Author: Matt Kartozian Photos: Matt Kartozian
Imagine if you had spent the last 25 years as a professional racing driver. You have won in Baja, Dakar, short-course and stadiums around the world. You also have had success in pavement racing with wins in NASCAR, CART and more. On top of that you have designed and built innovative racecars and have a quickly growing energy drink company. What do you do next? If you are Robby Gordon, you start your own sport and become a promoter. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, off-road racing fans around the country were able to watch races in stadiums instead of having to trek out to remote deserts of the Southwestern U.S. and Baja. The Mickey Thompson Entertainment Group (MTEG) put on stadium races featuring buggies and trucks in iconic venues such as the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. The series folded in 1994, and for 19 years there has been a void in the Dirt Sports Nation for those craving stadium action.
Robby Gordon overseeing the creation of the track and the rebirth of stadium racing.
Return to greatness Robby Gordon felt that the void needed to be filled, and over a year ago began work to fill it with the Stadium Super Trucks series. He gathered members of the press and the off-road industry at the L.A. Coliseum just days before the 2012 SCORE Baja 500 to announce the new series. There was a dream and a few supporters, but there was a long way to go to make the new series happen. Gordon put on a show that night at the Coliseum with just one SST truck and a couple of Monster Trucks, and immediately afterward the Dirt Sports Nation began buzzing with anticipation for the new series. What would make Gordon want to take on such a monumental task? The answer is not clear, but from the beginning Gordon had a clear vision of what he wanted and how to make it succeed. “If you think about the automobile industry as a whole, 50 percent of the cars sold in America are trucks. On the aftermarket side for cars and trucks, 75 percent is trucks. If you look at off-road in general, not just the hardcore race people, people love the dirt. From the entertainment side, there is no automobile racing facility in the world as nice as the stadiums we will be racing in. Not NASCAR, Formula 1 or any other series. The fans get to sit in a nice stadium, comfortable seats and clean restrooms, no port-o-johns, they don’t have to get dirty and choke on dust,” noted Gordon. Many questioned his decision to bring in Monster Trucks as part of SST, but it was an easy choice for Gordon. “Kids love Monster Trucks. Kids bring their parents to the race track, and they will put on a good show.” Many doubted that Gordon could pull off the monumental task of starting an entirely new racing series. At press time SST had held its first event in Glendale, Arizona, at the University of Phoenix Stadium, normally home to the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals. More than 20,000 fans turned up for the first event and it was a big hit with the majority of them. The drivers are behind the series as well.
The big jumps at University of Phoenix stadium produced plenty of action and carnage.
VETERANS AND ROOKIES Only three drivers at Round One in Phoenix were veterans of the original Mickey Thompson series. Robby Gordon, who was also the 1988 series champion, Jeff Ward and Rob MacCachren who was a big fan of the new series before the first race started. Ricky Johnson also raced in MTEG, but missed the first round of SST, and will race later in the season. “It’s a blast,” MacCachren said. “We (Gordon, Ward and Johnson) witnessed it, felt it, the energy you get in a stadium like this, there is nothing like it. It’s incredible when you pop out of the tunnel and there are 50,000 people in the stands cheering. Obviously there are a lot of good memories from the MTEG days and a lot of them were the teams. If you are an off-road person you need to jump in and support this full bore, because we have not had this opportunity for a long time.” MacCachren also spoke about the MTEG Grand National Sport Trucks versus today’s SST. “Things have changed a lot since then, we now have double backflips and extreme sports, and Robby realized that we need to step it up. We had to build these trucks with more suspension and wheel travel so we can fly higher.
The buggies and TrophyKarts added a variety to the field along with additional heats of hard racing.
They are similar in size but have a lot more wheel travel and bigger tires, but the concept is the same. All these trucks are identical; we can tune a few things like shocks and springs, but not a whole lot of stuff. It levels the playing field, a guy who brings his buddies to crew can compete with the multi-millionaire. This is about driving not how much money you have.”
Prepping and repairing between races, a fleet of 16 Stadium Super Trucks kept the SST crew extremely busy.
There are currently 22 SST trucks, but only 16 are ready to race as six trucks have been wrecked and worn out in extensive testing since the first was completed last June. Each truck weighs in at 3,000 lbs., has a 600 horsepower V8 engine and 18 inches of wheel travel in front and 24 in the rear with each corner damped by a King coilover and bypass shock to control the motion of the 35-inch tires. Gearboxes will vary between a two- and three-speed depending on the track. The crew at Robby Gordon Motorsports in North Carolina can now build a complete tabbed SST chassis in two and a half days, and they expect to be able to produce a turnkey truck in just over three days in the near future. Being able to build more SST trucks quickly is critical for Gordon’s big plans for the series as he adds more drivers.
Arie Luyendyk Jr. has been the unofficial crash tester for the series, totaling two trucks. “We have six trucks that we have just destroyed in testing,” said Gordon. “Arie has put a few dents in two of them. He has totaled a truck, its diagonal in the middle. But it’s no problem, now I know that you can stuff it into the face of the landing on a crossover jump and walk away. He did it twice!” Luyendyk is a rookie to off-road racing, but he is hooked as well. “I have never jumped anything in my life, I have flipped in an Indycar before, and it is never fun, but this is a blast. I know it’s going to be an uphill challenge for the first few races, once I get a little experience under my belt I will be able to contend.” Luyendyk also spoke about the difference between crashing an off-road truck from 20 feet in the air to crashing an Indycar at over 200mph. “The risk is a lot higher in an Indycar, but I feel the truck is very safe. I have crashed as hard as you can in an SST and I walked away. I broke a rib while testing in Charlotte, but now I am good.”
