Saga of an Off-Road Runner

Desert truck racing takes courage, conditioning, consistency - and a $250,000 vehicle

IVAN (IRONMAN) STEWART is no more familiar with the cockpit of a Boeing 747 than you or I. But he may have logged more flight time than Air Force One.

Off-road race-truck driving is like that for the man behind the wheel; the desert's untamed terrain often creates unexpected launching platforms for those who feel they must compete where the deer and the antelope play. Only Michael Jordan, during his prime with the Chicago Bulls, had more hang time.

Stewart, one of the giants of the field with 22 years of experience, has already posted 77 major career victories. In California, Ironman is better known than many movie stars. Included in his victories are 12 Baja 500s, two Baja 1,000s, and seven Best Driver Awards.

There is no doubt in Stewart's mind that if Davy Crockett were around today, he would be an off-road race-truck driver. That is, if he could afford the $250,000 it takes to own one of these mini-brutes. Maintenance, of course, is extra.

Building popularity

Stewart, who for the past 11 years has done for Toyota's Motorsports Division in America what Jane Fonda has done for aerobics, competes in a specially built Toyota V-6 truck.

As previously mentioned, the price tag is a little unbelievable to a guy making monthly payments on a mid-size sedan. But if you are an engineer or a rocket scientist, familiar with the intricacies of today's advanced technology, the cost may come as no surprise.

What Toyota has spent its money on is a super engine that develops 300 horsepower; a steel frame that would not be out of place at a Normandy invasion; and a sophisticated five-speed manual transmission. The shock and suspension equipment is more expensive than the landing gear of some small airplanes. Competition speeds in the desert approach 110 miles per hour.

More than 12,000 hours go into the manufacture of each truck Stewart drives, and that does not include research time.

Asked how he prepares for a new racing season, Stewart replies: ``This is a demanding, year-round sport, and you approach it the way any serious professional athlete would. You have to be ready physically and mentally. You have to maintain concentration. You can't afford to allow yourself to drift off mentally or you're probably going to miss a checkpoint. This is not only frustrating, it can cost you the race. You have to love what you are doing.

``Over the years, if this is the way you make your living, you learn certain things that never change,'' Ivan continues. ``For example, I've learned what kind of consistency you need to have a chance of winning.... I never compete in an off-road truck race of any length without driving the course three or four times beforehand. This is important, because you have to know what's out there.''

Stewart's vehicle is elegant: The doors flow into the rest of the body, meaning you get in by climbing through the driver's-side window. Forget the windshield - there isn't one. The passenger seat has been replaced by a labyrinth of steel for crash protection.

This truck uses 100 octane gas. It doesn't have a heater, air conditioning, a stereo, or any other everyday extras. In fact, it doesn't even have four-wheel drive. The tires cost $125 apiece and the rear ones have to be replaced after every desert race.

The chief difference between off-road truck racing in the desert and the kind that takes place inside a major league baseball or football stadium (where tons of dirt are trucked in to create a man-made course) is the element of surprise in the desert.

The desert race takes hours to run and comes with its own set of hazards, like animals that wander onto the course. However, stadium truck racing means more traffic, more chances for accidents.

Environmentalists like Joe Gorman of the Sierra Club, however, oppose off-road truck racing because of the damage it does to terrain and wildlife. ``While we have laws to protect the environment in these areas, often we don't have enough officers to handle such a wide area problem,'' Gorman says.

Dune buggies to trucks

Although Stewart was born in Oklahoma, he was raised in San Diego and still lives in the area. He began racing dune buggies while still in high school. He quit racing after graduation to take a job in construction and to marry his high school sweetheart.

Then, in 1973, he began helping owner-driver Bill Hrynko build, maintain, and repair his off-road racer on weekends. Ivan also rode co-pilot.

``Then one day Bill fell off a ladder and broke his leg,'' Stewart says. ``So I drove his truck in the next off-road race and won. After that, Hrynko told me: `You drive, I'll ride.' ''

From there, Stewart worked his way up until he got a major sponsor and was able to devote himself to the sport full-time. Today he's world class.

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