When the Johnny Campbell Racing Honda team announced that it would be ending its competitive efforts in SCORE Baja races to pursue the AMSOIL Grand National Cross Country Series, it didn’t take long for another Honda team to step up and continue the dominance that Big Red has enjoyed on the Mexican peninsula.
Formed by former JCR riders Colton Udall and Mark Samuels, Ox Motorsports pretty much picked up where JCR left off, which makes sense because both men were on the team when JCR pulled the plug on its Baja program. The Ox team suffered a loss in the 2014 Baja 1000 while getting its own program up to speed, but Udall, Samuels and Company have enjoyed pretty smooth sailing since then. The team has racked up wins in the 2015 and 2016 editions of the event as well as the SCORE Desert World Championship both years. The 2017 season started off as business as usual for the team when it came out and won the 2017 San Felipe 250. A crash in the Baja 500 ended the team’s win streak, but they’re still even money for the Baja 1000 in November.
Why? Because in addition to featuring the talents of such riders as Udall, Samuels, Damon Skokie, Ryan Penhall, Nic Garvin and Ray Dal Soglio on the team, Ox Motorsports has its Honda CRF450X-based race program down to a science.
While Honda has released the much higher-tech CRF450RX in 2017, Ox Motorsports continues on with one of the most tried-and-true models in Big Red’s off-road line-up, the carbureted, EPA-legal CRF450X. So, why not change to the newer model? As Udall, who has nine years of experience with the CRF450X puts it, why would the team want to change from a known winner in the CRF450X to an unknown quantity in the CRF450RX?
“We have a contract with American Honda, and they provide us with CRF450X’s,” Udall said. “The CRF450RX was developed more for GNCC racing. We had a meeting with them, asking them if they wanted us to race the RX this year, and they said they wanted us to continue to push the X until they felt that the RX was the bike to race in Mexico. Honda moves deliberately. Besides that, the X is the ultimate motorcycle for Baja. Its chassis is, by far, the most stable I’ve ever ridden. It is tremendously flexible. It eats up the bumps, and it is more nimble than anything else in its weight class.”
Naturally, prepping Honda’s green-sticker-legal, open-class CRF450X takes some work—the machines that OX Motorsports rides into battle aren’t merely warmed-over stock machines. Each bike headed for Baja is thoroughly disassembled, and a host of trick, although mostly obtainable, parts and pieces are included to transform the CRF450X from a mild-mannered trailbike into a fire-breathing, ground-gobbling off-road endurance beast.
“It pretty much goes into a million pieces, really,” Udall said of each race bike the team readies for racing. “The motor, the transmission, everything just goes all the way down because we want to check things like the set screws on the main bearings [in the engine]. They are always tight, but you have to be sure. We just rebuild everything from there.”
To achieve the reliability the team requires for the brutal Baja races, the stock crankshaft is trued and rebalanced before a stock rod is fitted to it and it is placed back in the thoroughly examined engine cases. Udall said that lately the team has been experimenting with some different parts for its forthcoming rally efforts, but the Baja bike prep has pretty much followed the same blueprint for years.
“The stock cranks last a long time—certainly for 1000 miles,” Udall said.
As for the top end, there are more changes made, although even they aren’t as radical as Ox Motorsports’ win record.
“We run the stock compression ratio,” Udall said. “We can run on pump gas, but we run a 75/25 mix of F&L SP-3 race gas and 91 Chevron pump gasoline. That’s what Honda’s chemists suggest and that’s I learned from Johnny [Campbell]. But the cylinder head is from a 2008 Honda CRF450R because the intake porting is much larger than the X head, and the valves are like 1mm larger. The camshaft is from the 2002 Honda CRF450R because it gives the engine good mid-range and really good overrev. You can hold it wide open without hitting the rev limiter, and it is more of a free-revving motor whereas the stock motor feels a little bound up when you get on the gas.”
The stock airbox is also cut up to more closely resemble the openings of a CRF450R airbox, and the stock carburetor is re-jetted with a 45 pilot jet, a 178 main jet and an NCYS needle in the middle position. There is also a pink wire that gets swapped in the harness to free up even more revs. Even so, Udall added that the engine changes don’t make the 450X into some unruly animal.
“It’s not some radical powerband,” Udall said. “KTMs probably pull harder, but this is a package that was developed by Johnny to be useable and to put the power to the ground.”
Part of that power comes from a well-proven Pro Circuit exhaust system that the team has been using for years.
“They actually call it the JCR Race Edition, and it definitely adds horsepower compared to other exhaust systems we’ve tried. The Pro Circuit exhaust rips from the bottom all the way to the top. There are some things in that exhaust that are unique.”