SST series totaling one truck and banging up a few others, but continues to have fun along with being a favorite among female fans. Justin Lofton is no stranger to the Dirt Sports Nation as he is a Class 1 regular driving in desert races in addition to competing in the NASCAR truck series. “Coming from the NASCAR side I love racing in front of a lot of people on small tracks, Bristol and Martinsville are my favorite races. To take that, put it in a stadium with a roof and 20 badass trucks out there is going to be a great show. It’s what off-road racing needs, a crowd that is not normally exposed to off-road racing somewhere where they can see it. They are going to become fans. It’s going to be great for the sport all around.”
While some scratched their heads at the inclusion of Monster Trucks, Gordon correctly points out that kids absolutely love them and they did put on a great show taking on the same track as the rest of the SST field.
BIG MONEY While a huge budget does not guarantee a win in SST, a fair amount of money is required to race. Gordon and SST own all the trucks and each driver buys what Gordon calls a franchise in SST. Basically they rent the truck for the season. While the entry price might seem steep, the payouts are huge as each race pays out $60,000 in cash ($40,000 for the winner) and the championship pays a cool $500,000. In addition to the huge prize money, the series will hit some big venues this season. Of course the series will appear at the L.A. Coliseum, home of the first MTEG stadium race, but they will also test the home turf of some of the NFL’s largest teams with visits to Qualcomm Stadium, Soldier Field, Cowboy Stadium and there is even an international event planned for Mexico City in August. While Gordon is the series promoter and owner as well as being a driver, he wisely hired USAC to be the sanctioning body and actually run the races. USAC has a long and successful history as a sanctioning body, and currently runs the TORC series and the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb among other events. They have the knowledge and experience to run the events, eliminating the potential conflict of interest with Gordon racing. Each round of SST will feature a race program of Monster Trucks, Super TrophyKarts (450cc), Super 1600 buggies and, of course, Stadium Super Trucks. All put on a good show for the fans in attendance at UOP stadium for Round 1 of the series in Glendale, Arizona. The kids loved the Monster Trucks as expected, and the TrophyKart kids are fearless, as demon strated by the many crashes and, in particular, Broc Dickerson who lawn-darted while landing the table top and went end over end four times before climbing out of the kart unscathed. Eddie Tafoya battled to the last lap with a broken upper A-arm in his 1600 buggy while holding off Rob Martensen to take the win.
Rob MacCachren continues to prove he can drive anything with an engine and wheels taking the first ever Stadium Super Trucks race win.
MAC ATTACK In SST it seems fitting that Rob MacCachren, a veteran of the final year of MTEG stadium racing, would take the first win in the history of SST out of a field of 12 trucks. MacCachren smoothly moved through the pack from a sixth-place start and then just cruised to the checker with his signature driving style. MacCachren was all smiles and full of thanks at the finish. “I’m so thankful to Mike Jenkins and Traxxas for giving me the opportunity to drive this truck, and to Robby Gordon for having the dream of bringing racing back to the stadiums. I think it went off really well. There was a ton of work by the guys at SST, they have worked so many hours, they deserve big bonuses and raises and a couple of months off. Robby is a go-getter and we all appreciate that. The trucks were prepared awesome and the crew did a great job getting them tuned. It’s really all about the driver and getting your setup right. I can’t say enough about Robby and all his people who put in countless hours, and we don’t even know who they are.” While the night went well it was not without problems. There were many delays to right rolled racecars on the course, but after the race Gordon was quick to address the issues. “I’m happy with it, it was a good event. Nobody got hurt, which is the biggest thing. These are the biggest jumps ever in stadium truck racing. I wish we didn’t have as much carnage as we did. I’m not worried about fixing the cars, it’s about putting on a good show for the fans. I want some clean racing, we are going to have to figure out how to get the cars turned over faster. The biggest thing is that we got it done. People now know that we are real. We ran about a half hour late and I’m a bit disappointed by that because I want to do a great job for the fans. If we have too many wrecks and rollovers, that is a problem for the show. The other side is these cars are hard to drive. I wanted to put it in the hands of the drivers, but I am going to need the drivers to realize they have control of this thing. They have to be smart and not over drive it because slow is fast. I’m pleased with all my guys and they just killed it. If you knew the amount of hours and work that went into getting this event done and making it happen, it was a huge effort.” If you think Gordon will be content with just running SST you would be wrong. Despite an already full plate of work, Gordon has even bigger plans for 2014. He recently sold his Dakar Hummer team for over $5 million. Now that he knows people will pay a premium for an upscale off-road car, he plans to build and sell what he says will be the Bugatti Veyron of off-road vehicles with obscene amounts of engineering, power and performance, for about $1.5 million. And finally, in true Mickey Thompson fashion, Gordon has plans for a brand-new desert racing series in 2014. Gordon was in on the bidding to purchase SCORE International from Sal Fish, but was outbid by current owner Roger Norman. So instead, Gordon plans to have his own four-race series in Baja, Mexico. “If you think SST was good, just wait to see what I have planned for Baja.”