Transitioning to civilian life after years of serving in the military can be difficult, especially for those in combat roles. Many veterans look for something to focus on that can mesh with their everyday life — a new mission. If that hobby or interest can somehow compensate for the loss of military camaraderie, all the better.
The journey to find something that fits the individual and fills the emotional or social gaps they may have looks different for everyone. Some people hunt, some get deep into hand-loading ammunition, and others dedicate their free time to some kind of competition-based activity.
For a growing number of vets across the country, tear-assing through a dense forest or a sprawling course through the desert in a tricked-out side-by-side is proving to be a great form of adrenaline therapy. It’s an increasingly popular form of off-road racing that has fostered a tight-knit community of veterans, many of whom credit racing with making their lives a whole lot better.
Jessica Coleman is a wife and mother of three from Buford, Georgia. She served for six years in the US Army as a combat medic, including a tour of duty in Iraq.
“I was also at Fort Hood for both shootings — one before I deployed and then one when I got back. Let me tell you, that was rough times,” Coleman said. “My PTSD was so bad that the Army pretty much said, ‘We don’t want to do any further damage to you, so we’re processing you out with a retirement.’ Even still, being back here, there are days that I miss it and I feel like it makes more sense to be there than it does to be here.”
A Different Way to Heal
A few months ago, Coleman’s husband bought an inexpensive four-wheeler. They soon upgraded to a Yamaha Viking six-seater so the whole family could ride together. She never thought this source of family fun would morph into a necessary component of her recovery.
Coleman’s family decided to check out a local side-by-side racing event at the Durhamtown Off Road Resort in Georgia, where she first ran into some folks from the newest Southeast chapter of Desert Vets Racing, a nonprofit organization that puts veterans into the co-driver seat of off-road UTVs during races.
“On the way home I looked them up and it basically said, ‘If you’re a vet and you’ve got something going on, get in touch with us.’ And I thought that was a pretty good idea,” she said. So she emailed the Desert Vets Racing Southeast team.
The goal of Desert Vets Racing (DVR) isn’t complicated: Replace the missing mission from veterans’ lives with something positive. Jeff Goldsmith said the adrenaline rush helps vets associate that feeling with racing instead of danger.
Goldsmith and his wife, Melanie, of Culleoka, Tennessee, decided to be a part of that when they established the DVR Southeast chapter a little more than a year ago. The Goldsmiths’ 609 Racing car regularly runs on both short motocross-style tracks and longer endurance courses on trails cut through the dense Georgia pines.
The DVR parent organization is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit UTV race team established in 2016 by veteran Mike Pascarella. Its tagline is “Off-Road Racing for Veterans by Veterans.” DVR currently has affiliated cars in California, Washington, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, and Tennessee that are organized into four official chapters: DVR HQ (California), DVR Northern Nevada, DVR Colorado-New Mexico, and the newest chapter, DVR Southeast.
Creating the 609 Racing Car
Goldsmith rode Harleys for most of his life but said the increasing hazard of distracted drivers prompted him to sell his hog about a year and a half ago and buy a Can-Am Maverick X3 Turbo side-by-side.
“I bought the Can-Am as another way for me and my wife to get out, and as soon as I came home with it, she’s like, ‘You’re gonna race it.’ I’m like, ‘No, it’s for us.’ We can see how that went,” Goldsmith said. “In August 2019, I went down to Baja and pre-rode the Baja 500 course. After that, I was hooked on the racing idea.”
The Goldsmiths dropped some coin to upgrade their Can-Am’s safety features to get it racing ready, including having a custom roll cage built and installed, and the car was ready for the track. With a big trip planned for a California race in February 2020, Goldsmith’s co-driver dropped out at the last minute.
“I’d heard about Desert Vets Racing, and I reached out to them. They had a couple of vets they wanted to put in the car, so I was game,” he said. “Then during the 2,000-mile drive out to the race, I’m thinking, ‘What am I doing, putting somebody I don’t know in my car at race speeds.’ But we got out there and I met a lot of the folks with DVR and the two vets who’d be racing with me. We took seventh place out of 30 cars — that was our first race ever — and the look on these veterans’ faces after they got out of the car after the race, it was amazing. They could not stop talking about the experience they’d had.”
“At that moment, I knew we had to bring this program out to the Southeast because we don’t have anything like that in our area,” he added.
The Goldsmiths have put a lot of their own money into the 609 Racing/DVR Southeast car, and they do everything they can financially and logistically to assist veterans with lodging or travel costs so they can get to a race. They also have several sponsors, including local companies like Moto Joes in Columbia, Tennessee, Battleground South Cigar Lounge, Rugged Radios, MRT Moto Race Tires, PRP Seats, and Method Racing Wheels, who help keep the tires on the 609 car spinning. The team holds raffles at races, which help generate some cash for safety equipment, insurance for the veteran co-drivers, and to offset travel and lodging costs, when necessary.
The 609 car’s base model is a 2019 Cam-Am Maverick X3 XRS Turbo R. All cars in the CORS (Competitive Offroad Racing Series) class have stock motors with turbochargers. The major modifications Goldsmith has made to the stock UTV include a stiffer suspension with a shorter ground clearance, along with smaller tires and wheels, plus stiffer torsion bars to eliminate body roll. This optimizes the car for the shorter, 12-lap NASCAR/motocross-style tracks, but the car still handles the endurance races well, which run two to four hours.
“It’s all through the woods at Durhamtown, and it’s usually anywhere between 12 and 18 miles long, so you’re doing laps, but you’re also doing it in the dark, and that complicates things,” Goldsmith said. “My car is set up for the short course, so it’s not perfect for it, but the trees coming at you in the dark adds a whole new dimension to the racing.”
