Tommy Stoilkovich thought the scariest part of entering the Tecate 250 Enduro Race in Mexico would be the competition.
September 9th, 2010
I receive the following email from my good friend and off-road motocross riding buddy, Robert Rex:
“Tommy, Tommy, Tommy…let’s go! I just got word that after a 13 year hiatus, they are running the ‘Tecate 250 Enduro’ race – the first one since 1997! This rascal is a hoot, all single track. You could ride the course easily and if you don’t like it, at any check point you can bow out and take the fire roads back to the start . . . the hotel is great, in the middle of no-where, and the race starts right adjacent it. Don’t hesitate . . . once in a lifetime opportunity . . .drag along your brother…good break-in for his new bike tell me soon and we’ll sign up on the same minute (that’s Enduro talk) and ride together!”
Robert is one of the head honchos who runs a large magazine publishing company of the extreme variety: Motocross Action, Dirt Bike Magazine, Mountain Bike Action, etc . . . he’s a madman who loves to push the envelope a little more than I do and often uses my less than stellar riding skills for his amusement. I let him know I was in – not because I had any interest in going to Mexico – but because I figured two and a half months would be ample time to create and fake an illness that would prevent me from riding.
In the weeks leading up to the race, Rex had me convinced that the ride would be on ninety miles of the best, virgin trails in the world and that we would be staying at the Mexican equivalent of the Four Seasons. But Knowing Robert the way I do . . . I really should have known better.
You would think that the anxiety I was feeling stemmed from the fact that I would be racing with, or in my case – getting in the way of – off-road legends like Destry Abott, Ty Davis and even the man himself, Malcolm Smith. The truth was that the dread I felt in my stomach came from just the thought of traveling into Mexico. I discussed with anyone who would listen the probability of getting in the cross-fire of a drug cartel war. I must have Googled, “is it safe to travel into Mexico” about 50 times, and even went so far as to call the hotel making up some lame excuse about how my wife wanted me to check on how safe it was . . . (Can you believe her?) Juan at the hotel let out a chuckle and gave me a big, “no problemo”. I was heading into the danger zone with little to arm myself other than; “don’t go into the wrong places”, “never let your stuff go unattended” and my personal favorite, “come to a complete stop at every stop sign”.
On Friday, December 3rd, while my brother, Ivan, and I loaded our bikes onto Robert’s circa 1950 bike trailer, I still had visions of getting decapitated by some tweaked-out Mexican drug lord and having my head mounted to the front of my KTM.
We hadn’t even made it to the border before things started going wrong. Robert got a call from his wife and was told that his daughter had just been diagnosed with appendicitis and would require surgery within hours. Robert was pacing around the car like . . . well . . . like a dad who was just told his little girl needs surgery. Even with two solid months of training and countless discussions on how much fun we were going to have, Robert didn’t miss a beat. He told us he had to get home as quickly as possible and my brother and I readily agreed. Of course in the back of my mind I’m thinking, “Sweet Jesus! Im saved! . . . I get to go home on a technical default!”
The only problem was that Robert started talking some gibberish about my brother and I taking his car and getting him to the train station. I argued that, “No friend of mind was going to go through this alone – we’re in this together!” but he wasn’t buying it. Robert insisted that if the tables were turned, he wouldn’t hesitate to go on without us. Waving goodbye to Robert as he stood there alone with his gear bag was one of the many surreal moments I experienced on this trip. My brother and I suddenly went silent. . . we had just left the one guy who could actually navigate us through this madness. We reluctantly found our way to the boarder, rolled up our windows, locked the doors and drove into Mexico.
As a teenager, we traveled into local Mexico often. We were drawn South by the uncrowded surf, cheap food and of course the real clincher, buying beer when you are seriously underage. It never failed to amaze me how two places, the US and Mexico, could be so different yet so close in proximity. The second you cross the boarder – everything changes. The strange sights, funky smells (are Mexicans always burning trash?) and general feeling of desperation is overwhelming.
