Baja By Triumph

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Baja By Triumph

BAJA BY TRIUMPH: THE SECOND RECORD ATTEMPT

 

 

My brother Bud had, for as long as I can recall, a quest for adventure and a thirst for competition. It was he who first thought up the idea of using the run from Tijuana to La Paz as a test of the mettle of the then new Honda 250cc CL72 Scrambler in 1962. Bud was highly motivated, primed and ready to participate in that “lab and sporting experiment/investigation/adventure”, but was unable to do so due to ongoing commitments. I am sure that his lack of hands-on involvement during that seminal what-turned-out-to-be 39+ hours of riding gnawed at him. He wanted to personally be in the fray. I obviously knew my brother’s outlook and motor sports goals.

 

The second run down Baja occurred four years after the first, which was completed in 1962. During the four years after the initial record attempt, the logistics for the second attempt became more and more promising: We had larger motorcycles at our disposal, motorcycles that had a longer range due to increased gas capacity, machines with which we were familiar, machines that had more power, and a team of four vs. two riders. All the lines were intersecting and we could not but try again!

Let us review for a short while: Baja California for millions of years was and remains an arthritic looking finger-like peninsula that has pointed south for over 1000 miles. It is a volcanically formed rocky piece of land that is the total opposite of that other most famous peninsula, Florida. Florida is flat with abundant growth and animal life. Baja is a harsh, mountainous, cactus covered rock. Prior to 1966, Baja saw very little travel on its very primitive roads between Ensenada and La Paz. Travel on those roads primarily consisted of an occasional and well-worn rusty flatbed truck moving at a leisurely pace. No one had ever tried to hurry down the daunting and hostile geography of Baja. That was simply an impractical and potentially dangerous undertaking. If the vehicle failed for any reason, were it anything from tire to universal joint to final drive chain in the case of a motorcycle, there would be no guarantee of any help.

 

In 1962, the successful attempt was made to establish a non-stop record via a wheeled conveyance from Tijuana to La Paz. This first record was made by Bill Robertson Jr. and by myself riding the aforementioned 250cc Honda motorcycles. This attempt by Honda was well planned; support for our adventure included air support by an airplane that could bring fuel to the bikes along the way. Again, enter my brother Bud: Bud figured that with some modifications to the Triumphs, they could double the range the Hondas had on one fueling. This would allow the Triumph riders to be totally “on their own” with no airplane support needed. Of course, that run would place the riders without radios, without GPS guidance, and with no backup. The Triumph riders would have to find gas where and when they could. The Triumph riders would also have to be cunning and aware so that they did not get lost.

 

Bud never planned to make the attempt from Tijuana to La Paz alone; the attempt had been stripped of non-rider support, but the attempt was designed to be undertaken by a team of riders. And why not? Wonderful and sophisticated motorcycles of the time were readily at hand. At his disposal, Bud had four Triumph twin cylinder motorcycles that had competed in the 1964 and 1965 International Six Days Trials (I.S.D.T.) in East Germany, behind the Iron Curtain.

 

The Triumphs were not everyday off the showroom floor production bikes. These Triumphs had been factory prepared for the 1964 U.S. Silver Vase Team by the resources-deep Triumph factory competition department. In simple nomenclature, two bikes were TR-5’s; the 500 cc variant, and two were TR-6’s, the 650 cc variants. Bud and I determined that four Triumphs were almost ready to take on Baja in their I.S.D.T. configurations. The engines and running gear were almost entirely fresh; a new final drive chain was fitted to each bike as a logical precaution given the prior rigorous off-road miles put on the machines in I.S.D.T. configuration. The bikes had standard factory seats, the same handlebars used in the Six Days competition, and ran the standard factory Amal concentric style carburetor. The only change made, a logical and almost mandatory one, was the change to “Q” type air filters, an aftermarket air filter that was designed for desert racing; desert racing which features a very arid environment with very fine and very abrasive dust particles. “Q” filters were de rigor for the Triumph motorcycle desert racer. Extra fuel was simply carried on the TR-6C motorcycles’ primary fuel tank in a container, as was the method used when the Hondas were run down Baja four years prior to the attempt via Triumph.

 

Bud picked I.S.D.T. Gold Medalist Cliff Coleman to ride his TR-6 along with him. Bud would also be TR-6 mounted. The TR-5 Triumphs would be ridden by famous southwest cross-country racer turned professional Eddie Mulder and by myself. All four team members knew each other from prior competitions involving off-road motorcycling. The camaraderie and understanding of the goal involved was strong.

As per the strategy used for the Honda attempt, our group crossed the U.S.-Tijuana border at midnight, May 3, 1966. Mexico’s toll road was under construction, so we followed the original highway south and crossed under the unfinished toll road several times. I was leading, but managed to hit a patch of grease deposited by one of the construction cranes, and slid out. Very soon after that mishap, while I was still taking inventory of the situation, Bud, Eddie, and Cliff came along and were also victimized by the grease to one degree or another. Bud’s Triumph suffered the most damage of the four motorcycles; his TR-6 emerged with an injured primary cover that would no longer hold oil.

