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Sound of Fast Cars Is Music to His Ears : Pop-Rock Singer Christopher Cross Hopes to Become Competitive Race Driver

Times Staff Writer

Race drivers can usually trace their roots to one of three sources:

--They had a love affair with cars when they were teen-agers, working on them around the clock and racing them anywhere they could find a challenge, the way A. J. Foyt, Bobby Unser and Bill Elliott grew up.

--They had wealth and saw racing expensive cars as an exciting diversion that turned into a full-time avocation, as happened with the Whittington brothers, Bill and Don; Josele Garza; Salt Walther, and the late Peter Revson.

--They were born to it, growing up in a family steeped in racing, as did Richard Petty, Al Unser Jr. and Al Holbert.

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Christopher Cross, the Oscar and Grammy award-winning pop-rock singer-songwriter, wants to become a competitive race driver, but he follows none of the patterns. As a youngster growing up in San Antonio, he never gave racing, or working on cars, a thought. He wasn’t rich and didn’t drive fast cars. And no one in his family had an interest in racing. His father was a doctor, his mother a nurse.

The desire to drive struck him two years ago at age 32 while he was traveling in Europe. He was on a summer tour, promoting his album, “Another Page,” when he chanced to meet one of his fans, Ferrari team driver Patrick Tambay, in Monza, Italy.

Tambay, a Frenchman who once attended the University of Colorado on a skiing scholarship, was there to drive in the Italian Grand Prix.

“We started rubbing egos, the way celebrities do, and struck up a fast friendship,” Cross recalled. “After the race he suggested I come down to Modena, where he was going to do some testing on the Ferrari track, and he’d give me a ride.

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“I was totally fascinated by it, the speed, the exhilaration, the whole scene. I even had lunch with Mr. Ferrari, the commendatore himself. The old man couldn’t have cared less who I was, but his granddaughter, who was about 13, turned out to be a big fan of mine.”

Cross was hooked. He decided he wanted to become a driver so Tambay had him enroll in a French driving school for intensive training.

“I had been to Bob Bondurant’s driving school north of San Francisco a couple of years before, but only to hone my street-driving skills, to become more aware of how to survive on Southern California highways,” Cross said. “I never had racing in mind. Not in the slightest.”

When it was time for Cross to return home, Tambay had another suggestion. He told him to call Danny Sullivan, then a Formula One driver from Louisville who was leaving the European scene to drive in the CART Indy car series in 1984--the same Sullivan who won the Indianapolis 500 last year.

“Danny showed me how to get into club racing, how to find the equipment I needed, things like getting the right truck and trailer, everything I needed besides a car to go racing,” Cross said. “Tambay wanted me to drive in Formula Atlantic, but Sullivan suggested Super Vees. There were definite limitations to what I could drive because of my weight.”

Cross stands 6 feet 1 1/2 inches and weighs 200 pounds, which is down about 45 from the glory days of 1981 when he startled the pop-rock world by sweeping four Grammy awards.

“I’m about at the limit, size-wise, for a race driver unless I want to drive stock cars,” Cross said wryly. “I don’t want to do that because I love the ambiance of open-wheel cars.”

Cross, who lives in Santa Monica, competed in 1984 with the Cal Club, driving regional races and four national events.

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“I did well enough to earn my professional license and drive in two pro races, one at Laguna Seca and one at Caesars Palace,” he said. “At Laguna, I qualified 22nd and finished 17th. When I saw a fast car coming, I would move over and let him go past. After the race, Danny (Sullivan) sat me down and told me I had to be more aggressive, not to be so passive when I’m on the track.

“ ‘Chris, you can’t move over for everyone and be a race driver,’ he told me. ‘Keep going and the good drivers will get by and you’ll stay ahead of the others.’ Sure enough, at Caesars, drivers like Arie Luyendyk went by, but I held my position and did much better.

“I carried over my new aggressive attitude into the making of my latest album, ‘Every Turn of the World.’ The feature single, ‘Charm the Snake,’ is like a celebration of speed and freedom. I call it a fuel-injected sound.”

Sullivan and Tambay also put a bit of a governor on Cross’ racing career.

“I had an offer to drive a Porsche 962 last year at LeMans and I called them and they both said absolutely not,” Cross said. “They said it was too big for me. They didn’t want what happened to Lorenzo Lamas to happen to me.”

