Mud & guts |

Mud & guts

Dan BurkhartOff-road driving instructor Dave Gengenbach drives his invincible Hummer up a hill of gravel.
ALL | GrassValleyArchive

Ever since he was old enough to grasp a wrench, Dave Gengenbach has loved the sound of gears grinding and tires squealing.

“I’ve wanted to be a race car driver since I was 3 years old,” said the Grass Valley resident as he maneuvered a 4-ton hunk of metal and oversized rubber through the soggy bottom of Greenhorn Creek Sunday near Banner Mountain.

With the windows on his massive, 220-horsepower turbo diesel Hummer zipped open, Gengenbach looked out at all the poor souls in their jacked-up Toyotas, raised Chevys and tricked-out all-terrain vehicles desperately trying to ascend a nearly 45-degree climb and smiled.

“Wanna make ’em all look ridiculous?” he chuckled, shifting his beast into a lower gear.

Gengenbach gently depressed the accelerator on the military-grade vehicle, sending it nearly vertical as it clambered up the rocks, leaving pretenders in his wake.

In the next instant, Gengenbach, a Grass Valley native and instructor for the Rod Hall International off-road driving school, chased a group of Jeeps across the creek, fording the 3-foot-deep river as easily as a ragtop would handle an interstate.

“In this rig, I feel almost indestructible,” Gengenbach said as the 7-foot-wide AM General Hummer, made famous during the Gulf War and now enjoying status as the car of choice for many of the monied elite, rolled over boulders and stumps with ease.

Gengenbach and nearly 300 off-road enthusiasts were part of Sunday’s 20th annual Winterfest, celebrating the joys of unpaved roads, ground clearance and teeth-chattering torque.

At the driving school, Gengenbach, 41, recently began teaching Army Rangers and Navy SEALs the finer points of the Hummer, after a career spent racing cars from Grass Valley to the Winston West NASCAR circuit.

These days, he gives off-road instruction to those headed to some of the world’s political hot spots, including Central Asia.

“Since we’ve had all this activity in Afghanistan, we’ve been very, very busy,” he said.

Gengenbach teaches military personnel how to drive at night and what he calls “under the radar,” where people can’t see the vehicles.

“When you drive a Hummer, you can pretty much make your own roads.”

Don Berry of Dixon brought his Jeep and his wife, Sandy, for some fun Sunday.

“Driving one of these is the biggest adrenaline rush,” said Dixon. “It gives you what we call the pucker factor – how you can drive in an area scary enough you need suction cups just to stay in the seats,” said Dixon.

Dixon joked that “Jeep” is often an acronym for “Just Empty Every Pocket.” His rig, with the license plate “GOT ROCKS,” cost 35 grand, completely souped-up.

Kenton Early, 19, of Grass Valley estimates he has spent an additional $4,000 to lift and outfit his 2000 Chevrolet 3/4-ton pickup.

“I love just getting out in nature,” he said, revving the 454-cubic-inch engine. Early takes his truck to the snow, to Bowman Lake – anywhere pavement isn’t, even though the truck is his only vehicle.

“I’d like to get another one of these strictly for four-wheeling,” he said.

Gengenbach, who commutes to Sparks, Nev, every day just so he can teach his trade, compares his love of trucks to that of crocodile hunter Steve Erwin, the blond Aussie who wrestles crocodiles for a living on television.

“I feel like the crocodile hunter of driving. I love it, I love being around cars. I don’t even own a two-wheel-drive car because there’s nothing else I’d rather drive.”

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