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Norris Is Set for Thrill of Victory

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As stunt coordinator for the Saturday night CBS television series “Walker, Texas Ranger,” Eric Norris has orchestrated some spectacular maneuvers-- everything from wing walking on an airplane to sending a man engulfed in flames crashing through a window 40 feet above the street.

“Just about anything you can imagine, we’ve done,” says the youngest son of Chuck Norris, series star and martial arts legend.

As a race car owner-driver in the NASCAR Winston West series, however, the 34-year-old Norris has not been able to pull off the one stunt that matters most: driving his car across the finish line first.

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“And that’s the one thing I want to do more than anything,” he says. “I feel like we have the capability of winning every race we go to, but we just haven’t had the luck to finish up front. . . .

“It’s very frustrating, but we’re going to get there. We’re going to win a race. It’s just a matter of time when luck goes our way.”

Perhaps his time will come Saturday night in the Snap-On 250 at Irwindale Speedway.

The race, benefiting the City of Hope, is the second Winston West event of the season at the new facility, where Steve Portenga of Sparks, Nev., won June 19 in one of the most competitive races in series history.

Portenga finished less than half a car length ahead of runner-up Bill Sedgwick of Acton in a 125-mile race that produced 26 lead changes among nine drivers.

Norris finished 10th.

“We weren’t very good,” says the Dallas-based driver, who stands eighth in series points, 188 behind leader Sean Woodside of Agoura and 70 out of fifth place. “But we went out there and tested [two weeks ago] and ran competitive times with everybody else, so we’re confident that we’re going to have a real good race car and we’re going to do well this time.”

With “Walker” on hiatus until Sept. 8, Norris is trying to take advantage of the time to prepare for racing. Usually, he spends 60-70 hours a week working on the show--he also has directed several episodes--before flying out on the weekend.

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“It’s tough,” he says of his usual routine. “It’s 12-14 hours a day, five days a week. During the work week, I’m on my cell phone talking to my crew [in Buena Park], making sure the race team is run right. And then on the weekends, I just sneak away. If I have to fly in late and just jump in the race car, that’s what I do. . . .

“But it’s not easy juggling both of these things.”

Soon, he may stop.

Norris is thinking about giving up his television gig, with an eye on putting together a team that would race on the Winston Cup series within a few years.

“I want to go racing,” he says. “It’s a hard decision for me because I love what I’m doing and ‘Walker’ is such a great job. I love going to work with my dad every day.

“Not many people can say they love going to work every day, but I do. I get to put stunts together, I’m flying in helicopters every day. It’s a great, great job, but I’d love to go racing full time.”

Norris, who grew up on the Palos Verdes Peninsula and graduated from Miraleste High, inherited his need for speed from his father, who formerly raced trucks and won a championship in off-shore power boating several years ago.

“I grew up racing,” he says. “I rode motorcycles and then raced motocross for a while. Right after I got out of high school, my dad was racing trucks, so I went and raced with him. So, I’ve been around it all my life.”

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After earning a degree in criminal justice at Arizona State--”Just a phase I went through,” he says of his field of study--Norris got into show business as a stunt man.

But as much as he enjoyed crashing cars, jumping through glass and setting himself on fire, the racing bug never left him.

He returned to the sport about five years ago, first racing in a Formula 2000 open-wheel car and then in trucks. He joined the Winston West series as an owner-driver last year, running 12 of the 14 races and finishing 14th in the standings.

“I love the camaraderie and being with all the guys on the weekend,” he says. “But mostly, I love the competition and fighting to win. I’ve pretty much won at everything I’ve done, so that’s why I’m so frustrated with racing right now.”

His goal is to challenge for the Winston West championship next year, then switch to the Busch or Craftsman truck series and, in time, the Winston Cup circuit.

After that, he’d like to return to Hollywood as a director.

“We’ll see what happens with racing but that’s my long-term goal,” says Norris, who also somehow finds time for his wife, Stephanie, and their two daughters, Camrynn, 4, and Chloe, 19 months. “I love to take a script and get it on screen. But listen, my plate is so full right now.”

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Does he ever sleep?

“Not much,” he says, laughing. “It’s just hard to find time.”

HEADING INTO THE BACKSTRETCH

Sunday’s inaugural Target Grand Prix is the opening event at the new Chicago Motor Speedway at Sportsman’s Park, a unique 67,000-seat facility at Cicero, Ill.

Built on the site of the old Sportsman’s Park horse-racing track, originally a dog track in the 1920s, the $65-million speedway will be converted back to a horse track for thoroughbred racing next winter and spring before reverting to an auto racing layout next summer.

A tough transition?

“I’m not concerned,” Charles W. Bidwill III, chairman of the board of Chicago Motor Speedway and president of the National Jockey Club, said this week. “Is it going to be a challenge the first time doing it? Absolutely. But we had a test track down in one of our asphalt parking lots all winter and we were very [pleased] with the results of the various experiments done on it.

“So, we’re confident that this thing’s going to be laid down sometime in October and we’ll have horses running around it starting in November.”

