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2017 Baja Rally Race Report

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Realistically, only a handful of participants in any given race have a good chance of winning outright. Most of those who fill the field hope first of all to finish; anything beyond that is a bonus.

This is especially true in long-distance races where so many things can happen over the extended time frame and often does to dash the hopes of those normally out of the limelight.

Reno’s Kent Choma typifies this. He’s competed in desert races, but the rally raid bug bit him a few years ago, so he began adding that to his racing budget. The 5th Annual Baja Rally, Presented by Rally Comp, starting and finishing in Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico, would be his fourth attempt at this race, the previous ones ending short of his goal.

“The first year was a mechanical issue, the first day—a bent valve, broken valve spring,” he recounted. “The second year was a broken leg on the second-to-last day. The third year was a mechanical issue 60 kilometers from the end of the final stage.”

In other words, he and his battle-worn Husaberg were getting closer and closer to the goal, and he hoped 2017 would be the year he reached it. However, an electrical problem plagued this year’s attempt almost from the beginning of the five-day race that once again visited roads and trails SCORE racers will never see as it wound its way along the western side of the peninsula, venturing to Cataviña as its southernmost point.

“I replaced the stator, I replaced the regulator, I replaced the battery every night in the dark [with only] flashlights [for illumination],” he explained. “My wife helped and held tools.”

Since he’s the essence of the privateer and had no mechanic to perform all of that post-race work, Choma stated that it did lead to a snowball effect: “It takes away from your rest time because I get in almost near dark, shower, eat some dinner, start working on the bike, try to find time to review the road book. It makes each night a bit shorter. Every day, you’re more tired—a little more tired, a little less fed because you’re eating less to get back on the bike or keep moving because if you stop for a snack, that’s time you’re not putting miles on.”

Eventually, he made it back to the San Nicolas Hotel in Ensenada and was officially counted as the next-to-last finisher in 39 hours, 43 minutes, and 12 seconds, but he didn’t see himself as finishing.

Understandably discouraged, when asked if he’d try again, Choma replied, “I hope so! Maybe [with] a different bike; we’ll see. But I’m pretty sure there’ll be [another] try.”

Up front, Garrett Poucher also entered the race with little experience as well as a pair of DNFs in his previous two rallies. However, the speedy desert racer who currently sits third in SCORE’s Pro Moto Unlimited class had a better funded effort for this Baja Rally and knew he could vie for the win.

At first, though, it didn’t look that way as he incurred some hefty time penalties after missing waypoints and the beginning of speed zones on his Garrett Off-road Racing CRF450X that was set up similarly to his SCORE racebike.

With tons of navigation experience behind him, Mike Johnson (whose company makes the Rally Comp system) enjoyed the early lead on his CRF450X that featured more of a pre-runner setup with its huge Acerbis fuel tank.

“The first day, [speed that overwhelmed my navigation abilities] actually cost me about 30 minutes in penalties, unfortunately, and that put a lot of pressure on me for the rest of the rally, not only frustration-wise, but it put a lot of time between me and [Johnson, the leader at that point],” Poucher said.

Knowing what he’d done wrong, Poucher changed his approach and the way he marked his road book, giving more importance to waypoints and speed zones. “I knew I could get these guys in the rough stuff so I tried to keep that to my advantage and push as hard as I could through the rough stuff, but on the navigation stuff, really just slow down, take my time, make sure that I made my turns,” he revealed.

Despite a few crashes, the new strategy worked and he began taking big chunks out of Johnson’s lead until he supplanted Johnson at the head of the Pro Rally class by the end of the third stage. When he got back to Ensenada, he had his first rally victory, amassing a time of 16 hours, 21 minutes, and 17 seconds with Johnson holding on for a close second in 16:28:05. Patrick Reyes rounded out the top three Pro Rally finishers, the director of Mexico’s Coast to Coast Rally clocking a respectable 16:52:18 aboard his KTM 450 Rally Replica.

Other class winners included “Poncho” Alonzo in Rally 1 Rookie, his 16:54:24 putting him fourth overall bike, Canada’s Devon Mahon in Rally 1 (18:05:34) and Wes VanNeiuwenhuis in Adventure Bike (19:36:42).

Steve Hengeveld made it three overall wins in a row, but this time he did it on four wheels for the first time. Leading the UTV class from the start, he blistered the fourth and final stage by nearly 57 minutes thanks to unmatched navigating to overall the race in 15:42:46.