First off, I should mention that I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m an addict. The desert-racing bug in general has bitten me, but the antidote lies below the American border in off-road race-friendly towns like San Felipe and Ensenada, Baja California. I have religiously participated in every SCORE Baja race since 2001 and was trying to kick the Baja habit cold turkey this year in an attempt to save up some money to buy a house. Three weeks before San Felipe, my honest effort was thwarted by a friend’s offer to supply a bike and help fund the race.
What could I say? The fact that I wasn’t going had been killing me on the inside, and my race family was itching for tacos and a Baja trip as well. We threw together a last-minute team and still managed to finish fourth in Class 25 and fourth overall in the ATV class. Everyone had a great time, but it further proved that I don’t know how to quit. As the 250 had still ended up costing quite a bit, and I didn’t have a solid team for the 500, I decided it was time to quit again.
As the SCORE Baja 500 was approaching, I felt helpless against the countless press releases and questions concerning its arrival. Without a team or funding, I was finally going to sit this one out. When asked if I would be going to watch or cover the event, I honestly replied, “Not a chance,” as it would only further insert the knife into the wound if I had to witness it first-hand.
And then it happened: about five days before I would typically be making the trip south to pre-run, I was creeping through Facebook and came across a note on the Elka Suspension page. It mentioned that a team called Painful Pleasures out of Alberta, Canada, was looking for a rider for the Baja 500. Without thinking of my own internal financial promises, I asked the wife what she thought and then dropped them my number. The team was from Canada, but I almost immediately received a call from La Paz, Baja, Mexico. It was a call from Shawn Robins’ dad, Donald Robins, who helps coordinate the team effort, and he happens to live full-time in La Paz. After a few minutes on the phone with Donald, he invited me to come down and said his son Shawn would be calling me to go over the logistics.
Upon talking to Shawn, I realized that I had met both father and son at Mike Cafro’s house a few times. Mike Cafro has won the Baja more times than anyone I know, and he truly knows what it takes to build a TRX450R that is capable of doing just that. Cafro?.?ª™s reputation for building Baja-winning machines had made its way all the way to Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada. I had met Shawn and his teammate Landon at Cafro’s house before the Baja 1000 a few years back. After a few years of Baja racing on their own bike builds, they had decided to pool their money and hand off the bike-building duties to Mike Cafro Racing. Mike built them a complete race bike and a pre-runner that year.
Both bikes were near carbon copies of his SCORE-championship-winning machines. The MCR-prepped bikes were nearly identical, with the only difference being a stock motor in the pre-runner compared to the conservatively built race motor. When talking with Shawn, I asked if we would be racing one of the bikes Mike had built for him. He said yes, and I replied that I was in, as it would surely be a pretty good, reliable machine.
We would be competing in the 450 Pro class, and Cafro would be racing the same machine setup in Class 25 Open Pro class.
INSIDE THE CAFRO 450R
The MCR build consists of many of the same components that my Baja race bikes have. The first and fore-most part of Cafro’s TRX builds is the suspension. Without properly tuned suspension, a race like the Baja 500 can be absolutely miserable. Cafro religiously uses Roll Design A-arms combined with Elka shocks and linkage. The secret to success in a Baja suspension setup is that it’s stiff enough to be safe in the biggest bumps, yet soft enough to keep from beating you up on the high-speed, curb-like, washboard dirt roads.
The bike can’t wear you out on the small stuff, yet you have to be able to trust it when pounding whoops or a big G-out. Mike sets up the suspension where it is near perfect in the beginning of the race, but it is up to the team to determine what changes must be made throughout the day as the shocks heat up and the course goes from fire roads to rocks to the endless sand whoops in San Felipe.
The build starts with Doug Roll Mig-welding his complete Roll Design gusset kit into a bare TRX frame, and then sending it off for powdercoating. Cafro then goes to work carefully installing only the finest, most reliable parts from Honda and the aftermarket.
The first thing to hang from any MCR build is a set of Roll Design A-arms. For a desert build, Mike uses a 1.7 forward placed, 3-inch-wider A-arm. The Roll Design A-arms use only the finest materials. Craftsmanship is second to none, and they are stronger than you can imagine. The rear end often utilizes a Roll Design swingarm as well, but they are currently very difficult to come by, and the stock 05 swingarm does an excellent job as well. The Painful Pleasures build has an OEM 05 swing-arm with an Elka long travel linkage. Roll Design also supplies a 1-inch-taller, 4130 chromoly steering stem with big bar mounts ready to grab the 1-1.8-inch Fasst Co. Flexx bars. Roll’s last part in the build are the footpegs and netted heel guards. The ultra tough Roll Design cast stainless steel footpegs are a staple on nearly every race bike in Baja. The double-wide footpeg features a kick-up to keep your foot contained, as well as a lower rear rung of teeth to help comfortably angle your feet properly. Aluminum framed heel guards use nerf-bar-type netting to keep your feet safe from falling in under the axle or tires.
Shawn and Mike both use Elka Stage 5 shocks, and Mike has a few little tuning tweaks that he relayed to the Painful Pleasures bike as well. The MCR setup leans a little to the soft side, with the expectancy to add compression as the race progresses. Keeping the bike rideable and comfortable allows Mike’s team to push hard all day without tiring prematurely due to abusive handling characteristics. A Precision Pro stabilizer is used to further keep the bike controllable at speed. The Precision stabilizer has been proving itself a must-have in every form of ATV racing, and the desert is no different. The Pro model features a larger oil reservoir than the standard model; this helps keep oil temperatures more consistent, thus requiring less need for adjustment as the longer race wears on.
