Author: Jim Ober Photos: Jim Ober Library
BACKSTORY: In 1983 almost every truck manufacturer was sponsoring a team, or at least a solo effort, in off-road racing. Nissan was no exception having sponsored Datsun vehicles since the mid-’70s. Jim Conner (at left in photo) was the team manager of the Nissan Pro-Celebrity Series. Ben Davidson, a huge stalwart of the Oakland Raiders defensive front line, was one of the celebrity drivers and decided to pick up Conner and team driver Mario Alesi (on the right) during a “light-moment” photo op during a practice session in the Nevada desert. A couple of years earlier, someone at Nissan’s marketing department came up with the crazy idea to put together a Pro-Celebrity series to be held before the major off-road races of the day that ran at Las Vegas, Barstow and Parker. Jim Conner Racing was the logical choice to run the logistics of the event and mentor the drivers, all of whom were novices in the desert. Television, film, music and sports celebrities, along with select members of the media, teamed up in identical four-wheel-drive King Cab pickups to compete on a 40-mile course that began two days before the main race. There were four races per season, and the Nissan Pro-Celebrity Cup ran for three years. A couple of events, like Barstow, were run half an hour before the main race and had their own courses, that were not part of the main racecourse. Many luminaries sat in the King Cab’s seats, the most notable being actors Chuck Norris, Larry Wilcox, Parker Stevenson, Marty Milner and Kent McCord—the latter two from the television show Adam 12—and the Raiders’ Davidson, among many others. “It’s a good thing the race vehicles were King Cabs with the extra room because Ben Davidson was so tall (6’ 8”). We had to put the seat all the way back in the cab, and when I sat in the same seat my feet were at least a foot away from the pedals,” said Mario Alesi, a popular and winning racer on the Nissan team. Mario also served as one of the “coaches” who would go out on practice runs before the event and try to teach the celebs some of the do’s and don’ts of off-road racing. “Of course when they got in their trucks for their race, all our advice went out the window,” shared Alesi. Some of the stars were no strangers to racing, though. Parker Stevenson and Larry Wilcox had both raced in sport cars in SCCA races. Regardless of any training or advice, however, “The Nissan trucks sure took a beating, even though the race was only 40 miles or so,” said Conner. Destroyed grilles, front ends, rear suspensions, even rollovers, (although there were no serious injuries during the series) helped make up an entire car carrier of junk trucks that headed back to Conner’s shop in El Cajon, California, after every event. There they were put back into racing trim before the next event. “We were only allowed to do the basic race prep on these trucks, as per Nissan’s requirements. They had to be ‘stock’ vehicles, so they could be advertised that way,” Jim said. “I never heard anything negative about what we did or what happened out there, so I assume that Nissan liked the series.”
Epilogue: Jim Conner Racing is still supplying gear to off-road racers, and is involved in short-course racing as a contingency director.
Ben Davidson lost his battle with prostate cancer in 2012.
Mario Alesi is a successful businessman living in San Diego, California
Vaya Con Dios from the staff of Dirt Sports.