Story and Photos by Tonya Mercer
“There is a hole here,” I said, gazing through the lime green tubing as the front passenger tire inched closer to the hole. “Uh-huh,” he replied. “There is a hole here,” I said, a little bit louder. “Uh-huh,” he said as he moved the steering wheel right, then left, then right again in an attempt to find traction for the climb. I put my brand-new camera in its case and wedged it between my knees, tightened my seat belt, and one last time said, “THERE IS A HOLE HERE.” The tire dropped in the hole, and I closed my eyes, fully expecting the buggy to land hard on the passenger side. I felt the movement of the vehicle as we started to fall. I opened my eyes to discover we were lying on the driver’s side, and my camera was gone, buried somewhere in the sand. This wasn’t my first experience in the buggy, but it was my first rollover.
The Rabid Squirrel was built in 2009. My husband wanted a comp buggy; I wanted something that we could go wheeling in as a family. After a lot of looking at builds and budgets, we spent a day test driving a friend’s Formula Toyota. At the time, building an F-toy made the most sense for us. Designed to be an entry-level buggy, F-Toys had a pre-fabricated chassis that you bought then built to class specifications. They were leaf-sprung, Toyota powered, and had a frame under them. Earlier in the year, we had taken the Squirrel to Moab for a shakedown run. The tuning on the propane system was not right. The engine was getting too much fuel and running too hot. Sadly, the Squirrel spent most of its maiden voyage parked at the house while we wheeled in my 4Runner. Later that summer, the Squirrel made its debut in competitive rock crawling.
In Cedar City, we experienced our first professional competition. We had attended as spectators in the past, but this time we weren’t there to watch. On the last course of day one, my husband and his spotter broke the front ring and pinon ten feet from the finish line. We didn’t have a spare. Incredibly, we sourced parts from several of the other competitors; at one point, as many as five other teams helped put the Squirrel back together. We ended up placing fourth. After the competition was over, my husband offered to go roll me over on a course, swearing that it wasn’t so bad once I got past the first one. I politely declined. He persisted. To appease him, I asked if I could try driving one of the courses instead.
I’m not sure if you have ever driven a competitive course before, but they are designed to challenge you. Usually, it is just you, your spotter, and your buggy. There are cones to navigate, judges watching and timing you, and sometimes a photographer or two. In my case, I had my husband riding passenger, his spotter spotting me, and five other teams on the course, all telling me what to do. In case you are counting, that is twelve people giving me directions instead of one. The course we picked had a big drop and an even bigger climb. At the time, I was not comfortable driving a manual transmission, but my husband said I would be fine with the low gearing.
I was pretty nervous but also excited about getting to drive the buggy. I crawled over the rocks with ease, maneuvering around the cones. When it came to the big drop, I made it through, bumping my elbow on part of the tubing. At the big climb, I made it to where my front tires were at the top, and then I killed the engine.
Picture this if you will – I was sitting in the buggy, hanging from the top of a big climb, with twelve guys, all competitors, telling me what to do next, and the first thing I was going to have to do was put in the clutch.
They said I would be fine. I told them I could get out and walk from where I was. My husband promised me I would be ok. With one foot firmly on the brake and the other on the clutch, I started the buggy back up. With my hand on the shifter, and my fingers on the hand throttle, I squeezed gently and eased off the clutch; the Squirrel climbed the rest of the way to the top. I think the guys were just as excited, if not more, than I was. I had just driven my first competitive course.
The following year, my husband decided to run the entire West coast series of W.E.Rock. He also went to Delta, UT, and entered the Old School Rock Crawl. His spotter wasn’t able to come. “So… YOU want ME to tell YOU how to drive???” I asked when he asked me to be his spotter. “Um, ok.”
In Delta, we walked courses, studied lines, and made a plan. I didn’t weigh enough to make much of a difference on the end of a spotter’s strap. I didn’t feel that I had enough experience to second-guess the lines that he picked out, so I put him right where he asked me to. On our second to the last course, we fell in a hole; a big, car-swallowing hole. The Squirrel was doing its best, but its roof was touching one side of the hole and its tires the other. Despite being wedged, it was trying to inch forward. I tried using the spotter strap to pull. Just as it was starting to inch its way out of the hole, everything came undone. The list of broken parts was long. The Squirrel exited the course via the Crane of Shame. As I left the course, I commented out loud, “that’s what he gets for asking his wife to tell him how to drive.” The photographer from CRAWL Magazine laughed. A picture of the Squirrel wedged and broken appeared in the next issue. We somehow managed to bring home a trophy.
By the end of the year, my husband, his spotter, and the Squirrel had found their groove. I was able to accompany them to the W.E. Rock Grand Nationals in Tooele, UT. I had wanted to get some better photographs with my new camera. A friend we had met in Delta asked me to write an article for a local magazine, and before you knew it, I had my first official Media vest. I had an amazing time photographing all of the F-Toys at the event. I wrote my article about the event and the fantastic community of friends that we had met during the season. My husband, his spotter, and the Squirrel left the competition with another trophy, as the National Champion in the F-Toy class.
Over the next several years, we had more adventures with the Squirrel, and on every one of them, I think it taught me something. We have met many lifelong friends on trips with it and experienced so many firsts. The F-Toy class eventually faded away, and the Squirrel found itself competing against Pro-Mods. It gave us everything it could, but the time had come, we had outgrown the F-Toy. In 2019, the Squirrel was stripped down, and construction of the new buggy began. It truly was a bittersweet moment. The new buggy, Steve, is amazing in so many ways, and I cannot wait to see what kind of adventures it has in store for us. I have already had to learn how to drive from the right-hand side of the vehicle. Sometimes, you don’t know how far you have come until you look back at where you started. Sometimes it takes a few different vehicles to take you there.