Opinion: We Need More Off-Road Parks (and Drag Strips, and Tracks…)
This past weekend, I went off-roading. I took a Ford Bronco Raptor I was testing to the Badlands Off-Road Park in Indiana (with Ford’s approval) because I felt that the Raptor needed to be taken off-road, if possible, for me to get a full picture of the vehicle’s capabilities ahead of a possible future review.
Thing is, I burned a lot of time and fuel getting there and back, since the Badlands is over 100 miles from my Chicago home. But it is, as best as I can tell, the only off-road park within an easy drive of Chicago that allows for OEM vehicles.
There is an off-road park a bit closer to Chicago, but as of early 2021, that particular park no longer allows factory vehicles to tackle the trails. Apparently, it’s because this park uses a state grant, and Illinois bureaucracy being what it is, parks operating under a grant can’t allow factory vehicles. I’ll rant about the lack of reasoning behind that some other time.
I realize the relative lack of off-road parks – the kind where one can pay to play – is a bit of a function of where I live. But a cursory Google Maps search shows that even in other parts of the country, parts where the presence of an off-road park seems more likely, there’s a relative dearth of them.
Ford has built a few Bronco Off-Rodeo sites – I think there are four – and there’s a relatively new off-road park in Holly, Michigan, just outside Detroit. And California, to its credit, has a few government-run places, like El Mirage (managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management) and Hollister Hills (managed by the state), in addition to any privately-owned parks in the state.
But it’s not enough.
Off-road parks are more than just a place to play with SUVs and trucks in a relatively safe environment (when things go wrong in a park, other visitors and/or park staff can help you). They’re a fairly cheap way to get outdoors, which is something we all need once in a while.
“Cheap” not including the cost of the vehicle, of course. But unless you’re a hard-core wheeler who is only going to tackle the toughest terrain – the type of trails that guarantee being stuck and/or receiving vehicle damage – you don’t need a ton of gear. Decent hiking boots, a tow strap, some water and snacks, some TP (some parks have facilities at the entrance. That doesn’t help when nature calls and you’re deep in the woods), and the right clothing for getting dirty – that’s all I usually take with me into a park. Maybe some jumper cables, just in case I stumble across someone who needs a boost.
Note: If you’re a hard-core camper, you might find my choice of gear a bit lacking. If I was staying overnight, or overlanding in a truly remote area, I’d pack a hell of a lot more stuff. But if I am at an off-road park that is less than a five-minute drive from a town with several gas stations and at least one grocery store, and planning on only staying a few hours, I’m gonna pack light.
And if the cost of an off-road vehicle – either a spanking new SUV like the Raptor or a modified old ‘90s Jeep Wrangler – is too much for you, you can rent a vehicle (side-by-side, ATV, maybe even a Wrangler) at or near some of these parks.
Having more places to go off-road would help expose more people to automotive enthusiasm, just as having more tracks or drag strips would. There is also an element of protecting private property here – the ethical enthusiast doesn’t have to sneak onto someone’s farm field to screw around. Instead, pay a small fee and legally off-road until you're tired, or the park closes for the day.
It’s the same reason towns build skateboard parks – so Tony Hawk wannabes can ply their trade without screwing up the steps at City Hall.
I also think that getting people, especially urbanites and suburbanites, off-road will help foster a connection with nature and the environment. Sure, any outdoor activity, from hiking to camping to rock climbing, helps in this regard. But off-roading is a unique way to do it. Hiking a trail is great, but the adrenaline rush of a successful rock climb in a Rubicon is hard to replicate.
Parks can also help novice off-roaders hone their skills, perhaps with help from a park guide or veteran off-roader, before they tackle tougher terrain. And they can learn the Tread Lightly concepts I read about in Four Wheeler growing up.
The skills needed to successfully off-road – concentration, awareness of wheel placement, good decision-making, knowledge of how to use four-wheel-drive systems and off-road tech, et cetera – can help people become better on-road drivers.
That said, I understand off-roading isn’t for everyone. It’s not even for every automotive enthusiast. Some would rather be a track rat, an autocrosser, or a drag racer. Some non-enthusiasts will find the outdoors too hot/too humid/too infested with mosquitoes. Some folks will get a bit too anxious when they’re driving/riding in an SUV that’s hanging at an unnatural angle while traversing a trail, or might not be able to handle a hill climb that leaves nothing but sky in front of the windshield. Or a hill descent that leaves them hanging on the seatbelt with the vehicle near vertical.
I also get the economics of running an off-road park/race track/dragstrip are probably not lucrative. I understand that a lot of land is required. And I understand that while new technology is making off-roading easier in modern SUVs, new cars are also harder to modify for performance now, because of that same technology.
But damn, man, I wish that there were more options for weekend warriors to hit the trail (or track). It’s a key to keeping automotive enthusiasm alive, especially as we move into a world in which most commuter vehicles will be electric. Don’t get me wrong, I am not anti-EV, and I know some EVs will be purpose-built for off-roading and on-track driving. I’ve already experienced silent off-roading in a Jeep 4XE plug-in hybrid. But let’s face it – EVs will give drivers a different experience than internal-combustion vehicles. There will be no roaring engine. Steering systems in both EVs and ICE vehicles are already often too uncommunicative. Advanced driver-aid systems are already reducing driver involvement, and some vehicles offer semi-autonomous driving.
Drivers are already feeling less connected to their machines. This is one reason why one of the intelligentsia at The Atlantic prefers to drive stick: He wants to keep the connection between man and machine going for as long as possible.
I’m aware that just about every SUV I’ve taken off-road has had tech that assists the driver. Some of the old-school fun is lost, for sure. But even in a modern rig like a Raptor or Rubicon – rigs that use cameras to help you see and electronic trickery to help you maneuver – you can get back to nature. Roll the windows down, remove the roof if possible, and you’re already in tune with nature. Hear those insects hum. Feel the sun on your neck. Just don’t forget the bug spray and sunscreen.
A movie character once said golf courses and cemeteries were the biggest wastes of real estate. I don’t agree with that. But I do think that I’d like to see a few more patches of exurban land turned into off-road parks (or tracks) instead of tract housing.
More parks, please.
[Images © 2022 Tim Healey, Bonnie Bernat/TTAC]
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Tim Healey grew up around the auto-parts business and has always had a love for cars — his parents joke his first word was “‘Vette”. Despite this, he wanted to pursue a career in sports writing but he ended up falling semi-accidentally into the automotive-journalism industry, first at Consumer Guide Automotive and later at Web2Carz.com. He also worked as an industry analyst at Mintel Group and freelanced for About.com, CarFax, Vehix.com, High Gear Media, Torque News, FutureCar.com, Cars.com, among others, and of course Vertical Scope sites such as AutoGuide.com, Off-Road.com, and HybridCars.com. He’s an urbanite and as such, doesn’t need a daily driver, but if he had one, it would be compact, sporty, and have a manual transmission.
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