A LINE IN THE SAND

Be­fore there was the Baja 1000, there was Ekins and Robert­son

Cycle World - - Ducati - By MARK LINDEMANN Pho­tog­ra­phy by CY­CLE WORLD ARCHIVES; EKINS COL­LEC­TION

Ev­ery re­li­gion has its icons, its holy grails. Of­ten the leg­ends are so pow­er­ful that just a word or two con­jures the magic. Some­times it’s a place: You go there to prove yourself and re­turn a changed per­son. Mo­tor­sports are no dif­fer­ent. There’s Day­tona. Bon­neville. Indy. Le Mans. The Isle of Man. And for off-road­ers, noth­ing dis­tills the dream like the short cough of two syl­la­bles, a Mex­i­can moon­scape where it’s still just you and your bike: Baja.

The lo­cals call it La Mil, and of course for us that com­pletes the name: the Baja 1000. It’s an event just 50 years old, yet it seems like it’s been with us since the earth cooled. And how it all be­gan is the story of a young Ja­panese com­pany out to prove it­self, a startup mag­a­zine

“One small ride for man, one gi­ant leap for mo­tor­cy­cling.”

called Cy­cle World, and two mo­tor­cy­cle en­thu­si­asts who dared to walk up to the stone and pull out the sword.

Amer­i­can Honda be­gan im­port­ing mo­tor­cy­cles into the United States in 1959, sell­ing them in sport­ing-goods stores, gas sta­tions, and from the beds of pickup trucks. At the time, “Made in Ja­pan” meant in­ex­pen­sive, im­i­ta­tive, or dis­pos­able. While Honda’s mo­tor­cy­cles were pop­u­lar, many of mo­tor­cy­cling’s faith­ful viewed these new bikes with that same skep­ti­cal eye. A mere 39 hours one March week­end was all it took to dis­abuse the prej­u­dice.

Walt Ful­ton and Jack Mccor­mack were sales man­agers at the fledg­ling Amer­i­can Honda Mo­tor Com­pany, and they hatched a plan to demon­strate just how good their new CL72 Scram­blers were. Bud Ekins, a tough South­ern Cal­i­for­nia racer and stunt­man, had al­ways wanted to ride a mo­tor­cy­cle the length of Baja. (In 1963, it was Ekins rid­ing as Steve Mcqueen’s stunt dou­ble who per­formed the iconic Great Es­cape mo­tor­cy­cle jump.) Ful­ton and Mccor­mack wanted Ekins and his brother Dave to at­tempt their Baja ride on Hon­das. When spon­sor­ship en­tan­gle­ments took Bud out of the pic­ture, they drafted an­other young So­cal racer, Bill Robert­son Jr.

Joe Parkhurst had founded Cy­cle World mag­a­zine just three months ear­lier, and got wind of the ad­ven­ture. He in turn di­aled up Catalina GP win­ner John Mclaugh­lin to fly him and pho­tog­ra­pher Don Miller in a Cessna 195, chas­ing the rid­ers and doc­u­ment­ing the event for his June 1962 issue.

Baja is no joke today, but in 1962, it was tierra incog­nita to norteam­er­i­canos. The last maps of the place had been

sketched out in 1933. The pave­ment ended shortly af­ter the bor­der, and no es­tab­lished road linked north to south. Ekins and Robert­son would be find­ing their way to La Paz along a net­work of washes, dirt tracks, burro trails, and farm-ac­cess spurs that hadn’t im­proved since the Je­suits founded a string of mis­sions down there 200 years ear­lier. They nav­i­gated by the sun and stars.

They started in Ti­juana on Saturday morn­ing, March 17, stop­ping first at the lo­cal tele­graph sta­tion. The tele­gram was time-stamped, ob­jec­tive proof of where they were and when. With lit­tle re­li­able fuel avail­able, Ful­ton and Bill Robert­son Sr. planned to leapfrog ahead in a Cessna 180, land on dirt roads, and act as a pit crew. There was no record to best: As Ekins later said, “We just drew a line in the sand for oth­ers to break.” If they made it, they would be mak­ing his­tory. Today the Baja 1000 is a race; this was more akin to the first moon land­ing.