As we were driving through Tecate, it suddenly dawned on me that we were in possession of a car that neither of us owned. Try explaining that one when you’ve only got two years of high school Spanish – which by the way was a long, long time ago. We kept telling ourselves that as long as we didn’t get pulled over – no problemo. Keep our heads down, don’t make eye contact and we’re golden . . . after all, what could go wrong?
It was getting late in the afternoon as we made the twenty or so mile drive into the mountains of central Mexico. We knew we were going to miss the scheduled rider meeting that afternoon but figured we could get caught up with what we missed at the hotel. After a tooth rattling, six mile drive down some God-forsaken dirt road, we finally arrived at our oasis – the Hotel Rancho Santa Veronica.
As we drove into the massive mud pit that apparently doubled as a parking lot, my anxiety levels reached new highs. The sight of all of the motorcycle factory racing vans, RVs covered with team decals, and four wheel drive trucks stacked with all things motocross was a little daunting. A few of the guys in the parking lot shot us some strange looks and I told my brother it was probably due to Robert’s fancy Acura and that crappy trailer he made us strap our bikes to. As it turned out, it wasn’t Barney Rubble’s rolling flatbed that was getting all the attention. The bike straps must have launched somewhere back on that rollercoaster ride they call a road and our race-ready KTM’s were laying in a tangled mess somewhere near the rear portion of the trailer. To make matters worse – while we were doing our scouting circles looking for parking, our upside down motorcycles were spewing gas which, because of the amount of consecutive circles we drove, probably looked like we were trying to crop dust the parking lot.
After checking in, Ivan and I checked out the hotel and discussed our next move. Robert’s last bit of advice when we ditched him on the side of the road was, “Find Ron Lawson, he’ll know his way around and will be happy to show you guys the ropes”. We walked a few hundred yards in the chilly mountain air to the hotel restaurant in search of Ron. Ron is one of the editors of DirtBike Magazine and it was comforting knowing that we had a potential contact with ample knowledge of the intricacies of the Tecate 250.
They were just putting out the buffet dinner for all the riders and suddenly our hunger overrode our desire to find Ron. The food was way better than expected – not sure who we thank for that but three days later I’m still thinking about the chicken enchiladas. No sooner had we finished our dinner when we noticed Ron crossing the dining room beelining it towards the bar. He ordered a few beers (probably carbo-loading for the race) and glanced over at my brother and I. We’ve never met the man before, although I have seen his picture in the magazine hundreds of times. Robert has talked about Ron for years and that coupled with his easily recognizable face had me believing that the two of us had been friends forever! Problem was Ron had never seen me before in his life. I was probably a little too enthusiastic . . . maybe the big hug in the middle of a packed biker bar was a little much.
Ron gave my brother and I the once over, smiled and said, “you guys are doooomed.” There were a handful of other racers that I recognized from the magazines and my brother and I decided it might be best not to let on that this was the first time we had ever entered a race. On the application for the event it had made clear – in bold letters, “Solid B Riders or better only, NO WIMPS”. I guess since I’m telling it like it is you may as well know that my brother and I had no clue what a ‘B’ rider even was. I’ve since learned that if you are entering an AMA (American Motorcycle Association) sanctioned event, you would start as a ‘C’ rider and then if you place well in a ‘C’ race, they move you up. Place well in a ‘B’ race and you get an ‘A’ rating and so on . . . . . yep, definitely in over our heads.
As we made our way back to our room, we both took a few cold breaths while staring up at the sky. It was pitch black outside with no ambient lighting to drown out the light show up in space (the hotel generators had just gone out . . . again) to be honest, I couldn’t remember a time when I had seen so many stars. Standing there with my brother, I was starting to feel grateful for the experience. Unfortunately, that moment was one of the only good things that I will remember from this trip.
