Good Old Days, Cutting-Edge Technology, and a Very Close Call
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.”
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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!”