A Ride Down The Peninsula
A RIDE DOWN THE PENINSULA: THE MEN WHO STARTED A WHOLE NEW KIND OF RACING
Nearly 100 years after the acquisition of California North by the United States, the Auto Club of Southern California surveyed Mexico’s 1000-mile long Baja Peninsula in an effort to make a legible road map. While in the process, they placed small blue and white baked enamel signs along the way directing greenhorn travelers south. An experienced driver would never even attempt the ordeal! Left untouched by Native Mexicans over the years, these road signs began to find their way into living rooms and dens when stateside adventurers trekked south during the heyday of “Jeeping”. Adventuresome 4-wheelers would cross the Mexican border to experience this sparsely populated desert, a desert now picked clean of those nifty little Auto Club markers, and promptly lose their way. Partly because of those perverse pleasure seekers, Baja’s economy began to grow. Ensenada had become the second busiest seaport in all of Mexico and an observatory site found on Baja Norte’s 9286 foot high Sierra De San Pedro Martir mountain could boast as being one of the largest gatherings of telescopes in the north western continent. That choice for placing telescopes at that mountain was no accident, the air there is so pure that one can see both the Pacific coast, and, by looking east, view the Mexican mainland’s seacoast on the other side of the Sea of Cortez, a distance of about 100 miles.
It is not often that the right people get together at the right time to make history. The whole idea of riding a motorcycle the length of the Baja Peninsula against a clock belongs to motorcycle racer turned Hollywood stuntman, Bud Ekins. And it was American Honda Motor Company who supplied the vehicle to make it work. Actually, it was AHM Sales Manager Jack McCormack and Western States Sales Manager Walt Fulton whom Bud convinced a “Baja Trail Ride” with Honda’s brand new CL72 Scrambler would be a great way to kick off sales for Honda’s first dirt bike. Jack and Walt then had to convince AHM management to set the wheels in motion. To the Japanese, a potential failure, plausible in any undertaking this demanding made the idea a “difficult sell” for the U.S. team. Remember, there was no record to break, just a record to make. The primary job would be to get the job done.
The plan was for Bud and Dave Ekins to ride the new bikes and for Walt Fulton to fly cover, not a bad idea at all. Next, there was a change to the basic plan. Triumph Motorcycle Distributor, Johnson Motors, would not allow their key and most famous dealer, Bud to participate. So Bud’s younger brother, Dave, (who had been racing prototype 250 cc Honda Scramblers), set out to find another partner. Jack McCormack suggested asking Bill Robertson and Bill Robertson Jr., owners of Honda of Hollywood, a major retail operation in the center of Hollywood. Bill Robertson Sr. had spent many hours flying to and from Baja on fishing trips and seemed a good fit aboard Fulton’s chase plane as a guide/navigator and co-pilot. Bill Jr., an accomplished desert racer at 24, would ride the other Honda.
Honda management decided they would need editorial proof of accomplish; therefore they invited Cycle World magazine publisher Joe Parkhurst to observe. Joe next asked WWII aviator and friend John McLaughlin to do the flying. John reportedly said, upon being invited: “Great, you pay for the gas.”
The year of this undertaking was 1962; groundwork for the Auto Club maps had begun in 1933. The team used 30 year-old maps of mostly dirt roads that would detour anytime a vehicle got stuck or disabled. As it turned out, the entire event required a lot of guesswork and luck, both good and bad. There would be motorcycles on the ground and one airplane flying cover with a second witness and an additional free-lance photojournalist. Then to add adventure, no private airplane is allowed to fly after dark in Mexico. All of this would be done without radios, GPS, or any other modern navigational aids for the bike riders. The actual ride began at midnight and finished a day and a night and another day later. The total time elapsed from start to finish was 39 hours, 56 minutes. Dave and Bill would go without sleep for nearly 60 hours.
Certification of these types of cross-country adventures began with a method used by Cannonball Baker for his famous pre-WWI ride across the U.S. Baker followed railroad tracks and used available telegraph stations to confirm his progress. Baker’s ride was done with an Indian motorcycle. For the ’62 Baja attempt, telegraphs would be sent at the start and finish. Those 1962 telegrams do exist as does the story and photographs published by Joe Parkhurst in the June 1962 issue of Cycle World magazine. The adventurous ride is not a fairy tale.
