Every religion has its icons, its holy grails. Often the legends are so powerful that just a word or two conjures the magic. Sometimes it's a place: You go there to prove yourself and return a changed person. Motorsports are no different. There's Daytona. Bonneville. Indy. Le Mans. The Isle of Man. And for off-roaders, nothing distills the dream like the short cough of two syllables, a Mexican ­moonscape where it's still just you and your bike: Baja.

The locals call it La Mil, and of course for us that completes the name: the Baja 1000. It's an event just 50 years old, yet it seems like it's been with us since the earth cooled. And how it all began is the story of a young Japanese company out to prove itself, a startup magazine called Cycle World, and two motorcycle enthusiasts who dared to walk up to the stone and pull out the sword.

“One small ride for man, one giant leap for motorcycling.”

American Honda began importing motorcycles into the United States in 1959, selling them in sporting-goods stores, gas stations, and from the beds of pickup trucks. At the time, “Made in Japan” meant inexpensive, imitative, or disposable. While Honda’s motorcycles were popular, many of motorcycling’s faithful viewed these new bikes with that same skeptical eye. A mere 39 hours one March weekend was all it took to disabuse the prejudice.

Walt Fulton and Jack McCormack were sales managers at the fledgling American Honda Motor Company, and they hatched a plan to demonstrate just how good their new CL72 Scramblers were. Bud Ekins, a tough Southern California racer and stuntman, had always wanted to ride a motorcycle the length of Baja. (In 1963, it was Ekins ­riding as Steve McQueen’s stunt double who performed the iconic Great Escape motorcycle jump.) Fulton and ­McCormack wanted Ekins and his brother Dave to attempt their Baja ride on Hondas. When sponsorship entanglements took Bud out of the picture, they drafted another young SoCal racer, Bill Robertson Jr.

Ekins in Bolivia
Ekins and his CL72 in La Paz. In the past 50 years, the bikes ­ridden in Baja have changed, but scenes like this never do. Park in a small town, and you’ll still draw a crowd of curious kids.Cycle World archives: Ekins Collection

Joe Parkhurst had founded Cycle World magazine just three months earlier, and got wind of the adventure. He in turn dialed up Catalina GP winner John McLaughlin to fly him and photographer Don Miller in a Cessna 195, chasing the riders and documenting the event for his June 1962 issue.

Baja is no joke today, but in 1962, it was tierra incognita to norteamericanos. The last maps of the place had been sketched out in 1933. The pavement ended shortly after the border, and no established road linked north to south. Ekins and Robertson would be finding their way to La Paz along a network of washes, dirt tracks, burro trails, and farm-access spurs that hadn't improved since the Jesuits founded a string of missions down there 200 years earlier. They navigated by the sun and stars.

Bud Ekins
Ekins was critical in helping develop the CL72 for Honda.Cycle World archives: Ekins Collection

They started in Tijuana on Saturday morning, March 17, stopping first at the local telegraph station. The telegram was time-stamped, objective proof of where they were and when. With little reliable fuel available, Fulton and Bill Robertson Sr. planned to leapfrog ahead in a Cessna 180, land on dirt roads, and act as a pit crew. There was no record to best: As Ekins later said, “We just drew a line in the sand for others to break.” If they made it, they would be making history. Today the Baja 1000 is a race; this was more akin to the first moon landing.

Baja race
Setting off from the Tijuana telegraph station.Cycle World archives: Ekins Collection

The Ekins/Robertson CL72s were amazingly stock. Brand-new machines, the riders fit them with Goodyear Grasshopper tires, Girdling shocks, and Reynolds chains. A tank bag held an extra gallon of fuel.

For the first 160 miles or so, down to San Quintín, everything was fine. Turning toward El Rosario and riding into the sunrise, Dave and Bill encountered a classic Baja hazard—a single strand of wire stretched across the road, which cleaned both of them off their bikes. Neither rider was hurt and the damage minimal. They kept going.

Time stamp in Tijuana
The time stamp here was essential in certifying their effort.Cycle World archives: Ekins Collection

Range was about 80 miles on the stock 2.25-gallon tank. At Chapula Dry Lake they met up with McLaughlin and Parkhurst for photos in late-afternoon light. In El Arco toward the end of the day, they missed a rendezvous with the plane but found a gas can and some sandwiches Walt Fulton had left with a local Federale.

Now they were on the Pacific coast, riding at night, and the spring fog rolled in. With stars for navigation, they soon found they’d ridden in a circle and did the only sensible thing: stopped, built a campfire, and waited for dawn. It probably cost them six hours. When the sun came up, they were back on the bikes and met up with their support team. From here on in it should have been easy.

Bill Robertson Jr.
Bill Robertson Jr. showing some honest Baja wear and tear.Cycle World archives: Ekins Collection

Ah, but how many of us have had to eat those same famous last words? When they finally hit some blacktop 130 miles north of La Paz where they could finally run wide open, Robertson’s CL72 started blowing smoke and running on one cylinder. Remember that crash way back near El Rosario? They’d torn off the bike’s rear fender, and that had allowed roost to tear apart the paper air cleaner. The inhaled dirt had caused a holed piston.

Dave wanted to push Bill in, but ultimately they decided to split up. Ekins rolled up to the La Paz telegraph office and posted his time; he’d ridden 952.7 miles. An hour and a half later, Robertson followed in under his own power.

One small ride for man, one giant leap for motorcycling.

Pit stop in Baja
Compare this pit stop to the one-minute efforts in Baja racing today. No motor homes, no GPS. Just a Cessna 180, a pair of 1962 CL72 Hondas, and nothing else as far as the eye can see. What heroes.Cycle World archives: Ekins Collection

Joe Parkhurst reported it so in the pages of Cycle World: "The average automobile usually makes the trip in seven to nine days, though the 'record' is held by a Jeep piloted by a foolhardy soul who made it in just under four days. The intrepid Honda riders cut the time down to a mere 39 hours and 56 minutes…including some short periods of rest, nine stops for fuel, and approximately six hours of being completely lost…"

Four years later, in 1966, the two Ekins brothers made the same trip on a pair of Triumphs. The very next year, NORRA (the National Off Road Racing ­Association) organized the first official race, the Mexican 1000. Of the 68 vehicles that started, 31 completed the ­950-mile course. In the past 50 years, Hondas have won the ­motorcycle class 27 times, each one in the long shadow cast by Dave Ekins and Bill Robertson Jr. back in 1962.