Wheels in the Dessert

Charlie Shaw has set up this off-road racing Chevy to give him “soft” landings.

On the highway, Charlie Shaw drives his truck the way good drivers should. But let him get off the highway, and his truck is a hard-to-handle vehicular missile, roaring and racing in a no-holds-barred off-road rodeo.

Of course, they are different trucks.

The Billings, Mont., resident’s first love was NASCAR. The pursuit of off-road truck racing as a hobby evolved slowly. “Dad started taking me to monster truck shows when I was real little,” recalls Shaw. “We’d go and have fun, but it was just entertainment. Then when I was 15, we went to one and I suddenly realized, ‘I want to do that.’ And from then on I was hooked.”

Shaw, who drives a big rig regionally for Guardian Building Products, followed the sport but didn’t start racing immediately. He was busy being a teenager. He bought his first truck, a ’77 Chevy long box, and it was that truck that would become the first muscle behind his racing hobby.

“I’d driven it for several years, and it was pretty much trashed, so I bought a new truck. I just let the Chevy sit,” Shaw says. “When I decided I wanted to race, I realized I had this old truck. I took the Chevy into a place in Billings, Pro Fab, that did a lot of motor work, and they put a roll cage in it. Then I went racing. The first time I was on a track was a race in Great Falls.

“After that I went into my first off-road event, called Little Winter Baja, and I was third there. I started racing at the Billings Motorsports Park and in Powell, Wyo., on a short course. I still race mostly around here, but I’ve gone as far as Jackpot and Wendover in Nevada for races.”

Shaw raced the old Chevy for two years. Then he moved up to a Chevy Blazer that was already set up for racing. Shaw estimates he’s spent as much as $20,000 over the years to follow his sport. But he saves a bundle by doing all his own work on the race truck. Working on it himself also gives him the added edge of knowing every part of it intimately. “If I break down on the track I can fix what went wrong,” Shaw says. “I can fix anything; I know the truck inside and out.”

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The racing truck is set up a lot differently that a regular pickup or showroom floor 4×4. For example, the shocks have an external reservoir that holds extra oil to stop them from fading away as quickly. And Shaw had a custom set of springs built that are thinner than usual.

“With thick springs you get a harder ride, and you want that on a paved road, but off road I want springs that will drop down when I hit a dip or a jump but give me a softer landing,” Shaw says. “That gives me more stability as a driver. There’s more comfort, and over a long race that lets you drive better.

“In Montana I do a lot of races that last an hour, but in Nevada there are six- to eight-hour races, and you want a smooth ride or you get too beat up to drive well. With the ride these springs give me I can go faster longer.”

Shaw put an automatic transmission in the Blazer after a local mechanic had rebuilt it. “I had it customized; it’s heavier, and it’s built to withstand heat better for a longer time.”

The Blazer also runs a lot hotter than if it were rolling highway miles, and Shaw installed a large aluminum radiator. Its big capacity helps cool the engine, and aluminum makes it lighter. “I try to lighten the truck everywhere I can. Sometimes you can’t do that; you need heaviness and strength to race.”

The Blazer is powered by a 350 GM V8. The Blazer averages about what his Kenworth does – 5 miles per gallon. “I use a 32-gallon fuel cell. That’s there for safety, and the rules of racing say you can’t go out there with a regular tank.”

Shaw also modified the truck’s steering, installing a steering quickener. “Usually a truck like this you’ll go three turns to the left to get all the way to the left, then it will take six turns to get all the way back to the right,” he says. “That’s really way too much time and effort if you’re racing. Now one turn takes the wheel all the way to the left, and so it’s only two turns to get hard right. For a while it felt like it was oversteering, but I got used to it.”

The racing is fast and furious, and the trucks roll over countryside barely touched by human hand. “Most of the tracks are just trails. We go through and clean them off and drag them, and that’s pretty much the set up,” Shaw says. “We mostly race a closed loop. In Nevada that could be a 50-mile loop; at the Motorsports Park it could be anything from a quarter of a mile to five miles depending on how they set it up.”

