May 22, 2024

OC Sports Zone: Community First

Four young men fulfill their dreams and raise funds for a youngster battling leukemia

Southern California residents (from left) Jake Morris, AD Montecinos, Austin Aube and Robert Kamminga took part in the Baja Road Race. (Photo courtesy Candy Morris, For OC Sports Zone)

For four young Southern California thrill-seekers, including two workers from Santa Ana and Placentia, competing in the Baja 1000 Off-Road Race was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.

Adrian “AD” Montecinos, Robert Kamminga, Jake Morris and Austin Aube participated in the 52nd annual 2019 Baja 1000 in Baja, Mexico Nov. 23-24 and had an experience of a lifetime. 

The world-famous off-road race tested the endurance and skills of the riders over rugged terrains filled with a variety of obstacles, such as sand, silt, mud, rocks, dust, weather, desert, mountains and an array of unknown impediments.

Teams from all over the United States and Mexico, and as far away as India and Japan, ascended upon the Baja Peninsula for the ultimate off-road race challenge. 

“Ever since I was a kid I dreamed of riding in the Baja with the big boys,” said Montecinos, 28, an Annapolis graduate who earlier this year completed his Naval military duty. “People told us we were crazy and we shouldn’t attempt it, but that gave us extra motivation.”

Montecinos took the lead as the team organizer and sought to form a group of dedicated riders. He first turned to Robert Kamminga, a longtime friend he’s known since kindergarten, who quickly agreed to participate. Both had been inspired and motivated by the Baja 1000 Dust to Glory documentary.

“I grew up watching the races and riding motorcycles and wanting to ride in the Baja and when AD called, I was all in and I didn’t want to let him down,” said Kamminga, 29, a building operating engineer in Santa Ana who lives in La Mirada.

Morris had a similar reaction when Kamminga tapped him to ride.

“I know how dangerous the Baja is and when Robert hit me up, I was excited, but scared, a good scared,” he said. “I’ve wanted to do this since I was a kid.”

Shortly afterwards, Austin Aube joined the team, which took on the name “Racing 4 Hope.”

Former Naval Officer Seve Bourgeois served as the team’s advisor and provided invaluable amounts of information in preparation for the race.

“Seve is a Baja- extraordinaire and our number one supporter,” Montecinos added. “I knew our biggest deficiency was our inexperience and it would have been impossible for us without him.”

The team conducted numerous planning sessions over the next several months that resulted in building team unity, establishing a solid race strategy and officially entering the race in the Baja 1000 Sportsman Moto category.

The team established a Go Fund Me site that raised $1,000 which the team donated to the family of Elias Gonzalez, a 15-year old Whittier youth who has been diagnosed with Leukemia and has undergone subsequent chemo therapy treatments for several years. Elias’ father, Eric, was Montecinos’ football coach at St. Paul football in Santa Fe Springs.

A week following the race, the R4H team presented $1,000 check to the Gonzalez Family prior to St. Paul’s CIF playoff championship game. The team also established a website: racingforhope.org.

Last summer, while finishing out his final months of Naval service in the state of Washington, Montecinos reached out to Bob Bell, the owner of Precision Concepts, an industry-recognized giant and former Baja 1000 champion, who was in the Seattle area for a Western Off-Road Championship Series race.

Bell’s company completely overhauled Montecinos’ Kawasaki KX450F to withstand the grinding demands of the Baja terrains.

“Many teams never finish the race for technical difficulties and we wanted to avoid that at all costs,” said Montecinos. “When I went and spoke with Bell, he shared so much valuable knowledge with me. I listened and basically agreed with everything he said.  Our goal was to finish the race.”

Next, Montecinos formed a dependable Chase Team, including his father, Edwin, Chris Kamminga, Nick Varela and Ron Morris.

The support team provided the logistics, such as performing maintenance, safety checks, gasoline, food, snacks and drinks, as well as transporting the riders to each of their assigned racing sections all during the pre-running in the weeks leading up to race day, as well as race day itself.  

“Pre-running is invaluable and absolutely necessary,” said Edwin Montecinos. “They used pre-running to get familiar with the course, the race markers and the terrain.”

