A Maiden Race : Actress Finds Excitement in First Endurance Competition

Times Staff Writer

Strung out in a curved line along Turn 9 at Riverside International Raceway, nearly 100 cars, cockpits empty, engines silent, were moments away from being cranked to life for the start of a three-hour endurance race. As a small crowd mingled on the track awaiting the final call over the public-address system, a blue-eyed blonde in a yellow jump suit was bestowing good-luck hugs and kisses on a handful of drivers.

"Charlie, you got the pole! Not too shabby," she exclaimed to Charlie Spira, whose Porsche 944 Turbo was sitting at the head of the line.

Working the crowd, she spied Chuck Harbaugh standing by his Porsche 914 and gave him a squeeze. "It'll be a fight out there," he said. She tossed back her head and laughed. "It'll be a fight all right," she said, adding with a wink: "Don't hit me and I won't hit you."

Beautiful women have always been a part of auto racing. Usually, they're on calendars hanging in garages or at the finish line in tight T-shirts planting a kiss on the winner. Sandra Bartley, whose business card describes her as "actress/spokeswoman/race car driver," was there to flirt with danger, not men, and her displays of affection were borne out of friendship, not any strong urge to become the next Miss Pennzoil.

Bartley, 35, is among a small but growing number of women involved in auto racing on the regional level. According to the Sports Car Club of America, participation by women in California has increased from one to only about a dozen in the past 15 years.

"Being a woman has nothing to do with driving," Bartley said. "I'm not Mario Andretti, but if men drivers don't appreciate me for who I am, I don't spend time with them. Overall, though, I have a good rapport with the men at the track."

To Bartley, life in the fast lane means going 100 miles an hour, both on and off the track. From sky diving and dirt-bike racing to acting in television and singing at a Hollywood restaurant, her days fly by in a blur of activity.

"I'm an excitement junkie," she said. "I've always been interested in doing extremely glamorous things rather than sitting around with the girls and talking about where to get our nails done. I like to do things in a big way, and I've always been one to say, 'I can do that.' "

Women usually compete primarily in short sprint races, not the grueling enduros that severely test the mettle of the driver as well as the metal of the machine. In the Riverside race, Bartley's first enduro, there were only four women among more than 200 drivers. Bartley would be dividing time with two other drivers: Tom Marx, her boyfriend and a professional racer, and Bill Clingen of Northridge.

Bartley and Marx share a Van Nuys condominium. It was Marx who got her involved in auto racing. Owner of an advertising agency, Marx "literally met Sandra in an elevator" when they worked in the same downtown Los Angeles office building 13 years ago. Marx had begun racing Porsches while a student at Cal State Northridge in the early 1970s, and he invited Bartley to watch him compete at the Ontario Motor Speedway.

"I thought it was a date," she said with a smile, "but he had his girlfriend with him." It wasn't long, however, before it was Bartley who was navigating for Marx in sports car rallies and "Q-tipping his cars" for shows. Then they began switching seats, Bartley driving, Marx plotting the course. Involving themselves in the local sports car clubs, Marx became president of the L. A. branch of the Porsche Club of America, Bartley secretary. They joined the Porsche Owners Club, which gave its participant-of-the-year award to Bartley in 1986.

While Marx was racing the Porsche Carrera he bought from Paul Newman and helping the Hacker Racing Team win this year's Firehawk Endurance championship in a Volkswagen Golf GTi, Bartley was winning class championships in local amateur events. But her participation was still primarily social until two years ago, when, she said, "I got really competitive. My times have really shown it. Some people are taking notice." The enduro at Riverside would give her a chance to enhance her driving reputation--as well as her relationship with Marx.

"I wanted Tom and I to have this experience together as a couple, as two people who spent a lot of time apart in 1987, racing all over the country," she said. Although her racing has remained local, Bartley spent a few weekends this year traveling to U. S. and Canadian cities as one of 12 women drivers on the PPG Pace Car Team, which makes appearances at Indy Car World Series races.

After finishing third in a July 4 sprint at Riverside, Bartley decided to enter the enduro. She induced the Paulee Body Shop in L. A. to sponsor her, then went shopping for a car to drive. She contacted Pat Pearson of Sunland, who agreed to rent her a 1986 showroom-stock Nissan 200 SX and supply a four-man team. Five months ago, Marx had committed to share driving time in the race in a 1985 Corvette owned by Rick Alexander, another Hacker Team driver. Enduro rules permit Marx to drive more than one car, but going into the race, Bartley wasn't sure how she was going to divvy up the three hours in the Nissan.

"Let's be frank," she said. "I'm paying for the car and Tom's getting a free ride. I'm not sure how much driving time he'll get."

Marx smiled. "That's role reversal," he said.

On the morning of the race, Marx and Bartley drove his silver Porsche 911 to Riverside, arriving about 7. Pearson and his crew had been there since 6:30 to secure a pit. Steve Christiansen, crew chief and part owner of the car, had never met Bartley. Neither had Clingen, an experienced driver who was asked by Pearson to fill out Bartley's team. With the race still hours away, morning practice sessions were used to iron out problems and compensate for the team's unfamiliarity with one another.

"The team is extremely important," said Clingen, who also races world-class go-carts. "Without a team, you might as well go home."

