THE HISTORY OF SHORT COURSE RACING
So just how did this sport come about?
Thompson knew he had a good thing going at Riverside and decided to refine the closed course concept into a stadium setting. He felt he could fill stadiums with his new form of racing because fans would have better amenities at their disposal. When Thompson pitched his idea to the LA Coliseum management it was obvious to Thompson they thought he was crazy. Legend has it they became believers when Mickey jumped into a vehicle and powered his way up the Coliseum stairs and through the famous LA Coliseum peristyle. It is such a good story, typical of the “make it happen” personality of Mickey, I saw little reason to try and refute it.
In 1979 the Off-Road Championship Gran Prix became the first time the new motorsport had been presented at a municipal stadium. Thompson was well known around all types of racing circles as a racer, promoter, and inventor so it was understandable that over 40,000 people attended this historic event held June 23, 1979.
When asked where the idea for bringing off-road racing in from the deserts so the fans could enjoy the action Thompson was reported as saying the idea came to him during a heated battle out in the desert with Parnelli Jones. He told of how the two were locked in a heated battle for a hundred miles and felt it was a shame the public didn’t get to see their race and similar action of other racers. Besides that the promoter in him felt if he could put the show he termed “the greatest show in the desert” in front of an audience they would not only pay a few dollars to watch but would keep coming back to see it.
Winning the first ever feature event for Unlimited single-seat buggies was Rick Mears in a Funco. It was the Chenowth driven by Monte Crawford that took home the honors in the Limited and Unlimited two-seat buggy class. Glenn Harris piloted his Funco to win the Single-seat buggy class. John Baker drove a Dodge to win the first Grand National pickup class. A celebrity race was held and Olympian Bruce Jenner drove a Jeep CJ for the win.
Many have overlooked that a second annual Off-Road Championship Gran Prix was again held at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in June 1980. As with the inaugural race the previous year, the program was run Friday and Saturday nights. Ten classes were featured in addition to two motorcycle classes and a celebrity race. Marty Letner was the big event winner for Hi Jumper by winning three separate classes; Unlimited Single Seater, Unlimited 2 Seater, and Limited Single Seater. The 1-2/1200 Single Seater class was won by David Kreisler, Funco. Bob Rodine won the GN Pickup (mini) driving a Toyota. Rocker Ted Nugent won the celebrity race driving behind the wheel of a Jeep. Super GN Pickup class was won by Jeff MacPherson in a Chevrolet. Earl Hardesty drove his VW to the Baja Bug win. Super Baja Bug class was won by Pete Springer. John Randall drove a Jeep to win the 4WD Super Stock. Paul Price won the 4WD Modified class in a Jeep.
At each of the stadium events MTEG fans were greeted with a colorful array of exhibits including aftermarket products and a free Motor sports Expo next to the pits that usually included live music, a Custom Truck and Hot Rod show, and sponsor exhibits. Once inside the fans were invited down on track to get an up close look at the racing surface and to “Meet the Racers” giving them a chance to meet their favorite drivers and get autographs.
Besides his promoter abilities Mickey was a grand marketer and appropriately termed this new type of racing “The Chunk of Baja.” So to duplicate the Baja terrain within a stadium demanded a strong team effort. Not all stadiums are alike so each track was designed by Glenn Scott specifically to suit the available space within the stadium it was in. Scott was known to change the track design at each track every year to make them more challenging. A typical Stadium Gran Prix consisted of three and a half hours of entertainment. But the event took several days for the promoters to build the track. Since each track had to be built and taken up in a matter of days the construction crew had to be well orchestrated. The design began on a sketch pad then put into a computer. The track outline was first drawn then each turn, jump and bump had to be added in. Once the track design fit on the computer the construction began. With the dirt down then huge bull dozers came in and the track was pushed and shoved into the designer’s original configuration. Over 1300 man hours were needed to construct a typical stadium event. At the time construction costs were estimated in excess of $100,000 per event. With all this fore thought it then took an equal amount of time to return the stadium surface to its original configuration. When it came time to move out it took five tractor trailers to haul all the accessory equipment to the next event.
