Upshift recently got to ride with off-road legend Scot Harden.
We sat down over dinner after a long day on the trail to ask Scot about bikes, racing, and rally
Upshift: How do you see the state of play with the current bikes?
Scot Harden: Well, we were talking about some of the new rally bikes that are coming on the market and how some of them seem to be a little bit strange in terms of just their execution especially this movement towards small-250cc displacement rally bikes. When I first started doing rallies in '87 and '88, I went to Europe with Danny LaPorte. We had a French hair products company that sponsored us through the French Husqvarna distributor. We did two of the next tier rallies below Dakar - the Rally de L'Atlas, and the Djerba Rally in Tunisia. What struck me then was what was popular with the younger riders in Paris. We spent a lot of time in France over two years there off and on. You see all these 80cc and 125cc bikes with eight-gallon tanks on them. They would kind of morph these big, giant tanks onto these little bikes to make it look like a Dakar bike of that era. Some of those 125's could probably be ridden for six months on a tank of fuel. But I think the main reason they are coming back now is the Japanese think that there's some sort of market out there globally for these products. Most likely has something to do with license, insurance and import duties based on displacement. Unfortunately I don’t think there's much of a market for them in the United States. Customers are too sophisticated over here. We buy bikes for a different reason and we're too sophisticated as buyers. I just don't see how that's going to really transfer into sales in the U.S. My question is: When is somebody going to make a real 450cc(or 500 for that matter) production rally bike that a customer can buy? Something that looks like a real rally bike, that has the fuel cells, and all the stuff, but it's a street legal dual sport bike. Will it have the performance of a factory rally bike? No. By the time you go through all the homologation and EPA stuff and you get everything-- and all the other NHTSA stuff you have to do it. But man, it could be pretty darn close -- still make a pretty darn cool bike.
Upshift: Well, so some of the trails we rode today, we're on KTM 1190s and that's a pretty big bike, but they're still really capable in the trails that we were on today. Do you think it's time that somebody came out with kind of an 1190 looking bike, but with 800cc, and 100 pounds lighter?
SH: Well, that's the holy grail of adventure riding and if you talk to any real adventure enthusiast they’ve probably gone through the whole spectrum. A lot of the current adventure enthusiasts started off on an off-road bike. Then they went to a dual sport bike, and they love and appreciate the utility, the lightweight and the places they can go. But then they want to do adventure riding and they see the deficiencies when you get these on big open roads and highways. And how buzzy single cylinder motors are and that they just don't seem to work very well at sustained runs from 70 up to 110, they're having to strain to do that.
So everybody goes the other way and what's the next best offering you can get? Well, it's now an 1190 KTM or maybe an 800 GS or something like that. Now for a while there, it was a big single, a 650cc single. A Honda XR or a KTM 640 LC4 or something like that, but those engine configurations, they just couldn't get the sustained highspeed performance out of them. The nice, vibration free, sustained running where it can really pull. So everybody's trying to find this holy grail. Well, is it an 800 or is it a 650 or a 700. Husky has that 701 which is really just a glorified 690 KTM. Let’s face it you can only do so much with one piston, its almost like it needs to be a twin.
Upshift: Like a twin 800?
SH: A twin 700 or something like that, or twin 600 even, if you think about it. Just something that would get it to where you could have the motor work for you the way you want to, like you appreciate on a big dual sport where you have that torque and the motor doesn’t feel like it's revving its guts out. And that you could feel like you could put stuff on it so you could do an actual trip on it. Right now it’s still a big compromise. The closest thing that you could get to that would be a 450(or maybe make it a 500cc) Rally bike right now, I think. You can build one of those up and have a nice bike that would fulfill that. It still wouldn’t quite meet the sustained high speed and highway riding needs. That’s why we ride 1190s, and those are probably the best handling, the best you can get in that category, that big twin displacement adventure bike. If we'd been on anything else but those today, then we wouldn't have had near the fun that we had. It would have been a lot more work, probably some more drama, blood, sweat, and tears. As it was though, some of the sand sections we rode through were right on the edge with those things. What’s the answer? I’m sure somebody is thinking about this. Afterall the Adventure market is the only truly growing market in the US.
Upshift: You talked about racing with Danny LaPorte.
