Saturday, June 7, 2014. 10:42 a.m.
In the Score Command Center of the Baja 500, it’s cool and quiet. Carefully spaced out at headquarters in the Red Room of the Riviera del Pacifico Cultural Center are two giant projection screens and two big-screen HD television sets. They show one car taking off at a time on one screen, a huge GPS map of the course, including the VCP points it’s so important for each driver and reader to hit. It looks sort of like a topographic map, but it’s broadcast directly off a satellite. Another one broadcasts an emergency broadband feed showing who has broken down and where, accompanied by CB communications from here at the nerve center of it all to each troubled crew and driver. And on the fourth giant screen there’s the Lord of all of it, Roger Norman.
A former Baja 1000 winner, he runs every aspect of the whole shebang while, simultaneously—and miraculously calmly, I might add—micro-managing, delegating authority and playing the Master of Ceremonies of the whole thing while surrounded by a group of statuesque pneumatic all-American platinum blonde females, all of whom are competent at the kind of glad-handing, interviewing and reading-off-a-teleprompter style that totally mimics Norman. I’m only 300 feet or so from him on the packed start/finish line, but it could be a continent.
Seen from so many different vantage points, the course, running counter-clockwise this year, still has its usual devilish cocktail: a full 500 miles of high-speed dirt trails, sand, rocks, silt, natural terrain, fiendishly laid out human traps, washes and canyons, and it includes elevation changes from sea level to more than 4,000 feet above sea level. Additionally this year offered up new terrain to rock the world of even the most jaded veteran.
Stationed around me are groups of guys in Score polo shirts. Two groups of guys at their computers, one speaking Spanish the other English. They monitor the race, calculate where everyone is, post info on the net, and communicate with emergency services. Then there is a separate group in headphones who monitor where everyone is and one last group of volunteers who greet the public and help out crew members who come in with questions.
It’s all very quiet and impressive and very, very dull. The only thing that spoils all this mute efficiency is the fans. Families, mostly Mexican-Americans, dressed head to toe in every kind of Baja race paraphernalia and clothing. They come in and want to know how a certain performer is doing. The most popular being Robby Gordon, who everyone seems to want to know is in what position.
On my part, I endeavor to remain like a fly on the wall. Flitting in and out between the Red Room and the Start/Finish line all day. I only break in on these guys three times while trying to figure out what is happening to Team Badoink. In a way it’s sort of like being in Bomber Command in a World War II stiff-upper-lip-type movie. They become a dot on the GPS map, a dark fuzzy ball moving laterally west. Tim, Mark and Chuck: Fast moving fuzzy dots.
“So, you’re in charge of everything?”
Roger Norman smiles. “Everything. I’m in charge of everything. All of it, for the last three years.”
“You juggle a lot of balls?” He nods. “And you won the Baja 1000 in 1992.”
He likes that I came prepared and that I went to the drivers meeting last night and the way I quiz him a little about how many of the drivers were upset about having to hit the VCPS points and were upset at being penalized points for punishment if they missed them. “You don’t tell the drivers during the race?”
“That would upset them.”
“Wouldn’t it be better if you told them during the race, rather than afterwards?””
“That is under discussion,” he says like a politician, but then he mulls on it. “Could be psychologically damaging, you know, to some drivers.”
During our banter, word hits that Justin Davis is ‘dead on the highway.’ “Don’t leave him out there fit to roast, Tom,” Roger tells Tom Sullivan his equally garrulous second-in-command.
In between chit-chat with me, he’s giving directives, chatting on his mobile, whispering in volunteers’ ears, shaking hands with fans, signing pieces of paper and looking at his watch. Very impressive. After all that, I follow him outside as he casually steps into another M.C. persona. And over the day I definitely—a wee bit at a time—become a bigger and bigger admirer of Roger Norman as he ratchets up the vast, bubbling, inebriated crowd, engages in relentless innuendo-filled banter with all the pretty Score and Monster drink girls and yet is always remembering something, texting something else and looking to see not a hair is out of place.
