The Animal Returns : Fishback Drives in Off-Road Races at Orange Show Track

Times Staff Writer

For nearly nine years, Jim Fishback Jr. of Etiwanda was the hometown favorite when he rode his speedway bike here at Inland Motorcycle Speedway on the Orange Show Grounds.

They called Fishback the Animal because of his gung-ho attitude. He rode on the brink of disaster whether he was leading or trailing the pack. Then Fishback discovered closed-course off-road racing and left speedway and his Inland Empire pals behind.

Tonight, driving a Chenowth Super 1600 buggy, the Animal will return to Orange Show Stadium in a four-wheeler as part of Mickey Thompson's Off Road Championship Gran Prix cast.

"It's motocross with four wheels," Fishback enthused as he and his father prepared their cars for tonight's show. "The only difference is you can't control the car with body English."

Jim Fishback Sr. will drive a new Volkswagen Golf-bodied car in the ultrastock class.

"I had to get my dad out of my class and into his own," Fishback Jr. said. "He was one of my toughest competitors. If he got ahead of me, he wouldn't let me pass. I said, 'Hey, Dad, cut it out. We're in this together.' Now he can block out somebody else."

Fishback, who graduated from Alta Loma High in 1972, is 31 now, a statistic that may shock some of his followers. He has helped pioneer two mushrooming sports in Southern California--motocross and speedway--and is heavily involved in a third.

When he was a teen-ager living in Fontana, Fishback raced in the desert and in 1971 earned No. 1 plates for the 250cc class of the AMA District 37 desert racing. He was good, but he wanted more recognition.

"I'd be racing across the desert and do these crazy things and no one would ever see me," he said. "When I do an endo (over the handlebars), I want someone to see me! Then I found out they'd pay me to ride motocross in front of a crowd, so that's what I did next."

Fishback rode motocross at Saddleback and Carlsbad in the John DeSoto era, when the Flying Hawaiian was the best in the West and Brad Lackey, America's first world champion, was a 16-year-old beginner.

Fishback, one of the biggest speedway riders at 6 feet and 185 pounds, made it all the way to the U.S. finals in his rookie year in 1975, and, until he quit three years ago, was one of the sport's most competitive riders. He rode in the era that produced Bruce Penhall, the first world champion from the United States in more than 40 years, and against the best riders in the country, won his share of main events.

"Speedway is a young man's sport," Fishback said. "I finally had to get out, and luckily for me, Mickey (Thompson) was starting his closed-course off-road racing at the time. I can do some of the same crazy things I did on my bike, but it's a heck of a lot safer if I crash."

Fishback took a look earlier this week at the new course Thompson built for tonight's 17-race program and rates it better than the old L.A. Fairgrounds track in Pomona. After two races there this year, Thompson was forced to move because fair officials are enlarging the horse racing track. He chose the Orange Show Stadium track, where stock cars normally race Saturday nights.

"I think you'll see more exciting racing," Fishback said. "They've got an asphalt section that's gonna give some of those guys all kinds of fits. There's a tight turn and nearly a full straightaway of pavement, and there's a whole lot of difference racing on pavement and on dirt. There's another new thing, a ditch to jump over. It's not dangerous, but it's going to look awful scary from the stands."

The Fishbacks are also developing a new five-speed transmission, based on a motorcycle concept, that doesn't use a clutch.

"We'll have it out there Saturday night, but it might not be ready to race. When it's finished, I think it will revolutionize closed course off-road racing because it will be more reliable," Fishback said. "There won't all that terrible strain on the gear box that we have now."

With or without the new transmission, Fishback hopes that returning to his old Orange Show haunts will favor him against Super 1600 favorites Jerry Welchel, Frank Arciero Jr., Ken Kazarian and Bob Gordon.

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