Stadium racetracks were designed to give both driver and machine a real work out. The track designers had limited space to work in so the track would usually wrap around the stadium field with several turns snaking the racers back and forth across the stadium floor. A typical track had the start finish line around the 50 yard line of what was designed as a football field. Turn one was usually a sharp left hand turn that brought the traffic close together. From here the track would likely go over a rough section that put the vehicle’s suspension to its limits, or a short straight away would have a jump or two in it. Then a right hand turn sent the pack back to the other end of the field. Again the section contained either a rough section or jumps, or could contain both. The racers were then turned back down a back straight section where they would gain speed and go over one, or two large jumps. It was common for the back left hand turn to be a “smooth sweeper”, where the racers would have the gas on and the vehicle power sliding sideways. After the corner they entered back down the front straight where the largest of the jumps sent them flying over the start/finish line.
Jim Kitchens headed up the MTEG track construction that included six pieces of heavy equipment and five full time employees as well as 30 part-timers hired at each event. To protect the ball field, workers laid down heavy plastic, then covered the plastic with a double layer of 5/8-inch plywood sheets, then another layer of plastic before truck load, after truck load, of dirt was brought in to create Thompson’s “Chunk of Baja.” Each track took an average of three days to build with an average of 25 million pounds (700 truckloads) of clay/dirt mix. Ric Miller, MTEG Vice president of operations added, “The durability of the track depended on the material so each stadium had its own stockpile of dirt stored somewhere nearby.”
Thinking of portability another Thompson innovation came to light. In order to contain the racing action as it snaked its way around the floor, Thompson again was faced with finding an easier solution to handling the clumsy 20 foot long, 8000 lb. cement “K” barriers being used. This type of barrier required a three-man crew and a heavy duty forklift to handle them.
With this in mind Thompson set out to design, patent and manufacture his own portable barriers that could be easily handled by one or two men. And the barriers should be designed to set up into a complete ready-to-race-on race track within a matter of hours. This would reduce the cost of fabricating the track since expensive heavy equipment rental and operator time would be eliminated.
From this necessity came the “Hydro-barricade”. The barriers were a Thompson invention that is still used today. The colorful red, white, and blue poly-plastic barricades met all of Thompson’s design requirements. They were light, weighing in at about 100 lbs each; they added a patriotic flair to the race track with their red, white and blue moldings; and the units were adjustable, that is the energy-absorption rate of each barrier could be varied by how much it was filled. Unlike their heavy concrete predecessors the units could be drained of its water contents for easy handling. However, once fully filled with water these 6 foot long by 3 feet tall by 2 feet wide units weigh about 800 lbs each and easily withstood the tortures of keeping the race vehicles within the track confines.
The barriers interlink on each end to form a strong, safe and colorful way for Thompson to present the indoor stadium racing practicable for the producers as well as acceptable to the stadium management. Danny Thompson said, “Dad liked the hydro barrier because water acted as an absorbing medium that would hold and control a speeding car, unlike concrete which can bounce a car back into traffic. Besides once on site, they can be filled by a water truck and at the end of the race we can recycle the water back into the truck.”
In 1982 Mickey officially made the Championship Off-road Gran Prix a series by adding the Los Angles County Fairgrounds to the schedule utilizing its 5/8-mile horse racing track. Thus the Mickey Thompson Entertainment Group, MTEG, stadium series was born. Soon after the nearby San Bernardino, Orange Show, facility was added. At this point there were no main events run. Overall winners were determined on a motocross points basis scored in two heats. In event of a tie the second heat prevailed. It was in 1983 that the format changed to heat race finishing positions transferring them to a main event. The MTEG format ran on a tight schedule with a new race scheduled every eight minutes and also provided entertaining intermission programs to keep the fans attention. One crowd favorite was the Pee Wee 50cc motorcycle racing coordinated by GFI Racing who provided a safe, yet competitive program for the youngsters.
The MTEG program had six different classes racing. Each class ran in two heat races and a main event. This meant that the race fan saw six main events instead of only one. Each heat race ran between five to eight laps with main events running 12 laps. With just a few laps to race in each heat the racers had but one way around the track — and that was all-out racing with nothing held back. The participants earned points for each of their performances in hopes of accumulating enough points throughout the season to be the class champion.
