An Interview with Sal Fish of Baja 1000 Fame

SCORE’s Sal Fish—legend that ignites the glorious
legacy of the Tecate SCORE Baja 1000 desert race

Sal Fish, the man with the driving passion, the effervescent optimism and the voracious vision to oversee the illustrious evolution of the legendary Tecate SCORE Baja 1000, sees desert racing as more than a sport. Ever the visionary, the most recognized person of all in the sport, views it as a way of life and has always applied the “greater good” philosophy to every aspect of SCORE International’s role in desert racing.

     Fish, SCORE’s CEO/President since soon after the organization was founded in 1973, has lent a helping hand to environmental projects like the Greening of Baja and Tread Lightly. He has expedited and secured donation of ATV’s, full-size off-road vehicles and ambulances to various Mexican agencies, distributed Christmas toys, computers and school equipment from generous racers to the ejidos, even helped a Mexican teenager realize his dream of owning a dirt bike, helmet and leathers. In one well publicized project, he arranged for a donated ambulance to be brought from Baltimore to a village in Baja California Sur--San Juanico, so small it doesn’t appear on many maps.

     Now on the eve of next month’s 45th anniversary of the granddaddy of all desert races, Sal Fish is as anxious and as intuitive as he was when he oversaw the first SCORE-sanctioned and SCORE-organized SCORE Baja 1000 in 1975. Now grayer at 73 with the years of wisdom baked onto his Italian skin like a fine artisan, Fish knows that he is the overseer of one of the world’s greatest motorsports treasures. This amazing adventure is much, much more than a race and it wouldn’t have achieved the status that it has in the world of sports without Sal Fish leading the way.

SAL SAYS…     “Without the SCORE Baja 1000, there just wouldn’t be any desert racing,” said Sal Fish, SCORE International’s President and CEO, which has sanctioned and produced the event since 1975. “The SCORE Baja 1000 continues to draw interest from all over the world and we now find second and even third generation racers appearing at the starting line with their family patriarchs cheering for their off-spring. This event continues to be the focal point of the SCORE Desert Series each year and to celebrate our 45th anniversary with a peninsula run will surely add another colorful chapter to the legacy of the SCORE Baja 1000. It has been and continues to be our privilege and honor to preserve this international motorsports treasure.”

ON THE HORIZON…     This year’s legendary desert classic, the final event of the five-race 2012 SCORE Desert Series, will be held Nov. 14-17 in Mexico on a brutally-rugged 1121.55-mile Sal Fish signature desert race course.

     With the rugged course traveling on both sides of the peninsula, the world’s most famous desert race will start in Ensenada, Baja California and finish all the way down the peninsula in La Paz in Baja California Sur.

     This year will be the 38th time in the first 44 years of the storied race that it has started in Ensenada and it will be the 19th time in has finished in La Paz. 

     It’s the oldest and most well known of all desert races, and it remains as the single most appealing accomplishment to a driver. Since 1967, the mother of all desert races has been run over the mysterious and majestic Baja California peninsula.

THE WORLD IS COMING     With over 300 expected entries for cars, trucks, motorcycles and ATVs competing in 35 Pro and 7 Sportsman classes in the internationally televised race, entries have already come from 32 U.S. states and 18 countries.  In addition to the 32 U.S. States, racers have entered from Argentina, Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Egypt, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Guatemala, Hungary, Ireland, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway and the US Territory of Guam. With just over three weeks before the green flag drops at 6:30 a.m. (Pacific Time) on Thursday, Nov. 15, late entries will be accepted up to race morning.

LIKE NO OTHER….     As the World Series is to baseball and the Super Bowl to football, the legendary Tecate SCORE Baja 1000 stands as tall at the pinnacle of the motorsports world today as it did when it began 44 years ago.

     This year’s historic 45th anniversary race will be held Nov. 14-17. It will start and finish in the heart of Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico and finish on the outskirts of LaPaz, Baja California Sur, Mexico. It will be the 45th anniversary of the race shrouded in mystery that continues to lure adventurers and manufacturers from across the globe who all share the dream to conquer the Baja.

LASTING LEGACY     However, the bottom line in evaluating Fish’s role in desert racing is the strategy he pursued to insure survival of SCORE International during 1981-82, termed by economists as the worst recession since World War II and now again since 2007 as the world faces yet another challenging economic time. Choosing between the needs of high-profile factory racing teams and grass roots competitors, Fish chose the latter as having the most trouble coping with the economy while still racing. The policies Fish developed turned out well. Entries increased; the sport weathered the first recession and is still growing as it battles through the current one.

     SCORE International continues to be the standard by which the sport is measured and to which numerous fledgling desert racing organizations strive to reach. SCORE International class and racing rules are the foundation upon which the sport started and upon which others continue to use for their organizations.

FISH REPORT     Fish, 73 (on May 2, 2012), who had been an executive at Petersen Publishing Company, was recruited by the late Mickey Thompson, founder of SCORE International, soon after Mickey started it in 1973, and in late 1986 the team of Fish, president and then-chief financial officer Ted Johnson, acquired full ownership of the company long associated with Thompson. In reality, SCORE had been managed solely by Fish for many years before that.

     The long path that took Fish to the top of the desert sport began on May 2, 1939, when he was born in Los Angeles. He was educated in parochial schools -- Transfiguration Grammar School and Loyola High, where he was class president three years -- and earned an industrial relations degree at the University of San Francisco.
     After graduation, waiting for an army induction that didn’t happen and not ready to start a career, he began working in his father’s auto repair business. Fish attended Rochester carburetor school, General Motors transmission school and Bendix brake school and was managing the family business.

