Dealer's obstacle course is geared for Jeep customers
MONROE, Mich. -- Any Jeep dealer can tell customers what a Jeep can do. Ralph Mahalak Jr., on the other hand, can step outside his dealership and take customers for a spin over hills, rocks and logs on his private dirt track.
Mahalak is one of a handful of dealers in the United States with a Jeep obstacle course next to his store.
Mahalak, 49, a second-generation dealer, is a large man who relishes his oversized role as the face of his dealership in his city of 20,000 between Detroit and Toledo, Ohio.
His Monroe Dodge-Chrysler-Jeep-Ram is less than 20 miles from the Toledo plants where the Jeep Wrangler and Liberty are assembled.
His exuberance has gotten him into trouble on occasion, such as earlier this year when he borrowed the Chrysler brand's "Imported from Detroit" tag line and printed a batch of Jeep-oriented "Imported from Toledo" T-shirts for his customers, much to the automaker's consternation.
His quarter-mile course has 18 obstacles to be driven over and through, including a 25-foot hill, rock and log crawls, and a mud pit. It takes about nine minutes to traverse, with prospective customers being driven by one of Mahalak's trained staff.
The fenced-in course was designed by Steve Gordinier of Highland, Mich., about 25 miles northwest of Detroit, who builds off-road courses for Chrysler Group's annual Camp Jeep events and for private Jeep Jamboree USA events.
The course cost Mahalak about $15,000 to build in 2009 on about three acres of unused land he owned next to his dealership. It was built over a smaller version he had installed in 2001 to promote the launch of the Jeep Liberty.
"Wrangler customers, Liberty or Grand Cherokee customers -- they want to see what a Jeep can do," Mahalak said. His dealership has sold more than 200 Wranglers since January 2010 and sells about 1,000 new vehicles per year.
Riders are required to be at least 18 years old and sign a liability waiver to participate. Customers are limited to riding in a Wrangler, Liberty or Grand Cherokee because those vehicles have transfer cases able to crawl in four-wheel-drive low across the obstacles.
Todd Goyer, a spokesman for the Jeep brand, said fewer than a dozen Jeep dealerships nationwide have built obstacle courses.
Since 2001, Mahalak said the dealership has never had an injury from the obstacle course and has suffered less than $2,000 in damage to vehicles traversing it -- primarily paint scratches from brush growing too high.
Mahalak said the track has "truly been a gift" to the 45-year-old dealership, one of five Chrysler Group dealerships he owns in Michigan, Ohio and Florida. "It's probably one of the best investments I ever made, in terms of paying for itself."
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