As rattlesnakes and scorpions slumbered, Greg Willitts and his Honda CRF-450X motorcycle hauled ass beneath the pale moonlight, racing across remote miles of Mexican desert during the brutal Baja 1000 off-road event."It's a trip. I saw distant taillights winking red in the fog and dust. You worry about breaking down and letting your teammates down," Willitts recalled, relaxing beside a roaring fire at FivePine Lodge, the rustic inn in Sisters owned by his family.
Willitts returned last month from the SCORE Desert Racing Series points championship awards ceremony held in Irvine, Cali., after placing first in November's Baja 1000 race in the Sportsman Motorcycle Class, completing the legendary course in just over 25 hours at an average speed of 41 mph. He was the overall SCORE points champion for the entire series in his class.
"I did this to live out a 40-year-old's fantasy. It was New Years Eve 2006 at Hoodoo and I was skiing with my family and friends," he said, "We all went around the table and shared a New Year's resolution. Mine was to race something."
This year the Mexican national team won the overall event, which as Willitts puts it, carries with it a Super Bowl-like atmosphere complete with parties and celebrations all week.
"Desert racing has its own strange subculture... once you race, you're indoctrinated into this obsessive family. There's just nothing else like it. It took me three and a half hours from the center of the Baja Peninsula to the blue Pacific Ocean and back over to the Sea of Cortez," said Willitts.
The SCORE Desert Racing challenge is a three-legged series that has been around since 1967. The motorcycle component consists of three races: the San Felipe 250, a Baja 500 loop based in Ensenada and, finally, the notorious Baja 1000, nicknamed the "Ripped to the Tip" peninsula run.
"We're constantly replacing tires and wheels, filters, handle bars, brakes," said Willitts, "We race as part of a team so you end up with rider swaps leapfrogging over the course of 1,062 miles. Competitors help each other as the bike comes into the checkpoints."
Willitts' father, Bill, came south of the border as part of the crew and drove the chase truck. The team consisted of Justin Herrmann, Brody Kunz, Chris Parr and Jeff Johnson, all splitting eight legs with Willitts. Darryl Tewalt, Bill Willitts and Marc Jenkins, who was supposed to race, but broke his collarbone two weeks before, made up the all-important chase crew. Kirk Russell of Bend was another rider slated to race, but got injured and joined the chase crew with a broken arm to make sure they won.
"Your brain is usually more tired than your body. Everything is on high-speed gravel roads or rocky passes and soft sand terrain, so you're always interpreting the landscape for danger spots. More people die chasing the race than the ones competing in the race," Willitts said. "These guys are driving like maniacs through the night to get to the next rider swap. It's something right out of a wild Mad Max movie."
Willitts remembered the best banner he saw during the end push, a yellow sign held up by a villager that said "40 Miles To Glory," a nod to the 2005 Baja 1000 cult flick, "Dust To Glory."
"You've been awake for over 24 hours and you put in endless prep time and 6000 miles on your truck and you can't help but get caught up in it all," said Willitts.
His dirt-caked Honda crossed the finish line with Willitts' hands raised triumphantly. SCORE President, Sal Fish was the first to greet him.
"It was an incredible rush of emotion. Sal's a magical person and he's loved by the Mexican people. There were thousands of people in the streets of La Paz, firing off fireworks and music blasting and dancing through the night. The whole experience was very fulfilling," he said.
For his next bucket list adventure, Willitts hopes to race in the Paris-Dakar Rally, now run in South America due to terrorist threats.
"The only thing surpassing the Baja 1000 would be The Dakar, and with some outside assistance that could be a reality in 2012. It's the ultimate fantasy for all racers: 16 days and 4,500 miles."