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
Chapter Six: SCORE International
Mickey Thompson has accomplished many firsts during his racing career: The first American to break the 400-mph speed barrier on the Salt Flats; the first to come up with an idea of starting dragsters with lights; and he was one of the first to recognize the possibility of off-road racing as a truly international sport.
SCORE International was his brainchild. The germ for this idea came as the “Speed King” sat down beside a winding dirt road in the middle of Baja and watched other vehicles bounce past his broken race car. “The wildest show in the world was taking place at those desolate desert spots, and the only witnesses to it were other racers or an occasional pit crew,” Thompson said. “If I could just package what was happening and display it to the general public, it would be a smash hit.”
In 1973, Thompson formed SCORE and began his conquest and education of the general public with the first Riverside RV Spectacular (see Riverside). The rest is now off-road history. It was not a simple achievement. It has taken long hours, plenty of money and thousands of contacts to bring it to where it now stands—at the top of the sport.
The Riverside event was the first promotion conceived by SCORE and Thompson. It was never believed by anyone that SCORE one day would dominate the sport of off-road racing, as it does today. It was always Thompson’s intention to promote only one event a year—the Riverside.
After the Riverside Spectacular was over, members of the Parker Dam Chamber of Commerce approached Mickey (who owns property in the area) with a proposal for him to promote its future off-road race. NORRA, under Ed Pearlman, previously had promoted the Parker Dam 500. According to various sources, the Chamber was not satisfied with its promotion and decided it wanted a change.
Thompson was not prepared, nor was he willing to promote another off-road race. However, discussions continued for weeks, with Mickey declining and the Chamber insisting. Claims Mickey, “I never intended to get into full-time promotion. It was always my intention to just promote Riverside and see it successfully on its way. Then I’d turn it over to someone and go back to racing myself.”
However, with the constant barrage from those living in Parker and a desire to see the sport continue to grow and possibly prosper, Mickey changed his mind and agreed to promote the next Parker Dam event in 1974. It would become known as the Parker Dam 400.
Thompson, of course, already had a good nucleus of experienced personnel who had worked for him at Riverside, so it was not too hard to form a team for promoting such an event that now faced SCORE. At the same time, a representative from the Mexican Government had visited him in his office at Wilmington, requesting his professional assistance in promoting the Baja 500 in 1974. NORRA, which had promoted the events in Baja since 1967, was no longer involved with the races, having been replaced by the Mexican Government in 1973. It was the Government’s intention to promote the races, thereby retaining any profits for the citizens of Baja. However, the 1973 events proved to be financial failures and 1974 looked even dimmer.
Again, the “Speed King” insisted that he was not interested in promoting any races in Baja. “I just wanted to race in them, not promote them,” Mickey explained.
As plans progressed for the first Parker Dam 400, word reached Thompson that the Mexican Government was planning to scrap off-road racing in Baja, unless Thompson or someone of like reputation became involved.
“I felt the 500 was a great event and I sure didn’t want to see it fold up. My time was now totally taken up with Parker (Dam), but I felt a couple more months to possibly save a great event wasn’t too much out of line. Besides, we already had the personnel and this would give them something to do between Parker and Riverside,” Thompson theorized.
Finally, Thompson agreed to give it a try and a contract was signed by Governor Milton Castellanos allowing SCORE to promote exclusively all future off-road races in Baja. The Baja 500 was renamed SCORE’s Baja International. June would remain the month for the race and Ensenada would be the site for the start/finish as usual.
SCORE was now in the full-time business of promoting off-road races. There were three events scheduled for 1974: the second annual Riverside Bash; the Parker Dam 400; and the Baja International in June.
Stan Parnell, who was the Chief Steward for SCORE, had his work cut out for him. Stan, however, was experienced and knew racing inside out. After all, he had been around racing for nearly 26 years, being one of the original 30 members of NASCAR when that organization was formed. Parnell also had been a champion driver over the years before retiring. Now he jumped into the pits with both feet and began calling on the best men available to come to work for SCORE.
Work on marking a course for the Parker race began. Thompson, his son Danny, wife Trudy, along with a number of volunteers, worked for weeks to come up with a suitable course. The final layout consisted of a 120-mile circuit in California, where General Patton once played war games with his army of tanks during World War II.
Race day was chilly and damp that January morning in 1974 as the first of 227 vehicles—a record number for entrants—was waved away from the specially-built platform located a few hundred feet from the edge of the Colorado River. It was a beautiful setting for an off-road race and still is today.
“It was quite gratifying to see those cars and bikes take off that morning,” Thompson remarked, as he recalled with a smile the hundreds of man hours that had gone into making this second SCORE promotion a success. “There were more cars and bikes there than there had ever been before. I knew right then that SCORE was going to be successful and off-road racing had a big future,” said Thompson later.
