By Scot Harden
MORE WINS AND A FEW SETBACKS
You Win Some, You Lose Some
First, I just want to thank everyone for the positive comments and feedback. I am hearing from old friends and people I have never met before but who were there with me at many of the same events. It’s gratifying to meet so many other riders and people who shared in this time in the history of our sport along with me.
Brent Wallingsford and I rode as a team from 1977 – 1982. They were six of the best years of my life. During the course of that time, the Husqvarna “B” team won seven major off-road races overall, took 2nd overall at six others, and were always in contention for the win. This was during the heyday of off-road racing with factory involvement from Husqvarna, Yamaha, and Honda and some of the biggest names and legends, not to mention a few future AMA and Trailblazer Hall of Famers in the sport competing. Ogilvie, Johnson, Roeseler, Balentine, Miller, Baker, Kelly, Rutten, and Bakken. A genuinely rich period for Baja/Desert off-road racing.
At the start of 1979, we bounced back from our DNF at the ’78 1000 with an overall win at the season-opening Parker 400, beating the Lon Peterson/Kem Clark Yamaha team. Back to back wins at Parker was something to hang our hat on. Next up was the Las Vegas 400, and as I mentioned in yesterday's post, the 1979 Las Vegas 400 was another close race with LR and Jack, and once again, we got beat by just a few minutes. This was my third straight 2nd place finish at the Las Vegas 400, and I was beginning to wonder if I would ever win. Going into the 1979 Baja 500, we were looking forward to repeating our win from the previous year, and when news came that LR was injured and couldn’t ride, it looked like things were coming our way. Unfortunately for us, LR's injury was several weeks before the 500, which gave Jack enough time to resolve that he wasn't about to trust anyone else with his race bike this time around and would take his chances riding solo. Honestly, I, along with everyone else, including the management at Husqvarna, thought this was a big mistake because the 500 was just too long and too tough for one rider going solo to beat a solid team. There was no way one guy; even someone like Jack could pull this off. There was only one problem; someone forgot to tell Jack. Jack had an upfront starting position and quickly got out to the lead. Brent and I started near the back but weren’t worried because we knew it was a long race. We kept creeping forward but were held up in dust by several of the other fast teams, and didn’t get into 2nd until half way through the race. By this time Jack had built up a 10-minute lead. We weren't too worried, though, as we were sure Jack would fade as the race wore on, especially after completing the desert portion down through San Felipe in the heat. This was when everyone learned Jack was not like anyone else. Instead of fading, he kept up the pace. We didn't pull any time on him in the desert, and by the time we got back up to the higher elevations near Valley de Trinidad and cooler temps, it was clear he wasn’t going to be denied. Jack won the 1979 Baja 500 overall riding solo beating Brent and me by several minutes. And while we definitely got held up at the start of the race, we had plenty of time to catch up and simply got beat. In my book, Jack’s solo victory at the 1979 Baja 500 is the single most incredible achievement in the history of the sport. Even though it was tough to swallow, I had a whole new level of respect for Jack. The word Ironman doesn't even begin to do justice.
The 1979 Baja 1000 would make the run to La Paz, and I jumped at the chance to ride the night section. Once again, because we rode as two-man teams, Brent was slated to ride the first 470 miles to El Arco and me the last 450 to La Paz. With any luck, I would see the bike shortly before sundown. The day before the race, we drove from Ensenada to Catavina, where we overnighted before driving down to El Arco to wait for the race bike on race day. There was a SCORE checkpoint at El Arco so we could hear the radio chatter and monitor the progress of both factory bikes. LR took an early lead and built a small advantage over Brent in the first 200 miles. About 300 miles in just before our pit at El Crucero, we heard Brent was dropping back. By the time he got to El Crucero, it was clear something was wrong. Next, we heard there was a hole in the cases, and the bike had leaked out all the oil. Worse yet, the transmission was squealing like a stuck pig and we were out of the race. I was bummed. All that work pre-running; all down the drain.
All I could do was take off my riding gear and wait to help Jack, LR, and the other Husky teams we were supporting get ready for the night. LR arrived around 4:30pm a good hour or more before dusk. We mounted their headlights, and Jack took off. I envied that he got to race in Baja at night. About 50 minutes later, the second bike arrived. It was the Class 21 leading Husqvarna 250CR ridden by Rick Finger. We mounted their headlights and got his partner Jeff Kaplan going and waited for the third bike to arrive. About 15 minutes later, we heard another bike coming, and as it came into view, I couldn't believe what I saw. It was Brent. Later I learned he had it a rock in a G-Out and punched a small hole in the center cases. He had the presence of mind to stop at a couple of ranchos along the way and bummed some oil just to keep going. By the time he reached the pit at El Crucero, whatever oil he had scavenged along the way had drained back out, hence all the terrible noises coming out of the transmission. Instead of loading it up and calling it a day, Brent found some high-temp silicone seal, laid the bike over on its side, and patched the hole. He then waited another 20 minutes for the silicone to set up, filled it with oil, started the bike, and took off. Once the oil was back in the transmission, the noise went away, and the bike ran fine. Talk about smart. Like I said in a previous episode Brent never got rattled.
Meanwhile, I was scrambling to get my riding gear back on, and by the time I left El Arco, I was more than one hour behind Jack and a good 20 minutes behind the Kaplan/Finger team. I was a good night rider and about 100 miles later just after San Ignacio, on the tidal flats near the fish camps heading into Scorpion Bay I caught Kaplan on the 250 and moved into 2nd physically, a position I would hold to La Paz. Usually, a 2nd place finish would be a letdown, but given what we went through, and the fact at one point I thought we were out of the race, I was thrilled to see the lights of La Paz. Jack had arrived more than one hour ahead of me but was still at the finish line, so we celebrated there with a slightly inebriated Bob Bitchin and a bunch of drunk Mexicans. Riding the 450 miles from El Arco to La Paz at night was something I dreamed about as a kid. It took me a little over 8 hours. 8 hours I will never forget.
