VINTAGE DIRT WHEELS RACE TEST: 1000-MILE ATV TEST

Dirt Wheels attacked the Baja 1000 By Dennis “Ketchup” Cox

Twenty-three years ago the Dirt Wheels crew tackled the Baja 1000. Cain Smead tucks into his full-speed stance for a go against the Baja wilds. While we could have any number of riders on the team, we limited ourselves to six. Each rider took 50- to 140-mile segments, leapfrogging down the coast to keep everyone fresh and ready to ride.

Try to imagine driving nonstop from Chicago, Illinois, to Orlando, Florida. Now, imagine doing it off-road on your ATV. Throw in an occasional high-speed washout and terror-inducing swaps. With the demise of the Blackwater 100, there are few events that elicit as much awe and mystery as the Baja 1000.

Having Honda handle our pit support kept our crew on time and in the hunt for the win. A quick-fill gas can made for rapid fill-ups at each pit.

DENNY WOLFF’S BAJA-WINNING SETUP

The Baja 1000 has sudden drop-offs and blinding silt beds mixed with tons of razor-sharp rocks, deadly cacti and the ever-present man-made booby traps. Dirt Wheels took up the Baja 1000 challenge with the help of American Honda. Our question was simple: Could a relatively stock Honda 400EX endure the rocks, carnage and cacti, and emerge victorious?

The race started 20 miles south of Ensenada and 70 miles south of San Diego, California, in Santo Tomas, Mexico. The course wound 1070 miles down the Baja Peninsula to the resort city of La Paz.

With barely a month to prepare, we consulted Honda’s Baja master Bruce Ogilvie about our plan to conquer the 1000. Bruce agreed to arrange a new 400EX and supply us with the essential Honda pit service that is vital for this race.

Jeff and John Courts are long-time veteran Baja racers. They helped with most of the nighttime riding, but loved to mix it up during the daylight hours as well. “I had to ride on a flat for 35 miles, all on mountain roads, but the quad still handled pretty well, so I did not stop to fix it. Silt at this race was the worst that I have ever experienced.”

MAKING THE CUT

You need a group of experienced riders to help you make it to the finish. We chose to limit our team to six riders, with each taking 50 to 140 miles at a time. Riders leapfrogged down the coast to keep everyone fresh and ready to ride.

You don’t want to put any one rider on for too long. A 250-mile section would be a minimum of five hours in the saddle. Even if the majority of the trails are high speed, the burnout factor is great.

Our team consisted of Dennis Cox, Dirt Wheels test rider Cain Smead, Rusty Deisbeck, and two-time Baja 1000 250 class champs Denny Wolff and John and Jeff Courts. All of us were Baja vets and knew what it took to get the job done.

Aerospace engineer Denny would be our prep man since he was known for his attention to detail.

Our six rider Baja 1000 race team consisted of (left to right) Dirt Wheels editor Dennis “Ketchup” Cox, two-time Baja 1000 250 class champ Denny Wolff, as well as racing brothers John and Jeff Courts. Our rider list included Dirt Wheels current editorial director Cain Smead and Rusty Deisbeck. Our mostly stock Honda 400EX was a superb example of reliability and helped us win the ATV overall class championship for 1998.

RELIABILITY WINS RACES

Focus on reliability when preparing a race machine. Forget the fancy gadgets and one-off assemblies. Keep everything simple so that riders and pit personnel can perform maintenance with the minimum amount of effort.

We received our 400EX from American Honda approximately five weeks before the Baja 1000. Even though it had very low hours and was in excellent condition, it needed to be thoroughly checked out. 

The 400EX was disassembled to the bare frame. Frame tabs and brackets that we would not use were removed. SKH Racing machined six 8mm bosses to weld under the frame to support the OMF belly pan.

Since we needed to add a Scotts XR-style pack to the subframe for holding hand tools, a countershaft sprocket, fuses, spark plugs and a first-aid kit, a 1/16-inch steel plate was welded in the rear hoop area. The tail lamp was removed to accommodate the new pack. We welded a 2×3-inch plate at the back of the subframe for a new battery-powered tail lamp.

STOCK IS BEST?

The stock motor was installed in the frame with no motor or carburetor modifications. To make sure the engine could breathe in Baja’s notorious silt beds, K&N supplied us with its excellent gauze air filters. A new FMF Powercore II aluminum muffler was joined to the OEM header pipe.

