Behind the Iron Curtain of the “Hall of Fame” Legend
Tonight in a sprawling rancho just outside Ensenada, BAJA California, Mexico the famed walls of the Mad Dog’s CarreraCantina will have an addition to the most celebrated and honored faces in the history of off road racing. Johnny “11-Time” Campbell will join the ranks of Ivan Stewart, Malcolm Smith, Walker Evans and the other rightful legends in the Baja Legacy Hall of Fame. “Simply put, it is the time for Johnny”, explained Todd Clement, owner of the Horsepower Ranch, “What Johnny has accomplished is unprecedented and his time to be honored is now. Just racing in the Baja 1000 is crazy enough, but to win 11 times at insane speeds on a bike is beyond explainable, Johnny is a living Baja Legend”.
There are two sides to Johnny Campbell: There is the Johnny “11-time Baja 1000 ‘True Champion’ Legend of Baja-JCR” Campbell, who’s depicted in the films “Dust to Glory” and his biography “True Champion”.
Then there is the other side of Johnny “John” Campbell, who is a deeply spiritual and private man routing the next phase of his life, which as we have learned, may have a much more lasting and meaningful effect on the people who adore him most, the citizens of Baja CA, the country where Campbell created and continues his legacy.
For those unfamiliar with Campbell’s resume and history, the films “Dust to Glory” and “True Champion” are a must to see. They accurately tell the story of the first side of Campbell, who at the age of 16 suddenly lost his father and best friend John Sr. while racing in Riverside. The story is direct and simple: He decided to be a champion for his late father and stopped at nothing short of letting any obstacle stand in the way of his simple (but not easy) goal. The story goes on to tell the tale of the most committed racer any of his peers will have ever seen. His commitment had never been questioned. Chuck Miller and, later, Bruce Ogilvie had groomed him, but Johnny put in all the effort through an unwavering and proven work ethic. That was a trait Campbell credits his late father for instilling in him. Johnny’s history and legacy is required knowledge for anyone racing in Baja and the story is widely told throughout all desert racing North America.
There is an entire genre of off-road dirt biking dedicated to the immortal “King of Baja”, the HONDA XR650R, which Johnny and his long time partner Steve Hengeveld have made immortally eternal. It is still unchanged, yet out of production, after 11 years and considered by many to be the choice for riding proficiency up and down the legendary Baja Peninsula. Although the race bike of choice is the smaller displaced CRF450X.
“That bike (the XR650) was in development for quite a long time before hand and usually Bruce would bring me into the project pretty late in the game just because he knew I was racing. The first time I rode that thing, must’ve been 98-ish, R&D was working on it, I told Bruce, ‘If I had this motor, I’d win every race.’ The chassis went back a few times before they got it right so it came out a little later than they’d anticipated.” In 2008, HONDA stopped producing the XR650R. The bike was so perfectly suited for that era that not a single part had ever been changed during its 8 years off the assembly line. “The 650 was a purpose built machine that was built for one thing: Baja”
Currently, Johnny runs the race team that bears his name and continues to insulate his legacy through the grooming and development of his stable of new champions, Kendall Norman, Quinn Cody, Colton Udall and the late Jeff “Ox” Kargola.
The riders who make up the JCR roster are expected to live up to that same dedication and determination, which makes them JCR material to begin with. From there, Campbell let’s his riders write their own books from that initial foundation of excellence. JCR has been compared accurately to the New York Yankees of Baja due to their total and outright dominance of the record books for nearly 2 decades. Although they have the most resources in the their class, JCR HONDA is still somewhat limited and, as a manager, Campbell has to stretch the resources as JCR expands its revenue sources. “Selfless is part of the key of any team”. Johnny is not without challenge and dilemma on many scales, not the least of which is providing a proper lifestyle for his “best friend”, his wife Faye and their two young children. “There’s so many different directions we can take this thing that it’s just gonna come down to picking the one that makes the biggest impact for everyone.
But the private side of “John” is a story rarely seen and never before told to the media. RDC went behind the iron curtain of Johnny Campbell Racing’s impressive facility in San Clemente to delve into that “other side” of the “True Champion.” We were granted unlimited access to the world of JCR and let inside the heart and mind of this often times mysterious and misunderstood champion.
“I came out clean”, Campbell begins, “I figure I raced professionally for 17 years and I don’t have anything left to prove in that arena. I don’t have the desire to do that anymore. I’ve been knocked out in Baja, 3 broken collarbones, 5 concussions, a broken scapula; I’ve torn both knees and had multiple fractures in both ankles, wrists.” There was also the more recent broken back during testing for 2009 Baja 1000, which was successfully concealed from any media exposure. “We kept it pretty low-pro and out of the headlines.” Campbell is a man of very few words and takes time to carefully choose them. He cheated death for nearly 2 decades in Baja doing something that can cripple or kill you. He crossed his final finish line as rider of record in Ensenada in the early hours of a November morning in 2008.