The stock CRF450X transmission is also taken apart, carefully inspected and put back in the cases. There are no internal mods, such as ratio changes, but the final gearing is altered to suit the terrain.
“We use 15/47 most of the time,” Udall said. “Stock is 13/51. The motor pulls the 15 countershaft pretty good most of the time. It is a very comfortable feel. You can run a 48 [on the back], but we feel that 47 is the ideal gearing. It won’t quite pull a 46 out of the corners the way we like, and the 48 is a little too tight. Sometimes we will put a 48 on there, though.”
Beyond that, the team adds small things such as heat tape on the radiator hoses to better combat any potential coolant boiling issues and chicken wire over the radiators to prevent damage when striking a bush.
Ox Motorsports utilizes AHM Factory Services to dial-in the suspension on its racebikes. The fork and shock are torn down, inspected for any flaws and then re-valved, sprung with the stock Honda CRF450X springs and rebuilt to Ox Motorsports specs, incorporating Showa A-Kit suspension internals.
“We’re pretty much looking for a soft setup where we can use all the stroke,” Udall said. “You want it to be pretty plush, but you also want it to stand up through some of the G-outs and the hard hits. If you go too stiff it becomes deflective in high-speed sections. If you go too soft, it wallows. Johnny used to always tell the suspension guy that he’d like it to bottom once per mile. [laughs] Most of the time you’re going in on the clickers. We’re heavier riders, and I ride the bike really hard. It’s all about finding happiness by using the high-speed adjusters.”
When the night falls, the team relies on Baja Designs for its lighting needs.
“We base our lighting off of their power package off their rewound stator, but we do change a few things.”
When it comes to the chassis, the team uses triple clamps from two different sources, XTrig and BRP. Other departures from stock parts include BRP chain sliders, Pro Taper sprockets and DID chains. Fuel is carried in IMS tank, and the team uses a Moto Seat with a pocket in the front to carry its SpotTracker. IMS footpegs are used to secure the rider’s feet. A P3 carbon skid plate protects the undercarriage. MSR Hard Parts handguards protect the rider’s knuckles.
Oh yes, and A’ME grips.
“Right,” Udall said. “I’m a huge advocate of full-waffle grips. Some people don’t like them, but they sort of create a suspension all their own, which helps reduce fatigue. Also, Jamie Campbell at RACECO helps us out by doing things like fabricating the brackets for our transponders.”
Besides the clamps, the only really noticeable departure from the stock CRF450X frame can be found on the swingarm, which has an extra horseshoe-shaped gusset just ahead of the rear wheel. Udall didn’t want to talk about it, but it’s obvious that the gusset is intended to stiffen up the chassis for the warp speed velocities the team hits when racing in Baja.
Tires are Michelin Desert Racer models. The rear tire measures 140/80-18, and the front measures 90/90-21.
“Stock rear is like 110/100-18, but the Michelins are sized differently, so they are not as wide as they sound,” Udall said. “We use the stock brake components. We really don’t want too much bite, and the stock pads and rotors work really well.”
But even though the Ox Motorsports Honda CRF450X race bikes don’t feature a mountain un-obtanium trick parts, Udall said that most people don’t need to even go as far as the team does in order to wind up with a good-running CRF450X from any year.
“What most people would really want to do is what I would call a ‘pre-runner’ package,” Udall said. “Cut the airbox. Get the carb jetting dialed-in. Get a smog block-off. Get a Scott’s steering stabilizer and a triple clamp with a 22mm offset. Otherwise, leave it alone. As far as durability, it’s a great bike. It’s just very well developed, and you can’t really go wrong with it.”
That’s a sentiment shared by fellow Ox Motorsports team member, Mark Samuels, Ryan Penhall, Nic Garvin and Ray Dal Soglio.
“It’s a really comfortable bike,” Penhall said. “It doesn’t have that snappy torque like a motocross bike, and you really don’t want that because it just saps your energy. It’s really stable, it’s fast, and it’s really reliable.”
Dal Soglio said that with the experience he’s gained on the CRF450X, he has actually had a tough time getting used to the new CRF450R that he uses at local GPs and the like.
“The X just tracks so well,” Dal Soglio said. “It’s really predictable, and it handles really well.”
“Obviously, the motor and chassis are the best quality, and the components that we add just make for a really good package,” Samuels said. “It’s one of the best bikes built for desert racing. It’s over 10 years old, and yet it still competes with and beats bikes with much newer technology. It’s one of the best off-road bikes ever, and it is the best off-road bike for Baja.”
It also doesn’t hurt that the Ox Motorsports Honda CRF450X is campaigned by one of the best teams ever to turn a tire on the Baja peninsula.