With the suspension hung on the machine, it’d be time to install a motor. Shawn’s motor would receive the same treatment that Cafro uses on his race bikes. Before the motor can be installed in the frame, it is completely disassembled and gone over with a fine-tooth comb. As the Painful Pleasures team would be riding a later-model TRX, a few of the problematic transmission gears would be replaced, regardless of whether they showed signs of wear or not. A new Honda crank and main bearings are also a prerequisite for any of MCR’s Baja prep jobs. The crank is the heart of your motor, and failure is not an option. With the transmission freshened up and a new crank, the cases are reassembled, and a Hinson clutch basket with OEM plates is installed before it’s ready for a top end. For the later model TRXs, MCR uses a new stock piston with the thinner CRF head gasket to bump the compression just a hair.
Allen Fox ports the head and gives it a valve job while retaining the stock valves. Mike then opts to use the HRC cam for its solid mid-to-top-end pull characteristics. This very mild motor build is super reliable, yet with a properly tuned carb and exhaust, it will really surprise you. The bike still pulls great off the bottom, yet it continues to pull through the midrange and well into the top end. In a perfect situation, this motor will get race gas all day long, but it is more than capable of running safely on pump gas if the need should arise. Mike runs this motor combo for the Baja 250, 500 and even the 24-hour long 1000 races. It is proven reliable, and it makes plenty of power to win at any level. Both Shawn and Mike run Pro Circuit exhausts for their Baja bikes.
WHERE THE RUBBER MEETS THE OFF-ROAD
The rear end of the machine is finished up with a super-strong RPM axle and anti-fade locknut with a freshly rebuilt stock carrier bearing. The RPM axle is the undeniable king of dependability when it comes to racing axles, and its extra beefy race sprocket hub is nearly unbreakable. A PRM .250-inch aluminum Z-plate is used to protect the rear rotor and sprockets. This skid plate is capable of finishing the Baja 1000 right off the shelf with no modifications. We’ve even seen them used after a 1000 miles of racing on pre-runners or local race bikes. The belly skid is a TCS unit made from recycled UHMW polyurethane. The TCS skid is as durable as it gets and literally glides off rocks and other obstacles.
For rolling stock, both Mike and Shawn use Maxxis RAZR tires with the TireBlock run-flat system. Unbeatable Maxxis rubber, with the traction enhancing TireBlock run-flat system, wrapped around DWT Racing beadlocks seem to be the setup if you want to compete in desert racing. This setup was found in more than half the ATV finishers from this year’s Baja 500. It was also the choice of both Pro ATV-class winners. Both Cafro’s and Shawn’s bikes were finished up with Maier plastic and a Quad Tech hood.
TRIAL BY FUEGO
We headed down to Baja on the Monday before the race to pre-run. Not only was I a last-minute add-on to their team, but they also let me pick my favorite section to race, and I was pumped. My wife and I spent the week camped out at the Cuatro Casas Hostel with Mike Cafro, David Russel and Brianna Mancillas. This was honestly the most enjoyable pre-running trip I think I have ever had. I didn’t have any worries about finalizing the bike prep, and we were camped literally on the racecourse. We could literally get up every morning, prep the bike and pre-run our sections. I rode my section each day, and on Wednesday morning, Cyle Chislock and his dad Troy showed up to camp as well. We pre-ran the course together Wednesday and Thursday before heading back to Ensenada to get ready for Friday’s festivities. Driving back to Ensenada Thursday, I felt pretty good about my section and felt I would be as fast as anyone through it.
On Saturday morning our team lined up in the third position for Class 24 on virtually the same machine that the Cafro/Robles team would be racing in Class 25. Off the start line, the bike ran good, but started to backfire and eventually die at race miles (RM) 5 and 9. In the first pit, Cafro’s team had a quick pit racing out of Ojos Negros, battling for the overall lead with Dofo Arrellano. Our bike came in six to eight minutes behind schedule, and the rider relayed what had happened. We checked out the bike, but could find nothing wrong and sent the next rider out of the pit. The bike struggled on, and we swapped riders again at RM 92. I was in sight of RM 95 when Landon came on the radio stating that it was still having issues. We pulled the bike over, and I pulled the float-bowl drain, flushing it out and adjusted the air screw in a bit.
We’re still not sure what was in it, but apparently we got lucky, and it fixed the problem. Landon took off with a thumbs up, and the motor ran flawlessly for the rest of the day. Meanwhile, Cafro’s team had gained the overall lead and was slowly running away with it. After leaving the bike at RM 95, I had to get over to the Pacific side of the racecourse, where I would be getting on at RM 301. When you leave the bike for that long, it is a gut-wrencher, wondering how everything is going with the bike. You are also relying on a spotty cell signal for updates. When the bike finally got to me, we were pretty far out of contention for the lead, but in Baja, anything can happen, so I pounded out my 120-mile section like I was racing for the overall.
Leaving the pit, I quickly noticed that the bike had a flat front left tire. The excited rider before me had overlooked this small detail, possibly because the TireBlocks do a really good job of leaving it rideable. Rideable or not, it was definitely flat, and I did my best to ride it out to the pit at RM 320 for a fresh tire. With a new tire on the bike, it actually handled pretty darn good for having already raced 350 miles. We continued on to finish fourth place in our class, and Cafro/Robles team went on for the eventual overall ATV win.