5AM – Race Day
Our mobile phone alarms didn’t need to go off. We really hadn’t slept much - turned out we were the only ones who didn’t know the hotel had no heat, and so we’d slept in full riding gear with only two dusty sleeping bags to keep us warm. We decided that if it didn’t get to, say, 45 degrees by race time, we would call it quits . . . enough was enough. I think the cold and lack of sleep had gone to work on us and at that point, and I just wanted it to be over. We had wanted to get to the starting area as early as possible because we needed to check in with the event organizers to let them know the Stoilkovich brothers had arrived. Figuring we were getting a good jump on it we were amazed that half of the rigs in the parking lot had already left for the race. What the hell?
We made it over to mandatory rider meeting that began at 6:15AM (really?), and enjoyed a sense of camaraderie while everyone froze their asses off listening to the rules of the race. Someone had lit a massive bonfire and we all tried to get close to it without making it look like we really needed the heat.
Due to middle-age memory skills, most memories tend to fade pretty quickly unless something really great or insane happens. Like I can still remember one time as a teenager speeding down a dirt road in Mexico in a friend’s mom’s late-70s station wagon. One evening we left our campsite in search of liquor and thought it would be funny to cram as many of my friends as we could into the wagon.
Apparently my friend who was driving was feeling the need to set a new land speed record for a “station wagons packed with morons on a hellacious, Mexican dirt road” (my guess is we are uncontested). So there I was, my eyes pinned wide open, staring into the blackness of the Mexican desert, when out the sky, my buddy John’s face slammed down on the outside of the windshield. He had quietly climbed out the back of the station wagon window, crawled over the roof while doing what felt like 90 miles an hour and ‘surprised’ us by playing peek-a-boo outside the wagon. We were surprised all right—the poor driver almost peed himself.
Come to think of it, Johnny was lucky the driver didn’t panic slam the brakes and launch our drunken little friend like a torpedo into the desert. Probably would have served him right for scaring the crap out of us. The point is, I remember THAT, but couldn’t tell you another thing about that particular Mexico trip. After some time passes, my mind usually hangs on to a few choice memories and for whatever reason, puts the rest in some remote delete file in my brain.
Standing in the Mexican desert at six in the morning with all of the racers as the fire blazed and watching the sky turn different shades of purple over the mountains, is a memory I hope I never forget.
Only 240 racers were allowed to ride. The race started promptly at 7:00 and at exactly 7:01, they dropped the start flag on the first four riders. Every minute there after another four riders left until all 240 were hauling ass through the desert. During the race, you had to get to different check-points where there were officials waiting to write down the exact amount of time it took you to get there. Sounded nifty but who were we kidding? My only real concern was not getting lost, hurt, breaking down or used as traction by a faster rider. My brother and I were on the “28th minute” which (and I’m no mathmatician) had us taking off around 7:28.
Here’s a little race trivia – did you know that in an AMA Enduro Race you are not allowed to begin the race with your engine running? I didn’t either. I made my grand entrance – snaking through all of the pros, stopped at the starting line and sat there chopping my throttle like some poser on a Harley at a red light. The guy next to me grabbed me by the shoulder and yelled, “you need to turn off your engine before they start the race!”. I killed the motor and completely humiliated, mumbled that I was just, “warmin’ er up”. I think the guy felt sorry for me when he leaned over, gave me a big smile and said, “cheater”. Whoever you are – thanks for getting me to laugh and relieve the tension.
The green flag dropped, we started our bikes and off we went. No matter how hard I tried to calm down in those first few minutes, I couldn’t stop my heart from beating out of my chest or loosen up on the death grip I had on my motorcycle. My initial goal of trying to finish the race mid-pack had been reduced in that moment to just trying to stay upright on my bike.
