The "B" Team Makes Its Mark

By Scot Harden


A YEAR FOR THE RECORD BOOKS 
Brent and I set records for consecutrive SCORE Overall Victories

 

With our first season as team and our first big win under our belt Brent and I looked forward to 1978. We were given contracts as full members of Team Husqvarna. In case you are wondering what a Team Husqvarna “factory” Baja team rider got paid, a Baja 1000 winning rider at that, well, I’ll tell you…..Zero, Zip, Nada. We got bikes, parts, and bonuses if we won races along with a little expense money to get to the races. Winning the Baja 1000 including SCORE purse money, bonuses from Husky, and our contingency sponsors paid around $2500, which was split 50/50 between us. Welcome to the world of big-time professional off-road racing.  And I needed every dime of it as I wasn’t working but attending college full time. If I wasn’t still living at home with my grandparents and winning races, I probably couldn’t have continued. In all honesty, though, it wasn't that bad. Fuel was cheap, as were many other things. I managed to win local races quite frequently, which paid $100 a win, and along with the money from the big events, I got by. 

Before the 1978 race season started, we were hit with news that the traditional opening round of the SCORE series, the Parker 400, was being canceled or, at the very least, postponed. The BLM and other land use issues were having a big impact on desert racing, especially in California, where the first loop of the Parker 400 was located.  Instead, SCORE would start the season in March in Mexicali with an event called the Mexicali 300.  In the meantime, SCORE was working hard to keep the Parker 400 on their race calendar and was hoping to hold it later in the year. I loved the Parker event. One big loop in California followed by two loops in Arizona. I always started and rode sections like Patton’s Revenge and Thunder Alley on the California side. The Arizona loop was fun as well with Osborne Wash, Bouse Rd, Swansee Mine and the Rock Pile at the at the end. It was high speed but fun. 

For 1978 I was allocated one new 390CR for my personal racing, and Husqvarna would provide a factory-prepped bike for big off-road events. The 1978 model Husqvarna’s didn’t come with much in the way of major technological improvements over the '77 models. This was the start of a recurring trend that would eventually lead to the demise of Husqvarna as a Swedish brand (a demise I would experience up close and personnel as a member of Husqvarna’s US management team). The motorcycle manufacturing world was changing. Manufacturers were coming out with new designs every year, especially the Japanese.  1978 would be the second year Husqvarnas came with Ohlins as standard equipment.  Even though the Baja/Off-Road team was contracted to run Curnutt shocks, the Ohlins showed real promise in our test sessions. They gave a super plush feel that rivaled the Curnutt's and didn’t seem to fade as much.  The other big news for 1978 was that Niles Usery was taking over for Dean Goldsmith as head of the Husky's Baja/Off-Road Racing program. Niles was an accomplished Baja racer himself and quite a unique character.  Dean was moving on to start a camera-car business that became quite successful servicing the Hollywood film industry. I really liked Dean. He was always good to me. Niles was technically proficient, had a deep knowledge of Baja and was thorough as they come, implementing a structured system for prepping the race bikes and managing the team. In addition, he was now in charge of what I believed was the best pit support system in off-road racing, the all volunteer Husqvarna pit crew. When your entire effort relies on everyone being exactly where they are supposed to be, assigned to some remote little dot in the middle of nowhere you needed good people. People you could count on. It might take three days to get to some pit locations by four-wheel drive.  In many ways it was just as tough as racing the race itself. All it took was one pit to be in the wrong place, off by just a mile or two, and the whole effort would be for naught. Husky had the best. Husky support team members donated vacation time and took days off and would drive the length of the Baja peninsula if asked all for a T-shirt and the pride of knowing you were part of the team.

With these changes in place, we showed up at Mexicali ready to do battle. By this time there were a number of top teams vying for the overall. Bruce Ogilvie and Chuck Miller riding for Dale’s Modern Cycle on Yamaha were always a threat, Bob Balentine and Tom Kelly backed by KTM were super fast, Honda was fielding a team led by Al Baker and of course there were Jack and LR. Right behind these super teams was a bunch of other highly competitive riders and teams. The Open Class drew 50 or more entries, and depending on what starting position you drew, it would be a very tough to win a race. The Mexicali 300 came down to a back and forth battle between Brent and me and the Balentine/Kelly KTM team. When I gave Brent the bike at the last rider change, it was coin toss who would win. Brent put in a flawless ride in the last section crossing the line less than 90 seconds ahead of Balentine.  When start times were factored in we won by 11 seconds on corrected time. Eleven lousy seconds! That's a couple of missed shifts, a fumbled pit stop, a bad line in a sandwash.  In any case, we gratefuly took the win and moved on to the next race the Las Vegas 400.

