Among those struggling, unpretentious little towns that fate and history have conspired to treat shabbily or ignore entirely, Monroe, Mich. stands as a classic example, a hardworking place that really deserves better. An industrial community fighting off the ravages of a humid Midwest summer with cold beer and insect repellent (in that order), Monroe is a paper-mill town halfway between Detroit and Toledo, with a blue collar for each of its shady old elms and saloons sufficient to match the well-kept homes.
Almost from its start, Monroe has gotten short shrift from a lot of folks. The French and British fought some messy battles around this scenic area, and the local historic hero, General George Armstrong Custer, spent his boyhood in Monroe before heading off to West Point, Appomattox and, in due time, that regrettable session of acupuncture at Little Big Horn.
Long before pollution became a household word, Monroe's residents knew that nearby Lake Erie qualified as the dirtiest body of water this side of a sump. Thus it has remained, a sort of liquid fire hazard suitable only for the bravest kid swimmers and the legion of mosquitoes that begin their furious breeding there sometime after the ice thaws.
Then came last weekend, and, sure enough, someone socked it to Monroe again.
The occasion was a national racing championship that was difficult to recognize as anything involving wheels. This one was called, somewhat redundantly, the National All-Terrain Vehicle Association Grand National Championships, and it played its third annual competition in the mud, slime and greasy clay gumbo of the Monroe County Fairgrounds. It is doubtful that any recent sporting event has so belied its purpose—which was to demonstrate the speed and mobile tenacity of the little six-wheeled craft that can travel over any surface short of an erupting lava flow.
Unfortunately, the course laid out for the scuttling, marshmallow-tired vehicles wouldn't have taxed the go-power of an airport limo. Any car, for that matter, could have negotiated the gentle slopes fashioned by a bulldozer, and there were those who were willing to bet the same on a Greyhound bus, except for the tight turns and incredibly slippery mud generated by sporadic and torrential cloudbursts.
The whole soggy scene might have been an unqualified disaster but for the friendliness and good spirit that prevails between members of the ATV set, who bring to their frolic none of the viciousness common to motorcycle racing, snowmobiling or, say, lawn tennis.
The ATV drivers and their following, which at Monroe included a toothless driver, a dentist, a Vietnam tank corps veteran and a lady bartender from Minnesota, are much like the craft they pilot, which one housewife described as "cutesy buggies." Nearly everyone is involved solely for the fun of it and with nothing to shoot for in the way of prize money save for a trivial chunk of entry fee. The bloodlust is tempered to a few curses and a lot of chuckling. Moreover, the ATV zealots have a care for the environmental movement and seem to realize that while their recreational vehicles are becoming an increasingly popular item, they also have been caught in the backlash created by snowmobiles so that acceptance by governmental agencies must he achieved slowly, with such improvements as better mufflers.
The friendly brotherhood act even prevailed between two of the youngest and best drivers in the field, 17-year-old Scott Slonaker, the defending national champion, and 18-year-old Danny Stevens, who stood a chance of taking the title away in Sunday's finals.
Slonaker, of York Haven, Pa., was piloting an All-Terrain Vehicle about the same time that his peers were testing out Schwinns and long before he was old enough to qualify for a regular driver's license. Scott now pilots seven different class Attex brand ATVs, which he leaps in and out of, at the assigned moment, like a parking-lot attendant. He also is a thoughtful lad who realizes that his success has come in an offbeat sport, ill-designed for swelling the ego.