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Letting their guard down

Alaska National Guardsmen fight stress through racing

Posted: Monday, July 23, 2007


  Sgt. Paul Grimsley, of Kenai, shows off his radio-controlled car April 8 at Camp Buehring's race track in Kuwait. Grimsley is with the 3rd Battalion, 297th Infantry, Alaska Army National Guard. Photo by Sgt. Mac Metcalfe

Sgt. Paul Grimsley, of Kenai, shows off his radio-controlled car April 8 at Camp Buehring's race track in Kuwait. Grimsley is with the 3rd Battalion, 297th Infantry, Alaska Army National Guard.

Photo by Sgt. Mac Metcalfe

It's a sport with monster trucks and Baja rigs, where fuel costs $34 a gallon and drivers need to know how to steer backwards and track sits in a desert where only U.S. service members live. It's radio-controlled racing in Camp Buehring, Kuwait.

RC racing is a sport commonly seen in neighborhoods across the U.S. Like many kid's games it has been taken over by adults.

"In Alaska it's not that big," said Staff Sgt. Gary Smith, of Eagle River.

"But in the Lower 48 it's huge like NASCAR. There are multiple leagues you can get into. People get in fist fights over this thing."

According to Smith, RC racing has been a sport on Camp Buehring for at least three years. The sport has also grown in Kuwait with the nation having its own RC Club.

"It's all based on how many laps you can get in a certain amount of time," said Staff Sgt. John Ruthe, of Anchorage.

With hills, bumps and hairpin turns, the track is a rural dirt road with a row of sand bags on each side to delineate boundaries. Like lifeguards, soldiers stand at each turn, waiting for a car to jump the track and put it back on the road. The track is continuously being sprayed with water to make the dirt sticky.

"You don't want mud but you do want it wet. Damp enough so the cars stick to it. You don't want them slipping on loose dirt," said Smith.

Smith is an experienced racer but others, like Sgt. Paul Grimsley, of Kenai, are just starting.

"I've only raced a couple of times. I am still learning how to drive. It's hard to control the car, but it's fun, and kind of a stress reliever. You get out here, get involved in a little competition and try to keep from crashing," Grimsley said.

The participants stand on a platform to enable them to see the whole track.

They hold radio transmitters with a steering wheel, throttle and brake levers. At the start line, cars are attended by soldiers holding the them off the ground. As the flag falls the cars are dropped to the ground and can travel at speeds of up to 35 mph.

"These cars have a faster start than some sport cars ... . So they are hard to steer, especially when driving backwards," said Sgt. Sherman Stebbins, of Delta Junction.

The fuel burns hot in the racers. Engine temperature on Smith's "monster truck" reached 390 degrees because it wasn't shifting right.

"These things require constant maintenance and parts are an issue in Kuwait. If you break something it takes 10 to 14 days to get a replacement," Smith said.

Smith has about $3,500 tied up in the cars he has, not including the cost of the new truck.

"You don't need to be rich to play," said Grimsley, who spent $600 on his three cars. "You can compete at that level. It's not about how expensive your car is. It's about how good a driver you are."

Sgt. 1st Class Ernie Carrillo, of Juneau has a battery-powered car as a back up to his fuel-burning monster truck.

"I wanted both because electric cars don't break as much," Carrillo said. "With the gas ones you've got all sorts of moving parts that can break."

Many of the Alaska National Guard soldiers participating are mechanics and you might think they would want to spend their off time away from maintenance issues, but not so.

"We come out on Saturday nights and crash into each other's cars. It's a stress reliever after you've been working all week," Stebbins said.

"Relieving stress is important," Carrillo said. "It helps people relax and get away from the stress and tension of the mission."

As one soldier put it, "We want to forget where we are and what we are doing for a little while."

Staff Sgt. Mac Metcalfe is the public affairs noncommissioned officer stationed in northern Kuwait with the 3rd Battalion, Alaska Army National Guard.


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