Most days you will find Marcus Mallett at Rex's Auto Parts on Main Street in county territory just north of Carson, but his thoughts are back in the garage of his Gardena home where a black IROC Z stock car waits to be tinkered with.
Mallett envisions a career as a full-time professional stock-car racer, but for now, wearing a sweat shirt and hat covered with grease, Mallett mans the telephones in the wooden shed. Someday, says the man struggling to be noticed, all of this will be behind him.
"I don't want to have to go to the yard and run that place every day," Mallett said.
Trouble is, this is Southern California, not known to have a lot of stock-car fanatics. Furthermore, he is black, which he says works against him in a sport long dominated by white drivers from the South.
"Most people look at color first and then drivin' ability," he said.
Mallett may have furthered his dream of a pro career a couple of weeks ago when he picked up his first victory on asphalt in the IROC Z at Saugus Speedway. A few weeks earlier he made history when he became the first black racer to win a stock-car event on the dirt track at Ascot Park in Gardena. He now has won four races at Ascot.
The significance of his first victory at Ascot overshadowed the fact that he has been one of the most consistent performers there in the last five years. In the Curb Motorsports NASCAR Winston Racing Series, he was second overall a year ago and third in 1986. That, he says, is testimony to his ability, and now it is time for a major stock-car sponsor to give him a break.
None seems ready. Big cities and stock racing have never hit it off. Populous Southern California is the bush leagues of short-track auto racing. The prize money on the West Coast just isn't very high. An average dirt race nets only $500 for the winner. In the Midwest and South, the money would be three times that.
His Saugus performance may have landed him a parts sponsorship from a Gardena cam shop, but the fact remains that a new engine costs about $12,000. Mallett says he has never made more than $10,000 in any year, and things are no better now, despite the best start of his career.
"Times are hard. I have two boys. I've got to bring them up," he said. "I can't starve them."
Subtle racism off the track is one of his biggest competitors, he said. His wife, Lori, who is white, has been subjected to racial slurs at some races, he added, although Mallett is quick to point out that fellow drivers do not take part in that.
"Most of the drivers accept me as a driver," he said. "It's the people in the stands (who carry on)."
Mallett is frustrated because what he sees as a large black business community in Los Angeles has yet to discover him. Reality, he acknowledges, is that big-money men seldom venture west of the Mississippi River. Yet he wonders aloud what it would be like if he was a black man trying to break into stocks somewhere in the South.
Father Pays Racing Bills
"It might be worse," he said.
Marcus' father, Walt, through the family business, has paid most of his son's racing bills. Last year he spent "about $40,000." Marcus returns the favor by working in the auto parts business, which Walt has owned for 27 years.
"I hate to keep soaking my old man," Marcus said. "I want to take the pressure off him and let him come to the track to have some fun."
Rex's is a fine place if you do not mind getting your hands dirty, or if you are interested in a good price on a used foreign auto part, but it is not where Marcus wants to spend the rest of his life. Between queries for parts over an intercom system that links area junkyards, Mallett's thoughts drift to his 1986 dirt stock Trans Am being repaired a few blocks away.
On a slow day there is another stock car out in the yard to tinker with. It looks out of place amid stacks of wrecked Fiats and Mazdas, but that 1976 Monte Carlo brings back memories. Its right side was bashed in during its last Enduro race, a grueling, slamming, banging tangle of smoking autos.
Star High School Athlete
Mallett moves through the dirt and grime from cracked pistons and snapped cams. Motor oil stains the adobe ground a purplish black. Grime clings to everything. Palms are constantly dirty, and anyone who works or visits there leaves with odors of auto fluids in their clothes.
Rex's is a junk parts business that Walt renamed after a dead dog when he relocated seven years ago. A former General Motors auto worker, he runs the place with help from Marcus, an older sister who calls herself "Ms. Deb" and a couple of employees. It is not unlike a dozen places along Main Street north of the 91 Freeway. But it is a far cry from where Mallett, 29, was a decade ago as a standout cornerback and shortstop at Cerritos High School.
Mallett envisioned furthering his athletic career after his senior year in high school, but at 5-foot-5 and only 125 pounds, "what future did I have in football?"