Band of Racing Brothers: Back Swamp Racing's Quest for Baja 1000 Success

September 3, 2019 / by Mike Emery

Wiseco is proud to support Back Swamp Racing, a team of retired military veterans-turned-racers, in their efforts for the 2019 Baja 1000. We take a deep dive into their story here. Lead image: Off Road Girl Loves Baja

With over a half-century of heritage, the SCORE International Baja 1000 is regarded by many as one of the most prestigious off-road races in the world. Attracting entrants ranging from amateur to professional, aboard vehicles like dirt bikes, buggies, and high horsepower trophy trucks, the race’s ever-changing course is not for the faint of heart. For a rugged group of the retired Marines located in Back Swamp, North Carolina, it’s exactly the type of a draw and extreme challenge that a group like this looks for in search of good times. With grassroots vibes and Marine Corps pedigree, this five-rider effort and their supporting families are known only as Team Back Swamp Racing, and this is their story.


Back Swamp Beginnings

“It’s tongue and cheek.” Team originator and captain Steve Gholson says with a chuckle regarding their name, “My house is in an area called Back Swamp, North Carolina. It’s an unincorporated area, and we thought it would be funny if we were going to race the Baja 1000 and name the team Back Swamp Racing.” A long way from the hot, dusty terrain known as the Baja Peninsula, the humble beginnings of Back Swamp Racing started a decade ago when Gholson took an interest in off-road riding while still deployed. Before retirement, Gholson worked as an artillery officer with a secondary specialty of infantry officer and served countless deployments including Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Kosovo, Iraq, and many more.

It’s no secret that a life of military service means a dedication to serving your country and sacrificing some major chunks of your own free time. In fact, Gholson himself didn’t even purchase his first dual sport motorcycle until 2009 while based in Twentynine Palms, it only took one ride on a familiar trail to realize the exciting and fun capabilities of off-road bikes. “I drove it with my truck and it took over three hours, and then I tried it on the dirt bike and it took only 45 minutes.” Steve spoke with laughter of a Palm Springs to Burdue Canyon to Joshua Tree loop, “So I was hooked.”

After trying out a dirt bike while being stationed in Twentynine Palms, Steve was hooked. His need to get out and ride only grew from there.

As the love of motorcycling is infectious, Steve had to share his new hobby with his family and bought a couple of bikes along with some gear to bring home for the kids only to find out the stuff wouldn’t even fit. “That’s how long I had been away from home.” Gholson went on, “Actually, the last four years in the Marine Corps I got to see my kids for 2 weeks every 6 months because I was deployed the whole time. So, we started doing this dirt bike riding to get everybody together.” While watching Monster Energy Supercross on TV, Steve offered a trip to the Atlanta round to his son who eagerly agreed. He spoke of the night with excitement, “That was the coolest race show I have ever seen. We had these primo seats, sitting there with 70,000 other people in the Georgia Dome with fireworks going off, laser lights are going everywhere, there’s music blasting, and I’m like ‘Is this what Americans get to do?’ This is awesome! This is such an awesome country.”

The long drive home is where the inception of this Baja dream actually began when Steve’s son Donald stumbled upon the famed Baja flick From Dust to Glory as he watched movies on the iPad. “My son says, ‘Can we do this?’ and I said ‘Of course we can do this! We just need to look into it and we need to study it.” Gholson recalled. This would mark the beginning of what became Back Swamp Racing and the group’s journey to the famed Baja 1000.

The idea of racing the Baja 1000 sparked when Steve's son Donald watched 'From Dust to Glory' on their way home from his first Supercross experience in Georgia. Donald asked if Steve thought they could race that, and the studying and planning commenced.

Tactical Planning and Failure

Deciding to race a massive event like the Baja isn’t an easy task for anyone, let alone someone that has never raced anywhere. For a retired Marine, it became Steve’s new mission. Diving straight into researching the event and promoter SCORE International led Steve to find his first race to enter and learn from in 2015. “We started watching all kinds of YouTube videos, hitting all the forums, learning all about SCORE. They had a race in Imperial Valley in El Centro called the Imperial Valley 250, so I collected my buddy Jason that I had been riding with for a few years and said do you want to go out there and do this with me?” He went on, “We never planned to finish, and we didn’t plan to win, we just needed to get out there and see what SCORE was all about and experience it. What’s the racecourse like? What’s the start like? What’s the program like? What are all the procedures, and how does everything run?”

