SCORE Journal

SCORE Journal - July 2019

SCORE Journal - The Official Publication of SCORE Off-Road Racing

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Page 38 of 91

The Comanche Rides Again Mike Lesle returns after 25 years in retirement to compete in SCORE in his original 1987 Jeep Comanche 4x4 By Dan Sanchez Photos by Dan Sanchez It’s not always easy for veteran off-road racers to stay retired, just ask Mike Lesle, who is most widely known for his efforts with the factory Jeep team from the 80s and 90s. During that time Lesle and his team won 19 championships, 12 of them in stadium and short-course racing, and seven in the desert. Some of these accomplishments include championships during 1987 and 1988 with a Jeep Comanche pick-up that SCORE fans are seeing him drive in the 2019 season. After a very successful career that spanned through the 1990s, Lesle retired from professional desert racing in SCORE in 1994, but he continued doing some short course racing. After 25-years in retirement, he decided to come back during the 2019 SCORE racing season and compete again in his original Jeep Comanche pickup. “I originally built the Comanche in 1986,” says Lesle. “That was about 33 years ago. The truck was purchased by Miguel Alvarado who raced it but kept it with all of its original parts. We had talked about racing again in SCORE and he told me to go ahead and use the truck, so I did.” Lesle didn’t lose any of his championship ways, starting the 2019 SCORE season easily winning the 7SX Class at the SCORE San Felipe 250. “The Comanche is still strong and extremely reliable,” he says. “We plan on winning one more championship for Jeep.” A Long History In Off-Road Motorsport While Lesle is known for building and racing the Jeep Comanche, and Cherokees, his racing career began in the mid-1980 in a 5/1600 Baja Bug. He would go on to winning races in multiple classes including 5/1600, 7 4x4, 7S, Class 3, Class 6, and Trophy Truck in the desert, along with stadium sport utilities, short-course in Pro-2 and Pro-4. Lesle notes that although he was a team owner and a driver throughout most of his racing career, he also had great drivers to help him. Some of them included Curt LeDuc, Cameron Steele, Tommy Croft, Scott Douglas, Steve Kelley, Larry Noel, and Jack Ramsey. “I was fortunate that at the start, my friend had an old Swing Axle Baja Bug and said he would pay the bills for racing if I would prep the car and drive it for him,” said Lesle. “My first race ever was in an old car and we ended up in fourth place.” Lesle spent the rest of 1984 building a new 5/1600 Baja Bug, and in 1985, he went on to win the 5/1600 Championship in his first year of full time racing in the SCORE/HDRA Series.” Birth Of The Comanche In 1986, after racing in 5/1600 class for a year, Lesle says that he began seeing the factory OE’s getting more involved. While everyone was looking at Ford, Dodge, Toyota, Chevrolet, and Nissan, he thought he would stand out from the crowd in a Jeep. “I decided to build a Jeep Comanche because I was always a Jeep fan and with the Jeep factory just coming to the desert, I thought it would be great to go in with a manufacturer on the ground floor,” says Lesle. “There was more opportunity, although I didn’t have much to start with. I began as a privateer and Jeep would end up giving me ‘crusher trucks’ (pre-production vehicles that could not be registered for street use). I worked on the trucks myself and Jeep gave me all the parts I needed.” According to Lesle, he hadn’t even finished building the Comanche when Jeep wanted to use if for promotional purposes. “They contacted me and wanted photos of the truck as well as wanting me to enter the 1987 Parker 400 race in Arizona,” said Lesle “I just couldn’t enter the race financially so they gave me approximately $40K to finish the truck, and I asked Johnny Johnson, who was a friend of mine, help me finish building the truck.” Lesle’s crew and Johnson finished the truck at 6 am the morning of the race. “The truck didn’t touch the dirt until 9 am that day but we ended up winning the race in Class 7 4x4 against all the factory teams.” After winning the Parker race Lesle says that Jeep was all over the Comanche for photos and publicity purposes, but they still hadn’t given him the sponsorship he needed to continue racing. “All year long they would send me just enough money to prep the truck for the next race, but it was only the bare minimum,” said Lesle. “They had a full factory Jeep program through another team, but those guys weren’t finishing any races. They kept me going as I was winning and wanted me to enter into a lot of races that year, finishing with the 1987 SCORE Baja 1000.” By this point, Lesle was almost assured of winning the class championship and says that Jeep wanted to put all their sponsor's logos from the factory team on his race truck. “All I had to do was finish the race to win the championship, and they were interested in photos for advertising the championship,” he said. “I did not want to go to the SCORE Baja 1000 unless I had a factory program for the 1988 season. Three days later they flew out from Detroit and came to my door to sign me up as part of the factory team for 1988. We went on to win the class championship in ’87 and ‘88, in the Comanche pickup. We also helped make TV commercials for Jeep, Shell Oil, and Craftsman tools.” In 1989 Lesle started building and racing the Jeep Cherokee, as the Comanche pickup was to be phased out because Chrysler wanted Dodge as its primary truck line. “It was at this time, I hired Curt LeDuc to help me build the first Jeep Cherokee race vehicle. We went on to build a total of six Cherokees, two of them for short course and four for desert including the first four-wheel drive trophy truck that ran in SCORE,” said Lesle. One Tough Truck While Lesle’s shop built numerous vehicles over the years, the Comanche remained as one of his favorites. “This was a well built and reliable truck,” said Lesle. “Many of the original parts are still in good condition and it competes well against newer trucks because of its reliability.” The Jeep Comanche has 12-inches of wheel travel and uses a 4.0L inline six-cylinder engine and three-speed automatic transmission. It has a Dana 30 front axle with a 9-inch rear axle, both of which have been strengthened and gusseted to withstand the hard abuse of Baja racing. “The truck even has its original Eibach coils, Auto Meter gauges, and Fox shocks with the company’s first try at an external bypass. The bypass was placed over the shock body, instead of a separate bypass welded on the exterior of the shock,” said Lesle. “Most everything on this truck is original, except for the GPS system and bigger tires. We did change out the radiator to a new aluminum unit from Champion Cooling Systems in Lake Elsinore, which helped cure an overheating problem.” Straight out of the ’80s the truck hit the Baja desert in 2019 at the San Felipe 250 race and beat all the Class 7F trucks and all but one of Class 7 Unlimited vehicles in its first SCORE race in decades. “It’s not because the Comanche is faster but because it never stops,” says Lesle. “We like to win by not ever having to get out of the truck. Reliability is what makes it a winning combination.” Getting back into the driver’s seat after 25-years of being retired, Mike Lesle proved he’s still a force to be reckoned with and that Jeeps are still a contender in the off-road motorsports arena. “Getting back into the Comanche, I felt like mentally, I’m back like it used to be,” said Lesle. “Physically, however, after 13 hours of racing in San Felipe, I was pretty beat. I want to finish every mile of every race, but most importantly to have fun and have another opportunity to be with my friends. Even my navigator, Jerry Mann, is 65 and he was my original navigator back in the ’80s.”

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