Spotlight: Man vs. Machine vs. Nature

At Red Clay Rally, a competitive event catering to overlanders, a maturing community of off-roading enthusiasts may provide a roadmap for future truck and SUV markets.

On a damp Friday morning, the last one in May, a long line of trucks was forming in the parking lot of the Borla Exhaust facilities in Johnson City, Tennessee. Every two minutes, several trucks at the front of the queue would roar off on fat, knobby tires. Though they accelerated quickly, maybe even chirping their tires for the benefit of several dozen onlookers, they settled into a comfortable pace at the speed limit as they reached the public road a few hundred yards away.

Photos by Henri Hollis

“30 seconds,” says Zack Smith, the event’s organizer, splitting his attention between the next team and his stopwatch.

“Three, two, one… GO.”

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After his countdown to the second, another short train of mismatched trucks and SUVs lunges out of the parking lot. This event isn’t a race, per se. It’s the beginning of the Red Clay Rally, a 600-mile, three-day off-road driving challenge that has grown up around one of the most powerful recent trends in the consumer car market: overlanding.

At this point, overlanding has graduated from a trend to a subculture. The most basic explanation of overlanding is that it’s car camping, but the car is expected to take the camper off the grid. So overland vehicles, often referred to as rigs, need to be rugged and capable enough to take multiple people over rough, unpaved terrain. Because of this, they also tend to be large; a typical overland platform is a full-sized SUV or truck that comes from the factory with the ride height and payload capacity to transport a few creature comforts over rocky trails.

Interest in overlanding has grown steadily since 2015[1]. Anecdotally, many in the community point to the explosion of Instagram as a major factor in the trend’s growth. Instagram expanded beyond the iPhone in 2013 and hit 300 million monthly active users in December 2014.

Photo by Henri Hollis

The correlation makes sense: overland rigs are usually photographed in spectacular natural locations. They also tend to look good on their own in pictures, with aggressive stances, large tires and lots of interesting accessories that bring the comforts of home outdoors. Through the filter of Instagram, overlanding combines the beauty of nature, ruggedness of off-roading and the luxury of glamping in a single, tidy package.

“I got into it at the right time,” said Smith. Organizing Red Clay Rally is not his primary job, nor was it ever part of his plans. He is a police officer from northeast Tennessee who started the @overland_tennessee Instagram account in 2015 – an account that has more than 11,000 followers today.

“I had people ask me to start something like an overlanding meetup, but I wanted it to be something a little more exciting,” said Smith, explaining the genesis of the rally. He made a website with low expectations, but after a single day, 35 people signed up for the first edition of Red Clay Rally in 2017.

“Okay, I guess we’re actually doing this,” said Smith.

Car manufacturers have taken notice of the growing interest in overlanding and begun to offer models that appeal directly to the overlanding subculture. Ford has reintroduced the Ranger, a mid-sized truck with a marketing campaign centered squarely on the idea of adventure, and with plenty of visual cues that nod towards overlanding. Chevrolet has the Colorado ZR2 Bison, which is essentially a factory-built overland rig developed in partnership with American Expedition Vehicles (AEV) and based on GM’s midsize pickup platform. It rolls off the production line with front- and rear-locking differentials, boron steel skid plates and highly advanced Multimatic DSSV shocks.

“The Multimatic DSSV shocks are a first for us in the off-road environment,” said GM engineer Todd Hubbard, a chassis and suspension specialist who was heavily involved in the Bison program as the Chevrolet Trucks Vehicle Performance Engineer.

“We think Multimatic is a pretty cool company; they do a lot of work with Formula 1 and high-end sports cars like MacLaren. Our first exposure to them was on a previous generation of the Camaro; there was a Track Edition Z28.”

An engineer who was the technical owner of shock absorbers on that project, and later became involved with the Bison, was able to put two and two together.

“We realized we could leverage Multimatic to create a shock specifically built for off-road rigors,” said Hubbard. “And we couldn’t be happier with the advanced capabilities that they’ve designed into that shock.”

Photo by Henri Hollis

Ford and GM, however, are playing catchup to a couple of brands that have dominated the overlanding market thus far. Toyota’s off-road models, the Tacoma TRD Pro and the 4Runner TRD Pro, are popular platforms that are considered overland-capable out of the box and already have huge accessory markets. Older Toyotas are popular as well; the Landcruiser has a cult following thanks to its legacy of both luxury and durability.

Jeep is the other major player in the overland market. With the Wrangler’s off-road bonafides and a vast accessory aftermarket, the venerable SUV has a subculture in its own right. In terms of single vehicle models represented, the Jeep Wrangler was easily the most popular platform at Red Clay Rally.

Photo by Henri Hollis

Though overlanding is generally seen as an activity for a single vehicle or a small group, events like Red Clay Rally are evidence of the subculture’s growing popularity. Though it’s not a race, the rally isn’t a vacation, either. It’s a time-speed-distance challenge in which teams try to match a certain pace between checkpoints while navigating some of the Appalachian Mountains’ most treacherous terrain. Points are awarded for arriving at checkpoints either early or late and, just like in golf, the team with the lowest score wins. Checkpoints are set in surprise locations, making it unwise for teams to deviate from the route. Missing a checkpoint means certain relegation to the end of the pack. The 600-mile route includes more than 120 miles off-road, and each day requires six to nine hours of seat time.

Trenton Munsell, a mechanical engineer from Georgia, and his nine-year-old son Desmond completed Red Clay Rally in their 1998 Jeep Wrangler Sport. In the weeks prior to the event, they spent hours working on the Jeep, which had mostly sat in a driveway for the past five years.

