Kurt Caselli's Last Ride
Editor's note: ESPN's Alyssa Roenigk was embedded with the Red Bull/KTM motorcycle team to cover this year's Baja 1000. From a seat in rider Kendall Norman's chase truck, she was able to experience the race from the viewpoint of not only Norman and his teammates but the friends, family, dirt bike mechanics and team managers who support them along the way. She spent the days leading up to the race with Norman's chase team as they drove from Santa Barbara, Calif., to Mexico and prepared for the race.
On the afternoon of race day, they met up with Norman's teammate Kurt Caselli as he and his mechanics put the finishing touches on the team's race bike. Then they drove south on Highway 1, camped overnight in the desert and, after picking up Norman at 7 a.m. at race mile 395, chased the bike through the Baja California peninsula. At 4 p.m. on Nov. 15, they were on their way to the finish in Ensenada, believing Caselli, the last rider in the KTM relay, was leading the race.
IT HAD BEEN nearly 16 hours and 779 grueling miles since the start of the 2013 SCORE Baja 1000 as 20-year-old Ivan Ramirez raced toward Pit 15, adrenaline charging, to make the final exchange of the race motorcycle with his teammate Kurt Caselli. And he was coming in hot. About 100 yards from the pit, Ramirez realized he had underestimated the power of race day and hit the brakes a few yards too late. He overshot his mark and sent his crew scrambling. Caselli, always involved and on the ready, ran toward the orange 450 XC-F, yanked the bike stand from its path, waited for Ramirez to dismount and placed it underneath the bike.
For factory-backed pro teams challenging for a championship, the Baja 1000 is a relay race. One bike per team covers the full 883 miles, this year's course distance, while its riders switch off at a deftly choreographed series of pit stops throughout the Baja peninsula. This year, the motorcycles started at night, in two-minute intervals, with start position determined by a qualifier.
The KTM bike ridden by the team of Caselli, Ramirez, Mike Brown and Kendall Norman started first, at 11 p.m., followed by Honda and Kawasaki, the other two top teams contending for the overall title. Starting first provided an advantage, but it also meant that, to win, KTM would have to cross the finish line two minutes and one second ahead of the second-place bike.
At this final exchange, Ramirez had reason to be amped. For nearly 800 miles, his team had swapped the lead with the 16-time defending champion Honda squad five times, and at that point, 104 miles from the finish, KTM had a one-minute unadjusted lead. One minute. Through 16 hours of racing, the FMF/Bonanza Plumbing/KTM and JCR/Honda teams remained close enough to taste each other's dust. Ramirez made the last pass of the day back at race mile 675, and, as he watched Caselli jump on the bike, the magnitude of the moment hit him. "I was feeling super happy and confident," Ramirez said. "Winning the Baja 1000 was our dream."
It was 2:48 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 15, as Ramirez handed off the bike to Caselli, aware that, in 104 miles, he could become the first Mexican to win the Baja 1000 in its 46-year history. Caselli, only 30 but already one of the most accomplished riders in his sport, would round out his résumé with a championship he'd dreamed of winning since he was a kid and, along with Ramirez, Brown and Norman, deliver KTM its first Baja 1000 win.
"When I gave the bike to Kurt, I knew he would keep everything going for our team," Ramirez said. "I said to him, 'Just ride smart. The helicopter's not with you.' That's the last thing I said. And, 'Be safe.'"
IT WAS FITTING Caselli was the rider assigned to bring his team across the finish in Ensenada. This was, after all, his plan. Two years earlier, he had walked into KTM team manager Antti Kallonen's office in Murietta, Calif., and told him he needed a new challenge. He was negotiating his next contract with the company, but, instead of arriving with a typical list of questions about championship bonuses and salary details, he had come with promises.
He had ridden for KTM for nearly a decade, had won three World Off-Road Championship Series titles and the AMA National Hare and Hound overall championship from 2011 to 2013, and had proved himself as a rider who could excel in any off-road motorcycle race in the country. Now he wanted to spend more time racing outside the U.S. He had a list of goals, including racing and winning the Dakar Rally and contesting rallies in Europe, but one race tugged at his adventurous spirit more than any other: the Baja 1000.