My career by now had delivered everything I could hope for. The proverbial "thrill of victory and agony of defeat." In '79, I won the MRAN Open Class #1 Plate, making me the first rider in MRAN history to win #1 plates in all three classes, 125, 250, and Open. Another major highlight from 1979 was winning B to V. Not Barstow to Vegas but Beatty to Vegas. By 1979 it had been five years since the biggest desert race in the world, Barstow to Vegas was held, the race that had put my name on the map. In 1979 the San Gabriel Valley MC got a permit to run a one-way Hare and Hound from Beatty, NV to Las Vegas. It would be held on Thanksgiving weekend like the previous B to Vs were held and included all the best racers from D-37, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona.
The race was over 150 miles long and every bit as challenging as Barstow to Vegas with the same level of competition. I got a decent start and was running in the top 5 when I got a flat tire coming into Pit 1. I lost a little bit of time but had a spare wheel at the pit, changed it and took off 10 minutes behind the leaders. I caught back up to 3rd overall before getting a second rear flat coming into Pit 2. Once again, I changed the wheel borrowing a friend's spare and took off after the leaders. I kept gaining on the lead pack closing the distance to where with 15 miles to go, I finally caught the leaders Kevin Welch and Bruce Ogilvie. It was at this moment we lost the course markings and started riding in circles looking for the trail. Kevin took off with Bruce in tow headed towards Jean, NV. However, I knew the finish was in Sloan, NV and that with the remaining miles left, the course had to go in a different direction. I headed towards Sloan and sure enough picked up the ribbon less than a ¼ mile from where we got lost. I figured fair enough trade for all the problems I had to overcome early in the race and cruised to the finish winning the event overall. Now, if anyone asks if I ever won B to V, I tell them, YES!
Husqvarna was still enjoying a lot of success in off-road racing and was still the King of Baja, but all that was about to change. Yamaha was ready to make a major effort and hired Jack and LR at the end of 1979. From teammates and competitors to just competitors is how the next couple of years would unfold. Husqvarna was also just about to start paying the price for being so complacent with its product development program. The 1979 Husqvarnas were still incrementally better products compared to the 1978 models. By 1979 we were running the Ohlins on the factory teams as it became clear they worked better than Curnutt's. Other than that there weren’t many differences. All the other manufacturers were constantly improving and more importantly building larger displacement Open bikes. This would make life very difficult for Brent and I in coming years.
Before closing this chapter, I would be remiss for not sharing one other very important event that took place in 1979. One that had a huge impact on my career. In May of that year, Kristi and I tied the knot and began what has turned out to be a 45 yearlong partnership in life. Anyone who has ever met my wife knows just how lucky I am and just what a special person she turned out to be. Aside from being Jack Johnson’s sister and growing up in a motorcycle racing family, her selfless dedication and support of my racing career is the single biggest factor in any success that I achieved. All you need to know is that because of my racing schedule, we delayed our honeymoon until November of ’79 and celebrated it in La Paz at the end of the Baja 1000. She reminds me of this to this day! I can’t even begin to count the number of hours she sat waiting for me in the heat and dust on the side of the road in some god-forsaken place while I pursued my dream. Add in that from 1983 through the 90's she continued to support me while raising our two sons. Her level of commitment and sacrifice can't begin to be measured. I have so very much to be grateful for because of motorcycling, but the top of my list begins and ends with Kristi. Some guys are good, some are talented, some are born with a silver spoon in their mouth, some are self made, some are idiots and some are just plain lucky. I’m a little of each but mostly I am blessed.
Racing has provided many special moments in my life including getting to see much of the stark beauty of this planet, the cultures I experienced, the amazing equipment I rode, and the people I met through all of it. One of those special moments, a moment that I will share now, took place in the 1979 Baja 1000. For anyone who has ever raced 450 miles at night, you know how challenging it is. Hour after hour goes by like a slow motion dream. It’s a mind numbing challenge to remain focused on the small patch of the ground being illuminated by your bike. After you’ve covered 200 miles or so, you realize you aren't even halfway there, and that is when you start to compartmentalize—breaking things down into small bits—setting smaller goals, focusing on just getting to the next pit stop, covering the next 10 miles, the next town or village, anything to keep from thinking about how far you still have to go. If you put enough of these small victories together, in time, you realize you are approaching your final gas stop. All you have to do is get there, and then, if the racing gods permit, finish the last section. In 1979 the final leg of the 1000 went south from Ciudad Constitucion to Santa Rita following down a two track sandy road right next to the Pacific Ocean. Our final pit was on the Pacific coast at Punta Conejo. From there, you turned inland, heading east towards La Paz, and the Sea of Cortez. About twenty-five miles out from La Paz, you crest a small plateau, and at long last, you can see the lights of La Paz shimmering in the distance like stars in the night sky. From there you start to see and smell the campfires of the locals who have come out from La Paz to watch the finish. These sights and smells are burned in my memory. I can’t begin to describe the raw emotion that washes over you when you realize you've made it, you’ve conquered your fears, taken on a big challenge and succeeded. You've suffered physically and mentally, and taken some pretty big risks along the way, and the culmination of all your efforts is within your grasp. At that moment, time stood still, and everything felt right in the world. It was a peak life moment. I would not trade that moment and that feeling for anything!