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The Santa Maria 4 Wheelers love tackling the toughest terrain.

The club, which began back in 1964, spent this past weekend hosting its second annual 4 Wheel Drive Off Road and Safety Expo.

Instead of offroading through dense forests or riding the Oceano Dunes, these intrepid explorers spent Saturday and Sunday navigating a man-made obstacle course at the Santa Maria Elks’ Unocal Event Center.

“This is a standard obstacle course. We are trying to duplicate the type of obstacles our club members find out in the forests,” said club president Tank Martinez. “This will help people learn safe ways to drive their four-wheelers. We promote safe, family-oriented fun.”

So Martinez and a small army of volunteers spent their previous four weekends building an obstacle course at Unocal – not in the rodeo arena but in the area that usually serves as a parking lot for rodeo competitors.

The course began with a log bridge crossing.

“You’d be amazed at just how difficult a little log can be,” said Martinez. “Sometimes with an obstacle you need to give it a little more gas, sometimes you just need to go around it and sometimes you just need to turn around and go back.”

That was followed by a “frame twister” section with specially built hillocks, a series of uneven low hills that rock the four-wheelers uncomfortably back and forth.

Then it was into a low camber turn – a corner banked in the opposite direction from what you’d usually expect where you feel as if the vehicle is about to flip over – followed by a section of low boulders that simulates a creek bed, a blind hill where you can’t see what’s on the other side and two “rock gardens” which are really two sections of boulders, big and bigger.

“The bigger rock garden simulates a gatekeeper,” said Martinez. “A gatekeeper is the type of obstacle that, if you come across it in the forest and you can’t get through it, then you have no business going any farther.”

After spending most of the day starting with the log bridge, the drivers spent the last few hours reversing the course – starting with the rock gardens and ending with the log bridge.

“This is all about safety. It gives us the chance to teach people who are new to four-wheeling how to go out into the forests safely. It teaches them the limits of their rigs. And it gives our longtime members the chance to gain even more experience. Even though their rigs might have the capabilities to do these things – cross log bridges or climb rock gardens – the drivers might not. It’s a sport where you’re always learning. If you ever think that you’ve learned it all, then you’re going to get hurt. One little slip-up and you’ve put yourself into a hole you can’t get out of.”

Safety is paramount.

The rigs have full custom harnesses similar to what professional race car drivers use. Each rig has a solid steel roll cage and a full belly pan underneath to keep the undercarriage from getting ripped up.

The vehicles have low gearing and high clearance to help make it through the most difficult challenges.

While most of the four-wheelers are modified Jeeps, there are also old Chevy K10 4x4s, Toyota Forerunners and even a Polaris ATV in the mix. Except for the Polaris, all the vehicles are street legal.

“These vehicles are built to do this,” said Martinez. “There are as many different rigs as the car owners can design.”

The club, which has more than 70 members, tries to have at least one run a month through different forests in California.

“This course, just like a forest, is constantly changing as the boulders and logs get pushed around during the day,” said Diane Martinez, Tank’s wife. “We have guides out there at each obstacle, helping so you’re not trying to fight your way through. It’s just like when you’re in the forest – you should never go alone. It is not smart to go out on trails alone. You should always go as a group so if your rig breaks or you get stuck, there is someone else there to help out.”

The club has a wide spectrum of members from mechanics to air force doctors and everyone is welcome to join.

For everyone it was two days of fun.

“The only downside was that as president of the club, I’m in charge of this and have to make sure everyone is having fun and a safe time out on the course,” said Tank Martinez. “I’ve hardly had time to go out on the course myself although my wife has been out there at least six times today.”

“I failed to make it through the first time but I came back later and made it all the way and now I’ve finished the course at least six times.”

“Last year we held our Expo at the Santa Maria Fairpark,” said Tank Martinez. “We learned a lot, made some changes, some upgrades. It’s much better this year and will be even better next year.”

The club holds meetings the fourth Tuesday of every month at Giavanni’s Pizza in Orcutt.

“We like to eat as much as we like to go four-wheeling,” said Tank Martinez.

The club has a $35 annual membership fee and charges $20 a day to run the course as many times as you’d like during the Expo.

For more information about the Santa Maria 4 Wheelers, visit their website at sm4wheelers.org.

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Senior Sports Reporter