Caselli and his older sister, Carolyn, grew up in Palmdale, Calif., riding in the desert and camping with their parents, Rich and Nancy, both former desert racers who instilled in their children a sense of adventure. "They encouraged us at what we were naturally skilled at," Carolyn said. "For Kurt, that was athletics. For me, it was academics. Because of them, I know I can do anything. Kurt believed the same about himself."
Kurt began racing at age 12 and quickly became known for his speed and determination. Rich and Kurt were inseparable, father and son, best friends and passionate supporters of American off-road racing. When Rich died in 2008 after a stoic, silent battle with liver cancer, Kurt broke the news to the off-road racing community through an email, then rarely spoke about his dad publicly. Their relationship became his to hold on to quietly and to honor through his riding. As a kid, he'd watched his dad race Baja and dreamed of one day following in his tracks … when he was ready and the time was right.
"That day in my office, Kurt said to me, 'You've always been supporting Baja through private teams,'" Kallonen said. "He said, 'Why don't we do a factory team, build a program, and I'll race Baja?'"
To the off-road racing community, the Baja 1000 is more than a race. It's an occasion, a consciousness, a way of life. Every year since the first Mexican 1000 Rally from Tijuana to La Paz was held in 1967, the best drivers and riders in the world have converged on Ensenada to race motorcycles, production vehicles, trophy trucks and custom race vehicles alongside anyone with the desire and enough cash to cover the $3,000 entry fee -- weekend sportsmen racing alongside professional riders with factory support and near $1 million budgets. The race is a punishing test of mind, body and machine over hundreds of miles of captivatingly stark, treacherous, peaceful terrain.
To Caselli, it represented a missing accolade in his résumé, a race that his father had loved and that Kurt wanted to win in his memory. He wanted to challenge longtime champ Honda, which had won Baja every year since 1997, and bring another motorcycle manufacturer to the race. Two decades earlier, the 1000 had been a prestigious competition in which multiple factory teams battled year after year, fender to fender, for the championship. Before Honda, Kawasaki dominated the race, winning nine consecutive years, but the manufacturer left Baja shortly after the death of its three-time champ Danny Hamel in the 1995 race.
"Kurt and KTM coming in was a great moment for the sport," said 11-time Baja champ Johnny Campbell, owner of the JCR/Honda team. "It was intriguing to have that level of effort coming in to try and take our championship away. I welcomed that challenge."
KTM has a long history in off-road racing and a brilliant stable of riders in motocross, FMX, endurocross and rally, including 2010 AMA Supercross champ Ryan Dungey and five-time X Games gold medalist Ronnie Renner. Kallonen, a former motocross racer from Finland, took over KTM North America's off-road efforts in 2006. Since then, his riders have won more than 30 off-road titles.
"KTM had won all the off-road races in the States there are to win," Kallonen said. "But we'd never won Baja. That was a challenge for the company and a challenge for Kurt. He could become known as a true all-around racer." When Kallonen ran Caselli's plan up the ladder at headquarters in Austria, the response was unanimous: Let's go for it.
Caselli was at the center of KTM's Baja program, both as the team's Rider of Record on race days -- essentially a team captain who must start or finish every race -- and as its undisputed leader on the days between. He told KTM what bike he wanted to ride and what athletes he wanted racing with him. When Kallonen needed to round up the troops for a meeting, it was Caselli who was first to arrive, always welcoming Kallonen with, "Terve, Antti," a common Finnish greeting.
Although off-road racing is known as an individual sport, it is far from a singular pursuit. Caselli understood the camaraderie required to race in the elements. During races, he was known to offer spare bike parts, which he would eventually have to pay for himself, to competitors he'd never met so they could finish a race. After pit stops, he would pause for an extra second to say "Thank you" to the mechanics.
Caselli was involved in every aspect of the team, including mentoring his young teammate Ramirez. Ramirez was an Ensenada native who raced his first Baja 500 at age 14, and Caselli believed he would become a multi-time Baja 1000 champ. Less than a year after that initial meeting with Kallonen, Caselli and Ramirez won their first race in Mexico, at the 2012 SCORE San Felipe 250, the first of three races in the annual SCORE Championship Desert Racing series.
