By Scot Harden
THE LONE DUST CLOUD ACROSS DRY LAKE CHAPALA
Achieving a Huge Goal
The word “Baja” holds a very special place in off-road racing lore, especially motorcycle racing. Winning Baja overall became my “Holy Grail” the moment I saw On Any Sunday. The “lone dust cloud across Dry Lake Chapala” was all I could think about. In addition to heroes like Malcolm Smith, local heroes like Casey Folks, and Max Switzer made if feel more real by sharing their own Baja adventures. Back then, the Baja peninsula was wild and untamed. It was mysterious, magical, remote, demanding, exciting, exotic, dangerous, unforgiving, and later as I would find out personally, beautiful. Racing Baja is something every desert racer fantasizes about. Most are satisfied with just entering and finishing. Some even dream about winning their class, and a very rare few set their sights on winning overall. My goal was to win overall, to be the absolute fastest rider/team in the event regardless of what type of vehicle you competed on. That was my goal at every major off-road event. My Class 21 win with Jack at the 1976 Baja 500 was a good step forward, but all it did was add fuel to a fire that was already raging.
I started 1977 highly motivated to take that next step up the ladder. From the opening round of the local MRAN series desert race, Jack and I went at it tooth and nail. Jack still held a bit of an advantage over me, but I was getting closer to his speed, especially when it got technical. In tight, technical terrain, I felt I was on even ground. The Mint 400 dropped motorcycle classes from the event in ‘77, and it was quickly replaced by the Las Vegas “400” promoted by Casey Folks and Sam Bass. Casey cut his chops in professional race promotion with the 1977 Las Vegas “400” which would ultimately lead to the creation of Best In The Desert. Over 100 professional teams entered that year, and because the course was 100% motorcycle course in and around the Jean Dry Lake and McCullough Mtns, it was a much better event than the Mint 400 as a result. Jack and I called a temporary truce and teamed up. Being held in our backyard, we were very confident in our chances going into the event. Jack jumped out to a quick lead off the start of the multi-lap race but unfortunately ran out of gas several miles before Pit 1. He lost at least 10 minutes while our pit crew brought gas out to him and got passed by several riders. I got on the bike and rode like a madman passing several riders getting us back in contention. Even though I carried spare gas on a belt, I still ran out and lost all the time I gained stopping to refuel on the side of the trail.
We battled all day to get back in contention, but Larry Roeseler and Bob Rutten rode smart and clean taking the overall with us coming home a very frustrating second. I was disappointed to say the least. I felt we let a good chance of winning slip by. We were racing 1977 Husqvarna 390CRs by this time, and the extra 30cc displacement made quite a difference in speed and power. More importantly, we were racing bikes prepared by Husqvarna factory wrench Dean Goldsmith. Racing one of his bikes was like a dream come true. There was something special about factory-prepped race bikes. Not because they had any special parts or one-off pieces but because they were meticulously prepared and tuned to a razor's edge. Cranks were balanced, gears matched, special pipe mounts and reinforcing brackets, mild cylinder porting, and a few other nice touches made these bikes vibrate less, run smoother and handle better than any other Husky's I had ridden.
Following the Las Vegas 400, I got THE call from Husqvarna, letting me know I would be given a seat on one of the two factory bikes at the Baja 500 in June. I had assumed it would be with Jack, but Jack and Larry had gotten together at some point and decided to join forces, and I would be riding the second bike, the “B” Team as we called ourselves, with Brent Wallingsford. By now, I knew Brent and knew he was very competitive, but I was concerned because his body type was much different than mine. He weighed more and was much taller. I was concerned about finding a bike set-up that would work for both of us. While pre-running the 500, I got to know Brent and his wife Penny quite well, and it was then I realized just how lucky I was to be connected to such quality human beings. Brent was quiet and reserved; the exact opposite of me, nothing seemed to rattle him. He was also very dedicated to his racing, trained hard, and was meticulous about his diet. He and Penny were a solid team; the only question remained; Did he have the speed? Brent was teamed with Jack in the 1976 Baja 1000 but didn’t even get to show what he could do because Jack crashed out with a broken collarbone before Brent even got on the bike, so his ability in Baja was unknown. In those days we competed as two-man teams, which meant you needed two strong riders. Because of the way the course was laid out, we could break the race up into shorter sections with each riding two one hundred mile(approx.) sections each rider responsible for about half the total mileage. I was selected to start the race and was quite nervous about not screwing up and crashing out as I had at the ’76 Mint 400 and ‘75 Baja 500 . I gave myself a long pep talk before the start about being careful, not taking chances, and getting the bike to Brent at the first rider change at Nuevo Junction in good shape. Despite this, I almost threw it all away five miles into the race. Riding in the dust of another rider, I overshot a corner and flew off the course into a pile of boulders. How I didn’t punch a hole in the cases, flatten the pipe, or sheer off the gearshift lever or brake pedal was a miracle. It took me a minute or two to drag the bike back to the trail and after that settled down and rode trouble-free the rest of the day. Brent was rock solid, never making a mistake, and we came home 2nd Overall behind Larry and Jack, who quite honestly were just faster than us on that day. Thinking back to how close I came to crashing out at the start made me realize just how thin the margin was between failure and success. Had I crashed the bike out of the race again, I probably would not have been given another chance by the management at Husqvarna. I would have had a reputation as a crasher. Looking back, I came very close to literally throwing it all away. Someone was looking out for me that day.