Due to heavy rains that caused extreme flooding, the start of the race was delayed a full day. The race began Saturday morning at 3 a.m. in downtown Ensenada and riders would have 34 hours to complete the 700-mile course. Montecinos estimated that over 400 of the 700-mile course would be driven at night.

“Night riding is a whole-nother beast,” he said.

Their adventure would take them as far south to San Quintin, before turning north to San Matias and then east across the peninsula to San Felipe, before turning north again to Cohabuzo and then south and west to the Ensenada finish line.

Montecinos was the lead-off rider for the team and rode 120 miles before handing off to Kamminga, who took over just after sunrise. The riders were closely monitored at numerous checkpoints throughout the race and penalties were allotted for speeding and missing virtual checkpoints. The riders alternated throughout the race and would reach speeds up to 90 MPH over the rigid terrain which had elevations that ranged from sea level to 5,000 feet.

“It was cold when you we were riding and you were constantly riding in other people’s dust,” said Kamminga. “I don’t think any of us were thinking it was going to be that cold.”

The dedication and the drive of the team was heroic as each member suffered injuries along the way, but perhaps none more serious that Morris.

“I was about five miles out on my first leg and I was fired up when I hit a log and it threw me over the handlebars,” said Morris, 27, a heavy maintenance operator from Placentia. “The initial impact knocked the wind out of me and my back was all wet from landing in water. I couldn’t breathe for what felt like 15 seconds.

“I was afraid I was going to pass out.. After I got my breath back, I felt lucky because I didn’t think I broke anything. My back and ribs hurt but once I got back on the bike, I felt like I got a fresh start.”

The accident was actually caught on video and Morris was heard groaning in pain as he laid along the side of the trail, immediately following his fall. On the video, Morris was heard asking, ‘how is the bike,’ as he struggled to regain his senses.

“When I realized there was no damage to the bike, it was a big relief that I could continue, because I knew all of us had put so much investment into the race,” Morris said. “I think the adrenaline kept me going and the fact that I was competing in biggest off-road race in the world. After I handed off the bike to Austin, I was able to rest for about 45 minutes, but I wish I could have kept going, instead of sitting around and getting stiff. I feel like I went from 100 MPH to zero and I wanted to keep going.”

Miraculously, Morris lost only about three minutes before he jumped back on his bike following the accident and continued to ride another 60 miles until he handed off to Austin Aube.

Aube, a 28-year old mechanic from Chino Hills, was the most experienced rider of the team and had previously raced in Mexico, so he handled the most grueling and hazardous part of the race, a 30-mile section referred to as the “Whoops” section. He also did a lot of riding at night on tight switch back mountain roads at elevations as high as 5,000 feet.

Aube said the team did better than he expected.

“I didn’t have high expectations, it being our first time, but we did better than I thought we would,” said Aube. “AD did a great job laying out the logistics and the bike performed well. I think we left a little on the table, but if we would have had smoother pit stops and handoffs, I think we could have finished as high as third place, but that will come with experience.”

The R4H Team finished in seventh place in their category with a very respectable time of 21 hours and 35 minutes – an amazing feat for amateur riders competing in their first Baja 1000. 

“We had the mentality and dedication to finish the race,” said Kamminga. “It exceeded my expectations. I was concerned by my lack of experience but we came together as a team and our skills were tested. We bonded as a team. There was no personal glory during the race, we were pulling for each other.”

“I think our mental and physical training paid off,” said Montecinos. “It’s addictive. I can’t wait to do it again and bring home some hardware and riding for a cause served as more of an incentive to get through it.”

“I don’t know if I’ll do again next year, but I’ll definitely do it again, whether it’s in a truck or on a bike, ” Morris added. “It’s one thing to watch the race, but it’s another animal to ride it. You cannot replace that feeling.”

Edwin Montecinos captured the team’s overall message. 

“Not only did they come together to accomplish a dream they had, but they did it for worthy cause,” Edwin Montecinos said. “They gave back to the community and that’s what our faith is all about.”

-Courtesy Tom Connolly, For OC Sports Zone