Thousands of people headed to the remote Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area over the weekend for the sixth-annual Huckfest, a two-day truck-jumping competition that drew spectators and drivers from across the country.
The event, which began with a few hundred diehard off-roading enthusiasts in 2008, has grown each year thanks to social media and fan-captured videos of gravity-defying stunts performed by some of the most well-known figures in professional off-road racing.
This year’s Huckfest was no different in that respect, once again drawing top-rated drivers including last year’s winner, Mike Higgins of Michigan, and 18-year-old Brandon Arthur from Ramona, a young star in the sport.
Arthur began his professional racing career just two weeks after receiving his driver’s license, his grandmother, Shirley Richards, said on Saturday. Off-road racing is in his blood, she said, and Huckfest provides one of the few opportunities to compete.
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“This is what he loves to do,” Richards said during the competition. “He’s in hog heaven right now.”
But along with the event’s growing popularity has come a sometimes-rocky relationship with South County residents unhappy with the traffic it drew, including an influx last year that forced State Parks to close the beach to vehicles.
So this year, organizers revamped Huckfest, charged admission and used much of the money to increase signage, improve traffic flow, beef up staffing and pay user fees to State Parks.
“Everything’s working much better this year,” said Dena Bellman, a California State Parks official overseeing the event Saturday. “Last year, we just didn’t realize the popularity of (one of the drivers) and many people didn’t realize there was a limit to how many vehicles we can let in.”
That driver was four-time off-road racing champion B.J. Baldwin, who attracted scores of fans from the Central Valley, many of whom were disappointed when the event reached capacity and they were turned away.
Earlier this year, organizers sat down with State Parks and others to avoid a similar scenario. In addition to charging admission — $100 per night to camp and $35 day passes — the event was moved to October from a week before Labor Day weekend to keep crowds at a manageable level. Professional drivers with more family-oriented fans were personally invited, Bellman said.
Venders, concession booths and live music transformed the event into one that caters to families, Bellman added. An unprecedented number of volunteers and local businesses pitched in to help.
The event also underwent a rigorous environmental review process and organizers obtained permits from Caltrans, CHP, Grover Beach police and Cal Fire to provide traffic or emergency services outside the park. State Parks staff also monitored the event.
Attendance is hard to figure, but more than 2,000 vehicles were issued camping passes for Friday and Saturday, according to State Parks officials.
Mad Max with a twist
Freelance photographer Scott Barrett has gone to Huckfest since its start. This year’s event was definitely more organized and streamlined, he said Saturday.
“Like any event, it’s had its kinks, but I think everybody is interested in having this be the best it can be,” Barrett said. “I think it’s attracting a better caliber of people who are more responsible than five years ago.”
“This is no longer a free-for-all,” he added.
On his way to the campground, Barrett drove past rows of motor homes, custom trucks and dune buggies where riders, festooned in colorful protective gear, barbecued hamburgers under massive canopy tents. Scores of Jolly Roger, Confederate and home-made flags snapped in the wind.
A first-time Huckfest attendee might compare the atmosphere to a scene from "Mad Max" — if road warriors brought their kids and went out of their way to pick up trash.
Barrett said people visiting the event for the first time are struck by “the awe factor.”
“You’ll see things out here you won’t see on the streets,” he said, pointing to a lifted pickup truck with imposing custom off-road tires and brightly colored rims. “It’s a different way of life for sure.”
Hard landings and street credit
At the main competition, trucks and buggies jumped a sand crest at the end of a salad bowl-shaped track. Flying a dozen feet into the air before slamming back into the sand, the vehicles competed for the longest distance traveled during their jump. Each driver got three attempts for their best score.
A few of the 12 vehicles to compete came down hard enough to damage wheels and other vital parts and so were unable to finish.
After a hard landing disabled his competition in a tie-off, Mike Higgins won the main truck event with a 146-foot jump. Afterward, he said it was a no-brainer to compete this year following his 2013 victory.
“We absolutely love the event,” Higgins said. “It’s just good people, wide-open spaces. It’s not every day you get to jump in front of thousands of people with something you built yourself.”
For his win, Higgins received a trophy at an awards ceremony Saturday night. But in the off-road racing community, he said, the real prize is bragging rights.
“It’s more about street credit,” Higgins chuckled. He said he plans to return next year.
Defending the ride
As of Saturday night, no medical emergencies or problems were reported, according to law enforcement officials. If this year’s event went smoothly, it’s because organizers and attendees alike wanted to show it could.
San Luis Obispo resident Nick Hellewell volunteered on Saturday, staffing a gate near the landing area. He said off-roaders in San Luis Obispo County often get an undeserved bad rap.
This event, he said, is a chance for enthusiasts to show residents that events can go smoothly at the Dunes and that embracing the state park will benefit the entire county.
“Past media coverage has always been about closing this place down, but this is the only place in California you can do this in the sand,” Hellewell said. “If you shut this down, then what happens? Pismo dies, Grover dies.”
Jim Suty, president of Friends of the Oceano Dunes, also sees the event as a benefit to fans and the local community.
“This park was designed and set aside for off-highway vehicles,” Suty said. “This is a great opportunity to make some money in the local community and promote this great park, one of the few of its kind in the country.”