Unless you are eligible for an age-group class, when you enter the SCORE Baja 1000 on a Honda CRF450X you are automatically in Class 22: Open Pro racing with the big boys. For 2012 more so than in any recent year, all eyes in the dirt bike world were on the battle for the Class 22 championship between perennial powerhouse Honda, in the form of Johnny Campbell Racing, Robbie Bell’s Kawasaki team and the KTM effort spearheaded by Kurt Caselli. It was a winner-take-all deal: Win the race and win the championship.
At this year’s Baja 1000, however, another team got a lot of attention. They were the first team to draw for a starting position, and the first team off the line at the start of the race. The HERO (which stands for Helping Everyone Reach Out) Racing team of Chris Ridgway, Jim Wazny, and Mario “Super Mario” Panagiotopoulis started first on their M&M Racing, Johnny Campbell Racing Honda, Fox Shox and FMF supported Honda CRF450X, but that wasn’t the only first for this team: The dream was to become the first team in Baja history comprised entirely of “adaptive” riders to enter and finish the Baja 1000.
Each member of the team is a left leg amputee. For former Pro motocrosser Ridgway, amputation followed years of pain, and allowed him resume an active lifestyle after gaining a sports capable prosthesis from the Limbs For Life foundation. That experience led him to X Games medals and eventually to this opportunity to race for charity. By partnering with the Challenged Athletes Foundation, the HERO team had a chance to secure a prosthetic leg for another young athlete, so long as they finished the race. Ridgway has ridden Baja before, and his teammate Super Mario has raced the event in a car. Wasny is also a decorated X Games athlete on dirt and snow. Normally he and Ridgway are arch rivals, but they teamed-up for this chance to help another amputee.
Naturally the team had to make special mods to the bike. Instead of a left footpeg, the bike has an arrangement more like a stirrup. Ridgway has learned to shift normally, but his teammates required a push button shifter. Many of the mods to the bike are shared in common with the multitude of other Honda CRF450X machines entered in the race: big tank, GPS, flat resistant tires and such, but there was one team mod we’re certain was not common to other teams. Each rider used reflective tape on his expensive prosthesis in case they became separated after a crash and needed to locate the limb in the dark!
The team was fast and strong throughout the brutal race, finishing well within, if not in contention with, the top teams. Finishing was the dream and, as a result, a young golfer named Nicholas Knotts now will receive a prosthesis that will allow him to pursue his own dreams.