In June 2012, three-time Dakar champion Marc Coma and two-time X Games Enduro X champ Brown joined Caselli and Ramirez for the Baja 500 and the team finished third. Then, in November, the KTM team of Caselli, Ramirez, Brown and four-time Baja winner Quinn Cody raced their first Baja 1000 and finished second. "We learned a lot last year," Kallonen said. "This year wasn't about collecting experience. This year, we felt like we had everything we needed to win."
Shortly after another second-place finish at the San Felipe 250 in March, Caselli invited Ramirez to move in with him at his home in Palmdale, where they rode together, worked out at the gym and competed to beat each other's Strava times on road cycling routes. "He taught me so much this year," Ramirez said. "We were pushing the limits. Kurt would say to me, 'Work harder and the results will pay off.' I did because I knew they would."
During KTM's second run at the Baja 500 this June, Caselli hit a rock in a whoops section and suffered a high-speed crash at race mile 190. Although not seriously injured, he was done riding for the day. He was picked up by the team helicopter and replaced by backup rider Justin Jones. The bike required multiple repairs throughout the race, but Jones, Ramirez and Brown were able to hang on to second place.
Not long after the 500, KTM added six-time Baja 1000 champ Norman, 29, to the team. Known as "Mr. Baja," Norman had ridden for Honda since 2004 and had more experience racing the San Felipe area than anyone on his new team. For 17 years, Caselli and Norman had been fierce rivals. Now they were teammates, becoming friends and racing toward the same goal.
TWO WEEKS BEFORE the 2013 Baja 1000, Caselli arrived in Mexico to pre-run his sections of the course, memorizing each tree, rock and terrain change. "By the start of the race, every rider can close his eyes and ride his section," Caselli said Thursday afternoon at Ramirez's father's bike shop in Ensenada, 10 hours before the start of the race. "We know what's coming before we get to it. We don't want any surprises."
During his weeks in Ensenada, Caselli and his teammates rode from sunrise to sunset, 10 to 12 hours per day. The hours in between can feel monotonous, lonely and mentally draining without friends and family around to distract from the stress of the upcoming race. So, riders choose their company carefully. "You need someone in your chase team who you know can put up with you, who understands you are tired and stressed and is willing to do anything you need," Caselli said.
By the start of the race, every rider can close his eyes and ride his section. We know what’s coming before we get to it. We don’t want any surprises.Kurt Caselli
For his first week of pre-running, Caselli's cousin Jeff Kagan followed him during rides. After returning home for four days, Caselli drove back to Ensenada with his fiancée, Sarah White, and his longtime friend Jason Ortiz, a firefighter for the Los Angeles Fire Department, for his final week of pre-running. "Kurt liked having me around for my positive energy," White said. "He also appreciated having conversations that weren't about motorcycles and racing."
Since they got back together in February, after Caselli showed up at her door at 4 a.m. with Valentine's Day flowers and that smile she never could turn away, White had begun traveling the world with Caselli, supporting him at international races and planning vacations to Paris and Rome in between. Before their trip to Paris in July for his 30th birthday, she read about the Pont des Arts, known as the Love Lock Bridge, and bought a set of black Master Lock padlocks to pack in her suitcase.
During their visit to the bridge, they wrote promises to one another in permanent marker on the metal arms of the locks, attached them to the wall alongside thousands of others and tossed the keys into the Seine. Although it would be another month before Caselli proposed, said White: "I consider that the time we got married."
The couple met 10 years ago. She was 16; he was 20. That day, Caselli told a friend, "One day, I'm going to marry that girl." They dated for a few years, broke up, dated again and broke up again. This time, they knew they were together for good. "I've never had anyone affect me like Kurt did," White said. "We always laughed when we heard that Pink song, the one where she says, 'Sometimes, I hate you. That's how I know how much I love you.' But this past nine months, it's been different; it was perfect."
In the car, Caselli would belt out that Pink song, any song, really, but especially embarrassing girl-pop. He was even known to sing during races; his off-key tunes relayed to his team through the headset in his helmet. "He loved to sing," White said. Especially if doing so would make someone else laugh. This was the guy who'd once shaved off half of his chest hair and told his friends he was conducting an experiment to find out what girls really preferred.
