Good fun, yes. Good, clean fun, no.
Four-wheel-drive mud racing — like barrel racing on horseback, but with a lot more horsepower — made its debut Saturday in the Cowlitz County horse arena at the fairgrounds. The afternoon show drew about 250 fans, and a second show was scheduled for Saturday night.
“We’re excited,” said event chairman Dan Rheaume, a Castle Rock native now living in Seattle. “We hope to turn this into an annual event.”
Eric Christensen of Longview brought his grandson, 6-year-old Carter Dixon, and Carter’s friend Jesse Poisel, 7.
“Anything with trucks is right up their alley,” Christensen said.
Carter said his favorite part is when the trucks get stuck in the mud, while Jesse liked “mostly the tricks,” when the drivers get playful.
Thirty-seven vehicles competed in the double-elimination barrel race. Rules are simple: Two vehicles start at the center of the arena, facing in opposite directions. When the flag drops each four-wheeler circles three barrels on their side of the arena and heads back to the starting point. The vehicle that finishes first without touching a barrel wins. The fastest times Saturday were under 20 seconds.
“The most skilled drivers are very exciting,” Rheaume said. “They hug the barrel just like a horse does.”
In lieu of prizes, winners get bragging rights.
“We’re a family sport,” Rheaume said. “We race for fun, and we keep it that way by not adding money to the mix.”
Vietnam veteran Roy May, 70, of Woodinville, Wash., was the oldest racer among the field of licensed male and female competitors. Though children were only spectators Saturday, most of the event’s best racers got their start young as “lap drivers,” Rheaume said, steering as an adult worked the pedals during off-road outings.
One such driver was Kalama’s Brent Newberg, 27, whose Jeep is sponsored by his employer, Woody’s 4x4 of Vancouver.
“I’ve been driving for 20 years,” said Newberg, a 2003 Kalama High School graduate. “I started as a lap driver around 5 or 6, and by the time I was 8 years old I was driving a Jeep by myself.”
He stood out not only for his skillful driving but for his ability to churn up an entertaining shower of mud.
Rheaume pointed out that Newberg’s Jeep is a manual transmission, a rarity in the sport.
“He’s steering with a knob in his left hand, and he’s shifting with his right,” he said. “That is really a skill.”
In the third heat, Newberg nearly flipped over as he rounded a barrel and tilted onto two wheels. He hung there a long moment before falling back onto four wheels.
“I thought I was gone!” he said afterward, flashing a mud-splotched smile. “That was kind of scary.”
Newberg finished fifth overall in the afternoon event.
The racers and supporters all are members of the Pacific Northwest 4-Wheel Drive Association. Local members include Longview City Councilman Don Jensen and his wife, Carol, who joined in 1966. Carol Jensen said the association does many service projects.
“Most of the time we work repairing forest trails,” she said. “This is the fun we do.”