“Going on adventures with my kids is important,” said Munsell. “We’re not really a ‘go to the beach and sit around, go stay in hotel rooms’ kind of family. This was the perfect thing for us to do together.”

While there is a competitive aspect to Red Clay Rally, most participants viewed the event as a chance to test their vehicles and use their gear. They could hobnob with other enthusiasts, check out interesting builds, improve their driving skills and navigate new trails. Along the way, there’s friendly banter, plenty of helping hands and generous sharing of beers around evening campsites.

As with any car subculture, some people build their cars purely for show, and the overland community is quick to sneer at rigs with near-six-figure price tags that lack the tell-tale pinstripes earned on the trail. While popular overlanding Instagrams might boast tens of thousands of followers, accounts like @overland_memes on Instagram poke fun at expensive rigs whose drivers appear to prefer hotel rooms over rooftop popup tents.

Those images resonate with overland enthusiasts because they touch on the unspoken, elitist side of the movement: overlanding is much more accessible to the wealthy. New vehicles with high-level trim packages like the Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 Bison and the Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro cost around $50,000. Toyota Landcruisers or any of Land Rover’s models are significantly more expensive still. Even Jeep Wrangler models, when fully outfitted, can cost nearly $60,000. Then, there’s an expectation that overlanders will sink additional thousands of dollars into their rigs’ suspensions, wheels, tires and often their engines. After that, there is no shortage of multi-thousand dollar accessories to be bolted on, from winches to refrigerators to rooftop popup tents complete with memory foam mattresses.

The expensive rigs might fetch more likes on Instagram, but at events like Red Clay Rally, there are vehicles from the full spectrum of possible overlanding platforms. Yes, there were Jeeps that appeared to cost $80,000 with custom-built suspensions and 40-inch tires, not to mention quite a few Land Rovers and Landcruisers with custom paint jobs. But there were also mid-90’s Ford trucks, restored Toyota FJ40s and inexpensive Nissan Frontiers. Those vehicles were often hand-outfitted by their owners, and many rally participants relished the opportunity to work on their vehicles in the field.

Photo by Henri Hollis

Lucas Smith, a mechanical engineer originally from Virginia, ran the rally in his 1994 Ford F-150 – one of the few full-sized trucks at the event, and one of the oldest. He bought the truck in 2014 as a sophomore in college. It was already equipped with a few off-road modifications, but he’s put many hours of work into it himself.

“I did a solid axle swap on it this past year,” said Smith. It would be a major project for anyone, but Smith didn’t exactly grow up in a mechanic’s garage.

“I haven’t always known how to do this stuff. I learned a lot about working on trucks in college when I was in an off-road club,” said Smith. “And I learned a lot from YouTube. I also bought one of those Chilton Repair Manuals for my truck, and I’ve marked it up with notes and highlighter. It’s probably in the truck right now.”

The Big Old Red Ford, as it is known on Instagram, completed the rally without incident. It now has 225,000 miles on it, and Smith estimates he’s put at least 45,000 of those miles on it himself.

“That truck was definitely a fan-favorite,” said Zack Smith, the event organizer.

Lucas Smith’s team, which hosted me for the rally, did plenty of work along the trail as well. They welded a Ford Explorer’s broken sway bar mount at our campsite one night and replaced Munsell’s Jeep’s brake caliper in a gas station parking lot in about 30 minutes.

Self-reliance is an important, but understated, aspect of the subculture. Overlanders tend to be extreme DIYers who respect hard work, cherish their vehicles and genuinely enjoy nature.

Photo by Henri Hollis

Within that range of interests, vehicle manufacturers may find a good entry point for hybrid and electric truck platforms. Until recently, electrified pickup trucks have struggled to get traction among OEMs, though that appears to be changing with Ford’s investment in the electric vehicle manufacturer Rivian and Tesla’s announcement of a pickup truck model.

According to Hubbard, the GM engineer, this possibility has not escaped his company.

“We did a demonstration vehicle for the military called the ZH2 that was … essentially a Chevy Colorado ZR2 with a hydrogen fuel cell and 37-inch tires,” said Hubbard. “It was really interesting because one of the byproducts of the fuel cell is pure water. Wouldn’t that be cool, if you could capture that water and be really self-sufficient?”

Hubbard, an avid mountain biker, also noted that the ZH2 was basically silent.

“I’ve always thought,” said Hubbard, “What could be cooler than driving through the woods completely silent? That would be a surreal experience.”

At the end of Red Clay Rally, 19 teams out of 31 officially completed the grueling challenge. Beers were shared at Country Boy Brewing at the terminus of the route while awards were passed around.

Photo by Henri Hollis

One driver who had chain-sawed a fallen tree across the trail received the sportsmanship award, while another team collected a nice package of prizes for collecting the most trash along the trail. Trophies and prizes worth thousands of dollars went to the teams that placed first, second and third.

“This new generation is tired of watching other people have fun,” said Zack Smith. “They’re not interested in going to a NASCAR race and watching other people have a good time. I think that’s a big part of overlanding’s appeal.”

As weary teams dispersed to their myriad trucks, all caked in mud and bearing plenty of new battle scars, the rally was officially over. Several teams had already begun to talk about returning to the event in 2020.

“We have a guy who celebrated his 70th birthday on Red Clay Rally this year,” said Smith. “And he wants to come back next year for 71.”

After the experience of so much adventure, fellowship and enjoying the genuine natural wonders of the remote Appalachians, it was easy to understand how this trend had formed such a strong subculture. Red Clay Rally might have been over, but the overlanding movement is still just getting started.

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