While Caselli pre-ran his sections of the course that week, Ortiz and White learned the roads, practiced the routes they'd take on race day, planned when they would sleep and eat and when they would make sure their rider did the same. "We spent so many hours driving and talking," Ortiz said. "About life, our families, our goals, people from our past. We talked about how he dealt with his dad's passing, what he'd think about his mom dating again, about the adventure of getting married. We started planning he and Sarah's joint bachelor-bachelorette party."
A month and a half earlier, SCORE -- a race organizer that has produced desert races on Baja for 40 years -- released the course map detailing the counterclockwise loop through the northern half of the peninsula. Kallonen divided the course into race legs based on each rider's strengths and the best logistics for his chase team to transport him from one leg to the next.
As the team's Rider of Record, Caselli would start the race at 11 p.m. He would race the first 198 miles in the dark, with LED lights mounted on the front of the bike and on top of his helmet. At race mile 198, he would hand off the bike to Norman, who was selected to ride the next 200-mile section because of his knowledge of the tough, rocky San Felipe area and his experience riding at night. The LEDs would be swapped with the halogen lights Norman preferred. Both riders would be in communication with Kallonen, the team's spotter -- responsible for being in constant contact with his riders during the race -- in the chase truck in the event they needed assistance.
After sunrise, Kallonen would hop in the team's helicopter along with its pilot, backup rider Justin Jones and the team medic and chase his riders from race mile 325 until the finish, breaking away only for pre-scheduled fuel stops every two hours. At a pit at race mile 395, the light would be removed from the bike, Ramirez would take over and the intervals would become shorter, between 90 and 185 miles for the remainder of the race.
"In the daylight, riders could push harder, not thinking they have to pace themselves," Kallonen said. At mile 504, Brown would take the bike from Ramirez, then return it at race mile 690. At race mile 779, Ramirez would make the final exchange with Caselli, who, under Kallonen's plan, would have slept at a hotel after riding his first leg, awoken around 11 a.m., eaten breakfast and driven back into the desert to await Ramirez's arrival at Pit 15. He would then race the final 104 miles and have the honor of bringing his team across the finish.
NINETEEN MILES BEFORE the final exchange, Ramirez informed Kallonen that his speedometer had broken. The speed limit on the highway is 60 mph and teams are docked time penalties for exceeding it. (There is no off-road speed limit during the race, however.) So Kallonen, who was scheduled to break away to refuel when Ramirez entered the highway, decided to stay with Ramirez and pace him with the helicopter until the team's chase truck arrived.
"The truck was late getting to Ivan, so we stayed with him a few miles longer," Kallonen said. As the chopper peeled away to refuel, Kallonen radioed Ramirez a reminder that he was refueling and would return to the air in approximately 25 minutes. He then called the pit at race mile 779 and asked them to inform Caselli that he would catch up with him later than planned.
"Kurt was upset," White said. "He was uncomfortable knowing the helicopter wasn't with him. He knew he would be able to communicate with the pit from his radio headset for a few miles, but he said to Anthony [Di Basilio, his mechanic and close friend], 'From [the pit], you're not going to be able to tell me if a horse or a cow is in front of me.'"
Typically on race days, Kurt was anxious, cranky and too focused to relax. But this time, he'd been different. In the hours before the start of the race, he and White had lain in bed at the hotel in Ensenada, joking around, laughing and talking about their future. "We had the most beautiful conversations," she said. "He wanted to talk about our wedding and what we would name our first kid."
He was equally relaxed while he rested up for the final leg, holding her hand throughout the night and, at breakfast, chatting about anything but racing. As they waited for Ramirez to arrive, White joked that her life had become one big vacation since Caselli proposed on Aug. 29, surprising her at an Italian restaurant in Santa Barbara. "Good thing we have forever to keep it going," he had said.
As Ramirez rode into view of Pit 15, White kissed Caselli's helmet. "I said, 'I love you, babe.' He said he loved me so much. I was so happy. I was floating," she said. As Caselli raced away from the final exchange, a buckskin-colored wild horse ran through the pit. "He was acting crazy and then he ran the same direction as Kurt," White said. "I can't stop thinking about that horse."
ANXIOUS TO CATCH UP with the race at the next road crossing, White and Ortiz got back in their truck. Ramirez hopped on Caselli's pre-run bike, rode to Highway 3, then headed north to a checkpoint at race mile 798 where the course intersected the highway. They planned to watch Caselli pass, then head to the finish. Caselli should have arrived at this checkpoint a little after 3 p.m.
