Jay Leno: Desert dueling with Ivan ‘Ironman’ Stewart

Jay Leno goes truck racing

Racing you can afford courtesy of the most popular vehicle in America

As a kid, I loved NASCAR racing because the cars were almost stock: The cars you saw racing on a Sunday had modified chassis and beefier suspensions, but were otherwise like what you could go to a dealer and buy any Monday. Chevys had Chevy engines. Fords had Ford engines. Today’s NASCAR racers share a specialized chassis, and they also have similar V8s.

The bodies are basically the same and, aside from painted-on grilles, barely resemble production cars. Compared to Fireball Roberts’ old stocker, today’s Cup cars are space shuttles. Racing in NASCAR costs a fortune. You have to spend big bucks to play—more if you want to be competitive.­

Here’s something else.

You’ve likely heard of Ivan “Ironman” Stewart. For decades, he raced a competition Toyota Tundra in the desert, including winning the Baja 500 an amazing 17 times. Pickups like the one Stewart recently showed me are the last of their kind: You could drive it to the racetrack and race. There are few, if any, engine modifications: Upgrades are mainly confined to the suspension, tires and wheels. So Baja off-road racing can be the closest thing to old-time stock-car racing in a long time.

I don’t know why I just realized this. Yes, there are unlimited off-road classes where you run whatever engine you want, but when I opened his Tundra’s hood and asked what was done to the engine, he said, “Absolutely nothing.” The truck has a roll cage and a radio, but the air conditioning was still hooked up.

Leno Tundra Photo 1

I thought, “Finally, an affordable, fun way to go racing. You don’t even need a track, just some unclaimed land or, even better, desert to race across.”

I was impressed. These days, high cost is the main thing keeping most people from racing. OK, racing Baja is not cheap, but it is definitely cheaper than Formula One, NASCAR and IndyCar.

You don’t overstress the motor because you’re not going insane speeds; you’re just trying to keep the truck moving. It feels fast, but you’re only doing 70 or 80 miles an hour over rough terrain.

All you have to do is reinforce a few suspension pieces—in fact, Stewart says his suspension lasted maybe half a dozen races or even a season if he didn’t hit anything.

Not racing at 180 or 200 miles an hour not only saves on cost, but for the average guy those speeds are nigh on impossible anyway. A pro racer’s reaction time is at least 100 times better than the average guy’s. When something goes wrong at 150 or 200 miles an hour, they compensate. You or I would have some sort of horrific accident. Your mind and body can take in Baja racing’s reasonable speeds.

Of course, there are also surprises I never realized. Get this: Spectators booby-trap the race to make it more interesting for themselves. They hang out along the desert course waiting for the trucks to come. They dig a hole and cover it with sagebrush or tumbleweeds, then stand there and watch the racers plow into the holes. Sometimes the trucks spectacularly break a wheel or lose a shock—the roadside ghouls think it’s the funniest thing they’ve ever seen.

Leno Tundra Photo 2

Off-road racing is really endurance racing over 12 or more hours. In fact, Stewart got his Ironman nickname racing solo for 24 hours straight. With me alongside him for a ride, it’s Ironman meets Doughnut Man. We went out in the sticks near Bakersfield on a 5- or 6-mile track to show what the truck could do.

Stewart sort of senses a hole or ditch coming and floors it to get the front end up a little bit so we don’t go nose first into the ground. It’s a different kind of driving.

Being able to buy the same truck you saw racing with the same engine and same horsepower also means if you have a pickup and you’re handy, you can get into Baja racing fairly easily. You’d learn how to build the truck as you go—following the rulebook, of course. So if you want to get into racing, this is a good starting place. It’s obviously different from competing on a track: When you’re racing a truck across the desert and you crest a hill, you learn how to keep the nose high or low using the throttle and brakes before you launch. You can literally jump over rocks or tree stumps. It’s intense.

You drive hard even though you’re not always competing against somebody on your tail or in front of you. You can’t really learn the course, and it changes as more racers drive it, so competing successfully requires utmost concentration. It’s about endurance, and it’s great fun.

When something breaks, you fix it more or less with tools you brought—you could be 100 miles from anybody. You might not have cell reception, so you sit there hoping another competitor helps you.

Leno Tundra Photo 3

Here’s another thing: We all like our Mustangs, Corvettes and Vipers, but pickups are America’s biggest seller—we’re a truck nation. Trucks really took off 25 or so years ago with the luxury tax. Remember that?

The government took 10 percent on any car costing more than $30,000. Cars, not trucks.

Soon automakers realized they could put leather interiors and electric windows and air-conditioning in a truck without people having to pay the tax. And so the truck/ SUV craze was born.

Stewart says most factories watch off-road truck racing and use what they learn in R&D. If a part breaks, it goes back to the automaker. The part becomes stronger—the next truck that comes out has the better part. I like the idea that racing improves the breed.

If you want to race the most popular vehicle in America, just get a truck.

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