Y2K ZookiMelt with TD (Troy) Graham; photos by Michelle Maslo-Norman
Ever notice how really good ideas seem to take on a life of their own? Take the common fork, for example. Do you really think that the inventor thought, “You know, I’ll bet in 5000 years, civilized people won’t be able to eat without one of these babies”? Probably not. Well, when my ‘Zookin buddy Bill Maulding, Jr. and I planned out the inaugural “ZookiMelt” event for July of 1999, we didn’t realize just how out-of-hand it would become.
Sure, the first year was “cake”; 16 Suzukis showed up for the First Annual ZookiMelt at the Badlands in Attica, Indiana in spite of little-to-no notice. We had fun, made new friends, bent some sheetmetal, puckered a bit, gave away some cheesy trophies and vowed to return in 2000 for a bigger and badder ZookiMelt.
Next Year… Hoo boy…
Not 20, not 40, not even 80, but 127 (!) Suzukis converged on this little, unsuspecting Indiana town for what has become the largest gathering of Suzuki Samurais, Sidekicks, and Geo Trackers in the U.S. What is even more amazing is that all promotion for the Y2K event was done by word-of-mouth or via the Internet through the International Suzuki Association’s web site, www.izook.com. Attendance was encouraged in part through generous sponsorship provided by nearly every US- and Canadian-based vendor of Suzuki-specific aftermarket parts and accessories, The Badlands owners, and a free hot dog dinner provided by the iZook staff. (Free food!)
The Badlands ORV Park is a privately owned tract of over 700 acres located in western Indiana that is a literal smorgasbord of off-road terrain. You name it, it’s probably here; from expert 5+ rock trails to bottomless mud, to treacherous sand dunes, to the (now-infamous) “Tubes”. The area is host to several other large events during the year, so even 127 of our little trucks didn’t seem like a lot. There are at least three main trails, each with literally hundreds of optional obstacles:
Green, which is heavily wooded, tight, but relatively easy, and can be negotiated with a stock Samurai driven with a degree of resolve. The chances for “trail pinstriping” is good, the off-camber can catch you off-guard if you’re not careful, and if the creek is high, you’ll float.
Then there’s the “Tubes”. These are Samurai-sized, 50-foot long culverts that drop you into water anywhere from 2 to 4 feet deep. The truly loony go full throttle through them and hit the water at 30mph, sending a wave of water 10 feet high, and thoroughly drenching the vehicle’s occupants at the same time. It’s a true “spectacle”. Snorkels highly recommended here!
There are bypasses to the most difficult obstacles, including the Tubes, and it normally takes about 4-6 hours to negotiate the entire trail.
Orange, which is very tight, wooded, off-camber, muddy, and pretty much requires aggressive tires and a locker. Lots of 10-point turns here, and a couple sections that will either pop you on your lid or drown you hood-deep in the slipperiest mud you can imagine. Some of the steep climbs are quite loose, and claimed at least one victim (rollover) this year. Good chance for sheetmetal damage, and you will get muddy, especially if the weather has been wet. This year it had been, and one of the smaller holes claimed a sprung-over Samurai on 32″ tires in water that was chest-deep on a full-grown man. After that, no one dared to try the deep ones…
Which brings us to Pink, the expert trail. Two lockers, aggressive 32″+ tires, a flexy suspension and a roll cage are all but mandatory for this “thing”. Body damage is pretty much assured, rollovers are common, endos happen, and if you’re lucky, you won’t damage the drivetrain. The Indiana rocks are a bit different from those out west, such as the Moab “Slickrock”, in that most of it is limestone-based and therefore quite slippery. To further complicate things, there is sand in between them, and when the rocks get wet, it’s as though someone greased them up.
One especially tricky part is a way-off-camber, slippery-gravelly section that traverses the bottom of a cliff. One slip through here, and you’ll roll a couple of times, ending up in a pond, if the rocks at the bottom of the hill don’t stop you…
Bypasses? Oh, they’re there, for weenies. Optional obstacles abound, and are encouraged, but beware. Plan on spending the entire day running this trail, and bring spare parts.
The ZookiMelt is held the Friday-Saturday-Sunday after the 4th of July, which was the 7th through the 9th this year, and due to the promotion effort, had folks turning up as early as the 5th. It attracted Suzukis from literally dozens of states, from Vermont to Colorado, and Canada to Georgia, not to mention Jessika James flying in from California, and Timmy Cane and Clare North jetting over from England!
The weather cooperated this year, and although warm and sunny, it was without the stifling humidity that we usually get this time of year, and for which the event is named; ZookiMelt. Although it did not rain during the three-day event, it rained for almost the entire two weeks prior. This meant that the trails were muddy, especially Orange, and the creek was deep. Perfect.
Most of the Trail Leaders/Tail Gunners arrived Thursday to pre-run the trails and make sure the routes were properly marked for those venturing out on their own. Well, due to the trail conditions, it took all day and still didn’t get quite finished by dark. By the time we got back to the campground, there must have been 50 Zooks already there, which was quite a sight in itself. When was the last time you saw just five in any one place?
About 80 vehicles attended Friday, getting started around 10:00AM, after the usual ritual of “hey, check that out!” vehicle ogling, or as one wag put it, “tailgate sniffing”. What was particularly impressive was the amount of owner-fabricated items present. Due to the small (but growing) Suzuki aftermarket, a lot of owners have taken it upon themselves to create their own bumpers, rock guards, suspension, engine transplants, axle transplants, etc. Missing Links, drop links, coil-overs, quarter elliptics, full elliptics, buggy leafs, Dana 44s, Toyota axles, rotaries, Toyota fours, Chevy V6s, ad infinitum. Some of which worked especially good, and some that didn’t.