SH: Danny is the best. My first trips over to Europe were with Danny, and he's just the greatest. He's just got a great attitude and a great heart and he is as smart as they come. Plus everybody knew him over there. He was already a world motocross champion, so every door was open for us. I was just tagging along with him taking advantage of being in his shadow. But when it came time to race, I was very competitive and had a lot of success right out of the gate. The first rally I rode, the Atlas Rally in Morocco I won two or three stages, and the Grand Prix de Marrakesh at the end against all the top European riders at the time. And then the next rally, the Djerba rally in Tunisia I won overall. That was in '87. By the way that’s also the race I learned how dangerous rallies could be as three Dutch pilots died from dehydration after getting lost. I went back in '88 and got second overall at the Atlas Rally which was probably the second biggest rally at the time racing against Gaston Rahier, Gilles Lalay, Cyril Neveu, and Marc Morales, and all the other top European riders. Had to race all of those guys. I got second. Gaston was third. I had to battle him for three or four days. We ran a couple minutes apart, and I was trying to get a win there. I was really trying to prove myself even though I was riding for what were essentially privateer teams. I'd won Baja and every other big off road race in the states. I'd done everything in the States that I could do off road-wise. I followed up with another podium finish at the Incas Rally in Peru later that year. I thought I was on my way to Dakar but in the end I just couldn’t overcome all the politics between the manufacturers and the tobacco sponsors.
Upshift: But Baja was before you did the rally events?
SH: Yes. My transition was from being a punk kid in Las Vegas going out and watching races like the Mint 400 and Barstow to Vegas. Going to the finish line and watching all my heroes, Malcolm, JN, Max Switzer and others as a kid, and then watching “On Any Sunday” at the same time. After that movie came out, it was like being given a road map.
I mean in OAS there was Baja and Six Days and Elsinore and all these great adventures. You got to go places, Have amazing adventures, and since I was already starting to race desert, I said to myself, "Well, that's it, I'm going to do that!". I progressed through the ranks, won my first professional race, the SNORE 250 in 1973 and finished 3rd overall out of 3700 riders at the ’73 BtoV and finally got the attention of Team Husky a couple of years later. Once on the team, I quickly started winning races overall, and my first Baja 1000 in '77. I was racing against Larry Roeseler, Jack Johnson, AC Bakken, Bruce Ogilvie, Al Baker a lot of really tough guys. Back in that day there was a really deep talent pool at those events, there was always some future legend of the sport that you had to race against, guys like Chuck Miller, Bob Ballantine, Bob Rutten, Tom Kelly and later Dan Ashcraft and Dan Smith. There were just a lot of really good racers at that time. I competed non-stop through the '70s, and into the early '80s, and by the middle '80s I'd won the Baja 1000 twice overall, the Parker 400 twice and the Las Vegas 400 four times overall. I'd been second overall a bunch of times. I'd won the Baja 500 three times overall. All together something like 14 overalls at major offroad events and probably as many second overalls or more. I was used to being in the hunt. My racing partner and I - - set a SCORE record I think that may still stand, maybe, for the most consecutive SCORE overalls in a row. I think it was four, maybe five.
Upshift: Who was your partner?
