Morris a Mechanic With Drive to Drive : Off-Road Racer Prefers Being Behind the Wheel

Times Staff Writer

Tom Morris, a mechanically inclined youth, once built a go-kart and a minibike with spare parts. At age 16, he and his two brothers had 14 cars in bits and pieces spread across their parents' backyard in Brentwood.

So, when Morris had an opportunity to compete in his first off-road race in 1979, he did the logical thing. He traded his mechanical know-how for a chance to drive. Morris estimated he invested $6,000 worth of labor on longtime friend Steve Kelley's pickup truck in exchange for driving in the Baja 1000.

"I didn't have the finances to start racing, so I bartered with the only thing I had going for me," Morris said. "I had been a crew member for Steve for a year, but deep down, I always wanted to drive."

Morris finished third in the Baja 1000, which is considered one of the world's toughest off-road races. He decided the time was right to start racing professionally and persuaded a friend to sponsor him. For the next five years, Morris became one of the SCORE Off-Road circuit's most consistent drivers.

"I figured out that I've finished 90% of the races I've entered, and I've finished in the top four in 90% of the races I've finished," Morris said. "I've always thought that consistency is the measuring stick of a racer, and I've tried to be consistent in every race."

Morris, who lives in Westminster, finished second in his second Baja 1000, then won the event in 1981 and 1982. He was the Class Eight (two-wheel drive pickup trucks) series champion in 1982, but returned to production the following season.

Morris served as the chief crew mechanic for Cal Wells, helping to prepare Ivan Stewart's mini pickup trucks for the 1983 and 1984 seasons. Morris also competed in a couple of races last year, but spent most of his time running Wells' shop.

"I'd leave the shop late Friday night to pre-run a race all weekend and then return early Monday morning to run the shop," he said. "I finally had to decide if I wanted to be a shop manager or a race driver."

The mechanic turned racer once again. And as before, it was his former sponsor, Jim Hart, who helped finance his campaign. Morris finished second in the Barstow 250 late last season and was off the road again.

Sunday, the 30-year-old will compete in the Heavy Metal Challenge for pickup trucks at Riverside Raceway, the feature race of the SCORE Off-Road World Championship. He's looking for his first victory on the man-made, 1.5-mile course that is built to simulate Baja's racing terrain.

"I've raced three times at Riverside and haven't had much luck here," Morris said. "In 1981, I was going nose to nose with Ivan Stewart for first when I broke my drive shaft on the last turn of the last lap.

"In 1982, I got a good start and led for four laps before I broke my transmission. I drove in the mini pickup race last year, but the heavy rains caused a lot of electrical problems for me.

"The race at Riverside is basically a merchandising show where the sponsors get a return on their investments. I enjoy the desert races, but I also like the door-to-door competition here. The biggest satisfaction I get from racing is building something myself and then seeing how it performs in a race."

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