Among those struggling, unpretentious little towns that fate and history have conspired to treat shabbily or ignore entirely, Monroe, Mich. stands as a classic example, a hardworking place that really deserves better. An industrial community fighting off the ravages of a humid Midwest summer with cold beer and insect repellent (in that order), Monroe is a paper-mill town halfway between Detroit and Toledo, with a blue collar for each of its shady old elms and saloons sufficient to match the well-kept homes.
Almost from its start, Monroe has gotten short shrift from a lot of folks. The French and British fought some messy battles around this scenic area, and the local historic hero, General George Armstrong Custer, spent his boyhood in Monroe before heading off to West Point, Appomattox and, in due time, that regrettable session of acupuncture at Little Big Horn.
Long before pollution became a household word, Monroe's residents knew that nearby Lake Erie qualified as the dirtiest body of water this side of a sump. Thus it has remained, a sort of liquid fire hazard suitable only for the bravest kid swimmers and the legion of mosquitoes that begin their furious breeding there sometime after the ice thaws.
Then came last weekend, and, sure enough, someone socked it to Monroe again.
The occasion was a national racing championship that was difficult to recognize as anything involving wheels. This one was called, somewhat redundantly, the National All-Terrain Vehicle Association Grand National Championships, and it played its third annual competition in the mud, slime and greasy clay gumbo of the Monroe County Fairgrounds. It is doubtful that any recent sporting event has so belied its purpose—which was to demonstrate the speed and mobile tenacity of the little six-wheeled craft that can travel over any surface short of an erupting lava flow.
Unfortunately, the course laid out for the scuttling, marshmallow-tired vehicles wouldn't have taxed the go-power of an airport limo. Any car, for that matter, could have negotiated the gentle slopes fashioned by a bulldozer, and there were those who were willing to bet the same on a Greyhound bus, except for the tight turns and incredibly slippery mud generated by sporadic and torrential cloudbursts.
The whole soggy scene might have been an unqualified disaster but for the friendliness and good spirit that prevails between members of the ATV set, who bring to their frolic none of the viciousness common to motorcycle racing, snowmobiling or, say, lawn tennis.
The ATV drivers and their following, which at Monroe included a toothless driver, a dentist, a Vietnam tank corps veteran and a lady bartender from Minnesota, are much like the craft they pilot, which one housewife described as "cutesy buggies." Nearly everyone is involved solely for the fun of it and with nothing to shoot for in the way of prize money save for a trivial chunk of entry fee. The bloodlust is tempered to a few curses and a lot of chuckling. Moreover, the ATV zealots have a care for the environmental movement and seem to realize that while their recreational vehicles are becoming an increasingly popular item, they also have been caught in the backlash created by snowmobiles so that acceptance by governmental agencies must he achieved slowly, with such improvements as better mufflers.
The friendly brotherhood act even prevailed between two of the youngest and best drivers in the field, 17-year-old Scott Slonaker, the defending national champion, and 18-year-old Danny Stevens, who stood a chance of taking the title away in Sunday's finals.
Slonaker, of York Haven, Pa., was piloting an All-Terrain Vehicle about the same time that his peers were testing out Schwinns and long before he was old enough to qualify for a regular driver's license. Scott now pilots seven different class Attex brand ATVs, which he leaps in and out of, at the assigned moment, like a parking-lot attendant. He also is a thoughtful lad who realizes that his success has come in an offbeat sport, ill-designed for swelling the ego.
"I'm no good in sports and not much of an athlete," Scott said during Saturday's qualifying trials, in which he won four races. "That's why I got into this kind of racing. That and because it's different."
He held little brief for the championship layout: "The course is too short, narrow and confined," Scott said. "I'd rather see us stage a cross-country type race, but then the fans couldn't see it. There were one or two of those in 1968 but they built up the competitive racing, and the cross-country thing, with the families and all, died out. It's too bad. They should have kept both of them going."
