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06.18.13

Justin Jones 2013 Baja 500 Recap - LAND! LAND NOW!

Offroad - Baja 500

Athlete Blog / vurboffroad.com

I am basically a rookie to racing down in Baja, there always seems to be an adventure of some sort in every trip I have experienced so far. This year’s 45th annual Tecate Score Baja 500 did not disappoint me.


First off, I would like to explain to everyone where I put my two cents in for the Factory KTM/Bonanza Plumbing team. My job for these guys is to be the backup rider in the chase helicopter. So basically instead of knowing a couple hundred-mile section, I need to know the entire course. Riding the whole course is really not too hard to accomplish but I find it pretty difficult to memorize every corner that I can possible, but with enough time for pre-running it can be done. The KTM mechanics always have an amazing motorcycle for me to pre-run on. To my knowledge they let me ride a fairly close replica to the actual race bike despite the HUGE four-gallon gas tank. The bike is a dream! I always enjoy and look forward to putting in my miles on that baby! On top of all that, I’m normally riding side-by-side with KTM’s finest; Kurt Caselli, Mike Brown, and Ivan Ramirez. They are always very nice and supportive to me when I ask dumb rookie questions. The whole KTM off-road crew is always helpful in every way!

The start to any Baja race does not compare to any race of my prior experiences. There is always so much preparation and time that goes into every single one of these events, so like always tensions and nerves are high in the morning. As for my race morning, it started bright and early on Saturday around 3:45 a.m.  I woke up to my mechanic Robbie Goolsby standing beside me yelling, “Wake up!” With my iPhone in hand displaying the alarm setup screen which apparently, I fell asleep while setting the previous night. I rose to the foot of my hotel bed in a panic replying sarcastically to Robbie with a “Yes dad…” After peeling the crust out of my eyes I started to put my gear on. For not waking up on time I felt a little rushed in the process of getting ready. It was pretty early for a regular breakfast so with a granola bar in my mouth I finished putting my boots on. Around 4:15 Robbie and I met team manager Antti Kallonen, Dr. Alexander, and our pilot in the lobby. Robbie was the one dropping us off by our aircraft.

The helicopter was located at a ranch outside of Ensenada in Ojos Negros. It was parked there because if the thick cloud cover overwhelmed the town, we would be grounded until it had cleared. Teams JCR Honda and THR Kawasaki had their heli’s parked in the same ranch as ours. Before lift off I made small talk with Baja legend Johnny Campbell as not to my amazement, he was also in gear for his team as well. Even with so much on the line, all three teams were very nice and shook hands for good luck. We were the first to take off towards the very thick cloud covered start. We basically hovered around where the fog stopped, if I remember correctly it was at about race mile 30 to 40. Since we where waiting for the racers to emerge, all three helicopters had a race of their own in a ‘air NASCAR race’ continuously making left-hand circles, or according to our pilot, ‘left handed Orbits.’ Not having much of a breakfast, Dr. Alexander offered some dried fruit pieces and trail mix to calm my sudden hunger.

The first racer to appear was Robby Bell, which was no surprise since he started first. Soon after was the JCR Honda, then our rider Kurt Caselli. What was surprising was their split times were almost identical to their starting splits. As the early stages of the race went on they were all basically evenly matched until the summit. JCR had caught and latched onto the THR Kawasaki team while Kurt was riding very impressively, catching them both. The summit is not exactly the stereotype of Baja that one would expect. It is very slow, tight, rocky, and technical. If you get out of second gear, you wont be for long. Shortly after the bottom of the Summit, JCR Honda had gotten around THR’s David Pearson. Not long after, Kurt did the same. The race was on!

To watch all three of these guys push their machines to the limits is a sight that is almost indescribable, nonetheless from a helicopter. Realizing how fast they are really going is incredible! I calmly ask the pilot our current speed, and he replied with “About 50 knots.” Which soon after he explained to me as being close to 75 mph! Going that fast in some of these gnarly sand washes is incredible! I know, because I’ve seen these washes, they have rocks the size of Frankenstein’s head! As we were closing in on race mile 180, Kurt had lost a little time to Honda with a couple line choices but was still on the gas. I really didn’t want to tell Kurt this information in fear he would ride overly aggressive when he clearly didn’t need to. The race was very close and over 300-miles still needed to be covered. Kurt was pretty adamant about knowing his split time to the Honda team so we decided to light the burners and get a clear visual on them. Dr. Alexander does an awesome job with finding big enough land marks to get a visual off of so, after he accomplished that we hung back for Caselli.

