I’m tucked in, tapped out in fifth gear aboard a custom-built Honda XR400. Off to my left is multi-time Baja winner Johnny Campbell, while multi-time AMA Supercross and National MX Champion Jeff Stanton’s on my right. Campbell is sitting up and looking around, obviously going much slower than his normal pace on his XR650 pre-runner. Stanton is tucked in like me, but I can’t figure out how he’s making his XR250 keep pace with me. I’m out of gears and out of throttle, and even with the bonus of 150cc’s of extra grunt, I can’t shake Stanton. Some guys can do magic things with motorcycles; I’ve never been one of those guys. Anyone who ever saw Stanton ride his CR250 race bikes will recall that Jeff was one of those guys. He still is.
Leading our pack of 15 riders who have escaped their secret identities as businessmen, teachers, fathers and bums (me) to play “Super-Rider” for three days, is off-road icon Chris Haines. We’re crossing El Diablo dry lake in Baja California. I speak some Spanish, so I can positively translate, with accuracy, that “El Diablo” means “The Diablo” in English. Crossing this massive lake, trailing my own personal dust cloud, is a very On Any Sunday-kind of moment for me and for all the riders on this edition of the Chris Haines Motorcycle Adventure.
Over the past 15 years Haines has introduced thousands of riders of all skill levels to the joys of off-roading in Baja. And those joys are many. Let’s forget for a moment the spectacular scenery of the sparsely-populated wild peninsula. Instead, let’s discuss how cool it is to ride a fully prepped Honda XR down the streets of Ensenada, waving to the police as you go by. Or we could discuss slicing wide-open like a bobsled through miles of sand berms. Then there is climbing mountains, descending into valleys, dodging cattle, watching vaqueros rope mustangs, eating great food, riding the Baja 1000 course, and racing up the road to Mike’s Sky Ranch in the rain. A Chris Haines Motorcycle Adventure is like a beer commercial on bikes.
Chris Haines Motorcycle Adventure Company offers several packages that include street or off-road rides in the USA, but the backbone of the company is the Baja Adventure packages, which come in three or seven days worth of grins. The beauty of the adventure is that it is a completely turnkey operation. Haines, a former Honda factory mechanic who won 125 National MX Championships working with Ron Lechien and Micky Dymond, provides everything from the bikes to the meals, hotels and bottled water. He even has a support crew that magically appears with gas, food and clean goggles in the middle of nowhere. There are also lead and sweep riders who will help get novices through any tough obstacles. All the client has to bring is a desire to enjoy some of the best off-road terrain in the world.Trippin. “No Bill, Baja California is not part of the United States.” These were the first words I heard as I approached the lunch table in the hotel in San Diego where the adventure began. American Honda advertising and PR wizard Ken Vreeke was trying to explain to Stanton’s Michigan buddy Bill Vaughn that Baja was actually in Mexico, a concept Bill was finding difficult to fathom. “Then why do they call it ‘Baja California’ if it’s really in Mexico? California is still part of the United States, isn’t it?” asked Bill. ” Well, yes Bill, California is a U.S. state, but Baja California is a Mexican state,” replied Ken. “You wouldn’t happen to be a geography professor, would you? Because that would explain a lot about the decline of our school system!” Stanton was laughing into his soup. Johnny Campbell finally settled the argument by telling Bill to explain his theory that Baja was in America to the authorities at the Mexican border.
After lunch we went to the parking lot to see the rigs. Haines keeps a variety of Honda XRs for his guests to choose from. The bikes are trailered in behind the vans that transport the guests into Mexico. Bill was finally convinced we were going into Mexico when we crossed the border, which turned out to be anon-event, as Haines has all the proper permits and insurance and knows how to work things out with the Mexican police.
We drove to Ensenada down the Scenic Highway, a surprisingly good road for Mexico. Once in Ensenada, Haines put everyone into a really nice hotel (especially for Mexico).
