Baja 1000 team with San Diego core will rely on vast experience during grueling race

Giovanni Spinali jokes that all the members of his team competing in the SCORE Baja 1000 off-road race are “old enough to know better.”

The “kid” on the six-man team is 51. The veteran is 74. Everyone is over 50.

Early this morning, Spinali’s veteran team started attacking the most grueling, single-day event in motorsports — 1,227 miles of rocks, sand washes, dry lake beds and rutted dirt trails — on a Yamaha 450SX motorcycle.

“It’s what we all do, and we’ve all done it for a long time,” said the 55-year-old Spinali, who is the rider of record for the team hoping to make history this weekend.

Going into the finale of the SCORE desert racing season, Spinali’s team is one of three tied for the overall motorcycle points lead. Were they to win the title, they would become the first team of riders over 50 to win the overall motorcycle season championship.

Seven seasons ago, they were the first team to win the championship as a riders-over-40 team.

It’s no small feat. The completion for the overall championship includes factory-backed teams of the youngest and top riders in the sport.

The edge carried by Spinali’s team?

“Experience,” said the leader. “Everyone makes mistakes in an off-road race, particularly an event like the Baja 1000 where you are on the course for up to 30, 35 hours. How we handle the race is one of our strengths.

“We know how to keep the mistakes to a minimum. Over the years, we’ve pretty much experienced everything we can on a motorcycle. We don’t push beyond what we know.”

The six-man team has more than 250 years combined experience. The younger riders have been riding for 40 years. Team patriarch Jim O’Neal, 74, has been riding for more than six decades.

Five of the six were born and raised in San Diego.

“Most of us grew up riding together and racing one another,” said Spinali. “It’s only natural that we’re doing something like the Baja 1000 as a team.”

The core of Spinali’s group got together before the 2012 Baja 1000.

While some of the team had competed in SCORE off-road races for other teams, Spinali had never competed in a SCORE desert race.

He had raced motocross since the days of Carlsbad Raceway. He was still competing in amateur motocross races at Barona Oaks and winning age-group titles. He had also raced in enduros and other desert races.

Spinali was 46 when he first decided to compete in off-road racing’s premier series. The next step was forming his team.

“Someone had to organize the team,” said Spinali, an El Cajon resident who buys, reconditions and sells cars, trucks and motorhomes for a living. “I reached out to guys I had raced against. Most of the team remains friends I grew up with. The core has always been four or five guys.”

There is more to organizing a Baja 1000 team than just showing up at the Ensenada starting line with the motorcycle.

“Our team includes seven or eight chase vehicles and 10 to 15 people helping us,” said Spinali. “Baja Pits sets up pits every 40 to 60 miles. There’s a lot of logistics and a lot of work before the race.”

Including, matching riders to parts of the course that best match their strengths.

“John Griffin and I are the better technical riders,” said Spinali. “Earl Roberts and Troy Pearce are best at the higher speeds. Griffin and I been riding together longest. He preps the bike. We ride together the most. We also race motocross together. We join up for Baja but compete in motocross.”

Griffin, 51, started the race at 2 a.m. today and rode the first 200 miles, turning the bike over to Santa Barbara’s O’Neal just after dawn. O’Neal, the owner of the motorcycle apparel company carrying his name, turns the bike back over to Griffin at mile 250 for another 100-mile segment.

Roberts, 58, the owner of a local import-export company, will ride for 250 straight miles before Pearce, 55, a SDG&E lineman who lives in Ramona, will ride from mile 600 through mile 710 before 51-year-old Mike Carter rides for 134 miles.

Spinali’s first segment is 157 miles through mile 1,001. Pearce rides the next 55 miles before Carter gets back on for 70 miles before Spinali rides the final 115 miles to the finish.

O’Neal, who is the only member of the team not originally from San Diego, will also ride for another team in the riders-over-60 class.

Spinali’s team won class titles for the 2015, 2018 and 2019 seasons. They have won their class title in each of the three previous races this season.

Their best previous overall finish in the Baja 1000 was sixth. They finished eighth overall in 2020.

“We’re usually in the top 10 overall,” said Spinali.

Center is a freelance writer.