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DRIVERS GET JEEP THRILLS CAR OWNERS CAN EXPERIENCE OFF-ROADING AT SPECIAL CAMP.

Byline: Bill Becher Special to the Daily News

LOS ALAMOS - It's not transportation, it's a way of life.

Nearly 1,000 Jeeps and their owners came to the first-ever Camp Jeep in Southern California last month. They gathered to celebrate a car that helped win a world war and then became a synonym for four-wheel drive outdoor adventuring.

Just don't try arriving at Camp Jeep in a Land Rover.

Owners drove to the three-day event at a ranch north of Santa Barbara in shiny grocery-toting Jeep Grand Cherokees and in desert-dusty Wranglers with oversized tires and jacked-up suspensions - shovels and water cans strapped to the bumper.

The Jeep brand, now owned by the DaimlerChrysler Corporation, has sponsored what it calls ``ownership gatherings'' in other parts of the country for a decade, but this was the first Camp Jeep on the West Coast.

Camp Jeep, which cost $335 per vehicle, offered owners the chance to practice driving skills on a specially built obstacle course, talk to Jeep engineers, visit a Jeep museum, go for longer trail rides with other Jeep enthusiasts and hear East L.A. ``Tex-Mex'' band Los Lobos and enjoy other live entertainment.

You might think you're just buying a car, but apparently Jeep owners enter an outdoors lifestyle that includes scuba diving, rock climbing, mountain biking, ocean kayaking, fly-casting and grilling meat. At Camp Jeep owners could try all of these.

For many the highlight of the Camp was ``Jeep 101'' - a hands-on-the- wheel class in off-roading.

``The course gives people who've never gone off-road a chance to see what it's like,'' said Ken Gistedt, whose company designs and builds Camp Jeeps here and on the East Coast.

It helps that 101 students get to drive someone else's car. DaimlerChrysler supplies new Jeeps for the classes and there's no deductible to pay if you ding it.

That appealed to Donna Baune. She and her husband own a Jeep, but she's never driven it off-road. Jeep 101 coaches ride along and supply tips and moral support for off-road newbies.

Baune said she needed some encouragement, but after her Jeep 101 ride she was smiling.

``My husband is going to have to let me try driving tomorrow,'' she said.

The course, gouged out of a pasture in the ranch, included a steep hill where it seemed to beginners that a car couldn't make it to the top without flipping over on its back like a stranded turtle. And the downward plunge from the top got drivers' attention, too.

It's hard to keep your foot off the brake pedal when your Jeep seems pointed straight down, but Gistedt said good off-road driving technique is to let the engine do the braking. Applying the brakes can make wheels lock up and cause the car to slide.

Jeep 101 coaches remind drivers to keep thumbs outside the steering wheel when driving on difficult terrain so you won't tear a tendon if the wheel suddenly spins. ``Keep your momentum up'' is a constant refrain.

Gistedt said the purpose of Jeep higher education is two-fold: teach people to drive off-highway safely, and do it responsibly.

``It's not a Baja race,'' he said. ``We want to take care of the land.''

The Jeep 101 and ``Rubicon'' self-guided course were bulldozed into a pasture at 1,400-acre ranch that is used for movie shoots. The courses included hills, water crossings and a skid plate-testing boulder field. After the camp was over, the courses were leveled and the area replanted and returned to its original condition.

Gistedt said many first-time drivers sign up for trail rides in their own Jeeps after building confidence on the Jeep 101 course.

The 10-mile trail rides ranged from easy to extreme. Drivers lined up in their Jeeps and played follow-the-leader along dirt roads. They had to be careful on steep turns or they could find themselves wallowing in a dust bowl. But there was always another Jeep to haul them out of trouble.

Then it was back to camp to tell a Jeep story, listen to live music or talk to the Jeep engineers. If you pranged your Jeep on the trail, they helped you fix it. This gave the engineers an opportunity to learn what can go wrong in real-world situations.

When it's time to leave, the only problem at Camp Jeep was finding your car. The lot was full of nothing but Jeeps.

CAPTION(S):

4 photos

Photo:

(1) A Jeep driver kicks up some dirt during a trail ride at a special gathering of the car's owners.

(2 -- 3) Above, an official directs a driver how to properly handle the car over a pile of boulders. Below, drivers navigate a road course in the Santa Ynez Mountains on a trail ride.

(4) This unique camp also offers outdoor activities, such as artificial rock climbing, for car owners.

Bill Becher/Special to the Daily News
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Sep 2, 2004
Words:815
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