Hummer Driving Academy: Boot Camp

Hummer H1
Learning how to use his Hummer to its full capabilities was Skilan’s prime motivation for attending the Academy and for his girlfriend, Karen Haverland, who came as his guest. It was the same for Mark Kirkland, an orthopedic surgeon from Des Moines, Iowa. With his shaved head and penchant for Dos Rios cigars, he was the closest thing to the Hummer stereotype. But he’s really a timid, self-effacing man with a voice that sounds exactly like Joe Pesci’s.

Kirkland loves his 2001 Hummer H1 soft top. “Sometimes I’ll just go outside to the garage and look at it.” However, he was always nagged by the idea that he wasn’t using the truck to its potential. The furthest off-road he had traveled before he attended the Academy was a muddy two-track on a friend’s ranch.

Likewise, Ray Ostrowski and his wife, Cheryl, bought their 2001 Hummer Wagon mainly as an advertising device for their Detroit-area pizza shop. “People call us up and ask us to bring the Hummer,” said Cheryl. “We’re the talk of the town.” It must be the most expensive and toughest pizza delivery vehicle in history, but the most rigorous service it ever saw was when local kids crawled all over it.

Before the week was over, however, each of the Academy students would leave armed with all the skills and knowledge necessary to operate their Hummers to the fullest. But it wasn’t easy getting there.

Ray Ostrowski started the week tentatively. Nowhere was his apprehension more apparent than when the class visited the sand dunes at an off-road recreation area on the shores of Lake Michigan, about 120 miles north of South Bend.

The park’s steep-sided 900-foot-high dunes provide a formidable challenge. The wind off the lake changes their profile constantly, and the dunes can be soft one moment and hard-packed the next. With the sand blowing off their crests, the dunes are as desolate as the moon. And navigating them goes against most drivers’ instincts.

After we all deflated our tires to about 18 psi using the Hummer’s on-board Central Tire Inflation System, or CTIS, we set out for the dunes. The students were told to take a run at each dune and gun the engine until they reached the crest. Mild-mannered Ray balked at this advice during his first attempts. He couldn’t bring himself to hold the throttle and, as a result, his Hummer constantly lost momentum near the crest of each hill and bogged down in the soft sand, forcing him to sheepishly reverse down the hill. With each failure, his knuckles whitened noticeably on the wheel.

Finally, Ray worked up the nerve and blasted up and over a dune. It was like a switch went off inside him, and he couldn’t be stopped. After catching air off one crest in the 7,400-pound Hummer, he slammed his hand on the dash and yelled “Yeah. That’s what I’m talkin’ about.”

“That’s why I like the Hummer,” said Cheryl Ostrowski. “Because it makes him happy.”

Now that kind of mushy crap would make Arnie sick, but gaining confidence in their Hummer is exactly why the Ostrowskis attended the camp.

Back at the Academy campus, Nancy Turner, an internal medicine physician from Alabama, encountered her own challenge. The infield at the campus is comprised of a series of obstacles intended to demonstrate the Hummer’s capabilities in a controlled environment. As we approached the wall climb, a traverse of a 3-foot-high wall, Nancy stiffened. It’s a formidable challenge, and she was understandably apprehensive. Eventually, with the encouragement of our affable instructor, Ken Glennon, she was able to conquer the wall and was noticeably more confident afterward.

Vehicle recovery (that is, freeing stuck trucks) is a major portion of the course. The students are taught how to free the vehicles from a variety of situations using a number of tools and techniques. They are taught how to use the Hummer’s powerful 12,000-pound capacity winch as well as snatch straps, jacks, tow ropes and chains, and an anchoring device that looks like a plow.

It was interesting to watch as they reacted to the $110,000 trucks being hung up on boulders, stuck in boot-sucking mud and mired on Paul Buyanesque logs. At first, they were tentative, like kids on the first day at an important job. Granted, it’s not easy to attach a chain or rope to the bumper of a super-expensive vehicle and jerk it out with enough force to shift the earth’s axis. But by the end of the day, they were barking orders, gunning engines, tensioning straps and freeing vehicles like veterans.

Combined with their new off-road skills, the students were brimming with confidence. “It’s just this monster from hell that can go over anything,” said Karen Haverland. “It’s just fun. To me, it’s the ultimate vehicle.”

Grinning madly, it was her turn to tackle the worst mud hole on the campus grounds. Shifting into 4-Lo, she took off and hit the hole maintaining momentum until she emerged on the other side. Her joyous whoops echoed through the trees.

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