Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Big Changes Coming To Baja 1000

If you have not heard the news, big changes are underway for the 2013 SCORE Baja 1000. While no official announcement has arrived yet from the crack SCORE media team, it looks assured that for the first time ever, motorcycles will start in the nighttime, the day prior to the regular race start.

Yes, you hear me correct. Roger Norman has decided the best way to get motorcycles away from the charging  Trophy Trucks is to start them the night before the regular race start. This move is intended to make motorcycle racing safer.
Other news on the way will be the announcement of a qualifying race to determine the start order for all pro class motorcycles. There will also be a new Ironman pro class. Pro motorcycle class entry fees are now up to roughly $3,000 (including Ironman).
As a sideline pundit, all I can say is wow! What a great bunch of fodder for us to chat about. As a racer, I guess I would be left scratching my head just a little. The whole night start idea has so many aspects, complete unknowns, we will all just have to wait and see how it plays out.
But let’s start with the good. The Ironman Pro class is way overdue. It was something that previous owner Sal Fish would never even talk about. This is real man racing! I have a slightly entertaining story to relate, it sort of talks about the status of Baja racing in general.
We all know Johnny Campbell and refer to him as “11-time”, the eleven time winner of the Baja 1000. While Baja is one of the most famous races world wide, most moto fans outside of US know very little about how it actually works.
I was chatting with Laia Sanz while we were in Baja recently. She was an amazing person to meet, I really enjoyed hanging out with her. Anyway, her English is still coming along, so we talked primarily in Spanish. She was with Johnny and knew of his championships, but did not realize that Baja was “team” racing. She just assumed, that like most other world class racing, it was an individual sport. It took a little while for me to explain that there are a number of other very talented, perhaps overlooked, riders that had contributed team Honda’s 11 Baja 1000 victories.
Ironman racing might bring a great long term change to Baja. Riding solo could become the real man’s class. Well, for women too, as 2 women have completed the Baja 1000 solo.
As for night racing, I am still pondering that one. Maybe I should write down a list of pros and cons to keep it all straight. I am far from being ready to pronounce it as “safer”, safer than anything. As the list of ways to get injured in Baja goes, getting hit by a Trophy truck is statistically way down there. Certainly not even in the top three.
For those who may not know, this all stems from new SCORE owner Roger Norman’s personal experience as a race truck driver. Roger ran over a motorcycle rider a few years ago in a race. The fault appeared to rest primarily on the motorcycle racer. He pulled off line to let one truck by, got back on the course, not realizing another truck was right behind the first one. So this has become Roger’s crusade.
Baja racing is very dangerous, there are no two ways about it. But now we see a break down, a distinction between what might be acceptable and what is not. The organizers want to avoid a high profile kind of accident, like that between a bike and four wheel race vehicle. Yet, something that is statistically far more likely, such as a collision between a bike and non-race vehicle is many more times likely to happen. This is sort of an accepted hazard.
It is like comparing an auto accident on the freeway to a motorcycle accident. As a society we seem to have an unlimited tolerance for auto accidents as mere fact of life. Yet one motorcycle accident happens and everyone wants to talk about how dangerous they are and something needs to be done about it. It is like talking about how dangerous guns are.
But before I get too far off the subject, I guess you can see my point. A nighttime start through the streets of Ensenada may well prove to be equally as dangerous as anything else that might occur in the race. As for being in the name of safety, my knee jerk reaction is that it is at least as dangerous as what they are trying to eliminate in the first place.
The night race will bring a new level of complexity to the motorcycles and chase crews. With the 11pm scheduled start time and 900 mile course, most bikes will start and finish in the dark. They will have to use lights twice. Chase crews will have to start out of town in the dark also. While there will be less traffic on the roads, night time driving in Baja is notoriously dangerous on the narrow roads.
There will be no helicopter support for the first 8 hours of the event. The top 3 or 4 teams use helicopters to open the route for their rider. The rider, having pre-run his section many times, has committed it to memory. The helicopter talks with the rider via radio to relay any unexpected issues on the course, such as traffic or animals, effectively acting as the racers eyes on the course ahead. This is why such high speeds are part of Baja riding.
The darkness will also preclude any air medical assistance for the same time period. There is no night time flying in Mexico. In a way, it only changes the time frame during the race for no air support, from the late stages of the race, to the start. But it can also be argued that the chances of accidents are more prevalent towards the beginning of a race than the end.
As for the new qualifying procedure, it is an interesting twist. Bikes usually start by class. Any rider can enter any class, so speeds vary wildly even in the pro classes. This will let all the fastest riders start in the front and that is probably safer. It does add another day of work to an already busy schedule for the motorcycle teams.
The feel seems to be that SCORE would like to phase out the classes for slower riders, the sportsmen. The climbing entry fees might be aimed at just that. This has to be the most expensive day of off road racing anywhere in the world. I mean, how else do you justify three grand?
At the same time the stated goal is to reach 1,000 motorcycle entries. So is that going to be a thousand pro motorcycle teams? Maybe that is just a 1,000 total riders, either way, talk about some pie in the sky dreaming. Personally I think the organizers have been assuming that somehow this will become an event that is on par with The Dakar Rally and command any price for an overwhelming number of entries.
Come November we will all get a chance to see how this plays out. I would love to see the Ironman class grow to a level of importance to rival the pro teams, but at that entry price, there will only be a handful takers. It will take a serious commitment from many more manufactures to get this race to a world class level for any of the classes. There is not even a hint of anyone else joining up. For now it remains just Honda and KTM.
As for the night start, it will be anyone’s guess for the outcome. No one is more for safety than me. I consider many of these racers personal friends and I hate to think of any of them getting injured. It is a tough thankless business to be an off road motorcycle racer, I get to see that aspect more than most people. It is a far cry from the wealthy man’s game of Trophy truck racing. I expect it is going to be a very hard road to find a direction that suits both and allows the race to grow.

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