After a lot research on the internet, Steve decided to tick of his first race check box with the Imperial Valley 250 in 2015. Steve prepped his pair of CRF450Xs and him and his buddy Jason headed out Plaster City, CA to see what desert racing was all about.

Driving across the country from North Carolina to Imperial Valley, the two buddies entered and Steve would complete his first lap aboard their 2006 Honda CRF450X. Jason, however, had a small crash that caused a mechanical and they were out of the race. Because they were the only entrants in their class, the two scored enough points to place first in the race and earn 26th place in the World Desert Championship just from this one race. “Of course, at that point, we were hooked,” Steve mentioned of their elation to their first experience. Back home they went, and then the first actual steps of forming the Back Swamp Racing Team began.

Despite not finishing due to a mechanical, they ended up winning because they were the only ones in their class. Just like that, they had points in the SCORE World Desert Championship.

In 2016 and 2017, Steve began the enlistment of good friends and retired Marines, continuing Back Swamp Racing’s path toward the Baja 1000 and entering smaller SCORE events to further prepare and learn. Justin Santariga, his first team member, who had been a CH46 helicopter pilot, and retired as a UAS (unmanned aerial surveillance) drone detachment commander, joined him for the Rosarito Beach Desert Challenge in 2016.

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Steve began building the Back Swamp Racing team with other friends from the Marines, starting with Justin Santariga. Justin went from a CH46 helicopter pilot and retiring as a drone detachment commander to racing the Rosarito Beach Desert Challenge with Steve in preparation for the Baja 1000. How cool is that?

They then acquired Lou Isabelle, another retired Marine that was a combat engineer and then a civil affairs officer, and the three entered the 2017 Tijuana Desert Challenge the next year. “We went down there to see how SCORE operated in Mexico. We found out we have to have our bikes registered, we found a hotel, we found out how to do pre-running, we found the race, and how to do it all.” With two more mechanicals, but a heap of good times, it was all still part of the plan. “These were all essentially planned failures.” Gholson mentioned of their tactical approach, “The Tijuana Desert Challenge was our best race so far. We ended up finishing the first heat, and then one and a quarter laps of the second heat before the bike was just too broken to go on. We did so well, we were so excited and had such a blast, and we realized we were finally ready for the Baja 1000.”

After adding Civil Affairs Officer and Combat Engineer Lou Isabelle to the Back Swamp team, they headed down to TJ for the 2017 Tijuana Desert Challenge. They finished a big chunk of the race before mechanical issues forced them to stop, but they all felt great and realized they were ready for the Baja 1000.

The Baja 1000

Back home in North Carolina, Steve and the gang were now preparing for their 2018 Baja 1000 journey and attempt, complete with a new team chase truck they built out of an old ambulance. Armed already with three retired Marine team members, they decided to enlist Justin’s cousin Mark Aiello, an IT specialist, and chef, and Steve’s friend John “Reb” (short for Rebel) Givens –a retired ARMY Ranger that he had met through working on a software simulation program. Five friends, five 2005/2006 model year Honda CRF450X’s, two vehicles, and thousands of miles later, they arrived at the Baja 1000 in 2018 all the way from Back Swamp, North Carolina.

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Back Swamp Racing converted an old ambulance into a Baja chase rig. With the new rig, five bikes, and five retired military friends, they headed down to Baja from North Carolina for the big race in 2018.

A wild affair, the 1000 was everything they expected and more. Steve described the excitement of everything, “I like starting the races, and I had Justin come with me this time for the start. He’s filming with his phone the whole time and his jaw was open like, ‘wow this is amazing!’ He didn’t even realize the arch that I was sitting in front of did a ten-second countdown then turned green and said go. He was just looking at everything else that was going on.” [Laughs] The team’s performance in their first attempt ended up far exceeding their expectations, having averaged over 30mph through the first few hundred miles. “The average speed for our class for the last few years has been around 23-25mph,” Steve discussed, “and we’ve been watching this for a few years.” They had worked their way from 17th position all the way up to 9th with just over halfway to go.

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The Back Swamp Racing crew acheived a MPH average a minimum of 5MPH over the previous years' class averages.

