Sometimes You Just Need a Break From Sports Cars

I arrived back in Portland from a quick two days in Maranello on Sunday, October 6. The next morning at 6 a.m., I was throwing recovery gear into the back of our trusty RHD 1984 Defender 90 200 Tdi. Snatch blocks, recovery strap, winch extender, tree strap, shackles and leather gloves were just a part of the equipment.

Then it was wheels-up for the 90-minute drive to Brown’s Camp in the Tillamook Forest OHV park, for a two-day intensive off-road instruction course with guru Bill Burke. Nationally recognized as an expert trainer, his background includes being an armored-vehicle recovery specialist for heavily-armored vehicles and tanks while in the army, plus being a professional rigger in the construction world.

I took his course two years ago in my Series III rig, and it was challenging. The pouring rain, slippery mud, archaic leaf-spring suspension and open front and rear diffs made the two days an endless series of stuck, winch and stuck again. Alex was my co-pilot that year; strangely, she decided not to go this time.

The eight rigs in the group were eclectic, including a Toyota 4Runner, a Toyota FJ, a four-door Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, a 1995 LWB Range Rover Classic, a Toyota pickup, a Jeep YJ, and, oddly enough, a VW Syncro heavily modified for off-road use.

Here’s the description of what was to be covered in the advanced course.

General Objectives for the Class

In two days your skill sets will expand exponentially as you learn what your vehicle is capable of. You’ll develop confidence in the vehicle and yourself while improving your situational awareness, mechanical sympathy and vehicle handling all under Bill’s watchful eye.

Learn to control “bump steer.” Drive up and down steep hills, desert washes, big (and little) rocks and ledges, slick rock, mud and loose terrain, off-camber, all while learning the correct terminology, techniques and other technical aspects of 4WD vehicle operation. Have fun working on “stuck assessment,” and then practice getting your vehicle un-stuck with newly found recovery skills. Or, refresh your memory and reinforce those rusty skills, out with the old and in with the new.

The SCM Rig

I’ve had the D90 a couple of years and am just now getting comfortable with its capabilities. Used competitively in the Warn Challenge in England in 1999, it was nicely kitted-out and had a “well used” appearance when I bought it (exactly what I was looking for), but it was also very tired.

Doug Shipman at Ship’s Mechanical took the rig under his wing, and I hoped the end result would allow me to keep up with newer vehicles, all chock-full of modern electronics. The SCM D90 has a turbo-diesel with an oversized intercooler, high-lift suspension with drop cones, reinforced traction bars, skid plates, a Superwinch Husky (a worm-drive monster), Cobra buckets, and on and on. I had Doug install an ARB on-board compressor and a rear locker.

Getting Schooled

We started the course with an explanation of differentials and wheel-drive systems by Burke, then went to each rig and discussed its off-road equipment and capabilities.

As we began our trek into the back country to find the most challenging trails, we came across a Ford Ranger that had managed to slide down most of one of the trails on its roof. It was a sobering sight.

The D90 just got better and better as I learned how it wanted to be driven. Uphill, the key was to be in compound second, with just enough throttle to be on the boost. Then let the rig crawl. My biggest challenge was to avoid giving it too much power, and taking bumps too fast, unsettling the truck.

Downhill, using the 19:1 compression of the diesel was critical. In compound low, the truck would just crawl at a couple of miles per hour.

ACC Corvette expert Michael Pierce joined me. There was one trail in particular that I was eager to try, known as “University Firepower.” Extremely steep, with large bumps and dips, it took Alex and me 90 minutes to crawl and winch our way up two years ago. This year, I put the D90 in second-low, engaged the rear locker, and we simply drove up. And then drove down. And then drove up again. It was extremely satisfying.

Part of the afternoon was spent working on recovery techniques, including proper ways to use a winch, how to use a snatch-block to increase your leverage, and the correct operation of a Hi-Lift jack. I became so enamored of the Hi-Lift Lift-Mate, which allows you to jack up your rig by setting hooks into the spokes of the wheels, that Amazon was my first stop when I was home.

In all, it was a totally rewarding two days. I learned a lot about myself, and the capabilities of the D90. I was reminded of something that Eddy Funahashi (an instructor at the BMW Performance Class at Button Willow) told me: “The car (in this case, the rig) knows how to do what you want it to do. Don’t force it – just let it show you the way.”

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