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Ricky Johnson, Photo: Alex Soltero, Fotosolweb.com

(Agua Dulce, Calif.): The NORRA Mexican 1000 is an epic race that travels the length of the Baja Peninsula. Known as “The Happiest Race On Earth,” its rally based format is fun for those seeking adventure and challenging for those who relish competition. The event has classes for many different bikes which draws a diverse and talented bunch of riders. There could be no greater demonstration of that point than to look at this year’s top finishers.

The Modern Open class is for motorcycles of any age, size, or type; an apt description of the competitors who entered. Many looked forward to a battle between two motorcycle racing icons, Ricky Johnson and Steve Hengeveld. Johnson was inducted into the AMA motorcycle hall of fame in 1999 and the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2012. He is a 7 time AMA national champion, has multiple 4 wheeled championships in the TORC series and wins at the Baja 1000 in 1997 and 2003.

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Hengeveld and his Honda teammates, won the Baja 2000 in the year 2000, a race that traversed 1,748 miles of the Baja Peninsula to commemorate the new century. His Baja 1000 winning streak with Honda spanned 6 years, from2002 to 2007 and another win in 2014 riding for Kawasaki. Hengeveld also won the Baja 500 from 2000 to 2004 straight, as well as other Baja 500 victories in 2007 and 2012. In 2014, Hengeveld won the Mexican 1000 overall riding under friend Mark Winkelman’s name. Hengeveld and Winkelman thought it would be funny to enter a “ringer” in the rally. Unfortunately for Hengeveld, he lost an engine on day two of the rally and dropped out. That left Johnson to battle with Steve Grieb, Chris Hart and Mauricio Uribe for the overall win.

“The race could not have been better,” says Johnson, “The course layout and the reception we got at the finish line each day was first class. It reminded me of summer camp when I was a kid. On day one you are riding against strangers. At the awards ceremony in Cabo, you are partying with good friends; it was awesome. My plan was just to have a great time but I rode a little harder on day one after I had some gps issues. I figured if I caught up to the leaders, I could follow them in.” Once Johnson took the lead, he never looked back. “I didn’t think about winning until I saw that Danny Hamel trophy, I wanted it! I had help from Baja Bound who took care of me and my bike; it made it nice. Each day I got a brief on what was coming that day. They warned me about a slippery water crossing coming into Loreto. I slid out a little but the guy behind me ate it. Nobody knows more about Baja than Tim Morton (of Baja Bound). Steve Grieb was also riding with them so we ended up riding together a lot of the time. He beat me flat out on day 3 but I made up time on day 4. The last day we stayed the same. I fell in love with Baja again. I am already planning for next year’s rally, 10 of us will be coming down. I am building a Pro Circuit XR600 and will be riding with my son.” Ricky Johnson has been riding since age 3; taking his first pro championship title in 1984. Taking the victory at his first ever Mexican 1000 was impressive; earning him the respect of everyone.

“I had a heck of a good time,” said second overall Steve Greib, “It was so much fun and laid back. I have raced a bunch but the atmosphere at NORRA is different; still competitive but more fun. On day 3, I came up on RJ (Ricky Johnson) who was working on his bike; he broke a chain. I offered my chain tool and told him it would make it much quicker. He told me that I stopped so I could take off first, it was only fair. He let me get out for a while before he took off. We had a good battle and ended up riding together on a lot of the transfer stages. The rally was great. We had cold beer and tacos every night at the bivouac. I own a small motorcycle shop (C&D Cycle Center in San Diego, CA.) so I helped some other competitors with repairs in the pits at night. I didn’t know the guys and would probably never see them again but everyone helps each other at NORRA. The goal is to get to the end in San Jose Del Cabo. Originally we were helping a customer to race the rally but when he couldn’t make it at the last minute, he said, why don’t you go, the entry fees are all paid. The whole experience was amazing; I got to ride with one of my childhood heroes, RJ.”