The Ekins/robert­son CL72S were amaz­ingly stock. Brand-new ma­chines, the rid­ers fit them with Goodyear Grasshop­per tires, Girdling shocks, and Reynolds chains. A tank bag held an ex­tra gal­lon of fuel.

For the first 160 miles or so, down to San Quin­tín, ev­ery­thing was fine. Turn­ing to­ward El Rosario and rid­ing into the sun­rise, Dave and Bill en­coun­tered a clas­sic Baja haz­ard—a sin­gle strand of wire stretched across the road, which cleaned both of them off their bikes. Nei­ther rider was hurt and the dam­age min­i­mal. They kept go­ing.

Range was about 80 miles on the stock 2.25-gal­lon

tank. At Cha­pula Dry Lake they met up with Mclaugh­lin and Parkhurst for pho­tos in late-af­ter­noon light. In El Arco to­ward the end of the day, they missed a ren­dezvous with the plane but found a gas can and some sand­wiches Walt Ful­ton had left with a lo­cal Fed­erale.

Now they were on the Pa­cific coast, rid­ing at night, and the spring fog rolled in. With stars for navigation, they soon found they’d rid­den in a cir­cle and did the only sensible thing: stopped, built a camp­fire, and waited for dawn. It prob­a­bly cost them six hours. When the sun came up, they were back on the bikes and met up with their sup­port team. From here on in it should have been easy.

Ah, but how many of us have had to eat those same fa­mous last words? When they fi­nally hit some black­top 130 miles north of La Paz where they could fi­nally run wide open, Robert­son’s CL72 started blow­ing smoke and run­ning on one cylin­der. Re­mem­ber that crash way back near El Rosario? They’d torn off the bike’s rear fender, and that had al­lowed roost to tear apart the pa­per air cleaner. The in­haled dirt had caused a holed pis­ton.

Dave wanted to push Bill in, but ul­ti­mately they de­cided to split up. Ekins rolled up to the La Paz tele­graph of­fice and posted his time; he’d rid­den 952.7 miles. An hour and a half later, Robert­son fol­lowed in under his own power. One small ride for man, one gi­ant leap for mo­tor­cy­cling. Joe Parkhurst re­ported it so in the pages of Cy­cle World: “The av­er­age au­to­mo­bile usu­ally makes the trip in seven to nine days, though the ‘record’ is held by a Jeep pi­loted by a fool­hardy soul who made it in just under four days. The in­trepid Honda rid­ers cut the time down to a mere 39 hours and 56 min­utes…in­clud­ing some short periods of rest, nine stops for fuel, and ap­prox­i­mately six hours of be­ing com­pletely lost….”

Four years later, in 1966, the two Ekins broth­ers made the same trip on a pair of Tri­umphs. The very next year, NORRA (the Na­tional Off Road Rac­ing As­so­ci­a­tion) or­ga­nized the first of­fi­cial race, the Mex­i­can 1000. Of the 68 ve­hi­cles that started, 31 com­pleted the 950-mile course. In the past 50 years, Hon­das have won the mo­tor­cy­cle class 27 times, each one in the long shadow cast by Dave Ekins and Bill Robert­son Jr. back in 1962.

TOP LEFT: Ekins was crit­i­cal in help­ing de­velop the CL72 for Honda. TOP RIGHT: Set­ting off from the Ti­juana tele­graph sta­tion. The time stamp here was es­sen­tial in cer­ti­fy­ing their ef­fort. ABOVE: Bill Robert­son Jr. show­ing some hon­est Baja wear and tear.

Ekins and his CL72 in La Paz. In the past 50 years, the bikes rid­den in Baja have changed, but scenes like this never do. Park in a small town, and you’ll still draw a crowd of cu­ri­ous kids.

Baja was wild and re­mote in 1962; the only way to re­fuel the bikes and rid­ers was by air. Note the “run­way” for the Cessna. That’s Cy­cle World’s own Joe Parkhurst on the left. The mag­a­zine was just a few months old, but he knew this ride was big.

Com­pare this pit stop to the one-minute ef­forts in Baja rac­ing today. No mo­tor homes, no GPS. Just a Cessna 180, a pair of 1962 CL72 Hon­das, and noth­ing else as far as the eye can see. What he­roes.

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