Hang onto your chair as Honda rider Larry Bergquist challenges rocks and dune buggies
In the flat out day and night blast they call the Mexican 1000.
By Joe Scalzo
Larry Bergquist – Remember the name. He is 34 years old and has been racing motorcycles since he was 14.
He is a desert racer. A tough, motorized two- wheel cowboy who cheerfully blasts 70 miles an hour across rocky, sandy wastes and calls it “fun”.
Out on the floor of California’s vast Mojave desert Bergquist is a big man. He is a winner in the wild cross- country Hair Scrambles and Hare and Hound races.
When Bergquist, who has had more than his share of cracked ribs and broken bones from racing spills, says that last November’s 950-mile day and night cross-country
Chase down the rugged Baja peninsula- From Ensenada in the north to La Paz in the south - was the “most dangerous” race he has ever participated in, you know it was.
Bergquist is not given to overstatement. But if the battery on his 305cc Honda Scrambler
Had not broken while he was speeding across the Rancho Chapala dry lake bed, Bergquist ( and Co-rider Gary Preston ) would easily have won the inaugural Mexican 1000. A grueling, grinding killer which might someday become a racing classic.
This was the big showdown between off-the-road four-wheeled vehicles ( Jeeps, Dune buggies, etc.) and motorcycles. The Four wheelers had more horsepower and comfort than the bikes, and every car driver had a navigator / co-driver sitting beside him. But the motorcycles had the likes of Bergquist, Preston, Malcolm Smith, J. N. Roberts, and the Ekins Brothers. The motorcycles almost won.
Baja California, of course, has long been something of a proving ground for motorcycles. In 1962 American Honda introduced their 250cc Scrambler by letting Dave Ekins and Bill Robertson Jr. ride two of the machines the length of the peninsula. It took Ekins and Robertson 39 hours and 56 minutes to make it, a speed record which stood for years. You understand then, how fast Bergquist was riding when Larry claims he and Gary Preston might have completed last November’s race in 18 hours had not their battery shorted out.
Yet hours and minutes mean nothing to the man who has never seen the barren Baja landscape up close. Cactus and rock stretch for lonely desert mile upon lonely desert mile. Baja is a no-man’s land. It is the dark side of the moon, a wild and hostile tropical land burned by a red sun in summer and lashed by hurricanes in winter.
The narrow peninsula knifes along through clear blue Pacific waters for 800 miles,
Separated from the Mexican mainland by the Sea of Cortez. Along the Baja coast are smooth white beaches and the water is rich with fish. But inland the country becomes
A treacherous desert waste – rocky, jagged. The formidable and high sierra San Pedro
Martir, San Borjas and Calmalli ranges, a chain of extinct volcanoes which have claimed their share of foolhardy climbers, blasts down the middle of this strip of land for nearly 500 miles. And the roads, what there are of them, are only paved in two places. They cut across arroyos and canyons. Should a motorcyclist spill he would surely go rolling and pitching into sharp rocks – and even sharper cactus thorns. Three hundred years ago
Missionaries walked these same roads. There has been very little improvement since then.
Yearly, a handful of adventurous motorists and motorcyclists make the 1000 mile trip
From the garish California border town of Tijuana to sleepy little La Paz, a fishing and resort village on the most southern tip of the peninsula. Always however, with supplies and water, and never alone. For in Baja California there are few modern conviences; In four centuries there have been little progress. Nine-tenths of the peninsula is empty, rolling desert; no postal sevice, no telegraphs, no telephones. Only the tough can survive Baja. “ Hey” reminisced Larry Bergquist from the safety of his Pasadena, California home, “ if I’d fallen off the bike down there and gotton hurt, I don’t know what would have happened to me.” He spoke as if he could visualize his bones bleaching white out in the sun.
A race through the wilds of Baja ? Oddly, the idea was not new. For on the Mexican Mainland there are still those who lament the passing of Carrera Panamericana – the Mexican road race! Though this 2000-mile contest (discontinued since 1954) was run on paved roads and was not open to motorcycles, it still fires the imagination of anyone possessing sporting blood. It is fitting then, that last November’s Mexican 1000 ( Santioned by the National Offroad Association ) showed that someday it might well surpass the fame of the Carrera PanAmericana.
They called the event a rally and that was the biggest joke of all. Aside from a brief 62- mile run from Tijuana into Ensenada, where the real action started, it was an all-out,
No-holes-barred race: fast as you can go over rocky, sandy, washboard desert roads and survive ( the open leg was a time-distance regularity run designated as a tie-breaker in the unlikely instance there should be a photo finish at La Paz.) Two drivers were required
For both motorcycles and cars. In the cars, the two drivers could naturally spell each other as often as they liked. But all the bike riders – unless they carried passengers – could change only once. Most elected to make the switch at El Arco, a desolate little settlement 470 miles south of Ensenada, The halfway point of the race.
