Off-road auto racing -- a weekned pastime for today's rough riders

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Remember when the Volkswagen Bug first began to make a sales dent in the American automobile market, accompanied by all those fantastic stories about 35 to 40 miles per gallon?

Well, Malcolm Vinje gets eight miles to the gallon with his used 1959 VW convertible and he's the happiest guy in the world. Vinje is an off-road racer who spends most of his weekends trying to conquer the rugged desert terrain of southern California and Mexico.

While his car doesn't exactly fly, whenever it hits a bump at 40 to 80 m.p.h. it does become airborne. In fact, I asked Malcolm to repeat a statement he made: that it is not unusual, after hitting one of those bumps, to surge forward 60 yards at a time with the wheels separated from terra firma.

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During the week, Vinje spends his time in more ordinary fashion as the owner of a San Diego engineering firm that develops land and tests soil. Yet when he closes up shop on Friday afternoons, he's as good as Superman at changing from a business suit into flameproof coveralls.

Unless the size of your wallet makes you two inches taller than you really are every time you sit down, you can forget about this kind off-road racing. Everything about it is expensive, and an owner is always replacing something.

For example, after buying his used '59 stock VW for $500, Vinje spent another

First he had a roll cage welded inside the car. Then he added a souped-up engine, special wheels, transmission, and front end, plus breakaway fiberglass fenders and hood.

The safety factor of fiberglass, as opposed to metal, is that when it tears off in an accident it doesn't take the form of a misshappen bullet. And with no windows in the car, you learn to duck.

While car costs vary, Malcolm spent $4,000 for his engine; $3,000 on the roll cage; $1,500 on the front end; $1,000 on the transmission; $1,000 on wheels and tires; and $500 on hammock-type seats. That doesn't include another $500 for additional safety equipment, like a fuel-cell bag that won't explose if it's punctured, plus $400 apiece for two flame-proof jumpers that are wear-dated and must be replaced every two years.

Helmets must also be worn and cost $100 apiece. Leather gloves keep a driver's hands from getting rubbed raw.

This is such a rugged sport that when Vinje and his wife ride together they each wear a five-point lock-in harness that almost makes them part of the car. The division they race in requires that they carry food and water, but they have trained themselves to eat and drink later.

Although the fuel that these cars use is a special racing mixture costing $3. 50 a gallon, it is gas and not ether. Tires are so beat up even after a 250 -mile race that they often can't be used again and cost $125 apiece to replace.

"The key to off-road racing is to make sure that your car is mechanically sound when you start and you [as the driver] know how to read the terrain," Vinje explained. "I'm 6 ft. 2 in. tall, 230 pounds, and strong, but I still can't keep my helmet from hitting the dashboard or the roof when the going gets rough. On the really bad stretches you feel like your arms are going to fall off because of the amount of time and strength you put into fighting the steering wheel."

Although turning over usually comes with the territory, Malcolm has been upside-down just once in two years of racing.

"I found myself in a situation where I'd jammed the gas pedal to the floor and it stayed there," Vinje said. "In a situation like that the brakes are no good because the engine is so powerful that it simply overrides them."

"Sure I have a safety-off switch for emergency use," he continued. "But in the half-second I needed to reach for it, my wife and I were upside down. By the time one of the pit crews assigned to the race got us started again, my car had spent an hour and 40 minutes on its roof. Yet we still finished fourth."

Considering car maintenance, entry fees, gasoline, tires, ect. Vinje says it costs him about $2,000 for every race he enters, providing that nothing on the car gets broken or bent.

There is prize money, of course, and Malcolm knows one driver who made $80, 000 last year. But by the time this man figured out his expenses, his total profit was $2,000 and whatever personal satisfaction he got from treating his body like a shock absorber.

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