The paths that led Geoff Brabham, Danny Sullivan, Bill Elliott and Rusty Wallace into contention for 1988 driver of the year all started in the minor leagues of motor racing.
Raw talent must be honed and recognized before a driver can move up and race competitively in the big leagues of Indy cars, stock cars and prototype sports cars.
Brabham, who won 8 straight International Motor Sports Assn. main events in a row this year in a prototype Nissan, and Sullivan, the Indy car champion, both started in Formula Fords--Brabham in his native Australia and Sullivan in England.
Elliott and Wallace, who battled to the final race before Elliott won NASCAR's premier championship, each raced stock cars for 12 years on tiny neighborhood tracks before moving to the superspeedways.
From the stock car bullrings and the side attraction races on Indy car and sports car programs come the champions of the future and one of the names that surfaced in 1988 was Stuart Hayner, an automotive after-market accessories business owner from Yorba Linda. Hayner won both the inaugural Corvette Challenge and the Escort Endurance championship in Sports Car Club of America showroom stock competitions.
Hayner, however, may not be your driver of the year of the future. At 39 he is already older than Brabham, Sullivan, Elliott or Wallace.
"People told me that if I won the Corvette Challenge the phone would be ringing off the wall with offers," Hayner said with a wry smile. "Well, I'm still waiting for the ring. All I want is to drive for a good competitive team where I can continue to show my talent. Eventually, I'd like to move up to GTP."
Hayner did receive a $100,000 champion's bonus from the $1 million Corvette purse, however, a prize he shared with teammate/actor Bobby Carradine of Los Angeles. They drove cars sponsored by auto dealer Tom Bell of Redlands.
"We agreed before the season that we'd split everything down the middle. The cars cost $45,000 each to campaign for the season so we didn't make a heck of a lot of money, but we beat some pretty good drivers in what I call a driver's series."
The inaugural Corvette series attracted an unusual range of talent, including 3-time Indy 500 winner Johnny Rutherford, perennial ice racing champions Tommy and Bobby Archer, noted women drivers Desire Wilson and Robin Dallenbach, sports car veteran Doc Bundy and Olympic decathlon gold medalist Bruce Jenner.
Juan Manuel Fangio II, nephew of the former Formula One world champion of the same name, finished second to Hayner and has already been tabbed by team manager Dan Gurney to drive a GTP Toyota in IMSA next year.
"I almost quit the series when I felt that the people in charge were trying to equalize things by handicapping my car, and some of the others who weren't big names," Hayner said. "I was really embarrassed at Riverside, my home track. I had two good finishes before coming home and I brought out some potential sponsors and all my friends were there. When the race started, the car felt like a piece of junk and I dropped back to 22nd before I managed to move up to 15th. The radar gun showed that my car was 11 m.p.h. slower than the top car down the straight, and the cars were supposed to be equal. I really caused some stink about what I felt was favoritism and some things were changed. Toward the end of the seasons the cars seemed equal again, the way they were advertised."
In the Escort Endurance series, Hayner drove a Camaro for the Morrison-Cook team and edged teammate Bob McConnell for the championship.
"I don't plan to run the Escort series next year," he said. "It was too tough trying to make both races on the same weekend."
For instance, on Sept. 24-25 he first qualified his Corvette at Mosport, near Toronto, on Saturday. Then he flew by private plane to Lexington, Ohio, where he drove the Camaro in a 12-hour race Saturday night at Mid-Ohio. Sunday morning he was back at Mosport barely in time for the driver's meeting. He won the race that afternoon, the only one race he won in the 10-race Challenge series.
The win at Mosport moved Hayner into the season lead by 8 points over Fangio and all he had to do in the season finale at Sebring, Fla., was finish within one position of the Argentine driver to win the $100,000.
"I didn't feel like I was driving defensively, but I admit that I was paying attention to where Fangio was and where I was," Hayner said. "I drove as hard as I could, but I was looking for all the gremlins that can come and get you."
Hayner finished fifth and Fangio seventh as the race was won by Mark Wolocatiuk of Riverside. Wolocatiuk ended up fifth in points.
"I'll be back in the Corvette Challenge next year, for sure," Hayner said. "I'd like to do some (IMSA) GTO or Trans Am races, too."
Hayner also drove with Doug Goad in a Firebird to win a 4-hour race at Sebring back in March in the IMSA-sanctioned Firehawk Grand Sport Endurance series.