Suzuki Motorcycle tests
By Robby Bell
Photos by Mark Kariya
SCORE San Felipe 250
March 9th, 2013
San Felipe, BC, MX
Once a year the sleepy beach town of San Felipe is awoken by the sounds of chase crews, pre-runner vehicles and race machines tearing around the streets and nearby desert in preparation for the season opener of the SCORE Baja series. The town may be a destination for those seeking relaxation and an escape from the hustle and bustle of the American way of life, but the race itself offers nothing of the sort. The terrain is brutal. The course features more whoops than most racers would care to hit in a lifetime and embedded rocks blending in so well with the dirt that it makes racing feel a bit like a game of Russian roulette. Maintaining focus over such unreadable terrain is of the utmost importance as the slightest mistake could end your race. Couple the mental test with the physicality of the course and the speeds required to compete and it can be argued that the San Felipe 250 is one of the toughest off road races in the world.
Heading to the start line, the stage was set for a hotly anticipated race with all of the fastest teams starting thirty seconds apart and some late-week rain making the usual early morning dust a non-issue. I would be first to leave the line on the 4X, Monster Energy, THR Motorsports, Precision Concepts Kawasaki with my teammates David Pearson and Steve Hengeveld. Starting second would be the 2X KTM of Kurt Caselli and Ivan Ramirez, followed by the 14X of Kendall Norman and Ryan Abbatoye. The second KTM of Mike Brown and Toby Price would take off fourth, running number 3X, followed by the 1X Honda of Colton Udall and Timmy Weigand and then the 8X Honda of Mark Samuels and Ryan Dudek. The pre-race drama was heightened even more when most teams found out a day and a half before the race that the “classic” SCORE spreading would be no more and riders would now have to stay within 500 feet either side of the course. Then the water was further muddied when the night before the race the rules were bent to allow spreading in sand washes, around silt beds and in areas where a line was more or less deemed parallel (I’ll be writing a second report with more detail on this issue from my perspective). So we were all left on the start line, unsure of which lines would be legal to take, but it was time to put all of that aside and race.
The San Felipe start. This is on-board footage of Robby Bell.
As the green flag flew, I set out on to the heavily shadowed racecourse with my mind set on giving David a perfect bike. I’d be lying if I said last year’s crash wasn’t in the back of my mind and so my goal was to ride well to RM44, but safely and give my teammates a real shot this year. I felt good as I neared zoo road, but suddenly I saw a tire track ahead of me and once I saw KTM’s helicopter ahead of me, I knew Kurt had taken a single-track line off the start and made his way by. I knew about the line, but with the uncertainty of what was going to be legal, I decided not to take it and just pounded down the arrows. From there I rode down the center line of the course, smashing through the car whoops until around RM 20 when I jumped out on a parallel line to the left to get a little break from the bumps. There were multiple lines that had been deemed legal up to around RM36, and when most of the lines converged, I saw Colton coming in hot from the left as I was now out on the right. Our lines merged and I jumped right in behind him as we both held the throttle wide open across the desert. For the next half a mile I kept right behind Colton until our lines split yet again and I took a slightly better line to the right, allowing me to make the pass back into second place physically. As we neared the highway 3 crossing Colton was right behind me and pushed up along side just after we crossed. We rode nearly side-by-side for a bit until I lost a little momentum on my side of the two-track and he pulled a second or two on me. The pit was just a few miles up ahead and as we came in to change riders, we were just seconds apart and the KTM was less than a minute up the trail. While I didn’t show the speed I wanted to off the start, I accomplished my goal of giving David a perfect bike, and we were still well in the race.
Ride–and crash–with Bell. He goes tumbling around the 3:45 minute mark.
