Opinion: We Need More Off-Road Parks (and Drag Strips, and Tracks…)

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey
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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.

Also, off-roading can be damn fun, especially if you manage to avoid getting stuck (something we TTAC’ers know a thing or two about).

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
Tim Healey

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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5 of 13 comments
  • Dukeisduke Dukeisduke on Aug 18, 2022

    Yes, there needs to be more off-road parks, and generally speaking, the states and/or the National Park Service would be the logical ones to run them. As for drag strips, the ones in or near metropolitan areas are the ones closing, like recent closures in Memphis (that was going to be on the Hot Rod Power Tour this year), Houston, and Atlanta. The ones further out are hanging on, and sometimes changing hands (I follow Dragzine).

    When you say that the park near Chicago doesn't allow factory vehicles, what do you mean? Vehicles that drive on public roads? Do they only allow UTVs/ATVs? Do they dedicated rock crawlers that would be trailered to the site? What about dirt bikes?

    • Tim Healey Tim Healey on Aug 18, 2022

      Pretty much no OEM vehicles. So a factory Wrangler or Bronco is a no-go. But a modified, OHV, not street legal Wrangler might be OK. I am not sure. I do believe side-by-sides, ATVs, and dirt bikes are fine.

  • Golden2husky Golden2husky on Aug 18, 2022

    I'd imagine there is just not a lot of money to be made and there is high liability risk. And while I've had my share of fun off road, we have to be honest in that such use can cause massive erosion and a host of other problems if not managed properly. I am a mountain biker and even bikes can cause pretty bad erosion if the ground cover wears away on certain types of terrain. We manage the trails and educate the riders to help them know where its ok to rip it up and where its not ok to do so. Most comply. A few jerkoffs don't. Tread Lightly! was an offroad program to do the same thing. I certainly would like to see more parks where such concerns are not a problem...same for sure regarding drag strips...we lost our drag strip over "noise and pollution" concerns. Today a golf course is there, consuming thousands of gallons of water weekly and thousands of pounds of pesticides and chemicals are applied annually which end up in our drinking water...glad they were so worried about pollution.../s. Too bad - the strip was a lot of fun and much safer than the idiots who do "street takeovers"...

    • See 1 previous
    • Bkojote Bkojote on Aug 18, 2022

      Exactly this! I'm all for democratiing off roading, and perhaps these are a good way to educate more people, but there's a huge liability factor in these, a lot of potential for abuse, and probably not a lot of revenue potential. The parallel to mountain biking trails is true- all it takes is a few folks screwing it up to cause serious damage.

      Out here in CO just about every weekend I see someone (usually with Texas Plates) taking an OHV off trail onto the tundra or trying to take their lifted mall crawler dually or rented Jeep Renegade off roading on trails and creating major safety hazards when it can't hack it.

  • Lorenzo A union in itself doesn't mean failure, collective bargaining would mean failure.
  • Ajla Why did pedestrian fatalities hit their nadir in 2009 and overall road fatalities hit their lowest since 1949 in 2011? Sedans were more popular back then but a lot of 300hp trucks and SUVs were on the road starting around 2000. And the sedans weren't getting smaller and slower either. The correlation between the the size and power of the fleet with more road deaths seems to be a more recent occurrence.
  • Jeff_M It's either a three on the tree OR it's an automatic. It ain't both.
  • Lorenzo I'm all in favor of using software and automation to BUILD cars, but keep that junk off my instrument panel, especially the software enabled interactive junk. Just give me the knobs and switches so I can control the vehicle, with no interconnectivity of any kind.
  • MaintenanceCosts Modern cars detach people from their speed too much. The combination of tall ride height, super-effective sound insulation, massive power, and electronic aids makes people quite unaware of just how much kinetic energy is nominally under their control while they watch a movie on their phone with one hand and eat a Quarter Pounder with the other. I think that is the primary reason we are seeing an uptick in speed-related fatalities, especially among people NOT in cars.With that said, I don't think Americans have proven responsible enough to have unlimited speed in cars. Although I'd hate it, I still would support limiters that kick in at 10 over in the city and 20 over on the freeway, because I think they would save more than enough lives to be worth the pain.