Gordon Opens Busy Year With New Ride : Racing: Switch to Ford truck for Anaheim Stadium race tonight will begin season in which he will drive in three series.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Robby Gordon, driving a Toyota sport truck that was built, owned and maintained by Cal Wells, dominated the Mickey Thompson Off-Road Championship Gran Prix season last year.

Tonight, in the 1990 season opener at Anaheim Stadium--racing will start at 7:30 before a crowd anticipated at 65,000--Gordon will be in a Ford, built by Russ Wernimont and owned by Jim Venable.

In nine races in his first season in a truck, Gordon won at Anaheim, San Diego, New Orleans and the Coliseum, finished first at Seattle before being disqualified, and lost at the Rose Bowl by the width of Walker Evans' Jeep.

Was it the man, or the machine, that contributed most to last year's success? The new season may supply the answer.

Gordon will be in a new truck, driving for a team unfamiliar with stadium racing, although it is a proven winner in desert racing. Wells will have Jeff Huber, who won the stadium championship driving a Mazda truck in 1987, in Gordon's place.

Wells wouldn't be surprised, however, if Gordon, his former protege, is dominant again.

"Robby has the unique ability to pull things out of a vehicle that others can't," Wells said. "I think he is one of the most talented drivers in the United States right now, and I wish I could have kept him. But his career is at a significant turning point, and he received an opportunity he couldn't resist."

The opportunity includes more than just racing trucks for Ford.

Gordon, who turned 21 on Jan. 2, also will drive a Mercury Cougar for Jack Roush's factory team in the International Motor Sports Assn.'s Camel GTO series.

"The story of how Robby got that GTO ride is indicative of how much talent he has," said Venable, a former racer who grew up in Hemet with Rodney Hall and Jim Fricker, two of off-road racing's pioneers.

"Because he drove the Baja 1000 solo and won without getting out of the cab for 18 hours, Ford asked him to drive in the 24-hour race at Daytona with Mark Martin, the Winston Cup stock car guy. First, though, they wanted to see how he reacted to driving on pavement in a race car, so they invited him to test at Sebring (Fla.), where they were holding tryouts for their GTO team.

"Ford had eight or nine young drivers down there testing, but all Robby was supposed to do was get some track time. Well, when they started clocking him, Robby was fastest of them all. And he'd never even sat in a car like that before he arrived in Sebring.

"Before we knew what was happening, Roush signed Robby to a contract to drive the full IMSA series with (Trans-Am champion) Dorsey Schroeder, not just the Daytona race."

Having to drive in three series will pose some sticky logistical problems for Gordon. But, fortunately for him, Venable owns Hemet Valley Flying Service, which furnishes planes for dropping water and chemicals on forest fires.

"We've got more than 50 planes out there, so I'll find a way to move Robby around," Venable said. "But he'll have do without stewardesses."

The big crunch will occur April 21 when Gordon plans to drive in three events in two countries: the San Felipe 250 desert race on the east coast of Mexico's Baja California at 8:30 a.m.; the Long Beach Grand Prix GTO race at 4:15 p.m.; and the Phoenix stadium off-road race at 7:30 p.m.

"Robby will log a lot of time in one of our Aero Commanders that week," Venable said. "He'll be in Phoenix to qualify on Thursday, fly back to Long Beach to qualify the Cougar on Friday, fly down to San Felipe that night.

"The San Felipe race, if all goes well, should last about four hours. The plane will be waiting for him and we ought to get back to Long Beach with about an hour or so to spare. Long Beach is just a sprint race, so we should be headed back to Phoenix in time for him to make the first heat in the truck.

"When you're barely 21, you can do things like that. I'm the one who may suffer the most, especially when Robby wants me to stop at a Burger King for a hamburger and Coke at 6 in the morning."

Venable is 53, and the father of eight children.

"You'd better make that nine," he said. "Since Robby joined us right out of high school (El Modena in Orange), it's been like having another kid around the house. But Mary (Mrs. Venable) and I have enjoyed watching him mature the last couple of years."

Although Gordon drove a Toyota in stadium races last year, he drove a Ford for Venable in the desert and was just as dominating there.

Gordon won three races overall--driving a 4,500-pound truck against the lighter, more nimble single-seat and two-seat racing buggies--including both Baja events, the 500-mile Internacional and the Ensenada-to-La Paz 1,000. It was the first time a truck had won the 1,000 overall since Walker Evans did it in 1979.

