Sal Fish: The Exit Interview – race-deZert.com

Sal Fish: The Exit Interview

For those who live the off-road lifestyle, 2012 was a year filled with action, controversy and newsworthy changes. But the sport saved the best for last as preparations for the holiday season were interrupted by the announcement that Sal Fish had sold SCORE International to Nevada businessman and former Trophy Truck racer Roger Norman. The news reverberated around the worldwide motorsports community as Fish, the iconic mainstay behind SCORE and its signature Baja 1000, had become as recognized as the sport’s oldest endurance race itself.

We felt that this New Years couldn’t go by without having a one-on-one chat with Sal – something more intimate than what is provided via yet another generic press release.

There is no question that 2013 will represent a completely reimagined life for a man who gave nearly his entire career to keeping top-level off-road racing alive for three generations to enjoy.

In this exclusive interview with new RDC contributor Marty Fiolka, Fish opens up about handing over the reigns of SCORE, what the new year will bring and just what retirement will look like for the 73-year old former promoter.

It’s a great read you won’t find on any press release, and the perfect way to kick-off 2013. Happy New Year!

 

RDC:  The announcement that SCORE made regarding the sale of the company to Roger Norman happened very quickly, but was it in the works for a long time before that?

Sal:  I really haven’t been working on this for a long time to be honest with you. Over the last three years I have had maybe a half-dozen parties approach me about the possibilities of buying SCORE. They came from all different angles, and, how should I say this, with “unique proposals” of how I could stay involved…blah, blah, blah. None of them really made sense to me or my personality, nor, when I sat down with these people, were they really serious about doing something with the sport. They didn’t have the overall interest of the sport in mind.

Then, about two years ago, a couple of them got very serious. I didn’t go to them they came to me. I was listening to them but it was not on my agenda. Then a year ago, Roger (Norman) wanted to meet with me to discuss some things. To be honest, I had an entirely different outlook of Roger as a racer, but he talked seriously about what he wanted to do with SCORE and his vision for the future. If I were 20-years younger I would have wanted to do the same things. I will tell you I was impressed with his ideas. I believed they could happen, but it wasn’t time to give up the stewardship of SCORE. I felt I had some good years left.

But then I had another operation earlier this year that I kept secret, but you know, it kind of got to me. I got down, because I wasn’t recuperating as fast as I had in the past. It was then that I started realizing maybe I was being foolish for not listening more to Roger, because, while he had offered the chance for me to stay aboard, it wasn’t going to be a deal breaker if I didn’t (stay on).

RDC: It sounds like you were still on the fence at that time. What pushed it over the top in terms of finally making the deal?

Sal:  We spoke again but by that time we were in the throws of putting together the 45th Baja 1000. I knew that was going to consume me and the people with me, leaving no time to engage in all the details necessary to put a deal like this together. The hardest thing for me, like any business deal, was that we had both signed confidentially agreements, which was also gnawing at me because I couldn’t talk about anything with the people I had worked with for a long time. Still, rumors somehow still arose, which scared me because the whole thing could have been shot down before it really left the ground.

But, Roger was very patient and he didn’t want to do anything to hurt the Baja 1000. So, the race came and went, and it was one of our greatest events. Given the economy, it was still the fourth largest in terms of entries for the Baja 1000 – something that I’m very, very proud of.

That said, the things that happened at that race (in terms of penalties that awarded B.J. Baldwin the win over Gustavo Vildosola Jr.) were just devastating and took a personal toll on me.  It was very difficult. I just said to myself, “what is going on here?” I have always been a very positive individual, and really loved what I did and who I was doing it with – the SCORE family of staff, volunteers and racers – but I thought that this was a sign that maybe for the betterment of the sport and for the betterment of my relationship with my wife and the years I had left it was time to make a change.  Things had just changed for me.

Sal Fish and Parnelli Jones
Sal Fish and Parnelli Jones

RDC: And Roger Norman was the right person to help turn that change into a new reality?

Sal: I sat down again with Roger and saw that here was a guy, out of all the people I have talked to, that I really felt wanted to make this thing grow. He wanted to do the right things. I wondered when I would get another opportunity to do something like this. My options were to just walk away or endorse an individual that I believed in and what he stood for. I finally said to myself, “let’s give him a chance.”

RDC:  Since the announcement, what’s been the reaction from the massive amount of phone calls and emails coming into your office?

Sal:  Well, I really don’t know how to say this without sounding full of myself. But, in conjunction with your film “Dust to Glory,” my dedication and passion for what I do has offered me some incredible opportunities and recognition around the world. It’s crazy. Just in the last four days, from the gas station to Costco, people still recognize me. They come up and say, “you are Sal Fish aren’t you?” and that’s still embarrassing to me.

With that said, I have really, really been overwhelmed by some incredible, gut-wrenching phone calls, beautiful emails and some personal notes to me. I just got a note from a guy, and when I read it I started crying – literally crying right on the spot. It was about how I changed his life, how he could have gone one way but instead went another because of this sport. I’m still amazed by it all.

RDC:  Didn’t you know you had that kind of impact? Or, did it take something like this to really bring it forward?