For the record, no dirt will be laid on the asphalt track that will be used for Sunday’s CART race. And the horses will not be required to navigate the banked turns.

Said Chip Ganassi, president of the Chicago Motor Speedway and owner of the Target cars driven by Juan Montoya and Jimmy Vasser, “Basically, the warmup lane and the pit lane get an overlay.”

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Staging auto and horse races at the same facility is not unprecedented. Dover Downs in Dover, Del., site of two NASCAR events, has done it for several years.

TOUCHY SUBJECT

Ganassi, whose team is seeking a record fourth consecutive CART championship this year, turned testy during a conference call this week when asked what he would say to those in racing, notably A.J. Foyt, who believe a fourth championship would be tainted because CART drivers have not been able to prove their mettle in the Indianapolis 500 during his team’s reign.

Sighing deeply, a clearly perturbed Ganassi finally said, “Poor A.J. What would I say to A.J.? I’ll put my results of the last five years up against his results of the last 10. That’s all I can say to A.J. A.J.’s a friend of mine, and I’m saddened that he has to say things like that.”

Told that Foyt wasn’t the only one who had voiced that opinion, Ganassi backed down a bit.

“Certainly I wish we were there [at the Indy 500] and I think we’re working toward that goal,” he said. “But it doesn’t take anything away from the performance of our team the last three or four years.”

LAST LAP

Rick Carelli of Denver, Winston West rookie of the year in 1992 and Winston West champion in 1993, will sign autographs from 4-6 p.m. Saturday at Irwindale Speedway in his first public appearance since suffering a broken jaw and serious head injury in a Craftsman truck race last May in Memphis.

Carelli, 44, is making the appearance on behalf of High Hopes, a nonprofit organization in Tustin that provides rehabilitation and other assistance for adults with traumatic head injuries.

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Though he suffers from lingering double vision, Carelli is talking about returning to racing.

This Week’s Races

WINSTON CUP, Pepsi 400

* When: Today, first-round qualifying, (ESPN2, 12:30 p.m.); Saturday, second-round qualifying, 8:45 a.m.; Sunday, race (ESPN, 9:30 a.m.)

* Where: Michigan Speedway (D-shaped oval, two miles, 18 degrees banking in turns), Brooklyn, Mich.

* Race distance: 400 miles, 200 laps.

* Defending champion: Jeff Gordon.

* Last race: Gordon won the Frontier at the Glen in Watkins Glen, N.Y., extending to five his NASCAR record for consecutive victories on road courses.

* Next race: Goody’s 500, Aug. 28, Bristol, Tenn.

BUSCH GRAND NATIONAL, NAPA 200

* When: Today, second-round qualifying, 8:15 a.m.; Saturday, race (ESPN, 9 a.m.).

* Where: Michigan Speedway (D-shaped oval, two miles, 18 degrees banking in turns), Brooklyn, Mass.

* Race distance: 200 miles, 100 laps.

* Defending champion: Jeff Burton.

* Last race: Jason Keller started from the pole and won the Kroger 200 in Clermont, Ind.

* Next race: Food City 250, Aug. 27, Bristol, Tenn.

CRAFTSMAN TRUCKS, Ram Tough 200

* When: Today, race (ESPN, 5:30 p.m.)

* Where: Gateway International Raceway (egg-shaped oval, 1.25 miles, 11 degrees banking in turns 1-2, nine degrees in turns 3-4), Madison, Ill.

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* Race distance: 200 miles, 160 laps.

* Defending champion: Rick Carelli.

* Last race: Greg Biffle held off Stacy Compton to win the Power Stroke 200 at Indianapolis Raceway Park. Biffle took over the lead in the driver standings with his fifth victory in the last eight races.

* Next race: O’Reilly Auto Parts 275, Aug. 28, Topeka, Kan.

CART, Target Grand Prix

* When: Saturday, qualifying, noon (ESPN2, 3 p.m.); Sunday, race, noon (ABC, 1 p.m., tape).

* Where: Chicago Motor Speedway (oval, one mile), Chicago.

* Race distance: 200 miles, 200 laps.

* Defending champion: Inaugural race.

* Last race: Juan Montoya beat Paul Tracy by 11 seconds to win the Miller Lite 200 in Lexington, Ohio. Tracy’s teammate, Dario Franchitti, led the first 54 laps of the 83-lap event, but finished third.

* Next race: Molson Indy, Sept. 5, Vancouver, Canada.

NHRA, VisionAire Northstar Nationals

* When: Today, first-round qualifying, 11:30 a.m.; Saturday, second-round qualifying, 9 a.m.; Sunday, final eliminations, 9 a.m. (Speedvision, 11 a.m.)

* Where: Brainerd International Raceway, Brainerd, Minn.

* Defending champion: Gary Scelzi.

* Last event: Doug Kalitta defended his Autolite Nationals title in Sonoma, Calif., defeating Tony Schumacher in the Top Fuel finals. Whit Bazemore had his first Funny Car victory of the season, and Jim Yates claimed his second Pro Stock victory.

* Next race: U.S. Nationals, Sept. 1-6, Clermont, Ind.

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