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Wheeling the Badlands: Ranger-Based Vehicles and Jeeps Explore Indiana’s Badlands Off-Road Park

Posted in Events on September 5, 2017
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Badlands Off-Road Park is a rare gem buried in the middle of Midwest corn country. Located on the outskirts of Attica, Indiana, the 800-acre venue makes use of an abandoned quarry and somehow possesses just about every type of terrain that exists in North America. There are frame-flexing sections of large rocks to crawl, shelved rock walls to climb, creeks to navigate, winding trails with hills, mudholes to play in, and plenty of sand to sling. In addition to the myriad of terrain offered at the Badlands, there are color-coded trails suited for nearly every skill level, from beginner to expert.

After a seven-year hiatus, the Rough Rangers Off Road Club (RRORC) decided to bring back an old event (coined “Chubfest”) in a familiar place—and we got the invite to tag along while they blazed the trails of Attica. Originally, the club was exclusive to Ford Ranger-based vehicles (RBVs), but as members moved on to different or newer vehicles (namely Jeeps), they were still welcome. After spending a day with the RRORC guys, we were reminded just how capable a budget-built RBV can be—and why the Badlands continues to be one of the hottest spots to wheel in the Midwest.

Matt Maier’s ’94 Ford Explorer Sport was originally owned by fellow RRORC member Jacob Griffin (aka “Griff”) and is just about as modified as a Ranger-based vehicle gets. The original 4.0L V-6 remains and is bolted to a C4 automatic, but an early Bronco Dana 44 with RCV ’shafts and an ARB Air Locker dwells up front, while a full-width Ford 9-inch equipped with a spool and Yukon axleshafts lives in the rear. For optimum gear reduction, Matt runs a BorgWarner 1350/1354 doubler transfer case setup, along with 4.88 diff gears. Traction comes by way of 37-inch Maxxis Trepador tread mounted on 17-inch Pro Comp Rock Crushers with Motobilt DIY beadlocks.
In just five weeks’ time, Alx Strong pieced this ’84 Bronco II together from the ground up. The mini-Bronco received V-8 power courtesy of a carbureted 302, and is backed by a Dana 44 up front and a Ford 9-inch out back. With a reputation for holding nothing back on the trails, Alx wasted no time getting his Bronco II airborne.
While it was thoroughly entertaining, the result of Alx’s wheels-up endeavor proved fairly destructive. Not only was the rear driveshaft twisted off, but the transfer case was destroyed and the fan clutch got into the radiator during the landing. Needless to say, a trail repair was out of the question.
One of the more serious looking rigs in the RRORC group belongs to Ann Gazboda (Ann is also known as “PQ”). It started life as a ’94 Ranger, but the only original components that remain are the 4.0L V-6 and M5OD transmission. Her far-from-stock Ranger sports locked Dana 60s front and rear, 40-inch Super Swampers, and full hydraulic steering.
With a “Driver doesn’t care!” sticker on board, we made sure we kept a close eye on Ann and her Ranger throughout the day. She didn’t disappoint, turning it over on the second set of rock walls the group came to. Thanks to campaigning a battle-tested and overbuilt rig, no damage was incurred during the topple.
Jason Specht hadn’t fired up his ’86 Ranger since the last RRORC rendezvous seven years ago, so he expected the worst when it was time to pull the extended cab out of the weeds. To his amazement, the old 2.9L V-6 started right up with a little fresh gas and he loaded it on the trailer. Here, Jason and his Ranger are in the midst of crawling up one of the many shelved rock wall sections in the quarry.
David Szoltysik’s Trailblazer was the sole Chevy in the mix, but that didn’t stop him, his wife Kelli, and his family from having fun. Of course, a little too much fun occurred here. After the Trailblazer started bouncing through a rocky section with plenty of throttle in the mix, the rear 10-bolt differential checked out in catastrophic fashion. Luckily, David had all the spare parts required to rectify the situation and they were back on the trail for Day 2 of the three-day wheel.
Every off-road park has that one trail, obstacle, or landmark it’s famous for, and for the Badlands it’s the two giant culverts found at the end of the park’s “River” trail. Often referred to as “the tubes,” the massive culverts pass under a dirt road and drop vehicles into a large pool of water. Thing is, you never know how deep the water will be. Here, a JK on 40s (driven by Tom Schnarrenberger) is fresh out of the tubes and navigating its way across the pond.
Jay Helm’s Bronco II leisurely crests one of the many hills encountered throughout the weekend. With the kind of gear reduction and aggressive tires most of the RRORC guys possess, a lot of hills could be crawled. The trickiest uphills came in the form of the ones located in close proximity to a creek crossing, where slick tires added to the traction-limited challenge of the climb.
Les Maier let it all hang out in the sand dunes. His homebuilt ’88 Ranger makes use of a Mustang-derived 5.0L H.O. and a built C4 automatic, and regularly competes in local mud drag events back in his home state of Ohio.
A dozen holes can be found at the park’s mud playground. They range from shallow to moderate, and deep to deeper. Back with a fresh rearend, Kelli Szoltysik wasted no time blasting her ’03 Trailblazer through some of the deeper holes. After digging out of this one, her husband, Dave, hopped out and made sure no water had invaded the Chevy’s cold air intake.
From swimming across the largest mudhole he could find to navigating the park’s off-camber rock sections, Richard Szoltysik put his ’17 Jeep Wrangler through its paces. In less than five months, he’s wheeled his four-door JK out West, back home in Indiana, and everywhere in between, racking up 13,000 adventurous miles in the process.
Tractoring through several mudholes was Anthony Jackson and his ’93 Explorer. The 197,000-mile ’Ex still sports the factory M5OD five-speed and axles, although the front Dana 35 TTB was fitted with an ARB Air Locker and an Aussie Locker made its way into the 8.8 rear. Tony relies on Super Swamper TSL Boggers to dig him through the goo.
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