At 2:49 p.m., one minute after leaving his pit, Caselli maintained a one-minute margin over Honda, but, because of the two-minute head start, he was aware he still trailed for the overall lead. Caselli was fast, and fresh, but he knew he needed to be cautious until the team helicopter returned overhead. Until then, he was on his own.
At 2:55 p.m., Caselli passed race mile 786. One minute later, at the same location, Colton Udall of team Honda misjudged a cattle guard, crashed into a fence and destroyed his front wheel. He was uninjured but was down for 27 minutes as a replacement wheel was delivered and the bike was repaired. As each minute ticked by, KTM extended its lead. At 2:58 p.m., the team was ahead of Honda by three minutes. Ninety miles from the finish, Caselli was officially leading the race.
Around 3:15 p.m., Ortiz and White arrived at the road crossing where Ramirez, who had beaten them there, told them that Caselli had yet to go by and that he heard Honda had crashed. Ortiz dialed his walkie-talkie into KTM's race channel, informed Caselli of the crash and told him to slow down; the race was all but won. He heard no response and assumed either Caselli heard him and didn't answer, or the radios were out of range. "Looking back, I should have known Kurt would have been to the road crossing by then," Ortiz said. "He always beat us there during pre-running, and he would have been faster on race day."
In the moment, however, the thought struck no one. Ramirez hung at the checkpoint to wait for Caselli. Ortiz and White continued to Ensenada to meet up with Brown and Norman and watch Caselli ride across the finish. "Then I realized I was sitting on Kurt's sat phone," White said. "He'd left it in the truck."
Kurt was upset. He was uncomfortable knowing the helicopter wasn't with him. He knew he would be able to communicate with the pit from his radio headset for a few miles, but he said, 'From [the pit], you're not going to be able to tell me if a horse or a cow is in front of me.'Sarah White, Caselli's fiancée
THE DAY BEFORE the race, Caselli lined up to take his qualifying lap. It was the first time a qualifier, instead of a random draw, was held to determine start positions. This was also the first year the bikes would start at night, creating 10 hours of separation between the motorcycle start and the truck start the next morning at 9 a.m. This would prevent the fastest trucks from catching up to, and possibly colliding with, the slowest motorcycles, a concern in years past.
Caselli was the fastest rider, earning his team two minutes of separation from second-place Honda. With an 11 p.m. start, Caselli believed the pole position was crucial. "On top of going 80 to 90 at night, there's a lot of dust," Caselli said the afternoon of race day. "For the first 7 miles, there will be a lot of spectators camping to find a spot to watch the trucks, and the locals will have had hours to drink beer and get rowdy. I was really worried, so it's great to be starting first."
Start times and qualifiers weren't the only safety precautions new to the 2013 race. For the first time, teams were required to rent a two-component tracking system, including a SPOT tracker with an SOS button that could be pushed in case of emergency. These SPOT trackers also allowed anyone with access to an Internet connection, including fans, teams and SCORE operations officials, to watch the race in real time, with updates every 2.5 minutes showing where each vehicle was located on the course, if it was moving and at what speed.
The second component, a data logger, recorded location, speed and elevation every five seconds and was collected at the finish, allowing penalties to be assessed immediately after the race. Many riders also carried satellite phones and wore helmets equipped with headsets linked to a radio. A Medevac transport helicopter was on standby at the Ensenada airport; two SCORE helicopters -- one for filming and one for providing emergency medical assistance -- were available; and 23 emergency rescue vehicles and ambulances were stationed along the course.
"This was the safest Baja 1000 in history," said SCORE owner Roger Norman, who bought the series in 2011. Three of the motorcycle teams, KTM, Honda and Kawasaki, rented helicopters for their spotters.
Before the race, the motorcycle teams debated whether they should attach the SPOT trackers to their bikes or give them to their riders, possibly to wear in a hip pack or on a lanyard. The devices would be more secure on the bike, but, if a rider crashed and was separated from the bike, he would be unable to push the SOS button. Only one SPOT device was assigned to each team, so if the riders carried them and handed them off like a baton at each exchange, a rider might forget to hand off the tracker to the next guy. This would lead to penalties, disqualification or a rider being without the device altogether. The teams decided the trackers would be attached to the bikes.
