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Dust To Glory

At 6:36 a.m. Tuesday, a Honda CRF-450x motorcycle will roar to life and two Southern Oregon men will begin living a dream.

With a growl and ear-splitting exhaust noise, the motorcycle will blast out of Ensenada, Mexico and sprint toward Cabos San Lucas at the tip of the Baja Peninsula 1,300 miles away.

For the next 20-plus hours, six riders from Team C.O.R.E. will take turns behind the handlebars of the Honda as they battle some of the gnarliest terrain on earth. With the team's helicopter shadowing them overhead, they will dodge spectators, farm animals and nearly 450 other racers from 43 states and 16 countries in an attempt to win a race known as the Tecate Score Baja 1000.

For longtime friends and Southern Oregon residents Randy Jones and Don Hildebrand, the adventure and challenge of the event was a siren's song beckoning them to Baja to take part in perhaps the most intense off-road race in the world. As Jones says, the lure is almost impossible to ignore for two men who are relentlessly driven by the prospect of "pure adventure and fun."

The Baja 1000, now in its 40th year, is the longest point-to-point off-road race in the world. The race, which has drawn its largest field ever this year, boasts such alumni and past winners as road-racing legend Parnelli Jones and perennial off-road champion Ivan Stewart. The event has become synonymous with the sport of off-road racing, attracting 300,000-plus spectators and thousands of competitors — some of whom race as part of a team, and some who go it alone.

Beginning at daybreak on Nov. 13, some of the most technologically advanced off-road vehicles ever made will begin shooting across the Mexican landscape, leaving at 30-second intervals. The racers, piloting everything from pro-class motorcycles to stock Volkswagen Beetles, will scream along at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour in an all-out battle of mechanical know-how and human endurance. Along the way racers will test themselves and their machines against a course that is completely open (the route is in no way blocked off; traffic and spectators often become part of the course) and includes sections of working highways, downtown streets, river bottoms, silt fields, steep mountain passes and almost every imaginable terrain.

For Don Hildebrand, a chaplain who is director of pastoral services at Rogue Valley Manor, the race has been a longtime fascination. Hildebrand has been riding dirt bikes for 35 years. After seeing a film on the Baja 1000 entitled "Dust To Glory," he knew he had to be part of it.

Hildebrand and several longtime friends from Northern California set up Team C.O.R.E. (Christian Off-road Racing Enthusiasts) in 2005. Later that year they participated in the Baja 500 in preparation for this year's 1000.

If everything goes according to plan next week, Hildebrand will spend most of the race in a Robertson R-44 Astro helicopter flown by his friend, Randy Jones, who is lead pilot for Jackson County Search and Rescue. If things don't go as expected, Hildebrand will be dropped onto the course and take over the controls of the Honda.

As the team's backup rider, he has to be ready to suit up at a moment's notice if anything should happen to any of the riders along the way.

Even though the 61-year-old chaplain is in the best shape of the last 20 years, Hildebrand is apprehensive about riding.

"If I get on the bike, it will be the best of times and the worst of times," he says, noting that if he is called into action, it means something went very wrong. Inversely though, getting to participate in the Baja 1000 would be the fulfillment of a dream and an enormous challenge.

"I'm thrilled at the prospect of riding, but also plenty scared," he admits.

It was Hildebrand who enticed Jones to add his helicopter — and the veteran pilot's formidable experience — to the team. After Hildebrand gave Jones a copy of "Dust to Glory," the pilot got caught up in the excitement and adventure of the event.

"I threw a copy of the movie at him, and it was almost comical his reaction," Hildebrand says.

Jones' coming onboard was all upside. Not only did the two get to work together, but Jones' experience in the air gives the team support along the entire course, a huge asset in a race of this magnitude.

Jones will function as the team's "Eyes in the skies," providing constant safety support, while also carrying Hildebrand in case he is needed down below. The motorcycle was outfitted with a tracking device to allow Jones to keep it in sight wherever it goes.

Even though the job of chasing a motorcycle 1,300 miles across Mexico presents a "logistical nightmare," as Jones says, he had no choice. The adventure was too much to pass up.

Jones had his helicopter tuned up completely, so it will require only fuel and oil, which, in itself, is no small task in Mexico. The team will have to carry octane booster and a fuel filter to ensure that Mexican gas will be sufficient to fuel the 'copter. Jones has only a 400-mile range in his Robertson, so getting gas along the way will be a test of his planning skills.

"You have to plan to the finest detail," Jonthe chase helicopter of Randy Jones can go es says, "and have redundancies atop redundancies."

Hildebrand will film the race from the air as the two friends chase the Honda down the Baja peninsula. Team C.O.R.E. intends to produce a "full video story" that will include interviews with racers and unique footage.

"We'll have footage no one else will be able to get," Jones says.

Hildebrand and Jones share an infectious enthusiasm for the race. While they don't consider themselves favorites to win, they are absolutely certain the team will finish the race, unlike 50 percent of participants.

Both men echo the sentiment that finishing the race is winning, considering the demands and logistical rigors of such an epic adventure.

"We will finish this race as a team," Jones vows. "Failure is not an option."

Don Hildebrand, right, prepares for the 40th anniversary of the Baja 1000 as Randy Jones hovers nearby in his helicopter. - Jamie Lusch