Sometimes it’s lonely at the top, but in off-road racing the top of the heap is kinda crowded. That’s because there are about a half-dozen fabrication shops whose work stands out above the rest. Based in Santee, California, Stewart’s Raceworks is one of those top shops.
“We’re all friends,” says Craig Stewart of Stewart’s Raceworks. “But it’s still competition. We all want to be better than the others.”
Craig Stewart is the son of Ivan “Ironman” Stewart, a pedigree that put him in contact with off-road racing from the very beginning. He enjoyed the racing, but found himself drawn to the machinery more than anything else. “I always loved the cars,” Craig comments. “I would always pay attention to the way they were made, right down to the small details.”
Ironman could teach him to drive, but Craig needed to look further to find someone to teach him to build. Johnny Johnson, a fellow San Diego-area racer, was that someone. “We raced what we built,” recalls Stewart. “We won a ton. It felt easy because Johnny knew how to build and how to race.”
Max Razo (whose colorful life is documented in his autobiography Born Under a Bad Sign) was one of Johnson’s customers. “Max raced a Class 5 Unlimited Baja Bug, and one year we won seven out of eight races. We raced the Baja 1000, and I co-drove the whole race. There were three drivers, and we almost won the overall but got lost for an hour and still came in second,” Stewart relates.
After working for Johnny Johnson, Craig went to work for Unique Metal Products (UMP), a company perhaps most famous today for its Baja-proven air filters. “At the time, UMP did complete vehicle builds,” continues Craig. “We built a lot of different vehicles, including dragsters and off-road race cars. UMP had a big pool of good dudes in that era. Two names that really stand out are Gary Brady and Larry Storck. Larry still does the aluminum panel work for us today.”
During these formative years, Craig’s fabrication and prep work took place after hours, too. “I prepped cars out of my garage, including my Dad’s I-beam 4Runner prerunner. I also built a Baja Bug for myself. Things were different back then. You couldn’t just go out and buy the things you can today. For instance, nobody made off-road spindles. If you wanted a spindle for off-road racing, you had to make it yourself or get a stock spindle and build onto it.”
During this period Craig met his wife, Sherrie. Naturally, he introduced her to the desert and desert racing. They’d load up his Baja Bug on a trailer and tow it out to Plaster City behind a four-cylinder, two-wheel drive Toyota pickup. “I wasn’t into it at first,” Sherrie states. “Even though I liked riding in the Bug, I didn’t like sleeping in the back of the truck.”
Today, neither Craig nor Sherrie longs for the days of sleeping in the back of a pickup truck, but there are still aspects of that time that Craig misses. “You can’t go back to the way it was, but today racing costs too much. Back in the day, people built stuff in their garages and went out and raced it. Nobody had big money, but they were all involved because they loved it and wanted to be a part of it. What a great challenge it was!”
Even though Craig is connected with racing’s past, he’s an indelible part of the here and now. Stewart’s Raceworks produces some of the most technologically advanced and most meticulously crafted prerunners and race vehicles ever to set knobby on dirt. “You have to keep up with the times,” Stewart states. “I was using AutoCad to design trucks, and when Solidworks came along I started using that. But still, these computers do the same things we used to do with tape measures and chalk on the floor. You still have to know what you’re doing.” Another high-tech tool at Stewart’s Raceworks is a camera that digitally models surfaces as it takes pictures, something that enables Raceworks to quickly and accurately build fiberglass parts and to position rollcage tubing correctly.
Craig credits Sherrie for his transition from an employee at Unique Metal Products to the owner of Stewart’s Raceworks. Craig nods while Sherrie explains, “I told him that if we’re going to go to the desert, we need to get to where we can be comfortable and do it right. We needed to be able to make enough money at this.”
“I know the fabrication side, and I know how to go testing and racing,” Craig states. “Sherrie understands the business side and writes well. She’s the reason we’re where we are today.” To this Sherrie replies, “He’s more talented than he gives himself credit for.”
Although they’ve worked hard to get where they are, there’s an added reason the Stewarts are grateful for their lives. They almost lost them. At the 1999 Baja 500, they were in the crowd that Jason Baldwin rolled his Trophy Truck into. Sherrie sustained minor injuries, but Craig took a hit to the head that cracked his skull. “He doesn’t remember what happened,” Sherrie says. “Things are so different down in Mexico. They didn’t stop the race, and they didn’t tell other people what had happened. I was sitting there holding Craig and his dad (Ivan) drove by. Ivan actually finished the race and got all the way home before he learned about the accident.”
SCORE president Sal Fish arranged for Craig to be life-flighted back to the States where he could receive the medical care he needed. “To this day, I still get headaches from that accident,” says Craig. “It took about five years for my vision to return to normal. I couldn’t drive cars during testing because my eyes couldn’t focus fast enough. There’s a good side to this, though. I don’t want to get hit in the head again, but it would be nice if everyone could go through something like this every few years. Something that makes you appreciate things that much more. Something that makes you just want to go home and hug your kids.”
Even with the success he’s had, Craig still has the hunger to develop new products and off-road vehicles with innovative designs. Some of those products have nothing to do with off-road racing. For instance, Stewart’s Raceworks has produced some custom display fixtures for the San Diego Safari Park, and has modified vehicles for the U.S. Border Patrol. “I try to diversify every chance I get,” he informs. Innovative race vehicle designs include a revolutionary patent-pending rear suspension for quads, which we saw both in the computer and in living, breathing metal at the Raceworks shop.
Of course, work from a top-tier fabrication shop like Stewart’s Raceworks doesn’t come cheap, and a quote from the Raceworks website says, “Others might be able to do it cheaper, but never better.” A look around the Raceworks shop reveals not what is commonplace, but what is possible.
It may be a bit crowded at the top, but each top-tier fab shop has a unique story of how it came to be. For Craig Stewart and Stewart’s Raceworks, that story includes the good old days, cutting edge technology, and one very close call. It’s a view from above.