Mexican 1000: The Reunion Ride

Back to Baja with Malcolm Smith and the gang.

Baja sunset

Reunion Ride

Baja. Few words in the motorcycling lexicon are so evocative. Close your eyes and picture five decades worth of racing legends, from pioneering Dave Ekins and Malcolm Smith through record-setting Larry Roeseler and Johnny Campbell to current heroes Kendall Norman, Quinn Cody and Logan Holladay. Imagine dust-covered faces drawn with strain and fatigue, bikes battered by the endless pounding of the notorious Mexican desert, hearts swelling with the unequalled pride reserved for those who conquer Baja.

Dry, desolate and foreboding, this 1000-mile peninsula has captivated dirt riders for a half-century. The “Mexican 1000” is the most recent addition to the Baja racing lineup, deeply rooted in Baja bike history and its heritage worth exploring.

The true pioneer of dirtbiking in Baja California is Ekins, an early adaptor to Japanese motorcycles who raced Hondas in Southern California in the 1950s. In 1962, to demonstrate the reliability of the 250cc CL72 Scrambler, Ekins rode the length of Baja—Tijuana to La Paz—in just under 40 hours, a stunning achievement.

Now 80, still feisty and eschewing the politically correct, Ekins says, “Being the first round-eye to race Japanese motorcycles in the U.S., taking the shit I had to take for racing those ‘rice-burners,’ I think that ranks right behind my three kids as the thing I’m most proud of.”

If you were riding motorcycles—or desperate to—when Richard Nixon …

In '66, leading a Triumph-mounted quartet that included flamboyant dirt-tracker Eddie Mulder, famous for his flowing hair and flowered leathers, Ekins broke his own Baja record. This caught the attention of California fiberglass-wizard Bruce Meyers, who was eager to publicize his new "Manx" dune buggy. When Cycle World's founding publisher, Joe Parkhurst, proclaimed, "No four-wheeled vehicle will ever break the Baja motorcycle record," Meyers and buddy Ted Mangels seized the gauntlet. With their Manx stuffed with so much fuel that Meyers called it "a rolling bomb," they rarely stopped and took five hours off Ekins' record, the press release crowing "Buggy Beats Bikes in Baja."

Again, what mattered was who noticed. Ed Pearlman, active in SoCal's nascent off-road community, decided what Baja really needed was a race from Tijuana to La Paz; first one there gets the money! He organized the ambitiously named National Off-Road Racing Association (NORRA) and in November, 1967, staged the original "Mexican 1000," won by the Manx of Vic Wilson (Parkhurst's riding buddy and later owner of famed Saddleback Park) and co-driver Mangels.

Over time, Pearlman lost control of his race to current sanctioning body SCORE, who renamed it the “Baja 1000.” And for the record, “Buggy Beats Bikes in Baja” has been the exception, not the rule. In 32 of the 44 1000s to date, a bike was fastest overall.

In 2010, the Mexican 1000 was reincarnated thanks to an incredible coincidence. Ed Pearlman’s son, Mike, was holding a garage sale, and in walked Eddie Mulder! “I couldn’t believe it,” Mike recalls. “I had Triumphs when I was a kid, and Eddie was my hero. My Whitworth wrenches were in the sale, and I just blurted out, ‘Here, Eddie, take these, a gift from me.’”

Turns out, Mulder was house-hunting. He and Mike became neighbors, then friends. A tireless promoter of his “Eddie Mulder Vintage Dirt Track Series,” Mulder one night suggested to Pearlman, with typical tact, “Why don’t you get off your ass and do something like your dad did—organize a race?” Pearlman took that to heart. He reincorporated NORRA, reregistered the logo and organized the second coming of his father’s race.

Baja 1000

Reunion Ride

Whereas hell-bent “Baja 1000” fast guys typically finish in under a day, the “Mexican 1000” is a four-day rally and reunion—Mexicali to Cabo, with overnight hotel stays. Special tests comprising long dirt sections are challenging, while pavement transits observe the speed limit. Period cars, trucks and motorcycles are welcomed.  Oldest among this year’s 23 bike entries was a pair of Honda SL350s, vintage 1971 and ’72! That’s right, 50 years after Ekins made Baja history on an air-cooled Honda Twin, two 40-year-old descendants of that bike had their own moment in the Baja spotlight!

Last year, riding the ’72 SL350 solo, Oregonian Rick Fournier was alone in class. That intrigued Arizonan John Graves Jr., 161st-place finisher in the ’09 Baja 1000 and owner of a disassembled ’71 SL350. “We figured those Oregon guys needed some competition,” he says, so he rejuvenated his old Honda and recruited riders Rick Cooper, Allan Diehr, Bob Ince and his father, John Graves Sr., who contends for vintage roadracing podiums on a CB350, close cousin of the SL.

Ranked a remarkable third among bikes after Day 1, Graves’ team hit trouble on Day 2. Their hastily added aftermarket shocks were perfectly tuned—for a 500-pound pilot! The stiff ride killed the battery, and Fournier, this year supported by co-riders Luke Bennett, Paul Susbauer and Rick Teegarden, motored past for a second straight win, pronouncing the competition “lots of fun.” Both vow to return.

And if racing SL350s down Baja seems nuts, save some sympathy for New Jersey’s Andrew Folcher, who rode what one reviewer called “the worst motorcycle Yamaha ever built,” a 1973 SC500 scrambler! Folcher admits, “I was totally unprepared. Without helpful locals, fellow competitors and NORRA officials, I’d still be out in the desert somewhere.”

