November 29, 2022

Pedal to the Metal (and Mud)

Northwestern Michigan Fair’s Tough Truck
By Lynda Wheatley | July 30, 2022

Are you—and your truck—tough enough? The Northwestern Michigan Fair (and, OK, a screaming crowd of hundreds, plus a very attentive Fair Queen Court) will be the judge of that next week.

Every year for nearly 15, NWMF has hosted Tough Truck, a dramatic contest of guts, skills, speed, and, ideally, indefatigable struts and shocks, where as many as 50 mechanically inclined but otherwise average Joes and Jolenes drive a vehicle of their choice as fast as they can around a sprint-length dirt track, a loop crafted with at least a dozen jumps, tight corners, and one giant mud pit.

The goal is to stay on the course and complete it without your vehicle breaking down. Breaking apart, on the other hand, that’s OK. And crashes are even better. In addition to awards for the three fastest finishers, there are also awards for best of show: those drivers who get the biggest air, deliver the coolest crash, or as Cody Foster, NWMF’s entertainment director, says, “Anything that makes the crowd go wild.”

A Bumpy Ride
Foster has been a part of the fair since he was about 10 years old. He drove in his first Tough Truck competition when he was 14 years old, two years before he had his driver’s license. “You signed a waiver back then,” he says.

It was 2010.

After Foster became the fair’s entertainment director in 2019, he changed some rules. Drivers nowadays must be at least 16 years old to participate. As of last year, no passengers are allowed. And every driver must wear a long-sleeve shirt, long pants, closed-toe shoes, and—most importantly, Z90-approved full-face helmets with a chinstrap and eye protection.

As always, no alcohol, no drugs, and no unsportsmanlike conduct by drivers or pit crew is allowed, or you’re out.

“We recommend neck braces, too. Not everybody wears one, but you’ll find the competitors are friendly and share safety equipment,” adds Foster.

The race is intended to be fun but not dangerous. Nevertheless, with the combination of speed, human bodies, and somewhere between 2,500 and 5,000 pounds of aluminum, fiberglass, plastic, and steel jumping in the air, some serious accidents do happen.

“We’ve had a few people break their backs jumping too high,” says Foster. It’s rare, but it happens—to Foster’s own cousin once. The recovery, he said, was rough: “About six months of not doing anything.”

“Everything is about timing,” he adds. “You hit [a jump] too hard, too soon—” he says, and then pauses. “It’s about timing your throttle and your braking, being a good driver.”

Muscle(d) Cars
There is no way drivers can practice ahead of time unless they have or build their own track. Neither are likely, considering it takes Foster and at least one other person about 12 to 14 hours to build a new one each year with the help of several pieces of heavy-duty earth-moving machines, which Foster has long been adept at driving; his father owned a lot of excavating equipment while Foster was growing up, so he learned how to maneuver the machines early on.

Foster also says he raced motocross for many years, so he applies some of that know-how to the tracks he builds. “It’s a similar concept,” he says. (With the addition of a few concrete jumps.)

One of the trickiest parts of the track is crafting the perfect mud pit, he says. If it’s too deep, too many trucks get stuck and have to get pulled out, stalling the race; if it isn’t difficult enough though, no one gets stuck, and that’s no fun.

Despite the name, it isn’t only trucks that need to be tough. Competitors can race in any vehicle—SUV, jeep, van, or sedan—they choose. Given the beating each takes, most of the Stock class (limited to 33-inch tires or smaller, with a stock drivetrain) are jalopies sourced from local junkyards or Grandpa’s back forty and spruced up just enough to run.

Vehicles entered in the Modified (33–36-inch tires and/or a modified drivetrain) and Outlaw classes (37-inch tires or bigger; no drivetrain restrictions) aren’t usually beauty queens, but they’re built for gunning up jumps, cranking around corners, and giving the audience a good show.

One of the most unforgettable shows Foster recalls is the one, about seven or eight years ago, when a man showed up in a polished and pricey Corvette with a singular ambition: to run that hot-rod hard and ruin it before his divorce. (Note: He achieved his goal. No word on his ex’s reaction.)

There was also the gentleman who brought his formidable Ford Raptor, which had perhaps too much power, as demonstrated by the way he fired up a jump and fell so hard that his airbags deployed and his front-end folded. Neither totally rare occurrences in this race but are particularly unfortunate ones for a truck that’s a man’s main mode of daily transportation.

Get in the Driver’s Seat
If you’re looking to compete, the bar to entry is fairly low: $25 for driver and vehicle and $20 for any member of the pit crew. You must have the required safety gear, and—oh yeah—a vehicle with working brakes.

If you want to win (or at least complete the course without a crash, stall, or breakdown), you might want to consider the vehicle that, year after year, seems to have the strongest rate of survival at Tough Truck: Jeep Cherokees.

Foster says those particular Ford SUVs do well because they have a good power-to-weight ratio and they’re well-balanced, with similar weight in the back and front, so they jump (and land) flatter.

Of course, that might not win you high-volume screams and the unbridled adoration of the watching crowd, but hey, it’s a lot less risky than a high-octane revenge run in your soon-to-be ex-Corvette.

Watch the Tough Truck at the Northwestern Michigan Fair at 6:30pm Thursday, Aug. 11. Tickets: Adults, $15; Kids 3–12, $5; Kids 2 and under free. Find the entire fair schedule in the photo section of the Northwestern Michigan Fair Facebook page or online at northwesternmichiganfair.net.

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