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Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016

Salem Off-Road champ takes on the big boys

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Alex Sanders of Salem backed off a culvert into a ditch and easily drove back out in his off road buggy, which won last year's national Top Truck Challenge. Sanders and his co-pilot -- father, Jackie, are back in California competing in the seven obstacle course events that will determine this year's winner. Sanders' success with his, inexpensive homemade vehicle has made him a celebrity among off road fans. Photo by Richard Irby [Order this photo]
After two months of work, Alex Sanders' truck was finally back on the road. To celebrate, he flashed a mischevious smile and backed off a concrete culvert, bouncing down into a deep ditch.

It would be a crisis to most of us -- but most of us don't drive a monster off-road buggy which is specially equipped to climb mountains, crawl over rocks and slog through deep, gooey mud. Sanders was quickly back up on flat ground.

"I can't believe I get to go back. I will be going up against some of the best drivers in the world," Sanders said, when asked about his trip back to Hollister, Calif., to compete in Four Wheeler Magazine's Top Truck Challenge.

A year ago, Sanders took his self-made off road buggy to Hollister Hills, Calif., after magazine readers voted him into the Top Truck Challenge contest.

"Hundreds of people from all over the world send pictures to Four Wheeler and about 50 are put in the magazine, but only five buggies and five trucks are chosen for the competition," Sanders said.

After years of reading the magazine and three attempts to get chosen for the Top Truck Challenge, Sanders was among the 10 drivers who gathered in Hollister Hills in June of 2011 for the five day, seven event competition designed, according to the magazine, "to test the limits of both drivers and their rigs."

Sanders didn't just compete -- he came out the winner of the buggy division. He became a spectator favorite because he built his "homemade" buggy for $2,000, mostly from junkyard parts and his own creativity.

"Everybody was rooting for me because I was the underdog," Sanders told The News last year in a phone call from California. "They would come up and kind of look it over and admire the engineering it took to make it work, since I kept it nice and cheap."

Nice and very cheap, considering that other 4 by 4s he went up against were worth up to $100,000.

Sander's Top Truck Challenge win earned him several thousand dollars worth of tires, jacks and other equipment and accessories. He also got a big spread in Four Wheeler Magazine, starred in a DVD of the competition, and appeared on the Outdoor Television network during the five weeks it showed the 2012 truck challenge.

All that made Sanders a celebrity in the off roading world.

"I picked up a lot of Facebook friends," Sanders admitted. "I had about 500 'friends' before the competition, and I have about 1,500 now."

Sanders' sister, Mary, claims Alex is being modest.

"He has had calls from all over the country offering him jobs, wanting to buy his buggy or wanting him to build them a buggy," Mary bragged on her shy brother.

So far, Sanders has stayed put -- working at his father's auto repair shop at Highway 9 and Highway 395 in Salem -- and preparing for a rare chance to run in the Top Truck Challenge a second time.

"I didn't find out about it until the awards ceremony," Sanders remembers. "Because this year is the 20th anniversary of the Top Truck Challenge, they invited all the past winners back."

The magazine is a little more dramatic: "As a special twist for the 20th anniversary, Four Wheeler is bringing back most of the past champions for a final showdown to see who really is King of the Hill," a news release teases.

On Tuesday, June 5, Sanders and his father were going over the buggy one last time, and preparing for the 40 hour trip to California to participate in the big show.

"I think my vehicle is just as well off as last year," Sanders said. "But it's been upgraded. I had to rebuild the front end. It's more powerful because I put in a different engine and have fuel injection -- 150 to 200 more horsepower."

Sanders wants to give it his best shot, knowing he's going up against "better drivers and tougher rigs."

While Sanders is one of the stars, some of the past winners have had long careers in all types of off roading.

"I have read all about some of these people for years," Sanders said. "Shannon Campbell has been in competitions where you go over 100 miles of rough rocks, then race through the desert. Jerry Naeger has a famous off road shop in Bloomsdale, Mo. I can't wait to meet him and the others."

After the grueling drive from Salem to California, pulling a big buggy, Alex and Jackie planned to spend a couple of days with his Aunt in Cochran, Calif., before making the two hour drive to Hollister.

Sunday and Monday, June 10 and 11, photo shoots and interviews were done. Tuesday and Wednesday three events were scheduled, with a final event on Thursday, June 14.

During the competition, the Sanders' will live in a tent on the grounds, and most of the other competitors will be there too, living in motor homes and tents.

"I'll tell you one thing, this is the best bunch of people you could ever be around," Jackie Sanders said, recalling last year's experience. "We are all out there competing against each other during the day but, at night, everyone is just relaxing and having fun. There were never any cuss fights or anything like that."

Jackie, a former race car driver, serves as Alex's co-pilot during the competition.

Asked if he got dirty during the "mud drag" last year, he replied, "I imagine." Jackie said he shook hands with a man who had interviewed them before they took off into the mud pit. When he returned, he stuck out his hand, only to have the man back quickly away from him. "My hand and whole arm was covered with mud," Jackie laughed.

How will the boys do over days of navigating through mud, driving over rocks and pulling a heavy truck up a hill?

"We're going to have fun," Alex predicted. "The worst we can do is lose."

We'll have an update on how they did in the next issue of The News.

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