SAN DIEGO — Lakeside's Ivan Stewart drew from 16 years of off-road racing experience Saturday night to gain two seconds and a third, but Team Mazda won twice in the Gran National Sport Truck Class of the Mickey Thompson Off-Road Gran Prix in front of 34,319 fans at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.
Stewart used his well-prepared Toyota to outmaneuver Dan Esslinger's Ford in the first two heat races for second place each time.
"I knew our truck could out-handle his," said Stewart, 42.
It wasn't just Esslinger that Stewart beat. He held the pole position for the first heat but was sixth by the end of the first lap. He quickly moved up to third and, with two laps to go, sped by Esslinger in the middle of the track.
Steve Millen, Stewart's Toyota teammate who won the first heat, agreed with Stewart on the preparation of the trucks for this course.
"The key tonight is the big jumps," Millen said. "Most people have to ease up, but fortunately our Toyotas are set up so we can hit the jumps flat out. I'm really happy with my truck, and I've told my crew, 'Don't do a thing. Just wash it.' "
Al Unser, the four-time Indianapolis 500 winner racing in only his fourth Off-Road Gran Prix Grand National Sport truck event over the past two seasons, found the jumps much different from an Indy oval.
In the first heat, Unser rolled his Jeep Comanche and spent a major part of that race hanging upside down, waiting to be flipped over. Unser didn't realize that the rules no longer allow this during the race, as it was in the past.
"It was just a matter of not knowing what the truck could do," Unser said. "You got to learn how they feel and what you should and shouldn't do.
"These guys are not asleep," he said of his racing reputation. "A guy is not going to come in here just because he's got credentials. It means nothing."
The Mazda racing team surprised everyone in the Sport Truck class when it took a 75-point lead in the Manufacturers' Cup point standings after the first race of the series Jan. 23 in Anaheim.
Toyota, which has won five consecutive Manufacturers' Cups, at no time last year had more than a 32-point lead during the eight-race series.
"I was incredibly surprised," said Steve Millen of Mazda's showing in Anaheim. "The more you are champion and continue to win, the harder it is."
In Anaheim, Mazda teammates Jeff Huber and Glenn Harris finished 1-2.
"We're going after it again," Stewart said. "There is a lot of experience out there now. It's just hard to beat that much experience."
But Saturday night, Mazda's success continued as Rod Millen won the second heat and team owner Glen Harris won the main event.
There were no local winners among the six events. Lemon Grove's Marty Coyne finished second in the Unlimited Super 1600 behind Frank Arciero Jr. of Laguna Hills. El Cajon's Ron Pierce placed second in the SuperLites behind Russ East of San Bernardino. La Costa's Don Turk, the defending 4-wheel ATV champion, got caught in an early pack and never recovered, finishing fourth.