A quick word about Mexico before all the PC activists and Latino friends of mine take offense: Mexico is a Third World country. Whatever and wherever the Third World is, Mexico is part of it. Mexico has an ancient culture, beautiful coastlines, jungles, deserts and forests. There’s also grand architecture, mansions, hotels, resorts, millionaires, etc. However, Mexico also suffers from terrible poverty, bad roads, broken sidewalks, bad water, unstable government, etc. NAFTA or not, this isn’t England – this is the Third World. But a very nice part of the third world – most of the time. The Champs. This ride was Jeff Stanton’s first trip to Mexico, so Campbell took him on a tour of Ensenada. Understand that, as a Supercross racer, Stanton has traveled the world. Also understand that Mexico is Campbell’s backyard. As we walked the streets of Ensenada, Stanton kept saying, “Same streets, different language.”
The sidewalk food vendors fascinated Stanton. Ensenada is a seaport town, and a lot of the vendors sell fresh seafood right on the sidewalks. Jeff watched in horror as the locals chopped up raw octopus, clams, oysters and salsa into cup-sized cocktails.
Bill kept asking,” So if this is California, where do they film Baywatch?” Pulling me aside, Stanton whispered, “Bill will feel better once he gets on a motorcycle.”
Neither Johnny nor Jeff drinks cervases [is this ‘cervesas’?], so we skipped all of the bars and clubs. But as a multi-time Baja winner, Campbell is a big hero in Mexico. Posters of Johnny blasting his Honda around the Baja 1000 course adorn shops and restaurants all over town. Some even sell autographed posters for as much as $50. It was probably just like walking through the streets of San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, with Ernesto Fonseca.
At dinner that night we met the rest of the guests. They came from all over the United States to ride this Chris Haines Motorcycle Adventure. A group from Oklahoma included Dan Brooks, Dennis Cobb and Brian Maloney. They are friends and businessmen who make this an annual trip, a motorcycle getaway for the guys, without the wives and kids.
Eugene Neugbohr and Oren Neugbohr, a father and son from Michigan, also make the Haines junket an annual thing. Eugene was the oldest guy in the group at an undisclosed age. But the guy had game; he’d just gotten back from heli-skiingin the Himalayas (yes!) before coming to Baja.
The Wooton brothers, Mark and Ben, came from the East Coast. Ben is a CPA and Mark is a teacher. Both felt that riding Baja would be the adventure of a lifetime; both would later find out that it is.
The group was rounded out by a couple of guys from New Jersey, Jim Sharkey and Fred Golden (at least that’s what they said their names were). They seemed to know a lot about where The Sopranos is filmed and whose life it is based on.
So why tell you who was there? Sure, it’s always interesting to read about guys like Campbell and Stanton, but the rest of this crew never won a national, let alone half-dozen titles. I’m including them in the story because they are normal guys who came to Baja to get grins, ride Hondas and have an adventure. Normal guys (some of whom were bare-bones beginners on dirt bikes), but every one of them stepped up and rode over 500 miles off-road in three days.
Campbell volunteered to lead the gang on day one. (Being out front in Baja is something he’s obviously grown accustomed to.) He took us overlarge parts of the Baja 1000 course. Because his casual speed is just under the sound barrier, Johnny spent a lot of time sitting on his bike talking to Stanton, who was the only one who could really hang with him. Vreeke and Tried but really didn’t have a shot. Vreeke did better than I did, as I had to content myself with spotting the Johnny-and-Jeff dust miles ahead. Usually, byte time I caught up to Jeff and Johnny, they had their helmets off and were discussing the political implications of a three-party system or that whole stem cell research thing. And as we waited for the rest of the group, I kept finding myself explaining to Bill that Europe isn’t actually a country, it’s continent. Threading itself was fantastic – 200 miles that included slow-speed technical sections as well as full-throttle fire roads. There were miles of sand whoops and open fields of flowers and purple sage. There were mountains to climb and deserts to cross. Every so often you would look around and say to yourself,”Wow! This is Mexico!” Except for maybe Bill, who still thought he was on the set of Bay watch somewhere in California.