For the longer races, a car should ideally have a different suspension that lets it ride higher with more ground clearance, which would also allow for slightly larger wheels and tires. Otherwise, the setup is the same.
Every car carries a first-aid kit, fire extinguisher, belt changing tools and a spare belt, and assorted hand tools; for desert racing, the cars also carry a spare tire and jack.
Coleman discovered DVR Southeast at a fortuitous time. The week after she sent her info to Goldsmith, she suffered, in her words, “a mental breakdown.”
“My anxiety just got so bad, all I wanted to do was go live under a bridge. I didn’t want to do anything suicidal or anything like that, but I felt like the anxiety level in the house was getting so bad that my family needed a break from me in order to have a healthy life,” Coleman said. “So Jeff and I talked and he was like, ‘Look, we have a race coming up. We’d love to get you in a car.’ So I said, ‘What’s it gonna hurt? Let’s go get in a car.’”
Unfortunately, Goldsmith couldn’t find a spot for Coleman during an actual race, though other CORS teams are happy to help when a vet needs a car to ride in whenever they can. So instead she strapped in for a few practice runs on a short motocross course. It turned out to be a bit of a revelation for her.
Goldsmith said some vets with claustrophobia issues have to get used to being tightly strapped into the car while wearing a full helmet and fire-retardant suit. Coleman had no issues there.
“I was in a bunch of convoys inside an MRAP, and that’s the same way,” Coleman said, referring to a mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle. “You’re in a five-point harness, and everywhere I went I had a helmet on. So it was almost like being home again. We did the practice laps, the qualifiers, and [my driver] Will later said to me, ‘Every time I saw you laugh or giggle or put your hands up like you were in a roller coaster, I knew I had to go faster to push you.’
“I had an absolute blast. Everyone out there is so welcoming. They’re amazing. Now Will and his father always come up to me at a race and give me a hug. People will come up and say they’re happy to see me.”
Coleman has since become a regular part of the DVR Southeast family at Durhamtown, and racing has become a part of her life.
“As far as a stress reliever, this is absolutely the best thing I have found, and I have tried all sorts of crazy therapies,” she said. “This one, by far, has given me the most. It’s given me something to look forward to, it’s given my family some joy, and it’s given me joy. There’s just not enough positive things to say.”
First Trip to the Desert
At the top of 2021, the DVR Southeast team took a cross-country journey to California to compete in their first desert endurance race. Normally, vets occupy the co-driver seat for portions of the races. They are responsible for navigation, calling out turns to the driver, monitoring the car’s gauges, and communicating via the car’s radio — and Goldsmith drives. In Cali, things didn’t go quite as planned.
While preparing for the race after arriving at the track, Goldsmith realized a neck injury had grown too severe for him to drive the 609 car. But he wasn’t about to bow out of the race after driving across the country through Oklahoma ice storms to get there — so DVR Southeast team member and US Marine Corps veteran Eric Suarez got behind the wheel for his first full race.
“We had two new vets in the co-driver seat over the course of the race, and Eric did an incredible job driving,” Goldsmith said after making the long road trip back to Tennessee. “We are blessed to be able to offer these opportunities to our American heroes.”
“It’s a bit nerve-wracking when someone unexpectedly gives you control of a $50,000 to $60,000 machine for a race,” Suarez, who served in the Marines for 18 years and is now a member of the DVR Southeast leadership team, said. “I was trying to be super cautious and not foul up somewhere, but at some point, the competitive fire takes over and you want to do as well as you can. Overall it was a great experience and the two vets in the car had a great time.”
He said he sees the value of what DVR does for vets in every race he runs with them.
“When veterans struggle to acclimatize back to the civilian world, bad things can happen,” Suarez said. “Bad thoughts can start to creep into one’s mind. That dark place is not where anyone wants to be. Not surprisingly, most medical entities combat these issues with medication, which in my experience just makes things worse, but it is the easy answer for them. Something like racing may not be such an easy or simple answer, but for me and others, it works.”
Sgt. 1st Class Dale McCord, 47, has served 28 years in the US Army and Army National Guard, where he still works full time, and he loves racing.
“At my age, you don’t hill up like you used to, but you get that racing bug and it kinds of gets into your blood,” he said. “You want it, you know, you want to do it. Just like other things for different people, whether it’s shooting sports, hunting and fishing, racing — it’s something you get really into.”
McCord has participated in two races with DVR Southeast and hopes to run his own CORS car with them one day. He loves the camaraderie but also really digs the competition.
“There’s a focus you achieve inside the helmet,” McCord said. “When I’m riding in a car with somebody and I get out with a big stupid grin on my face, I’m thinking about, ‘What could we have done better?’ and I’m not even in control. ‘How could we have driven it better and faster?’ It’s the competition that creates that focus. It’s a competition, and we’re a team.”
McCord added, “It creates a belonging again to a group that’s working together toward a common goal. And a big part of that goal when racing side-by-sides is just surviving the attrition rate, especially in the endurance races. Your machine’s got to make it through hours of driving, at night, on a muddy and wet course through the Georgia pines, in tight conditions. Even if you don’t place but you make it through and the machine survives and you finish, that’s an accomplishment in itself.”
Case in point: During DVR Southeast’s race in California, a bolt sheared off the 609 car after about four laps and ended the race for the 609 car. Suarez still managed to take 30th place out of 93 cars.
“Who knows how good I could have done if that bolt hadn’t gone,” he said, laughing but also kind of serious.