The six classes performed at the Gran Prix’s were chosen to represent all the different types of racing machines that race in the desert events. The most prestigious of the six classes were the Grand National Sport Trucks. The Funny Cars of Off-Road were the UltraStock class. The Super 1600 buggies were tube frame open wheel race cars seating one person. One of the crowd pleasers were the SuperLite classes which were small one-man buggies powered by engines similar to motorcycles. The 4-Wheel ATV class, or Quads as they are called, were four wheel ATV (all terrain vehicles) specially prepared for the rough terrain. The highest flying action honor went to the UltraCross riders on their 250cc motorcycles. At its peak the Mickey Thompson Off-Road Championship Gran Prix ran 10 race dates as it traveled across the USA. Expansion into more market areas was always the main goal of MTEG as Thompson’s organization planed on taking their show to Australia, Japan, and Europe in the future. In the late 1980’s there were other organizations reported putting on similar events in Japan, Guam and Canada. In fact Japan joined forces with MTEG by having MTEG officiate their first stadium event. Glenn Harris was the feature winner of that event.
As a racer himself Mickey knew that cold hard cash was needed in any race program. In 1983 he introduced the “Manufacturers’ Cup Challenge.” He put together seven participating sport truck manufacturers to post contingency funds. To date this was the largest collection of contingency funds in off-road racing history. The money was divided among the drivers and awarded to the first four finishing trucks of each make. This was money paid regardless of overall finishing position in each race. Many of the teams were factory backed at the time but it was not imperative that a team have factory backing to earn the money. It was only required to win in a truck that was represented in the Challenge. The first of each participating make to cross the finish received $1500, second got $1350, third place got $1150 and the fourth across to represent that particular make made $1000.
By 1985 a combined live attendance and Nashville Network TV audience for the Off-Road Championship Gran Prix events added up to over forty million with a modest five-event schedule centered around the Los Angeles area (two shows in Pomona, CA, one at the L.A. Coliseum, two at the National Orange Show in San Bernardino, CA.) All but one of the series were complete sell-outs; only the LA coliseum with a crowd of 47,000 did not fill the venues 90,000 capacity seating. With attendance figures growing Thompson decided it was time to take the take the show on the road, with a criss-crossing national tour performed at nine major venues. By 1986 the series grew to nine events when the Hoosier Dome, Houston Astrodome, Kingdome in Seattle, Texas Stadium and Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego were added.
Having made the decision Thompson, the innovator, was again faced with over coming a slight problem. He had scheduled racing events for the Indianapolis Hoosier Dome and the Pontiac Silverdrome. For the first time the show was presented in an indoor facility.
Working inside a stadium means the promoter must meet stadium management schedules. So to construct the “Chunk of Baja” required several 24 hour days of heavy earth moving equipment, add a few hundred man hours of very expensive operator’s time and one quickly sees the expense involved. Well Thompson was also faced with the reality that the weather may not cooperate, “What if the dirt freezes, making construction impossible?” With this in mind Mickey Thompson, ever the innovator, came up with an idea for putting on off-road races inside indoor stadiums without using dirt. In 1986 Thompson created a portable track for the indoor arenas that dispensed with dirt construction and set up in just a few hours on the cement arena floors. Thompson attributed this idea as one of those old “necessity being the mother of invention” ideas. “In order to take our show to the major population centers of the United States we had to make it completely portable. It had to be easy to move in, set up, present our show, break it down and move out in a matter of hours rather than days. The tight event schedules of showplaces such as the Pontiac Silverdome and the Astrodome make it virtually impossible to put on the show using traditional method of trucking in tons and tons of dirt. We knew we had to come up with a new way of doing things so we designed steel ramps that we can bring in and set up in a matter of hours that simulate off-road racing dirt jumps almost exactly.” Using the adjustable steel ramps Thompson would position them at strategic locations around the course to simulate the type of jumps encountered in desert racing. The ramps height were also adjustable which allowed equalization of all lanes around the track so passing became the discretion of the driver encouraging passing.
“Almost exactly” didn’t quite mean exactly as Thompson later found out. Sure the spectators enjoyed the racing action but it just wasn’t the same without the slinging dirt — and the metal jumps faded away.
