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Off-Road Racer Downshifts Into Reality : Motor sports: The cost of competing catches up with South Gate's John Gersjes. He drives an 18-wheeler while his racing vehicles sit idly in his garage.

June 27, 1993|JIM HODGES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The trophies and plaques are testimony to a time when ESPN reporters stuck microphones in John Gersjes' face and told him to look at the red light.

There is a scrapbook that dates back to when he was 7, when there were motocross races to win. At 16 he was on four wheels, which seemed safer, and at 20, bigger trucks meant more sheet metal, more places to stick on more of the decals that would bring in more sponsorship money.

But the trucks sit in silence in a South Gate garage, for to bring them back to a full-throated roar would mean dipping into a treasury perhaps better used to set up housekeeping and keep his trucking business going.

Gersjes, 24, was married Saturday and the race cars seem the indulgences of a single man.

"Sometimes I say I'd give anything to get back in there," he said softly. "Then, I have to consider responsibility."

Reality is wrestling a 37,500-pound Peterbilt 18-wheel rig all over Southern California, carrying tons of scrap metal, dirt, rocks or whatever else needs hauling. Driving the rig takes concentration, but also leaves time for remembering the whine of 650-pound, 360cc Honda-powered Superlite machines as they leaped man-made hills before thousands of screaming fans in the Mickey Thompson Off-Road racing series.

"When I'm racing, my heart starts pumping," he said. "I get on such a natural high."

It's a rush that started earlier then most. Gersjes began racing in 1976 on an 80cc motocross bike at tracks across the country. As he grew, so did the bikes--to 125cc and 250cc--and the goals.

"Professional motocross riders can make good money," he said. "I hoped to get picked up by a factory team--Kawasaki, Suzuki."

But the bigger bikes and faster speeds also brought more danger. "In my sophomore year, I cracked a vertebrae in a race in Orange County," Gersjes said. "Then, in my second race back, I broke my ankle. I decided then that four wheels were safer."

Hustling money wherever he could, Gersjes did whatever he could: steam-cleaning big rigs and picking up rocks at the construction sites where his father, Al, worked.

Then, in 1986, opportunity knocked.

"My brother and my uncle had bought Odysseys, which are just like the Superlites we drive today, and my uncle crashed his," Gersjes says. "We fixed it up, and I got to drive it."

The entire Gersjes clan got involved, and John's first victory was a few months later at the Los Angeles Fairgrounds in Pomona. A second, at Houston in 1987, was nationally televised. "They did an interview with me on ESPN, and I didn't know what to do," he said, laughing.

The priorities of youth being what they are, study at St. John Bosco High paled in comparison. School eventually became a three- or four-day-a-week proposition on race weeks, because the cars needed hauling to Denver and Las Vegas and Seattle.

"I hadn't worried too much about the books, and I had gotten behind," Gersjes said. "My senior year, I took early classes--before school--and then went to regular school and night school to catch up.

"The football coach tried to get me to go out for the team," said the 6-foot-4, 255-pound Gersjes. "But I didn't have time. Sometimes I wish I had done it."

And even though Gersjes was winning at the Coliseum and in Las Vegas in 1988, the business was being transformed.

In 1989, Nature's Recipe, a pet food company, entered the Superlite class of the Mickey Thompson series by sponsoring a team of cars. The first-class, heavily bankrolled juggernaut, along with teams sponsored by two Las Vegas hotels and an oil company, have come to dominate the events and left the mom-and-pop operations that the Mickey Thompson people call "the backbone" of off-road racing relegated to sixth place, or worse.

Seeing what was happening in Superlite, and eager to compete on a higher plane, Gersjes decided to try UltraStock, the sport-utility truck class. He rented a Pathfinder--in effect, a much bigger billboard for sponsors--for a 1991 race at Anaheim Stadium. "It was all different," he said. "You had to shift gears, and it had a turning brake, so actually you're driving the car with one hand."

A Thursday practice run proved a disaster, but Gersjes learned quickly. "That night and Friday, I found myself closing my eyes and thinking about driving: seeing the course, downshifting, using the turn brake lever and accelerating."

By Saturday, he had an idea of what to do.

"That night, I qualified third," he says. "I finished second in the heat and fourth in the main event."

Gersjes bought the truck. The family tried to find sponsors and a couple of small ones were signed up. Nissan was heavily courted. "They gave us enough money to paint the car red, white and blue--Nissan's colors--and gave us body panels," Gersjes said.

But money to get the truck and a crew of volunteers to the stadiums around the country never materialized. And Nissan announced last year that it was getting out of off-road racing.

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