In 1976 off-road racing pioneer Norman T. Johnson and Gordon Grimmis wrote the essential bible of off-road racing culture titled simply “Off-Road Racer”. The book has been difficult to find because only 4,000 were made, 100 with a very special real leather cover and a personal plaque on the cover. The book immediately sold out and it has subsequently been out of print since 1979. If you are lucky enough to own one you know the treasure trove of stories it contains. Fortunately for me not only own the book but I am friends with Norm, as he is the one of the founders of The Mint 400. The book is an unabridged account of the colorful history of the birth of off-road culture, the founders, the racers, the supporters, the vehicles and the races everything that makes the culture so great.
We will be publishing excerpts from the book and eventually will re-publishing “Off-Road Racer” in it’s entirety because we think is should be accessible to the whole world!
Off-Road Racer: The Excerpts
Chapter One: The Grandfather of Off-Road Racing: BAJA 1000
Chapter Two: The Mint 400: 1968 to 1976
Chapter Three: One of the Great Off-Road Races: The Stardust 7-11
Chapter Four: Back To Baja — The Baja 500
Chapter Five: NORRA The Beginning
By Jack Brady
Spanish legend had it that Baja (lower) California was either part of, or near an island paradise peopled by long-limbed Amazons. It was reputed to be wealthy beyond dream, a Golconda in the new world.
Hernando Cortes, arriving in the Gulf of California about 1535, took a cursory look at the coast between La Paz and Loreto, decided it fit the bill and named it California. He then sailed off, as conquistadores had a way of doing, and left the dirty work to the priests.
The Jesuits, close on the heels of the first Spanish explorers, started to push their string of missions north from the mild and pleasant coastal area only to find a real “hell on earth”.
The good Fathers found nature in some parts of the stony desert so hostile that the simplest existence proved to be a continual battle. Fresh water was almost non-existent and it was not long before the mission buildings melted back into the earth from which their adobe brick had so painstakingly been created.
Even when the Mexican Government made land available for homesteaders in modern times, existence outside the fertile valleys along the border was almost as difficult as it had been 450 years ago.
Until the middle 1960’s when land reform measures in Mexico brought settlers to Baja California in large numbers, it was possible for the more adventuresome sportsman to roam almost the entire peninsula without ever seeing another person, let alone a fence. It was a jealously guarded playground for those who had motorcycles or four-wheelers that gave them access to this vast wilderness.
It is now a certainty the climate that encouraged the early speed record attempts from the border to La Paz will never be the same as it was when Dave Ekins, his brother Bud and Eddie Mulder broke Dave’s old record of 39:56 hours on a Triumph 650 in May of 1966. Dave had ridden a Honda 250 to La Paz in 39:56 hours in March of ’62.
In the late ’60s the highway to the south consisted of 60 to 90 miles of pavement south of Ensenada and another 125-130 miles from La Paz north to the area near Villa Constitucion. The figures are not precise because each year they added a few more miles. The right-of-way in between consisted of a series of surveyors’ marks that marched through the middle of nowhere.
It took the average truck with ranch supplies or live turtles about two weeks to run the full length of the peninsula on what was optimistically referred to at that time as Mexico One.
These were the conditions that faced Californians Ed Pearlman and Dave Cepek; Ed Orr and Claude Dozier; John Lawlor and Drino Miller when they made their assault on the elusive speed record from Tijuana to La Paz in June of 1967.
Dozier and Orr managed to herd their Chevy-powered Toyota into La Paz in 41:45 hours. By this time, record-seekers had begun to differentiate between the types of vehicles that claimed records. I guess you could accept this as the first four-wheel drive record, although the outright record of 34:45 hours had been set the previous April by Bruce Meyers and Ted Mangels in a well thrashed Meyers Manx. Meyers and Mangels had charted their own course on the run south to La Paz. They set their record from south to north using a totally different course than previous record seekers.
Pearlman and Cepek had run into serious problems during their attempt and trailed the Dozier/Orr Toyota into La Paz by some 15 hours.
This was a fateful 15 hours. Pearlman claimed most of the thinking that went into the founding of the National Off Road Racing Association was done while he was flat on his back, trying to jury rig a suspension so he and Cepek could nurse the Toyota into La Paz.
Pearlman, a successful florist in Woodland Hills, had a history of doing the unexpected that dated back to the time he hot-rodded the skipper’s Jeep during a tour with the Marines in World War II.