Organizers threw the door open to four classes of cars and both production and non-production ( experimental ) motorcycles. They drew 68 entries including 11 motorcycles. As there was $13,775 prize and accessory money ( the winning Meyers Manx Volkswagon – powered dune buggy earned $2,275 ) and a single entry fee cost $250.00,
Much serious effort was expected to be put forth by those who entered.
Much was. Honda of Long Beach, California, spent about $10,000 preparing for the run and grooming the 305 Honda Scrambler which Bergquist and Gary Preston would ride. But little of that sum was spent on the motorcycle. It was spent chartering a Cessna
210 for air support down the peninsula and for gathering other gear. Practically,the only modifications to the Honda were to lengthen the chassis and add Ceriani racing forks, and
to add a 5 gallon gas tank. Aside from these changes, the Honda was left alone, Although
Bergquist selected and shaped the handlebars he and Preston would alternately be hanging onto for the 950 banging miles.
Bergquist only got the chance to ride the Honda through someone else’s misfortune.
Rider John Rice, who usually races all of Honda of Long Beach’s competition gear, had broken his hip in a southern California Scrambles spill immediately prior to the baja bash
And he had to miss it. This, said Don McGee of Long Beach Honda, meant they had to find someone in a hurry. “ So”, said McGee, “ we decided to ask Bergquist. “
The decision was a sound one, and it was only surprising that no one had thought of asking Bergquist before. For if there was any single bike jockey who could tame the wild roads of Baja, it was Larry Bergquist. He is a photo Engraver by profession, a charter member of the Buzzards Motorcycle club, a rider who likes the going to be rough. “I like it all” he said of desert racing, “ But I don’t love the rocks.”
Bergquist grew up with the likes of the late Jimmy Phillips and George Everett, yet
Never followed those stalwarts on into professional cycle racing.
“ Racing for money just doesn’t excite me,” says Larry. Talking doesn’t excite Bergquist either. He is a quiet sort, even introspective. He only opens up, apparently, when he is racing. And then he really opens up.
Say’s Neil Fergus, a friend and fellow member of the Buzzards MC. “ Larry flies. You won’t find anyone in the desert faster than he is. And up on the mountains, on fire roads, you just don’t believe believe it. He’s got his motor all crossed up sideways, just flying, and he’s laughing like crazy all the time.” From this rather frantic description it is easy to
Visualize Bergquist laughing all the way into Laguna Chapala, where disaster overtook
Him. Up to that point no one on two wheels or four could come close to keeping up with him.
Bergquist picked Gary Preston, 31, a bicycle shop owner from Azusa, California, as his riding partner. Preston is another cool hand at high-speed desert racing. Like Bergquist, he had never been into Baja prior to the race.
To make up for this lack of familiarity, Bergquist and Preston borrowed a pair of stock Honda Scramblers and rode from Ensenada to La Paz some 2 weeks before the race.
Fittingly, it was this pre-race practice – something that no other riders took the time to do
which would allow Bergquist to set such a jackrabbit pace down the peninsula when the actual racing began.
On their stock Honda’s Bergquist and Preston were not disposed to break any speed records. They made the trip in a (to them) leisurely five days, camping overnight along the way. A truck followed them, bringing gasoline and supplies. They rode till 3 o’clock
one morning discovering what the road was like by starlight and headlight, (“ terrible,”
Larry was candid. “ It was rougher than I’d expected it to be,” he admitted. “ The roads were loose and rocky. You had to ride fast over them to make them smooth but they never got real smooth. You stood up on the foot-pegs a lot.” All the bouncing and banging actually split open the canteens Bergquist and Preston were carrying , leaving them waterless for one long hot afternoon. Completely dry, they eventually reached
A village with a grocery and quickly bought up several dollars worth of canned soft drinks – which they drank at a single sitting!
Besides the stones and pot - holes along the way, there was the problem of dust.
Bergquist, occasionally looking behind him as he rode, reasoned that riding fast in choking dust would be asking for trouble. If he could, he decided, he would try to jump
Into the lead right away from the start and avoid the dust.