As it tends to do, the Baja 1000’s brutality struck around race mile 450 when a rock jammed into their bike’s clutch linkage preventing it from fully engaging and causing the friction plates to burn away. Just like that, they were to settle for a DNF and it was time to go home—but not without lifelong memories created. Thinking this was it for their Baja dreams, Steve and the gang packed up headed home. “We were almost at the point of we don’t have the money to do this, so we don’t know if we are going to be able to do this again.” Steve continued, “We hadn’t even gotten out of the border patrol area when I got a phone call from my wife –she had been tracking us! She says, ‘We’ve already agreed here that you’re doing this again next year.’ I was like, ‘Really?’ Because we hadn’t come to that conclusion yet. It’s somewhat expensive and we had a bunch of bikes to rebuild. She said ‘Nope, the wives have already decided you’re doing this again.’ Everyone was tracking us, we were doing so well, and we got bitten by the Baja. Because that’s what the Baja does sometimes.” Back to Back Swamp they went, more excited than ever, and Steve recalled that moment of family support with a smile, “We were humbled. 'You’re telling us we’re doing this again?!”

Despite Baja biting them and destroying a clutch, they had created a lifetime of memories in the 2018 Baja 1000. Looking ahead, they weren't sure they'd be back due to the cost of travel, racing, and repairs, but each of the racers' wives had been tracking them throughout the race and told them they'd definitely be back for more in 2019!

2019, More Support, and Beyond

With eyes currently set on 2019’s SCORE International Baja 1000, a lot of things have begun to come together for the team –hard-earned support from Wiseco and ProX being one of them. Steve described returning and pulling into their local shop, FTI Racing, with their beaten-down race bike. “I don’t think Cal Northrop [owner of FTI Racing] really caught onto what we were doing until Lou and I pulled into his shop with the bike straight from the 1000, unloaded it and pushed it into his shop and said, ‘the clutch went out. We need to know why.’ I think at that point he realized we were serious.” Deciding that he may be able to help them out, a few calls were made that led to a relationship with brands they already supported and would now receive support back from.

“I can’t say enough about how appreciative we are for sponsorship help. I’ve got sprockets, chains, oil filters, and air filters here from ProX. I’ve got three top ends over at FTI Racing/Suspension that I got from Wiseco, two clutches from Rekluse; the list goes on.” Gholson went on, “We can’t tell you how much that means to us. We’re just dudes from Back Swamp North Carolina that want to go ride. And now we’ve got help to do this—they’ve gone so far above and beyond that we are actually stunned at what all we’ve gotten from these people and how much help they’ve been.”

When Wiseco got word of Back Swamp Racing's story from Cal at FTI Racing, they were proud to not only support a team of fellow, dedicated racers, but a team of veterans who served Wiseco's home country of the U.S.A! Wiseco proudly powers Back Swamp Racing's CRF450Xs.

Find Wiseco products for your bike here.

Better yet, the journey is set to go full circle in the next few years with Steve’s son Donald plans to join in on the fun and race. “This is where the kids come in,” he says, “I’ve got a son, Lou has a son, Justin has a son, and Mark has a son, and we’re going to do a son vs. a dads race.” But first, their unfinished business calls. “This year we’re going to do the Sportsman class again and we’re going to finish this race.” Gholson said with confidence, “Lou has already roped us into Ironman’ing it next year [solo racing the 1000] so I said, ‘ok I’ll do that with you.’ We’ll be going from Ensenada to La Paz in 1100 miles!” The next year will be kids vs. their fathers, and it doesn’t sound like Back Swamp Racing plans to quit anytime soon.

Through it all, it’s apparent that Marines are cut from a different cloth and this group that averages 50 years old in age are simply out to set a positive example to their families and beyond through example. “Everyone of us Marines [on the team] is somewhere between 30-100% disabled. We fight through that, every single day. We fight sometimes just waking up in pain. This is another thing that just proves to our kids that you get off the couch and you go, no matter what’s wrong with you.” Steve went on, “We’re AmeriCANS, not AmeriCANTS. You look at something and you say, ‘Yeah, why can’t I do this?’ And there are the people that say, ‘Yeah I can do that,’ but never get off the couch. It’s in our nature now to get off the couch, and we’re going to figure out how to do something and then we’re going to attack it.” Armed with sheer will, more experience, the pride of our country, and one heck of a story, team Back Swamp Racing will be a team to watch as they attempt to tackle the Baja 1000 in November. Let freedom ring!

Follow their journey on Instagram: @back_swamp_racing

With only a handful of years racing experience and multiple physical disabilities, this team of retired military men put in the work and swing a leg over the bike with a smile on their face. Absolute best of luck to Back Swamp Racing in the 2019 Baja 1000! Photo: Off Road Girl Loves Baja

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Written by Mike Emery