Lamas, the hunk from TV’s Falcon Crest, drove a Formula Ford in the Cal Club Enduro last Nov. 10 at Riverside International Raceway and was going about 110 m.p.h. when he lost control and slammed into a concrete wall, then spun back onto the track where he was nearly hit by two oncoming cars. It took paramedics 20 minutes to get him out of the mangled wreckage.

“He was luckiest man in the world to come out of this alive,” Jim Hyneman, public relations director at Riverside, said after the accident. Lamas suffered a broken left collarbone and a dislocated right shoulder.

Cross was there that day, driving a Sports 2000 car in another race.

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“I thought he was a little over his head the way he was driving,” Cross said. “I didn’t know how much experience he had, but I heard he only started racing last April. He hit the entry barrier at Turn 9 and completedly totaled the car.”

Sullivan said from his home in Aspen, Colo., that what had happened to Lamas was exactly what he didn’t want to happen to Cross.

“The thing you’ve got to remember about Chris is how little racing he’s done,” Sullivan said. “He’s only had 10 or 11 races, total. Guys like Little Al (Unser) had that many when they were 16.

“At LeMans, some cars are 100 miles slower than the fast ones and you need lots of experience to handle that. Besides, it nearly always rains there and Chris has had no experience in the wet. What I want to do is try and help him from making the mistakes we all made--trying to go too fast before he’s ready for it.

“I watched him in his two pro races and while he wasn’t near as fast as the front runners, he kept his nose clean and stayed out of trouble. He has a keen desire to race and that’s important.

“I can tell he’s not afraid of work, but what he needs is more track time. He wants to go racing as much as his music will permit and if he does it will be great for the sport because, like it or not, he’s a heck of a lot better known, especially internationally, than any other Super Vee driver in the world. And unlike some celebs, he’s willing to use his name to help promote racing.

“I’m looking forward to helping him whenever I can, and if he decides to race in Europe, I know Patrick (Tambay) will do the same.”

Despite Sullivan’s advice, Cross nearly suffered a worse fate than Lamas when he crashed Sept. 19, 1984, while testing at Willow Springs. The accident delayed the production of his newest album for nearly six months and came close to ending his musical career.

He was driving his Super Vee at night when he dropped a wheel into the dirt coming out of a high-speed turn, careened head-on into a concrete barrier and wound up with a broken left leg, broken right ankle and worst of all for a guitarist, a broken left hand in which one finger was compressed nearly an inch.

“We had planned to start the new album in January, but it wasn’t until March that I could play (the guitar) at all because of the dislocated joints in my hand,” he said. “I finally began work in April and didn’t finish the album until August.”

In the best traditions of race drivers, however, Cross had doctors design a cast that would allow his hand to go around a steering wheel so he could drive at Laguna Seca a month after the accident.

“It was important to me to drive those two professional races,” he said. “That had been my goal and I made it. (The crash) was just something that happens. You just get back in and start again.”

Tambay had broken his leg in a Formula One race a week or so earlier, which prompted Cross to call his old friend.

“I said, ‘Hey, you’re my mentor. Whatever you do, I do.’ He didn’t think it was so funny.”

In a meld of his two passions, the cover on Cross’ latest album has a race car motive. He also used a racing theme for his first video, “Charm the Snake.”

“The video is all done with me driving a Formula Atlantic car,” he said. “I didn’t use the Super Vee because the Atlantics look more sexy with their big tires.

“We spent three days shooting at Willow Springs for a 4-minute 5-second video. We probably could have done it quicker but I was having so much fun in the car that I kept telling the director to shoot the scenes over.”

This year, Cross hopes to combine music and racing by matching his racing schedule with his concert tour dates, much the way the late Marty Robbins did when he raced stock cars in NASCAR.

“I want to drive just about everything I can get in,” Cross said. “I would like to drive in IMSA’s Camel GT in a long road race and maybe go to Europe for a Formula Two race. I’ve never raced on an oval but I expect I will find out pretty soon what they’re like.

“Down the road I want to drive in an Indy car race. Not Indianapolis. I think that might be beyond my capabilities. I’ll leave that to people like Danny Sullivan. But I think after a few more races I could drive in an Indy car road race. What I’d really like is to be part of a two-car team with Danny, maybe in 1988.”


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