Motors & Mud: Haw Hill Mud Racing in Winnabow
Engines, adrenaline, patriotism and flying mud bring the crowds to Haw Hill MUD RACING in Winnabow.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Ethan Sigmon
Sitting on the bleachers in the middle of a sun-bleached field in Winnabow, waiting for the first of the day’s races through a 200-foot mud pit, I ask myself what I am doing here. I start to ask my friend what we are doing here, hoping he’ll have an answer, but we are interrupted.“All rise for our National Anthem,” says a tinny, manlike voice through the PA system.
We stand and for a few seconds there’s silence. The flag snaps overhead and birds chirp in the distance. Then the recording plays.
Oh say can you see…
I can: A sea of men, women, boys, girls, teens, tweens, grannies, babies, all here to watch a Jeep with 36-inch tires careen down the track.
Whose broad stripes and bright stars…
In front of me, an impressive tattoo of crossed flags — the Stars and Stripes and the Stars and Bars. If the tattoos, flag-emblazoned shirts and truck decals are any indication, the Stars and Bars have won the day.
Oh, say does that star spangled banner yet wave…
An engine revs, no, roars, to life. It growls, then screams, drowning out all but the highest notes of the recording.
O’er the land of the free…
A second engine, then a third join in.
…and the home of the brave…
Now a cacophony of cams and pistons and the explosion of fuel that propels them. The throaty rumble of horsepower thrums in my chest. The crowd cheers. For the flag? For America? For the trucks?
Who knows? Who cares? It’s time to race.
MUD RACING AT HAW HILL
If you’re unfamiliar, mud racing is a spectacular motorsport. Essentially, it’s a timed drag race down a muddy course. That’s oversimplifying it quite a bit, but that’s the essence of the sport.
At the Haw Hill raceway, the track is 200 feet long and up to 2.5 feet deep. It’s called a “hill and hole” track. Under the mud at Haw Hill, the ground rises and dips, making drivers contend with the deep, sloppy mud as well as the undulating terrain.
Given that the mud is deep and viscous, drivers can win in one of two ways: fastest time through the pit or farthest distance driven into the pit. More often than not, it’s a combination of phenomenal driving and the right tires that leads to victory, though other factors do come into play.
Today, some 75 to 100 runs will take place as 50 or so competitors race, change tires, race again, make engine adjustments and race once more. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,500 people will watch. Everyone — winner and loser, grandstand watcher and concession-stand burger flipper — will have a good time today.
Their names are Mudweiser, Sloppy Seconds, Red Snake, Dirty Money, Swamp Donkey. Looking at them is like looking at a prop garage from Mad Max IV. Steel support structures and roll cages, reinforced frames, oversized suspensions, tires 4-feet tall, and windshields with tiny slits cut in them all add to this post-apocalyptic look.
The sounds of these engines — which have no mufflers and are instead straight-piped exhausts, if there are exhausts at all, for maximum efficiency — is unbelievable when they’re idling or creeping to the starting line. When they stomp the throttle and shoot into the pit, it’s damn near unbearable.
Many in the crowd — mostly little kids — wear shooting earmuffs. A few folks have earplugs stuffed in their ears, but more often than not, everyone watching does so with a sort of nonchalance. It’s loud like a jet taking off, and neither my friend nor I watch with any nonchalance. I don’t have any ear protection — it never even crossed my mind — so when the engines scream and the mud begins to fly, I just grit my teeth and endure the next 30 seconds.
KEEPING IT SAFE
The drivers wear hearing protection and helmets, and every car has safety belts and harnesses relative to their power. In the biggest trucks, the ones with the most powerful engines and largest tires, drivers wear five-point harnesses similar to the ones professional racecar drivers wear, and the vehicles are outfitted with reinforced roll cages inside the cab of the vehicle.
Before the race, Al Potter, owner of Haw Hill Mud Racing, and other track officials call the drivers together for the safety meeting. Potter’s been running races here since 1984, with an 8-year hiatus somewhere along the line, but he’s back now for their 18th consecutive season. He and his crew have the experience to keep a driver safe. When they go over the safety rules and regulations specific to Haw Hill — the procedures in the event of a fire or accident and policies regarding what they call “pulling a cable” — there’s very little comment. Except on the last part.
