North Carolina is the second-largest brick producer in the country, with thirteen manufacturers around the state. This fact is relevant to the mud pit at The Farm at Uwharrie, because this nefarious obstacle is not “mud” in the traditional sense. It is not soupy or granular. It is North Carolina red clay mixed with water, which means that it is essentially liquid brick, two feet deep and 250 feet long.
This mud is not a passive substance. It clings to everything—your shoes, your tires, your clothes. It wants to come home with you. Spend a day at The Farm at Uwharrie and you will swear that North Carolina mud has surpassed dark matter as the most prevalent substance in the universe. By your third trip through the car wash, you’ll have sworn off peanut butter because it reminds you too much of the Uwharrie mud pit.
I am here because I got the idea that it would be fun to show a bunch of good ol’ boys what a Range Rover Sport can do. To the untrained eye, the Sport might appear to be a suburban-rich-guy mall shuttle, but this Rover’s dapper skin conceals a two-speed transfer case and locking center and rear differentials. The height-adjustable air suspension offers nearly twelve inches of ground clearance. This is a monster four-by-four, and I’m about to prove it here at Rockvember, an annual off-road triathlon.
Of Rockvember’s three available contests of truck testosterone—the mud run, a tire pull, and a rock-climbing competition—I set my sights on the mud run. This Range Rover has no towing package and thus no place to attach a 3000-pound sled, and the rock course looks like a fine place to cause about $40,000 of depreciation within thirty seconds. Mud, on the other hand, washes off—at least in theory.
I chose to enter a Range Rover Sport specifically because of the disparity between its image and its capability. The Sport is sleek and chiseled, electronically limited to 140 mph, and liberally sprinkled with street-performance visuals—fifteen-inch front brake rotors and 45-series tires are not your usual off-road accoutrements. I’m sure the crowd here thinks the Range Rover has as much chance as a Jonas brother entering an MMA cage match. But I’m gonna prove them wrong! Maybe.
Unsurprisingly, I have the only Range Rover Sport here. Also the only Land Rover product. And maybe the only foreign car. This is a place where guys have names like Peewee, Butch, and Crazy Dave. Their trucks have names, too: Gold Digger, Mudweiser, Ol’ Glory. When my friend Joe and I approach the registration desk, the guy there asks the name of my truck. I hadn’t really considered that, but I immediately decide that it should be as obnoxious as possible. Joe is up on his U.S. history, so I ask him who the king of England was during the American Revolution. “King George III,” Joe replies. “But you should make it HRH King George III—‘His Royal Highness.’ ” And that’s how HRH King George III entered the Pure Street class of the Rockvember mud run.
According to Rockvember’s rule book, which is short indeed, the Pure Street class consists of vehicles with stock power and tires no larger than 37 inches. So a Ford Raptor would be eligible. Or a lifted Jeep Wrangler Rubicon with honkin’ big Mud-Terrains. In this arena, those are what you call your starter trucks.
I pull up to the starting line, open my window, and ask the course worker how far he thinks I’ll make it. He sizes up my weapon—a pristine Fuji white 2014 Land Rover Range Rover Sport Supercharged—and drawls, “One car length.” A mere car length, good sir? Surely you underestimate this piece of thoroughbred off-road hardware, this aluminum-bodied, 510-hp distillation of Land Rover’s half century of four-wheel-drive expertise.
I think, “You’re about to get a big surprise,” and I hit the gas. I make it 51.4 feet.
Which, you’ll note, is more than three car lengths. But it appears that this mud-run thing might be more difficult than I’d anticipated.
Adding to my woes, the Pure Street class includes trucks like a 2000 Dodge Ram 1500 Sport, a model that seemed about ten feet tall straight from the factory. This guy, I suspect, will be my nemesis. After His Royal Highness’s ignominious first run goes into the books, the Ram plunges in and proceeds to decimate my performance.
Among my other mistakes, I’d assumed that I wanted to go first to avoid other trucks’ ruts. Wrong. As it turns out, this is one place where you actually want to be stuck in a rut. The Ram uses my fifty feet of tire tracks to build momentum that carries him far down the pit. Just when I think he’s mired for good, he starts sawing the wheel and somehow inches the truck another fifteen feet down the course. Keith Wilson, who built my diesel Ford Bronco and is here with his gargantuan Willys M715, explains the black magic working for the persistent Dodge. “He’s using the edge of the banking to get some traction from the sidewalls,” Wilson says. “Sometimes that’s enough to keep you moving.”
Well, if I’m going to lose, at least I’ll lose to an expert, a guy who probably has decades of off-road expertise in his blood. When the Ram finally reaches an impasse, 156 feet into the bog, the tinted driver’s-side window opens to reveal the top of a helmet peeking up from somewhere around the vicinity of the steering wheel. Either Peter Dinklage has taken up mud-running or I’ve just been whupped by a kid.
The Dodge is extricated by a tractor and I wander over to meet my competition, one Christopher Prichard, Jr. He’s sitting in the bed of the truck, awaiting the next heat. I ask his age and he informs me that he’s eleven. If he beats me again in the second round, I plan to petition the organizers to change the minimum age to twelve.
On Wilson’s advice, I head over to the hose station to rinse the Rover’s wheels before they turn to feet of clay. There I meet Tom Stenzel of Mill Spring, North Carolina. He’s waiting to hose off his Jeep J10, dubbed Special Request. “Are those six-piston Brembos?” he asks, gesturing to the Sport’s brash red calipers. “Those remind me of the brakes on my GT3.” Stenzel explains that he used to own a Porsche 911 GT3 track car but now gets his automotive thrills in the less cash-intensive form of truck competitions.
