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

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Page 75 of 96

The Thunder Trucks: Class 8 Memories The roar in the air and shaking in the ground told you they were coming fast Story by Stuart Bourdon Photography: GetSome Photo, Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame, and courtesy of Curt LeDuc According to Sal Fish, former owner and president of SCORE International, some of the early unsanctioned Baja races were done on motorcycles, and in modified cars and trucks. Officially, one of the very first pickups raced in sanctioned desert racing was in the 1967 Baja (NORRA) 1000. “Ak Miller (born Akton Moeller), who was a pioneer drag racer and hot-rodder, and had experience competing in the La Carrera Panamericana (running the length of Mexico along the Pan-American Highway), and Ray Brock, who was Editor of Hot Rod Magazine and had some motorsports experience, decided to race the first 1000 in a built ’68 Ford Ranchero (a hybrid car/pickup),” said Fish. Regardless of how, why, and when the idea of racing a truck started, it would eventually metamorphose into officially sanctioned off-road truck classes. One of those was Class 8 for 2WD full-size pickups. Those Class 8 trucks would get progressively more powerful, faster, louder, more exciting to see run, and become known as the “Thunder Trucks.” Family Dynasty Curt LeDuc is the patriarch of an off-road racing dynasty, with sons Kyle and Todd becoming quite successful in the sport too. Curt’s favorite story about his Class 8 days is from a San Felipe race. “I was racing with Mike Leslie at the time, and the race was not part of the ‘points’ yet for a championship, so Mike couldn’t go because it wasn’t in the sponsor’s budget. I decided to race my Ford pre-runner in Class 8, but I couldn’t use my name as I was under contract with Chrysler. I registered the truck in my wife’s name, had some of my friends chase for me, started the race, drove almost the entire race, and then a few miles from the finish she got in and drove it across the finish line. The boys and my daughter all rode in the truck at some point, I think Todd was 12 at the time, and we won Class 8 in my pre-runner.” That family-filled San Felipe win remains a highlight, but Curt also told us about one of his “firsts” in Class 8. “Walker Evans had a brand new Class 8 V-10 Dodge truck under contract and hired me to drive it in the SCORE Baja 500. I had to meet a chase crew in my truck to get a new flywheel for Walker who was broken down in his Trophy Truck, and then I stopped to help another Dodge Trophy Truck teammate Scott Douglas, who had hit a ditch and broken one of the truck’s a-arms. Dave Shoppe won, Brian Stewart was second in the other Class 8 V-8 Dodge and won the class points championship for the team. I ended up third in class but got to drive the first V-10 ever raced in SCORE Class 8. Over the years Curt would rack up six championships in Class 8 among various racing events, an award for finishing every mile of every race for five straight years in one racing sanctioning body, numerous Trophy Truck wins including the 1997 SCORE Trophy Truck points championship and a long and successful racing relationship with Skyjacker. Career-Defining Win Dave Westhem had a long run in Class 8, with some considerable time off between that and coming back to race and win the 50th Baja 1000 in Class 8. His first season in Class 8 was 1985 as part of the Firestone team with Manny Esquerra (Class 7). Dave recounts, “It was great because the team had some wins, got a lot of attention, and we were in magazine and TV ads, but for the 1987 season I switched to BFGoodrich because of its superior pit support system and won the SCORE Baja 1000 in Class 8 that year.” “The 1987 SCORE Baja 1000 defined my entire racing career. Scoop Vessels and Robby Gordon were the only ones ahead of me. Scoop had Jack Arute from ABC onboard doing live reporting of the race. Scoop was driving his new truck and was favored to win, but it had broken down. I got so excited, all I could think was ‘if I can just be second it will be great’. Then coming down the Summit toward the Pacific, we heard Robby was losing his brakes, and we eventually passed him after he burned them up. We gained more than an hour lead, but then nearly blew it by going full speed through a huge water hole near the finish. The engine died and wouldn’t start. After what seemed like an eternity, we got the truck running again, and we won Class 8 by about six minutes.” Dave told us, “That win got me my own GMC full-factory team with a tractor-trailer, chase vans, pre-runners, and the whole nine yards. By the end of my racing career, we had run 400,000 pre-run miles, 180,000 race miles, 39 race wins, and two championships.” Ivan “Ironman” Stewart Ivan Stewart is mostly associated today with his many years as the