It took more than 400 men and women from every walk of life to bring the Parker Dam 400 to race day. A few were paid for their efforts, while many volunteered their help because they loved the sport or were personal friends of Thompson. The Tacoma Timing Team was hired to handle the complicated timing procedures, which included two 30-minute rest periods between loops.
With the added experience gained at Parker, Thompson knew what had to be done in Baja. However, he was not prepared for the many difficulties which would face him and his crew when work finally started in preparation for the SCORE International: Language barriers, miles of travel to obtain permission from farmers; rain and complete washouts of the course and logistics.
Originally, the Baja 500 under NORRA was a race from point to point, with vehicles only required to arrive at the various checkpoints. How they got there was the drivers’ option, as long as it was by traversing on the ground. Thompson, under his agreement with the Mexican Government, was required to lay out and mark a prescribed course which every race vehicle would have to follow.
At first, Mickey believed it would take a few weekends of work to design the course. “It didn’t turn out to be that easy,” he laughed. After more than 27 trips to Ensenada and over 150 hours in the air, the route of the International was completed. If statistics mean anything, he and his son Danny and wife Trudy spent a total of more than 60 days and over 7,000 miles of driving before the course was completed. And then, at the last moment, Parnell and Mickey had to fly down and make changes after a hurricane struck the coast and torrential rains wiped out portions of the circuit. Danny was on the ground in a pickup truck, while Mickey and Stan flew above, issuing instructions on where to change the course.
“That was a week of frustration,” Danny explained. “I thought Dan would blow his cool a couple of times. But we managed to get everything under control and the course was ready.”
Ensenada is a beautiful city located on the Pacific Ocean coast. It had always been the official starting point for the races and the community was accustomed to the “crazy gringos and those wild machines.” But they were not accustomed to Mickey Thompson or SCORE.
Thompson is well known for never doing something the easy way when if you do it the hard way, the results will be better. This conviction is what has made the man controversial; once he decides to do something, it has to be done right or not at all. And he was determined that the Baja International was going to be successful and that the promotion would be first class. It was also going to be as safe an event as humanly possible. True to his rule, the race attracted 373 vehicles.
Race day was Friday, June 28, 1974. However, preparation for the expected record number of entrants began on Monday when the registration crew checked into the hotel. Joyce Parnell, wife of the Chief Steward, was in charge of the crew, with headquarters inside the lobby of the St. Nicholas Hotel. Trudy Thompson gave assistance when needed—actually, she worked at everything except crawling under the cars at the tech line. Joyce was assisted by Beth Kennedy, Donna Stodd, Nina McNulty, Roberta La Velle and Connie Burzynski. Loretta Pipkin and her daughters assisted in answering the thousands of questions at a special booth outside registration. Donna Miller, Madeline La Marr and Margie Diaz handled membership and T-shirt sales. Technical inspection was established beside the office building of the Crystal Palace. John House was placed in charge of this important and “hair-raising” job. He had cajoled and begged some of the best to assist him: John Diaz, Danny Thompson, Ernie Waring, Al Taylor, Jim Deist, John Young and when he had time, Mickey. Jack Parcells and his sons were in charge of inspecting the new 1200 cc class cars. Overseeing contingency row was Bob Martin, assisted by Pete Miller and Gene Simmons.
Working late Thursday night, every car and bike was processed and impounded for the early morning start Friday. At 7:29 a.m., the first motorcycle was started on its journey of 380-plus miles. The last bike was waved away at 8:00 a.m. There would be an hour’s delay before the cars would begin the trip.
At exactly 9:00 a.m., with the sky now warming, Lonny and Dixie Hawkins (on the left ramp) and Bill Rush and Dan Shields (on the right ramp) were given the “green flag” by Lieutenant Governor Francisco Santana Peralta and the first SCORE Baja International was officially underway. Mayor Octavio Perez Pazuengo started the second group, with the third and fourth groups being waved away by General Agustin Careno. Then it was time for official starter Al Taylor to take over. At 11:36 a.m., car number 373 was dispatched and all vehicles were in competition.
Bobby Ferro, driving for Sandmaster, was the eventual winner in Class 1 and was the fastest overall among four-wheeled vehicles. Mitch Mayes and A.C. Bakken, riding a 400 Husky, were the fastest overall, beating Ferro by five minutes. Second overall and second fastest bike in Class 22 went to Danny Robinson and Steve Sterner aboard another 400 Husky.
“It was a fantastic race. One of the best I’ve ever been in,” Ferro commented after crossing the finish line. “I got turned around a couple of times, but it was a ball.”