The decision was made to start that attempt at midnight on the 3rd Saturday of March 1962. This choice was a second mistake; both riders had worked a full day before driving south 3 hours to San Diego, California. It was assumed that getting lost in the dark would be unlikely while riding on the twisting highway running from Tijuana to Ensenada. From Ensenada, then to the morning meeting in San Quintin takes well-traveled roads. Both bikes had been refueled a second time at the end of the pavement in Santo Thomas where two American Honda reps were waiting for our arrival. They had a rotating beacon on the pavement so we would not miss them. Riding a raised corrugated dirt road from Santo Thomas to Fulton’s waiting plane was very straight and fast. The CL’s were just skimming the high spots of the road as daylight broke to the left of the riders. Gas, a bite to eat, and they continued on their way.
The road next became two deep ruts when it turned inland towards a tiny village called El Rosario. A sharp left turn directly into the sun blocked both riders’ vision; at the same instant a wire stretched across a driveway snatched Bill and Dave off their bikes. Luckily, it was a slow speed crash and only the bikes suffered damage. This was lucky incident #1. A higher speed could have resulted in broken bones. Bill’s CL72 suffered the worst of the damage.
Bill and Dave rode another 40 miles towards the Santa Ines airstrip. The team was on target for the predetermined 32-hour schedule as they slid up to the Cessna. At this juncture, Bill Sr. noticed that Bill Jr.’s rear fender support had broken. Both bikes had lost their taillight lenses. The decision was made to remove the entire fender assembly from Bill Jr.’s bike and run without. This decision was made despite having enough spare parts on the Cessna to fit a new rear fender. Bill Jr. had to look forward to riding over 700 miles without a fender and the protection it normally provides. This was mistake #3.
The team had a scheduled meeting of bikes and airplane at Chapula Dry Lake when John McLaughlin and his Cessna 195 met up with the Honda team. The press was aboard that plane and the reunion became “picture taking time”. It was obvious then that the planned schedule was unrealistic; from then on it was “please the photographer”. A couple of hours later Dave and Bill Jr. were chasing chickens around a small adobe house in the five-casa village of Rosarito. Everybody had fun except for the chickens as precious daylight began slipping away. This was mistake #4.
The next stop was El Arco near the 28th parallel. That point also marks the separation between Pacific Time and Mountain Time. El Arco is absolutely the worst place to spend any time in Baja California. Even the water well is placed downstream from the village’s only outhouse. Walt and Bill Sr. waited as long as they could and saw no sign of the two Hondas. They were scheduled to meet the bikes in the middle of the night at La Purisima, another two stops down the road. The plane and crew of two had to be there. Meanwhile, Bill and Dave broke the crest of a hill on the road leading into El Arco just in time to see the Cessna 180 lift off the runway as the sun hurried towards the evening horizon. Incredibly, a Federal Soldier was there to check the riders’ papers; he then led them to a 5-gallon gas container and cheese sandwiches left by Fulton and Robertson Sr.
El Arco to San Ignacio is about the most miserable 70 miles upon which to wrestle a bike. Long ago volcanoes spewed a bunch of nasty square rocks down there, and then the rocks got covered with sand blown in from the coast. The message here is that rocks are not too bad as long as you can see them; invisible rocks are a different story. It took Bill and Dave the better part of four hours and many get-offs before they arrived at the San Ignacio airport where another “care package” was waiting.
From the San Ignacio Airport the road is just two tracks on the Pacific side consisting mostly of sand with a few round stones. The riders headed southwest and then picked up the coast and turned due south. After dark, the warm desert air pulls a blanket of fog in from the ocean and obliterates the moon and stars. Celestial navigation? Forget it. A short time after meeting with fog, Dave noticed tire tracks in his headlight beam. He stopped, took a look, and decided the tracks were theirs. (Not even a good guess, who else would be down there riding a motorcycle?) However, the two adventurers had been riding in a circle. This was Lucky Incident #2. The team had no compass or any other guidance; the wiser option was to stop and wait for the sun to appear. The other choice would be to run out of gas. They were lost.
