As the sun rose over the mountains, Tanner raced away from Javier who had just saved the race again by installing a new headlight. We wouldn’t have to worry about the electrical system burning up. In all the excitement, was it 90 seconds Tanner had to make up, or two or three minutes? Whatever it was, he had only 40 miles to do it. 285x had a fresh rider, and Tanner was battle worn from running 410 miles by now.
No matter, he tapped into all he and the bike had, each foot of unforgiving terrain presenting him a new definition of what the limit was. He saw blood in the form of dust in the distance ahead. He caught the dust and tried to remain stealthy, so as not to alert the rider ahead of his presence until it was absolutely necessary. A good rider on an 8 foot wide road can weave and block a pass if he knows someone is behind him. Tanner looked at the course ahead and picked his moment, and roared by. But 200 yards later, the next crisis began.
There was a 3-way fork. Straight clearly had a green wrong way sign, typically used on the course. The left had a green wrong way sign that was knocked down and facing up, and the right had no sign. Tanner went right. 285x followed him. He raced ahead four miles and saw no orange course marker signs. Oh no. Another fork, unmarked. He picked right. He thought if he was going the wrong way, the faster he went the faster he’d find out. Another 1/4 mile and a barbed wire fence was across the road. He locked both brakes and spun around. As he started back, he passed 285x skidding to a stop. He went back the 1/4 mile and took the left fork. It went to the same place as the right fork. He stopped, and 285x stopped alongside him. He turned to go back to the 3-way intersection. On the way he passed 318x who followed them both down the wrong way.
At the 3-way, this time he picked left – the way with the downed wrong way sign. It took him 200 yards to realize it was not right – there were no tracks like on the race course. He stopped. 285x saw him from the intersection, knew it wasn’t right, and turned down the middle – the last option with the wrong way sign that was up. Both riders knew it was the only way it could be. Now 285x was in front yet again.
Why would there be a wrong way sign at the correct way? Two reasons. Some mischievous locals change signs to mess with vehicles and watch what happens. Or, sadly, a leader who knows he’s ahead could stop and change the signs so he can’t be followed easily and extend his lead. We think it was the latter for reasons to be explained another time.
Sure enough, Tanner started seeing orange course markers. Somebody had changed the signs. He had to catch 285x again. As he pulled closer, a speed zone sign came up. A speed zone is a speed limit through houses or a ranch. It was 37 mph, and if you violate it you get penalized. Neither rider wanted to get penalized and lose the race that way. Tanner was 200 feet behind. In the speed zone there were some 90 degree turns that 285x slowed down below 37 mph to make. Tanner swept these turns wide so he didn’t need to slow down, and he caught up with his front wheel next to the leader’s back wheel. In this way they proceeded, awkwardly, like two opposing soldiers in close quarters unable to attack each other.
Then 318x came speeding up, obviously violating the speed limit. When he saw the two bikes ahead going slow he realized it and fell in behind them, three bikes now nearly side by side. Suddenly, 285x took off. Did the speed zone end? Tanner did not see a sign that it had and didn’t want to lose on penalties. We had decided in advance to ride a very clean race. He let him go and stayed at 37 mph for another TWO miles! Not seeing any signs, he decided the speed zone must be over, and let it rip. He was now way behind – again.
Digging deep, he raced through the hills at 100% – the bleeding edge. Would he make a mistake and end it all? He caught up AGAIN. The course dropped down to a new superhighway that was under construction and unpaved. This was about 3 miles where you could find out how fast your bike would go. Both riders unleashed every horse out of their Honda 450x motors. They accelerated to speeds that blow your motocross helmet back. Motocross helmets have an open face and a big visor you can tip down to keep the sun, or dirt blasted from another rider’s wheel, out of your face. At 100 mph it’s a sail, and it’s all you can do to keep your head forward.
Side by side they hit the highest speeds these specially geared desert racing machines would go. Tanner tucked in tighter than 285x and crept ahead – he was in the lead with the town of Ensenada and the finish line ahead, where I waited, anxious, thinking and praying for my son. I knew it was a high speed section, because it was the same section I had going out at the start – but I wasn’t racing for the finish. A crash at these speeds could be catastrophic.
There was a highway bridge under construction. At the edge of the concrete bridge to the unfinished dirt highway transition, there was a curb of dirt. At 100 mph things come up very fast. Tanner saw it, and so did 285x only one second behind. Who would have the courage and skill to survive it without slowing down much? 285x slowed. A bump like this, 10″ high, would kick the rear wheel up and throw the rider over the handlebars. Spectators lined the course in this dangerous point to watch.
Tanner used his motocross instincts. He pushed down into the bump with his legs, goosed the throttle wide open, and pulled up on the handlebars as hard as he could, keeping his butt as far off the seat as possible so when the rear end came up it didn’t eject him. He sailed six feet off the ground for 120 feet in what was surely a moment of awe for the spectators. He pulled a gap on 285x.
As the road narrowed into town, Tanner thought there may be a 60 mph speed zone as there was on most roads in the course. You would not be able to see an 8″ x 10″ speed zone sign at 100 mph. In all this mayhem he had to make a decision. Not wanting to get penalized, he slowed to 60 mph. 285x sped by! There was his answer, there was no speed zone. Again, he was behind!
He wished the race were 50 miles longer. He raced to catch him again. Now they were in town. They had a few turns on concrete roads, drop down into the riverbed for a mile, pop up onto the street again, and three turns on streets to the finish. Tanner decided not to try to make another pass until they got into the dirt riverbed. Knobby tires are not made for concrete and the braking is very bad. The streets were damp with morning dew and turning was treacherous. He stayed on 285x’s fender, blasting through town.
They took a right turn off the street and dropped into the riverbed. Both riders summoned all the horses yet again. Tanner knew he could rely on his skills on dirt. He went to make a pass on the left. The leader anticipated it and closed the door. Tanner went around to the right, but there was a left turn coming up. No matter. He shifted up to fifth and showing more courage than his competitor, passed him on the outside. Here comes the turn…80 mph…he downshifted to fourth and flat tracked the bike around the turn at high speed, shifted up to fifth and gave it all the bike would go. The riverbed is in the middle of town, with city bridges overhead. Spectators lined the sides and cheered from the bridges, now seeing a real race to the finish.
Promoters built a long (safe) jump with a blow up Red Bull arch over it in the riverbed for drama. Tanner hit it at maximum speed, sailing perhaps 130 feet. He held the throttle wide open. Under a few more bridges, and ahead was the ramp up out of the riverbed. He slowed for the 90 degree left turn at the top but not too much to allow 285x an opening, he blew the turn…curb…he jumped the curb while turning, now on a totally different surface, a wet concrete city street. One block, right, two long blocks, high speed with throngs of fans lining the streets. One more turn…
I waited at the finish, my eyes fixed; knowing the last turn was like ice. The 285x team was there like we were – all five other riders and the crew, standing next to us. Who will come around first? Would he slide out? A bike came around the turn and stalled when surprised by the slippery conditions. Fans ran out of the crowd and push started the bike. He raced to the finish. It wasn’t Tanner…or 285x.
A minute later another bike rounds the corner. I recognized his body. It was Tanner! I screamed and shook in joy! Tanner raced the half block up to the finish, cameras and microphones waiting.
285X rounded the corner and slid out on the slippery pavement and crashed in the street. He got his bike picked up and came in, 60 seconds behind us!
Tanner pulled up onto the stage…a picture of the 214x on the jumbotron. A finish line girl gave Tanner a medal and he put it around my neck. Another around his. My head tapped his helmet as I hugged my son.
We had won, the Baja 1000!
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