With B.J. Baldwin “iron-manning” the 2013 Baja 1000 Trophy Truck victory, and Ivan Stewart, the original “Ironman,” being the Grand Marshall of that extremely rugged and longest single-day off-road race of all the very same year, we thought it only appropriate to interview one of the most famous off-road competitors in the sport.
If you don’t know who Ivan “Ironman” Stewart is, well then, you’ve been living in a cave. He was in the opinion of many, one of the most talented off-road racing drivers to compete in the sport. During his long career, he accomplished landmark victories, not once, but did so repeatedly, and did so with magnanimous humility.
I have NEVER had a race car fix itself, but this one time, it did. – Ivan Stewart
His winning record in long-distance desert off-road races stands alone. Before joining the Toyota race team, Stewart accrued 30 major victories, was ‘Driver of the Year’ four times and was ‘Man of the Year’ in 1976 during a 10-year streak.
Joining Precision Preparation Inc. Motorsports (PPIM), Toyota’s factory sponsored off-road racing team in 1983, Stewart scored six class wins, and two SCORE World Championships. He nailed Toyota’s first Baja 1000 victory, and his second SCORE Overall and Unlimited Class series championship the same year. Stewart also helped Toyota sweep the “Crown Jewels” of desert racing — the Nevada 500, the Baja 500 and the Baja 1000 in 1993.
Toyota dominated the 12-year history of the Mickey Thompson Entertainment Group (MTEG) stadium series races with the help of Stewart and several other drivers. Along with his three driver’s championships, Stewart holds the record for 17 Mickey Thompson Grand Prix race wins.
Stewart’s winning spree continued with victories in the Baja 500 and Baja 1000 in 1998, and then earned his 17th Baja 500 win in 1999. Stewart drove solo to 17 Baja 500 victories, eight Mint 400s, four Parker 400s, three Baja 1000s and four SCORE World Championships. He is indeed the “Ironman.”
His ever-present warm smile and amenable personality made Stewart easy to get to know and well respected in the racing community. He has been retired from active competition for years, but is still engaged in various community and fund-raising projects.
We spoke with him recently about his career, and the sport he is still involved in.
Off Road Xtreme: When was your first solo victory, and when and how did you gain the nickname “Ironman”?
Ivan Stewart: “Bill Hrynko owned the two-seat buggy I drove in those days. A few days before the race he fell off a ladder and broke his leg. That allowed me to drive, although I did have a co-rider Earl Stahl, so even though we won and I did drive the entire race, I didn’t get credit for driving solo.
The 1973 Ensenada (Baja California, Mexico) 300 was my first solo win, but the ‘Ironman’ name came later in my career. Around 1975 or 1976, the Valvoline Oil company put up an award and $500 for anyone who could win the Baja 500 or Baja 1000 driving a single-seat race car solo and win. I won three in a row.
After those wins, journalists started calling me the ‘Ironman.’ At the time, I didn’t realize how important that title would be later in my racing career.”
ORX: What were you doing to support your racing in those early years? What were those early years like?
Ivan: “When I first started racing back in the early ’70s, I never dreamed it would ever turn into anything more than a hobby. I was racing with my high-school friend Bill Hrynko, and was married with three sons. We were just having fun.
After quite a few wins, I was getting offers to drive some good single-seat cars. Modern Motors was a great team, with fast and powerful race cars back then. Then a chance to drive a big Class 8 truck for Co Co and Charlotte Corral came along. We had lots of race victories, and won a championship. I guess people started to really pay attention then.
When Cal Wells asked me if I would like to drive one of his trucks that Toyota would be sponsoring, I thought, ‘maybe this was a chance to make a living driving off-road race cars.’ This was the dream.”
ORX: Can you think back and remember a race that was a real struggle, when all Hell broke loose?
Ivan: “Probably the last Baja 1000 we won. After leading half the race with almost no problems at all, the throttle started sticking, but it wouldn’t do it all the time. We had built up about a 20-minute lead on Larry Ragland, but we had to keep stopping to fix the throttle. Larry was gaining on us.
It was around 2:00 a.m. on our last stop, and by this time Larry was only 15 seconds behind me, and the fog was really getting thick. The throttle was still sticking.