Pulling a cable is just that. Each race vehicle must have an easily accessible hook up or tow point to which a long steel cable is attached. The cable is 220 feet long, give or take, and it’s used to pull out vehicles that are stuck in the mud. Once a competitor gets stuck, track assistants attach the loose end of the cable to a giant John Deere tractor, which pulls them out easy as pie.
There’s controversy over pulling a cable, as the cables can potentially slow the vehicles down or otherwise interfere with their run through the pit. If one driver in a class decides to drive with the cable (a decision that some drivers view as weakness, like an admission of “I can’t make it across the pit”), all drivers in that class pull the cable. At the safety meeting there was much grumbling about this point.
At the Haw Hill raceway, they run six “classes” of vehicles ranging from stock models to crazily modified machines in the Open Class (which allows “any engine or modification…any body, any chassis”). Tire sizes run from a normal size you’d find on any 4x4 up to 44 inches and even bigger (in the Unlimited Class). In the pit area, many teams have several sets of tires with them. Several classes allow them to run two sets of tires, so they can compete more than once with the same vehicle. The tire sets vary in size as well as tread aggression (to account for different textures of the raceway mud).
Drivers as young as age 12 (at this age, they have to be accompanied by an adult) challenge the mud, and Potter says that the young drivers are a pretty frequent sight. More common, though, are young men full of testosterone and adrenaline, ready to push the horsepower to the limit in order to cross the mud track.
NOT JUST FOR PROFESSIONALS
After a deafening heat in which one truck shimmies and slides its way through the pit on a fast and triumphant run while his competitors struggle to get more than halfway across, it is time for one of the more interesting races.
The PA crackles: “Now it’s time for ‘Run What You Brung.’” The announcer explains that Run What You Brung is just that — you drove it here, you race it here. Hopefully you can drive it home.
The crowd whoops and cheers as a Jeep Cherokee pulls up to the line. It’s not special. No lift kit, no humongous tires that can cost upwards of $400 (some teams spend even more — think $1,000 and more for a single tire), no crazy exhaust system. It’s just a Jeep that some guy thought he should enter into the race.
He makes a respectful go of it, getting around 75 feet into the track before he loses it and gets stuck. The sloppy mud is over his doorsills, and the tops of his tires barely show. Then that giant tractor gives him a tug and he’s back on dry ground. A rev of the engine to clear the tailpipe and a slow drive over to the washing station at the end of the track, and he’s done.
The next competitor in this most foolhardy of classes doesn’t fare so well. He goes about 40 feet, gets pulled out and runs again, this time getting to 55 feet or thereabouts before they pull him out.
That’s how many people get started in the sport, running their street-legal vehicles in a competition like this one. Since drivers here can be as young as 12, serious race aficionados can get experience early and relatively inexpensively. After all, investing in tires, engine modifications, safety equipment, roll cages, custom paint jobs and a trailer to haul all of this around is a pricey prospect.
From the looks of the crowd — and it is a crowd, the two sets of bleachers are full, and more folks mill around the pit area and refreshment stands — a number of them had raced before or were contemplating entering sometime soon.
Me, I have no desire to enter my truck (though it does seem like a fun challenge). Will I come back again and watch? Certainly. There’s something intoxicating in the smell of exhaust and mud and gasoline. And there’s something about watching racing through a mud pit on a farm in Brunswick County, feeling the sun on my face, listening to the flag snap in the breeze and hearing the thunderous engines that embodies the American experience.
Maybe Potter says it best: “Me, I like the horsepower, the feel of the engines, their sound. Other folks like the competition or the trucks rushing down the track, but a lot of folks, well, they like to see the mud fly. We’re lucky to have it all.”
Want to go to a race?
Check hawhillmudracing.com for a schedule. The next race is slated for October 11, 2014. Admission is $12 for adults and $5 for kids, and it’s well worth it.