Jay Leno and I now have something in common: both of us have had the pleasure of riding shotgun with decorated off-road racer Ivan ‘Ironman’ Stewart. Now 75, Stewart has racked up a record 10-time overall championships in the Baja 500; he also won his class a record 17 times. In the Baja 1000, Stewart won three overall titles. And that’s just a few of his wins.
As Leno says about the Ironman, “When it comes to off-road records, he’s the guy.”
Although he retired from racing in 2000, Stewart is still charming and unflappable, humoring journalists like me with rides and off-roading advice. This week, I had the opportunity to meet Stewart at a Toyota-Lexus off-roading event, and I grabbed the chance to learn a few tips from the master.
When asked about common mistakes new off-roaders make, he says it’s simple: people put themselves in precarious positions way above their skill level.
“Somebody will buy an SUV and a friend says, ‘Let’s take it out and play with it,’” Stewart says. “They’ll scale a hill and then start sliding backward and can’t get out of it. They start going sideways and then risk tipping over.”
Stewart knows a few things about making mistakes, and he owns them with pride. He worked his way up from a young age, learning as he went. Born in southern California, as a kid Stewart raced go-karts on the streets of Ensenada, Mexicali, and Tecate. He progressed from karting to racing dune buggies, but he says he always knew the real money was to get in with a manufacturer. In 1983, he accepted a partnership with Toyota, which Stewart believes was probably one of the greatest decisions of his racing career. It’s a long, winning history.
As he navigates the course with me in a new Lexus LX 570, it’s clear he could do it with his eyes closed. He has done this so many times before and takes the obstacles with thoughtful responsibility. He likes that phrase, he tells me. And he still likes Toyota vehicles.
“Toyotas are solid, luxurious, quiet, and dependable,” he says. “We could take this stock SUV and do the whole Baja 1000 peninsula, just as it is, as long as we drive within the parameters of the vehicle.”
Known to be tough and resilient, Stewart told me that in 40 years of racing, he never once got stuck to the point that he had to spend the night out in the desert. He has thousands of stories about what he did to get out of a tough situation; Stewart was not afraid to try new techniques, and he is not only fast but smart.
The veteran racer says the real adventure starts when you break down. Does he know how to fix them? Not very well, he tells me.
“I got into this for the adventure,” he says. “It wasn’t because of the racing; it was the thrill of the unknown.”
That attitude and tenacity got Stewart through decades of racing all the way to his induction into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America last September, the first off-road racer to earn that honor. He feels extremely fortunate, and says he has been living a dream life since he was about 35. He doesn’t take it for granted.
He didn’t get his famous nickname for nothing, but in his racing days the Ironman wasn’t immune from a bit of healthy nerves, either.
“Most drivers are nervous before a race,” he says. “Anxiety and stress levels are high and I was aware that people were depending on me, but I refused to show that I was nervous in any way. I used that energy to focus and visualize winning the race. Somebody was going to win; why not me?”
Why not, indeed?
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