Big wheels, big yields; Young professionals revved up for off-roading

Frank Siepker, 32, makes his living as an engineer, where he's precise and practical.

On his days off, however, he admits he's looking "for an adrenalin rush" and has found it in the popular world of off-roading.

Siepker, a manager at Cherryland Electric Cooperative, is one of a surging number of young professionals who are getting into off-roading.

"I started off-roading with friends from Glen Lake High School as soon as I got my driver's license," he said. "My first auto was a fixer-upper four-wheel drive Chevy truck. Today, Jeeps are the popular vehicle because of their compact size and versatility."

In the 1970s and 1980s, Siepker said, off-roading meant big trucks, big tires, big engines and big mud holes.

"Today, off-roaders are more responsible and more focused on treading lightly and exploring the wilderness," he said.

That's why the popularity of off-roading has exploded, according to Tim Tull of Traverse City's Venture OffRoad.

"There are 51 million people in the U.S. that participate in off-roading," he said. "Many of these are young professionals that make between $75,000 to $100,000. The thing that lures them is the sense of camaraderie that is shared. It's second to none. It can also be a family activity."

Tull is living proof of that. He bought what he calls "a tired old CJ7" 12 years ago and fixed it up. He and his family have since been all over the Great Lakes region, as well as trail systems in Tennessee, Kentucky and South Carolina.

His Venture OffRoad company has produced a CD on the best places for off-roading and also works with several local companies with similar goals like Northwest 4X4, Tread Lightly, Jeep Jamboree, Inner Air Lock and Bill Marsh Jeep.

"There are several off-road clubs in the areas, as well as many ORV-related events," said Tull. "And there are several businesses that now cater to this niche market."

Among those is Bill Marsh Jeep, which is adding after market lifts, tires and accessories to new vehicles for their customers before they are delivered.

"We are courting 'off-roaders' since we do sell the Jeep line," said Mike Kent, who handles publicity for Bill Marsh Auto Group. "We are one of the few dealerships in the state that will make modifications on the vehicles and still honor the warranty. We were actively involved in the Off Road Rally on Drummond Island earlier in the year. Jeep is the perfect brand to get involved with the off-road community….it's a tough vehicle that's perfect for those rugged events in northern Michigan."

Tull said that recent surveys show that the core age group for off-roading is 30 to 50.

That's where Siepker's group falls.

"I have friends around Traverse City that are active in off-roading, but I still have a large group of friends from my days as president of the Michigan Tech Four-Wheelers Club," he said. "We had more than 60 students in our club. Many of us still get together on weekends and for vacations to go off-roading."

So, what is the lure?

"For us, it's going to scenic locations others can't get to," said Siepker. "We love to explore remote areas and challenge ourselves and our equipment to see what we're capable of.

"Getting stuck is just part of getting where we want to go sometimes. We always modify our vehicles and refine our driving skills to go a little farther or climb something a little steeper than we have before."

Besides spending their free time off-roading in the Great Lakes region, Siepker and his friends also head to Canada, plus out west to Colorado and Utah.

"One of the things we take very seriously is our environmental responsibility," he said. "That's a big part of off-roading clubs. Our clubs, for the most part, strive to be low impact and tread lightly. We want to be able to return to these areas again and see them in their pristine natural states."

Tull and Siepker said that most clubs participate in trail maintenance programs and sponsor trail and road side cleanups.

Car makers have taken note of off-roadings popularity, according to Tull.

"They have now begun to design and sell vehicles intended specifically for this type of recreation," said Tull, pointing to the Jeep Rubicon with a 4-to-1 transfer case and front and rear lockers, plus the Toyota FJ and the Hummer H3.

"There are lots of good places to ride for the day around Traverse City," said Tull. "There is state land and some private areas that are owned and operated by off-road clubs.

"There are also several groups in the area that plan trips together and as a group will travel across the country for various events. It's a great hobby."

Siepker agreed.

"Just glance at the newsstand in your favorite book store and see the numerous publications on off-roading and off-road vehicles," he said. "That's when you realize the magnitude of all this."

For more information on Tull's off-roading CD, see www.ventureoffroad.com.

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