Some of the things Mickey had proved with his first adventure into Baja as a promoter was that drivers would come in mass if the promotion was right, that safety nets worked, that a marked course was possible in Baja and that manufacturers were anxious to participate if properly approached. Contingency for the SCORE International was nearly $60,000—a new record for contingency money.
“We made some mistakes along the way, but overall the promotion was a damn good one,” Thompson recalled. “We were happy with the results and so were the Mexican officials. Now they wanted us to come back and promote the 1000.”
Mickey was not about to get tied down with promoting a 1000-mile race in 1974. There were many factors which resulted in there being no Baja 1000 that year: The fact that there was now a new highway running from Ensenada to La Paz, which would mean the course would have to cross it too many times; a lack of interest by entrants; rising costs in promoting such an event; and the fact that Mickey felt a 1000-mile race to La Paz was just too expensive for the average racer to compete in without good sponsorship.
“Besides, I felt three events were enough for SCORE at the time,” Mickey said. “We had Riverside scheduled again for August and that would require all the time we could spare.”
By the middle of 1974, the community leaders of Parker Dam had decided they definitely liked what SCORE had accomplished and wanted them back in 1975. This time, however, it would be in conjunction with both chambers of commerce—Parker Dam and the city of Parker.
Riverside in 1974 was a huge success. Changes were instituted for the better. Publicity, which was fantastic in 1973, was under the guidance of Collene Campbell, who now was devoting full time to the job for SCORE.
“This is about when I really began to realize what was going on with me and off-road racing,” Mickey explained. “I had only wanted to get it going and then I’d walk away. I still felt this way in 1974. But I also realized we needed a strong national organization with rules everyone could respect and live by. If we were to lure national sponsors with their pots of gold, we had to be 100 percent professional in everything we endeavored.”
A coordinating council of off-road promoters from the West previously had been established and in August 1973 had adopted SCORE’s rules as equitable for all concerned. Now the rules had to be revised and updated for 1975.
SCORE had the rules completely revised by experts for driver safety, which included upgrading roll bars, helmets, seat belts and other critical parts of the race car. Of course, these changes created a lot of animosity at first and were met with many arguments by the “old-line” off-road racer. Rules would no longer be left to the discretion of a promoter; all cars would have to meet stringent building requirements now set forth by the SCORE rule book. Drivers would also be required to look professional with drivers’ suits mandatory. The biggest squawk, however, was over the upgrading of roll bars. Eventually, everyone saw the light and, thanks to these rules, the then-growing injury rate has decreased.
The 1975 season for SCORE would be its most ambitious. Officials of Mexico finally had convinced Thompson to promote the Baja 1000, as well as the Baja International. SCORE had the Parker Dam set for the first week in February and the Riverside in August. The Baja International was to be held again in June and the 1000 would be in November. Meetings also were taking place across the country with various city officials who were thinking of entering the act. Manufacturers who previously had stayed away from off-road racing were climbing aboard the bandwagon. And Mickey Thompson was looking for someone to take his place as president so he could return to racing.
There were many men interested in the job. Thompson talked to them all. He knew, after lengthy talks with over 57 various applicants, whom he wanted, but felt it would not be possible to lure this particular person away from the comfortable job he had built for himself.
But first, SCORE would have an elaborate banquet to honor those various drivers who had earned the title of “Points Champion” in their respective classes during 1974. On January 4, 1975, the first annual SCORE Awards Banquet was held in the Crystal Ballroom of the Concord Hotel in Anaheim, California. More than 600 off-road racers, their wives, manufacturers, members of the press and invited guests attended.
Also in attendance was SCORE’s new president, Sal Fish. Mickey again had defied the odds and obtained the man he went after. Mickey had convinced his friend of long standing to leave the plush offices of Peterson Publishing Company for his new organization which was just a little over a year old.
“It was the greatest selling job I ever did,” Thompson laughs today. “Here was a guy at the top of his profession (publisher of Hot Rod magazine), willing to gamble on a sport that was still in its infancy.”
Fish had a taste of what he was heading into when Thompson appointed him Chief Steward for the 1974 Riverside event. “After that, and the fact I was already hooked on off-road racing from being an entrant in the Baja 1000, it wasn’t too hard for him to sell me on the idea,” Fish said. “Besides, I liked the challenge. I could build something that would perhaps some day be meaningful.”
Sal Fish has been a definite asset to off-road racing and to SCORE International. He has guided its growth through 1975 and 1976. The future for SCORE is bright with fresh new ideas and concepts.
“One of the things I wanted to accomplish after I got going with SCORE was to make it truly international,” Thompson pointed out. “With Sal in the driver’s seat, it’s now moving in that direction.”