 

The 1978 (and also 1979) Las Vegas 400 was a dog-fight between Jack and LR and Brent and I. All day long, we fought like dogs. I would pull a little time on Larry in my section; Jack would draw a little time back on Brent in his, the two hometown boys using their local advantage. It all came down to the last twenty miles with Brent and Jack battling it out. At one point they were literally side by side in the final pit each making minor repairs. After close to 11 hours of racing, we got beat by a little over 2 minutes.  It was my 2nd straight second-place finish at the Las Vegas "400," but honestly, I didn't feel as bad this time because I knew we did our absolute best. Leading into the 1978 Baja 500, we knew we could compete.

For 1978 I was allocated one new 390CR for my personal racing, and Husqvarna would provide a factory-prepped bike for big off-road events. The 1978 model Husqvarna’s didn’t come with much in the way of major technological improvements over the '77 models. This was the start of a recurring trend that would eventually lead to the demise of Husqvarna as a Swedish brand (a demise I would experience up close and personnel as a member of Husqvarna’s US management team). The motorcycle manufacturing world was changing. Manufacturers were coming out with new designs every year, especially the Japanese.  1978 would be the second year Husqvarnas came with Ohlins as standard equipment.  Even though the Baja/Off-Road team was contracted to run Curnutt shocks, the Ohlins showed real promise in our test sessions. They gave a super plush feel that rivaled the Curnutt's and didn’t seem to fade as much.  The other big news for 1978 was that Niles Usery was taking over for Dean Goldsmith as head of the Husky's Baja/Off-Road Racing program. Niles was an accomplished Baja racer himself and quite a unique character.  Dean was moving on to start a camera-car business that became quite successful servicing the Hollywood film industry. I really liked Dean. He was always good to me. Niles was technically proficient, had a deep knowledge of Baja and was thorough as they come, implementing a structured system for prepping the race bikes and managing the team. In addition, he was now in charge of what I believed was the best pit support system in off-road racing, the all volunteer Husqvarna pit crew. When your entire effort relies on everyone being exactly where they are supposed to be, assigned to some remote little dot in the middle of nowhere you needed good people. People you could count on. It might take three days to get to some pit locations by four-wheel drive.  In many ways it was just as tough as racing the race itself. All it took was one pit to be in the wrong place, off by just a mile or two, and the whole effort would be for naught. Husky had the best. Husky support team members donated vacation time and took days off and would drive the length of the Baja peninsula if asked all for a T-shirt and the pride of knowing you were part of the team.

With these changes in place, we showed up at Mexicali ready to do battle. By this time there were a number of top teams vying for the overall. Bruce Ogilvie and Chuck Miller riding for Dale’s Modern Cycle on Yamaha were always a threat, Bob Balentine and Tom Kelly backed by KTM were super fast, Honda was fielding a team led by Al Baker and of course there were Jack and LR. Right behind these super teams was a bunch of other highly competitive riders and teams. The Open Class drew 50 or more entries, and depending on what starting position you drew, it would be a very tough to win a race. The Mexicali 300 came down to a back and forth battle between Brent and me and the Balentine/Kelly KTM team. When I gave Brent the bike at the last rider change, it was coin toss who would win. Brent put in a flawless ride in the last section crossing the line less than 90 seconds ahead of Balentine.  When start times were factored in we won by 11 seconds on corrected time. Eleven lousy seconds! That's a couple of missed shifts, a fumbled pit stop, a bad line in a sandwash.  In any case, we gratefuly took the win and moved on to the next race the Las Vegas 400.

The 1978 (and also 1979) Las Vegas 400 was a dog-fight between Jack and LR and Brent and I. All day long, we fought like dogs. I would pull a little time on Larry in my section; Jack would draw a little time back on Brent in his, the two hometown boys using their local advantage. It all came down to the last twenty miles with Brent and Jack battling it out. At one point they were literally side by side in the final pit each making minor repairs. After close to 11 hours of racing, we got beat by a little over 2 minutes.  It was my 2nd straight second-place finish at the Las Vegas "400," but honestly, I didn't feel as bad this time because I knew we did our absolute best. Leading into the 1978 Baja 500, we knew we could compete.

