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A Maiden Race : Actress Finds Excitement in First Endurance Competition

December 13, 1987|JEFF MEYERS | Times Staff Writer

Strung out in a curved line along Turn 9 at Riverside International Raceway, nearly 100 cars, cockpits empty, engines silent, were moments away from being cranked to life for the start of a three-hour endurance race. As a small crowd mingled on the track awaiting the final call over the public-address system, a blue-eyed blonde in a yellow jump suit was bestowing good-luck hugs and kisses on a handful of drivers.

"Charlie, you got the pole! Not too shabby," she exclaimed to Charlie Spira, whose Porsche 944 Turbo was sitting at the head of the line.

Working the crowd, she spied Chuck Harbaugh standing by his Porsche 914 and gave him a squeeze. "It'll be a fight out there," he said. She tossed back her head and laughed. "It'll be a fight all right," she said, adding with a wink: "Don't hit me and I won't hit you."

Beautiful women have always been a part of auto racing. Usually, they're on calendars hanging in garages or at the finish line in tight T-shirts planting a kiss on the winner. Sandra Bartley, whose business card describes her as "actress/spokeswoman/race car driver," was there to flirt with danger, not men, and her displays of affection were borne out of friendship, not any strong urge to become the next Miss Pennzoil.

Bartley, 35, is among a small but growing number of women involved in auto racing on the regional level. According to the Sports Car Club of America, participation by women in California has increased from one to only about a dozen in the past 15 years.

"Being a woman has nothing to do with driving," Bartley said. "I'm not Mario Andretti, but if men drivers don't appreciate me for who I am, I don't spend time with them. Overall, though, I have a good rapport with the men at the track."

To Bartley, life in the fast lane means going 100 miles an hour, both on and off the track. From sky diving and dirt-bike racing to acting in television and singing at a Hollywood restaurant, her days fly by in a blur of activity.

"I'm an excitement junkie," she said. "I've always been interested in doing extremely glamorous things rather than sitting around with the girls and talking about where to get our nails done. I like to do things in a big way, and I've always been one to say, 'I can do that.' "

Women usually compete primarily in short sprint races, not the grueling enduros that severely test the mettle of the driver as well as the metal of the machine. In the Riverside race, Bartley's first enduro, there were only four women among more than 200 drivers. Bartley would be dividing time with two other drivers: Tom Marx, her boyfriend and a professional racer, and Bill Clingen of Northridge.

Bartley and Marx share a Van Nuys condominium. It was Marx who got her involved in auto racing. Owner of an advertising agency, Marx "literally met Sandra in an elevator" when they worked in the same downtown Los Angeles office building 13 years ago. Marx had begun racing Porsches while a student at Cal State Northridge in the early 1970s, and he invited Bartley to watch him compete at the Ontario Motor Speedway.

"I thought it was a date," she said with a smile, "but he had his girlfriend with him." It wasn't long, however, before it was Bartley who was navigating for Marx in sports car rallies and "Q-tipping his cars" for shows. Then they began switching seats, Bartley driving, Marx plotting the course. Involving themselves in the local sports car clubs, Marx became president of the L. A. branch of the Porsche Club of America, Bartley secretary. They joined the Porsche Owners Club, which gave its participant-of-the-year award to Bartley in 1986.

While Marx was racing the Porsche Carrera he bought from Paul Newman and helping the Hacker Racing Team win this year's Firehawk Endurance championship in a Volkswagen Golf GTi, Bartley was winning class championships in local amateur events. But her participation was still primarily social until two years ago, when, she said, "I got really competitive. My times have really shown it. Some people are taking notice." The enduro at Riverside would give her a chance to enhance her driving reputation--as well as her relationship with Marx.

"I wanted Tom and I to have this experience together as a couple, as two people who spent a lot of time apart in 1987, racing all over the country," she said. Although her racing has remained local, Bartley spent a few weekends this year traveling to U. S. and Canadian cities as one of 12 women drivers on the PPG Pace Car Team, which makes appearances at Indy Car World Series races.

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