That got me thinking about how there are really two different types of off-road enthusiasts: those who want to go slow and those who want to go fast. When I suggested desert racing instead, he perked right up. And since this series of stories is about Andrew learning to become a Real Man from Real Men, I knew exactly the one to call: Ivan Stewart.
Andrew may be new to the off-road world, but he knew exactly who Ivan was. “It’s Ivan Stewart! He’s Ivan Stewart! The guy is a legend. I used to watch footage of him racing Baja. He did all the progressive stuff.” Also, Ivan had the number one arcade game in the nation in 1989, “Ivan ‘Ironman’ Stewart’s Super Off-Road,” so even if you’re not impressed with the podium, top that.
Andrew and I headed to a secret desert location to meet Ivan for a driving lesson. It started off with Ivan behind the wheel, Andrew riding shotgun, and a budding bromance in the passenger seat next to me:
Andrew: “My dad’s a college professor and one of the smartest men I know, and he always told me to study hard and learn from the best. So, I want to do that with you.”
Ivan: “Well, in off-road racing, you have to use every bit of your skills to get out of a situation; you have to analyze very quickly. It’s what attracted me to off-road racing more than the actual racing.”
Andrew: “I’m very analytical, too. The racing appeals to me for the adrenaline rush. It’s being in control and out of control.”
Ivan: “I always had a feel for being very competitive.”
Andrew: “Yeah, I try never to lose at anything. But I don’t mind losing to get better.”
Ivan: “You and I are a lot alike that way. And for me, it’s not about loving winning as much as I hate losing. Anyone can make up an excuse for losing—‘Oh, I would have won, except...’”
Andrew: “Right. And it takes a lot to get me motivated, because it takes a lot of effort to say, ‘I’m going to dominate this.’ I want to be the best at it.”
Ivan: “You know, I too have a little bit of a lazy streak that I’m not real proud of.”
Andrew: “By the way, I didn’t like rockcrawling because it’s so slow. It’s so boring. OK, you’re climbing a rock.”
Ivan: “That makes two of us.”
And with that, Ivan hit the ground running, taking us over a fire road complete with whoops, ruts, and rocks, all at speed and all the while explaining how when he started racing in the ’70s, there was no GPS, which forced him to make memorizing courses—you know, like, 1,000 miles—part of his training during the race’s two or three preruns. “There wasn’t a sign up to tell me what to do or where to go, or that there was a ditch, rock, or dangerous spot. I needed to create something in my head to help me remember.” For example, there was that big rock Roger Mears hit one time, so Ivan never forgot it. “The trick is to remember the danger spots where you can really get in trouble and get hurt. If you go over a hill and there’s a big tree, you remember where that tree is.” On our route, he pointed to a distinct rock in the road, an out-of-place bush, and other items Andrew or anyone blasting through the desert should become aware of to avoid breaking their truck or getting lost.
He also explained the importance of tire placement on rocky roads, and gave instruction on left-foot braking. “All you’re doing in racing is balancing the weight of the tires. The reason left-foot works better for off-roading is because you can load the suspension. In other words, if you just mash the throttle it brings the suspension down and as you release it, it releases the front end. You want to miss the rocks, but if you’re going to hit a rock, you want to make that tire as light as you can.” You can also “make it light” by turning the tires; the combo of braking and turning the tires at once takes even more weight off.
Ivan also had insight about how changes to the color of terrain can speak to an obstacle ahead. As we headed toward a ditch he pointed to a dark spot, “which is probably there because water ran through here and it will have made a little bit of a ledge.” He was right.
Turns out it’s not really about the competitors. “You race the terrain.”
Interspersed with the instruction was a glimpse into Ivan’s personal life. He was born in Oklahoma, and his family moved to California in the mid-’50s. He met his wife when they were in high school and they’ve been married 48 years. He worked in construction before making the switch to racing. He and his middle son started an electric-bicycle company a couple years ago. He has become an avid ballroom dancer.
Then it was Andrew’s turn to drive. Recall the route we just took, Ivan told him. He threw the truck in gear, hit the gas, then proudly announced, “Left on this road.” Fail. But aside from that misstep and bottoming-out a couple times, he quickly caught on, telling Ivan, “I was analyzing what you were doing when you were driving. I was watching you the whole time, like when you were picking a line and what you were keeping your tires on.”
“Good, but probably the first thing people get stuck in is the sand,” noted Ivan, as Andrew hit sand and instantly dug the tires in deep, then tensed up. An Ivan secret? “You have to relax your mind in order to relax how you’re driving. You’re working too hard at it, almost holding your breath. Relax.” Ivan the Instructor then forced Andrew to do what he said he does best: analyze the situation. A deep exhale, a moment of thought, and a shift into 4-Lo, and Andrew he was back in the race. “It just takes practice,” Ivan assured him.
Another mistake Ivan sees drivers make? “Thinking you want to go fast because you don’t want anyone to think you are slow. That’s the ego in you. You have to have confidence and a cockiness, but it has to be controlled cockiness.”
When Ivan talked about his goal to always beat Parnelli Jones, it wasn’t a cocky statement; it was just him talking about one of his heroes, and how in general you want to find people who are the best of the best and then aspire to be like them—in every aspect of life.
“If there was any Real Man, Parnelli was it. He could race on-road, off-road, dirt, asphalt, uphill, downhill—he was on the pedestal, and still is today. My goal was to do as much as he did. In my mind, at least, I beat him. Same with Walker Evans and Mickey Thompson.” You see, even Ivan Stewart has Real Men in his life who’ve have helped him be a better man, too. Course, he just happened to become an off-road hero himself in the process, a label he’s modestly uncomfortable with. Meanwhile, Andrew began unmodestly repeating to me, “Ivan Stewart said that out of all the drivers he’s ever driven with, I’m in the top one percent!” Confidence or cockiness? Hell, when Ivan Stewart tells you that, both are allowed.