Christy Coats didn't have the faintest idea about auto racing when she met her husband, Darin, nine years ago. Nowadays, she and her two children can be found at most SCORE Desert Championship Series off-road racing events, breathing hot, dusty air and having a heck of a good time.
She notes the camaraderie, even with other teams, as well as a more important reason: It's a great place to bring the family.
"I feel really safe with my kids being out here," Christy Coats said. "I don't have to watch them 24 hours a day and I don't have to worry about someone trying to abduct them or worry about what other people are going to do or say to them."
The Coatses, of Cypress, are fairly typical of most off-road fans, says Jim Dindinger of Buena Park. They camp out for the weekend, or maybe stay in a nearby motel, and follow someone with whom they have taken an interest.
In this case, they are following Darin Coats' brother, Brian, a Huntington Beach driver who won for the first time in the Trophy Truck class.
Dindinger is the motor sports manager for American Racing Custom Wheels. He sees about 50 events annually, from the highly evolved CART World Series to the cost-conscious Indy Racing League, from the ever-popular ovals of NASCAR to the drag strips of the NHRA.
"It's definitely more a family thing in off-road," Dindinger said. "They bring their wives, family, girlfriends. No matter what's happening in the series, they seem to be really loyal to the teams. It's almost more participatory.
"They're absolutely die-hards. They're more fanatical than even NASCAR. The CART crowd is more affluent and sophisticated. NASCAR, NHRA and off-road have similar demographics."
Which means families. Where NASCAR's roots are in the south, Dindinger says, off-road's roots are in Southern California.
Why would seven couples--who had no kids nine years ago--still be following Brian Coats around California, Arizona and Nevada with their children in tow?
"It keeps the kids off the streets and gets them involved in a family activity," Darin Coats said. "It's very family-oriented."
Even a couple of single guys can see that.
Laguna Niguel's Jeff Arntsen, 27, a marketing administrator for Pacific Monarch Resorts, and San Clemente's Neal Bullock, 40, the vice president, spent the weekend volunteering on the Search and Rescue team for Riviera Racing's three drivers, Mark Post and Nick Baldwin, both of San Juan Capistrano, and Carl Post of Laguna Beach.
"It's a great place to get together and camp and barbecue," Arntsen said. "It's a great bonding experience. It was for me."
Sal Fish, CEO of SCORE, estimated that 15,000 people attended the weekend festivities.
Jeff Lewis of San Clemente, driver of the Team MacPherson Chevrolet Trophy Truck, said the relaxed atmosphere is conducive to family outings.
"It's one of the few sports where kids can still go into the pits," said Lewis, whose son, Adam, is 11. "We went to the NASCAR race at California Speedway and you had to be 16 to go into the pits. Most race drivers are fairly young, so they have young kids. With SCORE, there's no age limit for the pits or to help."
The kids can even go along on the pre-race the day before the race to help scout the course, if they're so inclined.
When Kathy Hatz pre-raced the Fireworks 250 19 years ago, she was pregnant with her son, Jason, who now drives in Class 1/2-1600. Her husband, Gene Hatz, is a former driver. His brother, Don, builds racing engines in Chula Vista.
"When Jason was 10 or 11, he asked what he would have to do to race," recalled Kathy Hatz, who lives in Laguna Beach. "His dad said, 'If you stay clean, out of drugs and alcohol, we'll talk.' "
Jason got a car for Christmas when he was 15. And as long as he gets "decent" grades at San Diego State, the family will allow him to compete in four or five races a year.
"It's one of the only types of racing where someone without a lot of experience can compete," Dindinger said.