Toyota race truck driver that dominated desert and short-course off-road racing for a decade, but he raced buggies and Class 8 trucks before that. “People started to realize that I had some talent for racing off-road. Charlotte and Coco Corral wanted to get into Class 8 then and thought I might be a good driver for them, and I wanted to get out of buggies because long-term there were better opportunities with truck manufacturers. We had some wins and a lot of fun.” “At one point Walker Evans built a new truck for Charlotte and Coco and was prepping it. We were quite successful with it and eventually won the SCORE Class 8 championship, beating Walker that year. We struggled at the last race of that year (SCORE Baja 1000), had a lot of problems, including blowing a head gasket, poured seawater into it to keep going, and limped it into La Paz, finishing 7th or 8th in class, but we had enough points to win the championship that year.” “When I was driving buggies, I looked up to Walker and Parnelli Jones, they were the top guys. So to beat Walker when I was driving Class 8 was something. And I remember one other off-road race where Parnelli and I went door to door through the rock pile. Neither one of us was going to let up, it was great, and he and I still laugh about it.” Rob “The Man” MacCachren Rob MacCachren is one of the most successful drivers in off-road racing, and today is well on his way to 300 wins. As Rob tells it, “I was doing well for Walker in the Jeep 7s, and was supposed to get the Class 8 ride when Walker retired at 50. Well, he decided not to retire. Years later when the Ford Rough Riders program was being formed, Robby Gordon had already been successfully driving Class 8 for Jim Venable, and likely would have moved right into the Class 8 seat in the Rough Riders but decided to go road racing.” “I was told it was between Rod Millen and me. For years I had been watching Rod drive and figured, well, I’m not getting that either, but was invited to do a test drive in the desert. I must have done a good job because I ended up getting that Russ Wernimont-built Venable Class 8 seat. Things didn’t start so well, though. In 1991 at Parker I tipped it over on the door my very first race with the Ford Rough Riders team. But I got better at it and ended up winning the 25th SCORE Baja 1000 (1992 peninsula run) in Class 8 and getting second overall. Then in 1994, I won the first SCORE Trophy Truck season championship with that same Class 8 truck.” “That wasn’t my first time racing a Class 8, though. At another off-road race, when I was racing 7s, Walker was having a bad day in the Dodge Dakota, and somebody said ‘put him (me) in the race.’ So I hopped in Walker’s Class 8 Dakota with my 7s co-driver, got on the power line road, and was going 100 mph barely pushing on the throttle. My co-driver said something about how fast we were going, so I floored the pedal and that truck took off. I could not believe how powerful that truck was.” Larry Ragland: 5 Time Baja 1000 Winner Larry Ragland remembers how he got started racing in Class 8. “For about four years I ran a Class 7 for Chevy. I had been racing in Class 1 because I was after the overall win, not just a class win, and only agreed to the Class 7 deal because Chevy said they were eventually going to build something that could run for the overall win. My teammate then was Scoop Vessels in Class 8. We were the American Thunder Racing team.”   When Chevy said they were going to sponsor two new Class 8 trucks and asked if I would be interested in driving one of them, I said yes. Steve McEachern drove the other. Nelson built those Chevy trucks and they were technologically ahead of their time and were the trucks to beat for a while there. I was fast right off the bat in that Class 8. It had more power and a much better suspension than anything I had ever driven and won a lot of races. My first full year in Class 8 was 1991, and we won the SCORE San Felipe race and set what was the fastest overall speed at that time of 61 mph. I went on to win the SCORE Baja 1000 overall that year too.” “Those Class 8 racing days were the most fun because the trucks were all pretty equal and any of the top drivers could win, we were always running tight with each other, often all the way to the finish line. After the 1994 season, I got into a Chevy SCORE Trophy Truck. I won the SCORE Baja 1000 overall four more times, (1995, 1996, and 1997), and then again in 1999. Steve Kelley and Friends “My first truck ride (Class 8) was in the 1978 SCORE Baja 500 in an old long bed Ford pickup and my good friend Bill Stroppe built it, prepped it, and rode with me. But my first big win in Class 8 was 1981 when I won the SCORE Baja 500 in a truck that Tommy Morris built. Tommy co-drove sometimes, we did that for two years, won some races, and won the SCORE Class 8 points championship in Class 8 in 1982.” “In late ‘84 