Author: Jim Ober Photo: Trackside Photo
Backstory: One of the first multi-vehicle factory teams in the sport of off-road racing was the 1979 AMC/Jeep race team composed of Ray Russell and co-driver Warren Baird, along with Don Adams and his co-driver Jason Myers. Adams was first introduced to off-road racing by entering the Truth or Consequnces race in New Mexico in the late 1960s. Ray’s off-road baptism was at the 1973 Mint 400, where he was surprised that everyone was “going so slow.” In 1976, Ray bought a new Jeep from Brian Chuchua, one of the leading off-road gurus of the day, and went on to win the Mint 400 that year. Of course, one has to recall that the Mint 400 during that era was run on the brutal racecourse north of Las Vegas, with the infamous Rock Garden that ate tires alive. As many racers of the day would remember, the numerous sharp-edged rocks just jumped out and attacked sidewalls, destroying countless tires. There was no such thing as a groomed or bladed racecourse for those early gladiators of off-road, and low finishing rates were the norm. Although there was fierce competition between the two drivers on the team, Adams recalls that everyone got along “fairly well” despite the rivalry. In the couple of seasons before the formation of the team, Russell was the dominant entry, winning the SCORE Mexican races and the Mint 400 on a regular basis. So it was negotiated that Russell’s shop in Visalia would rebuild and maintain Adams’ Jeep for the 1979 season, with employee Warren Baird serving as the chief mechanic for both. Of course, with this arrangement (and every similar arrangement since racing was invented) every time Russell bested Adams, complaints took on the flavor that Ray’s Jeep was getting more tender loving care and attention than Don’s. Regardless of the squabbles, the 1979 season turned out to be a banner year, with the team taking first and second in class at the Mint, and Don winning the Baja 1000 in class along with a season championship. Tension bubbled up over race prep and led to a meeting shortly after the Baja 1000 in January of 1980. Don and Ray hashed things out, deciding that crew chief Warren, who had been caught in the middle of things, would start his own shop and work as an independent maintaining both race Jeeps. A little less than two years later, Jason Myers took over crew chief duties for Don, but Adams was soon to go on to bigger and better things than the Jeep team.
Epiliogue: In 1982, Don Adams purchased Scoop Vessels’ BFG Blazer and, together with Malcolm Smith, campaigned the car in various HDRA and SCORE events with mixed success. Don kept the car for 30 years, and recently Cam Theriot purchased it and is restoring it to race specs. It is scheduled to run in this year’s NORRA Mexican 1000 with the late Scoop’s son Kash driving along with Don Adams.
In June of 1986 Jason Myers died in a plane crash. In 2007, Ray Russell was a long-haul trucker and had a fatal heart attack while driving, reportedly on Nevada’s Highway 93 near the old Mint 400 racecourse north of Las Vegas.
Warren Baird still runs his shop in Visalia, and is involved in the BFG Blazer rebuild with Cam Theriot.
Almost every high-profile racer from the ’70s and early ’80s spent their early days of racing in a Jeep. With the exception of Ivan Stewart, who started in buggies, Rod Hall, Walker Evans, Roger Mears, Rob MacCachren, Dave Ashley and Scott Douglas all started in Jeeps.
Vaya Con Dios from the staff of Dirt Sports