Skip to content

How Baja became a legend | Events

Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula has been the playground and racetrack for some of the world’s top riders and drivers for half a century.

Some describe Baja as majestic, while others refer to it as the devil’s playground. A vast, inhospitable area, rich in culture and a reward to those who dare to take on the challenge. Very few people who visit Baja are not touched by the history of a land that looks as old as time itself.

The Baja 1000 started after a Honda promotional ride, when four blokes rode CL72 Scramblers from Tijuana to La Paz, a distance of more than 950miles, in just under 40 hours. Back in those days, there were no sealed roads outside the two major cities and twin dirt tracks were the only way to get around, for racers and local traffic alike.

That ride gave birth to the inaugural Mexican 1000, run by the National Off Road Racing Association. American legend Malcolm Smith had just returned from the International Six Days Enduro in Poland and figured he would give it a shot.

He’d previously only ridden 150 miles south of the Mexican border and was intrigued by what lay beyond. Back in the day, there was no Google Earth to reference, so Malcolm studied the Lower California Guidebook.

With no course markers and only a handful of physical check points along the way, it was up to the riders to memorise the tracks and take the correct turn at intersections. Even refuelling was left up to the imagination with fuel drums pre-stashed along the way.

Malcolm left Tijuana at midnight after his name was drawn out of a hat. He quickly picked his way past riders and drivers to take the lead. His homemade drink system failed, and he became dehydrated as he rode for 12 hours non-stop before handing the bike to JN Roberts. Despite JN getting lost a few times and arriving at a check point before officials had even turned up, he managed to hold onto the lead and win the race in just under 28 hours.

Such is the isolation of the Baja 1000, it took Smith three days to travel back to Tijuana and only then did he find out he and JN had won the race!

The following year, due to a leg injury, Malcolm contested the Baja 1000 on four wheels and was leading until his front wheel parted company with his vehicle. That same year, Hollywood star Steve McQueen entered the race in a 450hp Chevrolet V8-powered buggy, but its transmission cried no more after 237 miles. The legend of Baja was already building.

But the undisputed King of Baja is Johnny Campbell. He stayed loyal to Honda throughout his career and handed Big Red 11 of its 27 Baja 1000 victories. Although he is now retired from professional racing, Johnny is never far from Baja, not only running the JCR Honda team but also trying his hand at Class 7 (Open Production mini truck) racing in this year’s event.

Finishing second in class shows Johnny still knows how to go fast in the desert.

Aussie desert racers are also drawn to the place: Brad Williscroft, Ben Grabham, Toby Price, Jacob Smith (eighth outright in 2012) and Daymon Stokie who finished fourth in 2015 with the 3x squad and tasted victory champagne in 2016, as part of the winning Honda 1x Team.

Bud & Baja

If anyone should get credit for the Baja 1000, it is the late Bud Ekins, Hollywood stuntman, famed desert racer and great friend of Steve McQueen.

In 1962, Ekins, also a motorcycle dealer, persuaded Honda to support a trail ride through the Baja Peninsula on board the all-new CL72 street scrambler. At first glance the Honda hardly seemed capable of conquering Baja’s notorious wilderness – the 250cc parallel twin produced just 17kW (24hp), weighed 150kg and ran street-oriented tyres on 19-inch rims.

Triumph refused to allow its most successful desert racer to participate, so Bud’s brother Dave teamed up with Honda dealer and racer Bill Robertson.

Despite opinions it would take a week to cover the 1500km trail, Dave made it from Tijuana to La Paz in 39 hours and 56 minutes and the resulting publicity helped sell nearly 90,000 CLs.

In 1966, Ekins hatched another Baja run. This time he used four of the Triumphs the American team (including McQueen) had raced in the 1964 ISDT in East Germany.

The run was totally unsupported, and Bud, his brother Dave, experienced desert racers Cliff Coleman and Eddie Mulder were lucky to survive the run, let alone finish in 40 hours and three minutes.

They experienced punctures, crashes, partial engine seizures and even got lost.

A year later, the Baja 1000 was launched. Ekins’ antics had captured Hollywood’s imagination, and several actors and associates raced cars in it, including McQueen, James Garner, Paul Newman, the Monkees’ Mike Nesbitt and even Clark Gable’s son, John.

Steve McQueen and Bud Ekins learnt pretty quickly the importance of memorising maps

Hamish Cooper