I got a call from John Nelson. John had built Larry Minor a truck, and Parnelli was driving it, but they were breaking all the time. Nelson knew me through Walker Evans because I had driven a Mazda truck for Walker. Larry hired me and we ran it for four years, won the 1985 Parker 400, crashed it at Laughlin, but won the SCORE Baja 500 in 1985.” Steve recounted, “Of all those Class 8 days, there was a race win in 1985 that might be my personal favorite. The truck had to be completely rebuilt because I had crashed pretty hard at the Laughlin race, and the guys had worked their butts off for a month to get it ready for a 400-mile race. Walker was leading. Evan Evans was in the truck with me and we chased Walker down. I think beating Walker and winning the race with his son Evan in the truck with me was the most memorable because we’re all still good friends and talk about it all the time.” The King: Walker Evans There is little doubt in the minds of long-time off-road racing fans who witnessed the golden age of Class 8 that Walker Evans is the once and rightful king of two-wheel-drive pickup truck racing. In his career that spanned from 1969 to 1998, he won 142 races and 21 championships. As Walker told it, “That’s something I can be proud of, but my very first truck was a little Ford that Bill Stroppe built for me. With his help, we won the first race, then the next one.” Walker spent the next few years driving little pickups with Parnelli (winning 9 straight races in another Ford) and then a Chevy with Parnelli (winning 11 of 15 races). After a break to concentrate on his construction business, Walker got a call from Dick Landfield about a deal with Goodyear, and they got another Stroppe-built Ford pickup. “But it didn’t do too well so I decided to start my own shop. I built a new little Ford with Goodyear tires and that’s when things took off.” “One day Dick Maxwell from Chrysler asked if I wanted to drive a Dodge, but he wanted to do a full-size 4x4. I said thanks, but no thanks, my little two-wheel-drive pickup goes through the bumps faster. I sent him to my friend Rod Hall. After a Riverside race, Dick came back to my shop and said he would build a 2WD Dodge pickup if I would drive that. Well, I signed up with Dodge and Goodyear in 1977, and began winning even more races.” “In 1979 I won overall in the SCORE Baja 1000, beating the buggies. It was a tough race, and when it was over the truck was placed in impound until the next day. Randy (Anderson) and I went down to get it, popped the hood and saw that some of the spark plug wires had come loose. The coating on one of the valve covers was all burned off from the loose wires. Who knows how long it could have kept running. We realized right then and there, that when it’s your day to win, it’s just your day. That’s all there is to it.” For The Record There were quite a few other drivers that made Class 8 the most exciting thing going in those glory days. We would be remiss if we didn’t mention Frank “Scoop” Vessels. Frank DeAngelo, who was part of the BFGoodrich off-road race support team told us, “The first Class 8 team we got involved with was Scoop Vessels. He was driving a Ford F-100 pickup. Scoop was the first to risk his reputation with our new tire and in 1977 he won the SCORE Baja 500 and SCORE Baja 1000.” Scoop Vessels also won the 1988 SCORE Baja 1000 in Class 8. Some of the other prominent Class 8 drivers of the time were Larry Schwacofer (later famous for his 1956 Chevy Tri-Five Class 6 race car) who scored a Class 8 win in the 1975 SCORE Baja 1000, Jerry McDonald and Joe McPherson took the 1980 SCORE Baja 1000 Class 8 crown, the 1984 SCORE Baja 1000 Class 8 winner was Dave Shoppe, and Robby Gordon (19 years old at the time) won Class 8 and finished third overall at the 1988 SCORE Baja 500, and then in 1989 took the overall four-wheeled vehicle win in a Class 8 truck for the first time since Walker Evans had done it 10 years earlier. The Power of Class 8 Class 8 was the biggest, baddest, most powerful and loudest thing on the course before SCORE Trophy Trucks stole the big-truck limelight in 1994. You could hear them coming from miles away, long before you could see them. Former director of the Off-Road Motorsports Hall Of Fame and SCORE Baja 1000 winner Bob Bower put it aptly, “Class 8 was very much a sensory experience. The sight and sound of a Class 8 race truck coming into the pit was such an incredible visual experience. It wasn’t just visual, you heard it, and you felt it. It was loud and the rumble vibrated everything around it, and you smelled the dust and the fuel and the oil, and you felt the heat coming off it. And when it left, you could still smell it and hear it for a long time, and then the pit crew would all jump up and down and high-five each other because of the energy and excitement it created.”

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