AFTER A 30-MILE flight and 12-minute stop to refuel, the KTM helicopter lifted off to intercept Caselli on the course. By that point, Kallonen had been awake and on alert for 31 hours. He received a call from his mechanics at Pit 15 to inform him Caselli left the pit at 2:48 p.m. It was now 3 p.m., so Kallonen calculated that Caselli should have been at race mile 790.
"We lifted up and we didn't see any dust," he said, referring to the nearly mile-long, orangeish-white trail produced in the wake of motorcycles on the course. "We knew Honda was one minute behind Kurt and the easiest way to find them is to spot their helicopter. We knew they were up in the air, but we didn't see them. We didn't see anything."
According to Campbell, at that moment the Honda helicopter was hovering above race mile 786, the spot where Udall crashed, waiting for a wheel to be delivered. Campbell was spotting from the chopper.
Kallonen instructed his pilot to fly to the road crossing at race mile 798 to get a better look. "I could see in the direction of our pit at mile 779, where Kurt started, and I couldn't see dust or a Honda helicopter," Kallonen said. "I couldn't see forward because there was a mountain." After hovering at race mile 798, Kallonen decided to fly ahead on the racecourse. "The riders said this was a fast section," he said. "Maybe it was faster than I thought and they'd gone by us already."
Kallonen called ahead to his next pit at race mile 829, but his crew told him they didn't expect Caselli for several minutes. "We continued flying forward, around the mountain, and didn't see anything," he said. "We flew to the next pit and they confirmed no one had come by. Then we started backtracking, flying low, knowing they had to come across us."
About halfway back to the spot where he began searching, the Honda helicopter came into view and Kallonen's pilot made contact with the Honda pilot. "They said they had not seen Kurt and their rider hadn't seen him," Kallonen said. The Honda pilot informed KTM of Udall's crash. "He said they thought we were a half-hour ahead."
Between 3:30 and 3:45 p.m., Kallonen instructed his pilot to fly back to the highway crossing at race mile 798. "I didn't find anything, then we flew all the way to the pit where Kurt got on and tracked the entire course," he said. But he still didn't see Caselli, or his bike. Throughout the day, Kallonen had received updates to his sat phone from folks monitoring the race online back in the States. He began receiving texts that his bike was stopped at race mile 796, so the helicopter spent extra time hovering over that area.
Still, its passengers saw nothing. "Then we started to suspect he took a wrong turn and was lost or broken down," Kallonen said. "It's normally easy to spot an orange bike and our rider, so we started getting higher to see more of the course."
In the SCORE Cruz Roja (Mexico's Red Cross) emergency command trailer in Ensenada, Kim Carpenter of SCORE operations was manning communications. She noticed on the live tracker that the KTM bike had not moved for 45 minutes but realized she had heard no updates over the radio.
"I thought it was strange," she said. "I was becoming increasingly concerned and said something to the people in the command post [which included race director Norman and safety director Bill Black]. We started watching for alerts."
Still unable to locate or reach Caselli, Kallonen began switching channels on the radio, informing anyone listening that he could not locate his rider. "Every rider had a sat phone and rider radio hooked up to the helmet," Kallonen said, unaware Caselli was without his satellite phone. "We were flying over the course asking for him, 'Kurt, do you copy?' Then it came to mind that he was not able to talk. We've had accidents before with Kurt, going back to the Baja 500, where I ask him, 'Are you OK?' He can respond with the radio. This time, there was no answer. We really started to get worried and get the word out."
Around 4 p.m., White and Ortiz, still driving to meet Caselli at the finish, heard a terrifying call over the race radio. "Antti came in on the station we were on and said, 'This is KTM. We can't find our rider. We are looking for our rider. We don't know where our rider is,'" White said. "That's all we heard."
The pilot landed the helicopter near the highway crossing, where Kallonen told Ramirez to go back to Pit 15, at race mile 779, and ride in the direction of the course to look for Caselli. "Then we landed at race mile 798, talked to a SCORE official and confirmed that Kurt hadn't gone by," Kallonen said. Caselli should have passed that location by around 3:10 p.m., but nobody there had seen him. "We knew we were looking from 780 to 798, and we got back up in the air. We'd been flying for well over an hour and had little gas left. We did one more pass, backwards from 798."