The garage area looked like prime time at Econo Lube. Dozens of cars were being fine-tuned, exhausts blasting, the smell of racing fuel mingling with the acrid smoke of an arc welder. Bartley wedged herself into the dark gray Nissan, a large number 86 painted on each of its doors. Although the car was stock enough to drive off a showroom floor, it had been machined to the exact tolerances allowed by the SCCA. Improved suspension and shaved tires would enable it to maintain speeds of more than 120 miles per hour.

Bartley had never raced in a front-wheel drive machine. "It'll take some getting used to," she said. There were other problems. The seat was too low, the mirrors difficult to adjust, and when she tried to turn her head, her helmet touched the top of the steel roll cage. "You've got to be careful," she said. "You don't want your movement inhibited."

Safety would be foremost on their minds. "Contrary to what the public thinks," Clingen said, "we do not have a death wish. Racing is not dangerous. Everybody out there went to driver's school and knows enough to get an SCCA license."

But Bartley candidly said, "I am concerned about hurting myself because of my career" (in show business).

Christiansen solved the seat problem. "We're going to put a pillow in there," he said. "She needs two, or one fat one." Pillows in place, the 5-4 Bartley took a practice run and pronounced herself pleased. "I'm more comfortable now," she said. "I can see over the hood. Before, I had a couple of blind spots."

While Bartley was checking out the Nissan, Marx was testing the red Corvette. There were eight classes in the race, ranging from powerful GTs like the Corvette to family cars like the Nissan. With the Corvette capable of hitting 160 on the straightaway, Marx would have to refocus his concentration when he got inside the smaller car. "There's quite a contrast," he said. Nevertheless, in qualifying, Marx drove the Nissan to first in its class, zipping around the course in 2:24; the Corvette qualified third in overall at 2:08.

An hour before the race, Bartley and the rest of the team met to discuss strategy. It was decided that Clingen would start the race, followed by Bartley and Marx, who was scheduled as the second driver in the Corvette. Bartley was given a primer on enduro racing. In sprint races, the field is limited to 30 cars; there would 98 starting in the enduro. The large field meant that she would have to take extra care, especially since her car was among the slowest on the track.

"Don't move out of the way of a faster car," Christiansen told her. "They will overtake you. Hold your line."

"When I'm going by the pit area, I can't see you guys," she said.

"Don't worry," Christiansen said. "By then we'll have our bright red shirts on.

"Another thing. If you have a flat on the course, drive it in. Shortcut the course if you have to."

"I hope I remember that," she said.

"We'll be talking to you on the radio."

Bartley then put on her game face. "I'm starting to get pumped up. I've been in a super-kinetic high-speed mode all day."

With the cars lined up for a modified LeMans start, Bartley stood on the other side of the track opposite the Nissan, which was 56th in line. Clingen was in the car, waiting for the marshal to start the race. When the flag was dropped, Bartley and the other No. 2 drivers sprinted across the track and handed the key to the No. 1 driver in the car. Engines yowled, rubber screeched, cars shot forward. But the Nissan lagged, then took off into the heavy traffic.

Ninety minutes later, Clingen was unable to make up for his slow start, despite a few fast laps under 2:33. The Nissan was running third when Christiansen radioed Clingen to run four more laps and come in. "The start killed us," Christiansen lamented as he and his wife, Sherry, timed the cars and calculated the leaders from a six-foot-high platform in the pits. "I think Bill was timid and waited for the other guys to get out of his way."

Marx helped Bartley prepare to go out. His plans had already changed. Thirty-five minutes into the race, the Corvette, driven by Lance Stewart, had been nicked from behind as it went for the lead on the ninth turn and hit the wall, practically vaporizing the right rear fender and causing internal damage. It was out of commission, needing suspension work, a new left-front tire and plenty of Bondo.

So Marx threw all his attention to Bartley. As she pulled her helmet over her flame-retardant racing hood, Marx took her aside and gave her last-minute advice, words of encouragement and a kiss on the cheek. In the pit, Pearson and Dave Rissi worked on the car. Wearing goggles and hood, Rissi topped the fuel tank while Pearson checked the brake pads. Then, as Rissi cleaned the windshield, Marx and Clingen helped Bartley into the cab, adjusted her seat belt and sent her off.

She turned in a cautious opening lap of 2:54.6, but Christiansen wasn't worried. An opening lap, especially in traffic, is usually slow as the driver tries to find a pace. Bartley was also having trouble with the steering wheel--it was not adjusted properly and she had to fiddle with the lever on the steering column as she motored along the back straightaway. Still, she turned her second lap in 2:46 and then began to run consistently in the mid-2:30s.

When Bartley pulled into the pits nearly an hour after venturing out onto the track, Marx replaced her behind the wheel. Christiansen was happy with Bartley's driving. "She did well," he said. "I was impressed." Meanwhile, Marx turned in a 2:34.9 first lap, then shaved six seconds off it on his second, but during his 30-minute anchor leg was unable to gain on the leader, finishing third.

Bartley, however, was pleased with the results, the crew and her own performance. "My goal was to stay out of trouble and I achieved it," she said. "I could have driven another hour easily. I have absolutely no fatigue. I'd like to do a lot more endurance racing, longer ones in faster cars. But this was a great experience for me. I can't wait for my next race."

Then, as Pearson loaded crates of tools and cylinders of compressed air into the trunk of the Nissan, Bartley and Marx broke out the champagne and toasted an afternoon of togetherness.

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