Waiting on a rider gives me anticipation like squirming to use the restroom, multiplied by 50. I’m anxious! Watching sometimes I feel as if I’m riding with him. Now that we are concerned of his whereabouts, we doubled back to the last place we saw him. As we circle around and pass over a couple rare but thick trees, my heart sinks. There we see Kurt lying face down, hands to his side. Motionless. All I can say is how impressed I am with team manager Antti Kallonen’s reaction. With out skipping a beat his reaction is what really snapped us all back into reality with a strong command of “LAND!” “LAND NOW!” Antti turned to me and told me to “Get ready now!” He repeated the same remark to me twice, not because I didn’t know what to do, because I did, but I think it was another snap back into reality. I think he sensed my panic and wanted me to do my job and not worry about the other surroundings. It basically felt like we fell out of the sky we landed so fast. In all of the panic, Dr. Alexander leaped out of the copter with his headset still on. It wasn’t the least amusing then, but it is pretty funny now to remember watching his head rip back like some sort of cartoon.

The remainder of my gear was in a outside, side compartment. With the blades still running I was putting on my Leatt water pack, neck brace, and Troy Lee Designs Helmet on as if we were filming the sequel to Top Gun. I glanced over towards Kurt’s direction to see he was basically up and moving decently. Which in a way was a sigh of relief.  I had a little bit of trouble buckling my helmet, which was odd. My heart rate was so high and I was so nervous my hands were shaking like an old woman threading a needle. Running over to the bike, I saw Antti kicking the last bit of the front fender off and trying to straighten the bars. The handlebars seemed to be decent, but the forks where so bound up in the triple clamps they need to be loosened and straightened. Antti turned on my radio, plugged it in, and I dropped the clutch on that bad boy!  Within 50 feet I really noticed how bent the front end actually was. My left arm was completely extended and my right arm was bent anywhere between 90 and 120 degrees, depending on what kind of obstacle I hit.

Surprisingly, I went pretty fast after calming my nerves within the mile and getting use to the new bar bend Kurt left me. Since I took off on the bike at about race mile-183, that meant I had about 20-miles until the next pit. Luckily I had a pretty uneventful ride, the only problem I had was the rough whoops coming into the pit. It wasn’t too rough, but very challenging to conquer going fast when your arms are being pulled in different directions. So I backed myself down a notch to keep from putting two guys out of commission. I pulled into the pit and the guys went to work. Anthony Di Basilio changed a front wheel and straightened the frontend, Robbie Goolsby changed the air filter and gassed the bike, while Brett Saunders and his dad changed the rear wheel. I was amazed how fast, calm, and collected they where with the pit. Anthony asked about Kurt but I wasn’t to sure on his situation. All I could say is “ He was up when I left, he looked ok.”

When I hoped back on, it felt like I was riding a completely different motorcycle. Fresh set of tires and my arms were parallel again! I knew the next 30-miles ahead of me were going to be pretty choppy before I gave the bike over to Mike Brown. I rode pretty decent, but not as well as I had hoped.  The next problem I had encountered was the 3-mile strip of pavement that ended at Mikes Sky Ranch Road. This wouldn’t be a problem but the speedometer had broken from Kurt’s crash and on top of that the speed limit had changed the night before for all highway sections from 60 mph, to 37!  What I ended up doing was backing down to 2nd gear and testing my eye for speed. Come to find out I guess I was pretty good because I still haven’t heard of a speeding penalty from my section yet. Skidding to a stop I finally give the bike over to Mike Brown. In typical Brownie style, he said calmly and softly, “Good job bud” and dropped the clutch like a bat outta hell!

Circling around I spotted Brandon Prieto, in which he drove me a mile down the rode behind a ranch were the helicopter was. Pulling in I see Kurt sitting on the ground hunched over. He stood slowly with pain and disappointment in his eyes; he shook my hand and said, “Good job.” Brandon drove Caselli to the hospital to get checked out further because of internal stomach pains. They later found out he was in good health other then being extremely sore and beat up. Finally I was able to calm my heart rate down from 50-miles earlier and take my gear off. Antti informed me that I was getting back into the helicopter even though I was unable to ride again according to the rules. His reason being I was a good spotter and knew the entire course. They had water ready for me and I poured it on my head, wiped off the sweat, and hopped in to catch up with Brown. As soon as we lifted we were haulin’! We caught up with Brownie right at race mile-250; Mikes Sky Ranch where the next pit was located. After that the course narrowed and twisted down through some mountains so the speeds were a bit slower then our previous rate. I had never been motion sick before, but I was starting to feel something strange come over me.