Along the road Bergquist and Preston plotted where fuel dumps could be made for refueling. (in the race there were to be five check points, spaced up and down the road
At 190 mile intervals. These were to determine who was leading the race and also to provide fuel. For the motorcycles, however, the 190 mile gap between checkpoints
Was too great a distance to cover on a single tank of gas. Fuel stops had to be arranged
Bergquist and Preston took other precautions. In true desert rider fashion, they used strips of red cloth or rocks to mark those sections of the road which were particularly
hazardous: a hidden chuckhole, a sudden, blind turn, or a spot where the road was in even worse condition than usual. Two months previously a hurricane named Katrina
had come screaming off the Pacific at 1000 miles an hour, raising tremendous hell with the entire peninsula. Villages had been smashed to bits by the wind and there were many places where flood water had washed out the already sketchy roadway. “ There were places where the road would just end – be completely washed out,” Bergquist shuddered.
Those places were marked and carefully remembered.
And for the last 450 miles into La Paz – most of which would be traveled by night – Bergquist and Preston marked the more hazardous sectors with fluorescent paint. To ride as fast as they planned to at night they would leave no margin for error. They needed paint which glowed in the dark.
They finally arrived in La Paz, spent a couple of days in the sun and then were flown home in a chartered plane.
Their verdict about the approaching race: “We can win it”.
But Bergquist added, “Some of those dune buggies should be our biggest competition”. This was the first time he was wrong. For while Larry was running, he had no competition.
It was decided that Bergquist would ride the first 450 miles down to El Arco in the daytime hours, and Preston would take over for the night and morning run into La Paz.
In the meantime, Honda of Long Beach made the necessary arrangements. They chartered a plane to fly Preston to El Arco, and arranged for fuel dumps along the way.
Then it was time for the race. All the entries grouped at Ensenada at 6 o’clock on a Saturday morning.
Bergquist’s plan of leading from the earliest possible point was made easier by luck.
When the drivers and riders drew lots for starting positions, he drew the number 1 bike slot.
Bergquist was, therefore, the first motorcycle rider away, starting at 6:12 am behind
3 cars which had left at 3 minute intervals before. He wore Jeans, Boots, a Barbour suit, helmet and goggles. He carried what spares he could manage, including master links, spark plugs, assorted nuts and bolts.
The Motorcycle competition he faced seemed formidable. It included Malcolm Smith/ J.N. Roberts, on a 360 Husqvarna, Dick Hanson/ John Barns on a 650 Triumph and Dave and Bud Ekins on a 650 Triumph.
Bergquist shot out of Ensenada into the sun, quickly overtaking the three cars which had started in front of him. Now, with nothing ahead of him but La Paz, Bergquist began to turn it on.
On the slippery, Blacktop road which rocketed for 72 miles through the mountains and the villages of Maneadero, Santo Thomas, and mission San Vicente, the Honda’s speedometer remained pegged at close to 100. Bergquist was flying. Even on the pavement “ I could feel the rear wheel slipping around, ” he remarked later. At Arroyo Seco, the paving gave way to crushed rock. The difficult going was just beginning.
From Arroyo Seco to Campo Grande the rock road runs fairly straight through Camalu, the first checkpoint, and then makes a looping right hand turn along the Pacific Coast at El Rosario, where it quickly swings inland again. Bergquist ate up the miles. He sped south, heading for the second checkpoint at remote Santa Ynez.
The Honda rider, miles ahead of everyone else, kept the throttle on. Through all the tiny villages along the way the engine blast echoed off white adobe walls. Mexican Nationals stood in the doorway of the their homes to watch the mad gringo streak by.
“ Si, el gringo vamuy de prisa…”.
The villagers themselves were no problem but the dogs were. Every time Bergquist would race through a village a pack of huge, apparently undernourished hounds would come screaming and yelping after him.
Bergquist dodged and had countless near misses with the dogs but all was well until
he thundered through El Rosario and one particularly huge animal ran directly into the Honda’s path.
The bike skidded out from under him in a long slide down the dusty street. Bergquist jumped up, grabbed the motorcycle, and restarted. The dog, stunned, stood up and watched Bergquist accelerate angrily away. “ It broke the clutch lever off and put some scratches on me.” Bergquist said simply. “ That was all.” Bergquist switched the front brake lever onto the clutch side. For the rest of the wild ride he would go without a front brake.
From El Rosario the road is the roughest of all and this was where Bergquist’s superb riding paid off the most. He leaped across rough patches, missed boulders, broad-slid around corners, made tremendous time. His average speed up this point was an incredible 60 miles per hour. No one was close to him. He was between 40 minutes to an hour ahead of Malcolm Smith, who had moved his Husqvarna into second place ahead of three other motorcycles. At the Rancho Santa Ynez checkpoint, 303 miles from the start, the fastest car was only sixth. But there was no catching Bergquist, as Smith admitted to a friend afterwards.
