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Big Bend Open Road Race Volunteer Tour

Wednesday, May 17, 2017   (1 Comments)
Posted by: Rick Johnson #28028

Photos by Johan Morris #154034

I looked forward to a spring ride to meet a friend from Colorado. On a typically nice North Texas April day, I faced an easy 460-mile ride from Fort Worth to Fort Davis. On the other hand, Johan Morris had 320 more miles to ride and had to time his departure to dodge some dicey Denver weather.

I met Johan at a 2013 Horizons Unlimited meeting in Grant, Colorado. He reached out to me after sensing my apprehension about going off-road with this eclectic group, most of them half my age. Johan said he would lead and we would ride at the tail of the pack. All I needed to do was follow the track of the rear wheel on his yellow R 1150 GS. I was exhilarated when we completed Boreas Pass (11,493 feet) and thrilled after completing the more challenging Weston pass (11,921 ft.).

The goal of our spring ride is always a place or event in which we both have an interest. In 2014, it was open house at the Trinity Site on the north end of the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico where the first atomic bomb was tested. This year it was volunteering in the 17th annual Big Bend Open Road Race (BBORR).

We met at Davis Mountains State Park, 11 miles southeast of the McDonald Observatory. Operated by the University of Texas, the observatory has three telescopes ranging from 31" to a monster 360" located on adjacent mountain tops. Davis Mountains State Park was a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) project. From 1933-35 the CCC built many facilities used in the park today including our toilet, a stone overlook shelter with a picture window framing a breathtaking view of Skyline Drive.

Courtesy of Google Maps.

The next morning, a pre-coffee ride down Skyline Drive and the scenic 75-mile observatory loop jump started our day. After a quick gas-coffee-toilet break in Ft. Davis, we head towards Marfa, Texas, for lunch at Mondo’s Cafe. Marfa (population 1,819) is an artsy community with an interesting bookstore, a specialty grocery store that might be expected in SoHo, a Prada store parody roadside attraction outside of town, and even its own NPR station.

A couple of our newly-discovered roads for this year’s ride were RM (ranch to market) 2810 and Pinto Canyon Road. RM 2810 is only 32 miles long, and it’s a nice and smooth two-lane blacktop. The pavement ends as Pinto Canyon Road begins. The next 20 miles are more like an old ox cart path through the Chianti Mountains and a 10-mile stretch through the private property of Pinto Canyon Ranch.

I followed Johan, riding his dark blue R 1150 RT, through a white-knuckle gravel, rock and low-water-crossing ride.

When we reached TX FM (farm to market) 170, Camino del Rio or the River Road at Ruidosa, we stopped to catch our breath and huddle on which way to go. After looking at the map, we decided to go to the paved end of FM170. Candelaria (30°08′19″N 104°40′59″W; population ~75) is a tiny border village at the north end of FM170, a dead end. While there are a few dozen small houses and one church, there are no apparent business establishments. We saw cars parked in yards, clothes drying on lines, but not one moving vehicle, person or even a dog. Spooky. Since we were at the end of the road, the only way out was to turn around.

From Candelaria it was a race with the sinking sun to our campground in Big Bend National Park, 169 miles away. For many riders, the heart of River Road 170 is the 66-mile segment between Presidio and Study Butte. This is, at times a heart-in-your-mouth roller coaster road. It can be quite technical. There are several blind hills with unexpected changes of direction after the crest that act as a reminder to never cross the double yellow line. About 13 miles west of Lajitas is Big Hill, renowned as the steepest grade road (15%) in Texas.

As darkness enveloped us, we pulled into a crowded Chisos Basin Campground in the heart of Big Bend. A traveler in a Mercedes Sprinter camper helped us find a suitable place for our tents. As our new friend shared his hot Frito pie supper with us, we all gave thanks for a great riding day, a new road and the spectacular sunset. In the morning, we hiked the six mile Window Trail to a V-shaped window framing panoramic desert views to the west.

Our last stop before Big Bend was a hot springs located on the Rio Grande in the far southeast corner of the park. Boquillas Hot Springs was established as a sanitarium in 1909, and it became a trading post and a resort for health seekers on both sides of the border. It has been uninhabited since the store closed in 1952.

