There was a day, when Indy cars had engines in front and the drivers sat upright in their seats, that driving a sprint car was the surest way to get to the Indianapolis 500. Mario Andretti, A. J. Foyt, Johnny Rutherford and Bobby Unser began that way.
The engines are in the rear today, the drivers practically lie down in their projectiles, and few of them make it to Indianapolis from the sprint-car ranks. Now, they come from everywhere.
Danny Ongais started in drag racing; Kevin Cogan, Emerson Fittipaldi and Michael Andretti in karts; Bobby Rahal, Pete Halsmer and Michael Chandler in sports cars, and John Paul Jr., Danny Sullivan and Geoff Brabham in Formula Fords.
All of them had one thing in common, though. They began their racing careers on asphalt.
Rick Mears is different. Like the old sprint-car drivers, he came from the dirt. He left the rough-and-tumble racing across uncharted desert, won two Indianapolis 500s and caught the attention of every young man or woman who ever brought home a trophy from the Mint 400 or survived the Baja 1,000.
Now Jeff MacPherson of Irvine, another off-road champion, is looking down that road. MacPherson, a winner in unlimited single-seat buggies and mini-trucks for 10 years through 1983, has yet to sit in an Indy car, but he is laying the groundwork by driving a Super Vee for a second season in the Sports Car Club of America's Bosch Super Vee series. Last year, MacPherson was Rookie of the Year after finishing third behind Arie Luyendyk and Chip Robinson.
Luyendyk has moved up to Indy cars, replacing John Paul Jr. on the Provimi Veal team, and Robinson is driving a Jaguar with Bob Tullius in the IMSA Camel GT series.
"I hope by winning the championship I can attract enough attention to get a ride in an Indy car," MacPherson said. "If I can win, it should open doors like it did for Arie and other guys like Ed Pimm and Michael Andretti and Geoff Brabham after they won the Super Vee championship."
Mears also moved from off-road racing to Super Vees before attracting Roger Penske's attention and getting a ride that led to Indy wins in 1979 and 1984.
"It's not because of Rick's success that I made the move from off-road," MacPherson said. "But it is comforting to know that he has shown that those who ate dirt can race on a clean track as well.
"I really enjoy the change. There are less variables to contend with, like cows, cactus and silt, but the racing is much closer. In our only win last year, at Michigan, the margin over Luyendyk was about a thousandth of a second. You don't get that in the desert."
MacPherson, 28, is a graduate of Foothill High in Santa Ana and Cal State Fullerton. He got into racing as a teen-ager while riding shotgun with his father, Joe, a Chevrolet dealer in Irvine.
"Dad had been involved as a sponsor with Drino Miller and Vic Wilson when off-road racing was in its infancy," MacPherson said. "In 1973, he decided to drive a Chevy Luv mini-truck himself with me as his passenger. The deal was that after two races, I got a chance to drive. We won the first one I drove, the Big River 500 in Parker, Ariz., so from then on, I did the driving. Dad didn't seem to mind. He rode with me off and on for about 11 years."
MacPherson said the adjustment to speed has been his most difficult problem.
"I know I need another year's experience before I'm as comfortable as I should be with the speeds we reach. In the first 10 laps at Michigan we averaged 164 m.p.h., and that was a big jump from off-road speeds."
MacPherson went to New Zealand between seasons and almost won the Tasman Cup series for Formula Atlantic cars, but a fourth-place finish in the final race dropped him from first to fourth in the standings.
Only six points separated the first four positions. Two Americans, Ross Cheever and Davy Jones, both veterans of European Formula Three competition, and Ken Smith, a 40-year-old New Zealander, finished ahead of MacPherson.
"It was fantastic racing down there. I never saw people so enthusiastic. All the races were on nationwide TV and spread all over the newspapers. The competition was tremendous, and I was fortunate to get an opportunity to drive for someone like Allan McCall."
McCall, who worked with the late Jim Clark at Indianapolis and in Formula One, called MacPherson "one of the best talents I've worked with in quite some time."
For this Super Vee season, MacPherson has two new Ralt RT-5 machines, which he maintains at his father's dealership in Irvine. His main competition is expected to come from Jeff Andretti and Mike Follmer, both nephews of famous drivers, and Ken Johnson of Russellville, Ala., who is in the car Luyendyk won with last year.
The season, which was delayed when the March 31 opener at Phoenix was canceled because of poor track conditions, will start April 13, the day before the opening CART Indy-car race, as part of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.