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Steering a 29-foot, 9-ton motorhome through a tight obstacle course isn’t easy. But, imagine how much harder it is in reverse. Blindfolded. Guided only by a voice on a radio.
According to Reuters, that competition typified the “Welcome to the Blue Ox Back Seat Driver Competition,” one of the highlights of the 37th annual Winnebago Itasca Travelers (WIT) Grand National Rally.
The event, which began on Sunday (July 16) and runs through Friday, draws thousands of motorhome owners to Forest City, Iowa, the tiny, rural town near the state’s northern border that is home to Winnebago Industries Inc., the $11 billion recreational vehicle (RV) industry’s oldest and biggest company.
This year’s rally, which is held on a 100-acre campground Winnebago owns, is expected to draw a capacity crowd of 3,500 people in 1,500 motorhomes, despite high prices at the gas pump that have made driving the vehicles considerably more expensive.
After 37 years, the event has turned into something like the RV world’s version of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which takes place in Sturgis, S.D., and is nearly 70 years old.
Like Sturgis, the Winnebago rally brings thousands of outsiders into a small, midwestern town, where they obsess over their vehicles, take day-long group rides in the countryside and spend evenings sharing stories of their adventures on the open road.
And like Sturgis, where it’s unwise to show up with anything other than a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, the Forest City rally is a Winnebago-focused affair. In fact, owners of motorhomes built by other manufacturers aren’t even allowed in.
Reuters reported that of the many events rally organizers put on each year, the Blue Ox Back Seat Driver competition is a standout. It’s a test of communication skills as much as driving prowess, with blindfolded drivers trying to steer a 29-foot Winnebago Sightseer motorhome backward through an obstacle course using directions provided by a teammate, who is on the other end of a radio outside the vehicle.
Denny Burkholder, the general manager of the Winnebago Itasca Travelers group that coordinates the annual event, says no motorhomes – or drivers – have ever come to harm as a result of the annual competition. But that’s probably because a Winnebago employee is always right beside the blindfolded driver, ready to take control if communication breaks down.
Although fun and games abound, the event serves a serious business purpose for Winnebago. The Winnebago Itasca Travelers is the company’s version of Harley-Davidson’s Harley Owners Group, or HOG. And like HOG, WIT is charged with building brand loyalty and luring customers away from rivals.
To that end, the group organizes caravans and rallies throughout the year that are only open to owners of Winnebagos and Itascas, Winnebago’s other motorhome brand.
It’s a strategy that worked with Jeanie Bienvenu, 53, and her husband Andy, 54.
The Breaux Ridge, La., couple are in Forest City this week to attend the WIT rally for the sixth year in a row. They return every year, she says, because the event reunites them with people they’ve met on WIT-organized trips.
“It’s one of the reasons we wouldn’t dream of buying anything else but a Winnebago,” she says. “We don’t even look at anything else because then we’d have to leave all our friends behind and that would be no fun.”