The future looked bright for the MTEG series until March 16, 1988 when Mickey Thompson and his wife, Trudy, were killed by two gunmen at their home in Bradbury, CA. A former partner of Mickey’s, Mike Goodwin, was later convicted of the crime. Goodwin became a promoter of rock concerts then presented the first Supercross event at the L.A. Coliseum in 1971. When Mickey became concerned over Trudy’s medical condition he decided it was time for them to phase out of their day to day management of MTEG’s stadium shows. One needs to understand that Trudy Thompson was involved in every aspect of MTEG and the two were inseparable. So Mickey turned to Goodwin about a possible merger. Mickey felt that since Goodwin dealt with a lot of the same variables involved in building a dirt track inside a stadium that he would be a good match. Many of those close to Mickey warned him it would not be a good deal. However, Mickey cared more about Trudy’s health and, being a problem solver, felt he could handle any problems that might come out of the deal so he signed April 1, 1984. By September of the same year Mickey had to take Goodwin to court over Goodwin not paying his share of the agreement. Goodwin filed a counter suit and a legal battle ensued. Thompson won the suit in court but was unable to collect. The legal war went on for several years eventually causing Goodwin to go broke. There was a lot more to the story but in the end Goodwin was put in jail in 2001 and then in 2007 was convicted for ordering the murders of the Thompson’s. He is now serving two life sentences without the possibility of parole.
PACE Multisport Event Productions took over the series shortly after Thompson’s death. The series did continue for several years after Mickey and Trudy’s death and in 1988 ESPN showed select class events at prime time and with two repeats here in America. In 1992 MTEG announced the series would be sent to Japan via satellite produced by Bud Sports airing on NHK Television before eight million households. The 1991 highlight came at the season finale in the Oakland Coliseum. After a eight year winning streak by Toyota in the coveted Manufacturers Cup title the Dodge Dakota drivers headed up by Walker Evans with Glenn Harris won the Cup in one of the closest battles in MTEG history. Going into the event Dodge had a small lead but Toyota qualified one-two to close up the gap. After the heat one win by Evans it put his team 25 points to the good. But after the next heat race which Toyota finished one-two the point total was 786 each. It all came down to the main event. It appeared Toyota had it during the first half as Steve Millen lead the pack. That was until retiring mid-race giving the lead to Rob MacCachren in a Ford. Ivan Stewart soon muscled his way around for the lead but Evans was right behind him and Harris finished fourth to give Dodge the coveted Cup. To add to the drama that had already unfolded the Rough Driving Committee penalized Stewart for his pass on MacCachren. All was good on the racing front but without the dominating personality of Mickey around to hold the series together it slowly declined until 1995 when a major chapter in short course off-road racing history ended.
There was a lapse in stadium racing until PACE Motorsports brought the series back in 1998. Unlike with the MTEG series, the major manufacturers were not involved, and as a result the season didn’t appear to be a great success leaving many to wonder about its future. The group then announced late in 1998 that stadium off-road racing was back and here to stay. The announcement said, “The nation’s most extreme off-road racing series returns to stadiums across the country in 1999 as the U.S. Off-Road Championship Series. To excite the racing community PACE offered over a half million dollars to be distributed during the 1999 season. A total of $40,000 was divided among the top twelve finishers in each class. In addition there was a $100,000 points fund that paid out to the top ten series finishers in each class. According to the press release the series was ready to rumble in 10 cities across the nation. Starting at the Trans World Dome in St. Louis, MO in January and criss-crossing across the U.S. with a final show at the Seattle Kingdome. During the season another event was added in Vancouver B.C. to make the series an international affair. The Kingdome event was held in March and said to be the last ever motorsports event held underneath the largest concrete roof in the world. In 2000 stadium racing once again left the off-road racing scene.
So the last of the stadium winners were Chris Brandt who won the feature Stadium Sport Trucks class and took the 1999 points championships. Larry Foddrill took the final Super Modified Buggy win but lost the championship to Cory Witherill. Other class Champions were Joe Price, Stadium Lites; Tim Farr, Pro Quads and Stadium Thunder bikes winner was Spud Walters.
With MTEG and its predecessors out of the stadium racing scene on the west coast a void existed. With no dominate series for those short course racers wanting to prove their mettle the old saying got reversed to; “Go East young man” to Crandon, WI.