Meanwhile, Walt and Bill Sr. had spent the night tending a campfire and waiting for the two boys to make a showing. It didn’t happen; the two lost and exhausted riders had built a campfire and waited for daylight to appear. It would then be just a matter of riding with their left shoulders welcoming that ball ‘o fire, the morning sun.
When daylight broke, Bill Sr. encouraged Walt to fly the plane north to find Bill Jr. and Dave. Fog was still hanging around, so visibility was questionable; they over flew the two Honda riders in the morning mist. About half an hour into the search and without any positive sighting, Walt decided to set the Cessna down and have a look at the road for motorcycle tracks. The chosen landing spot was far too soft for the Cessna and Fulton immediately reacted to mud trying to pull his plane into a quagmire. This was Lucky Incident #3; the plane should have crashed. The 180 broke loose, and relishing their good fortune, the two flew directly back to the La Purisima meeting place.
Meanwhile, the pair of CL riders found San Juanico, a three casa fishing village complete with barking dogs and curious children. They purchased two gallon bottles of green/gray gas and two warm Cokes. Then, after a few minutes, they were on their way south running on stale fuel that didn’t agree with the high performance OHC twins.
Walt Fulton landed his mud spattered Cessna 180 a half hour ahead of the Hondas at Parisima’s dirt air strip. The easy part of the trip lay ahead. There would be another 80 miles of solid road to Constitucion where gas and food would be available. Following Constitucion would be the last 130 miles of Mexican pavement. However, the pavement would offer no guarantee; the thin Baja Sur tarmac has a reputation for featuring nasty hard to see potholes.
Bill and Dave spotted the airfield and Cessna where the dirt road abruptly ended. Relieved that the worst part was over, and with the plane in sight, they opened the Hondas up for the first time. As they reached about 70 mph, one exhaust pipe started spewing black smoke when Bills’ CL lost a cylinder. Dave, without hesitation, planted a boot over the dead pipe and pushed Bill into the airstrip. Dave wanted to push Bill the last 130 miles; after all, they had ridden together for nearly two days solid. Bill Sr. was for it, but Walt nixed the idea. His reasoning was he didn’t want to destroy the other CL and blow the whole attempt. Walt was correct because no one there knew at the time the removal of the rear fender led to a perforated paper air filter which caused the holed piston 700 miles later.
Running out of gas in Baja is not an option and getting lost is easy. The last 130 mile leg is a little beyond the range of a CL even when cruising at half-throttle. Dave did switch to the reserve near the outskirts of La Paz and then saved the day by using the last gallon of gas stored inside the tank bag. There was additional panic when Dave lost a few more minutes finding the telegraph office. However, he made it to the La Paz telegraph office in 4 minutes less than 40 hours. Bill Jr. finished on one cylinder an hour and a half later. He was closely followed by his dad giving chase in a La Paz-based taxi.
Did the ride pay off for American Honda Motor Company? You bet. From ’62 through ’68, AHM sold more than 89,000 CL type motorcycles. Two major races have been held in Baja each year since 1987, thanks to an ex-marine named Eddie Pearlman and automotive journalist Don Francisco. These two put the first half dozen races on under the guise of National Off Road Racing Association. Then the Mexican government disallowed NORRA future race sanctions and tried presenting the race under government auspices. That did not work. Mickey Thompson and Sal Fish arrived with SCORE and two well-organized races have been run in Baja each year hereafter. Subsequently, Baja’s economy and development have been growing by leaps and bounds, much of it possible due to the Mexican 1000, a race that began in 1967, 44 years ago.
