I was on a rocky incline so steep I couldn’t even see over the hood, but in my ear I heard Greg McKinney repeating, “Don’t be afraid to be amazing.” One rev at a time, I inched forward slowly but smoothly and gathered the confidence to navigate a Ford Bronco up a granite-studded trail at Gunstock Mountain Resort in New Hampshire’s Lakes Region.
McKinney is the site director for Off-Roadeo, a one-day off-road driving school that Ford offers when you buy a new Bronco. The Ford Bronco—which was originally launched in 1965, then retired in 1996—was re-released last year to much fanfare. Motortrend called it “effortlessly pitch-perfect” and Forbes named it the SUV of the year for 2022. No wonder there have been year long-plus waiting lists.
I’ve had a Ford Bronco for almost a year now and after being a former Jeep Wrangler owner, I have become a diehard fangirl. I’m a member of countless Bronco Facebook groups, including a no-men-allowed Bronco Ladies Club, with 10,000 equally obsessed members. Besides the fact that I get high-fived everywhere I go for having the most badass SUV on the market, one of the other major perks of ordering a new Bronco is getting to go to this free—yes, free—off-road driving school.
According to Bryan Guldi, the Bronco Experiences marketing manager, Ford is on a mission to turn the Bronco into a lifestyle brand, which is where Off-Roadeo comes in. It’s held in four locations around the country, including Moab, Texas Hill Country, Nevada’s Mt. Potosi (not far from the Las Vegas Strip) and New Hampshire’s Gunstock Mountain. Guests get to spend a 10-hour day learning to unlock the vehicle’s fullest potential on rugged, dramatic terrain.
I chose New Hampshire, figuring that since I live on the East Coast, it would be better to practice on forested landscapes. The 80-year-old Gunstock Mountain—home to Off-Roadeo—was the first Eastern U.S. resort with a ski lift, but when there’s no snow on the ground, it is transformed into a massive outdoor adventure park with hiking trails and ziplines and chairlifts to take you to the peak for eye-popping views of nearby Lake Winnipesaukee. Having Off-Roadeo here completes the experience. There’s nothing cooler than dive-bombing down the backside of a ski mountain with tight and twisty boulder-strewn trails.
“We wanted each location to be epic, to be picturesque, to build great memories and we needed them to be challenging, but we also needed a challenge that was drivable for all skill levels,” says Guldi. “And it’s not just off-roading. We want people to come out and learn everything they can about their Bronco and have a blast. Then you can do all of these things while you’re out there—rock climbing, fishing, rafting, mountain biking, you name it.”
Ford also wanted to make sure that everyone feels welcome at the Off-Roadeo, whether you’re an auto geek or a soccer mom who has decided to upgrade her drive. “We wanted Off-Roadeo to be an experience where everyone feels like they have a place,” says Stephanie Simon, who helped come up with the concept for Off-Roadeo when she was an intern at Ford and still works with the company in a marketing role.
Inside the basecamp, there’s tons of merch for sale and walls covered in memorabilia (including a copy of Lee Iacocca’s memo green-lighting the first Bronco back in 1965). Every guest gets a free tote bag filled with swag, including a sleek Yeti water bottle. The Off-Roadeo also keeps you well fed, with snacks and lunch and dinner, plus s’mores to roast around the campfire at the end of the day.
But the best part of the Off-Roadeo experience is—obviously—learning how to achieve maximum performance from your Bronco.
The day starts off with a pow-wow with the trail guide and a meet-and-greet with fellow owners. On the day my husband and I went, there were seven other people in our group, and everyone got a kick out of hearing what kind of Bronco each person had—or had on order. It was a mix of men and women, but the company is also launching women-only Off-Roadeo sessions, like one coming up in Nevada in October. (There’s also talk of opening the program to prospective buyers at some point, but for now, you need to own a 2021 or newer Bronco or have one on order to be able to attend.)
First up was a stop at the demonstration area to get a primer on the various functions, including Locking Differentials, Trail Turn Assist and Trail Control (which is like cruise control for off-roading). The Bronco is the Swiss Army Knife of SUVs, and Ford wants you to learn how to use it in all different contexts.
Next up it was time to pick out a Bronco to use for the day. Ford made available a variety of killer models, all stocked with accessories that you can order directly from the company and all capable of handling the mountain. I picked a jacked-up two-door Badlands because it was most similar to my own Bronco. Then it was time to hit the backroads.
The first thing to know about off-roading: “Slow is smooth. Smooth is stable,” advised McKinney, who is not only the New Hampshire site director, he also doubles as a trail guide. McKinney has quite a pedigree: He used to train special-operations soldiers in high-speed loose-gravel driving.
“When we train the soldiers, these are big, tough, double-secret, super-athletic guys,” says McKinney. “Most people think of performance driving as intuition, but really, it’s a rational exercise. You need to think about things. Where’s the weight? What happens if I turn the wheel?”
According to McKinney, it’s the same technique with off-roading. On the trails, he advised moving one tread block at a time, making small movements with the steering wheel.
This helped with our first major trail—Fire Cut, a deeply rutted slice of forest that includes a spot where the rear of the Bronco is lifted high above the ground. I had to put my trust in McKinney, who was spotting me here because my inclination was to just get out and walk away. I was definitely out of my comfort zone. But I felt a sense of confidence as he guided me down the trail, showed me how to press one button to engage the front and rear locking differentials and reassured me: “Your vehicle is your lifeline. You can’t break this car.”
On another rocky incline, I winced as I crawled over boulders and heard the sound of scraping on the underside. Luckily, the Bronco is equipped with an off-roader’s favorite accessory: skid plates.
We splashed through rivers, kicked up plenty of mud and navigated narrow obstacles. I never knew how cool it would be to use a sway bar or that lockers could be so much fun. Brittany was one of the other guests, and even though her husband Mike was doing all the driving, she said that just being a passenger-slash-spotter was enough exercise to close a ring on her Apple watch.
The final trail of the day was Cobble Crown, a nail-biter with sheer granite slabs and an incline so steep I didn’t think I could walk up it, let alone drive up it. But at this point, I had gained enough faith in the physics of the Bronco that I was actually able to pull it off. As McKinney said, slow is smooth, smooth is stable. And of course, it helped that I actually knew what to do with all those buttons on the dashboard.
Back at basecamp, we settled in for a well-earned dinner, followed by s’mores over the campfire. The other guests and I sat around and exchanged photos and videos and texts and marveled over how far we had come in just one day—and how thankful we were to have a new set of skills that would transform using our Broncos back at home. It was the ultimate test drive.
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