Ivan “Ironman” Stewart
Ivan shares his racing stories, his time developing his signature GMZ tire, and what he loves doing today.
View the original article in the February 2018 issue here!
Story: Staff of UTV Sports
Photos: Shane Petersen
There are certain legends in the off-road community who have raced their way to greatness, then carried on their legacy by promoting the sport and putting a positive stamp on their career. Names like Rod Hall, Larry Ragland, Larry Roessler, Bob Gordon, and Ivan “Ironman” Stewart come to mind. All of these legends have promoted the sport in a positive light well after their retirement from racing, and they serve as a reminder to the humble beginnings of off-road racing.
Ivan “Ironman” Stewart is one of those legends of off-road who continues to promote the sport through multiple avenues, including through his long-standing relationship with Toyota, as well as other partnerships like the one you see here with GMZ Race Products. He also has his name on a Polaris dealer in San Diego county, California (It’s owned by one of his long time friends, Dan).
We recently sat down with the legend himself to talk about his past, present, and future goals in the racing community, along with his time behind the wheel of UTV’s and the development time he has into his signature GMZ UTV dirt tire. He might be old school when it comes to racing and his passion for always winning, but he is one of the most humble and down-to-earth humans we have ever met. Let’s get right to it…
UTV Sports (UTVS) – We have heard many times that you have been into racing and riding dune buggies your entire life…
Ivan Stewart (IV) – As long as I can remember I’ve had a fascination with motorsports. I loved any type of vehicle that I could compete with, whether it was a go-cart or a buggy. The competition was awesome, and I loved the wheel to wheel action. My wife and I bought a dune buggy when I was younger but couldn’t race it at the time – we had 3 kids and it just wasn’t the right time. So, I had a high school friend who wanted to build a buggy. He said that if I helped him build it and work on it then he would let me ride in it at the next race. He ended up breaking his leg right before a 300-mile Mexico race, and I ended up driving the buggy in the race and won! The next race came around and I think his leg was still broken, so I ended up driving again and finished second or something. Before long, he was letting me drive all the races.
UTVS – That must have been where you started getting your feet wet and building up your racing resume…
IV – I started building my reputation and eventually got into racing single seaters. Then I won the Ironman award, which was one of those big trophies; you’ve probably seen it. Then they started calling me the “Ironman”. I had a clean reputation for racing, and that good reputation gave me the ability to start attracting sponsors. I was one of the few people who had this opportunity to get full time sponsorship and focus solely on racing.
UTVS – Who were some of the first sponsors you had?
IV – I drove for Ford for a while, then Chevrolet and actually Cadillac for a little while too. This guy with the Cadillac agency loved off-road racing, so I drove for him for a year or so. Then, about that time, Mickey Thompson started putting on the stadium races. A friend of mine called me and said that Toyota was interested in having me drive a truck in this new race series. I said no at first because all they had was a four-cylinder motor and I was already driving big V8’s and everything – I didn’t want to step it down to these trucks. But, he convinced me that this was the right move. Turns out, it couldn’t have been a better move, and I’ve now had a contract with Toyota for the last 34 years.
UTVS – What do you do with Toyota these days?
IV – I don’t drive as much now, but I still do a lot of autographs and ride and drives for them. The last 4 years I’ve been doing the ride and drives out at the Stagecoach country music festival. I was getting bored just going around the course, so I started spinning brody’s and just having a good time with everyone. Pretty soon, they started asking me to come back and give rides because people liked it so much. Now, every year, I go back and give rides to everyone and spin brody’s all over the place. We gave 1700 rides in 3 days last year.
UTVS – That’s awesome, and it’s neat to see how you have branched out into the UTV world, too. As far as Ivan Stewart Motorsports, how did the idea come about to open up this Polaris dealer?
IV – It was really simple, actually. Dan, the owner, and I have known each other for years. Dan asked me, “Hey do you want to open up a dealer?” I immediately said, “sure!” Then, as Dan likes to say, I headed to Mexico and let him run with the idea…
UTVS – Did you have an idea of what you wanted to do with a dealership?
IV – I made it crystal clear that I didn’t want an everyday job since I still have my contract with Toyota and am still doing promotion things for multiple companies. But, I had no problem lending my name to the store and helping out when I could. I do their Father’s Day ride at the ranch (more information on this ride can be found on their website: https://ivanstewartmotorsports.com) where I lead the ride and have fun out there with our customers. In fact, we are looking for a bigger store. I’m a big believer in UTV’s as a product. I grew up racing and riding in VW buggies, and it’s too hard to get parts for them these days, plus they are slow (laughs…). UTV’s come with a warranty and readily available parts. You can bring a UTV into the dealership to fix it up and you’re back ready to go. I think there is long term potential for this market. I don’t think we’ve seen anything yet.
UTVS – Let’s get back to your racing days for a moment… Do you still own a lot of your race trucks? What about your memorabilia like trophies and such; do you keep it all, or?
