We make our annual trip to the Mecca of mud
Each year I attend the largest off-road mud riding event held in the USA – the High Lifter ATV Mud Nationals held in Jacksonville, Texas. Every year the numbers fluctuate between 10-15 thousand attendees but the meaning behind the event is still just as it was over 14 years ago when Scott Smith decided to gather some friends for a fellowship ride. It was a gathering of friends old and new, organized to experience the joys of riding together in the muddy trails. Over the years it has grown to encompass not only great riding, but also racing, performance machine builds, good live music and much more.
This was a big year for the High Lifter ATV Mud Nationals crew as there were several great changes and many new vendors in attendance. Looking over the main vendor area at the front of the park I noticed that not only was the space for vendors greatly expanded, but there were some new faces in the crowd. Suzuki had come to the event to test the waters as it hopes to ramp up its presence with the KingQuad and mudding crowds.
Arctic Cat has been coming to the High Lifter Mud Nationals for many years, but this time was vastly different. The space Arctic Cat had reserved was twice as large as in previous years and the brand experience was also changed up to get more people involved with their name. The racing at the High Lifter Mud Nationals was at one time filled with Arctic Cat machines and not so many years ago Cat released the Mud Pro ATV to fight the good fight in the mud pit for the guy who wanted a deep mud ready factory machine. Arctic Cat not only had a huge vendor row presence, but it sponsored the racing in the Mudda Cross as well as the Poker Run. Its good to see these brands fighting for your attention, as it means our industry is alive and well.
On Wednesday I witnessed some changes to an event that brings out the wildest custom rides in the woods. The JPS Bad to the Bone competition (or Show and Shine, as some know it) lets builders and creative minds collide while having a chance to take home a $500 cash prize. This year there was a slight change though as each contestant was able to get the spotlight by driving up onto the stage and describe their machine as well as give shout outs to their sponsors and peeps in attendance. As they drove off the stage they then took a parking spot near the stage so voters could get up close and personal before casting a ballot. This was a pretty cool way to give each an individual spotlight for trying.
Another interesting (and possibly rewarding) event held two or three times a day was the prize wheel spin off. Attendees lined up almost an hour early to get in the front of the line as prizes were only given away for the first 20 minutes. The game was simple; you spin the wheel and win a prize. Many of the vendors had contributed prizes and MB Quart had brought it all together as the core sponsor for the contestants. Anything from food to parts and clothing were given away and it was a frenzy of action when that wheel started spinning. As the week rolled out I noticed the crowds gathering each time my friend Jay Whatley grabbed the mic and began the hype to get the participants excited.
Racing is a big part of the High Lifter Mud Nationals and it was getting serious with the Arctic Cat Mudda Cross this year. Racers lined the grassy fields near the oval bog and charged in with determination to get the prize at the end of the rainbow. This is where I see the most radical engines and setups at the event. These guys mean business and spend thousands to get to this one event. Even though we had misty skies and even some torrential downpours with what felt like 50-degree weather, the racers stayed around to finish what they had started. It was almost too much to bear for me, but as long as they were all in I was all in as well. The Arctic Cat racers proudly showed that they would be a force in the pit and I think with the rumors flying around there will be even more Big green Cats in the bog very soon!
You might remember the ATV/UTV MX exhibition race that took place last year at Mud Nationals. This particular part of the show was changed up just a bit as the ATV segment was taken out and the track was widened up for all UTV racing action. Drivers and teams like Hess Motorsports came out to see if they could tame the course. The crowds were excited to see the number of race cars on the track as it felt like a full-on UTV series race. Scott Smith hopes for many more cars next year and his guess is somewhere in the 50-80 UTV race car range! I would say that is totally possible.
We talk a lot about the events, but some just come for the riding and for fun times with friends. That’s OK as well because that’s how it started. The concerts with local and national artists bring in the crowds to the main stage and guys like Saturday night’s Colt Ford rock into the night. It was the best night on Saturday for a young man named Dylan Brown, who won a 2016 High Lifter Edition Polaris RZR! This kid felt as if he had won the lottery and it was humbling to see his grandfather join him to accept the prize.
Looking back through the years of High Lifter ATV Mud Nationals, you will see a definite trend of not only growth in the industry but a growing generation of fabricators that seem to have come out of the woodwork. It was the father and son duo of Mike and Scott Smith who had originally fabricated the first lift kit for an ATV and it seems they set trends for others to follow. I had the honor of meeting Mike Smith this year and his continued enthusiasm for building new product is not only exciting, but also inspiring. Mike Smith and High Lifter’s Dan Doughty actually suggested and kicked off the very first ATV Mud Nationals. The 2016 High Lifter Mud Nationals would not exist without these folks and for that I am thankful as it drives the industry I thrive in every day.