Blame it on television. Beltsville realtor Warren Matzen and Laurel motorcycle dealer Tom Heyser will be the area's first starters in a major off-road race when they and 599 others compete in the $150,000 Mint 400-mile desert event outside Las Vegas on April 23.

Both drivers, admitting to being "around 40," have raced in pro sports car events. They have not competed seriously in more than five years. "I saw an off-road race on a TV sports show," recalled Matzen, "and decided I wanted to try it."

The pair will drive a two-seater dune buggy that is "really just rails and a roll cage," said Matzen. "It will reach 140 miles per hour in the desert. The engine is a modified VW of 134 cubic inches. Russell Jobe, who was second in his class in the Mint last year, built it. Tom and I are renting it for this race," he explained.

Ahead are four 100-mile laps, with the drivers alternating circuits. Buggies, motorcycles and trucks start 10 seconds apart. Seven pit sites are set up for servicing and fuel.

"Tom hasn't driven the course yet," said Matzen. "I got 50 miles in a few weeks ago. Of course, we'll practice before the race."*tSponsorship for the venture may come from an eye-lotion firm. The dust is extremely thick during the race, said Matzen. "Our helmets will be fitted with oxygen pumps to help us breathe."

Next Sunday's feature at the Summit Point, W. Va. road course is the 50-mile Showroom Stock Challenge. Six 30-milers for sports cars, modified sports cars and formula machines will precede it. Qualifying and 14-mile sprints are on Saturday, rain or shine both days.

Dorsey (Md.) Speedway opens its 27th season Saturday night, April 28, with races for late-model sedans, street-stock cars and Figure Eight machines over the quarter-mile dirt saucer.

The David Pearson-Wood Brothers split ended a team with 42 Grand National stock car victories in their seven years together. In five starts this season, Pearson has only one second-place finish.

Now 44, Pearson has 103 wins in the series since his first start in 1960. He has won more than $2 million in purses.

With the Wood team, he raced only on superspeedways except for the team's home track of Martinsville, Va.When their Purolator Mercury shows up for the annual Virginia 500-lapper there April 28, Neil Bonnett will be at the wheel.

Dollar-a-gallon fuel would be a bargain for top drag racers. They are now paying $15 a gallon for nitromethane at their national meets. Production is only 3,300 gallons a month because of the government ban on using nitropropane, from which the racing fuel is made.

Winners of the seventh and ultrasecret Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Sea Memorial Race were Dave Heinz and Dave Yarborough (no kin to Cale). They covered the Darien, Conn., to Redondo Beach, Calif., route in 32 hours 15 minutes, three hours under the old record, in a Jaguar XJS.

Because speed limits are ignored, the race has always been unannounced until completed. Foiling the police is as important as car reliability. Race originator Brock Yates and stuntman Hal Needham were the most innovative this year.

They fitted out their Dodge van as an ambulance with a real doctor on the crew and Mrs. Yates as patient. When stopped, the lady would begin groaning while the doctor railed at police because of his patient's condition. The fun ended in Arizona when the van quit. It and the crew arrived atop a flatbed truck.

British and American drivers are readying machines to regain world speed records this year. Briton Richard Noble is building a jet car for a try at Gary Gabelich's 622.4 miles-per-hour land speed record set in 1970.

Lee Taylor of Costa Mesa, Calif., holder of the water speed record until last year, has an aluminum rocket-powered craft under way to use in his efforts to surpass Australian Den Warby's mark of 317.6 miles per hour.