What Happens When a “Pavement Racer” Goes Off-Roading?

The simple answer to the title? Confusion, back pain, bug bites, and a few very muddy SUVs. There is a more complex answer that we’ll get to, but please humor this parking lot racer as I tell you the story of our muddy weekend adventure. 

The Off-Roading Plan

Our goal for this scorching 90 degree day was to have some fun in Wharton State Forest in New Jersey. We would drive a few off-road trails as we searched for a nice place to cool off and swim. Our steeds were a Land Rover Discovery 2, a 2010 Ford Explorer Sport, and a 2000 Mercury Mountaineer. All are – theoretically – more than capable vehicles for our day’s trip, but all were slightly flawed for the day in some way. The Land Rover had an engine knock, the Explorer Sport was on low profile 20” grand touring tires, and the Mountaineer was sitting at a cool 200,000 miles on the original spark plugs. What could go wrong? 

To be fair, most of this drive was something I could have done in my E90 3-series. At times it got muddy, sandy, and bumpy enough to where our trucks were ideal, if not needed. 

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Is Off-Roading Anything Like Driving on Asphalt?

The extent of my off-roading knowledge ended when I was 13 years old. I sold my Subaru-powered dune buggy for my E36 BMW 325is, which I used to start my high performance driving career. The sands of the New Jersey Pine Barrens taught me just as much about car control as any autocross did. Driving that rear wheel drive Kart on loose gravel always required a hint of opposite lock to drive straight. That’s a skill that I carry with me every time I get behind the wheel at any track day or autocross. 

But how else can these two forms of driving possibly be similar? Has a driving instructor ever constantly reminded you to “look ahead?” That’s a skill that carries far beyond just the track. When you’re bombing down a dirt road with holes that will happily swallow a 20” tire, you need to be looking as far ahead as possible. As you avoid these craters in the road, you start to feel a little bit of slip under the tires on the gravel. The challenge of dodging nature’s pot-holes in the trail felt similar to dodging cones at autocross. Once I realized I could apply those skills to a 6,000 pound SUV on gravel, things started to get a lot more fun! 

I haven’t talked about the muddy bit yet. After all the high-speed trails with what can only be described as craters were over, we finally found a place to relax and cool off for the afternoon. The Land Rover had to head out early, so we said our goodbyes only to receive a call less than 2 minutes later. 

The Recovery Mission

“Can you guys come down the road and help me. I’m a little stuck.” We didn’t even have to drive down the road to see the Discovery stuck in mud up to its rear bumper.

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Sometimes the fun way home and the smart way home are two different roads… literally. This is when I realized I don’t know the safe, or proper way to pull a truck out of the mud with another. With no cell service we did the only thing we knew how to do, and pulled from a tow ball connected to the Rover. As we assumed, this turned out to be unsafe and an improper way to recover a stuck vehicle. Luckily the Explorer was easily able to save the Rover even with its highway tires. The Mountaineer looked on in fear of an inevitable 200,000 mile spark plug failure if it dare strain too hard.

A Day Well Spent

While I poke fun at our trucks, as well as my ignorance about off-roading as a whole, it turned out to be another totally valid form of automotive fun! Like we say here all the time, cars and trucks are a passion that brings everybody together. An off-roading day in a beautiful forest with your friends might just be what everybody needs in this currently-crazy world. While I surely will be leaving the extreme off-roading to contributor Mercedes, you can probably catch me practicing my best Sebastian Loeb impression somewhere in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. 

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