We wish there were more ladies like the author of this tale. Although Tamara didn’t compete in this epic adventure below, have no doubt she’s a real-deal rider. She races vintage motocross and flat track, has dabbled in supermoto, and completed an Iron Butt Saddle Sore 1000 by riding from Long Beach to the Grand Canyon and back: 1060 miles in 21 hours on a Triumph Scrambler. She’s also graced the pages of MO in our Naked Middleweight Shootout. Now it’s her turn to tell a story, this one about crewing for a team racing old Triumphs across the desert in the NORRA Mexican 1000 rally. It would’ve been much easier on a motorcycle several decades newer, but then the adventure wouldn’t have been nearly as adventuresome!

Rally racing takes a steady stream of skill and endurance. Rally racing in the Baja Desert takes an act of bravery. Rally racing in the Baja Desert on 50-year-old motorcycles requires fearlessness (or stupidity, depending on your perspective), a great team, and a little luck– which is precisely what Team BA Moto Racing employed this year in the 50th Anniversary of the NORRA Mexican 1000.

Taking place over the course of five days, our team and two 1969 Triumph T100 motorcycles ventured into the void in an attempt to traverse the entire Baja California Peninsula from Ensenada to San Jose del Cabo. What follows is the account of that week, through the eyes and lens of a humble chase team member:

Rally Day 0

The day preceding the starting-line flag drop brings with it a myriad of thoughts and emotions for the entire team, racers and chasers alike. The most prominent of those thoughts circle around the bikes themselves. Most everything is like a whirlwind, seemingly taking place in mere seconds – driving to Ensenada, unpacking, check-in, final inventories, mechanical checklists, logistics and mapping, tech inspection, and the first of many taco taste tests of the week.

Nevertheless, many of the remaining pensive hours that night are spent just staring at the bikes, going over every little detail time and time again and wondering, “what the hell are we getting ourselves into?” This activity alone seems to take an eternity. But to really understand this train of thought, one must get a better idea of the equipment itself. When you exist in the world of vintage racing, you become blissfully unaware of the miracles of modern technology. In a mixed-bag race like the Mexican 1000, that bliss quickly descends into jealousy when another rider parks their brand spanking new hot-off-the-press 2017 Yamaha YZ450FX or 2017 KTM 450 EXC with nearly 13 inches of rear travel next to your mere 4 inches. In this race, yes, size does matter. More on that later.

Our team’s British-born 1969 Triumph T100 Desert Sled twins boast 500cc of air-cooled fury and weigh in at approximately 340 or so pounds. No matter which way you slice it, that’s approximately 100 pounds heavier than any other bike on the field. The four-gear transmission with a 50-tooth rear sprocket had proven to be the optimal gearing during shakedown rides outside of Barstow. With dual Works Shocks in the rear, CZ front ends, and custom machined billet triple trees, these bikes stand tall compared to their stock predecessors from the past. A Maxxis Desert IT 110/100-18 tire and Bridgestone 110/100D-18 Ultra Heavy Duty Tube in the rear, paired with a Dunlop Geomax AT81 90/90-21 and Bib Moose in the front served well to quell fears of an inconvenient flat.

These motorcycles are kick-start only with Electrex electronic ignition (even we are not dumb enough to run points…). So when you decide to get squirrely and snuggle with the desert sand, there is still the business at hand of picking the bike back up and kicking her back to life. All in all, there isn’t a single component on either bike that hasn’t been modified or customized to some degree. These machines do wonders to jog the memories of race pioneers and inspire a sense of novel appreciation in new riders. Nevertheless, the Mexican terrain cares not for period-correct aesthetics and tireless hours of dedicated fabrication. Alas, the desert is a brutal and cunning mistress.

Rally Day 1

Rally Day 1: Team BA Moto at the starting line in Ensenada.

Rally Day 1: Team BA Moto at the starting line in Ensenada.

5 o’clock in the morning arrives all too quickly, but the entire team was up before the alarm hoping to dispel nervous energy by completing their pre-race tasks in a very deliberate manner. From a dim low-ceilinged basement parking garage of a shady Ensenada hotel came the call-and-response-type communications of a well oiled team. “Bikes fueled?” “Check!” “Fluids topped off?” “Done!” As the pre-race checklist was completed and a silence fell over our five man team, we knew it was time to head to the starting line.

