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The hands turning the steering wheel are thick and weathered, the skin beneath the fine dusting of blond hair a leathery brown. Under normal circumstances a ride with Ivan Stewart, off-road racing's most decorated driver, wouldn't allow the leisure for such intimate examination, what with all the cows and ditches and terrified motorists popping up into your field of vision like ducks in a shooting gallery. But Stewart isn't roaring through the desert. He's driving home after lunch, and his vehicle of choice is not $750,000 worth of consummately crafted truck but a Volkswagen van that has been stripped to its chassis and fitted with a white canopy. It looks like a jitney at a zoo.
Even when he is not racing, Stewart never leaves the driving to someone else. In June he celebrated his 48th birthday by winning his 12th Baja 500 off-road race—10 hours, 10 minutes and 39 seconds of sweat-stained, dust-choked hauling across 500 miles of mountainous terrain in Mexico. Afterward Stewart got into his Toyota vehicle and drove himself back to his hotel in Ensenada. "I don't like riding," he says. "It terrifies me. I have no control. If I get hurt, I want to do it myself."
Stewart excels in one of driving's most demanding arenas. Most off-road racers pair up for a reason. Races can last from eight to 30 hours, and negotiating terrain that often resembles the surface of the moon takes a physical and mental toll on the drivers. Besides, in the middle of the desert, help isn't always quick to arrive, and it's nice to have an extra pair of hands if a tire blows or you find yourself pinned upside down, wheels spinning in the sky, with a stampede of your fellow racers bearing down on you.
But Stewart pounds across the desert alone, his muscular frame hunkered down in the single seat that sits dead center in his truck's cab. Stewart has tried sharing the driving, but inevitably his partners have let him down, either by driving too cautiously to his liking or by becoming ill and vomiting, thus rendering themselves useless.
Long ago—before the 57 off-road wins, before the five SCORE World Championships, before the proliferation of Ivan Stewart video games—Stewart made the only rational decision. "I've always been strong enough to drive alone," he says, wheeling the VW into the hangar that serves as a garage on his spread in Alpine, Calif. "Why get out from behind the wheel when I don't have to?"
Driving alone works for Stewart. Everything in his life must work, or it has no purpose. Inside the house he shares with his wife, Linda, there are 50-year-old gumball machines, wooden clothes washers and ancient iron hunting traps. Outside there are farm implements from another era—manure spreaders, potato pickers and hay rakes.
And every piece works. If the spirit moves him, Stewart can pop a gumball in his mouth, hop in his teal-blue '64 Thunderbird, gas up at the gleaming cherry-red vintage '30s pump that stands outside of his garage and head for San Diego, 40 miles to the west. All is neat and tidy, too. Stewart will poke his head into the pantry and ask his wife why there is something other than cans in it. He is a man who has never had to hunt for a pair of matching socks.
"He's obsessive," says Linda, who has been married to Ivan for 30 years. "A real neat freak."
One of those rare souls who is comfortable with himself, Stewart doesn't argue the point. "I like to be organized," he says. "There's nothing worse than spending time that's unproductive. I'm happy when I'm getting things accomplished, heading toward a goal."
For the past 20 years that goal has been to drive faster than anyone else. Stewart chooses to do so in the dirt because off-road racing offers a certain spice not found on a track. "If you're racing at Indianapolis," he says, "odds are there's not going to be a cow out there."