David’s section would cover about a hundred miles of new-to-the-SF250 terrain and then Steve would hop on for about thirty miles before it would be my turn to take the bike again. Dave did a fantastic job of getting us back into second position on adjusted time and Steve rode strong getting the bike to our fourth pit, where I would mount for a fifty-two mile section. I hopped on the bike with about a five-minute deficit to the KTM and put my mind to the task of chasing the 2X bike down. I felt better than my morning stint and the bike was working so well through the whoops; I could see Ivan’s tire track in the still-wet dirt and from studying the way he was riding the course, I felt I had to be gaining ground. I kept riding hard as the course turned into a wide, fast wash around RM192, telling myself, “you’re catching him, keep pushing!” but my exuberance would get the best of me. The sand wash made a sweeping left turn, followed by a short whoop section and as I sped into the whoops, I had too much speed and skipped a whoop, dropping my rear tire straight into the bottom of the next hole. I hit with so much force that there was nothing I could do to avoid the back end rebounding violently into the air. I was in a slow-motion endo and as my front tire came back in contact with the earth, it dug in and threw me viciously over the bars as the bike cartwheeled further away. I hit the ground pretty hard, but as I jumped up my thoughts quickly turned to the bike, hoping I hadn’t damaged it too severely. Luckily the only real damage was a broken rear fender and slightly bent bars so I re-fired the machine and took off again. The crash definitely knocked a bit of the wind out of my sails and I never did find the same intensity I had before I went down. I made it through the following rocky sand wash without too much incident, other than a couple minor flying double-u’s from hitting some nasty embedded rocks at speed, and brought the bike to David for our final pit, still five minutes or so behind the KTM and just a couple minutes ahead of the 1X Honda. With just thirty miles to go it was going to be close whether or not we could hold off the Honda for second place on adjusted time.
I wouldn’t know how the race finished until I arrived at the line, shortly after the bikes had finished and I learned we hadn’t quite been able to hold the Honda off and would have to settle for third place on the day (it wouldn’t be until the following morning that I would learn we were penalized and dropped to fourth position overall behind Kendall and Ryan, which is definitely a bit of a slap in the face to get docked). It’s a tough result to take when I know beyond a doubt we’re capable of winning. I do feel horrible about the fact that I wasn’t able to keep it on two wheels for the second year in a row at this event and that’s something I need to improve upon personally moving forward. Mostly I’m disappointed for my teammates because I know how talented they are, how hard they work and how they deserve to win, and also for the team and all of the sponsors who support us. Everyone involved pours their souls into giving this team, and the riders, a winning effort and it hurts to not be able to repay all of that effort with a victory. Despite any controversy over who took what lines, I feel Kurt and Ivan rode a flawless race and deserved to win and Colton and Timmy are continuing to prove that they’re world-class racers. I also want to congratulate Kendall and Ryan for a well deserved third place finish; they were probably the only team in the Open Pro class to comply with the 500-foot rule around the entire course. The competition is tougher, faster and deeper than it’s ever been in Baja and it’s going to force us to improve our program further, but last year we rebounded from an even worse series opener to get right back into the title hunt and I feel entirely confident that our team has the resolve and determination to do it again and prove we’re worthy of the SCORE championship.
I want to thank the team for everything they’ve done leading into this event, Monster Energy, THR Motorsports, Precision Concepts Kawasaki and all of the supporting sponsors who continue to help us improve. Thanks to my personal sponsors: Fox Racing (that gear looked sick!), Alamo Alarms, PODmx knee braces, USWE, Northland Motorsports and HookIt.com for backing me one hundred percent. I want to congratulate Roger Norman and the entire SCORE staff on their first SCORE race of the “new era”. There were definitely some growing pains, which should be expected, but there were also a lot of improvements and bright points to take away and I’m looking forward to the Baja 500. Up next on my schedule is the third round of WORCS in Havasu, AZ and I’m looking forward to some scorching temperatures and seeing the pits filled to the brim with racers!
Thank you to all the Monster Energy, THR Motorsports, Precision Concepts Kawasaki team sponsors: FMF Racing, IMS Products, Hoosier Precision Machining, BRP, Renthal, Dunlop, AME Grips, AP Brakes, LAPC, VP Racing Fuels, Kalgard, DT1 Filters, Hinson, Matrix Concepts, ZLT, RK/Excel, Acerbis, Works Connection, Zip-Ty Racing, SealSavers.
COURSE CUTTING, PENALTIES AND PROTESTS—OH MY!
Robby Bell in action.
This year’s San Felipe 250 was chalked full of incident. Everyone has their opinion on what happened during the race, and the week leading up, and there’s really not a right or wrong point of view as it’s all in how the events have been interpreted by each individual. Having said that, here’s my take on our side of the drama.
