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Old 03-13-2007, 04:59 PM   #1
850 Combat OP
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Joined: Feb 2007
Oddometer: 199
Racing a road bike accross Baja in the late 80's

I was thinking of the fun trips I have taken on my MkIII Norton over the years. Unfortunately, due mostly to work, there have been none lately. I have ridden it all over the country, from Texas to LA, From LA to Oregon, From Virginia to Maine, Tennessee, etc.
One of the most fun long rides I ever had on it was riding it down to San Filipe Mexico for the La Carrera road race to Ensenada. This was in September of 1986. I had read the story in Cycle World by Steve Anderson about his adventures in the race, and I wanted to try it for myself. My brother drove my old VW Westfalia down as my pit crew, I rode the Commando down there from Lake Elsinore, California.
This is the only organized motorcycle race I have ever entered. We set out Friday night, after Paige, my brother, got off work. No spare parts were brought, because it didn’t seem that a little weekend trip of only about 650 miles should be a problem on the Commando, even if 125 miles of it was a race. I rode the Norton down from Lake Elsinore, California following Paige in my 1968 VW camper bus. Its kind of hard to ride that slow, but what are you going to do? We slept in the Van somewhere outside on El Centro, CA.
We hit the road in the morning, had breakfast in El Centro, and entered Mexico in Mexicali. Riding through Mexicali was no fun for me, but not as scary as riding through Tijuana. We got into San Filepe in the mid morning of the day before the race. After finding the headquarters, I asked about tech inspection. The official asked me if the Mexican border police had let me ride the bike into the country. When I replied that they had, he said “well you passed”. So much for tech inspection.
Before we rode into town, we saw a lot of race trailers and transporters out by the course, Mexican Route 3, pre running the course, and practicing. I felt pretty intimidated seeing how many of the participants were approaching the event. Many had been prerunning for days. These people were serious about it. I thought it was just a lark.

At the race headquarters, which happened to be at the waterfront hotel we were staying in, a lot of people were doing last minute tune-ups and oil changes and such. I cleaned and waxed a little on the Commando, but performed no maintenance at all. It had been tuned only a few hundred miles ago after all, and it just isn’t that fussy of a machine. A BMW rider who was parked next to me borrowed some cleaning stuff from me to tidy up after performing a hot valve adjustment on his boxer twin. He would end up crashing and to his death in the race.

One of the coolest things ever was to walk out front of the hotel, and see Gary Nixon crouched down sitting on his heels rubbing his chin while checking out my Norton. He thought it was a nice bike (and probably hoped I would keep it out of his way).
That night, I could not sleep at all, because off anxiety and fear. I was ready to drop out of the race.
In the morning, I talked myself out of dropping out of the race, and went ahead with the group to the start, about 25 miles to the north of the San Filepe race headquarters.
On the way to the start, a race broke out Everybody just started running faster and faster. I was feeling good, running along with a hot Ducati Pantah 600, each of us just screwing the throttle on little by little to keep up and to keep ahead.
At the start, the plan was for my brother to fuel me using the cans in the old Westy. He had problems due to an inability to communi­cate with the Federales at the start, who were closing the road. While he was trying to stop, the Federales were waving a pistol for him to go. This was not really in a threatening way, but disconcerting just the same. He went, leaving me behind unrefuelled.
I left the start thinking that It still was only 60 miles to the mandatory fuel stop, so I should still make it. What I did not know was that the night before, they called an additional riders meeting to announce that the mandatory pit stop had been relocated another 25 miles farther away from the start. The bike only holds 2 ˝ gallons, and although it gets pretty goof fuel mileage normally, it can be a bit thirsty when wrung out.
Now my Norton is not exactly a race bike. At that time, it had slightly raised compres­sion, 32 Mikuni’s, and an HPI #3 Cam, Progressive Suspension springs, S & W shocks, and rearset foot pegs are about the only mods save for the 1972 type exhaust system and slightly wider alloy wheels (18 in. in back).
It was (and is) a peppy street ride, but certainly not a race ma­chine of any sort. The bike still had all original internals including pistons, with the exception of the cam and gaskets, and about 35,000 miles on it. Just another day in paradise on my daily street bike. I didn’t even consider pre-running the course. It never occurred to me that it was that serious.
I had decided to leave the mirrors on it, as I expected to be overtaken quite a lot. Two motorcycles started every 30 seconds. I started next to a real clean tracker style Tri­umph with a Bonneville tank.
When we were waved off, I kind of let him go ahead a little, because I was still not com­fortable. Soon it was apparent that my 850 could easily run with the Triumph. Across the flats, it would pull 7100 or so rpm, for about 122 mph with the 21 tooth countershaft sprocket and tire size I had. That was expected. What was not expected, was that It would not main­tain that speed. At high speeds, fuel was apparently leaving the float bowls faster than it was running in from the fuel tank. I opened the reserve valve, but that did not completely solve the problem. It worked fine in the twisty bits, where the throttle was not constantly kept open wide, but on the long flat straights it would run out of fuel. It would only pull about 6200 rpm continuously without feeling like it was leaning out. Each time I had to let off the throttle for a turn, it would pull all the way past red line again until it starved again.
I ended up running out of fuel before the pit stop. I stopped and spectated for a little while enjoying the scenery until all the other bikes went by. Then, concerned about missing the party, I took off pushing. After a little while, probably less than a half of a mile, I encountered some spectators with ATC Hondas. After a little convincing, one of them graciously removed his gas tank, and poured its contents into my Norton roadster. Back in business!
I finally made it to the pits, where Paige had put the fuel can away. He thought at that time that he was facing the prospect of scraping me off the pavement somewhere with a shovel, and had closed up. It was not exactly a For­mula I style pit stop. He was more interested at first in finding out why I was so late in arriving than he was in fueling. He is yelling “What Happened” While I’m yelling “Get the Gas!” Finally, I get refueled and on my way again.

