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Motor Racing / Shav Glick : Driver-of-Year Award Is a 4-Way Battle This Time

When the time comes to select a driver of the year, the task is often an easy one. Last year, for instance, Dale Earnhardt was such a standout that he was virtually a unanimous selection. The year before, Bobby Rahal was unanimous.

This year, however, no such standout developed among the major racing organizations in the country. Instead, four drivers emerged with outstanding credentials, giving the 10 members of the selection panel a difficult job.

Listed alphabetically, the four are Geoff Brabham, champion of the International Motor Sports Assn. for sports cars; Bill Elliott, champion of the Winston Cup division of NASCAR for stock cars; Danny Sullivan, champion of Championship Auto Racing Teams for open-wheel Indy cars; and Rusty Wallace, fast-finishing Winston Cup runner-up.

Brabham, 36, won 8 straight IMSA Camel GTP races in his turbocharged Nissan ZX, dominating the series as no one has since John Fitzpatrick won 8 of 11 features in 1980. Brabham, an Australian who lives in Noblesville, Ind., ended up with 9 wins in 12 starts and added a postseason victory at Tampa, Fla., in the GTE World Challenge, which matched IMSA cars with Group C challengers from Europe.

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There are some who claim that IMSA is not on the same level with Indy cars or Winston Cup stock cars and that winning drivers often share their rides with others, thus watering down the significance of individual wins.

During Brabham’s hot streak, for instance, he shared his Nissan with John Morton at Road Atlanta, West Palm Beach, Watkins Glen and Elkhart Lake, and with Tom Gloy at Mid-Ohio. But he won driving solo at Lime Rock, Portland and Sears Point.

Although IMSA fields are traditionally filled with drivers of lesser abilities, Brabham faced plenty of headliners in the series--among them former world champion Mario Andretti, Indy 500 winners Rahal, A.J. Foyt and Sullivan, and such foreign stars as 5-time LeMans winner Derek Bell and world sports-prototype champion Martin Brundle of Great Britain, Jochen Mass of Monaco, Klaus Ludwig of West Germany and Sarel van der Merwe of South Africa.

Brabham missed 2 of the first 3 races and trailed Jaguar driver John Nielsen, 51-3, when the series reached Road Atlanta, its fourth stop. In the final 11 races, Brabham outscored the West German, 183-89, and clinched the championship with his win at Columbus--a race before the season ended.

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Precedent is against Brabham, though. No driver since the late Mark Donohue in 1968 has been selected without having won either an Indy car or Winston Cup race. Donohue won the Sports Car Club of America’s Trans Am championship and, like Brabham, 8 races in a row.

Elliott, 33, won his first Winston Cup championship after a year-long battle with Wallace in which he won 6 of 29 races, 6 pole positions and for the fourth straight year went over $1 million in earnings. He was also selected as NASCAR’s most popular driver for the fifth straight year.

Awesome Bill from Dawsonville, as the redhead from Georgia became known when he won a million-dollar jackpot in 1985, finally overcame an inability to win on short tracks, a shortcoming that prevented him from winning the Winston Cup in 1985 even though he won 11 other races.

He drove the family-prepared Ford Thunderbird to his first short-track win, at Bristol, Tenn., and said, “I feel very relieved, like the whole world has been lifted off my shoulders.”

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Although some Southern writers criticized Elliott for taking a conservative 11th-place finish in the year’s final race at Atlanta, it enabled him to collect the $375,000 winner’s bonus as champion, even though Wallace won the race.

Sullivan, 38, won 4 of 15 races, 9 pole positions, set 10 track records and clinched the CART championship before the final race. This despite a slow start during which the 1985 Indy 500 winner scored only 2 points in the first 3 races while driving a Chevrolet-powered Penske PC-17.

After a major disappointment in the Indy 500, when he crashed after leading for 91 laps, Sullivan came back and won the next week at Milwaukee and then scored a major win in the Marlboro 500 at Michigan--a track owned by his boss, Roger Penske. His average speed of 180.654 m.p.h. is a record for 500 miles.

Sullivan’s late-season surge continued with consecutive wins on an oval at Nazareth, Pa., and a road course at Laguna Seca. The win at Nazareth was also special to Sullivan, since he is a part-owner of the track.

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Racing’s most eligible bachelor, Sullivan maintains homes in Los Angeles and Aspen, Colo. He earned $1,217,000 during the season.

Wallace, 32, won 4 of the last 5 races to come within 24 points of catching Elliott in Winston Cup points. It was the third-closest finish in NASCAR history. Like Elliott, he won 6 races.

The redhead from Fenton, Mo., was the only driver in the series to win races on a short track, superspeedway and road course, driving a Pontiac for former drag racing champion Raymond Beadle’s team. Last June, Wallace won the final Winston Cup race at Riverside International Raceway, making it 2 in a row on the road course.

The ballots are in and the name of the winner will be announced Saturday night during the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Assn. banquet at the Spruce Goose pavilion in Long Beach. Members of the AARWBA All-American team will also be honored and the Jerry Titus Memorial Award will be presented to the driver who received the most All-American votes.

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MOTOCROSS--One of the largest fields in motocross history will compete this weekend in the opening round of the 13th annual Dodge Truck Golden State Nationals at Glen Helen Park in San Bernardino. The 8-race series, sanctioned by the Continental Motosport Club, will offer a $600,000 purse with an international field set for the professional classes. Sportsmen and amateur events will be held Saturday with the pros running Sunday.

Announced entries include such former national champions as Kawasaki’s Jeff Ward and Ron Lechien, KTM’s Broc Glover, Suzuki’s Johnny O’Mara and Yamaha’s Micky Dymond, plus defending CMC champions Kenny Zahrt and Sean Conley and British champion Jamie Dobb.

VINTAGE RACING--Riverside International Raceway will “reopen” once again this weekend for the Vintage Auto Racing Assn. There will be 5 races each on Saturday and Sunday on the new 2.5 mile track at the old facility. Cars will range from a 1968 McLaren to a 1947 Bentley, with no cars newer than 1972 models eligible.

TRUCK PULL--Anaheim Stadium will open its Speed Month this weekend with the U.S. Hot Rod Grand Slam of Motorsports, featuring truck and tractor pulls Saturday night and mud bog racing Sunday afternoon. A Mickey Thompson Off-Road Gran Prix is set for Jan. 21, and a supercross on Jan. 28.

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