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Dune-Buggy Riding, Arizona-Outback Style

By Ron Kilber

Saturday, December 9, 2000

At the controls of his custom-built dune buggy, Bill Goodman is ready to assault the first steep hill of the day in the foothills of mountains near Salome, Arizona. Six-year-old Kirk Henderson is in the copilot seat with him. Seven of us watch from four more buggies. The red contraption with a roll cage and two spare tires seems a good opponent for the steep trail ahead.

Goodman approaches down into the wash carefully, ready to put the "metal to the pedal" at the exact time to launch from the dry bed. Then it's full-throttle as he applies all of his right foot, giving his buggy its "all" to crest the huge 300-foot obstacle out front. As he tackles the steep desert incline, the sound from his exhaust produces a crescendo, which exactly measures the resistance of every mogul, rut, loose rock and sand hole along the way. I think the hill is winning a time or two, but incredibly, I'm wrong. Finally, he succeeds.

Without missing a beat, Goodman gracefully turns and skids his buggy into perfect position so both he and Kirk can watch the spectacle of more attempts to follow. For a retired guy, the maneuver seems out of character but cool.

Next up the lime is Billy Nelson, another senior. He hails from Bartlett, Nebraska, driving a blue buggy with Vince Henderson, father of Kirk. It seems obvious by the crescendo that they're not going to make it to the top. The dust is incredible as the rear wheels spin and tear up the trail. In fact, the buggy is no longer visible in the cloud of dust beneath its feet. The idle engine confirms it has stalled. When the air clears, I see the buggy in full retreat, backing up with the steering wheel cranked full-left until the vehicle stops sideways. Just when I believe it will roll over, the buggy moves forward, turning hard-right, descending now with the nose out front.

After making a U-turn near the bottom, Nelson attempts the hill again -- only this time using a longer and easier route to the top.

Only strong buggies with modified transmissions can perform such stunts. Most SUVs and four-by-four vehicles will overturn when performing the sideways maneuver. The low center-of-gravity of the buggy is what keeps the vehicle from tipping or rolling over.

Backing-down the incline is not an option. No vehicle is in less control then when its steering wheels are out behind. Worse, brakes are less effective on loose rock, so it's imperative to never let the vehicle move too fast. Thus, the graceful maneuver to efficiently turn around a stalled buggy, placing the steering wheels out front where they count most on a steep decline.

This is what dune-buggying is all about. Negotiating terrain where none other before has or can. Forget SUVs or even traditional four-by-four vehicles, nothing but a modified dune buggy can rein supreme out here. And guys like Goodman will bet real money on it.

In fact, when Goodman first invited me along, he quickly withdrew the invitation after learning I had only a four-wheel-drive vehicle for the outing. In his words, it's just too dangerous with so many places to roll over.

As consolation, neighbor and fellow pilot, Red Selover, invited me to use the extra seat in his buggy, which is now in position to assault next where only Goodman has succeeded so far.

Slowly, we maneuver from our perch down into the wash -- sometimes sliding. When Selover believes the moment is exactly right, he slams the accelerator pedal all the way to the floor. The engine roars with power as it launches our bodies up the other side of the wash, clearing the bank with the front wheels airborne -- and my feet from the floorboard, too. Dust, rocks and sand plume from our rear tires. Our buggy continues, accelerating here and slowing there -- all the while with full throttle.

Once we arrive where Nelson's buggy stalled, our rear wheels produce so much dust that we can neither see the others nor them us. We've stalled, too -- with dirt and sand on us from head to toe!

After the air clears, Selover begins the tricky turn-around maneuver. Believing we might roll when we come to the sideways stop (with me on the scary downhill side of the buggy), I hang on for dear life in case we end up inverted a time or two. Miraculously, we remain upright, then continue all the way to the bottom -- as safe as riding a thrilling carnival ride, only more fun.

This tricky turn-around maneuver can't be accomplished without auxiliary turn-brakes, which all dune buggies must have when attempting terrain like this. Two handles provide independent braking action to the rear wheels. In other words, turn-brakes aid steering when the front wheels are positioned uselessly, as they are on inclines like this.

