Stewart Wants Off-Road Win at Home

TIMES STAFF WRITER

You know you're a big deal when:

--You've done something no one else has accomplished.

--Your nickname appears on your personalized checks.

--You are the subject of a video arcade game.

Alpine's Ivan (Ironman) Stewart fits the criteria. In off-road racing, Stewart gives a whole new meaning to the term pay dirt.

Yet the nickname, laurels and even the video games won't win Stewart a race in San Diego. Remarkably, this is something he has yet to accomplish.

He gets his chance Saturday in the Mickey Thompson Off-Road Championship Gran Prix at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, the second race in a 10-race series.

Stewart, 45, won his unprecedented third Grand National sport truck championship last year with a single-season record five main-event victories. On top of that, Stewart won the SCORE/High Desert Racing Assn. overall title, the first person to accomplish the feat in the same year.

Like technology, Stewart seems to be getting better as the years go by.

In that remarkable 1990 season, his 17th, Stewart was simply the best off-road driver around. Still, he finished second in San Diego. Like Mario Andretti at Indianapolis, Stewart has a private pit of frustration--and it's his own backyard.

"It's always something," Stewart said. "One year it was the transmission; another year I almost didn't make the main event because of a starter. It's the crazy little things that happen.

"Last year, I won five of the 10 races. There's not a reason in the world I can't win in San Diego. I've won more main events in the national events than any driver around. The dirt in San Diego is no different than the dirt in Houston or Los Angeles. No doubt I can win in San Diego. In fact, I'm going to win in San Diego."

But Stewart hasn't been able to establish a home-dirt advantage despite his experience.

"I'm going to win if it's the last thing I do," he said. "I'm going to give it everything I can Saturday night. I'm tired of not winning. My relatives and friends are here--and I can't even win for them."

This might be Stewart's best chance to win in San Diego because Precision Preparation Inc., his team, has assembled a V-6-powered Toyota truck that might be the fastest vehicle in the stadium.

In it, Stewart won the pole position at last month's Anaheim race. Though his truck was planted on its nose and the hood and front fenders stripped away during one aborted start, he still finished second.

"I think we have the most competitive truck you can have," Stewart said. "But there's a factor of luck involved in all these races. I think we've got the truck for it. It's just a matter of having a little luck."

A lucky lunch took Stewart's name into thousands of homes across the nation.

He said he was eating lunch in an El Cajon sushi bar when he struck up a conversation with a group of patrons, who turned out to be software engineers for the Leland Corporation. They were working on an off-road racing game for video arcades, an idea hatched at the San Diego off-road stadium event.

And right there next to them, eating raw fish, was the king of off-road racing. After lunch, they exchanged business cards. Three days later, Stewart met Leland president John Rowe. Soon "Ivan 'Ironman' Stewart's Super Off-Road" was racing toward being the No. 1 game in the video arcade market. It soon became a Nintendo game, a home computer game and finally a hand-held game.

"It's extremely realistic," Stewart said. "You race against two trucks and the Ironman truck. If you beat the Ironman truck you win a free game and, because you win first place, you win prize money, so you can purchase items to build a better truck, exactly like racing.

"And if you lose, you've got to put another quarter in."

Saturday night, the Ironman intends to collect . . . and not necessarily quarters.

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