Celebrities in Grand Prix Driver's Seat

Times Staff Writer

Round up the usual number of stars, goes the public perception, get them at least to look their part in helmets, fireproof driving suits and cars with roll bars--and then let them pretend to be fast and tough for 10 slow and cushy laps of today's Pro-Celebrity preliminary to the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

"But that's not quite it," corrected Les Unger, motor-sports manager for Toyota and guardian of this 1 p.m. warm-up to the Grand Prix proper and Sunday's entry of such gladiators as Mario Andretti, A. J. Foyt, Bobby Rahal and Emerson Fittipaldi. "This event is not a giggle for any of the celebrities.

"It is serious competition for those who want to take it to that level . . . and I would say that half of the celebrities in today's event will be running at 110%."

In fact, one of Unger's favorite stories when challenged about race hype versus actuality concerns the intimidation of an athletic giant after tackling 100-m.p.h. speeds between the concrete barricades of the 1.6-mile Long Beach circuit.

"This terror of the National Football League, Mark Gastineau, went out to practice against Tony Danza, came back in and said to me: 'This is scary stuff. This is worse than playing defensive end and getting blocked out by six or eight guys.' "

Celebrities have been injured during the event. The most publicized pileup was that of actor Lorenzo Lamas, who made the cover of National Enquirer (and in color) after totaling a Toyota and breaking his foot during the 1985 event.

And that was while training for the race.

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Singer Jackie Jackson hit a wall that same year and was hospitalized for observation. Woody Harrelson broke a bone in his arm when his car flipped in practice for last year's event--which explains one of the casts (the other was the result of a fist fight) he wore in last season's episodes of "Cheers."

Accidents, Unger acknowledged, do happen, "but we continue to pride ourselves on the amount of training/preparation of cars and celebrities."

Once invited to compete, he said, all contestants must spend four days at the Drivers Connection, a high performance driving school at Willow Springs Raceway, near Rosamond.

"We're not trying to make race-car drivers out of these people," Unger said. "We're teaching them the basics of car control, how to shift, how to keep engine revolutions at the right level, how to enter and exit a turn and how not to squeal your tires, because all that stuff that sounds neat doesn't make you go any faster.

"At the end of that period, their instructors will let us know what they think of an individual's physical skills and mental outlook. If they say no to a person, as they have in the past, then those people do not race."

The celebrities drive identical cars--the 16-valve, Toyota Celica GT-S--that are unmuffled stock, plus safety devices.

"We spend a lot of time preparing these cars to make them as safe as possible," Unger said. "That's why we have roll bars, fire extinguishers, safety netting over the driver's window . . . and those instructors carefully watching everyone right up to the time of the race."

There will be 17 racers in this year's field--three professional drivers and 14 celebrities, all competing for the $5,000 first prize in both divisions. Second placings are worth $4,000, third $3,500 and fourth $3,000, with also-rans receiving $2,000 for simply showing up and driving.

To keep everything in balance, there will be a handicap start with the professional drivers 30 seconds behind the celebrities.

"So you know our pros will be running at the max, because 30 seconds is a lot to make up in a 10-lap race," Unger said.

The professionals: Dan Gurney, a former Formula One driver for Ferrari, now a race-car designer and builder; Parnelli Jones, 1963 winner of the Indianapolis 500; Willy T. Ribbs, driver of Trans-Am, International Motors Sports Assn. and Grand National cars.

Among the celebrities: Richard Dean Anderson, star of the "MacGyver" television series and pursuer of sky diving, motorcycling and skiing. Also comedian Jay Leno, a collector addicted to classic cars and motorcycles.

Jason Bateman, of NBC's "Valerie's Family" and overall winner of last year's race, will be driving to defend his title. Dwight Clark, recently retired receiver of the San Francisco 49ers, and Walter Payton, formerly of the Chicago Bears, will compete. So will former Dodger outfielder and designated prankster Jay Johnstone.

Singer Nicolette Larson will be in the field. Also "L.A. Law" co-stars Blair Underwood and Susan Ruttan. And KABC-TV anchorman Paul Moyer leads a small contingent of media types into the event. Payton and Clark, Unger said, have already expressed an interest in expanding their rookie appearances into full hobbies.

If they do, he added, they will be following in some pretty large tire tracks. Lamas, Gene Hackman, Bruce Jenner, Perry King, Kent McCord, Dick Smothers and Robert Hays are all former Toyota Pro-Celebrity contestants who graduated to higher levels of the sport.

"Looking at this year's field, Richard Dean Anderson is a naturally competitive, well-coordinated driver who could be driving up there with King and Lamas if he had more time to spare," Unger commented. "Another individual who seems to have a natural gift for racing is Jason Bateman.

"He had never done anything in his life but drive up and down a freeway. But he came here last year, drove as coolly as I've seen any 18-year-old drive--and won."

Unfortunately, not all celebrities make that grade.

They still talk about the year one of the NFL's better-known and meaner wide receivers was invited to drive. He went to race school at Willow Springs. Everything was looking good.

"Then he bowed out on race day," an official said. "He said his mother didn't want him to do it."

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