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Home >> Life
UPDATED: 08:47, July 19, 2006
Back-seat drivers shine at Winnebago rally
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Steering an 8.8-metre, 9-ton mobile-home through a tight obstacle course is not easy.

But imagine how much harder it is in reverse. Blindfolded. Guided only by a voice on a radio.

Welcome to the Blue Ox Back Seat Driver Competition, one of the highlights of the 37th annual Winnebago Itasca Travellers Grand National Rally.

The event, which began on Sunday and runs through Friday, draws thousands of mobile-home owners to Forest City, Iowa, the tiny, rural town near the state's northern border that is home to Winnebago Industries Inc, the US$11 billion recreational vehicle (RV) industry's oldest and biggest company.

This year's rally, which is held on a 40-hectare campsite Winnebago owns, is expected to draw a capacity crowd of 3,500 people in 1,500 mobile-homes, despite high prices at the gas pump that have made driving these wheeled behemoths considerably more expensive.

After 37 years, the event has turned into something like the RV world's version of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which takes place in Sturgis, South Dakota and is nearly 70 years old.

Like Sturgis, the Winnebago rally brings thousands of outsiders into a small, mid-western town where they obsess over their vehicles, take day-long group rides in the countryside and spend evenings sharing stories of their adventures on the open road.

And like Sturgis, where it is unwise to show up with anything other than a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, the Forest City rally is a Winnebago-focused affair.

No calamities

In fact, owners of mobile-homes built by rivals like Fleetwood Enterprises, Thor Industries Inc, Monaco Coach Corp and Coachmen Industries Inc are not even allowed in. (Many of these companies sponsor similar events of their own, though none is larger.)

Of the many events rally organizers put on each year, the Blue Ox Back Seat Driver Competition is a standout.

It is a test of communication skills as much as driving prowess, with blindfolded drivers trying to steer a Winnebago Sightseer mobile-home backward through an obstacle course using directions provided by a teammate, who is on the other end of a radio outside the vehicle.

Denny Burkholder, the general manager of the Winnebago Itasca Travellers group that co-ordinates the annual event, says no mobile-homes or drivers have ever come to harm as a result of the annual competition.

But that is probably because a Winnebago employee is always right beside the blindfolded driver, ready to take control if communication breaks down.

Although fun and games abound, the event serves a serious business purpose for Winnebago. The Winnebago Itasca Travellers (WIT) is the company's version of Harley-Davidson's Harley Owners Group, or HOG. And like HOG, WIT is charged with building brand loyalty and luring customers away from rivals.

To that end, the group organizes caravans and rallies throughout the year that are only open to owners of Winnebagos and Itascas, Winnebago's other mobile-home brand.

It is a strategy that worked with Jeanie Bienvenu, 53, and her husband Andy, 54.

The Breaux Ridge, Louisiana couple are in Forest City this week to attend the WIT rally for the sixth year in a row.

They return every year, she says, because the event reunites them with people they've met on WIT-organized trips.

"It's one of the reasons we wouldn't dream of buying anything else but a Winnebago," she says. "We don't even look at anything else because then we'd have to leave all our friends behind and that would be no fun."

Source: China Daily

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