Mauricio Uribe, Photo: Alex Soltero, Fotosolweb.com

Mauricio Uribe, Photo: Alex Soltero, Fotosolweb.com

Third place in Modern Open class went to Chris Hart. Chris is an active duty Green Beret who was introduced to the NORRA rally in 2015 by friend Rob Usnick; they finished 2nd place in Super Vintage class. Chris put his 2016 plan together by satellite phone while deployed to the African Continent. He and a few fellow Green Berets rode out from Fort Bragg in North Carolina, raced the Mexican 1000, and then rode back. In addition to Chris’ military service, he is the East Coast Motorcycle Project Manager for Race For The Wounded. Chris lost 1 minute, 40 seconds on day three and was getting razzed by Ricky Johnson about it. Chris got motorcycle training in the military from Ricky so they have been acquainted for years. “Ricky and I were having a little fun with each other,” said Chris, “I had to top him so I asked him if he had ever ridden out of a Chinook helicopter in a combat zone wearing night vision goggles.” Chris has an incredibly busy schedule but plans to return again next year if he can make it. He loves the challenge and made it a point to start each day off with a big wheelie at the starting line.

The winner in Modern Lites class was Jennifer Morton. She did it Ironwomen; riding the entire way solo. Jennifer has been riding her entire life and has competed in several motorcycle disciplines. She and husband Tim Morton run Baja Bound Adventures and had several riders competing in the rally including Ricky Johnson and Steve Grieb. “I like the rally format,” says Morton, “I was riding an XR400; probably the slowest bike in the race but it’s more about brains than brawn. The rally uses roll charts for navigation but most bike riders prefer GPS to show the route. You can only go as fast as you can see ahead and you have to keep your eyes ahead. The Mexican rally is extremely safe compared to a Baja 1000 type race. They take special care to keep the bikes separate from the unlimited cars and trucks and the vintage vibe brings a lot of camaraderie.” Jennifer captured the victory but also stopped many times to help fellow competitors with fuel, repairs and help with navigation (including RJ on day one). On day 5, she kept coming upon another rider that was having trouble navigating. She told him he could ride with her to the finish but only if he would not try to take her position at the finish. The other rider was very grateful for the help and held up his part of the bargain. “I was hoping just to finish in the top five,” said Morton, “To win was special. I kept thinking about Bruce Ogilvie during the rally and trying to apply all the words of wisdom he shared with me over the years.” The late Ogilvie, inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2010, was a highly accomplished racer and long-time manager of American Honda’s off-road racing team.

Jen Morton #10 did the entire NORRA Mexican 1000 solo, Ironwoman! From the coast to the cactus forest, in form not unlike that of her late mentor Steve Ogilvie himself. Camaraderie is a big part of the rally, some riders choose to ride together during many parts of it after being helped or helping other riders or just incase senarios.
The Mexican 1000 is tough on a modern motorcycle; on a Classic British Thumper, it’s a whole other level. Winner Julian Heppekausen was riding a very special 1966 Triumph T120. His Triumph was built by the late motorcycle journalist Terry Pratt. Amongst his many accomplishments, Pratt worked at Cycle News as an advertising manager, America’s Weekly Motorcycle Newspaper, for over 32 years. Heppekausen has continued to improve the bike in the spirit of Pratt and true to his vision. “I’ve tried to keep the bike as Terry wanted it,” said Heppekausen, “The NORRA 1000 started as a wild idea and degenerated into craziness. It was pretty rough on the kidneys; I got beat up. We spent a lot of time in preparation, the last thing you want to do is work on the bike in the middle of nowhere. Besides getting stuck in the silt, the bike was trouble-free. I was talking with Robby Gordon and we were comparing his car with 36 inches of wheel travel to my bike that has only 3 inches. Both of us thought each other were crazy.” He said with a laugh.

Many think there is no better way to experience Baja than on a motorcycle. The NORRA Mexican 1000 combines the incredible atmosphere and beautiful scenery of Baja Mexico with a challenging but fun competition. The ranks are growing every year as word gets out about the great times had by all. There is a reason the call it “The Happiest Race On Earth.”

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