt. The 1981 Baja 500 was won by Larry Roeseler and Bruce Ogilvie even though Yamaha had already cut back their full factory program dropping Jack from the program in the process. It was typical for the Japanese to come and go. None of the major Japanese brands had shown a consistent commitment to Baja and Off-Road racing up to that point. I Fulfill A Lifelong Goal Of Winning A Gold Medfal At Six Days

 

 

However, Yamaha was still on a roll, and Husqvarna had not won a race in Baja since the 1979 Baja 1000. A pretty sad state of affairs.

As mentioned, 1981 was a transitional year for me. I qualified for the 56th  ISDE to be held in  Isola De Elba, Italy, that year. I was becoming much stronger at the Qualifiers and especially riding in muddy conditions.  No drama this year, just three strong rides at the Zink Ranch, California City, and Trask Mtn. In the summer of 1981, I resolved to do better at Six Days. I wanted to be one of the Top Americans, especially one of the top west coast riders, and I started training. I was working construction as a lather for a plastering company owned by my good friend Pat Friel. Even though I had attended college for four years, I pursued a job in construction because 1.) the money was good, and 2.) the times were flexible. Summers in Vegas was excruciatingly hot. We typically worked from 5:00 am to 1:00 pm. My training program consisted of heading over to the motocross track at Whitney Mesa as soon as I got off work, unloading my bike, and running a full tank of gas through it without stopping. I would run it dry and then push it back to the truck from wherever it stopped. This usually took a couple of hours. I did this in 110-degree heat five days a week starting in July and running through September. By the time I was ready to leave for Six Days, I had not only completely worn out my practice bike, but I was also in the best shape of my life.

The 1981 ISDE on Isola de Elba was interesting. First, there was the backdrop. A small, beautiful island off the eastern coast of Italy just north of Rome, it was amazing they found enough trails to hold the event on.  In the lead up to the event, it was clear the Italians, Swedes and Czechs were the leading teams vying to win the World Trophy.  Each team had its strengths. The Czechs were masters of the trail. The tougher the trail sections, the better they shined. The Italians were the fastest when it came to special tests; they had the speed. The Swedes represented an excellent mixture of both speed and trail toughness. It was about this time I got my first big lesson in ISDE politics. We were told the special tests were all-new and had never been ridden. We were all surprised when we walked the tests the days before the start and discovered berms and ruts in every corner. It was apparent someone had been there practicing before the race was held. Once the event started, we understood why. Unlike France, the previous year, the trail pace at the Italian Six days was leisurely. The trail sections were shorter with plenty of time to relax and work on bikes at the pits stops. Special test scores would decide the event. In the end, it all worked out for the hometeam with the Italian Trophy Team winning.

As for me, I rode well all week, turning consistently fast times compared to most of the other American riders and never dropped a point on the trail.  I was the second-fastest west coast rider in the event finishing behind LR, 4th overall American in the Open class in the final standings. As far as where I stacked up overall, I was 30th in class well behind Europe’s best and many of the US’s top eastern riders as well. I had my Gold Medal but no time to celebrate as the Baja 1000 was just around the corner.

For the 1981 Baja 1000 Husky adopted a new strategy. Instead of entering two Open Class teams, Brent and I would be the only Open Class entry. Tom Kelly and Dan Smith were entered in the 250 class, Mark Miller and Dan Ashcraft, in the 125 class. I was under the impression Husky was entering the other classes with factory bikes because they realized they probably weren't going to win overall. At least that was my impression. Maybe they could take some class wins. It was Dan Smith's first trip to Baja, and since we would ride the same sections, I was given the assignment of showing him the ropes. Dan was a pleasure to work with, and his family, especially his dad Butch was a great asset and very supportive. Butch was like a drill sergeant, up at 4:00 am and ready to roll by 5:00 am every day. You didn't burn daylight when you were with Butch. It was just at the beginning of the Ashcraft/Smith partnership, a partnership that would dominate off-road racing from ’83 – ‘85. As for Brent and my effort, it got off to a rocky start when we seized the racebike while jetting it right before the race and had to return to the Husky workshop in San Diego to rebuild it just two days before the start.

