Sal Fish - The Legend & The Legacy
How One Man Set The Course For Desert Racing History
Some lives are destined for greatness. Sal Fish has lived such a life. More than a year into retirement after serving as the president and CEO of SCORE International, the rakishly handsome and fit 75-year-old reflected on his life, his astounding career, and what the future has in store for this man that has lived at a racing pace for decades.
We sat down to talk with Fish about the years that transformed him and desert racing. “I never had a plan, but when I did something, I did it with my heart and soul. I never considered myself a businessman. I became a mechanic and never had a plan. I considered myself a karate expert just to get up in the morning and defend SCORE and Baja racing. A lot of people wanted to change it,” said the legend, who sports a full head of salt-and-pepper hair and a matching mustache.
Born in Los Angeles on May 2, 1939, Fish attended parochial schools, including Transfiguration Grammar School and Loyola High, where he was class president for three years. Following that, he earned an industrial relations degree at the University of San Francisco. Describing himself as “not a good student and a prankster,” Fish headed for Army induction. When he learned he was 4F due to a kidney problem, he went to work in his father’s auto-repair business. Always motivated to learn more, Fish attended Rochester carburetor school, General Motors transmission school, and Bendix brake school, all while managing the family business.
"Life isn’t a one lap race.
– Sal Fish"
In 1966, Fish took a job selling advertising for Petersen Publishing Company, leading him up the ladder to the publisher’s office. While traveling the country and attending races for Hot Rod magazine, Fish met Volkswagen aftermarket parts manufacturer Joe Vittone in 1970, who talked him into driving in a desert race in Baja California, Mexico. The rest, as they say, is history.
Showing up with no experience and no pre-run, Fish, along with fellow Petersen Colleage Bob Weggeland, set out on the adventure nonetheless, even though he’d only been to Baja once in the early ’50s..
“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, a spare tire and tools to work on the car. It was more an odyssey than a race, as far as we were concerned.”
While most of the serious racers reached Lake Chapala in eight hours, Fish and Weggeland drove 16 hours before the transmission broke, and they still hadn’t reached the checkpoint. One of Jim Garner’s chase crews stopped to help and towed them the rest of the way.
“We went faster on a tow rope behind the chase vehicle than we had been going in the race,” said Fish. “And when we got there I wondered why we bothered. I had pictured this hacienda with señoritas serving cold drinks, but all we found were some families living in shacks.”
In 1973, Fish was recruited by the late Mickey Thompson, founder of SCORE International. Fish immediately began to make SCORE and desert racing more visible, broadening its exposure until it became the premiere desert race series in the world that is now covered by national and international television, as well as journalists from across the globe.
When asked why he was so successful, Fish answered, “What helped was my work ethic from the training at my Dad’s garage, the credentials from my work at Petersen Publishing, and the 20 years of help from my nephew Paul Fish, who was part of what made it all happen. I look back now at what’s taken place and realize that people will never understand what it takes to put on a race in Mexico. When the flag dropped, I had no more control!” That said, there are many stories from “the greats” and others who knew Fish about his passion and level of detail. “I found him pounding in stakes the night before the race,” recalled off-road racer Rod Hall, who holds the title as winningest competitor of the Baja 1000.
While many fight retirement after a career of such renown, Fish is ready for the next chapter in a life well lived. “I am not looking back. I can’t believe more than a year and a half has gone by. I have the time to work in my garden and other projects around our home, as I haven’t in the past. I had dinner with friends in the racing community recently and I could never have been able to do that before. I look forward to spending time with my wife Barbara and friends, riding my bike, looking for volunteer opportunities, and maybe helping the less fortunate.”
It’s clear that Fish made the careers of many of the sport’s top racers and welcomed all into the sport: those with deep pockets and those who scraped every penny together they had to participate, as well as individuals and teams that were talented or neophytes riding on a wing, a prayer, and enthusiasm. He became a legend, and this is his legacy.