If you find certain incongruities around a florist tearing hell-bent through the back country of Mexico in search of obscure speed records, you do not understand the universal appeal of what has become known affectionately as “off-roading”.
The sport of off-roading pre-dated Vorda’s ’67 birth by several years. Most of the surplus Jeeps had disappeared from the market by the ’60s and the civilian models were into the third and fourth generation. Japan had even gotten into the business with the Toyotas. Brian Chuchua, one of the most successful Jeep dealers in the Los Angeles area, remembers running an event in the Anza-Borrego area a year or two before he started his Riverside Grand Prix. A closed course event, the GP was run in the muck and sand of a riverbed. It was an established event for some time before NORRA opened shop.
It remained, however, for Ed Pearlman to make the marathon concept of off-roading a reality.
“We had a dinner party at my place after our Baja run,” he recalled. “I told Cepek and Dozier that we ought to run a race. We would charge everyone fifty dollars to enter and use part of the money to fly to La Paz and wait for the racers to arrive. We’d give the first man into town half the entry fee and throw a giant party with the rest.”
Pearlman got the friendly horselaugh from some of his guests and was told he was crazy to expect anyone to actually PAY for the privilege of destroying their equipment.
However, the seed was planted! As the next six years would prove, it was dangerous to wave a potential under the nose of a mad florist.
Ed Pearlman learned to hustle early. He earned his money as a teenager by selling gardenias to sometimes unwilling customers in the New York subways. Money wasn’t all that plentiful and you learned to read people quickly or you did not sell many gardenias.
Over the years, his sales technique was refined and polished but the same kind of “street smart” surfaced every time he was faced with a tricky situation.
NORRA’s first official act, even before the organization was much more than an idea, was to present a trophy to Spence Murray and Ralph Poole for their latest successful assault on the Baja record.
Murray, a magazine editor, and Poole, a photographer, hammered a 1967 American Motors Rambler into shape and raced through their favorite playground in 31 hours at an average speed of 30.77 mph for the 960 miles. They trimmed almost four hours off the Meyers/Mangels time. Their record, set in May and considered by many to be one that would stand for quite a while, lasted less than three months.
Murray and Poole were old Baja hands. They had even written a book on the area. However, their most recent literary achievement was to rewrite the last page in the Baja record book before it became the toughest venue in the world for professional racers.
Although Ed Pearlman did not have a formal invitation to the American Motors party celebrating the Murray/Poole triumph, he was there with a plaque from NORRA. Somehow the plaque found its way back to Detroit and was presented to the President of American Motors by the Mexican Consul in Detroit.
All this was duly noted by the Detroit newspapers. NORRA’s first press notices did not appear in the California papers but at least they did appear. The fledgling had taken its first stumbling step.
Of the five prospective backers that agreed to put up $100 apiece to finance NORRA’s start, only Pearlman and his friend Pete Condos actually came up with any money. Condos had been involved in helping Pearlman build his record car and was a natural target for the first sales pitch.
NORRA had $174 and change in the bank after the bill for the Murray/Poole trophy had been paid.
On July 12th, Pearlman called a meeting of those people who had been involved in the closed-course record attempts and the closed-course racing. The plan was to do a little judicious brain picking and find out what kind of support he could count on in promoting and sanctioning off-road racing.
“There was no one to sanction this kind of racing and there was no one to organize it,” remarked Pearlman. We had a few people in the group who weren’t actually dissenters but I’m sure there were some doubts about our qualifications. The bill for the dinner came to $150. I thought the treasury was going to be wiped out before we even got started. However, as luck would have it, Bob Feuerhelm got up and suggested that everyone kick in. He said we would all benefit from the race (when and if it happened) so the least we could do was pay for our own dinner. NORRA actually made $30 on the transaction. It was a good omen!”
The discussion over dinner had brought up several problems that just could not be ignored.
Pearlman never admitted it in so many words, but it appeared that he was going to present the race to the Mexican authorities as a “fait accompli”. Once it was done, and successful, who would argue?
As the event grew in size and complexity, it soon became quite obvious that this approach was not feasible.
An early morning call from Vic Hickey, at that point doing research and development work for General Motors in Detroit, indicated that if the proper permits were forthcoming, NORRA could count on a 10-car entry from Detroit.
Ten cars at this stage of the game represented an estimated one-sixth of the field and they were worth some concern.
Later Hickey also suggested that the entry fee be raised to $250 and NORRA take care of the gas and insurance expenses.