IV – No, I sold all of the race trucks. I also sold every trophy that I had, all of them. You might understand why when I tell you… I built a beautiful log cabin up in the mountains with plenty of space so I could accumulate all of this stuff. I opened my ProTruck business up there, too. We built 53 trucks up in the shop that I had. But, I sold all of that and moved into a condominium now, without a garage. We have 2 bedrooms. I could have put all of the memorabilia that I had accumulated in 30+ years of racing in storage, or I could sell it to someone who has a restaurant or a private collection. Then, someone will be able to enjoy it all! Otherwise, it would all be sitting in storage scratched up and no one would be enjoying it. Shirts, hats, everything I had, I sold it all. So, now it’s all in restaurants, private collections, museums, all around the world, and everyone gets to enjoy it. I have some pictures, but mostly I cherish the memories that I’ve collected over the years. The trophies didn’t mean a whole lot – I mean, I would kick and gouge to do everything I could do to win the Mint or Baja. But, the next one was always much more important than the last one. That’s what keeps us all going is the adventure and the thrill of going after those race wins… I’d rather share the history and let people enjoy the memories along with me. I do have one Dust 2 Glory book, and that thing isn’t going anywhere…
UTVS – We hear you have a couple claims to fame when you were racing in the Mickey Thompson series?
IV – I had 3 claims to fame when racing in that series… I won the most Championships for Toyota, 11 in total. I won the most races. And, I had the most time in the penalty box!
UTVS – Too funny, we appreciate that good ol’ penalty box… These days, Robby Gordon’s Stadium Super Truck (SST) series is similar to the Mickey Thompson series. Have you ever been tempted to race in SST?
IV – Robby has asked me a couple times, but it’s not going to be something I do right now. I love going to those races and going on adventure rides still, but watching those races is the closest I’ll get to the track right now.
UTVS – When you were racing, how did you approach sponsorship? And what’s your advice for racers who are trying to get bigger sponsorship deals?
IV – Sponsorships are tricky. I didn’t go race other series if I didn’t have a sponsor or someone who was funding the race team, and the main reason for that is because you can never have enough money doing this stuff. You can always have a bigger motor, more shocks, more everything. When I raced gocarts, I saw too many people spending their whole paycheck trying to win one race. Racing was important to me, but it was never the most important thing in my life, like my family was. I was going to be smart about it, and I had my family to take care of first. So, at the end of the day, put your best foot forward with racing and be conscious of your sponsorship decisions. Patience is key; I didn’t just “get a full ride” with my Toyota deal. A lot of experience went into that. Being at the right place at the right time is also key – know when to take advantage of opportunities presented to you.
UTVS – That is some invaluable advice right there… Speaking of family, how do you manage the racing, travel, business activities, and everything else while keeping your family priority #1?
IV – I’ve been married 54 years now and my biggest thing is my wife has always been behind me – she supported everything I did in racing and continues to do so. We always got along well, and I always included her in everything. People/Sponsors always asked me if I wanted to go to an event someplace, and I would always say that I would, as long as my wife was welcome to go with me. She was always welcome, so I took her along all the time. And, when our kids were young, they would always come with us to the races. Actually, we had a helicopter 90% of the time we were racing, and my wife would be up in the helicopter the entire time. She was always following me along, and that was part of our agreement. In reality, she had the best seat in the house! In order to make it all work, we always traveled together and made the most out of our experiences.
UTVS – You should be known as “Mr Baja” with your extensive knowledge about the area. Heck, you still have a house down there. Should we all venture down there more often to go riding?
IV – Oh yeah, an off-road adventure in Mexico should always be on your list. Best thing to do is to go with someone prerunning for one of these races. Make sure they know what they are doing because you don’t want to get hit head on or something by another race vehicle. You have to be smart when you are down in Mexico – travel in a group and don’t travel at night if you don’t have to. Experienced people know what to do and when to do it down there. Go with them.
UTVS – We mentioned how technology has changed so much over the years. What did you have available when you were racing?
IV – (laughs…) My memory! I had to remember the entire course. Back then, I didn’t have a co-driver or a GPS so I was relying on my prerunning and knowledge of the area to remember the course. The actual course was marked, but not that well, with just ribbons tied to trees. Then you’d have the girls in town take the ribbons off the trees and put them in their hair, or you’d have the cows eat them off the trees, too. I say the 1000 and the 500 was as much of an adventure as it was a race. No one gets lost these days because of GPS; not so back then. You have to really screw up to get lost these days.
UTVS – That brings us to the all-important question of: would you rather be racing now or back when you did?
IV – No question I loved the era that I raced in and I wouldn’t change it for the world. Back then, it was all about the adventure, and that’s what I really loved about it! For me, and this started back in my buggy days, the thrill of adventure is what really kept me coming back to the races. I like winning, obviously, but the thrill of overcoming the fog, cattle, the obstacles, and the challenge is what kept me coming back. And, just like today, just because you had a lot of money didn’t mean you were going to win. I knew guys with all kinds of money who never won. You have to know how to prep and then take care of your equipment so you can get to the finish line. Not one corner or one bump is exactly the same in off-road racing. That’s what I love about it. The Indy 500 has had the same 4 corners for the past 75 years, not so in off-road.
