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Tuesday, July 13, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Chuck Norris' Racing Son Isn't Just A Chop Off The Engine Block

Special To The Seattle Times

ERIC NORRIS WANTS TO BE KNOWN AS A SERIOUS STOCK-CAR DRIVER, NOT JUST THE SON OF A TV STAR. FANS CAN JUDGE FOR THEMSELVES SUNDAY IN MONROE.

He thrives on drama, percolates with peril. He manipulates mayhem, orchestrates it, makes his living on that ragged skirt of existence.

Surely nothing simple thrills Eric Norris.

Except making left turns.

"I like turning left," said Norris, a 34-year-old driver on the NASCAR Winston West circuit.

Norris, the son of Chuck Norris, the actor and martial-arts expert, coordinates stunts and directs episodes for his father's popular CBS drama, "Walker, Texas Ranger."

But as the television show wraps up its season Thursday and begins a 1 1/2-month hiatus, Eric Norris is free to focus on his racing career and Sunday's Coors Light 200 race at Evergreen Speedway in Monroe.

He brings his Jani-King/Prolong Ford to the 5/8-mile oval in seventh place in the Winston West point standings. Midway through the 14-race series, he sits seven points behind sixth-place Butch Gilliland, the defending race champion, and 111 behind leader Brandon Ash.

Norris has made a decided improvement this second season in Winston West races, countering rookie-year instability that left him with a 14th-place finish.

"All last year, we never had any continuity," he said. "We had different engines, different crew chiefs, different crews. This is the first year we've kept everybody together."

Three consecutive top-10 performances and a pair of 12th places have Norris convinced he could win the Winston West series championship.

"I think we can," he said. "We have that opportunity. Our real goal, though, is to finish in the top three."

Norris has won $36,232 in 1999 and $82,771 in 20 Winston West career races. Although he said he is not in a position to make a lot of money racing, he clearly regards driving as a second job, rather than a mere lark.

"In the beginning, maybe people thought we dump loads of money into this and we're there just to have fun," Norris said. "This isn't a hobby. Every day, I'm living this race team.

"I'm on the set 14, 16 hours a day, and I'm on the phone to (team manager) Matt Stowe maybe 20 times a day, talking about the car."

He said his famous dad attends races when he can, but he is not putting money into the racing operation. It's all sponsor-driven.

Eric Norris said the structure of the television and film industry, as well as the Winston West schedule, allows him to "buzz in and miss only a day's worth of work."

"I've been lucky enough to sneak away and test at almost every track," he said.

Norris, an Arizona State graduate, approaches races with the same intensity, that same attention to detail, he pays to the stunts he has performed in 100 or more motion pictures and commercials. It's innate, a quality he absorbed from his father, whom he calls "the most driven man in the world, a total workaholic."

But it was necessary to prove to his driving colleagues, at the start, that he was a serious racer.

Some of them might not have realized that Norris learned from actor Steve McQueen to ride motorcycles as a youngster, that he and his father teamed to race in the rugged SCORE off-road series in the 1980s, that he raced in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in 1997 and in Formula 2000 cars before that.

He also qualified third out of 36 cars in his first ARCA start at Texas Motor Speedway last year while helping capture racing footage to use in a special episode of his father's TV series.

"I want them to know I'm not going to take them out," Norris said. "I try to be a clean race-car driver, not just some knucklehead out there having fun."

He playfully says he'll keep up the double duty with racing and "Walker, Texas Ranger" until his wife (Stephanie) makes him choose. He said she'll vote for "the side that's going to make me the most money."

Until then, he'll continue to dodge disaster, each foot planted in a bold, brave world - and both on the accelerator.

NOTES

-- Butch Gilliland has won the race two of the past three years.

-- Only 161 points separate the first and 10th positions in the Winston West standings at the midway point of the schedule.

-- Brandon Ash of Umpqua, Ore., leads the standings, completing 1,099 laps out of a possible 1,100.

-- Past winners of the event expected to return are Sean Woodside (1997), Bill Sedgwick (1990, '92) and Mike Chase (1991).

-- This will be the first Winston West race this year for Auburn driver Kelly Tanner, the 1998 polesitter.

-- Steve Portenga is the only driver with a top-10 finish in each of the past five races. He's third in points behind Woodside.

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What: Coors Light 200, 8th of 14 NASCAR Winston West Series races

When: 3 p.m. Sunday

Where: Evergreen Speedway, Monroe

Distance: 200 laps (129.2 miles on the .646-mile paved oval)

Posted awards: $98,096

Schedule: Practice Sunday 10-10:45 a.m. and 11:15 a.m.-noon, time trials 1:30 p.m.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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