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Real Men... Are Off-Road Heroes

Posted in Features on January 1, 2013 Comment (0)
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Contributors: Andrew Schuth

“Did you hear that?! Ivan Stewart said that out of all the drivers he’s ever driven with, I’m in the top one percent! And if he had to do a Baja race right now, he’d be my co-driver! The biggest person in the sport said that about me!”

Let’s back up about three weeks.

When last we met, I introduced you to Andrew, a “Real Man trainee,” who seemed to be losing touch with his masculine side. You know how it goes: Boy meets Girl, Girl destroys Boy, Boy cheers himself up by watching Steel Magnolias. To make the crying stop, we’re spending each month introducing him to “Real Men” (and, yes, sometimes women), with the hope that their qualities, skills, views on life, career paths, and passions will help him rediscover his own manhood.

Believe me, a “man”-tervention was in order, stat.

Unfortunately, I stat-ly discovered my “man” speed-dial did not exist. I did the next best thing and decided to run with the first male email in my inbox. Andrew. Subject line: “See ‘The View’? That Barbara’s on Fire!” On to the next one. Cappa. He was four-wheeling that weekend and couldn’t help. Then it occurred to me that Real Men four-wheel, and Andrew had never driven off-road before. And since Four Wheeler is nearly 99 percent about that, it made sense to immerse him in our world. Plus, I think lately he’s been spending more time on the color scheme of his outfits than I do; a little dirt on the monochrome could possibly do some good.

This isn’t to say a 4x4 is a foreign concept to him; before the Prius, he had a Grand Cherokee. But, if the numbers were true, that most 4x4s are owned by people who never shift into 4-Lo, then Andrew was just another statistic. I suggested we start this stage of Real Man-ing him up by taking an off-road driving class.

Him: “A beginner’s class?! A Real Man doesn’t need a beginner’s class.”

Me: “OK...how do you put a truck in to four-wheel drive?”

Him: “I don’t know.”

Me: “OK...what does this hand symbol mean?” I made a spotter’s closed-fist sign for stop.

Him: “It’s like rock, paper, scissors, so that means rock ahead.”

And with that, we climbed into a truck of Real Men, a ’12 Toyota Tundra CrewMax, so that he could take an off-road driving class.

“Getting Started Off-Road Driving & Safety Clinic” is by far the most popular driving class offered from Badlands Off Road Adventures (www.4x4training.com). President Tom Severin greeted us in the parking lot to first put our truck through the standard United Four Wheel Drive Association’s safety checklist, then we duct taped our names to our chest and joined the other students in a classroom to learn wheeling basics via slide show, hands-on, and Q&A. Among those basics: How four-wheel drive works. Always take a buddy. Bring water. This is a tow strap. Sidehills. Rocks. Mud. Sand. Snow. Traction. Momentum. Clearance. I leaned over to look at the notes Andrew had been taking. “I think I need a skidplate for the Prius.” Also: “PSI, bitches.”

The hands-on section included a parking-lot demo to help understand how far ahead of your vehicle you can actually see while on the trail. But what was most interesting was the Q&A. Tom asked things like, “What’s your biggest concern about driving off-road?” (“damage to an expensive vehicle,” “rolling,” and “stuck forever”), but it seemed to me a bit like a couple students were focused more on which upgrades they would need rather than the driving techniques. One person in particular had a brand new JK and was already talking about swapping out gears, throwing on bigger tires, and pondering how much to lift—this, before he’d even driven the Jeep off-road to learn its—and his—weaknesses. In case you wondered, the guy with the Subaru Forester had no questions.

If you read last month’s Doomsday-themed “Are You a Real Man?” you know Andrew created a (bottled-water) drinking game around every mention of “salad” during our edible-plant survival course. This time, it was based around “locker,” which was another upgrade the JK owner was debating, as in whether to go with air. It was at this same moment I discovered Andrew’s threshold for classroom instruction was about 23 minutes and we were at the four-hour mark. He’s a doer, not a sitter, and was anxious to put his new-found knowledge to the test.

