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SPORTS WEEKEND | MOTOR RACING / SHAV GLICK

Roeseler Goes Back to Desert With a Truck Around Him

March 07, 1997|SHAV GLICK

The switch from two-wheelers to four-wheelers has tempted nearly every rider who ever won a motorcycle championship. Some, like former world champion John Surtees and former national champion Joe Leonard, reached the pinnacle in both elements.

Most have not. Kenny Roberts tried cars after winning three world cycle titles and gave it up. Eddie Lawson and Jeff Ward more recently made the switch with only moderate success. Kevin Schwantz won the world road-racing crown and is trying his luck in stock cars in Australia, still looking for his first win in a major race.

The latest to leave motorcycles for bigger equipment is Larry Roeseler, perhaps the finest desert rider ever. Roeseler, 40, is sticking with desert racing, but in an off-road truck.

No one is likely to match his riding record, which includes 10 Baja 1000s--four in a row between 1988 and 1991--nine Baja 500s and 10 gold medals in the International Six-Day Enduro, considered the Olympics of motorcycling. He was named "rider of the decade" by Dirt Rider magazine In 1990.

Saturday, Roeseler will be in Team MacPherson's Class 7 Chevrolet 4 x 4 pickup truck in the 11th annual SCORE Tecate San Felipe 250 in Baja California.

"Why did I quit racing my Kawasaki? I'll give you 13 reasons," he said as his truck was being prepared under the watchful eye of former driver Jerry McDonald in the MacPherson shop in Irvine.

"Thirteen broken bones," he continued. "Seriously, after nearly 35 years of riding--I got my first minibike when I was 5--I thought it was time to move on. All that riding had taken its toll of my body."

Roeseler got the ride in MacPherson's truck because last year's driver, Jeff Lewis of San Clemente, moved up to SCORE's Trophy Truck class. He will also be racing at San Felipe.

"When I made my decision to give up [cycle] racing, I knew I wanted to stay competitive, so I had Curt LeDuc help me build a pre-runner. I even drove with him in a race, and that showed a lot of folks that I was serious about staying with desert racing.

"When the season started last year, I still had no program, but I let Jerry McDonald know that I was interested in finding a ride. He told me MacPherson was building a Trophy Truck for Jeff Lewis to drive, and that left a spot open for 'Little Mac.' "

McDonald, a longtime MacPherson campaigner, split driving chores with Roeseler and they won six of seven races and the team's fourth consecutive championship. This year, McDonald stepped aside and left the driving to Roeseler.

"Having raced motorcycles in the desert really helps, the way it helped Malcolm Smith when he left motorcycles to race desert buggies," Roeseler said. "You have to read the terrain the same way and adjust your speed to conditions, things that are absolute necessities on a bike.

"I'm still learning that I can negotiate bumps a little faster than before. On a motorcycle, one mistake and you're on your head. The truck is more forgiving. If you make a mistake, it can be hard on the equipment, but you're still in one piece. Once a race starts, though, the thrill is still there, the challenge to go as fast as you possibly can."

Roeseler's decision to retire from bike racing was hastened by the death of his close friend, Danny Hamel, in an Baja racing accident in 1995. He and Hamel had won the 1994 Baja 1000 together.

FORMULA ONE

Once again, a Formula One season starts with no American driver, no American team and no race in the United States. The opener is the Australian Grand Prix on Melbourne's Albert Park circuit Sunday.

Frank Williams' team dominated last year with 12 victories--eight by champion Damon Hill and four by rookie Jacques Villeneuve--in 16 races, and indications point to another season of success.

Villeneuve, the precocious Canadian who won the Indianapolis 500 and the Indy car championship two years ago at 23, is an odds-on favorite to win the title that eluded his father, Gilles, who had six tumultuous seasons before he was killed during practice for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix.

Williams, who hired Heinz-Harald Frentzen to replace Hill in hopes of winning a ninth constructors championship, also faces manslaughter charges in Italy stemming from the death of three-time champion Ayrton Senna in 1994.

Williams, technical director Patrick Head and designer Adrian Newey are expected to testify late in April when the Grand Prix season reaches Imola for the San Marino Grand Prix on April 27. Italian prosecutors contend that Senna was killed because of a badly welded steering column and that Williams, Head and Newey are responsible. Williams claims the crash caused the break.

Hill, who was fired by Williams before the season ended last year, has hooked on with Tom Walkinshaw's Arrows team, but few expect much from them. The Mugen-Honda engine Walkingshaw had planned on using did not materialize and the team will be using Yamaha V-10 engines.

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