Miles from civilization — traveling on hand-cut trails, crossing rivers and ravines submerged in 6 feet of water or deeper, with radios blaring from $1,800 sound systems, driving $10,000 to $15,000 side-by-side ATVs — avid off-roaders like Daniel Smith, owner of Wicked Off-Road in Vidor, live for the challenges the motorsport brings their way.
“You never know how deep (the water) is,” Smith said. “You just start riding through and hoping for the best. That’s part of the fun. I’ve been riding, and the next thing I know, I’m coming up out of the water, and my vehicle is completely submerged. I hit a hole sideways, and I’m standing on my (Polaris RZR), completely drenched.”
Smith said that his friends, coworkers and he try to go riding every chance they get, and that the thrill of the unknown keeps them coming back for more.
“I’ve flipped my (RZR) over more times than I can remember,” he said. “Part of the excitement is riding with a bunch of friends and just partying. You’ve got radios playing; you’re having a good time. The other part is you go somewhere you haven’t been in a while, and someone else has been out there and dug up a rut. You think you can go through the same hole you’ve been through before, but it doesn’t always work out.”
Smith’s co-worker, mechanic and Bridge City native Eric Runnels, is in the Texas National Guard and works at Wicked Off-Road when he is not deployed. His last deployment was in Djibouti, Africa.
“While I was deployed, I got with Daniel and asked him to do all the work on my truck so it would be ready for me to ride when I returned home,” Runnels said. “I told him when I returned from Djibouti, I wanted to come and work with him at the shop. I’ve always had an interest in working on vehicles because I don’t like to bring mine anywhere else.”
Runnels said the atmosphere of off-roading is what attracted him to it.
“It’s crazy,” he said. “You’ve got all your friends out there. … You come up to a hole, and your buddy says ‘I don’t want to go through it,’ but you do anyway.”
And where craziness is present, so is risk of injury.
“I was riding, and I couldn’t see because it was dusk,” Smith said. “My cousin had stopped in front of me. I was doing about 50 mph, and I hit his back tire. I flew out of my ATV and hit my head on the ground. I was knocked unconscious. I’ve had four wheelers flipped on top of me. I’ve had ATVs on top of me under the water where someone else had to pull them off. If there wasn’t someone right there, I would have drowned.”
Clearly, off-roading can be dangerous, as communications technician Denver Leger said he knows first-hand. He and his friends, a crowd of 40 with trucks and side-by-side ATVs, had a close call while riding near Quiet Village in Vidor.
“It was a heck of a trail with mud holes you would not want to be in,” Leger said. “But we were in it, and it was fun. About halfway into the trail, the lead driver stopped, and the whole line of us halted behind him. ‘He’s got a gun,’ someone in the front yelled. An old, red-headed man with a beard, wearing cut-off sleeves, cut-off pants and no shoes, told us that he did not want us riding on his property and that we needed to turn around and leave. We explained to him that we had no intention of harming him or his land, and that no guns were necessary to get us to leave. With some sense talking and smooth negotiations, we were allowed to pass with no harm as long as we did not come back.”
Leger said that moments after the altercation, his friend made a misguided turn, dropped a rear-drive shaft and became stuck in the mud.
“The hours that passed were fleeting,” he said. “We were stuck out there all night. My friend and I had managed to escape to the front of the pack. We finally made it out of the woods by 4:30 a.m.”
Smith said it is not uncommon for off-roaders to have guns pulled on them or to be chased by cops, and that he has experienced some dangerous situations himself while riding.
“You ride behind private property, and sometimes the people that own the private property get mad because the ATVs are so loud,” he said.
Mike Leleux, patrol lieutenant at Orange County Sheriff’s Department, said he has received a couple of complaints from residents in north Orange and north Vidor regarding off-road vehicles trespassing on private property. There are steps that property owners can take if these vehicles trespass on their property.
“If (a resident) has a section of property and one of those big trucks (drives on it), creating ruts in the mud and property damage, without authorization, they can file charges for trespassing and criminal mischief,” he said.
Leleux said that he does not receive as many complaints from property owners as people may think because most off-road truck owners would rather take their trucks to ATV parks like Mud Creek Off-Road Park in Jacksonville.
“You hear a lot of teenagers talk about these places,” he said. “They trailer their trucks and bring them to these parks to compete.”
Events like Mud Nationals at Mud Creek Off-Road Park in Jacksonville, attract off-roaders like Smith and Runnels to East Texas every year. Last year marked the 10th anniversary of the event, which annually attracts more than 15,000 ATV enthusiasts. Traci Engi, the coordinator of Mud Nationals, said the event draws not only people from all over the country, but also the world — including Canada, Mexico, Sweden and France.
“It’s the largest off-road ATV event in the world,” she said. “It’s a five-day event. We have competitions and a concert on Friday and Saturday nights. We try to plan it so there is something for you to do all the time, in addition to your average riding.”
Engi said riders from all ages and walks of life attend the March event.
“It is not just for hard-core enthusiasts,” she said. “The young and the old attend. You have your hard-core racers who put thousands into their vehicles, as well as your average guy who brings his hunting ATV and putts around all week.”
Runnels said he enjoys Mud Nationals for a variety of reasons.
“You ride all day and drink all day,” he said. “There are over 30 vendors (from the area) out there like Wicked Off-Road, Performance ATV and Lumberton Off-Road. All these off-road vendors bring trailers and promote their business. If you see something you like, you can buy it.”
The main perk of attending the event is the contacts an off-roader can acquire, Runnels said.
“You meet different people and different vendors and talk to those different people,” he said. “You start learning more about the vehicles. As a result, the next time you tear up your vehicle, instead of bringing it to the shop and spending thousands of dollars on it, you can buy the parts and do it yourself.”
