Clark Gable was the bigger-than-life prototype of the rugged individual when he was a motion picture icon more than four decades ago.
John Clark Gable, his son, hopes some of that rugged demeanor will carry over this week--not on the silver screen but on the rough and dusty trails that make up the Baja 500 off-road race. He and another son-of-a-famous-personality, Dodd Darin, son of singer Bobby Darin and actress Sandra Dee, will drive a Ford-150 Trophy Truck in the feature class of the 31st Tecate SCORE race Saturday in Baja California.
It is no coincidence, says John Clark, that his favorite movie involving his father is "To Please a Lady," in which Clark Gable played a race car driver.
"My father died [in 1960] four months before I was born," said John Clark, 39, "but I think my father's love of auto racing, which I learned about from my mother, has been a special bond with his memory. My mom [the former Kay Spreckels] tried to discourage me from racing but I just knew it was in my blood. She even hid all my dad's racing memorabilia from me."
A yellow racing helmet belonging to the late Ayrton Senna is the centerpiece on the living room mantle of Gable's ranch-style home in Malibu.
"Did you ever see him race?" John asks a guest, his eyes gleaming as he recalls his own memories of the great Brazilian Formula One driver. "He was the greatest, the absolute greatest."
On either side of the helmet are trophies from Gable's past successes, first place in the CRC Hare and Hound Christmas Grand Prix motorcycle race, second place in the Tecate Baja 1000 in 1992, and an assortment of lesser prizes.
"I drove the 1000 solo in a Ford Ranger," he says proudly. "All 22 1/2 hours."
His garage is a collection of racing equipment, mostly motorcycles that he and his 11-year-old son, Clark, ride in District 37 desert races as members of the famous Viewfinders MC.
"I've been riding motorcycles since I was seven when my godmother, Winnie Lee, bought me a Honda 50 mini trail bike, much against my mother's wishes. She told me that my dad used to ride his Triumph in the dirt back before there was such a thing as a dirt bike. I used to ride all over my family's ranch in Encino."
The 22-acre ranch became John's personal practice track. When he was 11, he had an offer from Yamaha to ride factory mini-bikes, but his mother turned it down. Later, he raced motocross until he was into his 20s, when he switched to race trucks.
"I'll never forget, when I was 23, I rode in my first truck race, the 1983 Barstow Classic and when I lined up, I looked at the truck next to me and it was Parnelli Jones. That was very exciting, to say the least."
Gable was SCORE rookie of the year in 1984.
When Gable was in kindergarten, his best friend was Dodd Darin, and they have remained close through the years.
"My mother used to get real upset when I spent all my time hanging out with John because she knew I'd be riding one of his bikes most of the time," Darin said, "but she always knew where to find me because I was usually over at the Gable ranch."
Darin, 38, has raced Formula Fords and other open-wheel cars, but has never driven in a desert off-road race.
"When John started planning to drive the Baja race this year, he asked me if I'd like to go along and do a little driving," said Darin. "I'd never done anything like that, but I said, 'Let's do it.' We've been testing in Baja and pre-running on dirt bikes. I'm looking forward to the experience."
Darin's father died in 1973 after an illustrious singing career. Dodd was 12.
"It's ironic," Darin said. "My father was a huge Clark Gable fan but never had the chance to work with him. Now, I get to co-star with a Gable."
Darin plans a return to open-wheel racing next year and is trying to talk Gable into joining him.
"We are both going to driving school and we have a bet that whoever is quickest on the last day gets his four days of school paid for," said Darin.
"Make that a year of racing," Gable challenged.
The trophy truck was built by Curt LeDuc, a longtime Baja and off-road racing veteran, in his shop in Beaumont.
"Curt builds the best, it's a state-of-the-art truck," said Gable. "It will look distinctive too. My wife, Lexe, designed the paint job in keeping with our sponsor, ArtoftheStars.com."
ArtoftheStars.com is an on-line gallery that features art work done by and of celebrities. Among them are ceramics created by Gable and his Gablex Potteries.
"John should do well in the race," said LeDuc, whose regular crew will tend to Gable's truck while LeDuc co-drives in the mini-truck class. "The truck will get up to 115 mph and that's all you need on the roads in Baja. Speed is not as important as handling.
"John has been racing in the desert for the past 10 years and that will help him. He knows how to read the desert now better than he did when he raced trucks years ago, and this will be the best equipment he's ever had. I'd say his chances of getting a top-three finish are pretty good."