The motorcycles would start several hours before the Pro and Trophy Trucks. As such, the crowd of high-horsepower race fans had not yet begun to form on the sidewalks. The sun still had not risen as we exited the hotel garage, and there was a sense of serenity on Federal Highway 1 – the proverbial calm before the storm.

The orange inflatable NORRA beacon stood before us, which signified both the start and end of each race day. Other riders and their teams had begun to line up; Team BA Moto, Nate Hudson on bike number 58 and Viet Nguyen on bike number 82, would depart one minute apart from each other. Our old pal Murphy kindly paid us a visit to enforce his Law mere minutes before go time, and the 58 bike sprung a gas leak from a faulty fuel cap gasket. The team leaped into action and fashioned a temporary gasket from what materials we had available in the chase van, just in time for the bikes to pull up to the line. There’s nothing like a minor emergency to get the party started!

The NORRA flag girls put a great deal of effort into making each racer’s start a heart-pumping experience, but when the Triumph’s came roaring to life in the moments before Race Mile 1, everyone on the scene couldn’t help but stop and pay heed. The throaty engine growls even grabbed the attention of Mike Pearlman, son of founder Ed Pearlman, who came over to scope out the bikes. The flag was raised. And then three, two, one…

Rally Day 1 would take the race from Ensenada to San Felipe by way of 168.90 miles of dirt and 31.30 miles of on-road transit. The 850-horsepower trophy trucks barreling along at a 130-mph pace easily caught up to the pack of two-wheelers on the El Diablo Dry Lake Bed, passing motos like they were tied to a pole! The chase team reunited with both Triumphs and their riders, without incident, on the beach in San Felipe. Of note amongst the day’s finishers were a VW Vanagon 4WD Synchro, two Porsche 911s, a Triumph TR3 car and a Yamaha sidecar hack. The week was off to a very auspicious start.

Rally Day 2

We began Day 2 with a spring in our step, which was subsequently dampened by a call over the radio from Nate on the 58 bike. A weld seam on his steel gas tank had begun to fail. Team BA Chase put the pedal to the metal, insomuch as much as our Ram Promaster van would allow. As luck would have it, Federal Highway 5 had been diverted off-road in our current location, and we were stuck in a slow-speed conga line of 50 or more chase vehicles on a bumpy route that took us by historic Coco’s Corner.

We caught up to our riders at a pit stop near El Crucerito, just as the Mag7 workers had begun to concoct a magical potion of metal epoxy to help dam up the tank. We had long ago decided that the bikes would remain as a pair throughout the entire race, affectionately deemed ‘Team Shake and Bake.’ So, Viet stood next to the 82 bike, looking completely composed, and keeping track of the time before the next required checkpoint. Nate gave a nod of approval to his bike as he gazed upon the tank secured with tie-down straps and padded out by a couple of rags. The last section of Day 2 to Guerrero Negro had begun.

The 58 bike back on the trail after a repairing a gas tank leak at a pit stop in El Crucerito.

The 58 bike back on the trail after a repairing a gas tank leak at a pit stop in El Crucerito.

For those of you whom have never had the pleasure of feasting your eyes on this very special section of the Baja Peninsula, it can be summed up in one word: sand. There is nothing but miles upon miles of deep sandy whoops. In our case, 113.00 miles of them. This may not be an impossible task for a modern machine, where a rider can lean back and let the bike do the work skipping over whoops like an overzealous bunny. However, limited suspension travel and sheer mass of the Triumphs would not allow such maneuvers. Middle-aged British bikes must muscle through each peak and valley in low gear. It was here that the 58 machine met its untimely demise, a mere 10 miles from the finish line in Guerrero Negro.

The Walker Evans team revving their engine, as Viet waits at the checkpoint.

The Walker Evans team revving their engine, as Viet waits at the checkpoint.