The Baja 1000 is really important to win. I mean it’s the biggest race of the year, especially when it goes all the way down and finishes in La Paz. Larry didn’t have to pass me, just finish close behind me to win.
We had about 50 miles to go, and Larry was right behind me. It’s really foggy, and I’m tired, and that throttle is still giving me problems. But it would only stick once in a while, so I couldn’t predict when it would stick.
I have NEVER had a race car fix itself, but this one time, it did.
The throttle quit sticking, and I drove as hard as I could to the finish line. I think we won by two or three minutes over a course of nearly 1000 miles!”
ORX: You began some of your own off-road (such as Protruck) businesses, tell us about those ventures and what did you hope for and expect?
Ivan: “I have always felt that for off-road racing to get to the next step, a separate sanctioning body is a must. The promotors need to separate themselves from the sanctioning body. Similar to what NASCAR is doing. NASCAR is not the promotor. I think we were able to prove that, in a way, with our Protruck Racing Organization (PRO).
We took ‘spec’ off-road racing trucks with identical chassis’ to The World Championships in Crandon, Wisconson, to the Laguna Seca road course, and even to the island of Guam. Protruck ran in SCORE races and HDRA races, and our points champion won as much as $120,000.
Never has that purse amount been paid out in off-road racing. We had our own national TV coverage, and we sold 53 ‘spec’ trucks. All our parts were ‘spec’ or mandated. We ran the Protruck business for 13 years.”
ORX: How do the machines you drove in the late ’90s compare to the race trucks of today, and what do you think of the trucks and the technology of the suspensions, engines and speeds they are attaining in the desert today?
Ivan: “The technology has really changed, especially from the early ’70s. Even from in 2000 when I drove my last race in the Toyota Trophy Truck. The way the rules are written now, especially in the Trophy Truck Class, there is a lot of freedom for the engineers.
One of the greatest challenges is wheel travel — to get more — and the trucks are getting wider. But the trees and rocks in Mexico are still in the same spots, if the trucks are wider … well how will they fit between the trees and rocks, they don’t move.
I would say the trucks are faster in the really rough stuff, and much more expensive, but I’m not sure they would be much faster in Mexico than the truck Larry Roeseler and I drove in Baja back in 2000.”
ORX: Have you ever played the Ivan “Ironman” Stewart video arcade off-road racing game? What was it like to watch an avatar of your truck race against others in an imaginary off-road race?
Ivan: “It was really special to be involved with the No. 1 arcade game in 1989. I really didn’t think a lot about it at the time, but for years people have been telling me they played the game when they were in college, or when they were a kid, and how much they liked the game.
Even today people tell me about it. It was really good for off-road racing and all our sponsors. The game was also sold in Nintendo and Sega versions, as well as a handheld off-road game. I always had fun playing the game.”
ORX: Is there a race, or kind of racing, you never tried, that you would have liked to have competed in? Or a driver you never got to co-drive with, that you wish you had?
Ivan: “I always thought I would competitive in the Paris-to-Dakar race in Europe and Africa. It’s now held in South America. There was a time when Toyota was heavily involved in that event, but I was doing a lot of stadium and desert racing at the time, so it never came to be.
Mickey Thompson had a big influence on my racing career, but we never raced together, although I raced against him in several events.
I got to know Mario Andretti pretty well when we both endorsed MagnaFlow mufflers and did a TV commercial together.
Robby Gordon was my teammate for a couple of years, but I wouldn’t ride with Robby if you paid me. I really like Robby and think he is truly a great driver, but I wouldn’t ride with him. He’s still too young, a little too ‘enthusiastic’ in front of a crowd. I like riding with older drivers who have nothing to prove.
I really don’t like riding with anyone, especially on the highway. I had a goal to ride with the best off-road drivers in the business. Johnny Johnson, who I think won 12 Baja 1000s, and Parnelli Jones, Dan Gurney, Walker Evans, Roger Mears, and Rod Millen who held the Pikes Peak Hill Climb record for years, and I achieved my goal.
Thanks to Toyota, I even got an hour ride with the Blue Angels. What else could I ask for?
I really don’t know what I would do different with my life. I had a dream come true.”
There you have it. The Off Road Xtreme interview with the legendary Ivan “Ironman” Stewart. He tells it like it was, and like it is. Who do you want to hear from next?