Motorsports

FORD, CHEVY, DODGE TRUCKS IN THE DIRT

by Larry Roberts

January 23, 1998

There hasn't been any serious big-time stadium dirt racing since the demise of the Mickey Thompson events in '93. Thompson, a bigger-than- life motorsports legend (international speed records, Indy car construction, professional sports car racing, etc.), had developed stadium racing into a wildly successful national spectator sport. Thompson and his organization would truck acres of dirt into various indoor and outdoor stadiums and hold wheel-to-wheel races for specially- constructed dune buggies, off-road racing trucks and dirt bikes. The events were successful, but it all came to an end shortly after Thompson and his wife were killed in a still-unsolved murder mystery.

Now, five years later, another motorsports legend, Ivan "Ironman" Stewart, has put together a program to resurrect those crowd-pleasing closed circuit events.

Stewart made his reputation driving his tube-framed off-road trucks in such harrowing events as the Baja 1000, and the SCORE cross country races in the Southwestern U.S. high desert. For the past few years, Stewart has been building his own line of "spec" off-road trucks that can accommodate Ford, Chevrolet or Dodge truck engines and drive lines. Professional racers who buy Stewart's "Protruck" racing chassis can build vehicles to suit the requirements of potential sponsors such as the makers of aftermarket equipment or truck dealers, then "skin" them with Big Three fiberglass look-alike shells. By standardizing all the hardware except the engine and transmission, the cost of construction and maintenance is lowered to a minimum and more low-budget teams and contestants can participate. The current IRL Indy 500 single-seater formula works on a similar principle.

But the Stewart-developed racing truck isn't limited to just desert racing. Last year a Chevy powered Protruck won its class in the FIA sanctioned Montee de l'Olympe hillclimb in the French Alps. The BF Goodrich-sponsored racer was owned by Axcel Research & Development Company (The European distributor for Protruck products) and driven by American hillclimb competitor Larry Ragland.

And now Stewart has entered into the role of race promoter himself. In partnership with family entertainment producer Beachport Entertainment Corporation, Stewart has reinstated the Thompson concept of bring desert and off-road racing to spectators in urban areas. Traditionally, the events are held in typical dirt track fashion with short heat races, a trophy dash, a semi-main and a main event. This keeps the action going and keeps younger family members from reaching that I'm-bored-lets-go-home stage. All the competiting vehicles will be Protruck products which assures the promoters of having full fields and satisfied sponsors. Stewart may later include dune buggies and motorcycles, but the rational is that by racing vehicles that American pickup owners can "identify" with, the races will bring in spectators who will root for "their" truck. The rationale has worked extremely well for the NASCAR Craftsman truck series (its total spectatorship last year was over a million) and Stewart hopes it will work for him and his Protruck stadium series.

The old adage "imitation is the most sincere form of flattery" seems appropriate here.

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