Which is not to say that this corner of motorsport is necessarily low budget. I’d expected a few gasps at the Range Rover’s $92,285 sticker price, but nobody seems very impressed by that. “That thing’s ninety thousand, but so are some of these buggies,” Stenzel says. “There are quarter-million-dollar trucks here.” A guy hosing off an old Chevy chimes in that he’s got $12,000 in it from the doors forward. I tell him that I’m heading back to the bog with the Range Rover and he replies, “You never been accused of having good sense, have you?”
Maybe not, but I’ve got a better shot now than I did the first time. While I was hosing off, a guy named Justin Branch made it 216 feet, so there are ruts nearly to the end of the bog. And after watching some of the high-power trucks flit like water bugs over the surface of the mud, I’ve decided to modify my driving strategy. On the first run I used low range and set the Rover’s Terrain Response system to its “mud/ruts” algorithm. But this isn’t a low-speed trail. This is a max-attack situation, where mud hurled backward equals progress forward. This time, I put the system into high range and I fib to Terrain Response and tell it we’re in sand. Out on the dunes you want sharp throttle response and big wheelspin, and that seems the order of the day here, too.
When the guy at the starting line gives the go sign, I mash the throttle and steer for the ruts. This time the Sport bounds into the muck with ferocity, clawing its way to the traction and booming up through the gears like the 510-hp beast that it is. I’m harboring the fantasy of a full run when I reach the end of Prichard’s ruts and climb onto a messier track. The Rover snorts its way another forty feet before framing out on the ridiculously deep mud—even the air suspension’s “extended mode,” which raises ground clearance to 11.9 inches, isn’t getting us out of this one. The low-rolling-resistance Pirelli Scorpion Verde tires, packed with wet clay, are as smooth as freshly glazed doughnuts. My kingdom for some Super Swampers!
Still, I took the Range Rover Sport and its inappropriate footwear 198.5 feet into the muck, which will ultimately hold up for second place. With a podium finish, the King’s honor is preserved and Range Rover Sport owners may now enter rural mud-bog competitions secure in the knowledge that they’ll probably fare much better than their neighbor with the Porsche Cayenne Turbo. Sure, I know that other trucks here are more capable in the mud, but how many of those can also whip off a 5.0-second 0-to-60-mph time, ford 33.5 inches of water, and steer themselves into a parallel-parking spot? The Rover’s price doesn’t seem that steep when you consider that this is your sports car, your tow vehicle, your family sedan, and maybe even your occasional off-road competition truck all in one.
I never do meet Justin Branch, the driver who bettered me. With his single run good for first place, he didn’t bother with a second effort. But I later learn that he (a) donated his prize money to the Wounded Warrior Project and (b) is seven years old. So the way I look at it, I was first in my class among drivers who have completed the third grade. Also, I wish I’d grown up in North Carolina.
I’d like to stick around for the tire pull, but I’m worried that if I don’t get to a car wash posthaste, cleaning the Range Rover will require a team of stonemasons and a jackhammer. Send away the jesters, it’s time for His Royal Highness to take a bath.
Winch Way, Again?
Learning how to winch at the Land Rover Experience driving school.
“You might make it through, but I’m 95 percent sure you won’t,” says Land Rover Experience off-road instructor Ben Wootten. We’re peering down at a mud hole betwixt two verdant hills somewhere on the property of North Carolina’s sprawling Biltmore Estate. We’re the only ones out here because, well, we’re the only ones allowed out here. The 9500-pound-capacity Warn winch hanging off the LR4’s bumper is the sole reason I’m about to blithely throttle my way into certain disaster. What Wootten is really saying is that there’s a 95 percent chance I’m about to learn how to use a winch.
This Land Rover is bone stock, a stat that includes the Warn—the LR4 is one of the few production vehicles to offer a winch as a factory option. In fact, Land Rover takes the stock-spec mandate so seriously that all the SUVs at its Biltmore school run full tire air pressure even though they hardly ever see pavement. I argue that it would still be the factory air if we let some out. Wootten is having none of it.
He climbs out, and a moment later I bury the LR4 up to its frame in goop. Sure enough, we need the winch. Wootten runs protective straps around two offset trees—the nearer one to get the cable perpendicular to the spool, the distant one so we can use as much cable as possible. “The spool is like a set of gears,” Wootten says. “The more cable you have out, the less the winch has to work. As you wind the cable back on, your mechanical advantage diminishes.” Aha. So, rule one: winch to something far away, if possible.
The other trick is to keep the spool neat, which is why Wootten didn’t just anchor at any crazy angle. You want to feed the cable back onto the spool in orderly rows, avoiding a tangled bird’s nest that will chafe—and thus degrade—the cable. And obviously, watch your fingers. When Wootten is near the winch, I put the handheld control on the dashboard so there’s no chance I’ll inadvertently wind him into the spool.
After a half hour or so of pulling, we’re out. If we were in the jungle somewhere, this piece of equipment might’ve just saved our skins. It’s also potentially dangerous and imparts a feeling of invincibility, like you can drive into anything. Maybe, then, the best off-road setup is to have a winch but pretend you don’t.
I’m sure the crowd thinks the Range Rover has as much chance as a Jonas brother entering an MMA cage match. But I’m gonna prove them wrong! Maybe.