Like Nelson, we use the easier route to gain the summit.

Selover's lifestyle seems a bit out-of-character for a man who will soon qualify for the UFOs (United Flying Octogenarians), which is an international club for pilots 80 years and over. While many his age are shut-ins, he prefers to live life on the edge with some who are fifty years junior to the Fixodent crowd. A WWII pilot and veteran, he is at as much ease in his buggy or Cessna 150 as he is at the wheel of a car.

Selover derives his health and vigor from a regular diet of coffee, cigarettes, cookies and Mudslides. His competitive lifestyle can be traced to his WWII fondness for drinking Depth Charges (Scotch whiskey in a shot glass submerged in a tankard of beer) -- and minnow-swallowing. The beer was consumed until the shot glass hit the nose, and the minnows were swallowed head-first to keep the scales from lodging the fish in the throat. Both activities proved that the WWII enemy didn't have a chance against the spirit of American GIs like Selover.

Besides Goodman, only Roy Root summits the trail the hard way, using his home-fabricated buggy powered by a water-cooled Ford Pinto engine. Ed Budke is with him, another retiree from Nebraska, only McCook.

Many of the high-performance dune buggies in this area have been fabricated by Root. He builds one or two each year in the yard of his nearby home.

Josh Henderson, 18 and brother to Kirk, failed like we did, but summits using the easier route. He's alone in a one-man rail, which has no fiberglass body but only a frame and some sheet-metal to keep the cacti at bay.

The Henderson's, visiting from Whittier, California, are friends of Goodman.

Just when we're ready to proceed to the next hill, I notice that our buggy's front tire is flat.

Not a problem. Selover has two spares, as does everyone else, too. Like a race-track crew, others join to help change the tire. While one jacks the buggy, Selover swings the lug wrench to loosen the wheel. Another is ready with the spare. When the lug nuts are tight again, the jack is released. Without using up five minutes, we're ready to buggy again.

Root suggests this might be a great time for lunch.

No arguments there!

After an exciting day of tackling some of God's worst terrain, it's time to head for the barn. As our buggy follows in number-three position while descending a steep incline into a wash, somehow, our vehicle ends up on top of a Palo Verde tree. Our back end is suspended by the bank of the wash, the front end by the tree. In other words, we can maneuver neither forward nor backward.

Root comes from behind and puts his buggy into position close to us. After hitching our vehicles together with a tow rope, he pulls our buggy sideways to free us, planting all four of our tires once again on terra firma. The entire mishap causes less than five-minutes delay, and we're all on our way again.

Just when I believe the fun is all over, we descend an incredibly steep incline into a very narrow wash. Where a horse wouldn't dare go, Selover approaches the edge carefully. It's thirty feet to the bottom -- almost straight down! Planting his left hand on the auxiliary turn-brakes, we nose-dive over the lip. At the exact moment near the bottom, Selover actuates the left turn-brake, which quickly positions us -- with vast momentum -- to go not up the other side, but down the wash to the left, instead.

Without auxiliary turn-brakes, any buggy can easily hang up sideways in a narrow wash like this.

Finally out of the foothills, we're in flat-wash country now. So the fun has got to be over, right? Not so!

We're barely able to keep up with those out front as we race fifty-miles per hour down a flat, sandy wash. Our front wheels are useless for steering in the deep sand. But we've got turn-brakes, which provide enough positive control to make me feel like I'm in a fast speed-boat, negotiating the sand with smooth banking of our buggy. Where other vehicles would careen out of control into trees, holes and rocks, our buggies negotiates the roadless terrain like we're on a speedway. This might be as much fun as many of the hills we climbed today.

After everyone returns safely to Goodman's hangar at the Indian Hills Airpark, I think about what a great day of excitement and adventure it has been. And judging from the amount of satisfaction on everyone's face, there'll certainly be more outings like this one in the not-too-distant future.


Copyright (C) 2000 Ron Kilber Non-commercial reproduction permitted in its entirety with this copyright notice intact.

8:26PM 12/19/00

© Copyright 1996 - 2001 Ron Kilber All rights reserved.