The Road Back
I am sure we’ve all looked at a map of North America and seen this scrawny finger of land jutting into the Pacific; and perched there as if balancing the continent is another land mass in the Atlantic. These two peninsulas are nearly the same land area in nearly the same longitude, and yet are entirely different. One is green and lush, a natural habitat for flowers and leaves with moisture in summer, winter, fall, and spring. A playground for anything with legs, wings, or scales. All kinds of reptiles from a fraction of a pound to two hundred plus pounds are found there. A fishing haven for those that must and a winter haven for those tired of snow and wintry blasts of frigid air from the far north. We call this place Florida. On the opposite side is Mexico’s own Baja California; the true story takes place there.
Baja is not flat like, nor is it green and lush like Florida, it doesn’t have any wet lakes to brag about; maybe an oasis or two. The several large lakes that did exist dried up long ago. Baja lizards do very well in the absence of moisture, Baja birds are a little luckier as they can fly to either coast for a sniff of the ocean; or gulf. Unlike Florida, Baja was formed by a backbone of volcanoes from top to bottom. Indeed, this is a mountain range that sometimes surpasses ten thousand feet. I doubt if Florida even gets to one thousand feet of elevation. Are there flowers and trees in Baja? Well, sort of. All sorts of native growth sprouts up among the rocks and sand, even some not found anywhere else, we call them “cactus”. And people do live there. Well, sort of.
A string of missions were built over a period of a few hundred years whose construction was supervised by Spanish Missionaries. They actually extend from the Southern Baja tip north to San Diego. This was Spain’s way of civilizing their new lands. Under the Spanish Missionaries’ direction a network of trails connect each of those missions tying the whole package into a neat bundle. Then horses, mules, or oxen would pull carts laden with trading goods from place to place to generate a commercial enterprise out of this desolate peninsula longer, thinner, and severely less populated than its eastern counterpart.
I paid a visit to a part of this land in 2004 and found a two lane highway in the place of those old missionary trails now guiding modern eighteen wheelers in both directions; yep; still doing commerce. Although I was only south of San Diego less than a hundred miles, I knew this constant rumble of truck transport went all the way to and beyond LaPaz, eight hundred miles almost due south. I wasn’t surprised because I had been in, Santo Thomas forty-two years earlier when, at this very spot I was standing at our second gas stop during the first Tijuana to LaPaz record attempt. Two of us were riding motorcycles then. It was just not wise to be traveling that country solo.
Bill Robinson Jr. and I made a history making dash down the Baja Peninsula in 1962, a story that has been told many times. This is not that story we are about to embark upon. And now, with all those who took part, Bill Robertson Sr. and Jr., Walt Fulton, Joe Parkhurst, and John McLaughlin gone, I can complete the story kept mute for so many years. You see, we had to get home.
We’ll start this one where the March, 1962 “Dash South” ended, LaPaz. Bill’s bike had holed a piston about 130 miles before LaPaz. So he got to town a couple of hours behind me. We had been without sleep for about sixty hours so we just laid around most of the next day; thinking about our airplane ride back home. Hell, we had spent a lifetime riding those silly motorcycles and the last thing we wanted to do was swing a leg over ’em again. Not this week, anyway. Then Walt, the man in charge, told us to fix Bill’s bike because we were going to ride back. “We were leaving the next morning”. Well, that provoked a lot of grumbling, almost a mutiny.
Wisely, our team had a complete CL72 disassembled in Walt’s airplane. The lesson here is “When starting with an unknown quantity fill all the available baskets”. Honda Motor Company had sent three bikes over for this ride, two Type 1s and a single Type 2. The type 2 had a 360 degree crankshaft and wide ratio gearbox; the Type 1 had a road race type gearbox and ten percent more horsepower. Bill and I went for power leaving the weak sister with the preferred gear ratios as a “parts bike”.
The simple way to fix Bill’s blown CL was to install the Type 2 engine. His Honda finished without a rear fender and a big dent in the rear rim, and it was going back in that condition. After 700 miles Bill was used to those imperfections by now. Besides, we didn’t have time to fix everything.
Walt was going to meet us 130 miles up the road at Constitution about 9:00 A.M. From then on he would fly cover as he had the way down. Even leave gas at some non-existent place for us to find after dark. We could retrieve our warm Barbour suits at the same time. Then we would meet up at Club Aero Mulege about dinnertime. If everything went as planned it was doable even though our bodies and mental state were junk.