     In 1966, he decided to take a job selling advertising for Petersen Publishing Co. That job led him up the ladder to the publisher’s office. In 1970, Fish was traveling the country attending races for Hot Rod when he met VW aftermarket parts manufacturer Joe Vittone, who eventually talked him into driving in a desert race in Baja California, Mexico. Fish and fellow Petersen employee Bob Weggeland started the race with no experience and no pre-run -- in fact, Fish had never even been to Mexico.

FLYING FISH     “I didn’t know what to expect,” Fish said. “I thought there would be a white line down the middle of the course. We had massacred our vehicle to put in creature comforts; we stockpiled food, spare tires and tools to work on the car. It was more an odyssey than a race, as far as we were concerned.”

     He recalled that most of the serious racers reached Lake Chapala in eight hours. Fish and Weggeland had driven 16 hours before they broke their transmission and they still hadn’t reached the Chapala checkpoint. Fortunately, one of Jim Garner’s mechanics stopped to help and towed them to Chapala.

     “We went faster on a tow rope behind the mechanic than we had been going in the race,” Fish remembers, “and when we got there I wondered why we bothered. I had pictured this hacienda with senoritas serving cold drinks, but all we found were some families living in shacks and two cars to lean on. The checkpoint was closed.”

     His humbling Baja experience behind him, Fish took the reins of SCORE four years later in 1974 and immediately began to make the organization and the sport more visible.
FISH TIME     Fish broadened exposure of the legendary Tecate SCORE Baja 1000 until it became the premiere desert race in the world, now covered by national and international television as well as journalists from a dozen countries.

     Fish developed TV coverage of the SCORE Off-Road World Championships at the old Riverside International Speedway and created a number of highlights that made it a unique spectator event, created the concept of “heavy metal” and “mini metal” divisions, pioneered a system of emergency medical response in the desert and created an independent review board to hear appeals by racers who have been penalized for rule infractions during the heat of competition. The SCORE Trophy Truck division, for high-tech, unlimited production trucks with upwards of 850 horsepower, was another innovation when he created the division in 1994.

     While experimenting to improve medical response times in the more remote areas of Baja, Fish enlisted the help of a Mexican organization known as the Rescue Hawks (Grupo de Rescate Halcones) at the 1989 SCORE Baja 1000. They covered race emergencies with every conceivable technology, including the transport of doctors by ultralites (motorized hang gliders) at night, when aircraft are grounded in Mexico.

     Another early decision that helped raise the stature of the sport came when SCORE joined with the late Walt Lott and Lott’s High Desert Racing Association (HDRA) to produce a combined championship series of races unparalleled in the world. Together, Fish and Lott organized the major manufacturers into an advisory committee, which served to recommend technical and safety rules to the organizers, assist with public relations and communicate to participants. The combined HDRA/SCORE series ran from 1985-1991.
     SCORE purchased HDRA outright, forming one organization in 1993.

     Fish also produced the monumental once-in-lifetime Tecate SCORE Baja 2000 to help commemorate the advent of the new millennium in the year 2000, running the legendary race down the length of the Baja California peninsula in Mexico--from Ensenada to Cabo San Lucas.

     In 2007, Fish produced the monumental 40th anniversary of the Tecate SCORE Baja 1000. Festivities began in Tijuana, the actual start was in Ensenada, Baja California, and it finished in Cabo San Lucas, Baja California Sur. 

THANK YOU, SAL     The rewards of the SCORE position are varied. Hanging in his Los Angeles office is the copy of a resolution introduced in the California State Assembly by Assemblyman Richard Katz of the 39th District. The assembly honored Fish for “contribution to.the sport of international off-road racing” and commended him for “his exemplary record of public service.”

     Fish was also honored in December 2003, receiving the inaugural BFGoodrich Tires Motorsports Person of the Year award for his many contributions to the world of motorsports. 

     Fish also brought SCORE to the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the U.S. Government in 2004 and 2005. SCORE provided significant logistical support for the ongoing DARPA Grand Challenge for autonomous robotic ground vehicles, a massive DARPA research project designed to assist the U.S. Military.

     In 2005, Fish was the first recipient of a new Off-Road Lifetime Achievement award presented by Advanstar Communications/Dirt Sports Magazine at the Off-Road Impact Show.

     In 2006, Fish was voted into the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame, headquartered in Reno, Nev., and in 2003 he was enshrined into the Baja Legacy Hall of Fame, located at Horsepower Ranch near Ensenada, Mexico. 

     In February of 2010, Fish was honored for the third consecutive year by the Mexican Federation of Motorsports. During an elaborate formal awards presentation in Mexico City, Fish received the prized Silver Helmet Award for the third time.

     In 2005, Fish was also honored with a special Community Achievement Award and Charter Life Membership by the Laughlin, Nev., Chamber of Commerce.

     Governments, Governors and Mayors from every area where SCORE has produced events have honored Fish with special commendations and keys to the city.

     A feature-length documentary, directed by Dana Brown, called ‘Dust To Glory’, was produced in association with SCORE International. Released in April, 2005, it is a tribute to the legendary Tecate SCORE Baja 1000. The DVD sales of the unique movie continue today and have reached record levels.

AMAZING FISH STORY     Sal Fish is one of four successful brothers. The others became an attorney, an executive with a large industrial firm and a sales representative for a large manufacturing company.

     Sal Fish has combined some of each of those family talents to build an unprecedented legacy as the premier race producer and owner of the world’s foremost sanctioning body in the history of desert racing.

     The world has seen and honored many icons over the years and Sal Fish is certainly part of that elite group of unique difference makers. Sal Fish has truly taken desert racing from……….dust to glory.

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