Hummer Driving Academy: Boot Camp

Hummer H1
What do you figure Hummer owners do when they get together? Smoke cigars and guzzle bourbon? Do they consider the real tragedy of the Exxon Valdez the loss of a valuable non-renewable fuel source? Do they erect shrines to Norman Schwarzkopf and Arnold Schwarzenegger? Are they all overcompensating for a paucity of reproductive hardware?

Yeah, we thought so, too. So imagine our surprise when we spent a week with as rabid a group of Hummer owners as you’re likely to find, and they proved themselves intelligent, thoughtful, self-assured individuals with a keen regard for nature. And not a big-game hunter or Tom Clancy nut among them.

The group of eight Hummer owners had gathered in South Bend, Ind., for the Hummer Driving Academy, a five-day course designed to teach them everything they need to know about operating their Hummer safely and to its capacity off-road. Among the faithful were three doctors, a restaurateur and a piano tuner.

Our preconceived notions about Hummer owners got blown away on the first day during a tour of the University of Notre Dame campus, when Paul Magarelli, a Colorado-based fertility doctor, effortlessly translated the lengthy Latin inscription on a war memorial. Meanwhile, the rest of the class pored over the relics in the university’s basilica, including a tiara that belonged to Pope Pius IX.

Established in 1998, the Hummer Driving Academy is open to registered Hummer owners only, though each participant may bring one guest. Run by the Hummer manufacturer, AM General, the Academy has three sessions per year with a maximum of 10 students for each session. (In 2002, it will run in April, September and October.)

It is an intensive week; most days start at 7 a.m. and end at 8 or 9 p.m. During that time, a team of six instructors teaches the students how to crawl over, across and through nearly every geographical obstacle they may encounter off-road. They are also instructed in first aid, navigation, field repair techniques and vehicle recovery. For much of the five days, a fleet of new Hummer H1 trucks is their classroom and the Academy’s vast acreage of muddy tracks, hardwood forests, swamps and boulder fields their campus.

The tuition fee is steep, but it’s a drop in the bucket for people who can afford to spend $110,000 plus on a Hummer. Each paid $5,250 for the Academy, which includes accommodations, meals and the instruction. Everything is done first-class. The students are showered with expensive gifts, most of which appear unexpectedly once or twice a day. The meals were mostly excellent, though there was a lot of debate about what exactly went into the glutinous opaque orange sauce at the Japanese teppanyaki restaurant. The Academy staff was unflappably gracious, despite the challenges of shepherding a group of greenhorns around all week.

The week also included a visit to the Hummer factory, where the students were shown the very same hand-assembly line where their own vehicles were produced. For Hummer fans, this is nirvana. The plant produces civilian and military-spec Hummers simultaneously. We were shown their construction from the bare frame to completed trucks. In the huge plant parking lot, civilian Hummers sit bumper-to-bumper with U.S. military trucks, such as armament carriers, armored vehicles and field ambulances, many of which are bound for service overseas. It was an awesome sight, and the students’ cameras clicked and flashed like fans near the red carpet at the Academy Awards.

“I feel like a kid in a candy store,” said Franco Skilan, a piano tuner to the stars in Hollywood, Calif. Franco saw his first Hummer when he went to tune a piano at Arnold Schwarzenegger’s home and knew he had to own one. He is well aware of its limitations in the city, though. “It’s a useless vehicle, I know, but it fits my piano parts perfectly. At least that’s what I told my CPA.”

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