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SPORTS WEEKEND | MOTOR RACING

From Morocco to Baja, Ragland Is Run Ragged

June 06, 1997|SHAV GLICK

After racing nearly 2,000 miles through the wilds of Morocco, 470 miles in the Baja 500 may seem like a cup of tea for Larry Ragland.

Ragland, a three-time Baja winner, recently ran a Chevrolet Protruck in the 15th annual Savane Atlas 97 rally, eight days of high-speed running that included the 10,000-foot Atlas Mountains and the southern plains of the Western Sahara.

Saturday, he will take off from Ensenada in a Chevrolet Trophy Truck in the 24th Tecate SCORE Baja 500.

"It'll be much rougher in Baja," Ragland, 44, said from Ensenada after a day of pre-running portions of the 500

course. "We race over the same roads we've raced for years before, and we've all been over them pre-running, so the ruts keep getting deeper and the whoop-de-dos rougher and rougher.

"In the Atlas, there was no pre-running and the course had not been raced over before. Consequently, it was both smoother and faster. We went over some roads in the mountains that definitely weren't designed for motor vehicles. They were so narrow I wondered at times if we'd get through."

Ragland faces an unusual situation in the Baja. In Morocco, he was driving an Axtel Protruck designed and built by veteran off-road racer Ivan Stewart.

"Ivan was originally going to race, to demonstrate his Protruck, but when he couldn't make it, he recommended me," Ragland said. "I enjoyed it so much I want to race in the Paris-to-Dakar rally next year. That lasts 18 days."

But in Saturday's 500, Ragland will be racing against Stewart, who will be unveiling his Toyota developmental V-8 engine. With more than 500 horsepower, the 4.9-liter engine produces 150 more horsepower than the previous generation V-6 desert off-road engine.

"Just listening to the engine, you can hear the added horsepower," said Stewart, who will celebrate his 52nd birthday during the race. "We've tested about 600 miles, but I can't wait to get out there in a real race."

Curt LeDuc of Cherry Valley is favored Saturday after having won three consecutive Trophy Truck races in his Jeep Grand Cherokee. Ragland, who won in 1982 and 1984, is seventh in points. Stewart, a seven-time overall winner, will be in his first race of 1997.

A Trophy Truck, bigger, heavier and more powerful than a Protruck, would be unable to compete in a rally such as the Atlas, according to Ragland.

"For one thing, it's so big, I don't think the trails we ran on would hold it," he said. "And for another, you couldn't carry enough fuel. My Trophy Truck has twice the horsepower of the Protruck, and gets about two miles to the gallon. There were some stages as long as 450 miles between fuel in Africa. We couldn't carry that much petrol.

"The mountain stages were phenomenal. We spent three or four hours one day, just climbing passes into the clouds, up and down. The passes were at 10,000 feet and the air was really thin.

"You couldn't see past the front of the truck with all the clouds, mist and rain. I think all we were running on were goat trails that ran through thousand-year-old villages. And I think some of the trails were that old too."

Ragland did all the driving in the Protruck, finishing fifth overall and first in a class for two-wheel-drive vehicles, such as Citroens, Mitsubishis, Toyotas, Peugeots and Nissans. The Protruck was the only U.S.-built vehicle among the 170 entrants. Ragland was the only American driver.

Marc LaJara, a French national, navigated for Ragland.

"Marc was very familiar with the GPS [Global Positioning System] units and tracking the headings, but he had never been a navigator in a rally before," Ragland said. "So, picture this: Here's a U.S. off-roader that's never been in a rally, that doesn't speak French, with a Frenchman with a heavy accent, navigating an American across 3,000 kilometers of African territory that neither of them have seen before--all at racing speeds."

Unlike SCORE races, in which drivers and teams learn the route by pre-running, in the African rally no one knows or sees the next day's course until the navigator is handed a route book by the organizers.

"At first, it was difficult getting used to, but after a couple of days I came to believe it is much safer and much fairer," Ragland said. "Their way, everyone is on equal footing every time out. We could learn a lot from their way. It's much less expensive, too, by eliminating all the pre-running time and expenses."

NASCAR

Jeff Gordon is defending champion in Sunday's Pocono 500, but past performances don't mean much on the 2.5-mile Pocono Raceway oval. No driver has won the June race in consecutive years since Bobby Allison in 1982 and 1983.

Las Vegas Motor Speedway will hold a stock car doubleheader Saturday night, with a Winston West 150 on the 1.5-mile superspeedway after a Featherlite Southwest Tour event on the modified road course. Butch Gilliland, Gary Smith and Sean Woodside are leading contenders in the Winston West main event.

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