Sal:  I’m a pretty simple and humble guy. I know there is a group of people that don’t agree with that at all but they don’t know Sal Fish. I don’t understand the impact. I know how hard we have all worked to make an industry out of off-roading. I gotta’ go back to Mickey Thompson and how he started so many things. But, think about how many people have become millionaires though these years, or even the people who have stayed together as a family because they worked together in their garage and go to Parker or Lucerne or Baja.  I have had the chance to change their lives. I think about that. I see it in all the happy faces at the starting line. I also suffer through the terrible things that have happened in races that really affect me personally.

I must admit I look at my life and realize that I have been so fortunate. I will never, ever, turn into one of these people you read about in the newspapers that won’t say “hi” to their fans, that won’t shake their hands, that won’t sign an autograph or get a picture taken. Why would I want to be like that? It’s been a thrill for me, and it’s what makes SCORE what it is…the fans and the racers.

In truth, it’s been pretty crazy but I am making it a personal mission to respond to all of these messages personally. I can tell you that it’s all been very, very much appreciated.

sal_fish

RDC:  The sale became effective immediately, and your role at SCORE was over. Has it been hard to let go of the reins?

Sal: It took me awhile. The sale was done and on the Thursday it was announced it was all over. It took me three days not to answer my phone with “Good morning SCORE” or “Good evening SCORE.”  I finally then realized that this was not SCORE; it was just Sal Fish. Now I am just saying ‘hello’ because, let’s face it, now I’m just some guy.

But, I can’t help but think back on all the great times I have had, and the great people I have met, and hope I will be able to continue with some of those friendships.  I want to be proud of the sport and what’s going to take place now. I am all positive about it; I want it to all work so the sport can grow.

RDC:  Walk us through a day in the life of Sal Fish in 2013.

Sal: I really don’t have any idea to be honest. I have never had a typical day in my life. I have been on call 24-hours a day. When there was something that needed to be taken care of in Mexico, I drove down to Mexico. Not having that excitement of always being available will be unique. I am an early riser, so I don’t think that will change. I won’t change my personal habits, but I hope to ride my bike more than in the past and spend nice time with my wife Barbara instead of dragging her through the day in and dayout politics of the BLM, class wars or whatever the hell was going on.

I would love to say I will travel more, but (laughs) I traveled a lot in my life. I will be home taking care of things guys do.  How long will that last?  I don’t know…but, I can tell you I will not be in anyone’s way at SCORE. They don’t need the distraction, they need to do what they do and be their own people.

RDC:  We know you are starting the New Year in La Paz. Sound’s great.

Sal: That’s true; Barbara and I will enjoy going to Baja again. However, my most important goal right now is to make sure our Awards Banquet on January 12th honors and respects all of those who have raced their butts off this year for points championships and those who have earned the special SCORE awards. Once that’s done, I am going to crank things up or detune things a bit – I’m just not sure which one it will be yet!

RDC:  Finally, is it safe to say you can put your head on the pillow each night knowing that you have left an important legacy?

Sal:   That’s a very nice way to put it.  When journalists write stories and ask about the business plan that started all of this, I tell them I never had a business plan. I look back and think it was all about passion, it was an incredible new adventure and new roads – literally – that were opened up in the deserts and Mexico because of us. I look back and say; ‘what a privileged life I have been able to have.’

This whole thing has been about me being able to be myself…and also to work with great people. That is pretty much all that any man can ask for.

Words: Marty Fiolka
Imagery: Boyd Jaynes

7 Comments

  1. Having worked in the crooked assed world of NASCAR since 1984… I can tell you that SCORE has been run with class and style. I think my first Baja was early 2000ish with Locos Mocos in the pits. To say that I was impressed with the logistics Sal pulled off would be an understatement.

  2. Thank you for all you’ve for our sport, Sal!

    Best of luck to Roger Norman, there isn’t a better guy for the job!

  3. I want to say thank you to Sal and Paul Fish for allowing me to work with them in past SCORE events. AND, it goes without saying that Sal is one man I respect more then ever due to that working relationship. I never knew what he went through, until I helped out. Sal will be missed! I hope he and his wife enjoy the “free” time he has to come! He truly deserves all the good coming to him. Thank you for SCORE, it’s a mark everyone should have put in their belt. A not-to-miss for the bucket list!

  4. Gracias Sal, Thank You. Baja California needs more persons like you, with your vision and passion. You are a great person that has dedicated your life to make so many people so happy with the off road races; Baja 1000 is not a race, its life style, something to live for. Ensenada will always be your home.

  5. Having been involved in off-road racing as a 38 year member of Checkers Off-Road, it was my pleasure to work for Sal as SCORE’s race director/chief steward from 1985 to early 1991. We enjoyed some good times and some not so good over those years, but I came away from that experience knowing that Sal was a man of great integrity with an unequaled passion for his sport. Both of us, to some degree, came under the tutelage of Mickey Thompson, a man with an incredible business ethic. We also came away from our experience as friends, and remain so to this day. Sal, congratulations on finally retiring from your post and being able to spend some leisure time. Let’s share a beverage on your next trip through the Playas de Rosarito! Be well, my friend. -Steve Kassanyi

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