Steamboat Springs motorcycle racers head to Baja Peninsula for epic endurance race
Steamboat Springs — In a couple of weeks, Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula will become the epicenter of the off-road racing world, and a team that includes four Steamboat Springs residents, will be looking to make a mark, or at least have some fun trying.
“It’s a combination of super rough, rocky roads that you wouldn’t want to take a jeep on and smooth sand beaches,” said Hank Salyer, a Baja veteran. “If you are into off-road racing, it’s the biggest event that you can ever do. The great thing is, anyone can sign up. The guys who are driving the million-dollar trucks with the helicopter following them around the course are right there with you at the same starting line. It’s like signing up for the Indy 500 and showing up in your car.”
The SCORE Baja 1000 is an off-road race first run in October 1967. It will take place Nov. 16 through 20 this year and includes narrow roads of varying terrain, smooth sandy beaches and a few paved transitional roads. Salyer said there are lots of small towns that see a limited amount of traffic during most of the year, but come to life with spectators as high-priced cars, motorcycles and buggies make their way across the Baja Peninsula.
The event has built a reputation as the premiere off-road race and consistently draws top racers who challenge the course in various types of vehicles, all racing on same course. The racers are split into categories and divisions, with the racers taking off individually and racing against the clock. The course changes slightly each year and is sometimes a point-to-point affair that takes the competitors from Ensenada to La Paz, or a loop that starts and finishes in Ensenada.
The event also draws big crowds, especially at the start and finish lines. However, there are stretches of course with very few spectators, with occasional large crowds near small towns.
For this year’s race, Salyer will alternate with friends Sean Delaney, Josh Scott and Casey O’Donnell on the back of the bike. Delaney is an old friend from Kentucky, while Salyer teamed up with Scott and O’Donnell in the past few months. Chad James will drive the team van, while Josh’s father will drive another support vehicle. Tilman McDaniel, also from Kentucky, will work as a mechanic and an added support person.
“I’ve been trying to find people since February,” Salyer said. “It takes that long if you are a dentist that does this in your spare time. If I was part of one of those sponsored teams, I think I would have had it done in a couple of weeks.”
The funny thing is that Salyer found his new Steamboat teammates in one of the most unexpected places — his own back yard.
“We were doing some work for Hank is his back yard,” said teammate Scott, who works with O’Donnell’s excavation company. “We started talking about dirt bikes, and one thing led to another.”
Salyer is a veteran of the Baja racers. In February, he took part in the Baja 250 as a solo racer and finished fifth. His plan has been to take part in the Baja 500 in June, then the Baja 1000 in the fall. But that was before he realized the Baja 500 was at the same time as his son’s high school graduation. At that point, he elected to skip the June race and start putting a team together for the Baja 1000.
He also raced the Baja 1000 as part of a team in 2008 and the Baja 250 solo in 2009.
His experiences in those races have fueled his desire this year. He said he will never forget watching the sunrise as he made his way along the beaches in 2008 or the exhaustion he felt with 200 miles left.
“I think I was about 80 percent into the race, and I was thinking that I never want to see a motorcycle again,” Salyer recalls. “But then, I got within 10 miles of the finish line, and there were thousands of people lining the course watching and cheering. I suddenly wished that I had at least 5 more miles left before the finish line. I didn’t want it to end.”
For O’Donnel and Scott, this year’s race will be their first, and they are the first to admit they are not sure what to expect.
“I’ve never done any sort of race,” O’Donnell said. “But there were a couple of things that made me want to do this one. The first was that it’s in Mexico, and the second is that I get to miss work.”
It will also be a first for Scott, but he is the first to admit he’s been thinking about this race for a while.
“I’ve ridden dirt bikes since I was a kid,” he said. “This one has been on my bucket list for a long time.”
The team will head to Mexico at the end of the week (it’s an 18 hour drive) with high hopes for a top finish, but each member understands it will not be easy. More than 50 percent of the field will not finish the race because of mechanical issues, fatigue or crashes. But the team has spent the better part of six months preparing and hopes to be one of the top finishers when the event is done.
“If you’re not first, then you are last,” O’Donnell joked.
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