Sure enough, the big two-stroke blew up almost immediately, but ex-Marine Folcher hitched rides for himself and the broken bike, making it to each overnight though never in time to effect repairs. He finally got it running for the final day, rolling through 10 miles of Cabo traffic with no clutch but finishing under power.

Mexican 1000 competitor aspirations varied. Aiming low, Texas enduro-series regulars Nate Nickerson and Mathew Seiler “were amazed we made it to Cabo” but are eager to return. Aiming high is Doug Chapman who, with limited motorcycling experience, recently discovered the Dakar Rally—and decided he wants to ride it! Chapman’s Mexican 1000 was part of a carefully planned training and education program. Finishing 12th, his dream intact, he vowed, “I intend to ride the Dakar in 2015.”

Up front, Mexican off-road hero Octavio Valle won by an hour over Illinois’ Mike Gilkey, who made his racing bones as a dirt-tracker in the age of Scott Parker and Jay Springsteen. There followed lavish food, drink, trophy presentations and the spectacle of 71-year-old Baja legend Malcolm Smith, six-time winner of the 1000 (three bikes, three buggies), diving into the pool, boots and all!

John Graves Jr. summed it up: “The Mexican 1000 is a lot less stress and a lot more fun than the Baja 1000, plus you get to hang out with Baja royalty.”

Indeed. In nightly bench-racing sessions, luminaries including Walker Evans, Bob and Robby Gordon, Bruce Meyers, Vic Wilson and more wove an oral history, captured by executive producer Marty Fiolka for a film called The Baja Social Club, set for fall release. But no tale topped that of Smith's very first Mexican 1000.

2012 Mexican 1000

Mexican 1000-Mexicali to Cabo

Husqvarna distributor Edison Dye gave Smith a new 360cc Husky and agreed to pay expenses—if he won! While Smith prepped the bike and memorized the definitive Lower California Guidebook, a friend drove south in a VW bug, deploying cans of gas along the route.

Flagged off 17th, Smith pinned the Husky and headed south. He passed the Ensenada airport just as teammate J.N. Roberts boarded a plane to El Arco and the rider change. Watching Smith streak past flat on the gas tank, the Husky screaming for mercy, Roberts asked himself, “Why am I getting on an airplane to fly 500 miles to the middle of nowhere when that bike’s not going to make it 50 miles out of town?”

But Smith shocked everyone. “At the riders’ meeting,” he recalls, “they estimated the race leader would get to El Arco about 6 a.m. I got there at 5 o’clock the previous evening!”

Unfortunately, Roberts had not studied the guidebook, instead insisting, "I never get lost." Well, this time he did, eventually following Wilson's victorious Manx to the finish. Roberts and Smith settled for second overall and first motorcycle.

More adventure ensued. The plan was to drive the old VW home, but it broke down. Smith and company were rescued from desert heat by a helpful Mexican who invited them to literally climb atop his load of live sea turtles! After the driver stopped at every opportunity to wet down his smelly cargo, the heroic Baja racers finally made their humble return to Ensenada three days later.

Forty-five years hence, Smith and son Alexander settled for third in this year's Mexican 1000 after their 30-year-old Husky seized, payback perhaps for the failure that didn't occur back in '67. At the end of Day 2, in a symbolic moment spanning nearly a half-century of Baja racing history, Robby Gordon's state-of-the-art Dakar Hummer fell in behind Smith, following this Baja pioneer into Loreto. Smith's take was typical Malcolm: "That was fun."

Note the pattern: To a man, Mexican 1000 riders describe the race as “fun.” A final Eddie Mulder anecdote explains why. Mike Pearlman’s chance meeting with Mulder rekindled his motorcycle passion, and soon, Mulder had him winning Pikes Peak hillclimb trophies. But Pearlman’s first race was scary. “I was really feeling the pressure,” he recalls, “until Eddie leaned over and stuck his finger in the dirt. ‘Mike,’ he said, ‘look here,’ and he scratched out three letters: F–U–N. He looked me in the eye and said, ‘Remember this, the whole reason we’re here is to have fun.’

“I’ll never forget that moment,” Pearlman concludes. “And Eddie’s advice became the guiding principal of the Mexican 1000: Whatever else we do, we’re gonna have fun.”

Baja sunset

Reunion Ride

Baja sunset.Tim Sanchez -
Mexican 1000 Gear

Equipment and Gear

Mexicali to Cabo or bust... 2012 Mexican 1000.Joe Insinga
Desert racing: Mexican 1000

Mexican 1000 participants in-action

Mexican 1000 participants in-action.Tim Sanchez -
Signage along the race route

Mexican 1000 signage

Mexican 1000 signage.Tim Sanchez -
Missing headlight

Sunshine, palm trees and...battle scars.

Sunshine, palm trees and?battle scars. The Baja California peninsula is well-known for exacting heavy tolls on motorcycles and, occasionally, their riders. But, like moths to a flame, they keep coming back.Tim Sanchez -
Meyers Manx replica dune buggy

On hand at the reunion was a replica of the Meyers Manx.

?Buggy beats bikes in Baja!? That exclamatory headline served as the genesis for the inaugural NORRA Mexican 1000. On hand at the reunion was a replica of the Meyers Manx that, in 1966, carried Bruce Meyers and Ted Mangels from Tijuana to La Paz in record time.Joe Insinga
Malcolm Smith

Off-road legend Malcolm Smith cools his heels in the hotel pool.

Charter member of the Baja Social Club? Off-road legend Malcolm Smith cools his heels?along with the rest of his gear!?with a post-reunion-ride dip in the hotel pool.Tim Sanchez -