I guess this is where my story really begins. The feeling of racing through those first few miles was pure magic. Robert was right about one thing—I was racing on some of the most unbelievable terrain of my life. The word was that although this was the 50th anniversary of the Tecate 250 Enduro, the promoters had not been able to re-produce the event for over 10 years. Apparently, cutting through all of the political red tape to get permission to hold the race was a royal pain. From what I’m told – the producers, the Los Acianos Group, spent four years preparing the 90 miles of single track just for this one race. The trail consisted of extremely tight turns all winding around oak trees, sage and an endless variety cactus (cacti?). It was so tight that unless you were able to stay centered on the 12” path, you would end up smacking your arms against the cactus. I was still picking spines out of my knuckles three days later.
Everyone kept telling me that the key to success in a long, technical race is to ride within yourself and don’t over-cook it. Great advise except when you know you have some of the fastest off road riders in the world coming up behind you. Somewhere past the 3 mile mark – maybe 4½ miles from the start, I came around a tight, zero visibility turn, to find a rider off his bike waiving for me to slow down. Seeing a rider off of his bike like that is never a good thing and I starting preparing myself mentally for what had to be some carnage up ahead. Immediately to my right, there was a rider on his back with two other riders kneeling over him. I rode by slowly (rider courtesy and all) and yelled at them asking, “you guys okay?” One of the guys looked up and yelled, “NO!” and I quickly got off of my bike to see if I could help.
The first feeling I had as I pulled off was one of total frustration. Four and a half miles in and I was now going to lose valuable time. It took me a moment to wrap my head around what I was looking at but it appeared that one of the riders was trying to administer CPR to the rider on the ground. I leaned over, saw that the guy was pretty pale and knew immediately that we needed some help.
Riders started to come by slowly as they were being waived down by the one rider on the turn. As riders approached, some would ask if we needed help – some wouldn’t. The ones that slowed down enough to listen were told to find help for us as fast as they could. The others just kept going. I had tried to get reception on my cell but we were in the middle of nowhere. My brother came upon us and saw the panic in my face and immediately knew something had gone bad. I let him know what was happening as we knelt down to help with the fallen rider. I’m not a doctor but it didn’t take an MD to know this guy was hurt.
The first two riders to stop had apparently found the rider slumped over his handle-bars on his rare, Spanish, Gas-Gas motorcyle. It appeared that he had slammed his bike hard enough into a group of cactus trees that the bike and unconscious rider had remained upright. He was dripping with sweat and his skin looked sickeningly pale. We were all trying to to work together to help the guy but the reality was that no one really knew what to do. The hope was that one of the riders we told to get help would eventually find someone. The problem was that everyone we yelled at to get help would take off in the wrong direction – away from the starting area. Everyone knew it would have suicidal to ride backwards into oncoming racers on the blind trail.
As we were all kneeling over the rider, moving things around to make him comfortable, another guy rode up, got off of his bike, and ran over to us shouting that he was a paramedic.Thank you God! He began by checking the fallen rider’s pulse and then proceeded to pump slow, timed movements on his chest. He had the look of a professional who had done this many times before and at the time, his biggest concern was that one of the racers would come up on us too fast and crash into us.
While the medic did his thing, I helped to slow everyone down telling anyone that would listen to go get help. My brother was in the thick of it when the medic shouted, “someone needs to blow air into his lungs!” Without the slightest hesitation to see if someone would volunteer first, Ivan was ready to give the guy mouth to mouth recesitation – something I’m pretty sure he had never done in his life. Right before he began, the paramedic told him to, “get some plastic, put a hole in it and place it over his lips!”. Ivan scrambled through the unconscious riders pack, got the baggie he had used for his sandwiches and began to try and resuscitate the rider.
As I was watching all of this go down, somewhere in the barren desert of Mexico, I was overcome with pride for my little brother. In all my life I’ve yet to meet a more loving and compassionate soul or someone who is always willing to be of service to others . . . no matter what. The cold truth of that day was that there were 240 riders on the starting line that morning. Five of them stopped long enough to offer what assistance they could, but only 1 out of the 240 really went the distance – you truly are my hero.
