Nine years ago, the late Mickey Thompson introduced off-road racing into a stadium setting with the first of his Off-Road Gran Prix events in the Coliseum.
At that time, the feature attraction was the single-seater buggy class. Rick Mears, only a couple of months after winning his first Indianapolis 500, showed his off-road talents by winning the main event over his brother, Roger.
This year, the factory-backed Grand National sport trucks will be getting the most attention when Round 6 of the 8-race Gran Prix series is held Saturday night at the Coliseum.
Brothers from New Zealand, Steve and Rod Millen, lead the sports truck series--but not as teammates. Steve, who won the most recent event in the Rose Bowl, drives a Toyota, while younger brother Rod, who won the season opener at Anaheim Stadium, drives a Mazda. Steve has 224 points to 222 for Rod.
Glenn Harris, Rod's teammate and head of the Camarillo-based California Gold Mazda team, won the other three events--San Diego, Seattle and Houston--but is only fourth in the standings. Ivan Stewart, in a Toyota, is third with 219, while Harris has 212. Defending series champion Jeff Huber, in yet another Mazda, is fifth with 119.
Not surprisingly, Mazda is the Manufacturers Cup leader with 578 points to 470 for Toyota, winner of the last four season titles.
Harris is on a hot streak. He won the truck class in the Pikes Peak Hill Climb last week, the Canada autocross championship last month for the third straight year in Montreal, and a 200-mile closed-course race in Guam.
"We've been showing off the Mazdas every chance we get, and they've been performing perfectly," Harris said. Huber was second in the Canadian event.
Desert racer Rob MacCachren of Las Vegas will replace four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser, who withdrew, as the third member of the Jeep team, joining Walker Evans and Al Arciero. MacCachren, winner of the recent Fireworks 250 at Barstow, will be making his first stadium start.
David Ashley, who won last year's Coliseum truck race while driving a Jeep entered by Dick Landfield, will be in a Ford this time, also entered by Landfield.
Roger Mears, who was apparently on his way to a record win at Pikes Peak in his new Nissan truck until the engine froze near the top of the hill, will drive the same truck--with a new engine--in an attempt to snap his stadium losing streak. Mears, who won the 1985 season championship, also hopes to erase memories of last year's Coliseum race, in which he retired after a spectacular end-over-end roll.
"I think the truck's computer brain finally had a nervous breakdown," Mears said at the time. When Mears had Bill Savage build his new truck, he had the computer left out.
"The only brain in the truck will be my own," Mears said. "Last year, I had a space-age truck but it didn't respond to a stone age course."
Pikes Peak was not kind to Mears in his Camaro, either. He slid off the course, snapping a tree that fell on a spectator, who fortunately was not seriously injured.
The original Coliseum course laid out by Thompson in 1979 has been changed little, except for the double peristyle jumps, added last year, in which vehicles race 90 feet up the stadium seats to the peristyle level and then make a U-turn to return to the field--the equivalent of a seven-story drop.
It will take more than 600 truckloads, or 36 million pounds, of clay-based dirt to build the race course, which measures approximately three-fifths of a mile, making it the longest stadium track in the world.
More than 150 entries are expected in six classes, including the stadium trucks. Other classes are unlimited super 1600 buggies, ultra stocks, stadium super lites, four-wheel ATVs and ultracross motorcycles.
The closest competition is in the unlimited super 1600 class, with Fred Castle of Buena Park holding a one-point edge, 179-178, over Frank Arciero Jr. of Laguna Hills. Jerry Welchel, the Anaheim winner, is third with 164. Curiously, Arciero has won 3 of the 5 races but still trails the consistent Castle, who is winless.
Only two events, Oct. 1 at the Las Vegas Silver Bowl and one to be announced later, remain in the Off-Road Gran Prix season following the Coliseum.
SPRINT CARS--Veteran visiting drivers Lealand McSpadden, 42, of Tempe, Ariz., and Chuck Gurney, 39, of Livermore, Calif., will challenge California Racing Assn. leaders Ron Shuman, Mike Sweeney, Stan Atherton and Jerry Meyer in a 30-lap main event Saturday night at Ascot Park. McSpadden recently won three straight races at Ascot, while Gurney, winner of the United States Auto Club's Silver Crown race at the Indiana State Fairgrounds last May, has not won a CRA race at Ascot since 1981.
MOTOCROSS--The second round of the Continental Motosports Club's Dodge Truck summer series will be held Sunday at Butterfield Park, near Temecula. . . . CMC riders will also race Friday night at Ascot Park. . . . The California Racing Club will hold its Bandido Grand Prix Sunday at Glen Helen Park in San Bernardino, using portions of both the motocross and off-road course. More than 400 riders are expected.
MIDGETS--The USAC's Western States Jolly Ranchers series will resume Saturday night at Santa Maria Speedway with Sleepy Tripp looking to pull even farther ahead. Tripp, a two-time former national champion from Costa Mesa, has won 12 of the season's 23 races, including 8 of the last 11. . . . Three-quarter midgets will race Saturday night at Ventura Raceway.
STOCK CARS--After a week highlighted by the appearance of barnstorming Winston Cup drivers, Saugus Speedway will return to normalcy Saturday night with a program featuring sportsman, street stocks and Figure 8s, plus an Ego challenge. Hobby and foreign stocks and jalopies will also race Friday night at Saugus. Before a packed house last Saturday night, Geoff Bodine and local favorite and former three-time track champion Ken Sapper won their Race of Champions heats. This gave the tandem of Sapper and Winston Cup rookie Ernie Irvan the team title. . . . Earl Cox Sr., 49, a racing grandfather and former Figure 8 champion, projected himself into the Ascot Park pro stock battle between Ron Meyer and Marcus Mallett with a win last week. They'll all go at it again Sunday night in a 30-lap feature as part of the Curb Motorsports NASCAR program. . . . Sportsman and street stocks will race Saturday night at Cajon Speedway, followed by a destruction derby. . . . Hobby stocks will go Friday night at Ventura.
SPEEDWAY BIKES--Only one American rider, Sam Ermolenko of Cypress, made it through last Tuesday's rain-delayed Overseas Final in Coventry, England, to advance to the Inter-Continental Final of the world championship series on Aug. 6 in Vetlanda, Sweden. Mike Faria of Colton, who was one of the favorites, finished 10th but only nine made it to the semifinal round leading to the World Final. . . . Bobby Schwartz, another of the Americans who missed, flew home and plans to race tonight at Ascot Park's South Bay Stadium, Friday night at Costa Mesa, Saturday night at Speedway USA in Victorville and next Wednesday at Inland Speedway in San Bernardino..
ANTIQUE CARS--The Vintage Racing Club, headed by former Indianapolis 500 winner Rodger Ward, has scheduled a Last, Last Lap of Riverside for this weekend at Riverside International Raceway. Following Sunday's race, bulldozers will move in and demolish portions of the 31-year-old 3.25-mile road course, but enough will be preserved to hold the Stroh's SCORE International closed course championships there Aug. 13-14. After that, the entire facility will be wiped out to make room for yet another Riverside county shopping mall.
DRIVER OF YEAR--Indianapolis 500 winner Rick Mears was an overwhelming winner of the second-quarter voting for American Driver of the Year. Mears, who also won at Milwaukee, polled 81 of a possible 90 points to 53 for NASCAR Winston Cup leader Rusty Wallace, and 44 for Geoff Brabham, the winner of five straight Camel GTP races.