And guess what? Walt got to our meeting place nearly three hours late and his explanation was he had trouble trying to make arrangements to ship the spare bike stateside. Important for us because airplane coverage was more imperative than if we went the way we had come. Our intended route was up the east side of Baja, a trail we had not even flown over. Our plan was, if Walt with his supreme view from the cockpit saw us turn the wrong way he could buzz us with landing lights on and fly off towards the intended direction. We should get the hint and follow. Simple enough. The problem was once airborne Walt never got “overhead” and we simply turned wrong and got lost when it was too dark for the Cessna to be in the air.
The route took us into a mountain of volcanic rocks towards a tiny village known as the Commondos. We purchased gas for our bikes there, then daylight departed and we followed the deepest ruts knowing that was the most traveled route. This took us fifty miles out of our way, then eventually next to a graveyard in the mist and darkness ending up at Mission Loreto about midnight. Having lost contact with us, Walt had left gas at the misson leaving word he would wait at Mulege. Bill and I begged off a generous invitation to stay the night at the mission then rode off on a road carved out of volcanic rock that took us around Conception Bay towards our meeting place. “Gee that’s nice, Walt left the porch light on”…. I thought as we kept seeing this dim yellow glow far off in the direction we were heading. Still riding in our daytime orange coveralls; tired and shivering, and without the will to continue, Bill and I just parked the bikes in the middle of the road and laid down on a section of rock that felt just fine. We slept until headlights and a horn awoke us, still in darkness. We had to move. That yellow porch light was still calling us to hurry…. “You’re late”.
Many tourists think Mulege is the nicest spot on the eastern coast of Baja Sur. It features a tree lined inlet, and a nice little village whose major resource is fishing the Sea of Cortez. The Government thought it was nice too, so they built a prison there. Surrounding the barren walled prison were several dozen makeshift shacks, each with its very own column of smoke rising from a primitive campfire. These are the hovels of people who cared for the souls incarcerated within the thick prison walls. In Mexico they do have conjugal visits. Prison guards and officials live nearby in Mulege, so its not too bad a life for them.
As for Club Aero Mulege, it was built in the ’50s for expected well-healed pilots to land private aircraft and spend vacation time in town. It isn’t much different than a state side motel; offering rooms to sleep in and a large dining room; but no place for a car. Didn’t matter, we just left the bikes outside hoping they might get stolen; then we could fly home and not have to ride another 500 or 600 miles. (Some of it being the very worst roads in Baja.)
Bill and I may have gotten three hours of sleep when Walt woke us and hustled us off to breakfast. It was 8 A.M. and a short time later we were pounding our way north towards Santa Rosalia, a ghost town built around a silver mine abandoned many years ago. Nearby was a run down landing strip where Walt and his Cessna 180 were waiting. His single engine aircraft could carry one 260 pound bike and 170 pound rider at a time, so we drew straws. I lost. Which only meant I had to wait 4 or 5 hours, the time it would take to fly north, unload Bill and CL then return for a second bike and rider. Bill also had to wait for me at the other end. Walt was able to land his Cessna on the runway built for the 1950’s film “Catch 22”, just south of San Felipe. When Bill and I met up again it was getting dark so we spent the night there. While flying cover Walt had concluded it would take much too long to ride the full return mileage, therefore an airlift was required.
Most everything on the eastern slope of Baja is either sand and lava rock or lava rock and sand. Not fun, even on a motorcycle. We were anxious to get to the Bill Robertson Campsite at Kilometer 64 next to the Rio Hardy River, and see our wives. Paula and Patricia were nervously waiting for the sound of our bikes announcing our arrival. We stayed the night and left early the next morning. Bill and I disappeared down the pavement and into the horizon. The following morning we rode across the border at Mexicali/Calexico. Journey over. And that, my friends, is the end of the original story.
Baja: Preparing for the ride to la Paz
Fifty years is a long time to think about something. And here it is 12-12; the breakers have washed the beach away, removed the sand, leaving only the rocks placed there many centuries ago. Fifty years is a blink of an eye compared to the amount of time it took the Baja Peninsula to come into existence. So my fifty years is an instant in the whole of things; during my time I have written several adventure stories from personal experience, yet nothing about the preparation we took prior to our first ride.
