CHOKECHERRY CANYON, N.M.--If you despair that even the measliest kind of motorsport costs more than you have got, take heart. In extreme rock-crawling, you can lose for just pennies a day.
Dan Dunaway's competition vehicle is a doorless 1989 Toyota 4x4 pickup that appears to have been rolled off a scenic overlook. With the exception of the three-quarter-ton axles, a heavy-duty transfer case, 35-inch tires and assorted bits of scrap steel welded to the frame, it's stock, right down to the wheezy four-cylinder engine.
Dunaway, of Mesa, Ariz., figures he's got $10,000 invested in the truck--where is not exactly clear. As his daily driver, the truck has traveled an amazing 294,000 miles, many of them up a rock wall.
"A lot of newbies think they can do this with just money," says Dunaway, "but money doesn't have a lot to do with it."
Dunaway is a pioneer in 4x4 rock-crawling, a sport that has in a decade grown from just a few Western-state survivalist kooks in radical Jeeps to many, many of them, organized by something called the American Rock Crawlers Association (ARCA). This weekend in September, 60 competitors have gathered in Chokecherry Canyon--didn't the Hardy Boys discover a haunted gold mine here?--near Farmington, N.M., for the final weekend of the five-event Goodyear Extreme Rock-Crawling Championship series. The course ranges over postcard-beautiful acres of honey-colored rock formations that funnel into the canyon's shallow floor. With spectators spread out over the dun-colored rocks, it looks like a recovery effort for a downed airliner.
This being the first year of the ARCA championship series, some of the finer points of competition have yet to be firmed up. Like rules. This explains why Dunaway's homely pickup is competing in the same class as Dave Hickman's "Big Iron," a 5,000-pound mechanical insect powered by a 450-hp smallblock Chevy, with hydraulic articulating suspension (Hickman can raise each corner of the vehicle 28 inches), four-wheel steering, four-link suspension a la stadium monster trucks, one-ton axles, pneumatic axle lockers, 44-inch tires. A six-figure gizmo.
Yet before the weekend is through, Hickman--a rotund music professor at Arizona State University--will blow out his rear-steering and radiator, flip over backward and roll downhill to the great amusement of the crowd. Dunaway's Toy negotiates the same hill with ease.
In the main, though, competitors field beefed-up Jeep CJs, TJs, Wranglers and Willys. Points leader Jeff Waggoner pilots a TJ Wrangler owned by Currie Enterprises, a California-based maker of extreme off-road equipment. "We left ours pretty stock," says owner John Currie, wearing a knee brace to support an ACL he tore pushing the truck over an obstacle. "Anybody can buy these parts off the shelf and be competitive."
In addition to competition sway bars, coils and shocks, lifting the truck a good 10 inches, Currie has added, aft of the six-cylinder motor and three-speed automatic, a twin-stick Atlas transfer case. If Waggoner's truck gets in a jam, he can disengage the rear axle, pull up on a rear-brake lever and pivot around a boulder, the truck dragging its rear wheels like a dog scratching his butt on the pavement.
With the 35-inch Goodyear MT/R's on beadlock rims, bolting the rubber to the metal--necessary since tire pressure is around 8 psi--the Warn 9,000-pound winch and a couple of decals, and the series-leading Currie truck totals about $45,000.
Noting the expense, Currie says, "There's a lot more competition than just a year ago." In the distance we hear the mournful sound of a Jeep endo-ing down a hill, followed by applause.
Waggoner's season-points rival is Chris Durham, a soft-talking Southerner from Travelers' Rest, S.C., and one of the few drivers from back East. Durham's truck, a CJ10 airport tug bought for $485 at an auction in Fort Bragg, N.C., is tricked out with the usual brace of Dana axles, Detroit lockers and lift kit (and a 400-hp AMC V8). But Durham's secret weapon is not his hardware but his 300-pound, no-neck friend and spotter Kevin "Moose" Nalley. Each team consists of a driver and a spotter, who directs the truck over and around the obstacles, stacks riprap under spinning tires and helps pull the vehicle with a web tow strap. Due to Nalley's peculiar physical gifts--the word "silverback" comes to mind--he can lift and move boulders the size of prize-winning pumpkins, jamming them under the truck, giving it something to climb up on as it clambers up an obstacle. In other cases, Nalley can dead-lift a corner of the two-ton Jeep to swing it in the right direction.
"He's like having rear-steering," says Durham.
Durham and Waggoner, who has his own beefy spotter, are competing for $5,000 in prize money put up by Goodyear, the series sponsor. Not everybody likes their rules-free recreation being turned into a money motorsport, but most figure the media coverage will be good for their cause: foiling the feds' tree-hugging restrictions on formerly open range controlled by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
"[Secretary of the Interior] Bruce Babbitt is the enemy," says Dan Boehmer, the spotter on Dunaway's team. "He wants everything closed down. I hope the series is going to bring support for four-wheeling protection on public land."
Somewhere, an Indian is crying.
The ARCA organizers have made some effort to cordon off vegetation to prevent spectators from trampling it. The rules also penalize drivers for running over shrubbery. This is all in the spirit of Tread Lightly. But with hundreds of people and scores of high-powered 4x4s in Chokecherry Canyon, it's like a herd of starving goats came through.
This is the enduring paradox of off-roading. It's wonderful to disappear into the backcountry, to get back to nature. But nature isn't quite herself where you run her over with a high-powered Jeep.