The “Rough Riders,” be honest with yourself, what’s the first thing that you think of? A majority of folks will think of a man named Roosevelt and his heroic charge up San Juan Hill. Another demographic, mostly Corvette enthusiasts, might think of the first generation Corvette, and how they rode somewhat akin to a hay wagon, hence, rough riders. But an avid off-road racing enthusiast worth his salt will most likely know exactly what you are talking about.
The Rough Riders were considered to be the most dominant force in both desert and short-course off-road racing from 1991 through 1995. During this five-year span, the Rough Riders are responsible for over 20 driver and manufacturer championships. The Rough Riders were also the first factory-backed team in the sport, with full support of the Ford Motor Company and BFGoodrich. This factory involvement not only provided the Rough Riders with the necessary funding, but more importantly, technical, logistical, and engineering support of the Ford Truck Operations division of Ford Motor Company.
The Rough Riders in return provided Ford with a test bed for development of production components. Advances in chassis and suspension geometries, as well as durability improvements of drivetrains (including the production E4OD automatic transmission) are all attributed to the partnership between the six teams that comprised this off-road racing juggernaut and the various engineering divisions of Ford Motor Company. This same type of union also held true with BFGoodrich.
As mentioned, the Rough Riders were made up of six different independent teams: Enduro Racing, Bill Stroppe Racing, Simon and Simon Racing, Spirit Racing, Swift Motorsports and Jim Venable Racing. These teams, although competing against each other, did share a common thread – they were all campaigning Ford products. In 1991 Dick Landfield, owner of Enduro Racing, approached Ford with what he called his “vision.”
Landfield, a Ford dealer and longtime off-road racer, was well aware of the struggles involved for the independent teams to even make it to the finish of a long-distance desert race, let alone have the opportunity to actually win the event. Landfield’s vast knowledge of the sport, as well as and his formation of the First Association of Independent Racers, made him the perfect person to sit down with the brass at Ford and explain his idea of a unified effort.
Landfield’s vision was simple: bring the six highly skilled and successful off-road race teams already using Ford products together under one corporate entity. Landfield suggested the impact on the buying public would be multiplied, and at a time when the popularity of the pickup truck was on the rise, should result in increased visibility of the brand and a boost in sales. A large part of Landfield’s marketing plan was to use the same paint scheme on all the trucks, and as it would turn out, the first professional race team to put their drivers and crew members in matching uniforms.
When all was said and done, the executives in Dearborn agreed with Landfield, and with the influence of a few key people at Ford, BFGoodrich recognized the opportunity this merger provided and committed their efforts to the project. The result was the formation of what is considered as the first super team in the sport of off-road racing, the Rough Riders.
This agreement would stand for a span of five years, from 1991 through 1995. At the conclusion of the 1995 off-road racing season, Ford opted to pursue other avenues to promote and market their truck line, and sadly broke up the band, so to speak. It’s only fitting that we take a look at the six independent teams and the key people that made up the core of this legendary off road race team.
Baja 500.The first team is Dick Landfield’s Enduro Racing. Landfield is considered to be the founder of the Rough Riders when he took his idea before the executives at Ford. A long time off-road racer, Landfield has been at the forefront of the sport for many years, with racing experience that dates back as far as 1969 when he ran his first
He was instrumental in the development of the first mini-truck for off road racing, a Ford Courier. Landfield competed on the Mickey Thompson Stadium series for several years and fielded trucks for drivers Al Unser, Al Unser Jr., Jose Garza, and Albert Arciero.
When Landfield was forced to retire due to health reasons in 1986, he stayed in the sport as a team owner and supplied the first Ford Ranger to off-road racing with Dave Ashley behind the wheel. At the beginning of the 1991 season, Landfield added a second truck to his stable and hired Dan Smith to handle the driving duties. Shortly thereafter is when Landfield approached Ford with what he called his vision, and as they say, the rest is history. Landfield was inducted into the Off Road Motorsports Hall of Fame (ORMHOF) in 2007.
Smith and Ashley brought two Baja 1000 victories to the team and were both multi-class champions for over three decades. Both men continued to race after the Rough Riders dissolved and retired from the sport in 2002. Ashley was inducted into the Off Road Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2014.
The second Rough Riders team was that of legendary car builder Bill Stroppe. Stroppe is said to be responsible for giving Ford the undeniable bragging rights throughout the deserts of the southwest. With the onset of the 1981 race season, Stroppe hired a young driver that would become known, over a career of more than 30 years, as the King of the Desert: Manny Esquerra. These two men teamed up for over a dozen major series championships.