As the chase team was waiting anxiously, Viet roared into the pits on the green bike and screamed “Nate’s down!” Not knowing what to expect, we all jumped into the van and sped north backtracking in the direction from whence we came. As we loomed closer to our rider’s location, we learned that the bike had been screaming at a high rpm in low gear for too long to get through the sand. With a breather hose puking oil from the crankcase, the 58 bike ultimately ended it’s race with a bottom-end hard seize. A whiskey-soaked voice came over the radio. “I’ve been out here for hours; I’m taking a nap. Don’t wake me up when you get here,” said Nate. It was that day we all learned the true reason why NORRA recommends that hard alcohol be included with each rider’s emergency supplies.

Rally Day 2: Awaiting a lift out of the desert near Guerrero Negro. At least there's whiskey.

Rally Day 2: Awaiting a lift out of the desert near Guerrero Negro. At least there’s whiskey.

Rally Day 3

The events of Day 2 had thoroughly bruised our morale, but in true ‘Team Shake and Bake’ fashion, Nate and Viet agreed to continue on to the end of the race co-riding the number 82 bike. The entire BA Moto team unanimously voted to do anything and everything possible to get the last Triumph standing through the remaining stages and across the line in Cabo. All for one, and one for all in the true spirit of racing.

Due to a last-minute administrative change which eliminated the first off-road portion of the day, Viet would be the only rider to take the helm on Day 3. The first section consisted of a 52-mile on-road transit to San Ignacio, a lovely little land-locked mission town. The shadow of the 231-year-old mission loomed over Viet at the checkpoint, as if it were holding a vigil over the remainder of the day. The final special stage contained a gruelling 206-mile leg to Loreto. The direction of the course would take all riders to the complete opposite side of the peninsula than their support vehicles, which were remanded to traveling via Federal Highway 1. For the next 10 hours, we would neither have access to the 82 machine nor contact via radio. The race, for now, was solely in Viet’s hands.

Rally Day 3: 206 miles until the next pit stop. Jesus, take the handle bars.

Rally Day 3: 206 miles until the next pit stop. Jesus, take the handle bars.

The drive to Loreto along Highway 1 is stunning, marked by private white-sand beaches, the sound of waves crashing on the shore, and fruity cocktails beneath shady palapas. Under any other circumstances, this place would have been paradise. Yet, the BA Moto chase van whizzed past this idyllic landscape as the crew restlessly discussed Viet’s approximate time of arrival. Once in town the team sat adjacent to the orange NORRA finish line; there was nothing to do but wait. With one ear to the ground, just as the sun began to dip into the ocean, we heard the incoming rumble of our bike. Another day in the bag.

Rally Day 4

Mornings in Loreto are like a watercolor painting. A backdrop of purples and blues on the seashore mingled amongst dozens of race machines waiting to depart on what would prove to be the most technically challenging day of the entire race. In particular, this 237-mile section of off-road course was dotted with obstacles like 45-degree hill-climbs in silt and never-ending boulder fields. Nate’s facial expression descended into apprehension as he kicked over the trusty 82 machine and discovered that the bike’s compression was all but absent. As if in a Groundhog Day-esque loop, the start flag dropped once more and the team watched his silhouette disappear up the road into the sunrise.

Rally Day 4: Sunrise at the starting line on the beach in Loreto.

Rally Day 4: Sunrise at the starting line on the beach in Loreto.

We didn’t know it yet, but Day 4 would mark our make-it-or-break-it moment that put our stamina, endurance limit and mechanical prowess to the test. While waiting to pit at a stop in Constitucion, the emergency satellite phone began to ring. This is never a good sign. It was Nate’s resolute voice, sounding distant on the line.

“The top end blew up,” he said. “I’m being towed out of the desert by some shady locals. Get to La Paz, set up shop, and pull the top end off the 58 bike. I’ll be there as soon as I can; it’s going to be a long night.” Boy oh boy, was that ever an understatement.

Let’s pause for a second to recall that earlier comment regarding size. Frustrated and exhausted riders on modern bikes coming off the course that day could be heard uttering statements like, “If you weren’t a trials rider before today, then you are now!” And, “Seriously, what the… I mean, c’mon… how many giant rocks did we have to bunny-hop over?!”