As if on cue, Tom had the group of Jeeps, the K5, our Tundra, and the Forester assemble for departure. He told every student to first look underneath their rig for the lowest hanging part, like the diff, so they would have awareness and not whack it. As Andrew and I got into the truck, I immediately asked, “Did you check for your lowest point?” “No.” “You’ll find it when you hit it?” “Yes.” Great. Next he’ll be saying, “That’ll buff right out.”

For the next two hours, we drove hillclimbs, descents, rocks, ruts, and off-camber roads, first with a spotter on a training course, then on an actual trail ride. Tom gave tips like “control the throttle for a smooth delivery when in 4-Lo. The extra torque and power take time to adjust to. I see a lot of on and off of the throttle initially instead of a smooth steady flow with power increased as needed” and “be aware of the front and rear tire positions.”

Andrew was proving to be a natural. He was thoughtfully picking the right line to compensate for the long wheelbase, delicately twisting the tires from side to side on hillclimbs to keep crawling, and taking obstacles at the perfect angle, coaxing the truck up and over without a bang. If this were a ballet, he would be a smooth, graceful dancer. Thankfully, it was not a ballet so he was not in tights. The other drivers also did extremely well; even the Forester managed to keep up with the group, despite hammering down almost always being the only option.

When the day was done and everyone was airing back up, that state of camaraderie familiar to a four-wheeling excursion was alive and well. We’d spent the day with Real Men who taught us that trying something new and breaking out of your comfort zone can lead to newfound courage and self-reliance. And the guy in the Forester demonstrated that a Real Man never gives up.

But then it happened. Andrew turned to me and asked, “Remind me the point of all this—why is four-wheeling fun?”

Hmmm. That was unexpected.

As we talked further, he explained that worrying about possible body damage took away from his enjoyment. “Although I got more comfortable driving, I didn’t want to risk trashing the truck. I can’t ever imagine taking a truck out on a trail and doing this for fun. And, I wasn’t challenged.” Also, the pace was too slow to maintain his interest.

That got me thinking about how there are really two different types of off-road enthusiasts: those who want to go slow and those who want to go fast. When I suggested desert racing instead, he perked right up. And since this series of stories is about Andrew learning to become a Real Man from Real Men, I knew exactly the one to call: Ivan Stewart.

Andrew may be new to the off-road world, but he knew exactly who Ivan was. “It’s Ivan Stewart! He’s Ivan Stewart! The guy is a legend. I used to watch footage of him racing Baja. He did all the progressive stuff.” Also, Ivan had the number one arcade game in the nation in 1989, “Ivan ‘Ironman’ Stewart’s Super Off-Road,” so even if you’re not impressed with the podium, top that.

Andrew and I headed to a secret desert location to meet Ivan for a driving lesson. It started off with Ivan behind the wheel, Andrew riding shotgun, and a budding bromance in the passenger seat next to me:

Andrew: “My dad’s a college professor and one of the smartest men I know, and he always told me to study hard and learn from the best. So, I want to do that with you.”

Ivan: “Well, in off-road racing, you have to use every bit of your skills to get out of a situation; you have to analyze very quickly. It’s what attracted me to off-road racing more than the actual racing.”

Andrew: “I’m very analytical, too. The racing appeals to me for the adrenaline rush. It’s being in control and out of control.”

Ivan: “I always had a feel for being very competitive.”

Andrew: “Yeah, I try never to lose at anything. But I don’t mind losing to get better.”

Ivan: “You and I are a lot alike that way. And for me, it’s not about loving winning as much as I hate losing. Anyone can make up an excuse for losing—‘Oh, I would have won, except...’”

Andrew: “Right. And it takes a lot to get me motivated, because it takes a lot of effort to say, ‘I’m going to dominate this.’ I want to be the best at it.”

Ivan: “You know, I too have a little bit of a lazy streak that I’m not real proud of.”

Andrew: “By the way, I didn’t like rockcrawling because it’s so slow. It’s so boring. OK, you’re climbing a rock.”

Ivan: “That makes two of us.”

