Dave Shively: Baja's inferno

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Brian Blake didn't think he was embarking on "a life-changing adventure" when he joined a team for the Baja 1000.

Blake's World Off Road Championship Series race circuit buddy and fellow Steamboat native Travis Newbold had talked him into a motorcycle class team, splitting saddle time with himself and local rider Jeff Crochiere.

Somehow, Newbold and Crochiere finished the 1,048-mile haul from Ensenada to La Paz last year in a stunning 30 hours.

But this year, a crew that spent thousands of hours and dollars bent on an improved return found out why the Ensenada banner reads, "Here marks the start of the toughest race known to man."

Their luck turned before they even crossed the border.

After a Outback Steakhouse stop in San Diego, the group walked out to find the ignition switch tumbler of Crochiere's Ford F-250 in an empty spot where the truck, with two reserve bikes in back, was parked.

They still had the race bikes and enough equipment for a run, but they needed pre-running miles on the unforgiving terrain.

Then, while driving down the Baja, a passing van with a baby on board flipped and threatened to burst into flames.

"It will take a lifetime of trying to forget," Blake said. "I saw some things in that accident you couldn't ever see on the Internet."

Finally, pre-running the course on Day 2, Blake was blinded by dust he thought was from Newbold's bike, but hit a race buggy Newbold had just passed. He flew into a rock ravine, feeling foot tendons stretch apart as his limb absorbed the blow. As the screwheads holding Blake's foot together from a previous break began poking out, the race bike's transmission started squealing.

Newbold spent the next day prepping the backup XR 650 that survived last year's race. Somehow they got it through tech inspection. But the night before race day, parts that never fail, failed. The lighting coil for the halogen beams mandatory for night riding went out. The key parts were with Crochiere's truck, the stripped skeleton of which was located in Tijuana earlier this week.

So they swallowed their pride and watched the start with heavy hearts - only to miss being hit by a trophy truck flipping into the crowd by a few feet.

Thankful to have returned alive, the trio is still processing the misadventure. Crochiere must weigh the costs of a return, but the experience continues to itch. The feeling of something taken that needs to be finished made Blake, 26, set the goal of finishing Baja in the next four years. The experience was crucial for Newbold, who plans "to race Baja my whole life," echoing Crochiere's sentiment that a return would be solo, saving support crews from risk.

"I feel perfectly comfortable to rise to the occasion, in the zone, when I'm on the bike," Newbold said. "Down there, you get off the bike and it gets scary."

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