At 65, Innkeeper Leon Becomes a Top Off-Road Racer

Times Staff Writer

Eighteen years ago, Miguel (Mike) Leon traveled for five days on horseback into the mountains between Ensenada and San Felipe in Baja and found his Shangri-La.

Deep inside the dry region at an elevation of 5,000 feet was a desert oasis Leon decided to call home. He claimed the land and decided to build a cabin retreat where he could hunt for deer or fish for trout in the stream that rolled through a lush meadow.

It took Leon nearly two years to build an access road off the two-lane highway that connects Ensenada with San Felipe. And once Leon had built a small cabin, he found he didn't have enough room to accommodate guests and friends.

So Leon decided to build a resort that he named "Mike's Sky Ranch." Today, the 22-room resort is a popular resting spot for motorcyclists and off-road enthusiasts who are attracted to the area's riding trails.

Through the years, Leon has played host to some of off-road racing's top drivers, including Mickey Thompson, Ivan Stewart, Parnelli Jones and Walker Evans. The two biggest off-road races in Baja--the Baja 1000 and the Baja Internacional--are routed within 20 feet of Leon's resort.

While the ranch has become well-known throughout the off-road racing industry, the 65-year-old proprietor has also made a name for himself in the sport over the past eight months.

Leon, the innkeeper, is now one of the top drivers in off-road racing. He won the Class 7S (mini-pickup trucks) division of the Baja 1000 last November in a 2.4-liter Isuzu and then followed with a victory in the Baja Internacional (500 kilometers) last month.

"I never rode a motorcycle and still don't," Leon said. "But all the time I was building the road and then my cabin, a lot of guys who were riding bikes and would stop to talk and see what I was doing.

"I decided I could live there and run a business by building a resort for the riders and the racers. Then, I got to know some of the off-road racers like Walker Evans and Mickey Thompson and I told myself, 'I could do that.' "

Leon built a Class 5 (Baja Bug) vehicle and entered the Baja Internacional in 1978 along with partner Javier Tiznado. The duo competed in the two Baja races for seven years when they got their big break.

Isuzu Motors, a newcomer in the off-road racing field, had hired Kim Klepper of Riverside to build a mini-pickup for the Baja 1000 last November. Isuzu officials decided to campaign in only a limited number of races and chose the two Baja races. The next logical choice was Leon, who knew the terrain better than anyone.

"They came down to the ranch and we talked," Leon said. "I'm sure they wondered about my age, but I told them I always drove halfway in every race and felt good afterwards. My family says, 'If that's what keeps him going, fine. Let him do it.' Racing makes me feel 25 years younger."

Leon's truck was completed only two days before the Baja 1000, which didn't leave much time for pre-running. Leon said he and Tiznado both drove the new vehicle about 40 miles before race day.

"No one took us very seriously," Leon said. "I didn't know what to expect. But the truck handled beautifully. We won the race by an hour and hardly scratched the paint."

Some considered Leon's win a fluke. Others credited his knowledge of the Baja terrain for the victory. But Leon insists the win was just a matter of doing his homework.

"Sure, I know the roads around my ranch, but I had to learn most of the course by pre-running like everyone else," he said. "Javier and I pre-run every race. He knows what I can do, and I know what he can do behind the wheel."

Last month, Leon and Tiznado got the opportunity to answer the skeptics in the Baja Internacional. And this time, he had a chance to pre-run his truck, albeit through the streets of downtown Ensenada.

Klepper and chief mechanic Jack Bayer delivered the truck the night before the start of the race in Ensenada. Leon decided to take a test drive through the city streets. After a 10-minute run, he returned to his pit area with a patrol car and two motorcycle policemen in pursuit.

Leon identified himself, the officers called the station for verification and then they wished him luck in the next day's race.

This time, Leon beat the competition by an hour and 20 minutes and no one called the win a fluke. In just two races, Isuzu had established its truck as the king of Baja.

"Not only is the truck fast, it's very durable and that's the key to winning at Baja," Leon said. "You can have the fastest vehicle in the race, but if you don't finish, you don't win. Now, we're the favorites."

Leon's sudden success hasn't surprised off-road racing officials.

"Mike Leon is like a brain surgeon behind the wheel," SCORE president Sal Fish said. "He's very meticulous, very methodical. He does him homework, and his preparation for the races is a big part of his success.

"Isuzu is very lucky to have him, and I think the merging of the two parties has been good for both. In only two races, Mike and Isuzu have established themselves as the team to beat, and I can't remember anyone else doing it so quickly."

Thompson, who promotes short-course races throughout Southern California, has known Leon for many years. He says the veteran's success is long overdue.

"Mike is a very shrewd businessman, and he approaches his racing with the same attitude," Thompson said. "He knows the limits of his vehicle, and he knows Mexico. He's a very, very good driver."

Leon has also played an instrumental role by helping Fish negotiate with Mexican officials to promote the two SCORE races in Baja. He's helped to ease the tension between the racers and the Mexican ranchers and farmers whose land is utilized for parts of the race course.

"Mike is both a land owner and a racer, so he understands both parties' needs and problems," Fish said. "He has the respect of everyone in Baja. He's the Anthony Quinn type . . . a gentleman all the way."

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