The pilot informed Kallonen that the helicopter was dangerously low on fuel. It was also nearing sundown and the choppers are required by law to be on the ground after nightfall. "We had no choice but to leave the area and land the helicopter," he said. "Everyone was 100 percent focused on finding Kurt. We did everything in our power. But we could not find him."
Meanwhile, Baja Pits president Carlos Orozco was manning a support pit at the road crossing at 798. Shortly after 4 p.m., he said he received a call from Bob Steinberger, a man known as "The Weatherman," who monitored and trafficked communication from atop Mount Diablo during the 1000. "He said, 'We have a rider lost around race mile 796 and you're the closest pit,'" Orozco said. "He knew I'd have a rider and a bike for that reason, in case someone ran out of gas or was in trouble."
That afternoon, his rider, a volunteer, was Ken Kosiorek, a San Diego man known in off-road racing circles as the "Baja Turtle," for racing the Baja 1000 solo nine years in a row. "I said, 'Ken, go out there and find him," Orozco said. "Go against the course, but be careful because you'll have guys flying at 80 to 90 miles per hour. I thought he'd be back in 10 to 15 minutes. When he didn't come back for a while, I knew something was wrong."
We had no choice but to leave the area and land the helicopter. Everyone was 100 percent focused on finding Kurt. We did everything in our power. But we could not find him.Antti Kallonen
ACCORDING TO DATA pulled from the logger on Caselli's bike, at 2:59 p.m., he was accelerating through race mile 791 … 51 mph … 59 mph … 63 mph. It was a smooth, fast section of the course, a flat, dusty trail with a slight bend to the right. For about 100 yards, the trail is lined with pinyon pines, set about 5 feet back from the path. At race mile 792 -- a more accurate location than the SPOT tracker had identified to those watching online -- Caselli's bike stopped moving. Three minutes after Udall's crash and only 11 minutes after taking the bike from Ramirez, he crashed.
The next day, while examining his bike, Caselli's teammates discovered long, multicolored animal hair matted into the right throttle and side panel near the radiator, as well as some damage to the same areas. Riders reported seeing coyote on that section of the course on race day, and then there was that buckskin horse.
Although no animal was found near the accident site, Caselli's teammates and team manager said they believe he tried to avoid the animal, but hit it, lost control of the bike and rode off the course toward a tree. Marks on the tree indicated he hit it, likely with his body, was separated from the bike and landed in the brush underneath its branches. According to the bike's data logger, the bike continued to move in the opposite direction of the course for two minutes before stopping several yards from Caselli.
At 3:26 p.m., 27 minutes after Caselli's crash, Honda rider Colton Udall's tracker showed he passed the crash site going 70 mph, accelerating through the section. He said he never saw Caselli or his bike, and he and his team were not yet aware KTM was searching for their rider. At 3:26 p.m., Udall, Campbell and the Honda team -- eventual winners of their 17th straight Baja 1000 -- believed Caselli had a lead of nearly 30 minutes.
Orozco could not confirm exactly when after 4 p.m. Kosiorek spotted Caselli, but Orozco says Kosiorek reported that Caselli was breathing but in bad shape when he found him. He told Orozco that Caselli's helmet was sitting on the ground next to him, unscathed except for a broken visor and a few scratches, a fact also confirmed by Ramirez. Without a sat phone, radio or the knowledge that there was a SPOT tracker with an SOS button on Caselli's bike, Kosiorek had no way to call for help.
Kosiorek was a Baja enthusiast and race volunteer, not a trained medic or emergency rescue professional. He would have to leave Caselli to get help. According to Orozco and others, Kosiorek said he moved Caselli's bike out of the brush and onto the course in hopes of grabbing the attention of the next person to ride by, then he headed back toward his pit. At 4:44 p.m., the bike's tracker shows the bike was moved east out of the brush and onto the course.
It was one hour and 45 minutes after the crash, and Caselli was still alive, according to Kosiorek's report to Orozco and Ramirez. What transpired during the time Kosiorek spent with Caselli is unknown, as he declined to be interviewed for this story. Those who know him said he is too traumatized and heartbroken for an interview.
