Pickup trucks, with drivers such as Ivan Stewart and Roger Mears, and the unlimited single-seaters, with Bob Gordon and Al Arciero, have hogged most of the headlines in Mickey Thompson's Off-Road Champion Gran Prix series, but for sheer excitement and thrills, the ATV three-wheelers are beginning to steal the show.
The little crab-like machines, mostly Hondas and Kawasakis, scoot across the rough terrain--hence their name, all-terrain vehicle--up and over dangerous man-made obstacles, with the same verve as the four-wheelers but without the balance. It is difficult to flip a low-slung single-seater, or even a truck, but the three-wheelers look as if they are on the ragged edge of tipping at every corner.
Jimmy White, 24, a Des Moines, Iowa, farm boy who now spends most of his time in Southern California, where the off-road action is, is the sport's main practitioner. He is the leader of Team Green for Kawasaki and won last year's Gran Prix series. He leads the American Motorcyclist Assn.'s Grand National series but trails in Gran Prix points because he missed one of the three events while he was racing in the East.
White was a teen-age motocross rider in Iowa for six years before he discovered three-wheelers.
"All the farmers around Des Moines had ATVs, and weekends we'd get together and run through the woods and out in the fields," he said. "Pretty soon, we were racing. About that time I read about three-wheelers being big in Southern California, so I drove out here and got in some races. That was 1982. I drove back and forth from Iowa six times. I'd usually stay for a week or two and then go home. Everybody raced Hondas then because there wasn't any other kind to ride."
In June 1983, Kawasaki came out with a racing version of its three-wheeler, the Tecate, and tabbed White to campaign it.
"My first race on the Tecate was up in Santa Cruz in the Coyote Nationals, and I won it," White said. "I had the only green bike among all the Hondas, and all the other guys tried to pass it off as a fluke, but I came back to beat them nearly every race that summer.
"It seems like a long time ago, so much has changed. I remember the first time I raced an ATV as a privateer. There were more racers than spectators, and I think the winner got $50. Now, we get good crowds at the AMA Nationals, and four or five riders are making between $75,000 and $125,000, counting winnings and factory bonuses and things like that."
White still lives in Des Moines, but he spends much of the year in Yorba Linda, near the Kawasaki test facility.
Round 4 in the five-race Gran Prix series is set for Saturday night at the Coliseum, with Thompson predicting a crowd of 40,000. Each of the previous three events, two at the L.A. County Fairgrounds in Pomona and one in San Bernardino's Orange Show Stadium, were sellouts.
The three-wheelers will use the same track as the cars and will appear to be on the brink of disaster when they careen up 30 rows of Coliseum end-zone seats, make a 180-degree turn on the concrete beneath the peristyle and leap from the top row in a five-story drop back to the stadium floor. White maintains that--for the experts, at least--this course is no more dangerous than for the two-wheeled motocrossers who perform in Mike Goodwin's two-wheel Coliseum circus.
"I've never been really hurt on a three-wheeler," White said. "I broke more bones racing my motorcycle. But if there is a shortcoming in our sport, it is the lack of experienced riders in events like a Supercross. For instance, last week in Rochester, N.Y., we had a couple of double jumps, and there were only five or six riders who knew how to take them. The other guys either had to ride up and down over them, or risk crashing."
There will be no letup on the Coliseum course that Thompson laid out. Mears, after testing the new track, called it "half a mile of pure hell." And he was driving a truck.
STOCK CARS--Bobby Allison, irritated over being upstaged by No. 2 team driver Greg Sachs, quit Gardner Racing's DiGard team and will campaign his own car for the remainder of the NASCAR Winston Cup season. Allison will drive a Buick Regal in Sunday's Pocono 500. Sachs joined the team last month and promptly won the Firecracker 400 at Daytona in his first start. . . . Open competition cars will return Saturday night to Mesa Marin Raceway in Bakersfield. Most of the cars banged up in a July 6 fender-banging fiasco are expected back. Last week's race was postponed to Sept. 21 because of a lack of cars. . . . Hershel McGriff, 57, won the pole and the Winston West race at Yakima, Wash., last Saturday to cut into Jim Robinson's series lead. Robinson, the defending champion from North Hollywood, has 412 points to 383 for McGriff after eight races. . . . At Saugus Speedway, claimer stocks will race Friday night and modifieds Saturday night.
SPRINT CARS--Former champion Dean Thompson will return to Ascot Park for a 30-lap main event Saturday night after winning a Kraco-CRA race last Friday night at Phoenix in 112-degree weather. It was Thompson's 95th CRA win but his first in 14 years of trying at Manzanita Speedway. For the ninth time this season, the standings lead changed hands as Eddie Wirth, with two fourth-place finishes last weekend, moved past Brad Noffsinger, 1,241-1,210, followed closely by Mike Sweeney with 1,196.
MIDGETS--Tommy White, defending United States Auto Club western regional champion, will try for his third win Sunday night at Ascot Park in the Jolly Rancher series. Also on the program are SoCal Independent Drivers Assn. off-road buggies and mini-stocks.
SPEEDWAY CYCLES--Kelly Moran, two-time national champion, may miss the World Team Cup final Aug. 10 at Long Beach after breaking his left foot last week at Costa Mesa. At the same time, his younger brother, Shawn, was winning the Overseas Final qualifying round of the world championship in England. Shawn defeated England's Kenny Carter in a runoff. Also qualifying for the semifinal round of the world championships were John Cook, Sam Ermolenko and Lance King. The semifinals are scheduled Aug. 3 in Sweden. Ermolenko and King will be at Ascot Park tonight. . . . Bobby (Bugaloo) Schwartz is returing from British League competition next week to ride at Southland tracks. . . . Alan Christian has taken the lead in U.S. National qualifying with 5,625 points to 5,534 from former leader Mike Faria. The final qualifying race will be held July 31 at San Bernardino's Inland Speedway.
MOTORCYCLE TRIALS--The 16th annual El Trial de Espana, No. 1 event on the American Trials Assn. schedule, is set for Sunday in the Cactus Flat area near Big Bear Lake. It is a fund-raiser to send ATA riders to European competition later in the year. The sections will be laid out on the back road to Big Bear, between Lucerne Valley and Baldwin Lake. Riding will start at 10 a.m. Favorites are nationally ranked Scott Head from Northern California and two Whittier riders, Dave Webster and Matt Pritchard, who are battling for Southern California honors.
LAND SPEED--Don Carr of Montrose and Barry Kaplan of Sherman Oaks posted top speed of 262 m.p.h. in the SoCal Timing Assn.'s season finale at El Mirage Lake. The next SCTA event is scheduled Aug. 18-24 on the Bonneville salt flats in Utah. . . . Former Olympic bicyclist John Howard of Encinitas will attempt to set a world human-powered record Friday at Bonneville while pedaling his bike behind Rick Vesco's Streamliner. The record is 139 m.p.h. by Dr. Allen Abbott. Howard hopes to hit 160 on his highly modified bike through the measured mile.
NEWSWORTHY--Sam Hanks, winner of the 1957 Indianapolis 500, has been installed in the Michigan Motorsports Hall of Fame. Hanks drove midgets, stock cars and Indy cars in Michigan in 1939-40-41 and 1947-48-49.