I didn't know Kurt Caselli. I mean, we'd met and exchanged a few words, but I didn't know him. The only time I'd ever even seen the off-road racing star ride was at a motocross track.
And yet I felt I had to attend the Kurt Caselli Memorial Ride Day, held three weeks after his tragic death in the 46th Baja 1000, November 15th. Everyone who knew the 30-year-old from Southern California's Antelope Valley said the same thing about him: that he was "real," down-to-earth and had no ego. In fact, when I first met the six-time champion (three WORCS, three AMA Hare & Hound) at a KTM function, he introduced himself merely as "Kurt." He didn't say, "Kurt Caselli," or shoot me a look that said, "You don't know who I am?" At that moment, he was just another guy in an orange shirt.
It's probably not accurate to say Caselli had no ego. I'm sure, like all racers, he hated to get beat. But by all accounts he wasn't above helping a fellow competitor—particularly when they were teamed together for the annual International Six Days Enduro. In recent years Caselli served as captain of that endeavor, and was one of a small handful of Americans potentially capable of winning. When his father Rich died of cancer in 2008, a ride day was held in his memory with the proceeds benefiting the ISDE team. I went to that one, too. I had to. This latest Caselli memorial was a somber occasion, but it was heartwarming to see the outpouring of support. I'd attended A Day in the Dirt the previous weekend, and there were at least as many people at Glen Helen Raceway on this day. The folks working the front gate lost count at 2000, and the FMF staff sold all 800 T-shirts they'd brought out by 10:30 a.m. The line of vehicles waiting to get in stretched a couple miles, and the paddock was a veritable Who's Who of off-road racing headlined by the legend himself, Malcolm Smith. Few other racers could command such respect.
At noon there was a memorial service and lap of honor, bikes and riders filling the start straight. With the Red Bull mobile DJ truck providing audio and a helicopter shooting video from above, Kurt's fiancee Sarah White choked back tears as she bravely spoke, saying something to the effect that Kurt always spoke for her, "because he was such an amazing speaker," and now it was her turn to speak for him. "Hi, I'm Sarah. I'm supposed to be Kurt's wife," she began, fogging a few hundred pairs of goggles.
Caselli's friend and sponsor Dano Legere of DVS Shoes capped off the ceremony, saying, "When I think of my buddy, I think of Jeremy McGrath, King of Supercross; Ricky Carmichael, Greatest of All Time; Kevin Windham, legend. Kurt Caselli was an American hero. He was the man."
A squadron of riders in matching orange jerseys then led everyone on a slow parade lap, Kurt's fiancee sporting one that read "Sarah Caselli" as she rode on the back of his teammate Ivan Ramirez's bike. With participants three and four abreast strung out the full length of the course like a psychedelic freight train, it was a sight to see. And to feel. Because even if you didn't know Kurt Caselli, at that moment you felt like you knew him.
Racing in Baja will always be dangerous. Beyond piloting a motorcycle at breakneck speed over the most hostile terrain imaginable, often at night, there's also the specter of the unexpected—like the errant police car that claimed Danny Hamel's life in 1995 or the animal that Caselli's team suspects he hit. Dakar legend Jimmy Lewis told me that's why he gave up racing south of the border: "Too many times almost hitting that cow you almost saw." The vast distances also make for lengthy response times. Could Caselli have been saved if a medic had arrived sooner to tend to his injuries?
Proceeds from the memorial ride day were earmarked for the newly formed Kurt Caselli Foundation, one agenda of which is improved rider safety. Let's hope they can make a difference. Because motorcycling can't afford to lose another Kurt Caselli.
Not that there could ever be another.
Donations to the Kurt Caselli Foundation can be sent care of KTM North America, 38429 Innovation Ct., Murrieta, CA 92563.