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Salem off road champ is back in the national spotlight

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Salem resident Alex Sanders and his father, Jackie, took on a California obstacle course last month during Four Wheeler Magazine's Top Truck Challenge. Sanders, who won the national off road competition last year, went up against other past winners in a special 20th Anniversary showdown in Hollister Hills, Calif. [Order this photo]
There is nothing Alex Sanders likes better than driving through a mud hole until he's stuck real good, and can work his way out.

So, the Salem native loved his second appearance at Four Wheeler Magazine's Top Truck Challenge in Hollister Hills, Calif, last month.

The first day of competition against some of the world's top off road drivers, his power steering went out.

"When you're climbing hills and rocks, it's a little rough without your steering," Sanders laughed.

Last year, Sanders was the surprise winner of the buggy division, after a week of competition climbing mountains, crawling over rocks and trekking through deep mud pits.

Sanders landed in the Top Truck Challenge because readers of the magazine chose him -- even though he drives an off road buggy he made for about $2,000 with mostly junkyard parts.

He became a spectator favorite by excelling against other 4 X 4s worth up to $100,000, and coming out on top.

"It was great going back, because I got to hang out with Shannon Campbell, Clayton Kraatz and Jeremy Naeger," Sanders said. "I have a shirt with their signatures, and most of them signed the roof of my rig."

Those names may not mean anything to you, but they are some of the superstars of off roading. Sanders got to rub shoulders with them because, for the 20th Anniversary of the Top Truck Challenge, all past winners were invited back for a big showdown.

"I probably had more fun this year than last," Sanders said. "I could play harder and be less cautious (during the challenges) because I didn't expect to win, going up against those guys."

Sanders' father, Jackie Sanders, who owns a car and truck repair shop at Highway 9 and Highway 395 in Salem, joined him again as co-pilot during the competition.

"There were some nice vehicles last year, but this year they were really high dollar," Jackie said.

"Yeah, all the rigs were well built and well thought out," Alex added. "There were less breakdowns this year."

Both agreed that, despite bad luck with the power steering the first day out, they had a great ride.

"About everybody stayed on the grounds and, at night, everybody was helping everybody else, as we worked on our vehicles," Sanders said.

He was given a used power steering unit after his went out and, when it didn't work out, someone else provided another one.

While their vehicle wasn't up to last year's indestructible standard, the Sanders' took on course events every day except the last, when only the top scoring drivers performed.

The Sanders' will be included in a DVD that Four Wheeler Magazine will release later this year, and appear again on the Outdoor Network television channel, when it shows this year's action.

When asked how he got into off roading, Sanders pointed to his father, who sheepishly admitted it's his fault.

Jackie, a former race car driver, still has his own buggy, and was helping Alex build go carts when he was five or six. Alex moved up to dune buggies, and designed his own competition buggies as he got older.

As for the future, Sanders said he plans to "keep playing and competing."

While he did not win a big cash prize for taking last year's Top Truck Challenge, Sanders hobby may make him some money yet. His success has led to job offers, and requests from people who want him to build them a buggy.

Sanders is excited about a new off road park that the owners of Big Boy Mowers are developing at Mount Pleasant in Izard County.

"The closest off road park is two hours away at Poplar Bluff, Mo.," Sanders said. "This new park has 5,000 acres, and will be a great place for trails and mud pits and competitions."

According to Sanders, who was invited to test out the new park a while back, off roading is gaining in popularity, and it should draw people from a wide area.

"When Poplar Bluff does Trucks Gone Wild, they draw 5,000 to 10,000 people over a weekend," Sanders said.

But that event isn't the only one drawing fans. Sanders has gained more than 1,500 Facebook "friends," with is Top Truck Challenge adventures, and should have a bright future in the growing sport.

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