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Battling the Baja

A Brooksville father and son take their love of off-road racing to its ultimate playground.

By BRANT JAMES, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 20, 2002


Von Rodgers had a vision of the Baja -- and this wasn't it.

In his slightly Hotel California preconception, there would be sand, and sun and blue sea until the horizon met the sky. And there'd be him and his son, Michael, living out their fantasy of competing in one of the world's most grueling races.

Then there was reality: long after dark, Rodgers' innards shaken like a can of spray paint, his ears 650 cubic centimeters full of engine noise from his four-wheel, all-terrain vehicle. Rodgers, 56, and his son, 33, had each spent much of their lives racing anything with a motor and ripping through the Croom Management Area trails on motorcycles.

It hadn't prepared them for this.

"It was rough, rougher than anything I ever encountered," Rodgers said. "(In Florida) you have palmetto stumps. There they have rocks. We pictured a desert and sand dunes, and it was just the opposite: lots of rocks and cactus and silt. Silt everywhere."

After spending much of his share of the ride slogging over these rocks in first gear, Rodgers finally had a chance to make some time in a 15-mile stretch of relatively friendly terrain.

He had seen enough of this desert during daylight hours to know there probably wasn't a human soul for 200 miles.

But with his two rented headlights taped precariously onto the front of his battered ATV -- one cocked high, one low in the utter darkness -- he had to weigh one fear against his desire to finally squeeze some speed from the bike:

Wandering livestock.

"You have to be very careful," Rodgers said. "I had 50 miles where I was going 70 or 80 miles per hour, and the last thing you want to do is hit a wild horse or a black cow."

Indeed.

The Baja Peninsula dangles like an icicle from the bottom of California, an arid, inhospitable wedge between the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez.

The 1,100-kilometer westernmost sliver of Mexico is a shrine for fishers, whale-watchers and the daring who wish to test themselves and their machines against some of the toughest terrain on Earth.

"When we first got there," Rodgers said, "they asked who had come there to win, and we raised our hands. Only a few did. The ones who didn't raise their hands had been there before."

The Rodgers' exuberance could be forgiven.

That they were standing in a dusty staging area in Ensenada, Mexico, running through pre-race rules for the world-famous Baja 1000 was a little more than they could believe.

A few months earlier, Michael Rodgers had made an off-the-cuff comment to an old Brooksville friend that one of his fantasies would be to race in the 1,000-kilometer event held each November.

Tim Hosfeld, a 35-year-old amateur motocrosser who lives in Atlanta, would casually mention this to his racing sponsor, Jim Brannon, when he needed an extra driver for his Freewheeling Honda team bound for this year's race. Then, another spot opened when Brannon decided to field two teams.

When the phone rang at Rodgers' house in mid-October, it was Brannon popping the question.

Minutes later, it rang at Von Rodgers' house.

"My son called me and told me they need two drivers and asked if I could do it," he said. "I had to check and make sure I had two weeks vacation left, and as soon as I knew we did, I said, "We're packing.' "

The two immediately wired $2,000 each to cover their expenses, and met up with the Brannon group for a 40-hour ride to Ensenada.

Hosfeld served as team manager, although this was his first Baja 1000, too. The logistics of taking 12 men and two bikes into the desert, with the hope of finishing and the dream of winning was exhausting and exhilarating.

"It's an extreme challenge when you stop and think you can go only 80 miles on a tank of gas through heavy country on pig trails," Hosfeld said. "There's a lot of planning, but a lot of fun."

Not a lot of variety in the diet, however. The menu for the week: beanie-weenies and beef stew.

Brannon trusts Hosfeld's opinions, but didn't let two complete strangers onto one of his $10,000 bikes before doing a little research.

"Absolutely," Brannon said. "I talked to some different people who happen to know them from racing against them."

Brannon, who spent almost $30,000 on his two teams this year, said he tries "not to count" the dollars he has wiled away in the desert.

"It's a satisfaction thing. I'm 61 years old," he said. "I have to do something to be crazy."

But there are limits. With little commercial benefit for a Douglasville, Ga., shop racing in the Baja, Brannon said he may not field a team next year.

At least they got a thrill this time, finishing sixth in a class in which more than 220 entered and less than 70 finished.

"That was just the ultimate," Michael Rodgers said.

Von Rodgers, who works for BellSouth, came to Hernando County from St. Petersburg about 30 years ago and moved into a place near the Croom trails -- the perfect locale for his love of off-road motorcycling.

Michael, who owns a Brooksville telephone service provider, soon fell in love with racing also. Especially after he got his Yamaha YZ80 when he was about 8 years old.

"My parents got me into it," he said. "I got started at a very young age on motorcycles, and I never got smart enough to get away."

Rodgers never had been more glad of that than during his four-hour leg. Even when he rolled his team's Bombardier 4-wheeler, wrenching off the extra set of intensity headlights the team had purchased as a precaution.

Even when the team blitzed through its four extra tires -- most others brought 20 spares at $80 each -- but was fortunate enough to borrow three from a competitor.

The four-wheeler's suspension and tires had been specially modified to handle the rugged course that comprised the 1,000-kilometer course. It came through -- with scars. The factory-installed headlight was broken by a wayward truck.

"We had a picture of (the ATV) before and after," Rogers said, laughing. "It looked like it got run over by a train."

Somewhere out in the Baja, Von Rodgers waited for nearly 10 hours, utterly alone, for his turn on the bike.

He, like the other five riders, were positioned along the course by support vehicles to allow for quick changeovers.

"It was the middle of nowhere," he said. "Three hundred miles from another human being."

Dusk was gathering by the time Hosfeld completed the third leg and arrived at Rodgers' location around 4:30 p.m. Hosfeld removed the knocked-off light kit from his jacket and helped tape it on the handle bars.

The team had pre-ridden the course, and Rodgers had a sense for the Baja's meanness before he took over the Bombardier.

"The vastness of the Baja Peninsula amazed me," he said. "When we pre-rode, we rode 12 hours and never saw a human being. We stopped to rest and we both admitted it looked like someone dropped us off on the moon. We saw six wild horses and one cow, and no vegetation."

The desolation begets danger, which adds an extra element to the race, especially in the dark.

"They tell you not to leave the bike in case something does happen," Rodgers said. "Before you sign up, they say to have a snake-bite kit, flashlight, matches and thermal blanket. I had no idea what the thermal blanket was for, but I do now. It was 28 (degrees Fahrenheit) at night."

That he rode much of his leg on a flat tire -- albeit one that was specially designed to stay on the rim if the bike maintained at least 30 miles per hour -- forced him to consider the elements even more.

Though some team members were able to reach as much as 80 miles per hour in open country, the team averaged 25.587 mph, finishing the race in 24 hours, 32 minutes and 24 seconds -- about six hours behind the winners.

The experience left the Rodgerses wanting more.

"Next year we go for No. 1," Michael said.

An attempt at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb may be on the wish list.

Meanwhile, they'll continue to race with the Florida Trailriders at Croom on the weekends, but it won't be quite the same.

"I didn't look forward to anything for a week after we got back," Michael Rodgers said. "Nothing comes close to the Baja."

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