Their racing resume includes 13 Parker 400 victories, 12 Mint 400 titles, five Frontier 500 wins, and if that’s not enough, how about five Baja 500, and six Baja 1000 victories. Esquerra was voted SCORE Desert Series “Driver Of The Year” in 1980 and 1981. He was also awarded the coveted True Grit award in 1986. Sadly, the sport lost Esquerra in 2008 after he suffered a heart attack behind the wheel of a desert racer on the second lap of the Parker 425. Today there is a monument in the desert where Esquerra died doing what he loved. The plague simply states: “King of the Desert – Manny Esquerra – 2/2/2008.” Esquerra was inducted into the Off Road Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2008. Stroppe was inducted in 1978.
The third team was Simon and Simon Racing. Two brothers, Paul and Dave Simon, both in love with the sport, struggled to make ends meet for most of their racing careers. The inclusion to the Rough Riders super team gave the Simons the means to continue their racing efforts, and was reported to show respectable results. When the Rough Riders ceased operations, the Simon brothers ran just one more season, and stopped racing near the end of the 1996 season stating that it was requiring too much time away from the family and the family’s concrete construction business. So ended Simon and Simon Racing.
Team Four was Swift Motorsports, which started as a father and son operation, where father Ray passed his love for off-road racing down to his son John. Over the years, John amassed victories at both the Baja 500 and the Baja 1000. Swift was one of the first teams to use the Ford Ranger platform as their primary vehicle of choice for desert racing, and were the first to utilize the new electronic EEC-IV ignition system from Ford.
Jim Venable Racing played a large role in the overall success of the Rough Riders when Venable hired a young upcoming driver to run his Class 8 truck that had been recently vacated when Robby Gordon left the team to go road racing. You may know this up and coming driver has become one of the most popular and successful drivers in the sport – Rob MacCachren. MacCachren, who we recently interviewed, ran the Class 8 truck until 1994, when Venable put him in a trophy truck.
Over the years, MacCachren has garnered many awards and accolades throughout the sport, from long-distance desert racing to the tight confines of the short stadium courses. To this day, MacCachren continues his racing efforts and is a star on the Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series. MacCachren was recognized for his accomplishments in the sport when he was inducted into the Off Road Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2011.
Lastly, the sixth and final original team was Spirit Motorsports, owned by Steve Spirkoff with Chuck Johnson as the primary driver. Spirkoff housed and distributed all the parts and components from Ford and BFGoodrich to the teams that comprised the Rough Riders.
Spirit Racing put together a very impressive history with Chuck Johnson handling the driving duties, and secured victories for the Rough Riders at the prestigious Baja 1000. Spirkoff expressed doubt when asked if he thought there was a possibility of anyone ever recreating another Rough Riders team, stating: “I don’t think you could get enough of the major players involved again. The amount of money you would need today to fund a program like the Rough Riders would probably be more than even Ford would want to invest.”
Dick Landfield, the man considered to be the founding father of the Rough Riders, mirrored Spirkoff’s thinking when he said: “I think it might be possible if you could actually get folks to sit down and talk with each other, but with the world we live in today, these big companies, like Ford, use their computers and analytics to determine where to put the advertising dollars; nobody sits down and explains what they have to offer each other. So will it ever happen again? Not likely.”
Over the five-year span that the Rough Riders existed, many people were directly involved with the team and all were responsible in some way for the overall success of the team, namely the support teams and pit crews. Several drivers joined the Rough Riders in the latter years: Scott Taylor, Steve Olliges, Tim Casey, Danny Thompson, and Jerry Whelchel all made significant contributions to the legacy. Bill Stroppe even talked Parnelli Jones (also recently interviewed by Off Road Xtreme), out of retirement in 1992 for a short stint with the Rough Riders.
The impact the Rough Riders had on not just the sport of off-road racing, but motorsports in general, was unprecedented. The group would be directly responsible for changing the face of the sport. The team was the first to provide the major corporations a viable, and ultimately successful, marketing platform to bolster their individual brand identity. The Rough Riders off-road race team were the best the sport had to offer during their era, and any of the original six teams were capable of winning anywhere they raced.
The union with Ford Motor Company and BFGoodrich was the first and last factory-backed, coordinated sponsorship program off-road racing had ever seen. The entire reach of the project, and the lasting effects it had on the sport, without doubt, may never be duplicated again.