You may remember our story in November about the HERO Racing team and the attempt of three amputees to run the Baja 1000 in the Pro motorcycle class. HERO racing's No. 2X bike, ridden by Chris Ridgway, Mario Panagiotopolis and Jim Wazny was randomly drawn as the first bike off the line in Ensenada, Mexico.
The team not only finished the race in a grueling 31 hours, 30 minutes and 59 seconds, but it placed a more than respectable sixth in the Pro category against some stiff competition.
Ridgway was the rider for leg No. 1 and this meant that he had the dubious honor of being chased off the start by all the "big boys."
Ridgway is a veteran of the Baja 1000, but this was a special day for him with the thousands of people showing up for the start of the race. Ridgway had spent the previous days riding and training with motocross legends Rick Johnson, Mike Brown and Shane Esposito, so he had not really given much thought to starting off this epic race until race day dawned.
"I didn't really get nervous until the day of the race because I had never been to the start," Ridgway said. "All of a sudden it was happening and all these things I wasn't expecting. It wasn't like a motocross race and it wasn't like anything I had ever done because when I raced the Baja before I was down the peninsula somewhere, the bike shows up and I take off and there were like 12 people watching!"
Until about one month before the race, Ridgway had not ridden for seven months because of injury. The first leg of the race was an incredible 350 miles and Ridgway managed to hang on to his initial lead for more than 22 miles, even with the best in the business chasing him.
"In the back of my mind I had Rick Johnson saying, 'Don't push it. Just stand up on the pegs and slow your pace because you're going to have 350 miles on the bike,' " Ridgway said of his aim to ride a smart race.
Ridgway accidentally rode more than his 350 target when he missed the changeover point at the Honda Racing pit. Speeding toward the pit area, one of his teammates tried to give him direction.
"There was a little bit of confusion going on and someone from my team kind of charged me from the left hand side," Ridgway said. "As I looked over there, because he was kind of running at me, I looked away from the Honda pit, went right by it and never saw it."
Ridgway started panicking because he had already completed 350 miles and knew that Panagiotopolis was to do 180 miles on the next leg.
"I didn't know if I had another 180 left in me!" Ridgway said.
Fortunately the team picked him up at the next road crossing and Panagiotopolis started his race. Ridgway would eventually ride more than 470 miles before the race was over, and Panagiotopolis was struck by the greater meaning of their endeavors.
"It's awesome to show the world what a disabled person can do, you know? For the guy that may have lost his leg, or is disabled and just thinks he can't do something, hopefully he, or she, can look at this and think wow, three crippled guys finished the toughest off-road race in the world and finished sixth place in the Pro class and they're all over 40 years old," Panagiotopolis said.
The race was not without its challenges, Baja is known for its silt beds – miles and miles of bottomless, pulverized dirt and rock that has the consistency of talcum powder. For these adaptive athletes with their special prosthetic limbs the challenge was even greater because the narrow profile of the "feet" on their prosthetic legs was only about 40 percent of the surface area of a normal riding boot, causing them to sink through the silt much more easily.
"The section from San Ignacio to Scorpion Bay, we pre-ran it maybe six days prior and we came across maybe five football field length silt beds that you could ride around easily on the right hand side," Panagiotopolis said about one of the tougher legs of the race. "Come race day that was almost like 100 miles of silt! The further you went out to get around it, then you were in silt and boulder fields. Shoot, I must have went down six or seven times in that stuff!"
Despite the race challenges, the team was given plenty of encouragement and support from sources such as the legendary Johnny Campbell Racing team and Cameron Steele's Desert Assassins, the latter of whom even gave up some incredibly rare hotel rooms mid-race for the team to bunk down.
Jim Wazny rode the final leg into LaPaz and in an unplanned show of solidarity, Ridgway and Panagiotopolis met up with Wazny a couple of hundred yards from the finish line. Panagiotopolis jumped on the back of Wazny's bike and Ridgway climbed on the back of another HERO racing teammate's bike (HERO Racing had three separate teams in the race) and all three riders crossed the finish line at the same time. Ridgway had mixed feelings about the moment.
"I didn't want to make it look too much like a circus act with all of us trying to ride across on the same bike, but I was really, really glad that we were there for the finish," he said.
Once you have conquered the pinnacle of off-road racing on a bike, what's next for this team? Ridgway and Panagiotopolis had the same answer: Race it in a car.
"If I have the opportunity to race a car I will be right in there, because I am competitive in a car!" Panagiotopolis said emphatically.
If the team jumps inside the roll cage we will be sure to bring you the story.