Tri-Citians survive Baja 100 race

Pasco's Rene Franco works by trade in office services for Lamb Weston.

But give him a chance to race a motorcycle out in the desert, and there's a good chance he's out to lunch.

In November, Franco put together a six-driver team to race in the prestigious Baja 1000 in his native Mexico. It had been 18 years since he last raced at home.

"This has always been a dream of mine," Franco said.

So Franco, 48, invited two Tri-Citians -- Pasco's Willy Miller, 41, a mechanic at Lithia Ford, and Richland's Mike McKinney, 35, owner of Riverside Collision -- to race with him.

In addition, three other riders from Mexico -- Franco's nephew, Marco Vernaldez, 24; Chris Villalobos, 26; and Alberto Ruiz, 31 -- shared time on the motorcycle.

Just finishing the race is a feat in itself. One driver died in a truck when he missed a turn. Another was shot during a practice run. Roughly one-third of all competitors usually don't finish the race.

But this group placed second in its division, finishing in 17 hours, 58 minutes and 45 seconds for an average overall speed of 35.1 mph.

The Baja 1000 is an annual off-road race that involves a course through the desert either from Point A to Point B, or as a loop.

"For Americans, this is the most prestigious off-road race there is," said McKinney.

Sprint Cup drivers such as Robby Gordon can spend millions of dollars on this one race, setting up major shops and using helicopters to help in navigation on the course. But even that doesn't guarantee success. In this race, Gordon lasted 55 miles before his vehicle broke down.

The 2008 course was a 631-mile loop that started and ended in Ensenada, Franco's hometown near Tijuana.

Teams compete on motorcycles, dune buggies or jeeps, with each team going out on the course every 30 seconds and being timed from start to finish.

But a race like this doesn't just happen without planning, and it all started with Franco.

"I hadn't done the race for 18 years," Franco said. "And I started bugging Willy 1 1/2 years ago."

Miller, a self-professed speed freak, had for years raced anything with an engine, from motorcycles and cars to jet skis. And he paid for it with seven concussions.

In 1992, he gave up racing and only started picking things up again, slowly, four years ago, "until Rene talked me into this."

Miller was mainly needed for his mechanical ability to keep the bike running.

He got the motorcycle two months before the race and began building a new motor for it.

The whole bike had to be rebuilt, with a GPS unit and radio transponder added.

One day Miller called McKinney, looking for a part. McKinney, curious, got Miller to tell him what was going on, and he dived in.

"These guys were working 15-16 hours a day on the bike and spent about 120 man hours on it," said Franco.

Franco also solicited sponsorship money and got Northwest Agriculteral Products, Partners in Grime janitorial services, SuperMex grocery and Lamb Weston to help.

In the month leading up to the race, Franco and Miller went night riding at Juniper Dunes to get the feel of racing in darkness.

Franco arrived in Ensenada on Nov. 7 -- two weeks before the actual race -- to prepare. Everyone would be staying with his relatives. He also had to set things up with Marco Antonio Racing, which would supply 10 support people for the team.

Franco estimates that the team spent $16,000 for this race. That includes support, food, gas, motorcycle parts and more. For this race, that price tag is cheap.

Miller arrived three days after Franco with the bike, and McKinney -- who was in the midst of a 10-day ride through Moab, Utah, beginning Nov. 1 -- arrived a few days after that.

All six of the team's drivers spent the days leading up to the race on practice runs through the desert, sometimes taking spills.

"You're peeling cactus out of your hands a week later," Miller said.

By race day, Nov. 21, the team was ready. At 6:47 a.m., Ruiz peeled out from the starting line and raced over 55 miles of terrain that continually changed.

At mile 55, he turned the bike over to Vernaldez. In all, there would be nine driver changes, and each one was no small miracle.

This is where the support team came in.

"Each guy in the race had to have his own driver to get him to the next position," Franco said.

"We had five gas cans," said McKinney. "We'd grab one of the gas cans and get to the next pit stop ahead of the bike. We had to fuel the bike every 60 miles."

It wasn't just the elements they were fighting, either.

"Some of the locals go out in the desert and booby trap the course," Miller said. "They want to see guys wreck. I was driving hard through the desert and I came upon this ditch, dug a few feet deep all across the trail."

Miller said he was able to lift the front wheel over the ditch. But he was forced to do a wheelie at high speeds before getting the bike back down.

"I look to my right and there's this guy with a shovel in his hand and a big smile on his face," Miller said. "If I wasn't in a race, I would have stopped and kicked the crap out of him."

For a stretch of 11 miles, Miller averaged 80 mph. Franco, driving on dry lake beds, was consistently at 89 mph during his stretch.

McKinney's job was to get through the "Whoops," the stretch of sand dunes where the terrain goes up and down for miles. He made it through at 35 mph.

"At mile 280, when I got the bike, the rear tire is almost gone," Franco said. "Willy changed the tire so fast."

But even more impressive were the pit stops in the middle of the night out in the desert. Only Franco, Ruiz, Villalobos and Vernaldez drove in the dark, with one headlight. Miller and McKinney were in charge of the pit stops.

"These guys were professional," Franco said. "They came in, we had lights, they set up the pits. The bike came in, got fueled, a new driver was on and was gone. The pits were taken down and they were gone."

Altogether, Vernaldez rode 156 miles. Ruiz was on the bike for 130, Villalobos for another 120, Franco for 105, Miller for 80, and McKinney for 40.

And at 12:45 a.m. the next day, Vernaldez -- who drove the final 91 miles -- crossed the finish line for the team's second-place finish.

"It was awesome," said Miller. "But now we're talking about having two teams next year."