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Off-Road Racing at Anaheim Stadium

You won’t believe your eyes. It’ll be going on right in front of you, and your senses will deny that this could possibly be happening: trucks sailing 50 feet through the air, motorcycles leaping 20 feet off the ground, men (and a few women) and machines performing acts that seem to defy logic and the laws of gravity.

Rest assured. You haven’t lost your mental faculties, though by the time the evening is over you might well believe that participants in this most unusual sport have.

The events under discussion are the Mickey Thompson Off-Road Championship Grand Prix tonight and the Coors Extra Gold Super Challenge next Saturday night, both starting at 7:30 at Anaheim Stadium. If you want to go early, your tickets will get you in during the afternoon practice and qualifying sessions.

What you’ll see when you walk through the gates is that the normally pristine home of the California Angels and Los Angeles Rams has been transformed into what looks like a chunk of Baja.

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“That’s $100,000 worth of dirt you’re looking at,” says Bob Russo, media spokesman for the grand prix. “First we lay down plastic sheets to protect the field, then 4x8 sheets of plywood, and another layer of plastic. We then haul in more than 700 truckloads of clay-based earth and use bulldozers to create a three-eighths-of-a-mile race track with eight turns, six jumps and a section of stutter bumps or moguls, somewhat like those you’d find on a ski slope.”

This evening’s Mickey Thompson race is the opening event of a 10-race nationwide series now beginning its eighth year, and six classes of vehicles will be competing. These include single-seat Super 1600s (they look like dune buggies, but have a $60,000 price tag) and Ultrastock, which are Super 1600-type chassis with fiberglass bodies that resemble production street vehicles such as Toyotas and VWs. There also will be classes of four-wheel all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), including the superlites, and a motorcycle class called Ultracross.

The main attraction, however, is the Grand National Sport Truck category, represented by factory-backed teams from Toyota, Mazda, Chevrolet, Ford and Jeep.

These sport trucks look, more or less, like the kind of jacked-up, big-tired pickup trucks you see on the road. But don’t be fooled, and don’t try this kind of driving yourself. You will, beyond any doubt, destroy your truck and quite possibly hurt yourself.

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What you will see tonight are fully race-prepared machines built specifically for stadium racing, and each costs about $175,000 or more. They’re powered by a mix of 4-cylinder, 6-cylinder and rotary engines, all producing in the neighborhood of 300 horsepower.

Some of the more sophisticated trucks, like the Toyotas driven by 20-year-old Robby Gordon and veteran Ivan (Ironman) Stewart, have one-speed transmissions, sophisticated on-board computers that measure everything from engine speed to suspension G-loading, and under their flimsy fiberglass body work they look more like Indianapolis cars than trucks.

“The driving style required to win in Grand National Sport Truck is flat-out, 110%, with no regard for the equipment,” Stewart says. “You’ll see lots of bumping, bashing and rollovers, but rarely is the damage more than cosmetic. The only one who gets mad when a fender gets torn off is the sponsor whose name was on that fender.”

Entrants in every class run two heat races during the evening, hoping to qualify for the main event. Heat races are 10 laps, lasting three to four minutes. The main event for the Sport Truck and Super 1600 classes are 12 laps, with all other classes running 10-lap main events.

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The evening begins with a “meet the drivers” session that runs from 6 to 7 p.m.

Among those who are expected to be there are Indy 500 driver Roger Mears and his 16-year-old son Roger Jr.; Danny Thompson, the 36-year-old son of the late Mickey Thompson, whose murder last year remains unsolved; Mazda driver Glenn Harris, and 50-year-old Walker Evans, Jeep team driver. The youngest driver in the show is 4-wheel-ATV rider Brian Leath, 15, from Corning, Calif.

“All told, this is a 3 1/2-hour show that runs like a Broadway stage production,” Russo says. “As soon as one class has run, the next is lined up waiting to start.”

If after all that action you still haven’t had enough, or if motorcycles are more your area of interest, the Coors Extra Gold Super Challenge next Saturday night will serve to satisfy even the most jaded thrill-seeker.

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The same dirt used for the Mickey Thompson event is bulldozed into a new course configuration more suited to motorcycles. Two classes, one powered by a 125-cubic-centimeter engine, the other with a more powerful 250-cc engine, will compete, and the format is essentially the same as for the Mickey Thompson event.

Drivers will mingle with the audience between 6 and 7 p.m., and when racing does get under way at 7:30, entrants run qualifying heats, or “motos,” hoping to earn a place in the main event. The 125-cc class runs eight-lap motos, with the 250-cc class going 10 laps. The main event for each class is 25 laps.

As opposed to the purpose-built racing vehicles in the Mickey Thompson event, motorcycles competing in the Coors Supercross races are very nearly stock, although some race-tuning and preparation are involved.

Also, whereas some of the top drivers in the Mickey Thompson event are pushing 50, top motorcycle racers are over the hill at age 27 or 28. The level of physical strength and stamina required is so great that motorcycle racers are considered to be among the most superbly conditioned athletes.

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“I ride my motorcycle at very nearly racing speed for at least an hour a day, every day,” says Jeff Ward of the Kawasaki factory team. “I also run between 25 and 30 miles a week, bicycle 250 miles a week and work out with weights. You cannot be a top rider without being in top physical condition.”

Ticket prices for both events range from $12 to $22, with discount tickets for the Mickey Thompson race available at Toyota dealers. For the Coors event, discount tickets are available at Yamaha and Honda dealers. Tickets can be purchased at the stadium or through Ticketmaster outlets. Information: (714) 937-6750.


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