GROUND-CONTROL PREPARATION

A 2-inch-longer Roll Design steering shaft was installed to compensate for the shorter-than-stock Answer ProTaper handlebar. We installed an OEM XR clutch lever and perch, Motion Pro twist throttle and cable. Next we safety-wired and glued on Scott grips, Acerbis handguards, and a Scotts steering damper and tower. The stock switch gear was replaced by a kill switch and start switch.

After that, the components for the A-arms were greased and reinstalled. The spindles, brakes, brake lines and hubs were inspected and attached to the A-arms. The footpegs received hoops on the ends to prevent the rider’s feet from sliding off. 

THE DRIVING FORCE

A 16-tooth Sidewinder front sprocket was installed to replace the OEM 15-tooth for a little more top speed. We ran one of Sidewinder’s 38-tooth stainless steel QSL-2000 sprockets on the back. For extra reliability, Honda gave us one of their new “linkless” chains, a D.I.D road racing chain that Honda used on its race machines.

New bearings were installed in the swingarm pivot, and the components were greased and bolted back together. A new OEM axle carrier, axle, axle nut and chainguide were installed. The rear hubs and brakes were checked and installed.

Works Performance sent us Steeler AT front and Ultracross rear shocks. They offer more wheel travel front and rear, as well as more adjustability and fade resistance. Baja Designs supplied the extra lights for improved nighttime vision.

SUSPENSION

Works Performance sent us Steeler AT front and Ultracross rear shocks. They offered 1.5 inches more wheel travel up front, and 1 inch more travel on the back, as well as more adjustability. After several hours of desert testing, we finalized the shock settings.

This was inside our fanny pack, everything you need to survive in Baja—flat fixer, tow- strap, money, spare plugs, a Honda radio and a thorough tool bag.

FINAL COUNTDOWN

One week to go! ITP Blackwater Holeshot tires and aluminum wheels were mounted. The front fenders were trimmed for aerodynamics and to relieve the clearance problem around the gas tank.

The rear fenders were left stock, and a new OMF seat latch was installed. We needed a little extra cushion, so we installed one of Ceet’s thicker desert seats with a custom stock cover. The seat foam is approximately 2 inches thicker and made the ride feel like you were sitting in a La-Z-Boy chair.

The pristine machine’s underbelly before we subjected it to extensive abuse. Every modification on our machine proved successful. Our machine performed flawlessly during the course of 1070 miles.

BAJA DESIGN LIGHT KIT

Since we would be racing at night as well, we opted to install a better lighting system on our Honda EX. For more and better lighting, you need to upgrade the lights and do a stator rewind. Baja Designs rewound our stock stator to provide more current, and supplied us with amazingly bright dual lights.

Duncan number-plate backgrounds and sponsor stickers completed the machine. Top speed, with a 220- pound rider on pavement, was roughly 81 miles an hour. The 400EX was ready to go to the start line. 

Our crew had the ride of their lives, and it was one of the easiest and most fun-to-ride 1000s any of us can remember. Before the celebrations began, though, we gathered together in the morning sun to give thanks for a safe and successful journey. In our book, it doesn’t get much better than that.

DOING 1000 MILES IN BAJA

John Courts’ stern speech, “Do whatever you must to get the machine to the next rider. If you have to pull, push or carry the machine, get it to the next rider in the chain.”

We all knew the drill. Ride as fast as you can, but ready to stop or react to some unseen emergency. Be aware of how the machine is working.

Our machine performed flawlessly. The 400EX ran for the entire 23 hours, 59 minutes and 33 seconds it took us to make the run from Santo Tomas to La Paz.

It didn’t have so much as a hiccup during the race. We had one flat tire during our run, which is akin to a miracle. We navigated everything from 3-foot-deep silt beds that would literally throw a wave of blinding, flour-like powder over the machine to being fully tucked in at nearly 80 mph!

Our extensive machine preparation, careful modifications and good luck gave us the lead at about 370 miles. We stretched it to a good hour ahead of our nearest competitor by the time we crossed the finish line. Every modification on our machine proved successful.

Our crew had the ride of their lives, and it was one of the easiest and most fun-to-ride 1000s any of us could remember. Before the celebrations began, though, we gathered together in the morning sun to give thanks for a safe and successful journey. In our book, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Editor’s note: This is an edited recreation of our story from the March 1999 issue of Dirt Wheels called “1000-Mile Test.” We took our production 1999 Honda 400EX down to race the Baja 1000. Amazingly, we won the overall ATV class that year. Hard work, the right team and a bit of luck made us the victors that day.

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