Randy Morales sits on the edge of an oversize easy chair clenching his hands slowly and craning his neck toward the open door with each car that passes the one-story Burbank house. The behavior of the tense and expectant Morales is in direct contrast to his conversational manner and relaxed dress of jeans, tennis shoes and white T-shirt.
Morales--out of his element in the warm and secure surroundings of his parents' home--is waiting for an integral part of his world. Honda, his sponsor, is shipping him a new motorcycle, a modified XR-600cc four-stroke racing machine that Morales has no intention of driving on city streets.
As the sun's first light flirted with the Mexican desert this morning, Morales and 240 competitors in 31 divisions departed from Ensenada for the start of the 19th SCORE International Baja 1000. On the desert, Morales doesn't do any hand-clenching. He's in his element.
Morales, 22, became the race's youngest winner when partnered with Chuck Miller in 1984 and then won again last year. Favored in this year's 1,013-mile trek to La Paz, Morales could become the first rider to win three straight championships. Splitting the riding time with him will be 22-year-old Randy Norman of San Diego.
A victory would also enable Morales to successfully defend his U.S. Off-Road Motorcycle Championship. He must place in front of overall point-leader Dan Smith to retain the plate as the national titlist. Smith will be riding with four-time winner Larry Roeseler, who was awarded last year's Baja championship before being dropped to ninth place for missing one of the race's eight mandatory checkpoints.
"He's the fastest," Morales said of Smith. "Him and his partner, Larry Roeseler, they're my main competition."
But there are others.
Miller, also a member of Team American Honda, will have a shot at the title. They no longer ride together because Honda wanted to enter two teams of equal strength, Morales said.
"Chuck will be tough to beat this year," Morales said. "We're real good buddies, but we have a thing going. Just mind games. We can go into a race and go toe to toe and afterwards take our helmets off and laugh about it. But when we're on the course it's a different ballgame. When we have our helmets on, it's like a war. Everyone's in it for themselves."
The stakes are higher than a mere racing title.
Although winners in each division split 50% of the total entry fees of $500 per team, they make even more money--in Morales' case, enough to live on--from companies whose products they use. Winning riders, of course, receive plump contract offers for future races.
"I have a lot of sponsors," Morales said, "and if I win, that's were I'll make a lot of the money. That's were you make the big money. People want me to ride their product. You have to figure out what's going to pay better. It gets to be fun."
The Baja, considered the most prestigious off-road event in the U.S., is certainly no pleasure cruise. It's man against desert, and financial motivations alone are insufficient to carry a rider through 18-plus hours of dust, ditches, stray animals and the mental torture that accompanies a night of riding through the desert's darkness.
The most dangerous of obstacles are often unexpected.
"When you come over a hill and it's warm at night, you have to slow down because there's going to be a herd of cows in the middle of the road," Morales said. "You've got to know these things. Some guys don't realize it and they go banzai into the cows and crash. Their race is over."
Morales competes in District 37 races during the year but said the shorter races do little to properly prepare him for the rigors of the Baja. So Morales and Norman departed for Mexico several weeks ago and raced the course three times. This year's course presents even more than the usual myriad of problems.
It is the first time the course will exceed 1,000 miles, making it nearly 200 miles longer than last year's Ensenada-to-San Felipe loop. The one-way format, which will crisscross the Trans-Peninsular Highway, does not enable pit crews to set up on permanent sites throughout the course and is burdensome to the racers' chase vehicle, said SCORE race director Steve Kassanyi, so the chances of getting lost become greater on an unfamiliar course.
"There is an added element of fatigue on the rider and the co-rider," Kassanyi said. "It's harder to switch for relief in the point-to-point race. In a loop race, the obvious burdens are removed. People have been able to plan early enough to have permanent pits in place in points where they're not able to have the chase crews."
While the racers wind their way south through crowded city streets, long stretches of highway, and off-road conditions that test even the most experienced riders, Morales' chase crew--consisting of his parents, and mechanic Sean Largey--will follow closely, driving mostly on the highway.