"When he got back, Ken told me there is no way anyone riding the same direction of the race would have found Kurt if he hadn't moved his bike," Orozco said. Ten minutes later, at 4:55 p.m., according to his tracker, Kawasaki team rider Ricky Brabec, who was in third place before the crash, spotted the orange bike leaned upright against a small tree and slowed to look for its rider. He then spotted Caselli and turned around.
At almost that exact moment, Ramirez arrived at the scene, dismounted his bike and ran to Caselli. Brabec rode to Ramirez but stayed on his bike. "I told Ivan, 'Stay strong,' and I left to go get help," Brabec said. As multiple reports began to filter in at pit stops and over the radio, the next few hours were filled with confusion, false reports and misinformation.
"When I got there, it was getting dark," Ramirez said. "Kurt wasn't breathing. When I got there, he was gone."
A few minutes later, Ramirez said Kosiorek returned and stayed with him until the ambulance arrived, followed by a group of Australian spectators he had alerted a few miles up the road. Ramirez told one of them how to access the SPOT tracker on the bike and instructed him to push its SOS button. Doing so sent a message to the GEOS Emergency Response Center in Houston, and local search-and-rescue organizations were notified.
"At 5:15, we received a medical alert from Texas, from the Coast Guard, saying there was a medical emergency," Carpenter said. The Weatherman then called out a "code red" over the radio, initiating an emergency response to the GPS location pinged by the tracker. But by then, it was too late. Caselli had succumbed to his injuries. According to the autopsy report, he suffered no head trauma and died of internal injuries.
"In those minutes when I was alone with Kurt, I started praying. Praying for his mom, for his fiancée and for his sister," Ramirez said. "While I was with him one last time, I thought of all the happy, beautiful moments I'd had with him. He was my hero."
SATURDAY NIGHT, one day after the race, Kallonen called Ramirez and told him he wanted to make a memorial for Caselli at the crash site. "We went to buy flowers, but all the shops in Ensenada were closed," Ramirez said. "So we called my dad. He has an employee who welds, and he said he could do something." It was nearly 11 p.m. When Ramirez arrived at his dad's shop the next morning before driving out to the site, he found a metal cross with the words, "Kurt Caselli 1983-2013," waiting for him. "He stayed up all night to finish it," Ramirez said.
That afternoon, Kallonen and Ramirez placed the cross and several photographs under the tree at race mile 792 where Caselli was found. "It's a beautiful place," Ramirez said. "It will be a good place to stop by and spend hours." Later that day, Kendall Norman and a friend made the same pilgrimage from Ensenada, visiting the accident site hoping to find closure and peace. "It was a really hard day," Norman said. "But it helped to go see the site for myself." Many of Caselli's friends and riding buddies repeated this ritual over the next two weeks.
Back at home a few days after the crash, White walked downstairs to find two riders, friends of Caselli's from Japan, standing in the entry to the Palmdale home she shared with Caselli. "They said when they heard, they didn't know what else to do," White said. "So they got on a plane and came here." Their home has been a steady stream of visitors ever since.
In the weeks and months to come, the decisions made in the search to find Kurt Caselli will be scrutinized and second-guessed, race plans dissected and tough questions asked. Lessons learned from this tragedy will lead to improvements in safety precautions and search-and-rescue techniques. SCORE is already testing the use of two trackers per team in 2014; one will be placed on the bike and a second will be carried by the riders and handed off at each exchange. "The technology available to us is moving at a rapid pace," Roger Norman says. "There will be more changes as a result of what happened at this race."
Adds Kallonen: "SCORE has taken a big step forward on safety, and it's a shame this did not bring us the result we wanted. This touched us so closely."
As memorial rides are held and Caselli's family works with KTM and FMF Racing to create The Caselli Foundation in his honor, KTM will decide the future of the Baja program it built around him. Ramirez says he wants to win Baja next year in Caselli's honor. But first, he plans to organize a ride to finish what he, his teammates and Caselli started on Nov. 14. "I want to ride those last 90 miles for Kurt," he says, "I want to finish his race." And celebrate the beautiful ride that was the 30 years and 138 days leading up to race mile 792.