Pay no heed to those folks who say they have seen the Baja 1,000, that celebrated off-road race that meanders down into Mexico. They haven't, really. One does not "see" the Baja or any other off-road race any more than one sees a speeding bullet. What a spectator actually catches is the start or the finish. Because of the setting, the middle part has always been played before an audience of jackrabbits, rattlers and a vulture or two. In its long and bouncy history, off-road racing has been a lonely game. But last week all that changed.
An outfit called SCORE International, the major sanctioning body of off-road racing, staged something called the $182,500 AC-Delco World Championships of Off-Road Racing on a 3.5-mile course carved in and around California's Riverside International Raceway. And 41,500 people sure enough watched the whole thing from start to finish from comfortable seats in the grandstands, complete with hot dogs and popcorn and beer.
The field included an assortment of desert buggies, pickup trucks, motorcycles, Jeeps, Broncos, Volkswagens and other breeds in all degrees of mutation, and the vehicles spent much of the weekend sideways, airborne, bouncing on their front wheels or upside down, not necessarily in that order. The drivers are so cool about rolling or "tipping over," as they call it, that they talk about downshifting in mid-roll, so that if they land on their wheels they can keep racing without missing a beat.
Off-road racing before a live audience is the actual brainstorm of Mickey Thompson. That's the Mickey Thompson of the ducktail haircut and Little Deuce Coupe days, a racing notable who has spent the last couple of decades hotrodding around in everything from drag boats to Bonneville Salt Flats streamliners. Thompson founded SCORE (Short Course Off-Road Events) three years ago and recently, satisfied with the rapid rise of the sport, resigned as president. His letter of resignation went something like this: "You guys run SCORE, I'm going racing."
Now Mickey is again a gentleman racer of sorts, in the game just for fun. Just for fun he drives a Chevy pickup named Luv, with a monstrous 454 cu. in. Chevy V-8 stuffed in the bed. When Mickey Thompson gets into something, he gets into it with both lead feet.
Thompson also designed much of the Riverside off-road track, and the best part was named after him. Thompson Ridge is a 21-degree banked hill; the vehicles boom across the side of it. The most spectacular driver on Thompson Ridge was Walker Evans, who wheels a yellow 350 hp Chevy Silverado pickup owned and prepared by Parnelli Jones. Evans describes Thompson Ridge succinctly: "Dang, that's a real son of a gun."
Evans is an honors graduate of the Parnelli Jones School of Courageous Driving. In the 1973 Baja 1,000 he finished second, after driving the final 250 miles with the cab falling off his Ford pickup and the steering column going with it. Evans kept everything together with his knees and elbows, expecting with every twist of the steering wheel to find it connected only to his hands. This was during the night at 125 mph, in the thickest fog the Baja 1,000 has ever had. "My co-driver was a bit concerned," he says.
The pickup-truck races at Riverside were the most spectacular; the trucks are not faster but they're bigger and louder than anything else. Some of them weigh as much as three tons, and when they land after a jump at 50 mph the earth shakes and the aftershock can be felt all the way back to Row Z up in the grandstands. They take up so much room on the track that every pass is a tight one; their fenders get hooked on each other and disappear like tearaway football jerseys.
In his heat race on Saturday, Evans started seventh on the grid, but by the end of the first lap he was leading the pack by nine seconds. He won easily, thus gaining the pole position for Sunday's main event, in which he chewed up the competition even more convincingly.
"This is a stock vehicle," Evans said with a straight face after the race. He pointed at his $30,000 truck, which is outfitted with 14 shock absorbers but is still about a ton lighter than some of the others in the same class. This is not to suggest that Evans' truck is anything but legal; a SCORE stock truck is about as showroom stock as Richard Petty's Dodge. "It's not like Mickey's Luv," said Evans. "Mickey's probably got more money in his truck, but I wouldn't trade him even-up. I would like to race him in a match race for about $1,000, though."