My stomach was turning uncontrollably, from which at the time I had only thought were hunger pains. I tried to ignore the symptoms as my body started to drip with sweat. I asked Antti to crack the small port window beside him, which seemed to help immediately. The cool breeze was very soothing as I tried to relax and get my so-called ‘hunger’ under control. Closing my eyes I set back and took a couple slow deep breathes, “Innnnn and outtttt” I told myself. The Doc looked over at me and asked if I was feeling okay. Trying to show everyone that I was strong, I encouraged him positively that I was doing just fine. Continuing to guide Mike through Colonet and up through the coast went very smoothly. No major incidents had occurred other then the front brake going out, but we did come across a fellow downed rider which turned out to be Steve Hengeveld on the THR Kawasaki. We orbited around him once, warned Brownie, and our pilot radioed the THR helicopter to make sure they had everything in order.After that situation our KTM team was sitting 2nd overall, to JCR Honda. Not to long after we split off of Mike Brown to meet for a pit stop of our own.

As soon as we branched off my nausea was back. This time something was different, the dried fruit and trail mix the Doc had gave me early in the race was making a comeback! Instead of choking it down like I had done before, I had no choice. I frantically turned to Dr. Alexander and asked for something, ANYTHING! He quickly found a sandwich bag and handed it to me. I easily filled that up in a matter of seconds! With Antti now in a panic, he turned around and handed the Doc his lunch pale. Doc turned it over empting his lunch with no hesitation in the nick of time! I spewed rapidly into the pale with my side completely cramped up. I had finished just before we had landed, and zipped up my mess. We all piled out pretty quickly and I was feeling almost 100-percent better! Surprisingly I didn’t spill one drop into the actual cab of the helicopter, which I think everyone was pretty thankful for.

As the heli was being refueled, Doc was tending to Antti and myself. Antti had a decently deep gash in his knee from dropping to his knees on a rock to examine Kurt earlier. Doc bandaged him up with a couple butterflies and he was good to go. Myself on the other hand, was given an anti-nausea shot in my right arm. (Which by the way, hurt like crap!) After we were all laughing and making fun, the copter was ready for deployment. We jumped in and flew on our way to finish off the last half of the race. On our way over to catch up with the rider change between Mike Brown and Ivan Ramirez I asked the Dr., “What did you give me?” with my head bouncing around and eyes opening and closing. He told me a medication that I didn’t quite understand completely. I’m not sure if I didn’t hear him correctly, he used a big medical terms, or I was just highly drowsy. But apparently there was a minor slim-to-none chance that I would react this way. I was knocked out!

Before I knew it we were making our last stop for fuel in the helicopter before the finish. When we touched ground I slid out of my seat and began to walk around as if I was made of rubber. This stop was a bit different from the first two fuel stops before. There was no electronic pump to push the gas from the drum to the helicopter. Instead we had a drum of fuel in the back of a pickup truck, an old hand crank, a short hose, and a Mexican friend to Team KTM, Alejandro Glez Jr. AKA “Shrek”. I wasn’t feeling exactly alert and wanted to lie down, so I spotted the pickup. I pulled the tailgate down and laid in the back with my eyes closed, embracing the warm sun. I sat up to adjust my chest protector (which I was still wearing for no reason) and noticed the back of my head was wet. Not being exactly sharp, I was very confused why my hair was soak with something. I sat up and turned around to a sight that was surprising to me, but comical now. The entire bed of the pick-up had about a centimeter of jet fuel in it. With Shrek in the back cranking as fast as he can the old pump was leaking not only into the bed, but into the cab of the truck also. Apparently all the windows were down, including the back one! I stumbled over to get a couple bottles of water to rinse my hair out. I did the best I could to get the majority of it but to this day, my hair is still a little greasy. I climbed back in for take off and BAM! I was out again. The drowsiness wore off at about mile-495 of 500. At least I got to see Ivan go across the finish line right?


Well it turns out that we ended up finishing 2nd! I am super excited and proud to be apart of a team that pulled it together when times were bad and do the best that we could. Everyone rode great and worked together to put in a great solid finish by the end of the day. Everyone came away healthy and Kurt walked away from a gnarly crash and is doing great! I can’t thank the whole FMF/KTM/ Bonanza Plumbing team enough for this great race, adventure, and for future races to come. I am truly honored to be apart of this Baja effort. Everyone is helpful and works great together. I also want to thank my current Team FMF/RPM/KTM/Maxxis/Bonanza Plumbing for letting me go through with this opportunity and the continuing support for myself in the WORCS Series.


See you all at the races!

Justin Jones
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