Author: Jim Ober Photos: Trackside Photo
Backstory: It was September 1974 and off-road innovator Mickey Thompson had a new protégé, Sal Fish. Mickey was showing him the ropes of the sport from a management point of view at the second running of the Riverside Off-Road World Championships. “It was 39 years ago,“ Sal recalled upon his retirement on the eve of his final SCORE Banquet. “I was recruited by Mickey Thompson to run SCORE. I had raced the Baja 1000 in 1969 in a Baja Bug, but we broke down and DNF’d.“ Sal was the successful publisher of Hot Rod magazine at Petersen Publishing at a time when enthusiast magazines held a lot of power in the industry, but when Sal joined SCORE he had no idea what was in store for him. “I cannot think of anything that would be this exciting—devoting almost 40 years of my life to putting on off-road races,” shared Fish. The record shows that Sal and Mickey did a lot more than just “put on off-road races,” however. He immediately took control of SCORE, with Thompson’s help, and got late night phone calls every time Mickey had a new or better idea about something. “I thought I had married Mickey, and not my wife,” Sal offered about their new relationship. “He really was a ‘different’ personality.” The legendary Baja 1000 already had the mystic at that time, but Sal took it to the next level. Television coverage of off-road racing was in its infancy, and he enticed ABC’s Wide World of Sports to cover the Baja 1000 in the late 1970s, with commentator and racer Sam Posey co-riding with Scoop Vessels in the BFG Blazer. It gave viewers a new window into the sport of off-road racing. “I knew then I had to make it a success,” Sal said, “and I did, with a lot of passion and hard work.” Sal also created the “Heavy Metal” and “Mini Metal” categories to help viewers, both in person and on TV, identify the trucks during the Riverside races. He pioneered the system of emergency response in the more remote areas of Baja, enlisting the help of a Mexican outfit called Rescue Hawks at the 1989 Baja 1000. When the sport was at a crucial juncture, promotion-wise, Sal joined with arch-competitor Walt Lott of the High Desert Racing Association (HDRA) and combined their series, creating an eight-race season. Together they organized the major manufacturers into an advisory committee, which helped with technical rules and public relations efforts. The combined series ran from 1985 to 1991. In 1993, Sal bought out HDRA, and together with his then-partner Ted Johnson, made SCORE into the most prestigious sanctioning body in off-road racing, bar none. It was not without problems, which were overcome almost at each race, one crisis at a time. Sal was a real hands-on guy when it came to promoting. It was not unusual to see him the night before a Baja race, 60 miles from the start, putting down stakes and rerouting the course around a dangerous area, or pulling up 15 minutes before the motorcycles were due at a ranch on race morning, trying to soothe tempers and talking the owners into allowing the race to go through. Sal also arranged many charitable efforts, from getting remote villages their own fire trucks that were declared surplus in the U.S., to getting a set of leathers and helmet to a boy in Baja who could dream of nothing else than to have his own riding gear. “Mickey and I didn’t have a set plan, but we knew we wanted to make it work,” noted Sal. “This sport has given me life-long friends, and I’ve stood next to the greatest racers in the world.” Vaya Con Dios from the staff of Dirt Sports.