The paramedic told us that he could hear air going into the rider’s lungs and that Ivan was doing a great job. A few seconds later, the fallen rider vomited up his breakfast (all over my brother), which I took as a good sign. As my brother lifted his head to clean himself off, the paramedic placed his head on the riders chest . . . looked at us all . . . and pronounced him dead.
The first few moments upon hearing those words were beyond surreal. The five of us, pale and shaking – had no idea what to say. A few of the longest minutes of my life ticked by when one of the riders reached out his hand, introduced himself, and thanked us all for trying to help. I didn’t know what to do. The medic thought we should go through his pack for identification which is when we learned the name of the deceased rider, Desmond McDonald.
I’ve really only seen two other dead bodies in my life – my grandmother and my mom. I remember standing over Desmond’s dead body—motorcross gear and boots on—and to be perfectly honest, the image laying before me looked fake. I think we were all in some degree of shock and my mind just couldn’t process any more information. It’s now Tuesday – this all happened two days ago – and I am nowhere close to getting that image out of my head.
Out of all of the things that I witnessed that day, the thing that really hit me the hardest was seeing Desmond’s personal belongings spill out of his pack. He, like the other 239 riders, woke up early that very day, had breakfast, got all of his gear on, fired up his motorcycle and showed up at the starting line. I didn’t know Mr. McDonald and I won’t pretend to have the slightest idea about what he was planning on doing that night or where he was thinking about spending the holidays – this year or next. I do know that at a minimum, he was planning on eating lunch as I saw the sandwich he had carefully packed in a plastic baggie for the race.
I began to think about all of the plans I am constantly making, falling victim to the belief that life will be better once I cross the next thing off of my to-do list. The truth is that witnessing the death of Desmond McDonald reaffirmed a heartfelt belief that the moments we have are all God given – I can either wake up to that fact and be present to the grace we call life or I can shutdown and spend my life ‘planning’. I mean you truly never know when your number’s up and in the end, what difference do your plans make anyway? I can only hope that when it’s my time to go, I get to go out close to the ones I love or maybe even better, doing something that I love.
After some time, one of the officials from the Los Acianos group rode up and told us help was on the way. He had a walkie-talkie and was guiding a van to a nearby dirt road a few hundred yards of the race course. He said authorities would be involved in getting Mr. McDonald home, patted us the back and moved us along.
So now what? my brother wasn’t looking too good – I wasn’t feeling too good, so I suggested we ride to the next check point and ask for directions back to the starting area. Ivan did just that. I on the other hand blew right by the next check-point . . . maybe I was thinking my bro was right behind me? It wasn’t until I was maybe 10 miles out in the mountains before I stopped to wait for my brother. I kind of knew in my heart he had already gone back but my hope was that a little quiet time out in the hills may help put things in better perspective.
After 20 minutes or so, I just wanted to find my brother and I rode as fast as I could to the next check point – the 15 mile mark. I told everyone there what had happened and asked if someone could lead me back to the start. The people from the Los Acianos organization could not have been more sympathetic or helpful. One of the crew got on his bike and had me and another rider follow him back to our cars.
We didn’t speak for the first couple of hours driving home because I guess neither of us really knew what to say. We were both in our own heads for much of the drive and finally started some mindless conversation about Robert’s hillbilly bike trailer. Discussing motocross accessories seemed to lighten our mood and we began scrutinizing every trailer we passed as we headed up the 405.
Just as we were about to drop into the 10 fwy and head up the coast, we spotted a maroon Land Cruiser pulling what was in my opinion, a vastly superior bike trailer. It had a nice cage around the body of it so if you were ever to launch a bike the way we did, at least the bike would stay in the trailer. As we started to pass the landcruiser I scoped the dudes’ bikes when my heart sank. One driver and two bikes: A KTM and Desmond McDonald’s GAS-GAS.
My thoughts and prayers are still with Mr.McDonald’s family.
This is a no-hostility post.
Photo courtesy of matheus_momesso