Over the past few years it seems the athletes racing SCORE have become more “creative” with their line choices and it’s become more noticeable lately as the competition has elevated, the stakes have risen and more exposure has come into the sport of Baja racing. Line creativity has always been a part of racing south of the border as it was looked at as the Wild West, a last bit of freedom in an ever-condensing world. Even before Dust to Glory publicized Johnny Campbell’s “beach line” I’d heard stories of some extravagant course deviations. Bruce Ogilvie once told me that instead of using the nasty Old Puertecitos road, he jumped out onto Highway 5 for the forty-mile stretch without giving it a second thought.
The difference between then and now, of course, is that technology has allowed race officials and fans the opportunity to see these lines and since raised discussion in public view over whether taking them is fair or not. In my personal opinion I do believe in regulating how far racers can stray from the course, but I also feel it’s a bit of a sticky wicket because there are so many lines that have developed over the years that have previously been deemed legal and not every racer pre-runs with a GPS to know if he or she is within the limits of the racecourse. The obvious answer is to tell everyone to beat right down the arrows, but in the pro class, with money on the line and sponsor expectations high, it’s only natural to push the edges of what’s legal. I know from personal experience how salty of a taste it leaves when I’m working my butt off hitting a section of whoops only to later learn that I lost time to another rider who was on a smoother, faster line over half a mile off the course. At the end of the day, though, if the rules are in place, it’s up to us to follow them to the best of our ability.
Coming into the San Felipe race it was assumed that the “classic” SCORE rules still applied for this race; spreading is acceptable so long as you make the Virtual Check Points (VCPs). We had a meeting with SCORE and Johnny Campbell and left with the understanding that it wouldn’t be until the Baja 500 that a course width would come into effect. Flash forward to Thursday afternoon, less than a day and a half before the race, when I sign up and receive my race bulletin that states any course deviation further than 500 feet from centerline will be penalized. This came as a bit of a shock as my teammates and I (and a lot of other racers) had been pre-running with the classic rules in our minds so we had an informal meeting with Roger that night, which Johnny attended as well. We were informed that the rule change had been posted on Monday, on the Internet, but unfortunately for us, we had been in San Felipe since the previous Thursday without Internet or a way to understand that a change had been made. Johnny had an advantage as he was still in the States at that time and saw the changes online, so he informed his riders to pre-run both within the 500 foot limits and classic SCORE lines, and as a result was in favor of keeping the 500ft rule in place. My team and the KTM team both agreed the best thing to do was to revert to the classic rules, as the Honda boys still knew the wide lines and it would be a more even playing field, but the decision was made to keep the 500ft ruling.
After learning all of this, I had to go run my sections again Friday morning to measure what lines would be legal and also just to see the course, as in some spots with many parallel lines, I had to learn which one was the centerline race course. I got a basic grasp on what I was going to do on race day, but then another announcement was made at the rider’s meeting that made things even more vague than before: spreading would be allowed in the sand washes, the silt beds and lines deemed to be parallel. David and I both had “parallel lines” further than 500 feet off course, so we just left it at being a race day decision as to taking them or not. Come race day and I know all of us, the Honda included, took lines that were further than 500 feet off the course, it seems more of a judgment decision which lines would end up being penalized. As of right now I don’t know what lines we, and the KTM team, got penalized for and I’m also not saying the Honda took any lines that should have been penalized. It is my personal opinion at that the results should have stood the way the race ended. The KTM was the best team on the day, the Honda beat us fair and square and I think Kendall and Ryan were probably the only Open Pro team to pound the arrows around the entire track. I don’t feel we took any lines that “cut” the course so I’d be interested to see what lines we took that were deemed to be illegal.
Moving forward I am a fan of the 500-foot course width, but I feel their needs to be open discussion about it and the rules need to be solidly in place before pre-running starts. I feel the tracking data should be visible to all of the teams after the race so we can have a candid meeting over any deviations and more of a consensus rather than blaming and finger pointing. I believe narrowing the course boundaries will make the sport more competitive and affordable as racers who can’t spend a week and a half pre-running to find all of the lines will be on a more level playing field. Hopefully it will have an added benefit of pre-runners (cars and bikes/quads) putting in fewer miles over the already beat terrain, allowing the racecourses a little more recovery and it will also be safer from the standpoint that a rider won’t crash a quarter of a mile off course, making it difficult to find him/her. I feel there are a lot of positives that can come out of this rule change and I applaud Roger and SCORE for implementing it. It’s unfortunate all of the controversy that arose from San Felipe, but I feel it will improve our sport in the long run and allow us to continue to enjoy racing the sport we love in an ever-developing country.