People Places & Racing News

SEMA Heritage: Sal Fish, James Garner at the '68 Mexican 1000

SEMA News—December 2012

By Drew Hardin
Photo Courtesy of the Petersen Archive

Making History in Mexico

 Car Craft magazine publisher Sal Fish shakes hands with actor James Garner.It’s 1968, and Car Craft magazine publisher Sal Fish shakes hands with actor James Garner. Garner, in the helmet and goggles, sits in a Bill Stroppe-prepped Ford Bronco, ready to race in the second National Off Road Racing Association (NORRA) Mexican 1000.

The first Mexican 1000 Rally, held a year before, attracted 68 vehicles of all kinds: dune buggies, pickups, motorcycles, VW Bugs, Jeeps, even a Citroën. Just 31 competitors finished the 849-mile race within the 60-hour cutoff time. But the stories of adventure that all of the participants brought back—along with a prominent article in Hot Rod magazine—generated a huge amount of interest throughout the high-performance community. The second 1000, where Garner and Fish were photographed, drew 254 entrants. And Garner wasn’t the only celebrity testing his mettle against the Baja desert. Famous racers, such as Parnelli Jones, Don Prudhomme, Bob Bondurant and Don Yenko, also gave it their best.

Garner was no poseur in Baja. Bondurant had trained him to drive for the 1966 film Grand Prix, and he was bitten hard by the racing bug. The 1968 race was the first of three Baja 1000s Garner entered—most famously in the Banshee, a radically modified, short-wheelbase Oldsmobile built by Vic Hickey.

Fish, too, was drawn back to Baja, though unexpectedly at first. A sales call at Mattel resulted in an offer to drive a real-life version of a Baja Bug that Mattel was building as a toy, and Fish wound up racing four times in Mexico.

“I really fell in love with the beautiful country and the sport, the whole idea of it,” he said. “We were doing extreme sports before there even was such a thing as ‘extreme sports.’”

Like everyone who’s raced in Baja, Fish has stories to tell. There was the time when the Bug broke down in the middle of a dry lake—in the middle of the night.

“We [Fish and co-driver Bob Weggeland] were really novices,” he said. “We had no clue what to do to get out of there. It was two or three in the morning, and we weren’t running very well, so there weren’t a lot of racers behind us who could help.”

And then, in the distance, there came the sound of a car headed toward them. It turned out to be Garner’s chase crew. They offered to tow the Bug to the next checkpoint at Rancho Chapala.

“They had, like, an 8-ft. tow rope, and there we were, 8 ft. behind them, choking in their dust, going faster than at any time we had been driving the VW,” Fish laughed. “I was scared to death.”

Fish and Weggeland survived the wild ride back to the Rancho, but it would be another two days before they returned to Ensenada, with their Bug stuffed into the bed of a turtle truck.

In 1973, Mickey Thompson began a campaign to get Fish to work for him at Short Course Off-Road Enterprises, or SCORE, Thompson’s new racing organization. It took months for Thompson to lure Fish away from his high-profile job at Petersen, and more months still for the two men to make the arrangement work. But work it did, and Fish later bought SCORE from Thompson before Mickey and his wife, Trudy, were murdered.

The Baja 1000 was slated to celebrate its 45th anniversary in November 2012, and Fish is still working enthusiastically to keep the Baja racing tradition alive. In fact, he was in La Paz holding race planning meetings when we caught up with him via cell phone.

Off-road racing has gone through tremendous changes in the past half-century. A Meyers Manx dune buggy won the first Mexican 1000 rally; now, million-dollar Trophy Trucks vie for the honors. Environmental regulations and other issues have closed or restricted much of the U.S. desert where off-road racing grew; SCORE’s events are now all held south of the border. And as wild and untamed as Baja is, economic growth is changing the landscape as developers open roads and resorts where once were just dirt paths to small towns and simple ranchos.

“But we still do the event at SCORE,” said Fish. “It’s still an adventure, still an odyssey. You never give up. That’s what you do. Whether you’re first or last, the challenge is to beat the Baja. That develops teamwork and passion, which is what our competitors have.”

That and a relaxed feeling you don’t find at other motorsports venues, he said.

“It’s about bragging rights, not money. It’s the people you meet, the stories you can tell. We have superstars in our sport—celebrities, pro athletes—but they’re accessible. When they get to Baja, it’s not like you’re at Indy and the fans are a half mile away from the VIPs. Everybody mixes with everybody, and you can still get autographs. That’s what excites me. The thrill is still there.”