We finished the day by riding into San Felipe. Again, my vast knowledge of the language allowed me to translate the city name to San Phillip, or literally,”without Phillip.” Phillip, of course, was the King of Spain at the time of the conquest of Mexico. Phillip is also the name of the kid who mows my lawn for $20 a shot and doesn’t trim the edges. Little prick! We had crossed the entire Baja Peninsula from west to east, starting the morning looking over the waters of the Pacific Ocean and finishing the day at a hotel at the beach on the Sea of Cortez. (Bill was certain it was either the Indian Ocean or Lake Ontario). That evening we met at La Cantina (or “the”Cantina) before heading out to Haines’ favorite eatery in San Felipe. Great food is a big part of every Chris Haines Motorcycle Adventure. Every meal is a banquet and every day an adventure. And Mexican beer tastes oh-so-good after200 miles in the saddle.
Our whole crew left town early enough for a chill to still be in the air, certain that once the sun was up we’d be sweating. Haines led the group through even more fantastic country. We were truly in the wilds of Mexico, far from civilization. Cattle roamed freely, along with mustangs and feral donkeys the size of dinosaurs. I was cruising by myself trying to catch up to Johnny and Jeff when a group of vaqueros (cowboys) caught my periphery. They were at full gallop, swinging lariats and yipping at the top of their lungs as they chased down wild mustangs. Other then the Nike baseball caps, it was a scene from a John Wayne movie. But it was real; these men were making their livings catching horses. Mexico…. Wow!
After crossing El Diablo we headed up a dry sand wash. At that point something started smacking me in the face, lightly at first and then harder, like a pissed off girlfriend. It was raining, and my jersey soaked it up like a sponge. Jeff and Johnny, nice and dry in their enduro jackets, merely laughed at Bill and me. They were laughing at me because I was cold; Bill because he was sure it couldn’t “snow” this far “south” of the equator. But once again the Chris Haines crew was ready. At the next stop they had shelter,fire, food and water – all the things an exiled Roman Army Legionnaire is refused for 400 miles in every direction from the city when he disgraces the arms of Rome. Plus, we got rain coats and our gear bags. Everybody ate, warmed up and put on dry clothes. Then we mounted up and rode the finest freshly-watered Velcro-dirt on the planet up to Mike’s Sky Ranch, which I believe the natives like to call “Miguel’s Sky Rancho.”
More great food greeted us at Mike’s. Over dinner Bill explained his dream of seeing a motocross-based cartoon for the kids, with Baywatch plot lines and extras,plus Scooby-Doo as the star. Our reaction produced a spurt of Diet Coke from Stanton’s’s nose.
Later,Bill tried to explain to Vreeke why Honda needed to completely redesign their CR suspension. He’d broken his foot coming up short on a double on Stanton’s practice track and was certain that it was the CR’s fault. Vreeke listened to Bill’s’s design ideas and replied, “Bill, I’m trying to see your point of view, but I just can’t get my head that far up my ass.” More Diet Coke from Stanton’s nostrils.
The third and final day was more of the freshly rained-upon Velcro-dirt. More great trails, more great scenery, and more adventure on the trail back to Ensenada. Once in town, we had a quick shower and then a drive back to San Diego, where Bill saluted the American flag.
More than worth the time and certainly worth the money, a Chris Haines Motorcycle Adventure is just as much fun for a novice as it is for guys like Jeff and Johnny. Mexico…. Wow!
I know I’ve bagged on Bill a little in this story, but he’s a good guy. In fact,Stanton and Bill have asked me to come ride with them again during the Six-Days of Michigan. Bill has assured me that since the ride is in his home state, he knows exactly where in Canada it is. SIDEBAR CHRIS HAINES’ MOTORCYCLE ADVENTURE COMPANY Chris Haines is the owner and director of the Chris Haines Motorcycle Adventure Company, which is why it’s called what it’s called.Haines is a 25-year veteran of riding and racing in Baja. For 2001 the company has partnered with the Honda Rider’s Club of America. Haines has also been awarded the “Amigo de Baja California” award by the governor of Baja California, Alejandro Gonzalez Alcoer, and from Juan Benjamin Tintos Funkes, the Secretary of Tourism de Baja California. This honor is indicative of Haines’ excellent relationship with the Mexican people and government, as this award is only given to those individuals who are leaders in the promotion and tourism of Baja California. It is also another excellent reason to go with the Chris Haines Motorcycle Adventure Company rather than a pretender to the throne.