“How hard do you have to ride?” Smith puzzled. “ I was doing everything I knew
(Smith is a veteran of such events as the international Six Day Trials, where he won a gold medal) But I couldn’t catch Bergquist. I was following the tracks he left in the road.
Where he’d jump, I’d jump. I was landing on my front wheel. And then I’d look up ahead and see where Larry had landed.”
Bergquist kept going. Later he would say he had accidents – but that did not mean there were no near – misses. “ You can only take so many chances. You can only go so hard without falling off.” And Bergquist was going hard.
He was also smashing all Baja records. The Honda’s engine was running perfectly. Bergquist stopped twice at pre – arranged fuel dumps and was in good shape at noon as he started across the dry alkali lake bed at Rancho Chapala, about 140 miles from El Arco where co – rider Gary Preston waited. Bergquist was not exhausted. He later said he could have ridden the full 1000 miles if necessary. He had come 400 miles in six hours.
Then, with staccato-like bursts, the Honda’s engine began to sputter and finally it conked out dead. Bergquist, who had been listening to the howling twin cylinders for 400 miles, suddenly was stunned by the absolute stillness. Rancho Chapala, directly in the middle of the peninsula, wis one of the most remote places in all of Baja.
Bergquist jumped off the Honda to check it. This did not take him long. The battery was dead – broken from all the pounding. Bergquist did not have a spare with him. QHe was trapped and out of the running on the dry lake. There was no way he could get word to Preston in El Arco to have a new battery flown to him via the airplane. Bergquist sat down besides his motorcycle.
Finally, after what seemed a long time, a speck of dust on the far horizon and the drone of a two – stroke announced the presence of the fast moving Husqvarna of Malcolm Smith, Malcolm spotted Bergquist and stopped, seeing if there was anything he could do.
“My battery went dead” Bergquist said.
Smith shook his head.
“What a fiasco” he sighed, and roared off toward El Arco, where co – rider J.N. Roberts was waiting to take over. Smith/Roberts now seemed sure winners. The closest car was over 5 hours behind.
But during the night Smith’s Co – rider J.N. Roberts became lost in the Arroyos and low hanging fog, as did most of the motorcycle riders. Roberts finally got back on course but had lost too much time. He finished second overall behind the winning Myer’s Manx.
The car made it in 27 hours and 30 minutes. Smith/ Roberts took 28 hours and 48 minutes.
Smith, however, had an even more bizarre adventure. He hitched a ride home from El Arco in a truck carrying live turtles. For five days Malcolm had to ride in the rear with the giant tortoise. “When Malcolm got home” a friend said “he even smelled like a turtle”.
Bergquist, after Smith had ridden away, waited on the dry lake, confident Smith would alert Preston in El Arco to have a battery flown to him. “ We still could have won,
Even with all the lost time”. Bergquist believes. But a new battery never reached him.
There is still some confusion over the reason. Don McGee of Long Beach Honda claimed that when Smith finally rode into El Arco it was too late in the afternoon to risk sending
an airplane up for Bergquist. But Gary Preston, waiting for Bergquist in El Arco, said there was time, but that the plane had already flown farther to the south to drop fuel off
at a fuel dump. When the plane returned to El Arco it was nearly dark, and too late to fly the 140 miles back to Rancho Chapala.
All the confusion clearly cost the Bergquist/Preston team a victory. As it was, Preston spent the rest of the night by a roaring fire in El Arco, helping patch up the other motorcycle entries as they arrived. Some of the machines, battered beyond recognition,
Required complete rebuilds.
Bergquist, Though, had it even worse. After a harrowing ordeal with three drunken young toughs in a truck, he abandoned the Honda and fled out onto the dry lake. During the night he could only catch catnaps and then he would have to be on his feet and move on, fearful the three young punks would start their truck, come looking for him, and even run him over.
Morning finally came and a plane ( not the one chartered by Long Beach Honda ) put down on the dry lake and flew Bergquist to Ensenada. At the same time Larry arranged
For a truck to transport the Honda back to California. After being lost for several weeks, the motorcycle finally turned up in Los Angeles, unharmed.
It was a heartbreaking way for Bergquist, fastest man in the race, to end up. Still, Larry had proven a couple of things. One was that a fast, well – ridden motorcycle has no equal
when it comes to getting across wild country in a hurry. Bergquist had also followed his pattern: he usually wins or doesn’t finish.
And Larry is already talking about the 1968 Mexican 1000. He remains convinced a motorcycle can make it into La Paz in 18 hours.
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