Forty Years of Baja.

    Cycle World
    May 19, 2010

By: Ryan Dudek

In March, 1962, Dave Ekins and Bill Robertson Jr. made a daring run down the Baja peninsula to prove the durability of a pair of Honda 250cc CL72 Scramblers. Conventional wisdom afforded the better part of a week for the duo to cover the difficult 963 miles from Tijuana to La Paz. Ekins made it in 39 hours and 56 minutes; Robertson finished two hours later.

That seminal ride provoked others to attempt the same feat and ultimately
inspired the 1967 NORRA-sanctioned Mexican 1000. Six years later, when SCORE took over the reins, the race was renamed the Baja 1000. In the years that followed, Honda has continued to use the Mexican peninsula as its proving grounds. The course for the most recent running was the second-longest in the event’s history—1296 miles—and only the second time the race ended in Cabo San Lucas at peninsula’s end.

Two years ago, Honda switched from the legendary XR to the modern CRF450X. The early air-cooled 600s and later liquid-cooled 650s had a nine-year Baja win streak. Yet Steve Hengeveld, Mike Childress and Quinn Cody scored the win on the 450; a like-mounted Johnny Campbell-led effort finished second.

When it came to choosing the CRF450X over the XR650R, there were no disadvantages, only benefits. The X is lighter, accelerates more quickly, handles better and stops faster. Even in top speed, the X is comparable to the 650, reaching 113 mph on the street and 108 mph on the dirt. More importantly, with the X, the riders are able to push harder with greater confidence.

“You can be more aggressive, go at things harder and come out at the same speed as on the 650,” notes Campbell, who spent most of his career on large displacement XRs. “The X has a really good balance of stability, tracking and weight.”

For the 40th-anniversary effort last November, Honda gave its 450X full factory treatment using a blend of CRF450X and CRF450R components. The liquid-cooled single-cylinder engine was built in Japan and housed in a special chassis. Most of the modifications to the aluminum frame were done around the headlight mount in an effort to secure the two massive halogens in a way that didn’t alter overall balance and rigidity. The bike was then shipped to American Honda, where team manager Bruce Ogilvie took charge. For final prep, he worked closely with Precision Concepts, an important player in Honda’s SCORE success.

Arguably, the most top-secret component is the stator. Housed inside a fancy machined cover is something Honda would neither show us nor shed light upon. This we know: The stator is able to pump out more than 200 watts, with each light requiring 100 watts and the ignition absorbing the rest. Stock X output is about 70 watts. Because of the power needed by the dual headlights, the factory X does not have a battery or an electric starter. Lights are important in Baja because a significant portion of the race is run during the night, and for high speeds the big halogens work better than HIDs.

I was able to ride the race-winning Honda immediately following last year’s event. The bike was still in the exact condition it was in when it finished the race—dirty and with only one functioning headlight. Despite the engine’s ability to generate serious speed in short order, power delivery was smooth—it has to be or the riders will wear out quickly. Even in fifth gear, the engine pulled hard.

The chassis felt to me like an off-roader that had been turned into a motocrosser. The suspension is tuned specifically for Baja and its rough desert terrain. No surprise, then, that the bike glided flawlessly over whoops.
Okay, some control was required, but keeping the throttle pinned was not a
problem, even when the sizes of the bumps changed. The suspension bottomed on g-outs harder than I expected, but taking into consideration that the oil in the fork and shock had already been subjected to 24 hours of abuse, performance was far beyond the norm.

Ergonomics are similar to those of the CRF450R; the oversized fuel tank didn’t feel much larger than a stock X tank. Those big headlights are odd in that they don’t move with the handlebars. And, yes, they do add some weight, but the increased pounds are well worth it for the brightest lights at night. If you can’t see, you can’t go fast.

In terms of cost and parts availability, a factory off-road racer is not the equivalent of a factory motocrosser; it’s simply not possible for a consumer to recreate a works MXer. That being said, a successful Baja program doesn’t come cheaply. “Our costs in Mexico are pretty high,” admits 10-time race-winner Campbell. “A set of tires will last a long time on a motocross track. We’ll go through three or four sets, and the wheels are going to be trashed, too. Also, the entry fee for the Baja 1000 is $1200. Then you have a transponder, gas—each team will go through 50 to 60 gallons of fuel—food, hotels, transportation, pit crews, Mexican insurance…”

According to Malcolm Smith–credited with “First Motorcycle” in 1967 on a Husqvarna 360 and a veteran of 35 1000s in multiple classes, including trucks—the major difference between Baja then and now is speed. “I just rode my old Husky around, and it hardly has any brakes, the clutch doesn’t work very well, shifting is terrible, suspension is bad. Riders are going so much faster now because the bikes are so much better. I’d hate to ride an Open-class bike at the speeds Campbell or Robby Bell rides it. Now, it’s like an off-road motocross race.”

That’s a far cry from what Ekins and Robertson Jr. envisioned when they set out to conquer Baja in 1962. Then again, their CL72 250cc Twins were a far cry from the CRF450X that Honda now campaigns in what has become over the past four decades one of the best-known off-road races in the world.

Originally published on the August 2008 issue of  Cycle World.

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