By Scot Harden
PERSERVERANCE, DEDICATION AND FAMILY MAKE IT HAPPEN
Getting Back To Winning Makes Everytrhing Better
As I shared yesterday, 1975 was almost a complete bust. Towards the end of the year, I entered and finished the Check Chase Hare and Hound, which was held in Parker, Az on Colorado Indian Tribal land, finishing 3rd Overall, 2nd Open bike behind Mitch Mayes and Larry Roeseler. The BLM by then was starting to impact off-road racing on every level. The BLM didn't approve the Check Chase’s traditional 235+ mile course from Lucerne Valley to the Colorado River, and it was moved to Arizona at the last minute. There was always a big rivalry between the D-37 desert racers and us guys from Las Vegas. Jack and I carried the mantle for the Vegas racers and felt like we could beat anyone from D-37 in races in our backyard, but I have to admit it was tough racing against them in California and Arizona. I would occasionally travel down to race a D-37 race, and usually, the best I could manage was a third place overall. Mitch was still the fastest guy in the desert, and LR had come along as the next guy to beat, and after that you had a whole bunch of other super fast guys to contend with including AC Bakken, Bruce Ogilvie, Bob Balentine, Tom Kelly, Chuck Miller, Al Baker, Bob Rutten, and Art Knapp to name a few. There was also some guy named Brent Wallingsford, whose name I kept seeing at the top of the results. Little did I know then just how much our racing careers would be intertwined.
I was still getting support from Husqvarna through Sportsman Cycle in 1976, receiving two bikes that year, a 1976 250CR and 360CR. I still couldn’t land a spot on one of their two factory teams and had to keep pursuing the big races on my own. Andy Kirker and I finally put a solid race together as a team winning the 250 class and finishing 3rd Overall at the season-opening DRA 20 Mule Team 200 riding the ’76 250CR. That race drew a large field of the best DRA and D-37 racers and was always a good test to see where you stacked up for the coming year. For 1976 Husqvarna sorted out its seizure problems, and the purple-tanked 360CR came with some reliable upgrades, including a Gurtner carburetor. In addition, Curnutt was getting more extreme with longer and longer travel suspension systems. To maximize travel evcen further you could hack the swingarm and reweld it so that it had a bend in it to give you even more travel.
With those mods, we were getting close to 10" of rear-wheel travel. Pretty unheard of in those days. I started getting back to winning local events overall. However, I suffered a massive disappointment while leading Moapa To Vegas overall when my rear brake stay arm broke with a considerable lead over Rolf Tibblin. I really wanted to show him I could run with him or any of his factory riders. By now, my rivalry with Jack Johnson was starting to heat up. Jack’s ride with Valley Cycle had come to an end, and he too got a support ride from Husqvarna. Now we were in direct competition for the same thing, the attention of Husqvarna. At the time, Jack was still the "man" in Las Vegas. And while I could keep him insight, he was still the stronger of the two of us. A lot of it had to do with maturity, Jack was almost 4 years older, and I was 19, but it also had a lot to do with desire and focuas. Jack was more driven than practically any racer I had ever met. And when it came to sheer will power, holding it on harder and longer at speed across rough terrain, no one was more committed. You see, when it comes right down to it, desert racing is about commitment. Riding at speeds of 60mph and higher across the desert with rocks, washouts, and whoops for hours on end right at the edge of control requires commitment, …………and a big set of balls. I'm sorry, but I don't know how to put it any other way. Once you see one of your friends crash at speed with appendages pointing in all sorts of unnatural directions, you know how dangerous it is. And if you don't appreciate this fact, you’re plain stupid. Desert racing and long-distance Baja/off-road racing is one of the biggest tests of courage and fortitude there is in modern times. Chances are if you got off, you were doing so at speed and major injury was just part of the deal.
As the Mint 400 approached, Andy and I made preparations and felt we had a great shot at winning the 250 class if things went our way. Unfortunately, I screwed the pooch again right off the start doing a massive endo before even leaving the starting grounds at the Nellis Speedrome. I had to ride the bike back to the pits and change out the front end; it was bent so bad. We played catch up all day and got a lousy result all because of me. To compound matters, Jack fell into a great bit of luck. With just a few weeks to go before the race he didn’t even have a ride. But as luck would have it he ended up riding with Rolf on one of the factory Huskies when Rolf 's partner, Mitch Mayes, broke his collarbone just a few weeks before the race. Rolf and Jack ended up winning the race overall, Jack's second win in a row. Honestly, I would be hard pressed to say I was happy for him because it was something I wanted in the worst way, but my crash at the start of the ‘76 Mint 400 and at the ‘75 Baja 500 riding with AC just showed that I wasn’t ready yet. It was also a clear indication of jealousy, a personal trait I was never proud of and would have to face at some point.
As the 1976 Baja 500 approached, and with the factory slots filled by LR and AC on one team, and Howard Utsey and Mickey Quade on the other, Husky suggested Jack, and I ride together on a 250CR in Class 21. It would be one of only three times we ever raced together as a team in our long careers. We built the bike in my workshop and went to Baja to both prove ourselves. Back in those days, teams were limited to two riders, and usually, one rider rode the first half and the other the second half of the race. Because of my recent missteps starting big events, Jack was picked to start and rode exceptionally well, getting the bike to me at the rider change in San Felipe just a few minutes physically behind the leading 250 team of Bruce Ogilvie and Bob Rutten riding a Harley 250. I hung with Bob for the first hundred miles or so, not really making any time but not losing time either. Shortly after Mikes Sky Ranch, as we descended the goat trail to Simpson's stream crossing, I saw Bob off to the side of the trail with a broken front axle. From there, I cruised the final 200 miles or so back to Ensenada winning Class 21, finishing 3rdOverall out all the vehicles entered. With Husky led by LR and AC taking the Class 22 win and first and second overall, it was an excellent day for Husqvarna and Jack and me personally. It was the first win in Baja for either of us. Best of all, my family, including my future wife Kristi (Jack’s sister) and my grandmother and grandfather were at the finish line. With nothing but DNFs to show for my previous Baja efforts it was a great relief to finall see the finish line. We had a big celebration and it was a great way to thank my grandparents for all the years of hard work, expense, and sacrifice. We were finally getting somewhere.
Other highlights in 1976 were finishing 4th in Class 21 at the SCORE World Championships and winning the Caliente Grand Prix for a second time overall. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to ride the Baja 1000 because of finances and wasn't selected for one of the four slots on the two factory Husky teams. Jack was though, and that bothered me. I had been loyal to Husqvarna since 1973 and felt abandoned. In hindsight, though, it was the probably best thing that could have happened to me. In reality, Jack was the logical choice based on his results and maturity, and it only served to motivate me to make sure once I got another shot to make the most of it. 1977 would be a breakthrough year and the start of a very productive relationship with some guy I barely knew named Wallingsford.