Another reason Runnels said he enjoys events like Mud Nationals are the females that attend.
“Girls are in bikinis, drinking and dancing,” he said. “It gets plain ridiculous at these off-roading events.”
Monica Britnell, a secretary from Lumberton, says she loves going off-road and is attracted to men with trucks.
“I think girls are attracted to (off-road trucks) because they are big, tall and powerful,” she said. “I’ve had friends tell me that all they will date is a guy with a big truck.”
Not all women that attend mudding events are there just to party and watch the men drive, however. Some are there to compete. Hannah Owens, a 16-year old junior at Little Cypress-Mauriceville High School and resident of Vidor, races her 1984 K5 Chevy Blazer, “Daddy’s Paycheck,” at ATV parks like Mud Farm in Sour Lake, where she has won first-place at least eight times.
“This year at the Mud Farm, I held first-place all season,” Hannah said. “But I don’t do it just to say I won first place or for the money. I’ve won no more than $180 each time. I just do it because I love driving my truck.”
The first time Hannah raced, she said she was shaking and crying.
“It’s very nerve-racking, but once you line up, you’ve got your helmet on, and you’re in front of that pit, everything disappears,” she said.
Hannah not only races her truck, but she also helped her father, Todd Owens, build it.
“She’s built it from the ground up,” said Shelly Owens, Hannah’s mother. “She has a lot of blood, sweat and tears in her truck.”
“My dad taught me everything,” Hannah said. “I can take a transmission and transfer case out in 30 minutes and put another one back in.”
Todd rides with Hannah when she competes in the races because of her age. The ritual of not only building the truck together but also racing it together has brought the two closer together.
“I know I’m making my dad really proud when I pull that pit,” Hannah said. “He can’t quit screaming and giving me high fives. That adrenaline rush just makes me wanna do it all over again.”
Hannah’s mother, Shelly Owens, also races her 1992 extended-cab Chevy S10, “Feeling Froggy,” at mudding events and has won several awards. Shelly said she is also aware of the dangers of mud racing, as she has witnessed competitors in life-threatening situations.
“You have to respect it,” she said. “Wear your helmet and safety harness. I’ve seen someone flip his truck, and I watched him hit his head on the ground seven or eight times. If he wasn’t wearing that safety equipment, he would have died.”
Linda Romero and her husband, Wesley Romero, own the Mud Farm where Hannah and Shelly race regularly. Linda said the park, which has been open since 2010, has held events where as many as 45 trucks have run at the same time.
“The Mud Farm has three straight pits,” she said. “One pit is for your four-cylinder trucks and is not as deep as the others. The next pit is a little bigger and is for your medium-sized trucks and then we have what we call the tractor pit that is for the big trucks with the tractor tires. We also have a horseshoe pit, in the shape of a horseshoe. We also have a long dirt track that trucks can race each other.”
Unlike mud trucks, which are usually built from the ground up by racers such as Hannah and her father and are not street legal, some four-wheel-drive trucks are mainly for looks.
Off-road enthusiasts who own these high-price trucks can face high financial outlays that, according to Runnels, come with the territory.
“If spending money is a factor for someone, then they probably will not like off-roading,” he said. “When I bought my ATV, it just had a 2-inch lift kit. But within a month, I added 10-inch lifts, snorkels, exhaust, programmers, rims and tires.”
Runnels has around $12,000 invested in his ATV, and Smith has over $30,000 invested in his.
“The cost of accessories adds up quick, but that’s part of it,” Smith said.
Britnell said that she enjoys riding in street-legal trucks like the ones owned by Runnels and Smith, especially when she is sitting at a stoplight towering over the cars next to her and looking down on them.
“It puts a smile on my face,” she said. “They’re sitting there, staring at the truck, and you can tell that they are saying ‘Oh my God, that is a big, bad truck.’”
But those big, bad trucks can come with some big, bad headaches. And one of those headaches comes from tight inspection tolerances.
“From the center of the headlight, the vehicle cannot be higher than 54 inches,” said Linn Myers, owner of Linn’s State Inspection in Vidor. “The exhaust has to extend past the passenger compartment (the part of the vehicle in which the driver and passengers sit) with no leaks in it and has to have a tailpipe and converters. The tires can’t say ‘for off-road use’ or ‘not for road use’ on them, and they have to have at least 2/32 tread at the wear bars.”
“The vehicle has to be able to pass inspection at a Texas authorized inspection facility,” Lieutenant Leleux said. “It has to have a proper exhaust, which is muffled. As long as it passes state inspection and it is within the legal limits, it’s street legal. There are no restrictions on (ATVs) if they are not driven on the public roadway. Just like a racecar, if it is not street legal, it can’t be operated on a public roadway.”
Leleux said that if off-road trucks do not fit the requirements needed to pass state inspection, they will be pulled over and ticketed if they are seen driving on public roadways.
Insurance on street-legal off-road trucks is variable, according to Rachael Felice, personal accounts representative at John P. Nickhum State Farm Insurance in Vidor.
“When we give an insurance quote, we take into account a ton of factors — age, make and model of the vehicle, driving record, credit score,” she said. “It depends on the rating of the vehicle and the cost of the vehicle. I had a customer who had (an off-road truck) that was jacked up, and it was rated as a regular vehicle.”
As long as there are avid enthusiasts like Smith, Runnels and Leger who enjoy the perks that come with off-roading, there will likely be others as well who are willing to pay high dollar for ATVs, brave the dangers and deal with the headaches that come with the motorsport. Shelly and Hannah say they will continue to compete with the men and have messages for other women who might have an interest in off-roading.
“You can do anything you put your mind to,” Shelly said. “Don’t let someone discourage you because if it is something you really want to do, you can do it,”
“Go out there and show them how it’s done,” Hannah said.