The fat was in the fire and Pearlman was presented with his own “fait accompli”. This was going to be a thoroughly professional event or it probably wouldn’t come off at all.
Not one to be caught in the trap of having to do everything himself, Pearlman used everyone he could get his hands on to ensure the complicated job of organizing such an event would go ahead at top speed. He displayed a real knack for recognizing the necessity for a particular job and then getting the right person into that job, one way or another. The advisory committee and list of officials for the first event looked like the “Who’s Who” of racing.
In fact, you might run into two or three people working on the same problem simultaneously, not one of them knowing about the other. He also believed in a little insurance when he asked someone to do something. When you consider this was all volunteer help and everybody was operating in strange territory, this tactic was forgivable.
By the middle of July, the regulations for the first Mexican 1000 Rally were published and the race was set for November 1st. There was just 90 days left to pull the whole show together.
Now the long, tedious and sometimes frustrating attempt to find an ally in the Mexican Government began.
Sometimes the shotgun technique works and sometimes it fails. Pearlman’s first contact with Rolando Torres, head of the Tourism Department in Los Angeles was interesting.
“I told him (Torres) that we would be using thousands of gallons of gas, that the event would probably bring over 2000 people into Ensenada and that we would need at least 150 seats on an airplane to La Paz.” When Pearlman had finished outlining the possibilities, the response was anything but encouraging. “I wasn’t lying to the man. Quite frankly, I wasn’t even sure I was exaggerating. He just didn’t seem to comprehend and felt the whole thing was impossible.”
“At the time I was starting to try and make some phone calls into Mexico and that’s when things got really frustrating, especially since I had very little knowledge of the language.” Pearlman equates some of his early success to luck but as is usually the case with success, most of it can be traced to dogged persistence and a flair for “circus”. Circus is used here in its broadest sense and it means providing people with the grandest show possible with whatever material is at hand.
To watch and listen to NORRA’s President track down a person on the phone and then maneuver the unwary into a position where they had to give him what he wanted was pure circus. Sometimes he was subtle, sometimes blunt, but always entertaining.
During this whole exercise with the Mexican authorities, the deadline on Vic Hickey’s entry from Detroit loomed ever larger.
Finally, at the 11th hour, Pearlman was able to open up a contact with the Director of Tourism in
Ensenada, Eliseo Garcia Araujo. Garcia, after being advised of the problems, said he would sign a permit or letter that would indicate the cooperation of the Mexican authorities.
When the letter wasn’t in the NORRA office after four or five days, Pearlman started that interminable process of trying to put through a call to Ensenada. Finally a connection went through and the very welcome voice of Eliseo Garcia informed Pearlman, “You must be very lucky for me, Senor, I’ve just been selected for the position of Delegado (Chief) of the Department of Tourism for the whole state (the northern half of the Baja California peninsula). Give me a week to get settled in Mexicali and I’ll sign your letter. It will mean more that way.”
It wasn’t quite as easy as it sounded and evidently Garcia had some second thoughts. For a while, a real Mexican standoff developed. Garcia claimed he needed some evidence that the factories were going to be involved before he would issue the permit. Some of the more important entries claimed they needed evidence that a permit would be issued before they could go to the expense of preparing an entry. All this, with only 60 days left before the scheduled start.
Pearlman, caught right in the middle, was at his best. He was finally able to convince Garcia that his permission was the only thing holding up the flood of people and money which were poised to cross the border on the first of November.
It worked! Garcia issued the all-important letter on the 13th of September and Pearlman, rather than trust the mails or any other kind of providence, had his son Mike in Mexicali waiting for the document the morning it was signed!
In one case it was too late. Whether it was internal politics or just too tight a schedule was never established, but the projected 10-car entry in the “rally” from General Motors never materialized. Hickey, not one to take his commitments lightly, built the first “Baja Boot”, a highly specialized experimental vehicle, in just 30 days. It was trailered to the coast by Drino Miller and was still “under development” when it pulled away from the starting line in November. George Hurst of “Shifter” fame had taken over the sponsor’s role.
Shortly after this first event, Hickey came back to California and opened up his own business making off-road equipment. Today, he is one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the field. Miller, his former driver, also has a successful business building and preparing off-road equipment.