The hardest part of this kind of racing is the art of passing. It’s a world of noise and dust, and drivers have to use intuition and memory much of the time. “You have to know the track, memorize it and know where you can get past because you have to start the passing move when you really can’t see the track clearly a lot of times,” he says.

But Shaw usually takes a co-driver along to help him navigate and smooth out the ride. “I like having a co-driver because it helps balance the truck, and that makes it ride, and jump, better. My wife has been my co-driver, and she’s worked in the pits.”

Shaw’s wife, Sabrina, a dispatcher in the trucking industry, enjoys racing trucks across wild terrain. “She’s driven it, and right now we’re working on getting the truck, and her, ready for a race at the Motorsports Park. I’ll probably end up riding with her and help her out if she has any problems shifting. She’s good; she’s earned a chance to race it.”

In the longer races, Shaw might have to pit two or three times. His race helmet lets him talk to his passenger and pit crew. “They’re not professional crews, but they have to be good,” he says. “Like any race, you can’t afford to lose time.”

Throwing the Blazer around isn’t the only thing Shaw likes to do in the outdoors. His wife’s parents have a ranch in the high country 100 miles away, and Shaw will go hunting on occasion, something he’s done since he was a young teenager. Last Thanksgiving the celebration was going to be at the ranch. Shaw made one of those decisions we make on family days. Instead of roaring out into the hills in the Blazer, he went hunting. He and his brother-in-law left before dawn and were back not long after sunrise.

Sometimes it’s nice to do quiet, peaceful stuff out in the wild country. But odds are Shaw was not just looking for deer – he was pondering how he’d have handled the Blazer if he were racing instead of walking.

The Power of One Horsepower
Imagine hauling mail from St. Joseph, Mo., to Sacramento, Calif., on one horsepower. On April 3, 1860, men on horseback did just that, and mail went overland from east to west, and vice-versa, in a dedicated mail run for the first time in the country’s history.

What is today known as the Pony Express National Historic Trail was used by brave, lightweight young men who knew a lot about horses, local geography and Indians and rode quick, tough mounts noted for their stamina. Amazingly, it took these riders only 10 days using a horse and rider relay system. Each rider rode through most of the day, changing horses sometimes as many as 10 times before he was relieved.

Not much of the trail is left. Some parts of it have simply blown away with the dust or been overgrown. Modernization with its roads and buildings has also overrun much of the original route. And in some places a lack of records or written memories means the original trail has been lost.

But on your cross-country travels, you may be passing through some of the same country the riders galloped over when the West was young. Take a map with you, or visit a website (see “Follow the Links”) and find out if that is a Pony Express trail outside your cab window.

The Pony Express began when private businessmen William H. Russell, William Bradford Waddell and Alexander Majors decided the relay system of men on horseback would be the most direct and practical method of communication between the East Coast and the West.

The railroad had arrived in St. Joseph in 1859, and the city became the westernmost point of the “civilized” United States. But it was 2,000 more miles to the West Coast. At this time in our history, letters from New York to San Francisco took 30 days by steamship around South America. A twice-weekly overland mail route called The Great Overland Route and run by Butterfield Express’ stagecoaches (from St. Louis to San Francisco via El Paso) took 23 days for delivery. Wells Fargo stages also carried mail. But as the country neared civil war, more speed was necessary. The telegraph and railroad would eventually link east and west, but not quite yet.

According to the Pony Express Museum, Russell, Waddell and Majors were already in the freighting business with 4,000 men, 3,500 wagons and 40,000 oxen in 1858. They held government contracts to deliver army supplies in the West, and Russell envisioned a similar contract for fast mail delivery (They never got the contract and lost $500,000 on their Pony Express venture.). Their proposal was a St. Joseph-to-Sacramento mail delivery in the unheard-of time of 10 days for a hefty $5 per half ounce. They assembled 156 stations, 120 riders, 400 horses and hundreds of employees.

