By Kenneth Olausson
Gunnar Nilsson succeeded in putting Sweden and Husqvarna on the enduro map by clinching victory in the chilli-hot Baja 1000 race three times between 1969-72. While Gunnar was dancing with God back in 1970, our reporter Kenneth Olausson was also experiencing his adventures in Mexico. Saludos amigos!
There were only a few hours of daylight left when the Cessna lands at El Arco. Indeed the provisional landing strip in the desert has been quite difficult to find despite efforts from the ground. Another sports plane misjudged the landing and is parked among the cacti. In fact some 200 light aircraft are crammed into the available space around the landing strip because the only way to follow the gruelling Baja 1000-mile race from Ensenada to La Paz is from the air. El Arco represents the halfway point of the 1500km Baja California on the very tip of Mexico.
Before the start, the 27-year old Nilsson says: "You see how it looks here, invaded by race fans. The place looks like a mixture of a Hollywood set and a war movie. In the race it's like riding with your goggles filled with a thick layer of dust. You go full blast through rocky sections and you can either get lost or go bust with a crash, or then die of thirst in this extreme heat.”
The race is 1,300km over desert and high mountains. There are no roads, no signs of where to go and certainly masses of cactus as far as you can see. These races are also long before you had access to modern navigational devices. And during the race the hot sun beats down and it’s cold at night. For me there was some time to rest but as I lay in my sleeping bag a scorpion comes to visit. After that there’s no more sleep, only instead to wait. Mexico is a country where temperaments rule. One lives for the moment and is happy for small things. And the beautiful women have a chocolate brown skin and are seductive with their dark eyes and flashing smiles.
Suddenly we hear J.N. Roberts in the vicinity. There’s no mistaking the sound of his Husqvarna. The Desert Fox is also here and he is early. Everybody's nerves are on edge. The mechanics have frantic work ahead of them in the Husqvarna camp. The stuntman from Hollywood has arrived. It is 16:16 and Gunnar Nilsson should be on his way and racing ASAP. Skilled hands quickly service the Husky. Gunnar takes out his plastic-covered map and puts it on top of his tank box. "One of the biggest tasks in the race is keeping the directions right. I ride by the moon which should be on my left side for a correct run".
Fitted out with a new rear wheel and a replaced air filter Gunnar puts on his rucksack, which contains five litres of extra fuel. His headlamp is effective for some extra light. There are 660 km to the finish in La Paz but almost immediately he is about to experience some problems. "I rode an eight-speed 400cc Husqvarna with double sprockets for high and low gear ratios. I had to stop, but language problems made it worse for me. A Mexican guy welded the two sprockets together so I lost a full hour before continuing. It was impossible to make up the time I had lost." Despite having only four gears left, Gunnar managed to close the gap by half an hour to the Husqvarna winners Mike Patrick/Bill Bowers. He finished second in the Baja bike class.
Gunnar Nilsson still held the record of his previous victory when he and his co-rider completed the entire Baja in 21 hours 35 minutes. The sport’s record books and race fans all over the world remember the Swedish Desert Fox Gunnar Nilsson, the rider who invaded Mexico after the conquistadors. With three overall wins and a second place between 1969-72 he made an astonishing impression on his ultrafast Husky in what was a whirlwind chase. Viva là Nilsson!