SH: Brent Wallingsford. I was really lucky to be teamed with him. We were a perfect match. He was super fast and consistent and very even tempered. Nothing rattled him. I can’t remember but between ‘77 and ‘78 we won four SCORE events overall, starting with 77 Baja 1000, then the 78 Mexicali 300, then the Baja 500 and finally the Parker 400. I raced SCORE events all the way through the middle of the '80s, and then it was at the end of the '80s that I got this urge to go try rallies. But this was only after I rode three consequtiveISDEs from 1980-82 in France, Italy and Czechoslovakia. I did the Roof of Africa Rally in '83. Won the first day overall by 20 minutes but hit a dog before the finish line. I broke my wrist 10 miles out. So I won the first day overall by 20 minutes but I couldn't ride the second day. That was kind of a big disappointment. In '86 I left Husky. I'd been working for Husky since 82 as Sales Manager and when they were purchased by Cagiva, I worked for them for about six months. That was a very difficult period a tough, tough time. At th end of ’86 I ended up leaving the company that meant everything to me since I was a kid. I had nothing to do when Danny called me up and we went over and did our first raid rallies for two years with the idea of trying to win Dakar. I really wanted to win Dakar. I had international experience because I'd done three ISDEs. I was on the U.S. Trophy Team, the highest-finishing trophy team at that point. We got second overall in '82 in Czechoslovakia. We should have won that year. We got cheated out of the overall. We had it. We got cheated out of the overall. There's a great book out on it by Paul Clipper. It's a pretty interesting read about everything that went down. Anyway I kept transitioning the scope of my racing activities. I got tired of doing Baja. After 12 years of doing it and not missing an event, I was looking for something else to do? My fear of getting hurt down there was starting to creep up me. I had kids by then. So I went to Africa and raced. Yeah that was much safer! But I had a goal in mind and I really wanted to try Dakar and then when I couldn't get on one of the factory teams because I wasn't French or Italian, remember there was big money back then with the tobacco money. Those guys were getting paid $175,000 to start Dakar, just to start. With Rothmans and Lucky Strike and Marlboro and all of those things, they were making big money, but it was the Italian Lucky Strike Cagiva team, and it was the French Rothmans or Gauloise Honda team and it was Gaston Rahier Suzuki team with the Marlboro money. I just couldn't get on a team. And so I came back home after all of that. I'd been on the podium in three out of my first four rallies. I'd won a rally overall. I knew I could do it with the right backing. Oh well!
I came back to the States in July ‘88. I’d been gone a lot and Rod Bush called me up and asked if I wanted a job at KTM. And so then I started a great 20 years with them. Regardless of my corporate responsibilities at KTM I still raced everything I could even put together a Baja team for them and hired Danny Hamel and Dan Smith. I raced Best in the Desert, Pikes Peak, raced practically every weekend through the ‘90s somewhere, but mostly locally all through that period until 2003 when KTM approached me and said, "Hey, ASO, the Dakar promoters wonder why there's no Americans in Dakar. We need to have an American presence in Dakar. KTM was really putting an effort into Dakar by then and Red Bull was willing to put up the money if we put together an American team for publicity. Heinz Kinigadner and Stefan Pierer came to me in July or August and wanted to do it that year. I said, "Well, listen, in the time we have available, I can't pick a young rider and train them or do anything with them. So what I'll do is I'll get three veteran riders. So we built a three-man team, of the top veteran US riders I could find, Larry Roeseler, Paul Krause, and Casey McCoy. They were guys that I knew would get to the finish line and if they finished, we could have some great publicity, these were guys with some skins on the wall, who had won just about everything a million times. We’ll take these guys, and I'll manage the team. By then I figured I was too old and didn’t want to race. I just didn’t want to suffer that much. It's too dangerous. I wasn’t in that good of shape. I was 48 at the time and I just thought, "I'll go over and manage and help in anyway I can." So we get everything ready and in December, three weeks before the rally, we fly to Tunisia to test the bikes, and do all our publicity photos and everything, and off we go to make final preparations. We're almost done and on the very last day of testing, the factory was doing durability testing with one of the 950 twins. The actual test was pretty neat, hairball crazy, but neat. They had this track at The Chott el Djerid, the dry lake near their base in Douz, Tunisia. It wasn’t your typical dry lake bed, it wasn't hard packed, it was actually pretty soft. I mean, your tires sank down almost to the axle when you first started out until you got up to speed. At 90- 100 miles an hour the bike would kind of plane up on top of this stuff. They measured it and it was like 30 kilometers around this thing. So they'd go out there and do a hot lap, testing how much heat the motor was building up, the clutches, durability testing, etc.. Each time one of the Rally guys would get on it and try to set a fast lap around the dry lake.
When we got there, there were all these tracks around the edges of the dry lakebed. And I mean, if you'd saw them, holy crap the tracks are like a foot deep, and so it was really wide because you were trying to not catch a rut unless you were going really, really fast. At 100 miles an hour, you could pretty much just lock in and you'd go through all that stuff somehow, but at slower speeds, you'd catch one and swap pretty hard. So Roeseler does a fast lap. And remember, it's 30 kilometers around it and it takes you about 10 minutes. I mean, I don't know what the actual time was but it wasn’t that long because you're averaging over 100 miles an hour around this thing. After his lap he said "Holy shit!" And Paul Krause does a lap and he comes back in and he goes, "Holy shit!” So I had my riding gear there and I took a lap around it. Holy shit! Every time we came around we said, "Casey you do it, Casey you do it," and he replied, "No, no, no. I don't really want to do it, that’s Ok.
