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Paul Dean

Flavor of the Raceway-- Rocky Road

August 22, 1987|PAUL DEAN

In its purest form, off-road racing is a death wish in a wilderness. The Sahara. Or Finland. Or any stretch of a circuit thundering from Corsica to the Baja to wherever desolate roads lead to blind corners and near-fatal surprises.

It follows that fans of this persuasion frown at off-road racing in urban form.

That's where bogus berms remake the Rose Bowl into a miniature Mojave. Or where dirt bulldozed into ersatz arroyos brings a breath of the Baja to the L.A. Coliseum. This weekend, even portions of revered Riverside International Raceway have been churned into jumps and washboards for those competing in Stroh's Off-Road World Championship.

Like team tennis and indoor soccer, it's a contrivance cultivating spectators and sponsors before indulging the sport. But its champions know the difference and speak their preferences.

"I've never had a burning desire to race in front of crowds," said Ivan Stewart. He drives for Toyota and has won Baja marathons and coliseum-type replicas, including this Riverside event. "I got into off-road racing after seeing Parnelli Jones and others running the Baja and thinking: 'The things they're seeing, the places they're going. What a trip.'

"In this (coliseum) form of racing you're covering the same ground, the same corners. Off-road in Mexico, you never cover the same terrain twice. You come over a hill and you don't know what's there--could be a herd of cows. Or a donkey. That's the thrill."

On the other hand, Stewart said, events on man-made terrain aren't exactly dull. A 1.5-ton Toyota truck descending from airborne will compress a driver's vertebrae whether he's lumbering at the Rose Bowl or bouncing east of El Rosario. The walls of Riverside Raceway are no softer than the boulders of Bou Naga.

"Lose your rear suspension, hit one of these jumps too hard and you'll go tip over teakettle right here at Riverside," continued Stewart. "Plenty of challenges in short-course racing. Ready?"

So we climbed aboard Stewart's pickup, that began life as a Toyota SR-5 before its $250,000 conversion into a 280-horsepower tank for off-road. Butt deep into the seat for optimum spinal alignment. Lap belt soprano-tight. Shoulder harness loose for torso movement.

It isn't a ride. It's a multi-sensory onslaught.

Hearing is hurt by the screech of an engine trying to eat its own innards at 9,000 rpm.

Smell is made inoperative by mud pellets flying beneath a helmet visor to plug both nostrils.

Sight is a bucking blur of sky and earth reminiscent of another blood sport, low-level aerobatics.

Touch involves the entire body. Head and shoulders against roll cage. Knees against oil tank. Elbows slapping against bolt heads.

There's only one posture for survival. Sit loose. Roll with the bounces within the harness. Like breaking a horse.

Now there's time to explore the kick of this sport. It's not speed, because the maximum on asphalt straight or long dirt bank can't be more than 70 m.p.h. It's not the threat of impact, because the course is broad and there's little to hit beyond soft dirt.

But Stewart seems to know some great talent for keeping rear wheels balanced between traction and breakaway for optimum control and maximum speed and . . . and then our ride was over.

Stewart explained. Every form of motor racing, he said, is man knowing his machine. Then knowing his competition.

"In off-road, it's also man against the terrain," he added. "First, you've got to be smarter than the competition. But you've also got to be smarter than the desert. Even here where you get to know the course, the other cars will change the jumps until you have to read each one differently from the time before."

That's all there is to it?

"Piece of cake," Stewart lied.

Stroh's Off-Road World Championship, Riverside Raceway, today and Sunday. Times and ticket information: (818) 889-9216 or (714) 653-1161.

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