 

This was disheartening; I recall a good deal of derogatory comments from a motivated and spirited Cliff Coleman. The team next remounted and headed towards the Pemex (service) station in Ensenada. We knew that our Triumphs had twice the range of the Hondas, therefore, our next stop would be at El Rosario, about 200 miles into the trip. Dave and Cliff would run first “breaking trail”, while Bud and Eddie could race one another until they were in the leading pair’s dust. At those junctures, they would stop and have a cigarette break. This method continued through most of the daylight hours until I had a second flat tire. At that point, just before the halfway point known as El Arco, Cliff made the decision to proceed alone. This was a bold and calculated decision, a gamble. Cliff had never ridden in Baja California prior to this adventure. Bud, Eddie, and I, would not see Cliff again until we were in La Paz.

 

The village after El Arco is San Ignacio. At San Ignacio, Cliff turned west and followed the old route we used four years prior. I became lost taking that route during the first attempt, so Bud, Eddie, and I used the more traveled easterly route. By then it was dark, and our pace was slowed. We rode on through the darkness into El Rosario, then Mulege, and then onto a road that took us into the mountains just past Conception Bay. This route was somewhat familiar to us; we were taking the road, now in a reversed direction, that Billy Robertson Jr. and I took four years earlier during our little known return ride.

 

We remaining three riders hammered our way through the two-track trail that was literally carved out of a huge lava-covered mountain. My TR-5 was getting tired and using oil. I drained about a quart of oil from Bud’s one-gallon TR-6 oil tank. Finding motor oil deep in the Baja hinterlands is impossible during the day or the night. Daylight began to break about the time we three were leaving the mountains and started a long and flat run to La Paz, approximately 200 miles away. We later learned that Cliff had spent the night at Conception Bay; he became lost and confused in the night and crossed Baja from west to east to the Sea of Cortez side!

Bud calculated that we were on a pace to beat our old “Honda” record by about one hour. We three topped off our gas tanks at Cuidad Constitution and then headed down the last 130 miles of pavement. My Triumph was sounding ill, very ill and into its death rattles. I had to ride very conservatively and hope that the engine would hold together long enough to get me to La Paz. My partners, Bud and Eddie, were still riding healthy machines and they disappeared down the road. I rode down the road at approximately 30 mph. However, Bud’s TR-6 was still vulnerable from its mechanical wounds suffered the day before on the greasy road section and subsequent fall: That crash under the toll road near Tijuana allowed the primary case to run dry. This loss of lubricant caused the primary chain to seize from lack of lubrication. This, with only 60 miles to go.

 

I motored up to Bud and Eddie on my smoking TR-5. Bud and Eddie were having another smoke while deciding how they would fix the TR-6. Bud told me to go ahead and send a telegram from La Paz. Bud felt that we were still on a fast enough pace to beat the record. Eddie stayed with Bud and the wounded TR-6. I took off gingerly, but 55 miles later, my TR-5 seized. Fortunately, the seizure occurred twenty feet from a La Paz gas station on the edge of town. I pushed the bike into the station, a station that fortunately stocked some oil, and poured in two quarts. Fortunately, the very sick TR-5 cooperated and restarted. I next left the gas station and went looking for the telegraph office.

The simple search for the telegraph office was not simple and I was hit with another jolt of adrenalin and anxiety that I did not need. The telegraph office had been moved during the prior four years. I had to go find it!

I was able to find the telegraph office, sent the telegram, and stepped out of the office as Bud and Eddie rode their wounded Triumphs into sleepy La Paz. The 5:31 Pacific Daylight Time entered as sent on the telegram was official. The elapsed time was 40 hours and 3 minutes for a “non-assisted” record from the U.S. Border at Tijuana to the telegraph office in La Paz.

 

Later in the evening, after a shower and still in our riding gear, Bud, Eddie, and I were having dinner at an outside restaurant on the main road. It had been several hours since we had met at the telegraph office and it was getting dark. I was worried about Cliff’s whereabouts; Bud said: “Don’t worry about it. Cliff will come in with his headlight bent to the side of the road, handlebars tweaked, and yelling at the top of his lungs”.

 

Bud was correct. About 20 minutes after his prediction, Cliff arrived, just the way Bud predicted and described, Cliff was yelling: “I had you guys beat by hours”. We three merely laughed. Bud then got up out of his chair, walked over to Cliff, and paternally smacked him in the face because he had not stayed with the group.

Had Cliff stayed with the group, he surely would have beaten the trio by “hours”. There is a lesson here. I know it is a lesson known to almost all with a quest for adventure in the outdoors.

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