I went with Niles Usery, our team mgr., to help where I could but mainly to break it in on the highway once we crossed the border at Tecate, so it had a few miles on it before the start. The 1981 Baja 1000 was 842 miles long and started and finished in Ensenada. It was one of the toughest 1000's in quite a while. In the end, it came down to a two-team race between Brent and I and the Roeseler/Ogilvie factory Yamaha, although the Balentine/Baker Honda team factored as well in the early stages. Brent hung with LR and Balentine for the first 200 miles down the Pacific side of the course handing the bike off to me about 14 minutes behind LR and just seven minutes behind Balentine coming into Colonial Guerrero. I quickly caught and passed Balentine and took off after LR passing him coming into Guayaquil and handed the bike back over to Brent with a 2-minute lead. LR and Bruce had opted to break the race up 60/40 with LR riding slightly more of the event, and Bruce concentrating on just the night portion, which was a little over 300 miles. Our strategy of giving Brent a small break in the first half had paid off as I was fresher and able to put some time on both Balentine and LR, who had ridden a much greater distance at that point. After giving the bike to Brent, I jumped in our chase truck and headed to El Crucero, where I would wait to get the bike back for the night section.

The silt beds along the beach just before the last rider change at El Crucero were particularly bad in 1981, but Brent rode well coming into the final rider change staying just ahead of LR. We were scheduled to do a final rear tire change and were pitted directly across from the Yamaha team. Both teams were dead even at this point, although we had a small lead on time having started behind them. By the time my rear tire change was complete, Bruce was already gone, and all I could do was try to catch him before Gonzaga Bay. It would come down to the two of us battling head to head at night over the final 300 miles for the overall win. I chased Bruce the next 50 miles into Gonzaga Bay just as it was transitioning from day tonight. I could get close, but the dust was horrible, and passing was out of the question even though Bruce was riding with a front flat tire.

Meanwhile, only one of my lights was working. As we approached our pit at Gonzaga Bay, I considered fixing the light, but when I saw they were changing Bruce's front wheel, I opted just to take fuel and hopefully get out ahead of Bruce.  Passing at night in Baja was almost impossible against someone of Bruce’s caliber. I would rather ride with one light and the lead than two lights in the dust. I already had the gas cap off as I pulled in coasting to a stop with the bike in neutral. Our crew started dumping gas.  Bruce was pitting on the other side of the road directly across from me just a few feet away. I kept yelling at my pit to hurry up I was pulling out no matter what when I saw Bruce about to leave. I could see Bruce’s crew was finishing the front tire change and was just about to leave, and as soon as he went to start his bike, I dumped the clutch and pinned it to get out ahead, first on the road. I didn’t even look to see if I was topped off. Fortunately, as I rode off, I could see the tank was almost full. I had moved into first physically with Bruce just a few feet off my rear fender. From Gonzaga, the course went about 35 miles down to the infamous Three Sisters pass. Even though I had only one operational light, I rode that section like a man possessed. It was all cross-grain ditches and whoops, and I never let off. I focused on the Three Sisters pass and never looked back the whole time. I made sure every shift, every movement was precise and in control. As I crested the Three Sisters grade, I finally took a moment to look over my shoulder to see where Bruce was. I fully expected to see him just a short way behind me, but all I could see was a tiny spec of light four or five miles behind me still coming across the valley. I had pulled out a comfortable lead. I never stopped to fix the main light and rode with only light one to Ensenada. I never felt pressured crossing the line in 17 hours and 14 minutes, winning the event by almost 22 minutes overall. In the final 100 miles, my biggest fear was a mechanical breakdown. That year the Husky 430s were having transmission issues with third gear failing regularly. I made sure every shift was smooth, pulling in the clutch and letting it out smoothly each time I shifted all the way to the finish line. The bike never missed a beat. All my training that year, all the hours spent at my practice track during the summer, it all paid off. No one from my team was at the finish line to greet me. The only person I recognized was Dirt Bike Magazine editor Tom Webb. We walked off and had a beer at a local cantina to celebrate, just the two of us. 1981 was the year Husqvarna took Baja back, if even for just a short period. The other Husky teams faired well as well with Dan and Tom taking second in Class 21 and Miller/Ashcraft winning Class 20.

For a brief moment, we had righted the ship. Husqvarna corporate was ecstatic. We even got letters of congratulations from the factory in Sweden.  After the race, I was invited to visit the US headquarters, where I met with company President Sven-Erik Eklund and new Vice President Mark Blackwell.  They were about to offer me a full-time position with the company. My life was about to change.

Meanwhile, I learned that once they got our race-winning bike back to the workshop, it blew third gear in the parking lot when they were drying off the brakes after washing it. It only made it another 150 ft. Sometimes things are just meant to be!

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