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June 2011 Firing Order

Posted in Features on June 1, 2011
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Driving on rocks is a lot of fun. It’s also extremely challenging, and often unforgiving, and that’s probably why it tends to scare a lot of people away. That’s unfortunate, because with a little preparation and a bit of practice, anyone can become an expert rock driver, regardless of the type of vehicle you own. Besides having a properly built machine, a subject which we discuss in this issue, there are many personal qualities that are unique to the rockcrawling mind. Among these are a keen eye, the ability to think on the fly, and a boundless supply of patience. Rock driving isn’t for those with short attention spans, who are easily bored, or who lack self-discipline. We can’t really teach qualities like these, but we can at least offer a few basic pointers to make your run on the rocks a little more enjoyable.

Get a good night’s sleep. Anything that can impair your reaction times and hand-eye coordination can mean a bad day on the rocks, so it’s best to lay low and not pound too many tequila shooters the night before you’re set to wheel Pritchett Canyon. If this sounds like I’m speaking from personal experience, I’m only passing along what other wheelers have told me. That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.

When in Rome...Know the prevailing protocols for your particular rock run. If your trail bosses disapprove of dogs on the trail, leave Rex back at camp. Same goes for kids. Don’t roll down your windows and crank up the metal or rap on your stereo when your trailmates are trying talk on their CBs. These are good rules to follow on any trail ride, but particularly so with rockcrawling, which often demands intense concentration and a minimum of distractions.

Don’t be a hero. If you have a choice between taking an easy line and a difficult one, always choose easy. On trails like the Rubicon, there are plenty of difficult lines you can’t avoid anyway, so why push your luck if you don’t need to? Besides, if you’re truly an ace rock driver, your buddies will recognize your talent soon enough without you having to advertise it.

Learn to play chess. If you know how to play, find a buddy to practice with. Why? On a lot of the most technically demanding trailsthe Rubicon, the Hammersyou not only have to pick the right line to get over the obstacle immediately in front of you, you have to be able to position your rig once you get over so you can pick the right line to surmount the next obstacle, and the next one after that, often without the luxury of backing up; so anything you can do to develop a chess-player’s mentality, thinking three or four moves ahead at all times, will help you greatly in the rocks.

Have a spotter who knows what he’s doing. The only thing worse on a highly technical trail than having no spotter at all is having a spotter who’s an idiot, so make sure your shotgun-rider is an experienced navigator before you get to the trail head. Not sure? Ask him which verbal commands he prefers. If he answers turn left and turn right, find someone else.

If half a dozen spotters try to guide you at once...Ignore them all. Except for the person you absolutely know has been through this before, lots of times. He’s probably the guy on the trail who’s talking the least, and making the fewest hand gestures. Once he’s gotten you safely through the obstacle, thank him for his time, and acknowledge the interlopers with obscenities. Or not, if they look like they could beat you up.

Got a stick tranny? Sorry to hear! My colleague Sean P. Holman might disagree, but having a left foot that’s available for braking when you’re feathering the throttle to inch over a boulder, or when easing down a steep, off-camber drop, is so much easier than having to baby a clutch, hour after hour, at ultra-slow trail speeds. It’s not that you can’t crawl with a grindboxit’s just that having an automatic gives you one less thing to worry about.

Drive ever elegant! A true rockcrawler knows the wisdom of running an entire trail without spinning a tire, not even once. Besides being nicer to Mother Nature, a lack of tirespin equals consistent momentum, and minimal binding of driveline components. This is crucial on rocks, where things like draglinks, tie-rods and rod ends, ball joints and U-joints will be working overtime as it is. If you find yourself digging trenches with regularity, you’re either picking the wrong line, too hard on the throttle, running the wrong inflation pressure, wheeling with open diffs, or some combination of these. Who let you on our trail ride again?

Get into the Zen: Once you’ve gotten the hang of it, rockcrawling can be a kind of meditative exercise, where a lifetime of experience can be condensed into the climbing of a single ledge, where a few yards of trail can take hours to traverseand it only seems like a matter of minutes. Once you’ve attained a true state of Rockcrawler Consciousness, time stands still, the rocks rise up to meet you, and you and your rig become one with the trail, melding into the landscape in a marriage of machine and nature. All the other stuff you left behindlike jobs, and traffic, and freeway commutesshould recede into distant memory. At least, that’s the way it is for me on a good all-day rock ride.

On the ’Con, 1996: A rock well crawled is its own reward.

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