The Dirt on Sue Mead, Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Famer
Pioneer Racer Is Third Woman To Receive Prestigious Award
Automotive journalist Sue Mead was inducted into the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame (ORMHOF) in August 2007 for her diverse contributions to the field of off-roading and the passion with which she has approached her work. Mead was named as a pioneer in the field of journalism, one of ORMHOF's three "pioneer" categories — industry and advocacy are the other two. She shares her honor with only 45 other inductees, including racers Rod Hall and Parnelli Jones, and film stars Steve McQueen and James Garner.
Each year one or more inductees are selected by a committee of 20-25 off-road experts. Mead is only the third woman to be awarded this honor, following 2004 inductees Carla Boucher and Jean Calvin.
A Long Road
Nineteen years ago, Mead was working part-time as a photojournalist for local newspapers and the Associated Press, while raising her daughter in the small college town of Williamstown, Massachusetts. This led to her first road test assignment in 1988, when she became one of the first women vehicle testers for Four Wheeler magazine. She went on to carve out a niche as the only woman in the early '90s to cover SUVs and trucks exclusively.
Once immersed in the off-road world, she decided to compete for the Camel Trophy in 1995. Known as the "Olympics of 4x4," the Camel Trophy was a grueling 1,000-mile competition waged in Land Rovers in remote, barely navigable places around the world. To qualify for a team, Mead faced 30 hours of testing that included physical competition, driving, vehicle recovery and mechanical skills, first aid and survival skills as well as navigation.
"I was the oldest person there, surrounded by a bunch of super-fit bionic people," remembers Mead. "We started at 5:30 a.m. After written exams, we had to do a six-mile run. I had never run six miles in my life. I was the farthest behind. Halfway through the run, Bill Baker, the public relations manager for Land Rover at the time, told me I'd done great and offered to drive me the rest of the way. I declined and finished the run with bleeding heels and shaking legs.
"Then I was told to cross a deep ravine on a rope. I was totally daunted. Thinking my legs and hands would give out and hoping I'd already passed muster, I said, 'I can't do that.'
"'Bad attitude,' said the instructor. 'Take a walk. Come back and ask me how to do it.'
"And that's exactly what I did. Crossing that ravine took me to a place I had never gone before. It made me realize that I had fears and that I had to get rid of them."
In the end, Mead beat out five men and one woman to make the team. She and Daphne Greene became the first women to compete in Camel Trophy for a U.S. team. At the end of the '95 competition, her U.S. team finished 13th out of 20.
Driving Harder, Setting Records
That fighting spirit has stayed with her through many competitions, including the Camel Trophy in Borneo, Mongolia, Argentina and Central America.
Mead admits she hasn't done it all alone. She has partnered with other leading off-roaders to try new challenges, including the Arctic Circle Challenge '95, a 1,000-mile extreme winter trek from Anchorage to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska; the Tip to Tip Challenge '96, a 99-hour nonstop drive from Prudhoe Bay to Key West, Florida; and the TransAmerica Challenge '97, in which Mead and her teammates broke the existing 129-hour record by driving through 48 contiguous states in 114 hours.
She landed 1st-place finishes in the Baja 1000 — a brutal annual race on Mexico's Baja Peninsula — as co-driver for Rod Hall in 1996 and for Darren Skilton in 1999. Skilton and Mead also completed the annual Paris-Dakar-Cairo 2000, the world's longest off-road race.
Mead has often been the only woman in a group of men. One might think that a 5-foot-2 woman roughing it in the wild with men would feel apprehension, but Mead says it was never an issue. "The men I have worked with are so gentlemanly, thoughtful and willing to teach any woman who is serious about learning," she said.
Even in the rain forest or the open desert, Mead quickly learned to cope. "Women especially worry about how they are going to relieve themselves in the rain forest and in the open desert," she said. "At the end of the day, it's the most uninteresting thing that happens out there."
Baker, who has organized many off-road trips, admires Mead's ability to go with the flow. "She never seemed to mind coming off the road looking like she'd done several rounds with a Tasmanian devil and resembling Nick Nolte's mug shot. A shower, quick comb-out and a little black dress, and she's ready for dinner and a glass of Bordeaux."
In addition to her off-road conquests, Mead has led dozens of family-oriented Jeep Jamboree off-road events, serving both as a logistics organizer and expert trail guide.
In sum, her adventures have taken her to 62 countries. She has covered enough ground to circumnavigate the globe — in the dirt.
As it has for many others, a near-fatal autoimmune illness led Mead to a change in attitude about her role in the world.
"When I was sick, I prayed that I would see the world before I died. My work let me do that, but when I saw the poverty in the rest of the world, it made me realize I had spent my 40s reaching many of my goals. When I turned 50, I realized it was time to start giving back.
"Off-roading in South Africa in 1999, I met Nelson Mandela in the village of Tifuxeni. I was so inspired, I promised a local teacher to help build a library."
Mead started a book drive on her 50th birthday by asking friends to forgo buying presents and instead donate money to buy books. A year later, with help from the folks at BMW, she shipped thousands of books to Tifuxeni.
These days Mead applies her off-roading skills wherever help is needed. When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, she hopped on a plane to New Orleans. Working with a group called HOPE (Hummer Owners Prepared for Emergencies), she drove through the flooded, debris-filled streets for three weeks, delivering supplies and rescuing people. Catnaps between tours of duty took place on the floor of a Hummer dealership where she and other HOPE volunteers camped. She's returned to New Orleans three times since, each time bringing new volunteers.
Also an advocate for women, Mead takes the time to help female automotive journalists network and find jobs. When I started my career as a writer, she literally guided me through the mud and over the boulders. She patiently taught me basics like throttle and brake techniques, how to choose the correct line and vehicle speed, and how to steer back and forth in a sawing motion to navigate through mud.
Mead is the genuine article, someone who walks her talk and gives all of herself every day of her life. It's no surprise that she is a Hall of Famer.