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The North Tampa Off-Roaders enjoy the rush.
By SHERYL KAY, Times Correspondent
Published February 8, 2008
When the 1993 pewter-colored Jeep Wrangler pulls up, it's hard not to notice the 4-inch suspension lift, the 33-inch tires or the large front-hood-mounted Warn winch.
"Hummer Recovery Team" is splashed across its side.
Then the driver's door opens, the brown leather boots descend from the cab, and that's when heads really turn. Most people aren't expecting 5-foot-2, just-over-100-pounds Desiree Donals.
"I've always loved trucks, and I've always wanted one of my own," said the 26-year-old bartender from Riverside Heights. But it wasn't until she met Rick Rouse of Plantation two years ago that she decided to buy one.
Rouse, 32, is president of the North Tampa Off-Roaders Association, a group of four-wheel-drive trucking enthusiasts who meet about every other month for mud splashing and jarring trail rides. Donals loved the prospect of making like-minded friends and, having raced cars, she was intrigued by the thrill of off-road trucking.
While several of the members of NTORA started riding together more than a decade ago, when they were in high school, the group was formally created three years ago. Today there are 30 member drivers and their families, some traveling from as far away as Venice and Orlando to join in the rides.
Years ago there was much more public land available for off-road adventures. Now, Rouse said, there is no place in Tampa.
All of the rides his group sponsors are outside the county, on state and wildlife management areas, with permission of the appropriate authorities.
On occasion the group has made the trail ride a community service project as well, cleaning up the garbage left by hunters and hikers.
Unlike many off-road groups, almost 95 percent of NTORA's members use their trucks for daily transportation, said Rouse, whose own truck fits easily into his garage in Plantation.
Vehicles may have some modifications to handle the mud holes or the jagged and bumpy terrain, but the club does not mandate any specific truck make or model.
In fact, four-wheel drive is not even a requirement, although Rouse said that without it, a lot of trail rides might be inaccessible.
Because of the looser rules, the group tends to attract more of a family crowd.
"We're not about being macho, and we're not about crushing someone else's truck," said Rouse, a water field maintenance technician. "This is all about having fun."
Ask five members what they really love about the trail rides and Rouse said there will be five different answers.
For him, the greatest joy is going through the mud holes, getting wet dirt sprayed all over his 2000 gold Toyota Tacoma.
For Donals, it's all about maintaining the truck's balance.
"The adrenaline rush you get from three wheels on the ground and one wheel up in the air is just amazing," she said.
"Your heart is pounding, the blood is rushing through your body, and you keep thinking, 'Am I going to tip over?' "
Although she is the only female driver with the group, Donals said the sport is definitely accessible to women - "unless you're a girly-girl and worried about breaking your nails."
And as for the dating potential in being the sole woman among dozens of men, Donals, a single mom, laughs.
"If I joined this group to meet guys, then I definitely joined the wrong group because these guys are all married," she said.
"These guys are my friends, and when you're in the hole and you can't get out, we're all part of a team helping each other."
Contact reporter Sheryl Kay at email@example.com or call 813 230-8788.
If you go
Mud will fly
NTORA hosts its next big event, the Lakeland Mud Bog, Saturday at the Lakeland Motorsports Park, north of I-4 on State Road 33.
Annual membership with NTORA is $25 and includes all trail rides and a groupT-shirt. For more information, see the club's Web page at www.ntora.org.
[Last modified February 7, 2008, 07:51:49]