Haines began his career in motorcycling by wrenching for Jim Fish back during his speedway days. He then took up the T-handles for Bruce Penhall before being hired by Mark Blackwell at Suzuki to spin spark plugs for the motocross team. With Team Suzuki, Haines worked with Tony D and Brian Myerscough. Then Roger DeCoster was hired to build up Honda’s MX efforts, and Haines made the move as Danny LaPorte’s wrench. He was part of the first United States MX des Nationsteam to take the title away from the Europeans, eventually taking part in six des Nations and winning six titles. During the course of his career, Haines wrenched for four national champions,including Ron Lechien and Micky Dymond, and won four Golden Wrench Awards. He would also race the Baja 1000 every year during his time off. (And he still races the event every year.) He has seven class wins in the Baja 1000, three class wins in the Baja 500, and another class win in the Baja 2000, which really ought to count as two more Baja 1000 wins when you think about it….. Anyway,It was because of excessive time on the road as a mechanic plus his love for Baja that Chris decided to try his own business running Baja tours beginning in 1988.
Racer X: Tell us about the early days, Chris.
Chris Haines: I started with four XR Hondas and a pick-up truck. I got lucky because Danny Sullivan [Indy 500 “spin and winner”] somehow heard about my tour and wanted to go. So he came down and another friend of mine, Mark Gleckel, filmed it for MotoWorld. So one of my first business trips to Baja got on MotoWorld and gave me a great little jump-start. Now I have people who come in from all over the world.
Since then you’ve led thousands of people through Baja. Do you still enjoy it?
I started racing when I was 16, and then I was a mechanic for a long time. Now I’m back to doing what I started doing – riding. The biggest thrill for me is when I show people a fun trail and I see the grins on their faces when we get through.This trip, after a really great section, Stanton said, “You know what, if you can’t have fun doing that, then you shouldn’t be riding a motorcycle.” It makes me feel like I’ve done my job when I can show people a good time on a motorcycle. I really enjoy that aspect of it.
I noticed that a lot of the riders on this trip were real novices. Is that ever a problem, taking care of 10 or 12 guys?
I try to accommodate everybody. I try to provide a challenge, but not torture. That’s why we sometimes split into two groups. In most cases most guys learn to ride better and go beyond their expectations. So I watch everybody and adjust for all levels. Not everybody is Johnny Campbell and Jeff Stanton.
But don’t they like to pretend they are Jeff or Johnny?
That’s a part of it. People like to say they rode the Baja. They get to ride a part of the course and go home and tell their family and friends about it. It’s a big deal. What’s the magic about Baja? The unknown, mostly. And that there is still a little bit of the wild west. We can ride our dirt bikes down the highway and the police don’t care. It’s one of the last frontiers in this hemisphere that is still accessible. We live in a high-tech world, and in Baja you can really get away from it. There’s the experience of being in another country, a sometimes-wild country. It’s a challenge to ride here.
What’s one of your favorite Baja stories?
One time we rode during a severe storm. There were flash floods and the streams exploded over their banks. One stream that we usually cross that’s about 30 feet across was now about 300 yards across, and we needed to get to the other side. I strung a line around my waist and tried to walk across to see if we could make it, but it was raging and there was noway. Well, down the road was this little ranch house with these cowboys huddled around a little stove trying to stay warm. They took their horses and lassoed our bikes by the bars and then pulled our bikes across the stream. We rode double with the cowboys and they ferried all of our bikes across with their horses. On the other side we pulled the plugs and filters, cleaned the bikes out, fired them up and kept riding. We ended up getting to San Felipe at something like 11:15 that night, soaking wet and cold.
Which companies help you out with the tours?
Honda, Honda Rider Club of America, AXO, Dunlop, MAX tie-downs, Scott USA, Pro Circuit, Honda Pro Oil, Precision Concepts, Tsubaki Chains and Astride knee braces.
Come ride motorcycles with us.