And with that, Ivan hit the ground running, taking us over a fire road complete with whoops, ruts, and rocks, all at speed and all the while explaining how when he started racing in the ’70s, there was no GPS, which forced him to make memorizing courses—you know, like, 1,000 miles—part of his training during the race’s two or three preruns. “There wasn’t a sign up to tell me what to do or where to go, or that there was a ditch, rock, or dangerous spot. I needed to create something in my head to help me remember.” For example, there was that big rock Roger Mears hit one time, so Ivan never forgot it. “The trick is to remember the danger spots where you can really get in trouble and get hurt. If you go over a hill and there’s a big tree, you remember where that tree is.” On our route, he pointed to a distinct rock in the road, an out-of-place bush, and other items Andrew or anyone blasting through the desert should become aware of to avoid breaking their truck or getting lost.

He also explained the importance of tire placement on rocky roads, and gave instruction on left-foot braking. “All you’re doing in racing is balancing the weight of the tires. The reason left-foot works better for off-roading is because you can load the suspension. In other words, if you just mash the throttle it brings the suspension down and as you release it, it releases the front end. You want to miss the rocks, but if you’re going to hit a rock, you want to make that tire as light as you can.” You can also “make it light” by turning the tires; the combo of braking and turning the tires at once takes even more weight off.

Ivan also had insight about how changes to the color of terrain can speak to an obstacle ahead. As we headed toward a ditch he pointed to a dark spot, “which is probably there because water ran through here and it will have made a little bit of a ledge.” He was right.

Turns out it’s not really about the competitors. “You race the terrain.”

Interspersed with the instruction was a glimpse into Ivan’s personal life. He was born in Oklahoma, and his family moved to California in the mid-’50s. He met his wife when they were in high school and they’ve been married 48 years. He worked in construction before making the switch to racing. He and his middle son started an electric-bicycle company a couple years ago. He has become an avid ballroom dancer.

Then it was Andrew’s turn to drive. Recall the route we just took, Ivan told him. He threw the truck in gear, hit the gas, then proudly announced, “Left on this road.” Fail. But aside from that misstep and bottoming-out a couple times, he quickly caught on, telling Ivan, “I was analyzing what you were doing when you were driving. I was watching you the whole time, like when you were picking a line and what you were keeping your tires on.”

“Good, but probably the first thing people get stuck in is the sand,” noted Ivan, as Andrew hit sand and instantly dug the tires in deep, then tensed up. An Ivan secret? “You have to relax your mind in order to relax how you’re driving. You’re working too hard at it, almost holding your breath. Relax.” Ivan the Instructor then forced Andrew to do what he said he does best: analyze the situation. A deep exhale, a moment of thought, and a shift into 4-Lo, and Andrew he was back in the race. “It just takes practice,” Ivan assured him.

Another mistake Ivan sees drivers make? “Thinking you want to go fast because you don’t want anyone to think you are slow. That’s the ego in you. You have to have confidence and a cockiness, but it has to be controlled cockiness.”

When Ivan talked about his goal to always beat Parnelli Jones, it wasn’t a cocky statement; it was just him talking about one of his heroes, and how in general you want to find people who are the best of the best and then aspire to be like them—in every aspect of life.

“If there was any Real Man, Parnelli was it. He could race on-road, off-road, dirt, asphalt, uphill, downhill—he was on the pedestal, and still is today. My goal was to do as much as he did. In my mind, at least, I beat him. Same with Walker Evans and Mickey Thompson.” You see, even Ivan Stewart has Real Men in his life who’ve have helped him be a better man, too. Course, he just happened to become an off-road hero himself in the process, a label he’s modestly uncomfortable with. Meanwhile, Andrew began unmodestly repeating to me, “Ivan Stewart said that out of all the drivers he’s ever driven with, I’m in the top one percent!” Confidence or cockiness? Hell, when Ivan Stewart tells you that, both are allowed.

Ivan’s final words of wisdom to Andrew were, “No matter what you commit to, follow through and you will make it happen. Do it to the best of your ability, then go to the next challenge. Keep challenging yourself and keep learning.”

Since Ivan and Andrew had bonded so well during their day together, it seemed only fitting that they should share one more characteristic: a nickname. I asked The Ironman—who has been called that since the late ’70s, when Valvoline was a sponsor of SCORE and awarded the Valvoline Ironman to anyone who could drive the entire Baja 500 or 1000 alone. He won the first three—what he thought Andrew’s should be. He considered this for a few minutes.

