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Diary of a rally support volunteer: How I survived Baja

Nov 15, 2016

There was a moment, about a week before we left Seattle, when I wondered what the hell I was getting myself into.

One of my best friends, Casey Hilliard (better known as @motomancasey on social media), had signed up to compete in the ADV Expert class in some crazy desert race called the Baja Rally. He was going to ride not some lightweight rally racer, but a 1,200 cc BMW HP2 Enduro. And, according to him, I was going to take a couple of weeks off work to drive my truck down as support. Did he really need me? I had zero experience with this sort of thing. But I dove in nonetheless. He is my best friend, after all…

rally navigation equipment
Rally computers are an integral part of a modern rally raid, and it takes a professional to help install one on each rider's race machine. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

We set his bike up with a “nav tower,” which includes a motorized road book and two rally computers, ordered several sets of tires, grabbed a second wheel-set from Woody's Wheel Works, a badass suit from Klim, some SENA gear (strictly for filming), and Casey took his bike to Alex at Konflict Motorsports to get his suspension dialed for the adventure ahead. We outfitted a utility canopy with a bunch of LEDs to serve as our base camp, bolted it onto my pickup, stuffed everything, bike included, inside the cab and then pointed ourselves south.

Casey had taken a couple of rally navigation classes, most notably the one in Bend, Oregon, put on by Rally Management Services (RMS). And, we'd talked to a couple of Baja Rally vets, so as we put miles behind us, we were confident he'd know where he was headed after crossing the start line. But neither of us had ever ridden in Baja, not to mention a world-class rally like this, so the elephant in the truck was whether he'd cross the finish line each night.

We made it to the hotel in Ensenada and immediately knew it was going to be a great trip. Everyone there was competent, level-headed and in it for the adventure, just like us. Sure, lots of guys were back for their second, third or even fourth round of the Baja Rally, but the race had grown quite a bit since the previous years, so there were plenty of new faces to go with ours. And no one made us feel anything but welcome.

Baja Rally tech inspection
Registration Day isn't all fun and games. Aside from the hours it takes to prep their rides after the long haul to Mexico, the racers' machines must pass tech inspection. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

Game day. Casey would head out at 6 or 7 in the morning, then I'd break camp and head out to shoot a couple of pictures where their route crossed the highway. Then I’d grab some street tacos and make my way to the next night's bivouac. Upon arrival, it was my responsibility to build camp, and when #53 rolled in on his HP2 Enduro, I'd help with any bike work, assist with his roll chart prep, recharge his GPS trackers, refill the hydration pack, and lay out gear for the next Special Stage. There was some down time, but not much. Before you knew it, it was 11 p.m. and everyone would be passing out for the night.

Over the course of the next five days, Casey must've ridden some crazy stuff, because each night he rolled into camp with wide eyes, blistered hands, and the kind of dusty face that's only clean where wrinkles form when you smile. He told stories of rock gardens the length of a whole day’s ride back home, of silt so fine it was like another planet, and scenery beyond description! In his words, "The thing I hate most about Baja is it makes riding everywhere else seem sort of blah."

Baja Rally
Casey 'Motoman" Hilliard catching some air during a challenging stage. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

That was the coolest part of the rally, to me. Here we were, with incredibly experienced riders from all over the world, and everyone’s jaws were on the floor after each stage. Baja's beauty, especially when viewed from the route that was painstakingly pieced together by the rally organization, is unparalleled. Everyone was challenged, everyone soaked in the sights, and everyone had an absolute blast.

BMW HP2 Enduro
Many were skeptical, but the BMW HP2 Enduro proved itself to be a contender in Casey's competent hands. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.
Casey did incredibly well and exceeded our expectations in all regards. The guys who looked at him in shock for choosing the big HP2 Enduro as his rally machine were the first to slap him on the back when he crossed the finish line each night. We had some tube issues in the second half of a stage that meant he timed-out and had to take the highway for a stretch, leading to a whole bunch of time penalties, but he absolutely crushed it on four and a half of the five days of racing. He said he's never had as much fun on two wheels.

Did Casey need me at the event? He probably would've survived — the great folks in the bivouac would've stepped in if he needed it — but I always had things to do. And he says the support meant the world to him.

He was wiped out every evening and having someone else with a clear head go through the prep checklist each morning kept him from riding off with a kinked hydration hose, not finishing that roll chart in time, forgetting to tape up hands and a thousand other little things along the way.

Casey Hilliard
Casey taking a break on the side of the road during an unexpected liaison stage. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

I know when I make my rally run (and it's only a matter of time before I do), I'll want someone there as support, and I won't have any reservations about roping them in. Because I know they'll be grinning ear to ear right there next to me the entire drive home!