An estimated 67,000 racing fans were drawn to the Rose Bowl Saturday night to watch cars, trucks and motorcycles spin, slide and fly their way around the muddy little chunk of the Baja that promoter Mickey Thompson recreated on top of a football field for Off-Road Championship Gran Prix.
Roger Mears, a former Grand National sport truck champion who had not won a race since March of 1985, won the Grand Sport Truck main event in a Nissan, when Walker Evans' Dodge had some trouble coming around the hairpin turn on the seventh lap.
After announcing, with a winning smile, "We were way overdue," Mears got into the particulars of his pass for the lead: "I don't know whether something broke on his truck, or whether it jumped out of gear on him, but his truck actually stopped real quick and made a left-hand turn. Usually, you'd expect his back tires to be spinning, but they just stopped."
So Mears shot through on the inside.
Until that point, Mears had been battling Jeff Huber in a Mazda for second place, staying right on Evans' tail.
Mears said: "At the beginning, I felt like we were all fairly even, but our shocks might have lasted a little better than the other two guys in front of me."
After winning his heat race earlier, Mears (a former Indy driver) said: "Our biggest improvement was in the handling, especially in the corners . . .
"It's been a long time, but I think we're back, finally."
In that same heat, three-time Indianapolis winner Al Unser went out when his Jeep Commanche caught fire coming through one of the inside turns. He was still in the truck when members of the safety crew arrived fire extinguishers.
So Unser did not drive in the main event and ended up last in the overall list of finishers. The other Jeep Commanche, driven by Dave Ashley, was eighth.
Huber of Apple Valley ended up second in a Mazda, with Steve Millen of Santa Ana third in a Toyota. Millen, the defending series champion, was making a comeback of sorts himself after breaking a leg and some ribs in an sports car race at Miami in March.
Evans finished fourth.
Jerry Whelchel of Anaheim won the Unlimited Super 1600 race, beating teen-ager Rob Gordon of Orange.
Mickey Thompson announced Saturday night that despite construction at the Coliseum, he had finalized plans for a weekend of racing July 25 and 26.
The Saturday program will be an Off-Road Championship Gran Prix featuring the same vehicles and drivers that competed at the Rose Bowl. Sunday, he will offer an innovative program including mud drag races, a monster truck Bash Off, ATV competition and nitro-burning funny cars.