The year 1975, as previously mentioned, was a busy one for SCORE: A total of 261 cars and 25 motorcycles entered the Parker Dam 400; 298 cars and 65 bikes competed in the Baja International; 250 cars and 29 motorcycles showed up at Riverside; and 201 four-wheeled vehicles and 44 bikes raced the Baja 1000. It was also the year a new class was unveiled for the “low-buck stock Volkswagen racer.”
When SCORE announced formation of Class 11, a lot of skeptics sounded defeat. However, to prove them wrong, Mickey personally purchased four Class 11 vehicles and entered them. Today, Class 11 is the largest single class of competitors in SCORE off-road racing.
A new starting procedure also was instituted by SCORE in 1975. It was first used at Parker Dam and is in use today by many promoters across the country. Heretofore, starting was accomplished by drawing a number for each vehicle. The identification number drawn was also your starting position in a race. If you were a Class 1 vehicle and drew number 140, you had to pass all the slow cars in front of you, as well as those in your class.
Thompson and Fish had discussed this inadequacy in starting. “It was unfair to the faster cars and made it dangerous for the slower ones…who had to keep looking over their shoulders for the faster cars,” Fish explained.
The new system still would use the draw method for starting numbers, but the draw would be by class and not by random. The faster cars, determined by the finishing times of the top three cars in each class, would go first, followed by the slower vehicles. There was much heat stirred up by various drivers at first, but eventually the new procedure was accepted and is now a definite asset to race safety.
“When I turned over the reins to Sal, I was pleased with what we had accomplished at SCORE,” Thompson said. “We had watched a sport grow from a baby to near adulthood. Manufacturers now were participating 100 percent. Drivers and car owners were able to get better sponsors. We had a set of rules which were as good as any in the sport, and we were expanding across the country into new areas.”
“We were being written about by syndicated sports writers. National television was coming to our events and others. We had our own stars such as (Bobby) Ferro, (Walker) Evans and (Rick) Mears. We were one of the safest automotive sports in the world, and we were worth more than 1 ½ million dollars in purse money.”
“I feel that, in a way, I have helped it along,” Mickey smiled. “I’m very proud of the men and ladies in off-road racing. I’m proud to be a part of it, and I’m proud of SCORE and what it has brought to all of us who compete for just the fun of it—or the love of it.”
SCORE International, in 1976, expanded its scope from four events to sanctioning other races in all parts of the United States. The Baja de Saddleback short-course events are sanctioned by SCORE, ZOAR Park in New York was the location for a new SCORE race and, of course, the regular promotions have grown. The Parker Dam 400 in 1976 had 56 motorcycles and 277 cars. Baja International in June saw 302 four-wheeled vehicles and 83 bikes leave the starting line; and Riverside had 250 cars and 34 bikes. The Baja 1000 has not yet been held at publication time, but it is expected to have a big entry.
What does it look like down the road for SCORE and for off-road racing? Television is just around the corner, according to many. Negotiations, spearheaded by Thompson who worked on this project for three years, are coming to a close. At least two and possibly four more races could be added to the schedule, including possible races in Nevada and Michigan. A special short-course points series now in the discussion stage would be completely separate from the points series established for the longer events such as Baja and Parker.
Contingency money, which topped $130,000 for each event promoted by SCORE in 1976, should top the $150,000 mark per event in 1977.
“I guess you could say 1977 will be the year SCORE becomes an adult,” Fish said. “We’ve been straddling that thin line between success and greatness for nearly three years now. It looks like it’s all coming together at last.”
As with any growing organization, people come and go, and SCORE is no exception. Stan Parnell, Bob Martin, Bill Taylor, Walt Dethlefs, Collene Campbell and Carl Schol, to name but a few responsible for its successes, have left. They left, as do many people from other jobs, to pursue their own particular quests and endeavors. They were and remain a part of the SCORE family.
“Without those people and others, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” Fish commented. “Each and every one of them brought something lasting to our organization. But it’s not unusual for people with talent to move on to higher plateaus in business. These men and women had given all they could and were ready for bigger things in life.”
Changes will continue to be made at SCORE, as growth often dictates such changes. Some, it is certain, will be controversial, while some will meet with criticism; but most, as in the past, will prove to be beneficial to the sport and to the “Off-Road Racer”. New events will be scheduled and some of the older and more traditional races will be shelved to make way for the new.
When Mickey Thompson envisioned the first Riverside Spectacular in 1973, he honestly never dreamed it would grow as big as it has grown. He took a relatively unknown sport, breast-fed it, nurtured and groomed it until today, SCORE International and off-road racing is a “beautiful lady”.
The “Off-Road Racer” is better off today than he or she ever was before Thompson sat on that desert and dreamed his dream.