“Northern Outlaw,” looks just like any other Ford F-150 pickup truck, only it weighs three tons, sits on nearly 4-foot-tall tractor tires and is built specifically to plow through a 200-foot-long mud-filled trough as quickly as possible.
“I’m pushing my foot right to the floor,” said Roger Gilley, who built Northern Outlaw and runs the construction company R & R Builders in Ellsworth. “And I don’t let off until it either stops or breaks.”
Pedal-to-the-metal is the spirit of the Mid-Coast Mud Run, a summer event held every other Sunday on Route 1 on the outskirts of Ellsworth. From 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. the air there smells of smoke, gasoline and fried food as hundreds of dusty jean-clad and work-booted Mainers take turns racing their loud, heavily customized trucks, which have names such as “Hawt Mess,” “The Antagonizer,” “Green Bean,” and “Swampy.” The goal is to win a trophy, along with some neighborly bragging rights. Unless the truck breaks first.
“I’ve broken a bell housing, both motor mounts and twisted off both drive shafts all in one run,” said Gilley, whose truck is made up of at least six other trucks because of all the parts he has had to replace in the course of mud racing. The roaring power of the massive engines — pitted against the intractable mud — makes for stressful conditions that tear even these monstrous machines apart. But that’s part of the game for the mud runners, most of whom are adept mechanics.
“The fun part for me is seeing what we can fix after it breaks,” said Stephen Ward, who works at A & S Auto Repairs in the coastal village of Bernard. His first run of the year, he broke the transmission right off the motor in his truck called “Mud ’Mater” (inspired by Larry the Cable Guy’s character Tow Mater in the movie “Cars”). Ward explained that transmissions are so heavy they are usually installed with a jack, but he made do with what he had on hand. “I put it back together with some ratchet straps in time for one of the last runs of the day.”
Constantly buying and replacing car parts can be an expensive hobby. Steve Rowley, a carpenter from Ellsworth, has sunk $30,000 into the 9-foot 10-inch tall “Double Trouble,” which he co-owns with Craig Hamilton, who runs a construction business. Other mud runners do it for cheaper, scrounging junkyards and used cars for any parts they can find. They find that older parts from before the 1990s are generally more reliable in mud pit conditions, but the high demand for them makes them hard to find.
“Anything that’s old and rugged is difficult to get our hands on,” said Jason Larrabee, a lobsterman from Deer Isle, who mud runs with his wife, Melinda. Luckily, Mid-Coast Mud Runners regularly post ads and requests for spare parts on the group’s Facebook page. Even on race day, there are plenty of spare parts and elbow grease to go around.
“Nobody wants to see somebody broke down” said Rowley, whose “Double Trouble” has broken three axles so far this year. Good thing the race organizer, Mike Cook, lent him three replacements. “They’ll announce, ‘Anyone need a jumpstart or a U-joint?’”
The sharing and caring is a big draw for many mud runners, who write about their ‘Mud Family’ on Facebook and on websites such as Wheelsdeep.com, which is devoted to the sport. The mud runners, their spouses and children pitch tents on either side of the mud pits to spectate together in the shade while little kids push toy trucks through mini mud pits.
Throughout the day, Roger Gilley and his wife, Sarah, sold french fries, M&M’s, hot dogs and ring pops from the Mud Run Concession stand.
“I have to be ready at 7 a.m. with coffee and breakfast going,” said Gilley, whose cheeseburgers, onion rings and “Fried Stuff” won “Most Likely to Cook the Best Dish” in Wheelsdeep’s national superlative polls.
Usually the mud runners fix the trucks, but in Gilley’s case, Northern Outlaw helped fix him. When Gilley broke both his wrists in a snowmobile accident last March, the doctors told him he might never be able to use his hands again. But three weeks after leaving the hospital, he helped himself heal by putting Northern Outlaw together.
“Building Northern Outlaw was a physical therapy,” said Gilley, who managed to put the truck together in time for the last mud run of the season. “My hands were still in casts the first day I drove it.”
And once he did, Gilley, like most mud runners, was hooked again.
“As soon as you put the gas pedal to the floor, the nerves are gone,” said Ward, the professional auto mechanic, who helped Gilley build Northern Outlaw. “It’s all concentration after that.”