In 30 years of Baja 500 off-road races, no one has driven like Ivan Stewart. The Ironman has won 11 times overall, seven times in the last nine years.
Last Saturday, a day after his 54th birthday, Stewart won by driving solo in his Tundra Racing Toyota V-8 Trophy-Truck for 447 miles over a rugged desert course in the northern part of Baja California.
Then he said it will be his last 500.
An accident barely two miles off the starting line in Ensenada killed a Mexican spectator and severely injured Stewart's son, Craig. Eight others, among them Craig's wife, Sherrie, were also injured when Jason Baldwin lost control of his pickup truck at a highway crossing and flew into the crowd alongside the course.
"I don't blame Jason," Stewart said. "He was just driving aggressively, the way a racer should. But I am concerned over how fast our vehicles are going and how crowded conditions have become in Baja. I would like to turn this tragedy into a positive.
"When I first started racing in Baja, we were running 80 [mph] tops, except maybe Parnelli [Jones] could hit 100 in his big Bronco. Now, it's commonplace for cars and trucks to go 100, and we get up to 130 in our truck. And we race over 500 miles with no fences, barriers or protection for spectators or residents.
"I am not retiring, but I want to work with SCORE [the off-road sanctioning body] to start educating people--drivers, crews, sponsors, spectators, everyone involved. We've got to educate people to make our racing safer."
Stewart plans to run in the Baja 1000 in November and several races next year in Nevada. The 1000 traditionally starts farther out of Ensenada and runs through more remote areas than the 500, which is a circle race starting and finishing in Ensenada.
Drivers started at 30-second intervals last Saturday. Jim Baldwin, 60, of Irvine, was first off the line in a Ford. Second was his son, Jason, 29, in the family's other Ford.
As Jason approached the Tecate highway crossing--a favorite viewing area--he was about to overtake his father. However, instead of making a left turn onto the highway, the younger Baldwin's truck rolled and sailed into the onlookers.
Ivan Stewart was the fourth Trophy-Truck off the starting line.
"I came by about a minute later and saw Jason's truck upside down on the side of the road, but that is nothing unexpected in off-road racing," said Stewart. "I had no idea anyone was injured, least of all my son and daughter-in-law."
Craig was going to drive in another class for smaller trucks later in the day, but decided to watch his father come through the highway crossing.
"Linda [Ivan's wife] was in the Toyota helicopter following me when SCORE called for it to help with the injured people. When it set down, Mark Johnson, our team manager, went to help and discovered that Craig was one of the injured.
"It wasn't until I was about an hour into the race when I heard someone say that Craig was in stable condition. I called back on the radio and they told me he had a bruised shoulder and a bad headache, not to worry."
Dale Carrison, the SCORE medical director who is also head of the trauma unit at Las Vegas Medical Center, was concerned that it was worse than it appeared and said that Craig should be flown to San Diego for a CT scan.
"When the race was over, the last I had heard was that Craig was getting checked out at the UC San Diego hospital. I packed up and drove home to Alpine [about 40 miles east of San Diego], expecting to find Linda and Craig with his shoulder in a sling.
"When I got there, the phone was ringing off the hook. Linda said to get to San Diego quick, that Craig was having major brain surgery."
The CT scan had shown a massive blood clot on the brain.
"The chain of circumstances is really unbelievable," Stewart said. "Craig was in a major trauma accident Saturday, had major surgery Saturday night, was in intensive care Sunday, in a regular hospital room Monday, and on Tuesday they told him he could go home.
"He still faces probably six months' recovery, but at least he's home. Sherrie's OK too. She had a cut on top of her head."
Mexican federal police charged Baldwin with excessive speeding and reckless driving, but he was permitted to return home to Laguna Beach.
Paul Fish, vice president of SCORE International, said Thursday his organization will not make any decisions about Baldwin's future in racing until after a lengthy review.
The long-awaited Senior Championship Racing Assn. will make its preseason debut this weekend as part of the Motor Trend Thunder Historic road races at the Marine Corps Air Station in Tustin.
The senior drivers, all of whom are retired, include former world Formula One champion Jack Brabham, Indy 500 winners Gordon Johncock and Rodger Ward, off-road champion Roger Mears, IMSA champion Gene Felton, and John Morton, Kevin Cogan and Jerry Grant. Each will be paired with a celebrity driver in pro-am competition.