This is where I wish we had all just shut up. It's actually a strange story, a sad story. We convince Casey to take a lap while the rest of us started to load things up. The day was almost finished. Our Dakar bikes had been tested, photos shot, everything was set. The next day we were to leave for home. For a while we don't hear anything, but then all of a sudden we can hear Casey and see him coming towarsd us along the edge of the lakebed along this paved road that was up on kind of a dike. They built the road on the dike to keep it up out of the lakebed and water or whatever. All of a sudden, you could see the bike and Casey just cartwheeling, and next thing you know we're all running out there. It was within a half a mile of the finish and he was flat out on the bike. He was trying to get out of of those really rutted sections, and he pulled over to the left next to the road to get out of it. But he hit a really soft pocket where water that had run off the road out of a culvert and built up, and he hit it at 100mph. And when he hit it, it ejected him. When we got there, from the soft pocket that started the crash to where he and the bike first touched the ground was like 150 feet. It was like half a football field down there almost before anything hit the ground. And then by the time he and the bike came toa stop it was almost the length of a football field. Well, Casey's leg was broken in about eight places. The bike was in a million pieces. I've never seen a bike disintegrate like that. This is a 950 Factory Rally bike. It couldn’t have been in more pieces. We're in Tunisia, we've got to get him out of there. We took a seat off of another bike, turned it upside down
and tucked it in behind his leg with the seat base against his leg and then just duct-taped it all in place. We got him back to the hotel an hour-and-a-half later. We couldn't get Life Flight or anything. We had to drive him to Tunis to get a commercial flight back to Austria and everything. Long story short. I think three days later Casey finally got into surgery. He went through went hell. We all felt really bad especially me for pushing him to take a hot lap. I wish I would have just kept quiet. Later that night, after we shipped Casey off, everybody goes, "Well, what are we going to do? Red Bull/KTM have all this money invested. We have a bike. We have a mechanic. We've got all of the visas. We've got the support truck, everything. Who could we get to ride the bike?" And then everybody just kept looking at me. And finally someone said , "Why don't you ride it?" So I called my wife up and I talked to her for a long time about it. I know this scared her to death but she has always supported me going back to '87 and '88, when my whole dream was to do Dakar and win it. It was the craziest series of events in the worls, this weird kind of fate-like thing--
15 years later, Dakar, here it is in front of me. Now, I had no delusions of winning at that point, but go ride it, try not to kill myslef, I would give it a try. I've done everything else, Six Days, Baja, international events, even other rallies. All that stuff, but the card that was dealt came as a complete surprise.
So next thing I know I’m on the starting line in Clairemont-Ferrand and a funny thing happened I rode, and man, I rode really well. By just before the halfway point I was eighth overall. The day before that I was sixth overall in a stage with some really tough navigation. Every stage, I got better. I started in the 30s, then I was in the 20’s, then the teens. Next thing I know isI‘m in the top 10, and getting close to the top 5, and everybody was freaking out. "Do you believe this?" And I go, "No, I don't know." I didn't feel in danger and I didn't feel unsafe, I was always good with the road book and it was serving me well. The more I rode the better I felt. There were some tricky navigation stages, and I did well on those. But the day before the rest stop, I made a big mistake and allowed the TV crew to mic me up. This was bad juju. They wanted me talking as I started the special test. They started asking me questions about my family. Then I got all emotional and started to lose focus. For the first time I started thinking about how well I was going to do instead of just riding. It wasn't more than 10 kilometers down the road there was this real sandy area. I was going really fast on a sandy two track trail jumping back and forth across the sandy hump in the middle when I caught my foot on the berm in the middle and it flipped under the peg. I felt something pop, and it got me in my knee and it got me in my ankle really bad. I never came off the bike, I just slowed down a little bit. It's one of those things that hurt so bad I thought, "Oh, maybe I'll just ride it out. I'll ride through it. I'll just ride and it will get better. Unfortunately I caught my toe a couple more times. Not as bad. But every time I did it, it was like, "Fuck. That hurt." I rode to the first gas stop, which was 180 miles or 200 miles in. I went to get off the bike to go get fuel and just fell down. I couldn't put any pressure on my ankle. So I had to withdraw from the event. Two days later I was back home in bed. Once you're out of the event, they get you out of there pronto. Because that's money. Actually, the way Dakar used to be run is they'd give everybody a couple of the easy stages in Morrocco. But before they got too far down into Africa they'd throw a couple of really hard stages to drop the hobby riders out of the event. It was much easier to expatriate them from Morrocco. And plus their overall profitability goes up because they don't have to schlep around all that rider’s stuff. So the 1500 people or so that are connected to the rally at the start now are down to 1,000. And then it's just 750 or so. In the end LR and Paul did an amazing job with LR finishing 12th OA and Paul finishing in the top 20 on the big 950 twin which was a superhuman accomplishment in my book. I have so much respect for those guys. They got the whole effort off to a great start.
