Even if Bill Hrynko had a steadier ladder, off-road racing legend Ivan Stewart might still be called “The Ironman,” because he was employed at the time as an Atlas Fence Company ironworker. But Hrynko fell and broke his leg and was unable to drive his buggy in the 1973 Ensenada 300 off-road race. He had invited Stewart, then 28, to tag along as co-driver; rookie Stewart went ahead and drove the race himself, pretty much unheard-of at the time. Even more unheard-of: Stewart won and kept driving solo. A few years later, he finished the Baja 1000 alone, for which he won the first Valvoline Ironman Award, created by the late Mickey Thompson. More Ironman Awards followed, along with the nickname. Stewart signed with Toyota in 1983, and continues his relationship with the company, one of motorsports’ longest racer-manufacturer connections. Stewart has 84 career wins and 10 drivers’ championships; victories include 17 Baja 500s, three Baja 1000s, and four SCORE world championships. At 70, he looks as though he could still kick your ass, and though he doesn’t race professionally anymore, he hasn’t slowed down.
AM: You haven’t competed professionally since 2000. What do you do for Toyota?
IS: We do a lot of oddball things. A couple of years ago they wanted to race a Toyota truck in the Baja 1000 stock class. So I coached the drivers, and they ended up winning their class. It seems like there’s always something going on.
AM: How did you hook up with Toyota?
IS: Right place, right time. They were coming hard into the United States, and they needed to prove the durability of their trucks. I didn’t start driving for Toyota until I was 37. When I started to become a star, I had to develop skills to deal with people. I took Dale Carnegie training and all. Mickey Thompson really helped me in the early days, making me realize what a long-term opportunity I was being given.
AM: And besides your work with Toyota?
IS: I bought a house in Mexico recently, so I’m spending time down there. I opened a Polaris store in San Diego, and that keeps me busy.
AM: Why desert racing?
IS: I was always fond of the desert, and I knew I had a knack for it. A lot of other guys just drove way too hard and didn’t really have an appreciation for the equipment.
AM: It was way different then.
IS: It was so primitive. We didn’t have the sort of technology in suspension, in the engine, in the tires. It was survival. Today with GPS nobody ever has to get lost. In the 1960s and ’70s, that was an everyday occurrence. You probably couldn’t do a Baja 500 or Baja 1000 then without getting lost. Kids would take the arrows down, or the cows would eat them, and little girls would take the ribbons and put them in their hair—you had to really pay attention.
AM: What has changed about the business?
IS: Roger Norman, who owns SCORE, really understands the importance of TV and social media. It’s so hard to get fans down to the Baja 1000. And even if you can, well, you go to Daytona or Indianapolis and you see the whole race. You go to Baja, you stand in one spot, and you might see a car or motorcycle go by once in an hour. But on the internet, you can keep up with what’s going on.
AM: What’s the effect of environmental laws on desert racing?
IS: I wouldn’t want to be a promoter [in the U.S.]. But in Mexico, there’s so much open land down there, and they need the American dollars.
AM: Is it safe for spectators, though? We hear stories.
IS: We have muggings and robberies in the United States. When something happens in Mexico, you hear a lot about it, true. I feel secure down there, but I know how to do it. It’s like traveling to any third world country.
AM: What’s the scariest thing you’ve seen?
IS: Lot of close calls. I’ve never really gotten hurt. I’ve come across guys who were naked down there. [Ed.: Huh?] I’ve come across booby traps. Federales out in the middle of nowhere with their guns drawn. But I’ve never gone to Mexico without having some sort of good adventure.
AM: Who were the drivers you respected?
IS: Johnny Johnson was extremely good, the smoothest I ever rode with. Parnelli Jones was always my hero. Walker Evans was very good, so was Larry Ragland. I think all those guys were better than the drivers you have today, because you can spend $500,000 or $600,000 on a Trophy Truck, and you’d have a hard time hurting it. They are really tough but really expensive. In the earlier years you had to have a lot more finesse and really take care of the race car. Winning a race in the fog and the dust and all these different elements, without GPS or the rest of today’s technology, that was something. Just finishing was
AM: Are you glad you had your career when you did, or do you wish you were starting now?
IS: I’m glad I did what I did when I did. Wouldn’t change anything. I had a great time. And I’m still riding the wave.