Stewart still gets goose bumps when he remembers his first look at a major off-road race, the 1972 Baja 1000. "God, it was incredible," he says, his hands slashing the air in excitement. "They had these great big tires, and they went by so fast, throwing rocks and gravel, as they raced to La Paz. To me it was the ultimate adventure."
Actually, the task of the off-road driver is to eliminate as much of the adventure element as possible. Off-road racing is largely a game of attrition, drivers yanking their vehicles out of harm's way until fatigue or a mental lapse sends them plowing into an embankment or down into a ravine, jolting to a standstill in the quiet buzz of heat and dust. Stewart rarely makes such mistakes, and his stamina and focus have earned him the nickname Ironman.
He revels in his image and does what he can to foster it. For instance, you will never see a photo of a bedraggled Stewart. After every race he immediately tidies up, tucking his hair under his cap and sponging his face.
He is aided in this cosmetic repair job by the fact that most of his face has already been peeled off during the race. Most drivers wear enclosed helmets that pump in oxygen and fend off rocks and dust. Stewart chooses to wear an open-faced helmet and goggles, no trivial decision given that off-road vehicles have no windshields. As a result, his countenance is a cross between that of a matinee idol and an alligator handbag. "I don't like to be confined," he says. "Plus it's more of an incentive to gel in the lead."
Stewart also races in off-road stadium events, whipping his Toyota truck around dirt tracks rife with jumps, moguls and turns tighter than a dime so that 60,000 people can see what is usually witnessed only by buzzards and a canopy of sky. In 1990 he became the only driver to win both the overall stadium and the desert championships, but he much prefers racing in the great wide open.
Stadium races are short—12 minutes or less—and choked with other drivers, and you never know what your opponents are going to do. Stewart may also disdain the track because he invariably racks up more penalty points than any other driver in these events, banging fenders and bumpers in his desire to grab the lead.
"He's the most aggressive driver out there, no doubt. He puts a lot of punishment on people," says a competitor who has, on more than one occasion, been forced over a retaining wall by Stewart. No matter that this driver is Stewart's own son, Brian, who at 29 is five years into an off-road career of his own.
"I'm proud of the fact he's out there," says Ivan with a grin. "It's just too bad I've got to beat him."
"It makes Christmas interesting," says Brian.
Of course, Brian knows better than anyone else that there are two Ivan Stewarts: the intimidating man with the impressive knots of muscles in his chest and arms; and, away from the race, the affable, gregarious fellow with the chamber of commerce smile, who knows the value of remembering someone's name. At stadium events, while other drivers do their best to escape the throngs, Stewart likes to gab with fans and sign autographs almost right up to the beginning of a race.