The big story at the 1978 Baja 500 was the record heat. On race day, it was 127 degrees down in the desert. One rider had died while pre-running from heat exhaustion, and race day would be a matter of attrition. To show you how hot it was while pre-running two days before the race down at El Chinero just north of San Felipe, I was able to roost tar out of the blacktop road. The other story impacting the race was that LR had crashed pre-running and broke his collarbone. AC Bakken was called in as a last minute replacement to ride with Jack.  This meant AC would have to ride with little preparation and practically zero pre-running which was a huge advantage for us. If for no other reason than we were more acclimatized to the heat.  I got the bike to Brent at Nuevo Junction in second place just behind AC, and Jack held the lead all the way down to El Chinero. The ride over the summit and down through Cohabuzo Jct and Tres Posos was brutal. Brent literally passed out when he got off the bike at El Chinero just a few minutes behind Jack. I took off after AC, catching him about one third of the way down the 30-mile long whoop section heading to San Felipe. By the time I gave the bike back to Brent in Valley De Trinidad we had a good lead. From there, we rode smooth and smart, taking the overall win by a comfortable margin. We were getting stronger as a team, riding intelligently and with confidence, taking advantage of all the support around us and every break that came our way taking home our first Baja 500 win. Not just first motorcycle overall but first vehicle overall.

Later that summer, news came out that the Parker 400 would be held in October.  There we continued our winning ways taking our fourth consecutive SCORE overall win. We rode really well, escaping some of the small problems that held the other teams back, finishing just ahead of Jack and LR. Since forming our partnership, we had never finished worse than second overall at a major off-road event. On top of that we set a record for consecutive SCORE overall wins, with 4 wins in a row. As we looked forward to the 1978 Baja 1000 little did we know that our run of good fortune was coming to an end.

The 1978 Baja 1000 started and finished in Mexicali. SCORE was playing politics between Ensenada and Mexicali and wanted to show Ensenada they could run the 1000 without them if they wanted to. The race started just south of the center of town and zigzagged through the farmlands and canal systems before heading east towards Laguna Salada.  The risk of seizing a our Husky 390s was always an issue. We spent a lot of time with the race bikes in the run-up to the race doing jetting and high-speed tests to make sure the bikes could take sustained full-throttle applications. There were times in Baja where you held the thing to the lock for minutes on end. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon to finish, and even win, a race even though the bike had experienced a mild seizure at some point. This was the two-troke era. One skill that we refined to a science was listening to the motor. We got used to detecting even the slightest difference in rmp or sound. More importantly, we got really good at anticipating seizures, and when it went as long as the piston ring never got stuck, you always had a chance of finishing. With this in mind, we started the '78 event. We drew a rear start number, and I got down to business, trying to get to the front because LR had drawn a front number and had clear sailing. In those days, LR and I pre-ran together. Pre-running was about memorizing the racecourse, knowing your lines and making sure you had all the dangers covered.  Any small shortcut (more on this later) or line that gained 15 seconds here or 20 seconds there was important.  During pre-running we figured out how to bunny-hop one of the big canals that SCORE had built a detour around on the way out of Mexicali. The racecourse came down a 6th gear wide-open dirt road to an open irrigation canal where SCORE had diverted the course to a small bridge a short distance off to the side. The racecourse came right up to the edge of the canal, made a hard, 90 degree right turn off the main road went 200 ft or so north up to a small bridge they had constructed, crossed the canal and then turned left the 200 ft or so back to the main road, turned right and continued on. LR and I calculated that if you never lifted and committed to it at 90mph you could bunny hop the bike the 60ft or so across the canal. It was hairball as hell but good for at least 30 seconds and in our weird racing calculous of risk vs. reward, worth the risk. To make sure we could do it in the race, we jumped it twice pre-running. Of course, I let LR go first just in case. Of course, if you didn't make it, it meant doing an endo at 90mph, but we didn’t think about things like that. I used it in the race and actually passed someone there, I think maybe Bill Tarling. He had followed the detour and gone up and crossed the canal at the bridge and was just about to reenter the course when I flew by a few feet in front of him at 90MPH. I think it shook him up.  Jumping the canal was a non-issue as long as you committed and never lifted the throttle. Of course, if the engine seized on the run-up, things could go really bad. This point was reinforced when just 5 or 6 miles past the canal jump our race bike seized, locked up solid. I managed to get it going, but it seized three more times after that. I limped the bike into the first rider change and gave it to Brent, but shortly after, the whole top-end finally let go, and we DNFd. The streak was over.  Naturally, we were bummed, but it ended up being our only DNF in five years of racing as a team, so who can complain. To top it off, we won the SCORE Points championship, with Brent as Rider of Record. 

1978 ended on a low note, but 1979 was just around the corner, and things could only get better. Right?

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