Desert King: GPgarage Moto builds a tribute to the King of Baja…
Johnny Campbell is a living legend of off-road racing, a man known as “The King of Baja” for his 11 Baja 1000 victories on two wheels — a record regarded as untouchable by many in the sport. Prior to the introduction of the liquid-cooled, aluminum-framed Honda XR650R in 2000, Johnny’s Baja wins came on the air-cooled Honda XR628R — a works version of the legendary XR600R off-road bike.
Well-known off-road magazine editor and journalist Tony “Wolfman” Webb recalled racing one of these air-cooled beasts in the 1994 Nevada Rally:
“The bike was as factory as it gets, a Honda XR628 fitted with every setting and part that the Team Honda guys used in Baja. The one thing I remember Bruce Ogilvie telling me when I asked, ‘on long straights how long can I stay in it?’ Bruce just looked and said ‘Never lift, this bike can go all day pinned.’ And with that there were several long, long two-track roads where I stayed ‘max’ for minutes on end. Honestly it scared the crap out of me! –Wolfman Webb, Dirt Bike
Enter our new friend Matteo Gualandi, former motocross racer and current owner of Italy’s GPgarage, a race-focused workshop that originally focused on Mini Cooper performance. However, more than a decade after his retirement from motocross, Matteo found his way back to two wheels:
“After 10 years without any kind of bike, I bought my first Honda XL600LM, because I love this old kind of bike. Two years later, I opened a new branch of my business, GPgarage Moto.”
The moto division of the workshop focuses exclusively on Honda off-road bikes, racing a pair of modern machines in the Italian Rally Championship. But Matteo’s passion for vintage machinery still burns strong, as evidenced by this Johnny Campbell tribute project:
“Everything started three years ago after seeing some Johnny Campbell videos — I was in love with his XR628 Baja… I had to build one especially for me!”
Matteo scoured old American motocross magazines from the 90s for any and all information he could find on the XR628R Baja machines — not surprisingly, much of the bike’s componentry had to be built from scratch, as the original Honda factory parts are rare artifacts indeed. But all that effort was well worth it, especially when Johnny Campbell himself reached out to say he liked the build!
Below, we get the full details on the build from Matteo himself, as well as more photos from VS Image Studio — and stay tuned for a tribute video coming soon!
Honda XR628R Race Replica: Builder Interview
Please tell us a bit about yourself, your history with motorcycles, and your workshop.
I’m Matteo Gualandi, 38 years old. I started racing motocross in 1989 and topped at the end of the 2006 race season. After 10 years without any kind of bike, I bought my first Honda XL600LM, because I love this old kind of bike. Two years later, I opened a new branch of my business, GPgarage Moto. Now we work only on Honda bikes, and we participate in the Italian Rally Championship with two bikes.
What’s the make, model, and year of the bike?
The original bike is a Honda XR600, 1995.
Why was this bike built?
Everything started three years ago after seeing some Johnny Campbell videos — I was in love with his XR628 Baja… I had to build one especially for me!
What was the design concept and what influenced the build?
I started buying all the old motocross magazines from the USA to find all the info and photos I could about this bike, because the problem was being able to make it the same.
• What custom work was done to the bike?
We built nearly everything from scratch: the race exhaust, oil decanter, radiator oil plate, case saver, triple clamps, and many other things.
Can you tell us what it’s like to ride this bike?
At the moment, I’ve only been riding it for a few meters in front of the workshop, but we are preparing to make a tribute video in the coming weeks.
Was there anything done during this build that you are particularly proud of?
Yes, the entire bike 😀 And Johnny Campbell liked it, too!
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Photo credits: @VS_image_studio_automotive.