Off-road racing isn't what it used to be.
Twenty years ago, when Spencer Low competed in his first race in the desert, it was mostly a part-time, good-time sport, with riders and drivers working on their machines when they could during the week and racing them on the weekends in virtual anonymity. Race days in Baja California or the Mojave Desert were like big family picnics.
They're still racing in the desert today, but because of corporate sponsorship, exotic space-age materials and Mickey Thompson's vision of capsuling the excitement of Baja inside stadiums, a big-bucks hybrid sport has evolved.
"Stadium racing is the sport's future, I'm convinced of that," Low said as he discussed returning to the Mickey Thompson Gran Prix series after an absence of four years. Low, 37, who won Thompson's Grand National Truck division in 1982, will drive a three-year-old Nissan short course truck prepared by Electramotive Engineering in the Coliseum Saturday night.
"I'm the No. 3 driver on the team, back of Roger Mears and Sherman Balch, but I like having a proven truck to drive while Roger tackles the more experimental model," the Arcadia driver said. "If I can get off the line in front, I'll be OK. Getting a hole-shot is so important in a tight stadium race where it is difficult to pass."
Mears won stadium races with Low's truck in 1984 and 1985, and Balch drove it to a win earlier this year at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego.
For Saturday night's race, Mears will drive an out-of-the-box V-6 "Hardbody" prototype pickup, made from chromoly steel with a buggy-like chassis. Balch will take over the truck in which Mears won the series title last year.
"The transition from the desert to the stadium isn't as great as it once was because the trucks are going so fast on the desert," Low said. "It used to be that we could kind of cruise during a race, but now the stock trucks are running as fast as the unlimited buggies used to run. Any race in the desert used to be called an endurance race. Now, anything up to 500 miles is like a sprint.
"And there's such a difference in the beating you used to take. If we'd taken that jump off the peristyle end of the Coliseum 15 years ago, we'd have bottomed out and maybe knocked ourselves out. There is so much suspension travel today, a truck can fly off the peristyle and land as soft as you please."
Low has won Class 7-S, the stock mini-truck division, the last two seasons in the combined High Desert Racing Assn./SCORE International series. Last year he won the Baja 1,000, Frontier 500 and 250, plus the Mini-Metal championship for combined classes.
"I'll tell you another way how much the sport has changed," he said. "When I first raced in the desert, I had one co-driver and when he wasn't driving, he was chasing with the support truck. Now, I have 12 men on my team, with five chase trucks, to keep up with the race car. That's how much faster we're going."
As a tuning tool for his off-road racing, Low also drives a Nissan 300ZX turbo with actors Kent McCord and Bob Hays in the IMSA and SCCA road racing endurance series. This is his third season as a road racer.
"I will probably curtail my road racing next year, but what I have learned has been very helpful in driving my off-road pickup. The techniques you use on the asphalt are applicable to off-road running, especially for stadium or closed circuit races like Riverside, where you need to know how to set up your suspension and to find the shortest way around the track with the least punishment to your equipment."
Low's 1986 racing schedule calls for 22 events. That, plus pre-running desert races, leaves little time for his duties as co-manager of Arcadia Nissan.
"I am fortunate that my father owns the business and my brother is my co-manager," he said. "The way off-road racing has grown, it takes a full-time commitment to the sport if you want to win. For instance, I'll spend two weeks pre-running the Baja 1,000 in November. Racing used to be a hobby. No more."
Besides teammates Mears and Balch in Saturday night's race, Low must also contend with defending champion Ivan Stewart and Gran Prix leader Steve Millen in Toyotas, Glenn Harris and Rod Millen in Mazdas, Jeff Huber in a Ford Ranger and veteran Walker Evans in a Dodge.
Harris and Rod Millen, Steve's younger brother, won two races each in a SCORE autocross in Montreal's Olympic Stadium before 88,000 fans over Memorial Day weekend. Harris also won the truck race in the Rose Bowl Gran Prix.
Seven classes of vehicles, including motorcycles, will compete in 20 races Saturday night in Round 5 of a nine-race series, starting at 7:30 p.m.
STOCK CARS--When John Covan of Simi Valley won last week's modified main event at Saugus Speedway, he became the ninth driver to win on the flat, third-mile oval this season. The modifieds will be back Saturday night for another 40-lap feature. . . . Ron Meyer of Lake Elsinore has won 9 of his last 10 starts in the Curb Motorsports NASCAR pro stock series and will go for No. 10 Sunday night at Ascot Park. . . . Cajon Speedway, celebrating its 25th birthday this week, has the tightest Winston Racing Series in 10 years. Two-time track champion Mike Hagerman scored his 44th track victory last week to take the lead in the Saturday night series.
SPRINT CARS--Defending champion Eddie Wirth has won three of his last five starts in the California Racing Assn., continuing his climb back into title contention after missing early season races. Wirth's win last week moved him within eight points of second-place Mike Sweeney. Brad Noffsinger continues to lead by 215 points. They will all be at Ascot Park on Saturday night.
SPEEDWAY BIKES--Ascot Park will become the focal point for riders tonight and next Thursday night as they battle for a spot on the home team for the U.S. vs. World American Cup Challenge on the South Bay Stadium track July 31. Seven riders will compete against a European team headed by two-time world champion Erik Gundersen of Denmark. . . . At other Southland tracks, point totals will be watched closely, as only the top 22 riders in Southern California will be eligible to compete for berths in the U. S. championship when qualifying starts Aug. 16 in Auburn, Calif. . . . Sam Ermolenko of Corona and Kelly Moran of Huntington Beach will attempt to qualify for the World finals when they ride Sunday in the Inter-Continental final at Bradford, England. The top 11 finishers will advance to the final Aug. 30 in Poland. . . . Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa will be dark Friday night because of the county fair.
MOTORCYCLES--The Police Olympic world road racing championships will be held Sunday at Willow Springs with approximately 50 officers from 10 nations competing on Kawasaki 600R Ninjas in a 12-lap race. Favorites include U.S. team captain Bruce Wilson and Mark Perez of Los Angeles, Colin Thompson of Australia and Rick Shaw of Miami-Dade, the southeast regional Superbike champion. Sunday's program will include 10 races, all of 20 miles. . . . The CMC Dodge summer motocross series will continue Friday night at Ascot Park and Sunday at Barona Oaks, on the Barona Indian Reservation between Ramona and El Cajon. Also at Barona Oaks will be the national four-stroke championship. . . . Eddie Lawson, former world road racing champion, was hospitalized with bruises and scratches after an 80-m.p.h. crash knocked him out of last Sunday's Nissan 200 at Laguna Seca, but the Upland rider is expected to be ready for Sunday's world 500cc championship race in France.
DRAG RACING--The fourth alcohol funny car event in a five-race series will be held Saturday night at the Los Angeles County Raceway near Palmdale. A pro gas race will also be on the program.
LAND SPEED--Don Carr, driving the Carr & Kaplan Class A Lakester, ran a record 267 m.p.h. at El Mirage Dry Lake in the last SoCal Timing Assn. meet before Bonneville Speed Week, Aug. 17-23.