In the end, I witnessed it all over the next nine hours. At the end, of the 232 starting vehicles in Round 3 of the Score Desert World championship entered into the 2014 Baja 500, only 126 managed to finish up the cruel 447-86 mile race. As that’s almost 50% of the competitors, our own Team Badoink fared no worse than your average racer and I’m proud of them for just having the cojönes to compete.
I won’t go over the results here. There’s a separate list of winners for each category, but it’s the bike guys I love for breathing desert dust for 500 miles. The very sight and smell of the Class 40 winner Giovanni Spinali embracing his teammates Mike Carter, Paul Thomas, John Griffin and Earl Roberts and washing the dust off each other with champagne was awesome to behold. It seems de rigeur for most winners to emphasize the hardships along the way but Espoli was having having none of it.
“The course was awesome right through,” he tells me. “We were leading all day.”
His partner, Mike Carter, who looks like a fourteen-year-old surfer, lurches all over the place in a state of utter joy, knocking his knees together like some drunken sailor in a cartoon. “Course was awesome. I even had time to stop and take three selfies. The fans were incredible, I swear even the seagull pointed the way home through the silt.”
The M.C.s have already made much emotional corn syrup over the fact that their winnings will go toward prosthetic limbs for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, so I choose to leave that one alone. The crowd are, at many points throughout the rousingly hot and humid day and the suddenly cool evening, so drunk and ratcheted up by all the rah-rah that even the slightest thing could cause utter chaos. Not that anything particularly bad happened, but I did see one drunken grandfatherly-looking man carrying a toddler on his shoulders as he stumbled drunkenly into a t-shirt stall and drag down around fifteen people and a bunch of t-shirts with him.
My main guy, however was Tony Gera, who, with a time of 11 hours and twenty minutes, actually beat out the time of Escoli’s four-man crew by four minutes, and that of his own opposition, the second-placed Kevin Daniels by more than 2 hours and 30 minutes. On a tiny Honda Honda XR65OR, Gera won the Iron Man contest, winning the whole damned thing alone. Indeed, he was so exhausted at the finish that he wouldn’t touch the champagne and avoided the hugs and kisses of the gathered finishing line Score babes. I think the only reason he ended up talking to me was that I was willing to prop him up back-to-back as he signed hundreds of autographs for an endless wave of Mexicans and Mexican Americans.
“Oh man, you’re beat,” I say. Very original. I give him the water in my bag because he won’t touch the Monster energy drink or the champagne or Coors Lite they jeep foisting on him. “Did you never have any doubts you were going to make it?”
“Nah. I started getting tired toward the end, but it all went pretty well.”
“Did you train a lot for this?” He looks at me like I’m insane. “You don’t work out a lot… Get fit?”
“I’m unemployed, chico. If I didn’t need the money, I wouldn’t race.”
“So you don’t, like, pre-prepare and go out on your cycle a lot?”
“Nah!” he laughs. “Don’t even like racing.”
“How do you find sponsors then?”
“Sponsors.” He leans in on my little hand-held digital recorder. “I wanna thank my sponsors. My mom, my dad, my little brother back in Santa Cruz… Ummm, eleven hours on this bike. I’m beat. I’m beat. I’m beat”
“You’re keeping the prize money, right?” Again, he looks at me like I’m nuts. “I mean you’re not gonna buy prosthetic limbs for veterans or anything like that.”
Dealing with Tony Gera, Giovanni Espoli’s group and the motorcycling teams of guys like Ricky Brabec, Ricky De La Peña and Francisco Arredondo really do take the thing beyond the clichés of the Wild West and ‘anything goes’ Mexico. This is what transcended the corporate realm for me and made the Baja 500 so much more than a moneymaking thing. Not that there was anything wrong, per sé, with dealing with Bryce Menzies, who won it all, B.J. Baldwin, Jesse Jones, Jason Voss, Rob MacCachren, David Ruvacalba or any of those guys with the trucks whose vehicles cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. From the conversations I had with so many of them, every one of them started out riding motorcycles and, although they’re highly successful, they’re also still a tad envious of the freedom guys like Espoli have and that they’ve lost in becoming more famous and riding in relative safety.