The Baja 1000, an annual Mexican off-road odyssey down the Baja peninsula, has always been one of the world's most challenging endurance adventures, but when it ends in La Paz, it takes on added interest.
Next week, for the first time since 1995 and the 14th time in 31 years, the 1,062-mile race will end at the sleepy fishing village on the Sea of Cortez. However, the race will start for the first time Thursday morning at Santo Tomas, on the Pacific Ocean side in the northwestern part of the peninsula.
Larry Ragland, who drives a Chevrolet C1500 pickup for the White Lightning team in the featured Trophy-Truck division, will be going for his fourth consecutive overall win.
"To win the Tecate SCORE Baja 1000 overall once is a career milestone. To win it three years in a row is almost beyond comprehension," said the Phoenix veteran. "In nearly 20 years of challenging Baja, I had won only once [a class victory in 1991] before the last three incredible years. It's really too much to even think about winning four straight."
The competition includes Toyota Trophy Truck drivers Ivan Stewart, a two-time overall winner who earned the nickname "Ironman" by driving solo in the 1000, and CART champ car driver Robby Gordon, the 1989 overall winner who was second to Ragland last year.
Stewart may be driving solo, but during the race, his Precision Preparation Inc. team will support him with 120 crew members, two airplanes, two tractor-trailers, a helicopter and 16 support vehicles.
"By the time next Thursday comes, I will have made four complete trips down to the tip of Baja pre-running the course," said Stewart, who drew the No. 1 starting position.
Gordon will have Greg Till with him in the Toyota cab.
"The benefit of having a co-rider is it takes one-third the time to change a tire, and we work as a team recalling different aspects of the course." said Gordon, whose racing plans for 1999 are still on hold.
"The Baja 1000 is such a long race, it's also nice to have someone with you to keep you focused and awake. We expect to take about 16 hours if everything goes well. Whenever I think we're going to hit something hard, I tell Greg to hang on. He always says that he's been hanging on since the start."
Veteran Indy car driver Mike Groff will make his off-road racing debut in an open-wheel SCORE Lites car with experienced Baja racer Ted Smith and Marty Fiolka.
Also entered are Rod Hall, 59, who has 15 class victories while racing in all 30 previous 1000s; Larry Roeseler, an 11-time class winner (10 on motorcycles), driving a Team MacPherson Chevrolet S-10; and Bob Gordon, Robby's father, who will co-drive with Frank Arciero Jr. in a Toyota-powered mid-engine Chenowith desert race car.
"I feel kind of like John Glenn, getting back in the heat of things with all these youngsters," said Hall, who will drive an AM Hummer he built in his Reno shop.
With Jeff Gordon having clinched the Winston Cup championship before Sunday's final race in Atlanta, NASCAR interest is focused on Las Vegas and three Sam's Town races this weekend.
Ron Hornaday and Jack Sprague will battle over 250 miles for the Craftsman Truck championship Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and the Winston West and Featherlite Southwest Tour crowns will be decided Saturday night on the same 1.5-mile oval.
After 26 races, Hornaday, the 1996 champion, holds a 13-point lead over Sprague, the defending champion. They have swapped the lead 11 times since Hornaday won the opening race and Sprague finished second.
"It ought to be one dandy race because neither of us can just ride around," said Sprague, who won last year's title by finishing second to Joe Ruttman at Las Vegas. "Ron knows what he's up against and I know what I'm up against. We can't do anything else but win and hope Ron can't run second."
That's the scenario. If Hornaday wins or runs second, he becomes the first Craftsman Truck repeat champion. If neither wins, Sprague needs to finish five positions ahead of Hornaday.
"The Lord keeps you humble," Hornaday said. "When you start counting your chickens before they hatch, he kind of knocks you down with a broken axle or a brake line coming loose."
Both drive Chevrolet pickups, Hornaday for Teresa Earnhardt and Sprague for Hendrick Motorsports, the same team Gordon drives for.
Also entered are Hershel McGriff, who will turn 71 in December, and former motocross champion Jeff Ward, who has been driving in IRL open-wheel races.
In Winston West, Kevin Harvick of Bakersfield needs only to finish 13th or better in the Sam's Town 125 to become champion. Sean Woodside of Saugus is the only threat to Harvick in the 14-race series.
The Southwest Tour final will come down to a 90-mile shootout with 1994 champion Steve Portenega, defending champion Bryan Germone, M.K. Kanke and John Metcalf in contention. Portenega, winner of the Los Angeles Street Race, can win by finishing fifth or better.
Harvick plans to run all three races.