UTVS – If there was one piece of advice that you could pass on to the next generation of racers, what would it be?
IV – One piece of advice, more than anything, is learning how to take care of the equipment. I haven’t ridden with a whole lot of people, but you have to learn to know the times when you are hurting the equipment. You can go real fast or even a little slower and be hurting the equipment, like when you’re on the throttle in the air or jamming the steering into a corner. Once I learned how to drive within the parameters of the car and take care of the equipment better, I started winning more races. It took me a long time to learn. Also, knowing where to pass is key. This comes back to prerunning and knowing where the best places are to pass on the course.
UTVS – So, essentially you are saying that racing is all about discipline and knowing when to go fast and when to not.
IV – Yes, you have to have the discipline to know when is the right time to charge and when is not. Just because a guy catches you doesn’t mean that you are going too slow. He could be going way too fast. You can’t be hammering it over 500 miles and expect the car to hold up every time. You might get lucky, but that’s not always the case.
UTVS – Prerunning a course is one of the most important things, and I bet you have some words of wisdom for us…
IV – The biggest thing with prerunning is to go with someone who also has experience and loves to prerun. Someone you are going to have fun with and talk through the ins and outs of the course when your out there. Together, you will better notice the little things, like little funny tree branches hanging out right after the little town; those are the places to pass or help you remember the danger spots. Even remembering the towns in sequence is really important – doing your homework is key even before the prerun. Experience is so hard to beat down there.
UTVS – So, you’re saying that if each of us went down there to race, you’d beat me straight up, no problem?!
IV – Of course, at least it would be really difficult for you to beat me just based off experience with the terrain and the area. Plus, I’d intimidate you! (laughs…)
UTVS – Was the game of intimidation strong before a race?
IV – Not really, I didn’t engage in that sort of stuff too often. One time, I had a friend starting behind me, and he came up to me before the race, looking at my rear bumper, and said that he was going to catch me and bump me. I then asked him how he was going to bump something that he can’t catch?!
UTVS – Of all the places you have been to in Mexico, do you have a favorite place to visit?
IV – Gonzaga Bay – it’s beautiful.
UTVS – What about toys down in Mexico, do you keep anything down there these days?
IV – I’m pretty simple down there these days, but I do have a six-seat dune buggy that I keep in my garage. It has a big V8 in it. I’m thinking about taking a UTV down there though, especially because my wife and grandkids can drive them.
UTVS – You’re right, one of our favorite things about off-road is that it’s a family sport, first.
IV – Yeah, no matter what you’re racing, trophy trucks or UTV’s or any other class, you see the kids and families out at the races and that’s what really makes it special. That isn’t going to change.
UTVS – Back to the vehicle that everyone sees in this article, you have a signature dirt tire made by GMZ Race Products.
IV – I’m really proud of this tire. Dan and Scott, who owns GMZ, have a lot of time invested into this product, and it has already been successful winning races. Back in the development, they asked what I wanted a tire to do, and I basically just told them that I didn’t want it to get flats! I wanted a more flat surface to the tire so that there was a bigger contact patch with the ground; better traction was key. The sharper the lugs the better they bite, so we made these tires incorporate that aspect. Having the lug run down the side was important too so we didn’t get any sidewall punctures. Again, probably the most important factor, especially in a UTV, is that they don’t go flat. That was the most important thing when I was racing – I didn’t want anything to stop me, especially when I was by myself. If I did get a flat when racing, the guys I just damn near killed myself passing are going to pass me the easy way back when I’m changing this tire by myself. So, I always thought, you can give me a tire that is basically bald, as long as it doesn’t go flat, and I’ll be okay.
UTVS – Did you incorporate a lot of your tire experience from the past into this tire?
IV – I used to go out with a tire manufacturer to do tire testing out in the desert. They would put different sets on the truck and let me drive the course to see which ones I liked better and why. That experience, along with my racing experience, led me to believe that I literally just wanted the tire to last, more than anything.
UTVS – This GMZ tire has already been winning races. Pretty cool!
IV – Yes, I’m really proud of how well its done already. And, we have 2 different tire sizes so far (30” and 32”) with more planned. We’re excited about those too. This tire has some great qualities, including a good ride quality to go along with the great forward bite and durability. This all goes back to taking care of the equipment to win races – if you have a tire that can give you good feedback and help you not beat up the car, then you can make the equipment last and win many races.
UTVS – Last but not least, what’s next on your agenda?
IV – I’m going to continue with the Toyota fun. They want to take us to the Chicago Auto Show and do another activation in Daytona this year. We’ll also take our yearly roadtrip/vacation later this year, which we always look forward to. It’s never about the money, it’s all about the memories you collect along the way!
UTVS – We couldn’t agree more! Enjoy your adventures this year, and THANK YOU for taking the time to do this article with us!
For more information on GMZ Race Products, click here!