Going in to 2005 we did it differently. We organized a rider search challenge. I invited six riders to come out. It was hard because I knew I couldn’t get America’s best desert racers because most of them were already contracted to other companies. But I sent invitations anyway. I sent one to Johnny Campbell. I sent one to Destry Abbott. I even invited Kurt Caselli who was riding for KTM at the time but he was too focused on WORCS. I sent invitations to all these guys so I could at least say I tried and they could say, "No." I was supposed to get America's best. Instead I had to really look at the best guys I could find that were available and fortunately there were some really good guys. I thought well, what guys could do it if they're selected. So Chris Blais, Kellon Walch, Andy Grider, Kenny Bartram, and Casey McCoy were all invited and they all accepted to be part of the challenge. We held a three-day competition in Dumont Dunes that was filmed for TV. Jimmy Lewis set up the tests. We were damn lucky to have Jimmy helping us. Malcolm Smith, Danny LaPorte and I served as judges. In the end we picked Blais and Walch. My only agreement with Red Bull/KTM was that I'll train these guys, but you have to let me go back and try to finish Dakar. Best way for me to train them is to ride along with them to show them how to check in, how to think, how to prepare the roadbook. I'll ride with them. I'll be there with them, every step along the way. And it was good that I was there because there were some little things that popped up with the bikes that were simple little things that I was able to fix quickly, early on, that could have led to bigger things.
So a lot of the stuff worked out. Of course, those guys were faster than me and were in front of me for the most part, but I beat Chris and Kellon at a couple of the prologues when we were in Spain. I beat them in the shorter grass track-like things, but they were much stronger in the long special tests. In the end, Chris ended up doing really well. He was a natural. He finished ninth overall, and top rookie. The following year he was fourth and the year after that on the podium, so I guess you could say we achieved our goal. In addition during that period there were more American riders in Dakar than anytime before or since so I guess we were successful on that count as well. Kellon Walch, won the final stage in 2005, the race around the lake. Unfortunately, after that, he just had a horrific series of bad accidents, broken legs, femurs, all sorts of things. He just couldn't stay healthy and his opportunity went away. His Dakar training and experience was later put to good use by Robby Gordon however as Kellon served as his navigator for several years. For me, I backed it down a little bit, was a little bit more conservative. Wanted to make sure-- but I finished. I got 17th overall. There were 250 guys entered on bikes the year that I finished. It was a highlight of my career.
Upshift: And you were, what? 49 at the time?
SH: 49 at the time, almost 50. Chris and Kellon both celebrated birthdays in Dakar and I realized then that I was older than both of them combined! So…
Upshift: No wonder you ride fast!
SH: Well, yeah [laughter]. I've been very fortunate and very blessed. I've ridden at a pretty high level for a really long time, and I've avoided serious injury for the most part. I've only had the four-week to six-week recovery thing that I've ever had to deal with, not the six-month or take the year off or whatever, or spend a month, two months in a hospital. My good friend Casey Folks told me early on, that racing desert was a thinking man’s sport and to always use my head. I’ve always tried to take that advice.