At that exact moment a dim little lightbulb switched on over our heads – this was definitively not the type of course that Steve McQueen and Malcolm Smith had traversed decades earlier. It became abundantly apparent that they must have been solely running their race over reasonably smooth trails and along the beaches, as opposed to a course tailor-made for the now ever-so popular trophy truck class. So, yes, it is a matter of size when that type of terrain brutalizes a Triumph’s 4 inches of travel, compared to 13 on a state-of-the-art dirtbike and a trophy truck’s 36-40 inches. With this in mind, we were feeling at a distinct disadvantage but also pretty warm and fuzzy that we’d made it this far.

Rally Day 4: Team BA Moto getting topless in La Paz.

Rally Day 4: Team BA Moto getting topless in La Paz.

Meanwhile, back in La Paz, Team BA Moto circled the wagons around our hobbled machines and prepared to perform mechanical surgery. Here began our second race, the race to fix the damage sustained over 1000 miles of off-road punishment. We set our chances of reviving one bike at about 50/50, knowing full well that cannibalizing parts from number 58 was not a surefire guarantee. The motors were similar but not identical.

Upon inspection, one exhaust valve on the 82 bike had collected so much carbon that it had wedged itself open. A little elbow grease and a good sharp blade solved that problem. The rings were toast, but the pistons didn’t look half bad. Unfortunately, only one bike contained high-dome pistons, although both had the same diameter top end bore. As such, the piston rings were identical twins. In a last ditch effort, we decide to just swap out the rings from one bike to another. Never having imagined we would need to pack a piston-ring compressor in the tool box, it took all five of us to gingerly squeeze those rings into the barrel of the 82 bike by hand. We created Frankenstein’s Monster in the parking lot of a Mexican hotel that night, and she fired up stronger than she had on Day 1. By one o’clock in the morning, we were back to our regularly scheduled race programming.

Rally Day 5

Day 5 is a short day for most but was eternally long for our team. Viet quickly handled the first off-road section of the day, but arrived at the pit stop in Los Barriles with one thing to say: “One of the head bolts sheared off.” This was likely the result of over tightening during the whirlwind reassembly the night before. With a compromised seal between the top and bottom ends, oil began to creep out of every possible orifice.

A mere 72.90 miles stood between us and the final finish line. Through the contemplative silence, one of the crew exclaimed, “Just send it!!!” Nate, armed with two extra quarts of engine oil, waved goodbye as he rode back into the dust.

Rally Day 5: Leaving La Paz on the home stretch.

Rally Day 5: Leaving La Paz on the home stretch.

Through the powers of GPS, were were able to track our rider’s progress and speed in real time. On the other hand, that also meant we could see that the trophy trucks were right on our tail. There was an average speed differential of about 50 mph between the trucks dicing for first and second in their class, and our rider who was fighting for a very different type of victory.

The last 10 miles of the race took the course through a marshy inlet, with sandy whoops similar to those that sucked the life out of the 58 bike on Day 2. Suddenly, the GPS showed number 82 at zero mph and our hearts dropped. The bike had begun to overheat, but this turned out to be just a precautionary stop.

Ten minutes felt like 10 years before the tracker began to slowly ping along at a snail’s pace – 5 mph, then 8, and then 15. Nate leveraged every ounce of that T100’s 500cc displacement to get back to the tarmac. Even amongst the thousands of horsepower gathered at the finish line, we could hear the unmistakable sound of that 48-year-old machine thundering up Race Mile 1250 to total victory.

The entire team charged the finish platform in disbelief as the checked flag swung around us. Surrounded by hundreds of people, we were alone in a success that should have been an insurmountable challenge – a team bonded by an incredible week and enough stories for an entire lifetime of bench racing. An hour later, wading in the hotel pool with cold beers in hand, we began to plan next year’s bikes.

The infectious nature of desert racing is undeniable (No, not that kind of South-of-the-Border infection!). I have been truly inspired by the extraordinary sportsmanship and perseverance of my team and the other racers at the NORRA Mexican 1000, and would personally love to take a swing at piloting one of my own bikes in the race. Perhaps two BA Moto riders will become three in 2018. Tune in next year for the continued adventures in humbling desert racing experiences…

Rally Day 5: A triumphant ending to the race for the little team that could.

Rally Day 5: A triumphant ending to the race for the little team that could.