Archives | J.N. And The Baja 1000
This Archives edition is reprinted from issue #22, June 1, 2005. CN has hundreds of past Archives editions in our files, too many destined to be archives themselves. So, to prevent that from happening, in the future, we will be revisiting past Archives articles while still planning to keep fresh ones coming down the road -Editor.
By Scott Rousseau
The current resurgence in off-road racing, particularly SCORE-type Baja events and the like, is well chronicled in the recently released BronWa pictures film Dust To Glory, (click HERE for movie trailer) which chronicles the adventures of several characters as they go through the trials and tribulations of racing the 2003 Baja 1000.
Among those characters are the motorcycle winners of the first Baja 1000, both alumni of the 1971 Bruce Brown film On Any Sunday. That Dust To Glory pays respect to these two legends—Malcom Smith and J.N. Roberts—as well as several contemporary Baja motorcycle legends, such as the Honda team of Johnny Campbell and Steve Hengeveld, is perhaps testament to the familial influence On Any Sunday had on Dust To Glory director Dana Brown, the son of Bruce Brown. That apparent respect for motorcycles and the men who race them isn’t at all misplaced in Dust To Glory. Smith and Roberts serve as an unintentional but fitting link to the two films made over 30 years apart.
A portion of Dust To Glory accurately focuses on the exploits of Roberts, who returned to contest the race as part of a team that includes his son, Jimmy, nearly 40 years after J.N.’s first Baja win with Smith, which Roberts remembers pretty much as more of an adventure than a race.
“Before that race, I was up and coming, and I was ridng a 350 Honda, which was a 250 Scrambler converted [bored out],” Roberts says. “Everybody tried to make ’em lighter, but they still weighed 350 pounds. Then the Huskys first came over in ’66, and I went down to Tracy’s Husqvarna in Burbank, and I bought my first one. I paid $825 for it, and my third race on it, I won an overall in the desert. Then I just kept winning on the thing, and the next thing I know, [Husqvarna importer] Edison Dye contacted me and said that Baja was coming up, and he wanted to know if I wanted to ride it with Malcolm.”
Roberts accepted the offer, not fully realizing what he had gotten himself into.
“I never got to pre-run it or anything,” Roberts says. “Back in those days, just getting down there was a feat. The people that were going to be in the race went down there and marked their own course. They’d paint different rocks different colors, and there were so many different lines or different roads that you could follow. Half the time you didn’t even know where you were. It was pick your own way, pretty much.”
Actually dubbed the Mexican 1000, that first race was run in two basic stages, as Roberts recalls.
“They ran us from Tijuana to Ensenada on the pavement, and then there was a bit of a layover, and then they kicked us straight through,” Roberts says.
Some 74 vehicles participated in that first event, held on Halloween, 1967.
“It was really the first time for everybody,” Roberts recalls. “We knew who the competition was with the bikes, and we knew we had a good chance. Bud and Dave Ekins were on a Triumph, but they had to rebuild it in Ensenada that first night before we took off on the next leg.”
Smith rode the first leg before handing the bike off to Roberts at EI Arco, 400 miles after the start in Ensenada. The talented Smith had little trouble making it to the relay point, handing the bike to Roberts with more than two hours’ lead on the next competitor. It was just the start of Roberts’ Baja ordeal.
“Malcolm got the bike to me with no problems,” Roberts recalls, “but he got the bike to me when it was just getting dark, and I’d never raced at night before. I rode a couple desert races with lights on my bike just to feel how different it was, and I maybe rode one or two nights just to see what it would be like. It was about a 45-watt Lucas light that was run off a mag, and as soon as you dropped your rpm, you had no light.”
Laboring under the dim sallow of that 45-watt beam, Roberts zigged when he should have zagged and vice versa, and before he knew it, he was lost.
“Not knowing where I was going, I got so darn twisted around down there, that I started going left to right [across the Baja Peninsula] instead of straight,” Roberts says. “I ended up crossing the narrow part of the peninsula down there, twice. I was just lost. I was bumming gas out of these little Mexican villages and dumping oil straight into the tank.”
A lot of weird stuff happened.
“Like one time I was flying around this corner and all of a sudden I saw all these little lights,” Roberts says. “I locked up the rear brake and killed the engine. So, I’m out there trying to kickstart it, and the light came on real dim, and I realized that I was in the middle of a doggone cow herd!”
The approaching morning did little to help Roberts gain a better sense of direction, as dense Baja fog set in, forcing Roberts and Triumph rider John Barnes to simply stop until the fog started to lift.
“It usually is foggy down there,” Roberts says, “so I did stop. I was so twisted around that I didn’t know whether I was going north, south, east or west, so it made sense to stop. I got in there [to the finish] the next morning. I think it was light out. I’d basically rode through the night.”
That small break cost Roberts the overall win, as the factory Meyers Manx dune buggy team forged into the lead and took the overall win by some 15 minutes. Cycle News‘ account of the race says that Roberts “…came in, looking like he was frozen to the bike.”
“Basically, I was,” Roberts says. “I’d been on the thing forever. I think that it took us over 27 hours, and I’d ridden basically from dusk until dawn the next morning. I’m surprised that we did what we did.”
It was one of “just a couple of wins” at Baja for Roberts, whose legend would grow exponentially greater thanks to his accomplishments in shorter desert events, such as Barstow-to-Vegas.
“I’m more known for that,” Roberts says. “I won that one four times in a row.”
Today, Roberts, a retired stuntman turned cow rancher, is still actively racing at age 63. In fact, when we caught up with him on his Montana ranch, he was changing tires for an upcoming motocross race.
“I haven’t seen the movie [Dust To Glory] yet, but when it comes to the video store, I guess I’ll take a look at it then,” Roberts says. “They asked me to come to the premiere, but I had a race to go to that weekend.”
Once a racer, always a legend. CN
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