An Old-World Off-Road Competition
My four-wheeler is rolling east on one of Germany's famed Autobahn superhighways. I'm headed east through Austria, Slovenia, and finally, to Croatia toward the great European off-road adventure: The Croatia Trophy, held every two years in this now-peaceful region of the former Yugoslavia.
My elderly and well-used Mercedes-Benz G-wagen is motoring along quite nicely. If for some reason it stops doing well, there is immediate help in sight: In my rear mirror, I can see the Croatia Trophy's official technical service following me. It's Markus Ritter in a 4x4 Chevy pickup. Markus not only is the Trophy's technician, he's also restored the Army-surplus Chevy himself and mounted a big Ramsey winch in front. He will be the towing service of the Trophy. Competitors likely will need his help.
The Croatia Trophy is the brainchild of a bunch of hard-core enthusiasts from Auto Klub 92 Zagreb in Zagreb, Croatia. These guys, who have a long history of four-wheeling competition, aren't happy unless they're four-wheeling, and barely surviving, in very difficult terrain. The Croatia Trophy is their latest gift to the 4x4-enthusiast world in Eastern Europe.
Upon our arrival in the camp south of Zagreb, participants, all of whom have been invited by the Auto Klub 92 Zagreb, gather for registration. Each race vehicle is closely scrutinized by the competitors. What has been done to that Jeep? There is a Unimog chassis underneath! "Yeah,'' grins the owner, "and under the hood there is a Chevy motor!'' Well, everybody has done his own preparations, as this is an event of a very special kind.
This year, it is more international than ever before: There are two Wranglers from Poland, even an old Willys Jeep CJ-2A driven by a Dutch team. There are Mercedes G-wagens from Austria, Slovenia, and Germany, Toyota Hi-Lux pickups from the Netherlands and Denmark, Suzukis from the Czech Republic, Croatia, and Germany, and Land Rover Defenders from the Netherlands.
There are even two Volvo Lapplanders from Belgium and Denmark. These two extremely odd vehicles form the end of the knot of competitive vehicles for the next few days. Their handicaps are their considerable weight and the bulky dimensions. However, the crews enjoy taking part in the race. For six days, the 30 teams start at the camp in the early morning and drive-and winch-through the country till dark.
The order of start is determined by the ranking of the evening before. For the first day, the starting order is achieved by a qualifying run during which each vehicle will have the trail to itself, with start intervals of 10 minutes. This is meant to give all the teams an even chance. The trail, marked on the banks of the Dobra River, looks harmless in the beginning, but the grass covers wet soil and ditches. Some of the vehicles get stuck so deeply that their own winches cannot extract them, and they need the help of Markus' tow vehicle. In the end, it is not so much the question who still wants to go on, but who can.
There is just no way to know what each day will bring. You can make semi-educated guesses from reading the road book, which is a guide intended to help competitors find the trails. But as things get under way, an odd problem surfaces: The first day of the race, experienced contestants complain that they want more mud. Too dry means too easy. They blame the good weather. What was the point, they want to know, of bringing Unimogs with huge tires? The organizers try to explain. When they prepared the trails some months before, it was early spring and the snow was melting on the mountains. Things were plenty wet and gooey then.
The next day completely compensates for the first day's dryness. It is called the water day, and participants wear swim suits. The vehicles have their snorkels up to the roof, as part of this day's trail takes them straight across the Dobra. Water sparkles in the sunshine and the teams take refreshing baths while sitting in their race cars. On the opposite bank, gallons of water pour out of the vehicles, and up a hill they go, straight into the forest, out of sight of the press.
The press convoy is busy all day chasing the contestants, getting to a place of special interest-which usually means hard winching-to await the teams. Reporters, always easily amused, make bets on which team will be the first one to, and through, this obstacle. You can hear the engines from far, and each has a different sound. Which ones are the gifted mechanics among the owners, the reporters wonder. In the evening, the vehicles need a lot of care. Spare parts are getting rare, but these guys have the talent to improvise. A pin is missing? No problem, we cut a piece of metal out of a bull bar. When a competitor who is having engine trouble asks me which kind of motor I have got in my G-wagen, I'm immediately suspicious and increasingly watchful. My G-wagen has to get me home, after all.
Some of the teams give up. The others continue the fight. The last section is a night run, down a slope into a creek, across the ditch, along the creek till the early morning light. The rising sun sees a heap of muddy vehicles and tired competitors back in camp. Who has won the event? The organizers have to look at the route cards, sum up the time measured, and compare the performance of all the teams.
We pack our bags and tents and trailers and take the highway back to civilization. Check in at a nice hotel on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, and get ready for the awards ceremony and the farewell party. The restaurant overlooking the Mediterranean is a perfect setting for the last evening. At sunset, the teams are honored by the organizers, beginning with the last rank and ending with Heinrich Schwarz and his wife, Ulrike, who drove their Mercedes-Benz G-wagen to First place. Their prize? About $2,200, barely enough to cover the wear and tear to their race vehicle. But nevermind, the experience has been worth it.
You Can Compete, Too
The Croatia Trophy 2002 is limited to 50 participants. The entry fee is 1,200 Euros, at press time about $1,057, per vehicle with driver and co-driver. The price includes camp infrastructure, medical care, a night of hotel accommodation, the awards dinner, meals, and of course, participation in one of the most unusual 4x4 events anywhere.
Each vehicle must be operated by a two-person team-driver and co-driver. Both persons must possess valid driving licenses, and are free to change places behind the steering wheel.
Every 4x4 vehicle that is street-legal in its country of origin and has a valid insurance certificate is allowed to enter the race. Vehicles with a weight-total of more than 7,000 pounds are ineligible. Each vehicle is required to have a winch. It should also be equipped with navigating equipment, seatbelts, a spare wheel and tire, a jack, snatch-straps, tree protectors, extra fuel, drinking water, garbage bags, first-aid box and fire extinguisher.
If you're interested in competing or attending, contact Igor Boikovic, 011-385-98-283 888, e-mail: email@example.com