Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Why am I Driving a Tank?

Blue Ridge, Georgia is one of those rarified small town American gems. It's a girlfriend getaway retreat, an artsy haven including galleries, antique and specialty shops and restaurants where chefs take pride in serving local produce. Yet the mountain town has a casual feel where you're just as likely to run into fly fishermen and campers or a family coming off the scenic railroad trip.
Roadside view driving into Blue Ridge, GA

Six miles outside of Blue Ridge sits Tank Town USA. It isn’t a town, but a new attraction. It doesn’t look like one of those either. We missed it the first time we drove by.

Street View of Tank Town
Tank Town USA has no street appeal. There’s a sign but you’re likely to miss that, too. It’s downright basic. Tank Town USA is just a big field of Georgia red clay with mounds and dips, a little tent, and a bunch of heavy equipment. Like something under construction.

But the company website entices, "If you can drive a car then you can drive a tank! All of our tanks come originally equipped from the military with automatic transmissions, and the steering controls are simple and easy to operate. Aside from the fact that they are made of thick steel armored plating, have tracks instead of wheels and weigh over 33,000 pounds it's just like driving a car!"

Ready to roll.
Now this sounded exactly like an adventure the Good Girls would love. And why not?  We can deconstruct our travel writing personas and become dirty girls who dig demolition. Right? 

We met owner Todd Leibross, an engineer in the Merchant Marine, who just happens to love tanks and military equipment. He purchased the tanks, officially known as armored personnel carriers, in England and had them shipped to Georgia.  Todd is a true entrepreneur- he seems to have found a clever method to make extra money.  People pay him to drive a tank over an old car and then Todd sells the crushed vehicle to the scrap dealer.  In the process, folks have a ball - and create a great story they happily tell.

View from above.
After arriving and meeting Todd, Judy and I filled out the usual release forms, and then I lowered myself through the FV432 tank's hatch into the driver's compartment. Wow- sorta felt like I'd been dropped into a scene from the movie Stripes and was momentarily overcome by the oil and diesel fumes. I would drive from a standing position with my head looking over the hood of the tank. Todd positioned himself behind me in the vehicle commander's hatch, in order to feed me instructions.

Judy was stationed as the lookout on top, a perfect perch to shoot from if she'd had a gun.  No weapons on this model, however.

Serious Tank Driving

I slipped the rumbling engine in gear (Todd had previously turned it on), pressed down on the accelerator and we were started making tank tracks- albeit at a slow pace. A nine-foot wide and 17-foot length vehicle isn't made for drag racing, you know.

"Pull back on the left stick to turn left or the right stick to turn right," said Todd. That seemed intuitively easy and it was. The odd part was that the tank turned from the center, very different from turning the tires on a car.  In no time I had the hang of things, driving up and down banked earthen mounds around a free-form course, and getting a little bolder with speed.  I was having a blast.  Honestly, controlling a massive tank is a daggone power trip.  Let your inner GI Joe out.

"Are you ready to drive over a car," asked Todd? 

"Sure," I said.  In this case, Judy had to get off - to prevent any possible accidents from flying debris. 

Crushing the car video

So, it was just Todd and me and my 33,000 pounds of military might. I slowly maneuvered the tank's right side tread to line up with the middle of the car.  "Proceed very slowly," Todd coached, and my manly machine squeaked, rattled and jostled along.  I drove over, yes, over the top of the previously smashed car, crushing it even more. Yee-gads, that was frickin' awesome. 

Would you like to try that from a different direction," Todd asked? 

"Absolutely," I responded and this time I drove across the car.  I tell you tank cruising could become addictive.  I felt macho, like the Terminator or the opposite of Private Benjamin who begged to quit the military. I could drive this thing for hours.

Actually the cost to drive at Tank Town might prevent that-- it costs $50 for ten minutes.  Todd said most folks end up driving for 20 minutes because they really get into the thrill. To crush a fresh car costs $499.

Todd claims he has been surprised by the number of women wanting to drive, as well as entire multi-generation families. But take me, for example. I'm a grandmother of seven and would have loved to have my grandkids watch. And my sons would have begged for the chance.

From a different perspective, an 88-year-old WWII Veteran recently showed up.  The guy was overcome with emotion from the opportunity to once again drive a tank.  Who knew the possibilities? 

Driving at Tank Town USA is perhaps the ultimate thing to do for someone who has done it all. I see it as putting an end to gift giving woes. Imagine all those difficult people on your list who could receive gift certificates.

All I can say is, "I love my job and tanks for the memories." 

Judy gets a different view sitting on top of the tank.

Judy and her view from above

Really wanted to drive that hill-climbin’, car-crushin’ tank, but having carefully nursed a recently broken foot this far, I climbed the ladder up to the tank’s top, took one look at the driver’s “hole” and reconsidered. Getting in would be a snap; getting out not so much.

“I’ll take the chair,” I told Todd.

The chair didn’t look particularly sturdy but its legs were securely attached to the tank and there was a competition lap belt to keep me tethered to the seat. Camera in hand, I took my place, sticking out like a sore – and disappointed – thumb.

I could watch Debi manipulate the controls but the engine’s roar crushed any other sound. Then we lurched forward. It may not have felt that way inside but atop, “lurch” is what it did.

Like a honkin’ big, tread-traveling mechanical elephant. I’ve ridden elephants. First, a mile or so trek atop an unadorned Ringling Bros Barnum and Bailey behemoth where I was positioned like a showgirl with my legs behind the beast’s ears. More recently in a howdah atop an elephant in Thailand.

Riding atop a tank is very much like sitting in that howdah, a neck-snapping, lurching, uncomfortable experience. A litigious sort would be crying “Whiplash.”

I wouldn’t have missed it for anything, but next time, let me at those sticks.

Todd Liebross, owner of Tank Town

Tank Town USA is open from April to Thanksgiving, on weekends and during the week by appointment.

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