While Slonaker is a stripling built like a pipe cleaner, Stevens stands 6'1" and weighs 160 pounds. He also has earned a bundle of money racing snowmobiles out of his native Pontiac, Mich., where he will finish next week at Waterford Mott High School.
Like Slonaker, Stevens said that his burgeoning success as an ATV driver had produced little in the way of enraptured awe from any of his schoolmates. The thought, in fact, amused him greatly. "No," he chuckled, "I try to keep it a secret. I don't say that much about it and it's nothing to put over the P.A. anyway. You just do it because you enjoy it. Snowmobiles are cleaner and easier to work with. I like speed, so I've done better with them, but these people are more fun to be with. In snowmobiles, they'd just as soon kill you as look at you. Fall down in front of a guy and he'll run right over you."
Thus on Sunday, Slonaker met Stevens in bouncy battle, a seven-race showdown under a sweat-inducing sun and through voluminous dust clouds to replace the mud bogs of the day before. Snaking and sliding deftly around the three-eighths-mile course—and often tiptoeing past upside-down competitors—Scott won five times and finished second once. Rival Stevens was no pushover: he finished second in his first race despite a wild rollover flip that detained him for a bit, but managed only third place for the rest of the day's activities. Slonaker seemed to grow stronger and luckier as the day wore on and the competition moved up into the higher-horsepower machines. Shooting down the straights at 45 to 50 mph, the youthful champion beat his rivals almost from the start.
With the Chamber of Commerce as sponsor, Monroe was picked as site for the ATV Grand National because the market for the buggies is centralized in the Great Lakes states. A local dealer named Terry Lake, who may be the most honest vehicle salesman in history, helped to bring the event to his hometown and he also was partly to blame for the tepid course. In Monroe, that's how it goes.
Lake was most astonishing for the fact that headmitted that All-Terrain Vehicles were not yet ready to replace motherhood, apple pie and the coming of spring as the most cherished facets of American life.
"There is a negative side," he said, "and that is: Where do you run one of these things after you've bought one? We're not allowed to run around in any state parks in Michigan, which are open only to road-licensable vehicles. But that's not all wrong either, because you have to protect the guy who just wants to sit quietly and enjoy the park. Right now there are only four areas in Michigan for off-road vehicles."
One suspects that the six-wheeler vehicles piloted by Stevens, Slonaker, et al. would be okayed by various departments of conservation if rules were laid down to match the specifications of the machines. The tires on the ATVs are spongy and soft, since they carry but two pounds pressure, and nearly everyone involved in the sport claims that a horse can do more damage to the terrain, or an outboard motor to a school of fish.
Unlike the three-wheeled, madcap trikes that also entered the Monroe competition (obviously to woo any parent hoping to rid himself of a wretched child), the six-wheeled ATVs will float. In fact, the more sedate, noncompetition model can be wheeled right into lake or river and used as a fishing boat. "The other night," said Bob Socoloskie of Pittsburgh, "I was two miles out into Lake Ontario when the Coast Guard made me turn around. There's no way you can get that entire wheel under water. It's like trying to sink a bubble. We see a great future for these things. They're not like snowmobiles, which you can use only 7% of the year. My wife and I load a beer cooler on one of these things and go off on top of a mountain sometimes and later we don't even know how we got there."
Another booster is Tom Shiflet, the unpaid test pilot for the entire recreational vehicle industry, who plans to make an expedition to the South Pole in November, thus adding another chapter to an impressive personal saga. Shiflet, a truck driver in Norwalk, Ohio, holds the endurance record for both snowmobiles and ATVs—the latter at 31 hours, 15 minutes—and he thinks America has much to gain from something that can go anywhere but the open road.
"I get tired of all this nonsense in our country over Vietnam and welfare and things like that," he said. "If more people would get out in a recreational machine and see our own country, they'd have a ball."
Indeed, more people are, or will. More manufacturers are now entering the commercial competition and the racing still draws a few hardy souls who pilot homemade craft.
General George Armstrong Custer could have used an ATV or two against Sitting Bull, but the vehicle reached Monroe a little late. Oh, well, tough luck with that town is the rule.