FARMINGTON, N.M.-The road to success in the hot sport-utility vehicle and light truck market can be rocky, but you won't find anyone at Goodyear complaining.
Just take a look at the numbers: According to R.L. Polk, sales in the SUV/LT sector rose from about 58 million units in 1991 to 85 million-plus in 2000. Sweeten that with the Specialty Equipment Market Association's latest market study, which shows off-road product sales soared from $181 million to $266 million between 1994 and 1999-a 47 percent increase.
Tires and wheels are the first modifications an off-roader will make, SEMA found, and 27 percent of those consumers have been into 4x4-type activities five years or less.
Even as Goodyear officials and dealers look forward to its new computer-modeled, no-compromise luxury SUV tire, the Fortera HL, the Akron-based tire giant has been doing ``field research'' as a charter sponsor of the fledgling American Rock Crawlers Association's (ARCA) ``extreme rock crawling'' series. The event's a sort of outdoor ``Ripley's Believe It or Not'' meets ``Amazing Videos'' theater.
ARCA's fanatical, fun-loving ``wheelers'' and their families love to wring out four-wheel-drives of all makes, sizes and complexity. Their playground-turned-battleground is the roughest terrain this side of the moon.
Many of the top performers at rock crawling nirvanas like Moab, Utah, and Farmington, N.M., run Goodyear's premium, off-road racing inspired Wrangler MT/R (maximum traction/reinforced), which happened to be the choice of seven of the top 10 finishers in this year's nationals. That halo effect spills over to pickups and SUVs as well as to ``cross-over'' vehicles.
``When (Goodyear) made the transition from MT to the MT/R tire, our sales went through the roof,'' said Todd Lloyd, who operates two Lloyd's Tire and Auto Center stores in Cedar City and Parowan, Utah. ``People were coming in just to see the MT/R. They're very, very impressed with it.''
Mr. Lloyd, a rock-crawling enthusiast himself, reports that light trucks account for 80 percent of his stores' sales. The Wrangler MT/R is stressed to success, he said. ``We've been to Moab every year. People called it Goodyear's secret weapon. It's just an unbelievable difference out there. We set up a booth at Moab last year and discounted them. We did really well.''
And what crawls on Saturday and Sunday, sells the rest of the week-at least in southern Utah, he noted. ``We do about seven sets a day to farmers, ranchers and rock crawlers and six or seven sets a month in Parowan. My customers want the sporty tread pattern and they know they have the Durawall puncture resistant technology. The MT/Rs really hold up around the sand and slick rock around here.''
A four-inch lift is a popular modification, particularly for Fords, and Mr. Lloyd said the ``315/75/R16, which is actually 35-inches tall and 12 .5 inches wide, just fits perfect'' under the pickup trucks.
The weather was perfect in late September when 60 drivers, their spotters and 10,000 spectators converged on mile-high Farmington, in New Mexico's northwest corner, for ARCA's grand finale: the Goodyear/Skyjacker Extreme Rock Crawling Nationals.
The recipe to go rock crawling is simple. Mix a sense of fun and adventure with a love for challenges and daredevil instinct. Take any new (or vintage) four-wheel-drive you happen to have-and chop, hop up, re-gear, weld, lift, narrow and brace.
Be sure you have the equivalent of a double-jointed suspension and sticky tires so you can do Spider Man maneuvers up rocky outcroppings and down canyon walls.
Large infusions of cash are optional but spare parts definitely mandatory.
ARCA rock crawlers tackle two natural obstacle courses featuring axle-twisting, bearing-popping, gravity-defying challenges with nicknames like ``Shattered Dreams,'' ``Blitzkrieg'' or ``The Wrath of Sandy.'' The aim is to finish with the lowest possible score.
However, the sport is more than clearing the seven obstacles and red flags that indicate each course. Technique, steering and a spotter-preferably one with a stout back and draft-horse strength-are key. Penalty points are assessed for no-no's such as stopping more than four seconds (1 point), for deliberately backing up (1), touching or being outside a gate (10), or contacting trees or shrubs (10).
But it's the desperation measure that will rack up the big penalties. Using a winch costs 30 points, bypassing an obstacle or not showing up is a 50-point hit, and taking longer than the allotted time is 40 points.
Competitors who exceed 40 points in penalties per obstacle are moved to the next obstacle.
Relative affordability isn't the only factor driving rock crawling's popularity. Its pace is slow enough for family and friends to participate, even if it's to watch, photograph or shoot video.
``It's a family atmosphere,'' said Mark Cherveny, a Goodyear product manager. ``People take their dogs and their kids. Husbands and wives go and they make a day out of it.''
ARCA's clientele not only enjoy watching the event, but ``they like to use the products,'' he said. ``We get a real tie-in between what the vehicles go through and what the people see.''
Goodyear was in on the ground floor of the event with ARCA, Mr. Cherveny continued. ``They've asked us for input. We've had a chance to share some of our experience to make the sport grow.''
The series also allows the tire maker to get feedback immediately, said Steve Myers, Goodyear's marketing manager of light truck tires. ``The general public gets to benefit, particularly with new materials when they're testing under the racing environment. If we find an improvement there, it'll show up in consumer tires.''
Goodyear likes the market trends it sees and has renewed its ARCA sponsorship through 2003.