SCORE International head honcho, Sal Fish (left), is almost always smiling and a welcome sight as he greets riders at the finish.
Launching his eighth decade in glamorous style, SCORE International CEO/President Sal Fish will celebrate his 70th birthday Saturday at Dodger Stadium by throwing out the ceremonial ‘first pitch’ prior to the start of the 7 p.m. Major League Baseball game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the visiting San Diego Padres.
Based in Los Angeles, SCORE International is the world’s premier desert racing organization and Fish has led it since 1974, more than 34 years. SCORE annually produces five races, two in Southern Nevada and three in Baja California. SCORE’s flagship event is the legendary Tecate SCORE Baja 1000, the granddaddy of all desert races that actually started in 1967.
“This is really exciting to do something that I’ve never done before, I just hope I don’t throw the ball over the backstop,” quipped Fish on the eve of his history birthday. “I am honored that the hometown Los Angeles Dodgers would think of honoring me in this way on my 70th. I feel great and I have been so blessed to have so many friends and to do something that I truly love. Not too many folks can say that there office is in the beautiful desert-literally.”
Fish, 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.
“Sal Fish is synonymous with desert racing and he already has left an indelible mark on our sport and we look forward to sharing many more adventures on the desert with him and SCORE,” said veteran desert racer Rod Hall, of Reno, Nev., who is the only person who has raced in all 41 Tecate SCORE Baja 1000 events. “If it weren’t for Sal, there would not any world-class desert racing in Baja California and for that, as well as all of his other significant contributions to the legacy of our sport, we will be forever grateful.”
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.
“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 said, “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 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 class, for unlimited production trucks with upwards of 800 horsepower, was another innovation when he christened the division in 1994.
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.”
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.
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 at the Off-Road Impact Show in January.
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 2009, Fish was honored for the second time by the Mexican Federation of Motorsports. During an elaborate formal awards presentation in Mexico City, Fish received the prized Silver Helmet Award for the second straight year, becoming the only person in the long history of the award to receive the honor twice.
Fish was also honored with a special Community Achievement Award and Charter Life Membership in 2005 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.
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 organizer and sanctioning body in the history of desert racing.