On April 3,1860, a rider left St. Joseph and another left Sacramento. The western delivery took nine days; the trip east took 11.The Pony Express ran each week in each direction, with an average time of 10 days, says the museum. Delivery of Lincoln’s inaugural address set a new record of slightly less than eight days. The mail averaged almost 250 miles a day. Only one rider was killed by hostile Indians, and only one bag of mail was lost. In a year and a half Pony Express riders covered 650,000 miles.

The Pony Express only ran for a year and a half, from April 1860 through October 1861. In the months prior to the opening shots in the Civil War, with both the Union and the Confederacy forming battle lines and alliances, the Pony Express linked the east to newly gold-rich California, a factor that helped the state’s alignment with the Union.

You can still visit remnants of the Pony Express trail and its buildings, including 50 existing Pony Express stations or station ruins administered by the National Park Service.

The Pony Express National Museum, the original stables and the historic Patee House are in St. Joseph, Mo.

John Patee opened his luxurious four-story brick hotel in 1858, and it has been a hotel three times, a girl’s college twice and finally a shirt factory for more that 80 years. It was here that Pony Express operators Russell, Majors and Waddell established their main office in 1860, and it was here Pony Express riders stayed. By the way, if you visit you’ll only be a block from the house where Jesse James was shot and killed in 1882. James’ family stayed at the hotel while the killing was investigated.

If you’re rolling through Nebraska, you could visit the Rock Creek Station. It’s a state park now and makes this claim: “Rock Creek Station might have faded into obscurity, like so many other stage and Pony Express stations, except for one fateful day in 1861. On that July afternoon, one James Butler (Wild Bill) Hickok killed David McCanles there and began his bloody career as a gunfighter.” The Chimney Rock National Historic Site in Bridgeport, Neb., and Scotts Bluff National Monument in Gering, Neb., are two general museums, historic pioneering sites used by the Pony Express and families moving west.

If you are in Kansas, there’s a Pony Express barn in Marysville and the Hollenberg ranch house, which became a station for Express riders, in Hanover. In Wyoming there’s Fort Caspar, an Express station, in Casper. In Utah you might visit Simpson Springs in Tooele County, which was an Express station, or the Camp/Floyd Stagecoach Inn in Fairfield, which was used by Express riders whose office was an adobe building a block away. If your route runs through Nevada, there’s Fort Churchill in Silver Springs, which housed an Express station within its walls. In Old Sacramento the B.F. Hastings building was the western end of the Pony Express trail. From here the mail went on to San Francisco by ferry.

Perhaps you run north of the Pony Express route. There’s still a chance to get the feeling of how daring these riders were. According to the Historical Atlas of the American West, “the postmaster general awarded a contract in 1867 for a northern pony express route from Fort Abercrombie (near present-day Fargo, N.D.,) to the mining fields of Helena, Mont.
The contract called for triweekly mail service across 450 miles of a North Dakota prairie devoid of a single settlement and 500 miles of Montana that was even more desolate and dangerous.

“The contractors tried to fulfill their obligation to begin mail service on July 1, 1867, and made delivery in 14 days. During the summer, Indian raids delayed the riders, although service never totally stopped. Promised military escort was usually inadequate or even unavailable. One report was that ‘the Indians have been raising hell and frightening all the mail riders here so they dare not go out the door.’ The ferocity of winter storms intimidated riders to a point that the infrequent mail service came to a halt and was discontinued on March 12, 1868, when the contractors went bankrupt.”

While you’re looking out of the cab at all those empty miles in the West, you might just imagine what it was like. Don’t you think some of the riders would have made great truckers?

Follow the Links
Pony Express National Museum
Read legendary British explorer and adventurer Sir Richard Burton’s diary entries about Pony Express stations here.

Pony Express Home Station
This one may be the most kid friendly if you have children or grandchildren you’d like to introduce to the Pony Express.

National Park Service – Pony Express
When you visit this page, check out all of the “In Depth” and “History and Culture” buttons. And once there, don’t miss the “Links and Resources” button because there is a wealth of information.

Patee House Museum
Catch a glimpse of the house’s interior in the online photo album.

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