Bill Burke’s Four-Wheel Drive School

By Will Grant

Bill Burke makes a living out of teaching people how not to kill themselves in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. He calls it risk mitigation. How not to flip over, how to get unstuck, use a winch, a hi-lift jack. To a lot of people, it’s how to avoid spending money on new bumpers after a weekend in the hills.

In 1986, Burke founded Bill Burke’s 4-Wheeling America.  As a certified master trainer by the International 4-Wheel Drive Trainers Association, and a Forest Service- and Bureau of Land Management-permitted guide and outfitter, he teaches driving techniques, vehicle recovery, safety, environmental awareness, how to use the tools, spot trails and navigate.

About half his clients are corporations or government agencies. The other half are private individuals. Like the half dozen European businessmen who were coming to rent Jeeps and spend three days in the Utah desert with him a few weeks after I stopped by his house in Grand Junction, Colorado.

Near the top of his website, one of the first full sentences reads, “BB4WA is not about doing anything crazy.” Emphasis is his. That’s probably because he doesn’t want people imagining a licensed way to shred rental SUVs over public land. That might sound like fun, but it’s not what he teaches. And while he stresses risk mitigation and tries to keep the environment as controlled as possible, the nature of working in wild places is that Mother Nature can have her way with you at any given time.

Last April, Burke took a group of people, which included families with children, down Moqui Canyon near Lake Powell, Utah. The descent took three hours. The bottom of the canyon was tranquil, but a storm blew in on the plateau above. As anyone who’s ever been to the bottom of a steep canyon knows, you see only a sliver of sky and have no warning of weather changes.

“It looked liked the Wizard of Oz,” Burke said. “Stuff, debris blowing crazy off the rim into the air.”

They spent a day and a half driving back up through sand that had drifted several feet deep over the road. But the group was game enough-they didn’t mind the delay or sleeping in the road. Once at home, two of the young girls on the trip sent crayon-and-marker drawings to Burke with schematic representations of the ordeal.

Burke spends a lot of time on safety, and most of his work for corporations and government agencies is teaching people to take care of company trucks and themselves. On the corporate end, he trains oil company employees, line crews, and anyone whose work takes them into wild places on two-track roads. For the government, he’s trained UN workers headed to Senegal, Department of Energy agents, Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management employees, law enforcement officers, search and rescue personnel, and even an FBI hostage rescue unit.

“Generally they hire me after the fact,” Burke says, “after they’ve rolled a vehicle or had a wreck or whatever.”

The FBI team rolled one of Burke’s vehicles while learning to drive it. They were driving at night using night-optics devices, which skew depth perception. As they descended a rock face in Burke’s Range Rover, the driver used the brakes in such a way that the vehicle turned and rolled.

“It blew out the front windshield, crumpled one of the doors, and it made an A-frame” of the front of the roof. “I told them, ‘You guys are FBI guys, you figure it out,’” Burke says. “And we worked through it.”

That incident remains the only rollover Burke’s had in more than 26 years of business.

Burke has a lifetime of automotive experience, from his youth in Fort Lauderdale to working for International Harvester to being a mechanic in the Army. When he saw how Land Rover was teaching four wheeling in the UK, he decided to develop a curriculum of his own. A major force in jumpstarting his career of wilderness driving was the Camel Trophy of 1991.

In 1991, the Camel Trophy, which ran annually from 1980 until 1999, was a 1,500-kilometer hack through the east African jungle from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to Bujumbura, Burundi. Two-man teams, with two accompanying journalists, from 17 countries drove, winched, floated and otherwise maneuvered yellow Land Rovers through the tropical wilderness. It was a muddy, hot, sweaty affair.

The Trophy moved around the planet, occurring at different places every year, from Madagascar to Peru to Mongolia. Land Rover pulled out of the race in 1999 because the company thought the focus had moved away from the vehicles and adventure four-wheel driving. When Burke ran the race, the Trophy was in its prime. The after-party proved that.

Burke’s teammate was Webb Arnold. Like all other teams, two journalists were along for the ride, but they weren’t city beat reporters. All four men had to pass a physical-fitness test to make the team, and all four suffered the insects, heat, and sleep depravation together. One of the journalists was Barry Maugham from Voice of America, the other was Robert Young Pelton, publisher of Dangerous Magazine.

Of Pelton, Burke says: “He always drove fast. Sometimes I thought he was driving too fast… He would wander off. We’d be ready to go, and we’d be like, ‘where’s Pelton?’… He was good on the ropes, and he did know how to winch.”

For 23 days the four ate dehydrated food, oatmeal, and the odd chunk of goat from villages along the way. They filtered water, repaired the truck, and got to know each other pretty well while bouncing around the inside of their Land Rover. In a lot of ways, when you talk to Burke, you can tell it was the trip of a lifetime for him-and he’s not alone in that category.

To this day, Burke shows slides of the Trophy when he lectures on various aspects of wilderness driving. Photos of the race are tacked to the inside of his trailer that he hauls his Land Rover or Range Rover in for classes. Over the highway he drives a Freightliner motorhome where he lives in luxury while on the road. With his wife, who runs the business end of 4-Wheeling America, he travels around the country getting vehicles stuck, getting them unstuck, trying to keep everybody safe and not tear up any trucks too badly.

“Most people don’t want to feel like they’re going to die,” he says. Which means he teaches people how to handle difficult, technical situations in a four-wheel drive without ending their lives. “But shit happens.”

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