Within minutes of starting the Pink trail, the visitors knew what they were in for, as one rig ended up on its side, not once, but twice. As the trail progressed further, rocker panels and fenders started taking a lot of abuse. Ultimate flex can be a bad thing, as Bob Norman’s Killer Bee hardtop Samurai demonstrated at a particularly slippery off-camber area. The custom coil-over suspension allowed the body to lean downhill far enough to make the rig tippy, necessitating a strap from above to avoid the imminent multiple rolls.
Meanwhile, on the Green trail, one of the Trail Leader’s rigs developed some serious spring-wrap problems, while the rest of the group’s visitors were puckering away at the trail’s many surprises. It’s one of those trails that can lull you into a sense of “well, this isn’t so bad…”, about which time you crest a rise that breaks into a near-vertical, loose downhill, with two trees perfectly positioned at the bottom to catch you. At which time you will have to be winched from the side to get free. White knuckles can give off glare in the noonday sun… and we aren’t even to the Tubes yet!
Orange starts out fairly intense, with a six-foot vertical drop into a small creek bed, followed by a lot of off-camber work weaving around trees. Then there’s The Steps, a sharp, uphill left hander that is punctuated by deep ruts and tree roots in just the wrong places. Normally, having one locker means you’re taking the bypass, but now everything is wet and slimy. Several in the group take the bypass after trying multiple times and getting hung up no matter which line they chose. Someone radios, “This isn’t Pink, is it?”
Then comes the mud. Most of the group contemplates bypassing the first large hole after checking the depth with a stick, but the resident character Billy Bob decides it’s time for a little “entertainment”. Not realizing the depth or length of the water means his run is stopped when the mud goes over the top of the hood, for fear of hydro-locking the motor. It takes not one, but two Samurais to winch him out. The rest of the group wisely decides to go out of their way to avoid all mudholes from now on.
Back at the campground that evening, a small raffle is held for the day’s participants which includes a rear bumper, some Suzuki trail videos and hats. The fellas who win the bumper have it installed almost immediately. Many tall, tall tales around the campfire(s) are heard, and many new friends are made, all to the sound of folks busy repairing their rigs from the day’s carnage. Some even had pictures already developed of the day’s exploits!
Saturday was nuts, with nearly 130 Suzukis going every which way. We started off the festivity portion of the ZookiMelt by holding an all-new event, the “ZookiCross”. The object is to run a complete lap of an obstacle course as close to an “ideal” time as possible, drawing penalties for either being too late or too early, backing up, or running over course markers. The course was laid out to include sharp uphill and downhill sections, some off-camber, some diagonal ditches, some mud, and a couple small jumps for good measure.
After the ZookiCross, everyone split into their respective trail rides for the day. Which basically meant more carnage ensued. Rick Lance used his newly installed 4.3 V6 to basically shred every drivetrain component in the front of his Land-Cruiser axle equipped Samurai. Brian Sieg found out just how substantial the factory provided roll structure of his Samurai is when he flipped over backwards on a steep climb on the Orange Trail. Eddie Casaneuva had a heart-stopping moment when trying to go down a nearly vertical rock face and accidentally stalling the motor, which nearly resulted in a nasty forward/sideways semi-endo. He saved it by getting it started just as it was teetering, gotta love that fuel injection!
Late in the afternoon, we got as many Zooks together as we could in one of the Badlands’ sand bowls for a group photo. Around 90 trucks showed up, even getting that many in the shot took a lot of moving, and re-moving vehicles, but it got done.
Then it was directly onto the RTI competition. Due to the sheer number of vehicles, we could only measure them driving up the new 30-degree ramp forwards. Now, unlike most events, the ZookiMelt also gives out an award for the lowest RTI score, termed the “Stiffie Award”. Dennis Stroot, the reigning Stiffie champ was able to hold onto his crown with the miserable showing of 416, while Jeff Pollock nearly drove off the top end of the ramp with an amazing 1286 showing. “Ranger” Rick Hall exercised his 4.3 V6 a little too much on the ramp and wound up on his side.
Gordito Award (worst stuck): Billy Bob
Rash Award (most body damage): Brian Sieg Dana Award (most drivetrain damage): Rick Lance Stiffie Award (worst RTI score): Dennis Stroot (repeat winner) Limp Award (best RTI score): Jeff Pollock Loony Bin Award (furthest traveled): Timmy Cane and Clare North ZookiCross Winner: Mark Forenbaher
Then came the moment a lot of folks had been waiting patiently for: the big raffle. Everything from a Warn 8000 winch to a Shackle Reversal kit, to a Rear Disc Brake kit, to Expander Shackles and almost every imaginable Suzuki accessory in between was given away. The proceeds of the raffle ticket and t-shirt sales helped to cover the event expenses, and all excess funds (about $600) were donated to the Blue Ribbon Coalition in the ZookiMelt name.
In fact, we had so many tasty items donated by so many vendors that by the time we finished the raffle, the mob was getting mighty hungry. Larry Harris and Jim Mazzola had their hands full in cooking hundreds of hot dogs, gallons of beans, and feeding close to 250 people in about an hour.
The late raffle and dinner meant the Extreme Pucker Factor night run got started later than planned, and so fewer folks attended than expected. Those that did now realize why night runs in the woods are pucker-prone: you can’t see anything, so you have no reference to judge obstacles. There’s just one way to find out: clench your teeth and go over them blind. Think you’ve got what it takes?
Sunday morning most folks packed up and started to head for home, due to the distances they had to travel. The handful that stayed behind spent the morning exploring different routes and obstacles, shooting pictures, and clowning around. It was a relaxing, fitting end to an event like no other.
Mark your calendar for ZookiMelt 2001 on July 12-14, the goal is 200 vehicles!