Robert Smith seems to have found his passion as a student pastor at Calvary Baptist Church here in Lake Havasu City.
However, his itch for off-road racing has him chasing something else.
Smith competed in the Baja 1000 race in Ensenada, Mexico just last weekend and has been off-roading for as long as he can remember. He’s had his sights set on this race since he was 14 years old.
“I saw a movie called “Dust to Glory” as a teenager and growing up here in Lake Havasu and as a desert rider, I just immediately fell in love with it,” said Smith. “I never really thought [the race] was accessible for non-professional riders but a few years ago, I found out how doable it was.”
This year’s race started and ended in Ensenada and was 800.5 miles in length. The race went throughout the northern part of the Mexican state of Baja California.
There were a total of 265 teams entered, with 39 different states and 21 different countries represented by the competitors.
“Every year is a different course, and the course ranges in lengths, anywhere from 750 up to 1,300 miles,” said Smith about the race.
This was Smith’s first time competing in the Baja 1000 and he did so with a team he did not have a lot of time to gain familiarity with.
Smith connected with a team through a website called racedesert.com and was initially planning on going down to Ensenada with the team and help out as a volunteer. However, one of the team’s driver’s was unable to compete due to a medical condition and Smith was thrust into action.
“I originally was going to drive a chase truck, which is a mobile pit crew which follows the race around and helps out with rider changes,” said Smith. “I wanted to learn because my plan was to race in 2021 and [after the other rider was ruled out] they offered me an opportunity to come on as a rider and I said yes immediately.”
Smith was offered the position roughly a month before the start of the race and needed to get up to speed quickly.
“I was a little behind the curve to prep,” he said. “Most people spend upwards of six months or so preparing, physically or logistically and I had about three weeks.”
The other members of Smith’s team were from the Pacific Northwest, with two from the Seattle area and two others from the Portland, Oregon area and he had no long-term friendship or relationship with prior to the race.
“When I was planning on being on one of the chase teams, I flew up to Seattle and meet with the two from there just to get to know them and make sure we were a good fit,” said Smith. “When it developed for me to race, one of the guys from Portland flew down to Las Vegas and we went on a ride together, which was essentially an audition.”
Smith found the off-road community to be very welcoming and embraces others with open arms.
“The amazing thing about the off-road community is when you meet somebody, you become friends and family eventually,” said Smith. “It’s instant community.”
Smith soon found about the grueling nature of the Baja race and difficulty nature of it.
“It’s not easy. Growing up in the desert, I thought I was very prepared,” said Smith. “What I learned is there is no easy terrain in Baja, there’s hard and harder.”
The team was made up of five racers and the time each spend racing was broken up into manageable sections.
Smith had a 120-mile section, which equated to about 4 hours of racing and was the fourth rider in the order.
Three members of the team had two sections of riding, while Smith and another member had one section.
Smith’s team was using a Honda CRF450X motorcycle, which is commonly used in the Baja race, and was placed in the Pro Moto Unlimited Class.
According to Smith, 14 of the last 15 winners of that used the CRF450X have won the Baja 1000.
However, Smith’s team was unable to finish the race.
“Traditionally the Baja 1000 has about a 50% attrition rate, so half the people to enter won’t finish,” he said. “This year’s course was especially difficult because in the days leading up to race, the Ensenada area got about four inches of rain.”
Because of the sloppy conditions, the start of the race was delayed by 24 hours. During that time, some sections of the race were repaired, while other sections were completely rerouted.
“For about the first 250 miles of the race, it was completely muddy and sloppy and the opposite of what desert racing is,” said Smith. “We were able to get through that mess just fine and I got through my section just fine. The guy after me got through his fine and we were clicking along just fine. The next rider in line got about 25 miles into a 100-mile stretch and the bike died and it wouldn’t restart.”
The team reached the rider and attempted to repair the bike but was unable to get the bike going. According to Smith, the entire process of recovering the bike and getting it out of the desert was about eight or nine hours.
“We made it to race mile 473 out of 800.5 when that failure occurred and we became part of a statistic unfortunately, said Smith. “It goes back to Baja being a very difficult and grueling place.”
Despite coming up short, Smith would love to take another shot at completing the race.
“I feel like its left unfinished,” he said. “My plan is to go down there again the year after next and I’d like to organize my own team and take a team down there with the goal of finishing.”
Smith is positive his experience this year in Baja has proved valuable and will pay off down the road.
“My experience in this just shows that if you got goals, it’s easy to make excuses why you can’t go and achieve them,” he said. “If you’ve got a goal, there’s a way to achieve it and if you’re persistent to push forward then it’s possible.”