“Mr. Confidence,” he finally said. “He’s a confident driver, but also realizes he’ll make mistakes. And that’s the thing about confidence: knowing your limitations.”

And with that, we began to part ways. But Ivan suddenly had a thought. “You know, you should try Wide Open Excursions. It’s like the next step in off-road racing—the most economical way to do an off-road race.” Mr. Confidence was already dialing the airlines before we made it back to our truck.

Wide Open Excursions (www.wideopenbaja.com) is this totally cool concept in which you get to drive an actual race truck. You can do one of the guided tours, lasting anywhere from three hours to three full driving days. But don’t let the word “tours” throw you; it’s you alone or with a co-driver, GPS, a radio, and a guy in a truck ahead of you, out of eyesight, relaying coordinates for turns. It’s just you, the truck, and the open road. Or, you can actually race. “Our arrive-and-drive programs include a fresh race car, designated crew chief, pit crew, and chase crews,” said Brent Fenimore, VP and Managing Director of Wide Open Excursions. “We offer the Baja 1000, which includes everything for a six-man driver/co-driver combination, except getting into and out of Mexico, for $85,000 per vehicle, or the HDRA Fireworks 500 in Reno for a four-man team at $17,500 per car. The shorter races in the U.S. are approximately $5,500 per car.”

Wide Open locations are each comprised of 102,000 acres of private land in Cabo San Lucas, Baja; Ensenada, Baja; and Reno, Nevada. Andrew and I opted for the latter and a day trip.

After watching a safety video and getting an overview on how to operate the truck, what the switches were for, and which gauges were most crucial in this terrain and heat, we suited up with helmets (complete with radio inside) and got harnessed in. Andrew would be driver and I would be co-driver. We had talked to Ivan about whether he preferred driving solo or with a co-driver. He preferred solo. “I really never wanted to ride with someone or drive with somebody else because I didn’t want them to let me down or vice versa, especially when I was in good shape,” he explained. “Not only that, I would hate to get out but still felt like racing.” However, Ivan also stressed the benefits of a co-driver, mainly “having one so good, you’ll have respect for them and listen because they aren’t in the ego that you’re wrapped up in since they aren’t driving. So, they can slap you on your leg and say ‘slow down.’”

As his speed increased while getting more comfortable with the terrain and the vehicle, I’ll admit I did slap Andrew’s leg one time. But, The Ironmini was definitely in his element and a capable driver. Reacting quickly to unexpected turns, avoiding rock piles, sliding sideways, blasting around a short course, jumping the truck—Andrew no longer found being off-road boring. Even having to take three tries to get up a steep hill didn’t bruise his ego. “I knew he’d take to it like a duck to water,” Ivan later told me.

Two things I’ve admired about Andrew since I’ve known him are also the things I think are the foundation of any Real Man: having drive and also that confidence Ivan spoke of. “I get those from my grandfather,” Andrew told me on the flight back. But then he became quiet. Ivan had said the number one thing to be aware of when racing is what’s making you physically and mentally tired so that it wouldn’t hurt your competitive edge.

But he said that wasn’t it.

“I thought a lot about Ivan today and what he said to me and his beliefs. He reminds me in many ways of my grandfather, who would tell me the same things.” Howard had passed away in 2005, and Andrew was extremely close to him. The void was palpable. Although Howard and Ivan were not remotely of the same age, there were definitely parallels, and they shared many traits Andrew has spent his life trying to emulate.

“My grandfather was an amazing person, who was very confident that he didn’t have to impress anybody, and he was talented at what he did. And he found my grandmother, who was the love of his life,” Andrew reflected. “He worked very hard to reach his goals and I think he would say he achieved every one of them. He was a Real Man, who lived a real life. I just loved that man so much. And Ivan too is very confident about his abilities, but he’s not trying to impress you with who he is or what he’s done. He doesn’t get how impressive he actually is. I think that makes anybody a Real Man.”

When we started this journey, Andrew didn’t believe Real Men took a beginner’s class. But I think it has become clear that sometimes you need to start at the beginning to get to what’s real.

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