Bill was twenty four, and I was twenty nine. We both had considerable desert bike racing under our belts and knew the brand new CL72s were reliable(First examples to arrive in the U.S.). I had been racing the prototype for more than a year prior to production. So, prior to mapping out our 1000 mile course we had to find out some important things, such as fuel economy, range, and night visibility.
Ride south of the border and there are no gas stations beyond Santo Thomas, which is about 80 miles south. From then on we could only count on ranchos with landing strips made for “Doctors Without Borders”. Those medical heroes donate their time and love for helping the less fortunate living in one hundred year old conditions near a dirt road that connected the top to the bottom, a thousand miles.
The majority of these ‘Ranchos’ are on the edge of a dry lake (A nice place to sink a well for water.) and offer a smooth place to land a small airplane. With all this in mind Pemex (The National Oil Company) would leave fifty gallon drums of high octane fuel suitable for light aircraft, and also automobiles. Getting the fuel out was just a matter of a six foot garden hose. Think they sucked on the hose to bring the gas up the hose? No, they are not that dumb. The hose is submerged into the barrel, place a thumb over the end and rapidly pull the garden hose up and into an existing clear one liter wine bottle. The secret is not to allow the hose to drop to the bottom of the gas drum where various scum lurks. In the case of airplanes, the pilot will strain this fuel through a chamois fitted on top of a funnel just for this purpose. These important ranchos are placed about eighty miles apart on the main road.
So, we need to get our Hondas from rancho to rancho without running out of gas. The CLs were fitted with two plus one-quarter gallon fuel tanks. We carried an extra gallon in a carry-bag fitted on top of the existing tank for emergencies. (We did use them once.) If we held the bikes under fifty-five mph, they would travel the required distance without going to the in-tank reserve. We tried race-speed and they ran dry in sixty miles accompanied with engine vibration and various pieces departing from the chassis.
Honda’s off road racing manager once asked me how come it took so long for us the cover the distance. I explained to him that we relied on existing aircraft landing spots. We experienced problems with getting fuel quickly into the bike’s tank, and got lost when the planes were grounded because of darkness. Besides our ‘quick fueling’ arrangement was simply a gallon wine bottle and a funnel- much different from the dump cans and automatic closures fitted to the seven gallon tanks that is the current state of the art racing method.
After all; we did not break a record; we just drew a line in the sand for others to break.
In truth it was Ed Pearlman who read about the second trip with four of us riding our 1964 Triumphs which had seen a Six Days in ’64 and half a Six Days in ’65. The currently famous Honda supported trip in ’62 went unnoticed. It was the Triumph effort in ’66 with my brother Bud that made the L.A. Times and sparked Ed Pearlman’s interest. Ed relayed the trip info to his friends Dick Cepeck and Dan Francisco. From there the three, who were off-road car guys, created the early Baja races under the guise of National Off Road Racing Association. My reward from Ed Pearlman was being granted NORRA member number 1. Thank you Ed.
Dave Ekins- 12-17-2012
Fiftieth or Fifty-First: Does it really matter?
Through our lifetimes there are lots of people we forget and only a few who live in our hearts forever. On this celebration of the ultra-long distance open terrain races, my thoughts belong to the three men who were most important for the beginning of it all. First would be my brother, Bud Ekins, who dreamed of being the first man to ride the Baja from telegraph office to telegraph office. Then there is Bill Robertson Junior, who made the trip with me, helped me, and encouraged me when I just plain gave up. But sadly, he was not with me when I did make it, through no fault of his own. He finished a couple of hours later when his twin turned into a single. And, of course, Ed Pearlman, who read the story and made the run himself in his Toyota Land Cruiser. He then proceeded to put together the whole idea of Mexican 1000 races. These three men are still alive to me because they are as much responsible for this celebration as myself. I was just there and only lived long enough to see the fiftieth become a reality.
Dave Ekins- 03-29-2013