In November, Brent and I set our sights set on finishing one position better at the ’77 Baja 1000. The 742-mile long race started and finished in Ensenada and featured a loop within a loop course design. The course left Ensenada headed east through Ojos Negros to Nuevo Junction before heading over the Summit down to El Chinero, San Felipe and then north across Diablo Dry Lake to San Matias Pass. From there it made a loop to Valley de Trinidad via Mikes Sky Ranch then back to Nuevo Junction where for a second time the riders would ride over the Summit down to San Felipe and back to Valley T and Nuevo Junction before heading back through the pine forest to Ensenada for the finish. The second time around meant we would be passing cars and trucks completing their first loop. The two Husky teams got out front and were never seriously threatened. Approx. 350 miles in Jack and Larry had built up a 15-minute cushion over our team as we headed up the road to Mikes Sky Ranch the first time. I was running second behind Larry when I came around a blind corner and found a VW Microbus with the front window smashed in and the front bumper mounted spare tire laying on the ground in the middle of the course. The driver was working on the vehicle. I barely missed hitting it head-on myself, and a few corners later I came across LR as he limped down the trail headed to our pit at Mikes. His bike was pretty bent up but moving, and it was easy to see he had hit the Microbus. I made sure he was OK before motoring on. Later he told me he was in mid-air over a blind corner/jump combo when he saw the Microbus coming the opposite direction and straightened the bike up glancing off the front of the van at an angle before hitting the ground. He was OK, but the race bike was toast. It was a great reminder of just how dangerous it was racing Baja on open roads back then. We didn’t have air support back then, warning us about oncoming traffic. In fact, in all my Baja career I never had air support. Leading a race overall or riding upfront was a fretful position, something I would have to live with for the next twenty years racing in Baja. After taking the overall lead, it was just a matter of not making any mistakes. Except for a few close calls passing some car and truck backmarkers at night on our second loop over the Summit and down along the coast to San Felipe Brent and I rode smart and trouble-free, finishing nearly 1 hour ahead of the next motorcycle. Not only were we first motorcycle overall, we were first vehicle overall beating ironically enough the person that first got me dreaming about winning Baja, Malcolm Smith who won the Car/Truck division that year.
Brent, Penny, Kristi, and I shared the victory later with our pit crew and the rest of Team Husqvarna, one of the first of many crazy victory parties at La Cueva de Los Tigres. I'll never forget the moment at the finish line though with just the four of us there together. I was 21 years old and had just fulfilled the biggest dream I could think of at the time. I was so grateful for all the good fortune I had experienced up till then and realized all the set-backs and disappointments along the way were just part of the process. Little did I know that Brent and I were about to go on a run, setting records for consecutive SCORE overall wins and have one of the best years ever in off-road racing. All I could think of at that time though was calling my grandmother in Vegas and letting her know 1.) I was safe and 2.) I had won. At 12:30 am she got a collect call from the payphone outside the Bahia Hotel in downtown Ensenada. I remember it like it was yesterday and just how happy she was. My grandmother grew up in the depression and knew nothing about motorcycles except that they were dangerous. If not for her stuffing her worst fears and anxieties for my safety and well-being down and supporting my crazy dreams, none of it would be possible. She was the real hero that day and it was a pretty special moment sharing it with her.