We parked the bikes and took a quarter-mile hike along the river border to the springs. I put my good camera in the pocket of my Aerostich AD1s so we could capture the ambiance. When we started to strip down to our boxers for a good long soak, I realize my camera was gone. On the walk back to our bikes, I looked for my camera while repeating the serenity prayer over and over and simply accepted the fact that my camera was no longer mine. To our amazement, Johan found my camera in his helmet. For those who have been to the USA-Mexico border, this area may be familiar, with its little cross-border unmanned kiosk-type businesses. Usually set up along the walking trails on the US side with signs listing pricing and a place to deposit your payment, they are generally strategically located so they can be watched and serviced by the owners hiding in a stick shack across the easily forded Rio Grande River.

After exiting Big Bend via US 385 and lunch in Marathon, we plotted a path to our hotel in Ft. Stockton, where we planned to stay while working the BBORR. We took US 90 to Sanderson and rode the second leg of the BBORR course. On the 60-mile ride from Sanderson to Ft. Stockton, Johan unleashed his RT and his taillight almost disappeared ahead of me. I was going 105 and my front end with the 21” narrow rubber felt a little light. The blue RT’s taillight disappeared and when I finally caught up with Johan near Ft. Stockton, he had a shit-eating grin on his face.

The remainder of the evening was filled with logistics of our race assignments and gawking at all the machinery gathered at festive city park.

Shortly before sunrise, we rolled across the starting line to find our assigned position 18.8 miles down US 285 to the driveway of Floyd Henderson’s Ranch. We set up our little post, got out our camp chairs, and created a makeshift awning with a tarp strung between our bikes so we could get out of the sun. We fired up our loaner 25-watt two-way radio and waited for the first of over 150 cars, trucks and even an SUV to fly by. Our job is easy because Floyd Henderson and family, being accustomed to being blocked from using US 285 during the last Saturday of April, had left for the weekend.

The north start/finish line is just south of Ft. Stockton city limits and runs 59 miles down US 285 to Sanderson. This well-maintained two-lane blacktop has wide shoulders and gentle, sweeping curves. The BBORR is a clock race with six divisions and 17 classes; the 160 entrees are ranked and leave at two-minute intervals. When all racers reach the Sanderson start/finish line, they are staged to make the 59-mile run back to Ft. Stockton.

A racer cannot exceed the high-speed set for their class or go 30 mph less than their class’s tech speed. Speed traps monitor the course and those falling outside these parameters are disqualified.

The first unlimited car off the line is a 1995 Thunderbird that made the southbound pass in 20 minutes, a 172.1 mph average. Yes, a 172.1 mph average and we were but 20 feet away! For some reason the Thunderbird did not make the northbound run, so the winner of the unlimited division was another old NASCAR racecar, a 2008 Dodge Charger. It averaged 160 mph and had a vulture strike the windshield on the northbound pass. Perhaps more accurately, the car struck the bird!

On the other end of the spectrum was Tim and Linda Eaton’s 1950 Ford sedan, the last car to make the run. Running in the Street Rod Division in the slowest tech speed class of 85 mph. Clocking both legs with an average speed of 85.112 mph, they adroitly won their class. I remember driving my brother’s 1949 Ford around the farm when I was 13 or 14, and I especially remember the “Hell no!” brakes, quarter-of-a-turn play in the steering, no shocks, and bias ply tires, which all made a top speed of 85 mph seem like a nightmare.

Spending 13 hours by the side of a country road to watch cars speed by one by one might not be your cup of tea. However, that is what we did, and it turned into an interesting and entertaining day. We observed things that would be easily missed by the casual passersby. For example, buried deep in the grass on the shoulder of US 285 we found the top panel of a dashboard. It was a pea soup green color that was turning to rust. It appeared old, but was new enough to have the VIN plate riveted into the dash. I searched the VIN online and found two cars with the same number: a 1962 Mercury Comet sedan with an 430CI, 310HP V-8, and a 1972 Ford Mustang Fastback with the 351CI, 250HP V-8. Both cars were assembled in the Lorain, Ohio, Ford plant. I suspect the dash belonged to the Mustang because of the 1970’s color. Besides, the most likely evil handling (and certainly nose-heavy) Comet probably bit the dust long before the first BBORR was run 17 years ago.

If you find yourself in the Texas Hill Country or Big Bend area during the last Saturday of April, check out US 285 in Sanderson or Ft. Stockton. You will see some fascinating machines and meet some interesting fellow gear heads running fast and loud.



Ricardo A. Perez says...
Posted Wednesday, May 17, 2017
Nice story. BBNP is one of my favorite riding areas which we visit at least once per year. Check out some of our posts on BBNP on our website

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