Wheelspin Column

Cycle News Staff | March 24, 2021

Cycle News Wheelspin

COLUMN

Heroes of the Desert

By Keith Dowdle

During my career, I’ve had the pleasure of working with all types of racers in all genres of racing—from road racing to motocross, supercross to enduro and cross country, even motorcycle drag racing—but the desert guys always topped my list as some of the most incredible riders I’ve ever known.

Desert racing is a brutal and dangerous game played by some of the bravest—yet most incredibly humble—people you’ll ever meet. From Dakar to Baja, these people risk their lives doing what they love. I have absolute respect for all of them. Johnny Campbell and Jimmy Lewis are two of my all-time favorites, and they’re both still heavily involved with rally and desert racing. Guys like Ricky Brabec and other desert riders who are currently at the top of their game owe much of their success to these two legends. And they’re two of the nicest, most approachable guys you could ever have the pleasure of knowing.

Wheelspin Column
The Honda ad says it all. Johnny Campbell and Jimmy Lewis combined efforts to win the Baja 1000 in 1998, the last Baja race for the air-cooled XR600.

In 1998, Campbell and Lewis teamed up to compete in the Baja 1000. That year, the race started in Santo Tomas instead of the traditional Ensenada starting point and ran 1062 miles to La Paz. Starting in Santo Tomas made the race longer than usual, but it was a course that had been used before. In 1986, Johnny Campbell’s mentors, Bruce Ogilvie and Chuck Miller, won the race on the same route, which made the 1998 race that much more special for these two factory-Honda teammates. The ’98 Baja 1000 would also be the last race for the venerable XR600, a bike that had won many championships for Honda.

This extra-long course required 20 pit stops to service the bikes and riders as they raced their way south. I was working a pit with Eric Crippa (another legend in his own right) and we were a little more than halfway down the route in the town of San Ignacio. For people working pits far down the course, race day starts off slow and quiet, but your thoughts are always with the riders. As we set up our pit early that morning, we were thinking about Johnny, who was already on the course and racing when our day got started. As the morning wore on and we completed our mundane task of getting everything ready, Johnny was still racing. By noon, we were casually having our lunch, our pit was set and ready, and Johnny was still racing.

Because of the length of this particular race, Johnny would ride the first 120 miles and then Lewis would take a 60-mile stint, after which Johnny would ride another 440 miles to our pit. Hours went by, the midday sun turned to afternoon heat, we napped and talked to the locals who were meandering around our pit, and we thought about Johnny, who was still racing. We knew that he was leading as we followed the race by radio, but it would be hours before the race reached us—and Johnny was still racing. It’s just incredible when you think about it. Johnny was racing, for hours and hours, as we went through our entire day. Johnny was still racing, pushing as hard as he could at speeds that no one else on course could match, across terrain that he’d only seen maybe once several weeks earlier during pre-run practice. Remember what I said earlier—absolute respect.

As the sun started to set, we heard the helicopters coming. The excitement built—my palms were sweating, my heart was racing. Johnny was still in the lead and heading our way fast. The chase trucks arrived, and our pit, which had been quiet and peaceful just moments before, was now a frenzy of activity. The team helicopter carrying our team manager, Bruce Ogilvie, landed nearby. In a moment, Bruce was right there, making sure we were ready. This was the pit where we would change wheels and add the lights for the night portion of the race. We had to do all of those things fast, but correctly. Bruce was the master at making sure the team knew exactly what to do.

Lewis had already arrived, ready to get back on the bike and race it through the night. Even with the flurry of activity going on around him, he casually reminded us to take our time and make sure that the lights were aimed where he wanted them. Jimmy has ice running through his veins. He’s always cool and calm.

I was manning the dry break, which is a tall slender gas container that quickly fills the bike with fuel. It’s heavy and awkward to handle. As Johnny approached, I could see the white of his eyes. They were huge and focused as he slowed to a stop after hours and hours of all-out racing. As he hopped off, the team began the hasty work on the bike. The fuel went in quickly, and the crew from the chase truck worked with fevered precision to get the front wheel on and the lights installed, and then, just as quickly as it had all started, Jimmy was on the bike and gone, heading off into the night like lightning across the desert. He had 500 miles still to race, alone and in the dead of night.

When all of the chaos at our pit settled down, I looked over and saw Johnny sitting on the bumper of the box van. His head was down as he relaxed his neck and shoulders—he was finally done. I got chills as I thought to myself, What a stud.

Jimmy rode on through the night to win the overall. Together, they beat the million-dollar trophy trucks. Ivan Stewart in his factory Toyota finished second but couldn’t match the pace of Johnny Campbell and Jimmy Lewis. Two absolute heroes of the desert. CN

 

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