Although the road was officially “closed”, the Mexican authorities were not able to keep all non race traffic off the highway not even close. I passed 3 or 4 Mexican farm vehicles during the ride, some going my way, some not. I was mindful of this in the blind curvy and hilly sections. The left lane was not for me in a blind turn.
The road is a two lane crossing long stretches of flat desert and plain interrupted by three curvy and hilly sections. There are also a couple of villages. The desert area is populated by ranchers. There were more than a few horse mounted Mexican rancher types spectating from the side of the road. The road crossed a number of dry streams and washes in the desert areas. Rather than build a bridge, the road just dips down across the bottom of the stream A few of these crossings were a bit abrupt. A couple of times the Norton gained a few revs as the rear wheel caught a little air.
Back on the road, I finished the race without further incident, except I was now so late that the cars were catching me. I was leaning over in a right turn when I saw something out of the corner of my eye. It was a bright red Plymouth Superbird going sideways around me in the turn, driver and passenger grinning like fools. I rolled way off the gas and let them go. The race is the one and only time I have ever ridden on that road. It was a blind turn, and I was only willing to push so hard. I was just afraid that Hal Needham, in the Scoal Bandit Winston Cup car was close behind me and closing at close to 200 miles per hour. It wasn’t, but I was not all that excited about the prospect of being overtaken by a 3500 pound car going 200 miles per hour.
The finish was anticlimactic. I still aver­aged over 65 mph for the distance, even after running out of fuel and waiting for everybody to pass and walking. Fred Eiker won (among the bikes), averaging some 117 mph and change on his 1974 850 Norton. Three of the four or five bikes to average over 100 were Nortons. One was Nick lenatsch on a Motor­cyclist Magazine project Sportster, one was a Ducati 750 F1 Laguna Seca. Every Norton except mine beat every bevel drive Ducati that participated in the race, including a sweet Hailwood Replica which was entered. There were a lot of Ducati F1’s entered too, including Laguna Seca’s and Montuich’s. Most of the Norton’s beat up on all of those too.
There was free Tecate for the participants. I grabbed a can and walked up a hill to watch the rest of the entrants come in. When the Scoal Bandit came into view, probably going close to 150 mph (he averaged 137) it began to brake hard. The car moved around under braking, and actually made me wish I was watching from farther away for a moment.

At the finish, I was real stoked to find that my mother and my other brothers and sisters had driven down to meet us at the finish, and we all had a great time. I got to buy a round of drinks for a group including Mark Brelsford and Gary Nixon at dinner that night.
While nego­tiating the Tijuana traffic home on the Norton, the following morning, I got to split lanes toward the border crossing, running between most of the com­petitors who had trucked or trailered while they waited in line.

I believe that my bike was the only entry in the vin­tage class ridden there, raced, and ridden home. A lot of hot race bikes did not finish. I saw a beautiful Honda CB 750 looking like the one Dick Mann rode in 1970 at Daytona, and a great looking Guzzi broken down at the side of the road, among others. Probably a full race track machine has trouble on straights lasting 10 or 15 miles. The straight flat stretches across the top of Baja are miles and miles longer than the straights at most tracks.
It was a great race, and a pretty fun time. It was great to see Nortons do so well. The day before the race, the Ducati riders were pretty much just wondering which one of them was going to win it. My brother came down with a case of Montezuma’s Revenge on the drive back, and had to keep stopping.

I didn’t wait for him.

There were some photos inserted in here, but they fell out when I pasted it.
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Old 03-13-2007, 05:19 PM   #2
Neil Claydon
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Nice job !!!!

Nice, don't see many reports about the bikes I rode an the 70's, and a successful finish as well.
Top marks, got any more reports like this ?
Neil.
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Old 03-13-2007, 05:37 PM   #3
pepebaja
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Location: Valle de Guadalupe Baja California Norte MEXICO
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Hey!!! I went to two Gran Carreras that started in Ensenada and ended in San Felipe. I will search my stash of photos to see if I have a picture of your Norton. I do recall two sidecar race bikes, a benelli, several ducatis, one mint mike haylwood, a couple of new(back then r80gs), and for cars:
a vintage camaro that beat everyone with a nascar engine. It blew the doors of a porsche 935, a ferrari daytona, an aston martin db3, a ferrari 250 lusso, a couple of porsche 914-6, a renault alpine that looked like it raced the montecarlo rallye, jaguar ss and an xke that missed a turn and transformed itself from being completely restored to a total wrtie-off.
Too bad that the road continued to be neglected and i believe 1989 was the last event . It took big huevos to take such expensive machinery and race wide open the road from ensenada to san felipe. The mexican version of Corsica.
Thanks for bringing up good memoryes of people enjoying driving and RIDING machines that were meant to be used, not stored in a museum,
pepe
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Old 03-13-2007, 06:32 PM   #4
gaspipe
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Who was the guy in that black tube framed Camaro? Faster than hell.

That was a good time in roadracing.
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Old 03-13-2007, 07:03 PM   #5
850 Combat OP
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This was in 1987, and we actually raced from San Filepe to Ensenada. I think they were doing two per year there for a while.

Some loser bikes
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Old 03-13-2007, 07:35 PM   #6
oldxr
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great story-just finishing anything south of the border makes you a winner.i have been on that road a few times.the thought of racing modern bikes on that road makes me cringe.
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Old 08-10-2009, 07:09 PM   #7
Dogscout
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Bump for a cool tale

This is worth reading, especially for those with a Commando
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You sir are now denoobified and an honorary member of the secret order of the wtf thread. Well done sir, well done.
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