VIDEO OF JOHNNY’S 11th BAJA 1000 VICTORY IN 2008
He explains his spirituality and how he discovered his relationship with Christ on his own accord at summer camp in Vista CA before the age of 9. “I was really young. I had an acknowledgment like yea I know who Jesus is.” He explains that, “We never really get everything until…well you never really get everything, it isn’t until junior high where you’re really at that age to make the commitment. That’s been with me my whole life, even though you do some things you’ll regret.” Because they were off roaders at heart, they (The Campbell’s) never had a regimented weekly church schedule growing up but as Campbell explains it, “I’ve always had that foundation with different times and seasons of growth. Sometimes you go through a dry season”
Johnny is at a cross roads in his life and in his career and he will no longer twist the throttle and risk all for additional championships. Although it is likely he will continue, as he has since his last overall victory in 2008, to suit up at each race for his JCR team. “Just like Bruce used to do for us, I’m signed up on the entry forms and arm banded to help out if one of the (JCR) bikes has trouble and need to get the bike to the next rider.”
The key for Johnny Campbell in the next phase of his life is to leverage his legacy for the better of all people, not just those of Baja. He is determined, as he was before, but this time he’s determined to not let his fame and notoriety fall into obscurity like so many others who’s names don’t even come to mind anymore. Instead, Johnny is thinking non-linear in terms of spreading his message throughout Baja and beyond. Johnny has a “dream board” in the boardroom at JCR, where he has simply thrown some ideas up on the wall. It’s not easy for him to pinpoint any one specific target yet because his message and story can go in so many different directions beyond any imminent ministry he’ll create, here or in Baja. “I don’t want to run this thing (JCR) as if it’s dependent on HONDA continuing the program. I’m running it to be able to run itself under any circumstance, so we are looking at all options into the future.”
There are opportunities for Johnny to speak to large audiences and spread his success story and the idea of “no obstacle too high” throughout high schools and even out into fortune 500 companies. We can picture Johnny Campbell on stage motivating an entire sales force to break through tough barriers and foster team building with his “True Champion” message of commitment, perseverance and passion. We can see Johnny making the key difference for a troubled teen or helping an aspiring champion see their own way to triumph. We can see Johnny giving someone hope where it would otherwise evade.
But foremost on his mind and in his heart is to continue sharing his bond with Jesus, and this is not even a question of if, but how? Anywhere he travels in Baja, he is instantly recognized, for one thing because off-road is Baja’s national sport and another is that Christianity flourishes there. Soccer and baseball are huge in Mexico, but off road is the national pastime of Baja and Johnny Campbell is the Michael Jordan of that country. When Johnny shows up, people of all ages approach him and he is ready with a Sharpie and stack of decals. He is not the type of person to seek this attention and notoriety, but he has no choice. It is an unintended consequence of being the most winning motorcycle racer in the history of off road. Sometimes Johnny would rather have anonymity in Mexico, he admits, but he’ll always have a stack of stickers and a pen ready to go and won’t let his adoring fans be disappointed. He speaks very little Spanish but would seem likely to learn much more as he moves forward.
We listened to Johnny talk about the uncertainty of his future and witnessed the remarkable posture he has about the unknown, “I have just let it go and know that Jesus will guide me forward the same way he guided me here.” Johnny seems like he is at the helm of his ship and is at ease as he gets a better idea for the course he will sail. He sits casually at the head of the table in his board room, sure as can be, that he will not let his legacy fall by the wayside. He has been given this gift, an opportunity to create something for these people (of Baja) and to share his experiences beyond those borders with no limits.
“I want to experience more of that sharing, being used in that way makes you feel alive, really good. To me it’s like winning a race when you see a kid give his life to Christ.”
Johnny has some decisions to make and some choices on the path he’ll take in the seasons to come and he seems grounded and faithful in his future fate as though he is already on a course that has been laid out for him. There is no figurative “Pre-Run for the rest of his life. He is a champion in all respects but to those closest to him that call him a friend or family member, they will tell you that Johnny Campbell is a champion at being a human being before anything else. RDC will attest to this ultimate victory: Johnny Campbell is very “for real” as a man and that makes him the ideal role model for his peers, his riders and all of his adoring fans. That’s why they call him the “True Champion.”
“I try to look at things eternally more than I do in the present because life is so short and knowing that there is life after death, I’m comfortable that God has grace on us and that’s how I maintain my life. You gotta work hard and think beyond the 60 or 80 years we’re here and look at the impact we can have on peoples’ lives.
We asked Johnny what would be the one thing he would do in Baja as a way to return the favor and the many blessings he’s received in there. He didn’t hesitate at all to describe his one big thing.
“While there’s multiple things we can do in Baja that are good, but the best thing is for Johnny Campbell to stay involved in Baja, not just in one thing, but to continue to support Baja through going down and being there, riding, touching the fans and giving the people hope.”