When Gordon climbed out of his truck at La Paz after nearly 18 hours, his mother was waiting for him with two cups of water. Gordon poured them over the heads of his co-drivers: Wernimont, who rode the first half; and Bob Bower, who finished the race.

"The truck ran absolutely flawless," Gordon said. Then, grinning, he added, "The only problem I had was when Bower told me to go faster. I told him I couldn't, that if it did, I'd run out of talent.

"I'd planned to get out when we changed drivers and the BF Goodrich crew went over the car, but it was running so good that I stayed put. I only loosened my seat belt once when I kicked out the windshield after it got so foggy I couldn't see. The cold air felt good. It woke me up. I knew the road, though, because I'd pre-run the whole course five times."

The Ford truck that Gordon will drive tonight is untested.

"The weather made our test track so muddy that we couldn't get on it," Gordon said. "But I know what a great job Russ (Wernimont) did with the desert truck, so I have complete confidence in the new one he built for the stadiums."

Wernimont, 25, who worked several years for Wells at his Precision Preparation, Inc., shops in Westminster, also received high praise from his former boss.

"Russ came to work for me from Ohio, right out of high school," Wells recalled. "He started out doing all the dirty work, but it was easy to see that he was absorbing everything he saw. He ran his own shop for a few years before he joined Venable and, from what I've seen of his work, I'm sure that his truck will be state-of-the art."

One thing it won't have, however, is Wells' on-board computer, which monitors how the driver and the truck are operating through the use of 20 sensors inside the vehicle.

"We also have cameras on both drivers at all times, and when the race or practice is over we match the pictures with the computer and learn precisely when one truck went quicker, and where it picked up the time and why," Wells said.

"If we're having trouble keeping up with a rival driver, we'll put a camera on him, too, and match his progress around the course with our own drivers. We check things like wheel spin, throttle response, all sorts of things like that. You'd be surprised how many times a driver will tell you he had the throttle flat on the floor, but the computer tells us he was lifting."

Gordon acknowledged that the computer helps the crew in preparing the trucks, but discounted its value to the driver.

"Look at Walker (Evans) and Roger (Mears)," he said. "They don't have computers and they've managed to win in a Jeep and a Nissan. And so did Glenn (Harris) and Jeff (Huber) in their Mazdas."

Huber won the individual championship in 1987 and Mears in 1985. Evans won two races and Mears and Harris one each last season.

Wells, who builds and prepares all of Toyota's off-road vehicles, also built the desert truck that Ivan (Ironman) Stewart won overall with in the Mint 400 last spring. Stewart, who won last year's stadium-season finale at Las Vegas, will also be in tonight's race.

Wells' business has outgrown its 12,000-square foot Westminster shop, so a new 20,000-foot shop is being built a few miles east in Rancho Santa Margarita.

"We started out with two people--myself and one mechanic--in 1978, and now PPI has a staff of 35, including eight mechanics, six fabricators and five engineers, all working exclusively on Toyota trucks," Wells said. "We hope, with our new building, to be able to expand into other racing programs."

Wells and Toyota have a perfect record in stadium Manufacturers Cup competition, having won all seven.

The Grand National sports truck race won't be Gordon's only appearance tonight. He will also drive one of the family's Chenowth buggies in the Super 1600 race.

"My dad will take care of the car for me," Gordon said. "I'll just jump in and drive it. He says he wants me to run so he can prove to himself that he can still beat me."

Bob Gordon, 42, Robby's father, won the single-seater stadium championship in 1983 and again in 1985 in a tie with Jerry Whelchel. Robby won it in 1988.

"There is another good reason to run the 1600," Robby Gordon explained. "The more track time you get, the better off you are. And by running the buggy two races before the truck main event, I'll get a chance to check out any holes in the track.

"They get dug up as the evening goes along, mostly by the motorcycles. They don't bother a buggy, cause it'll bounce right over, but in a truck, where you're sliding a lot, if a tire catches one of those holes going sideways, it'll flip it right over.

"It just makes good racing sense to take advantage of an opportunity like that--as long as my dad does all the work getting the car ready. It's only five races (two truck heats, one 1600 heat and two main events) in a night."

As Jim Venable says, when you're 21, you can do things like that.

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