Bill Stroppe, who cut his teeth in Mexico during the “Carrera Pan Americana” road races in the ’50s, had been very vocal during the months preceding the race about getting the cooperation of the Army. Even Bill had fallen into the trap. Baja was not like mainland Mexico. There was not an Army detachment in every whistlestop along the 1000 mile course. In fact, there were not any whistlestops, only the lonely ranchos. The only army garrisons were in Ensenada and La Paz. In between, there was nothing! Neither of these garrisons was large enough, nor did they display any inclination to patrol the “crazy” race course.
Stroppe, in spite of some early misgivings, sent two beautifully prepared Broncos to the starting line. In the last analysis, the factories were represented, but not in the more obvious ways.
Don Francisco, later to become Pearlman’s partner in NORRA, had been helping Hickey with the “Boot” project. Francisco, a quiet, meticulous gentleman with enormous mechanical talent and an equally fine talent for organization, was also quite a good bush pilot.
Pearlman enlisted Francisco as NORRA’s official pilot about five days before the event and the two went to Tijuana “just to have a look around.” They checked through the border, circled the City of Tijuana and Pearlman said, “I’ve seen what I came to see, let’s go home.” What he had seen was the giant parking lot adjacent to the new Plaza de Toros near the beach.
“For the next few days, I really tried to get in touch with the owner of the bull ring. What I found out was that the owner was in Mexico City and not expected back for several weeks. Well, if the boss wasn’t in town and I couldn’t get his permission, I’d just have to take my chances. At least he wouldn’t be there to say no.” It seemed that one of the major problems, a starting area, had been solved, at least for the moment.
The entry list now numbered 70 vehicles. It was one of the miracles of the event, and there were quite a few, that everyone found out about starting areas, etc. even though decisions were being made within days, even hours, of the start.
Pearlman and his collection of “wizards” congregated in Ensenada early on the weekend prior to the November 1st (Wednesday) start.
The last event of the Sports Car Road Racing Championship was held at Riverside on the weekend preceding the start. A good part of the press contingent from all over the world had found out about this weird new thing called off-road racing, and more filtered into
Tijuana just to see what it was all about. The press group was nearly as large as the entry.
Concurrent with the political problems that Pearlman was facing on a day-to-day basis were the logistical nightmares.
Primary amongst these was the problem of communications. Word had gone out to the stateside amateur operators and the response was overwhelming. However, they could only be there (in Mexico) in an advisory capacity. By law, the actual operation had to be done by Mexican operators. This was ok if you had a good interpreter handy at your elbow every minute, but that was not always the case.
Checkpoint personnel and radio operators either had to drive or be flown to their positions and retrieved afterwards.
Fuel had to be purchased and trucked from both ends of the course to the checkpoints.
This first Mexican 1000 had all the problems of a major military campaign without the resources of a government to back it up.
Fortunately, the checkpoint people were desert wise. Almost all of them had set aside two weeks, sometimes as much as a month, to get into position and then get out after the race. Remember, in most cases, they traveled the same road as the racers, albeit not quite as fast.
Don Francisco, Harry White, Mal Fink and several other pilots helped immeasurably at the last minute when things and people weren’t where they should be.
There was a certain spirit of adventure that seemed to take hold of everyone associated with the first race. This spirit made it possible for them to get a lot of things done which bordered on the impossible.
Everything was really “held together with spit” as the first entrant lined up, appropriately enough, in the shadow of a large statue of a fighting bull, for technical inspection. No one was completely aware of this except Pearlman and a few of the officials. Most of them had worked to the point of pure exhaustion by that time, just to keep things glued together.
Predictably, the Bull Ring manager showed up just about the time Dave Blackmer from STP was hanging one of his banners on the statue. This incensed the gentleman so much that it was almost impossible for the interpreter to understand what he was saying, but the intent was clear. He didn’t know anything about off-road racers and he didn’t want to know. All he wanted was the immediate evacuation of his parking lot.
This problem, like all the others that faced NORRA officials for the next week, was overcome by sheer momentum. Finally, the manager, after an hour of heated exchanges, shrugged his shoulders in that way of a man who understands the inevitability of fate, and disappeared, not to be seen again that night.
At 12:01 a.m. on November 1st, Ed Pearlman walked to the starting line and flagged off the first vehicle. He handed the flag back to starter Dick Kieth, walked over to his wife Shirley, put his arm around her shoulder and remarked, “Well, that’s the end of the flower business.”
Over the next six years, there were to be thousands of competitors in the NORRA races and each one was a story. Hopefully, we’ll have time and space in future editions to tell the best of them.