If we could rewind the clock 25 years, native Mainers Geoff and Mike Howe could easily be mistaken for Hazzard County, Georgia's legendary Duke Boys. Well, on second thought, I suppose one might stumble upon a few differences. First, the Howes are clearly brilliant inventors and businessmen who've devoted their careers to developing a high-speed tank that rewrote the manual on tank construction and landed them a high-dollar government contract building prototype vehicles for the Army. Bo and Luke, on the other hand, didn't seem to have enough brainpower to calculate trading in their nut-huggers for a pair of comfy jeans that actually fit. The Howe Boys put their heads together and parlayed their passion to invent into a Discovery Channel show, developing a brand along the way that will certainly make them millionaires. In contrast, the Duke Boys regularly forgot about highly publicized road construction projects and then inadvertently jumped rivers without putting a single scratch on their sacred General Lee. Finally, the Duke Boys had a reputation of hanging out with a greasy-fingered dude named Cooter who looked like a pedophile and regularly spent his time wrenching on vintage iron that Cash for Clunkers would have turned away. However, the Howes' main sidekick, Will McMaster, could likely "out-MacGyver" MacGyver and turn ordinary household items into the next space shuttle! Stick that in your pipe and smoke it MacGruber!
"The series portrayed the...
"The series portrayed the stars of the show, Geoff and Mike Howe, as the Wright Brothers of tracked vehicles."
In early May, ATV Rider Editor Thad Josey and I road-tripped it to Howe and Howe Technologies' main headquarters in Waterboro, Maine, in the hopes of riding their Mini Rip. What we envisioned as a basic ride test instead turned into the greatest adventure story I've ever been involved with.
A few months earlier, I caught an episode of the Discovery Channel's latest hit, "Howe and Howe Technologies," as I sat on the couch stuffing my face with BBQ potato chips (my famed training technique). The series portrayed the stars of the show, Geoff and Mike Howe, as the Wright Brothers of tracked vehicles. Their persona is a cross between Albert Einstein and Evel Knievel, with a dash of Johnny Knoxville on the side. From the first episode, I was hooked on their killer sense of ingenuity and their captivating personalities. But it wasn't until I saw a short five-second clip of them riding a tracked creation about the size of an ATV that my brain quick-shifted into overdrive. I dove for the remote and programmed my DVR to record the series. When the episode with Mini Rip aired, I was beyond impressed. Having a trained eye, I could tell the Mini Rip was based on an ATV. Discovery did its best to keep the intimate details of the donor machine secret. But my badly diseased brain is full of worthless ATV knowledge. All it took was a flash of the thumb throttle, a quick look at the bolt pattern on the front hubs, the location of the transmission belt housing and the sound of that thumping V-twin and I knew Mini Rip was based on the 2009 Polaris Sportsman 850 XP!
I picked up my iPhone, Googled the show, found an email address and quickly told the guys I'd like to do a story on Mini Rip for ATV Rider Magazine. I honestly never expected a response, but within literally five minutes, Mike Howe had replied via his iPhone that they were down for us to come to Maine and rip on Mini Rip. I couldn't believe how easily this story came together. To be honest, I thought I might be getting punked until I actually spoke to the guys on the phone. It turns out the Howe Brothers aren't just portrayed as motor heads on the show. They eat, sleep, dream and live the off-road lifestyle as gnarly as anyone I've ever met in the business. As if the experience couldn't get any better, I found out that Discovery Channel was making special arrangements to be there while I tested Mini Rip, hoping to gather footage for season two! The stage had been set, and what happened next would be up to us.
"The Howes pointed me to a...
"The Howes pointed me to a deep mudhole in the middle of their swamp and told me I needed to 'surf the cattails.' "
We met up with the Howes and the Discovery film crew at their shop on a cool spring morning. While the Howes were filming commercial spots and simultaneously harassing the hell out of the film crew, we were running around like maniacs shooting photos of everything we could find in their 50,000-square-foot shop. Hints of season one were everywhere, including the severely tortured test dummy Rescue Ronnie, whose level of abuse pales in comparison to mistake-ridden shop hand Cameron, who just can't seem to escape the relentless attack of insults, and the Badger, which I squished myself inside of and raced around the shop pretending to be a task force officer. After shooting photos, we hung out with the sound and camera guys and did our best to observe how the whole filming process goes down.
One of the coolest things we saw on our journey was a top-secret and innovative machine that will make its debut on the show sometime in the fall, when season two is slated to start. The RipChair, as it's called, was designed for wheelchair-bound passengers to traverse difficult terrains and reach remote off-road locations that would never be possible otherwise. RipChair is a tracked vehicle, of course, that operates similarly to a Bobcat skid-steer. The day before we arrived, Discovery Channel filmed a disabled veteran named Rocky navigating RipChair down one of the gnarliest paths you'd ever find in hopes of reaching a remote fishing hole with his son. Keep in mind that Rocky has been wheelchair bound since before most of us were born. Mike and Geoff were clearly emotional when they discussed the experience, stating that RipChair changed many of their lives on that day, including their own. It did so by giving Rocky something that you just can't put a price tag on: freedom and independence!
"With the Discovery crew manning the cameras, Mike and Geoff explained the procedure to get Mini Rip rolling."
Have you ever pulled the trigger...
Have you ever pulled the trigger on a Barrett 50-caliber? Now we know why the Howes have named it Venom.
Thad was even mic'd and followed...
Thad was even mic'd and followed by a Discovery Channel cameraman as he shot photos of the testing.
Mike Howe shows both the Discovery...
Mike Howe shows both the Discovery Channel film crew and ATVR how it's done on Mini Rip.
After a brief backwoods extravaganza that involved jumping and smashing through a swampy trail in Mike's brand-new Chevy truck, we loaded up the rigs and headed out to "The Pit" to test ride Mini Rip. If you're a fan of the show, you know The Pit is a plot of land out in the middle of nowhere that has sandy hillclimbs, a shooting range, crushed cars and a bottomless swamp full of cattails. It's also infested with millions of the biggest damned ticks. Between Thad and myself, I bet we picked enough of those ticks off our bodies to fill up an empty water bottle! The crew, led by Will, unloaded Mini Rip and got it prepped for some time in the saddle.
In the weeks prior to our trip, I had grown increasingly nervous about riding this machine. I've ridden virtually every machine on the planet and have never been nervous about thrashing on any of them. But the thought of piloting a contraption sporting two undulating metal tracks with chompers bigger than Baba Booey's teeth is bad enough. Factor in an image of these flesh grinders churning to an 85-horsepower engine within inches of the rider's legs and other important parts worth keeping, and it starts painting the mental picture I'd been battling.
When cleaned up, Mini Rip...
When cleaned up, Mini Rip possesses a sleek, stealthy look.
With the Discovery crew manning the cameras, Mike and Geoff explained the procedure to get Mini Rip rolling. Thad was even mic'd and assigned his own videographer who stalked his every move as he captured this historic moment for ATVR on his camera. I cranked the starter switch and the big-bore Polaris twin engine roared to life, spewing exhaust through a muffler-free system that exits through an H&H logo on the back. As soon as the engine fired, the melodious sound of that thumping V-twin evaporated my nervousness. It was like my mind was on autopilot, so I just did what came natural... I PINNED IT! Since the tracks are angled up on the front and back, the Mini Rip stood on the rear half of the tracks and almost gave the sensation of riding a wheelie. I took the first minute or two busting out straight-up drag strip runs to get the hang of the steering. Mini Rip doesn't turn like a normal quad, and the bar turns with less resistance than anything I've ever driven, mostly because it has no mechanical steering linkage. Instead, the stem is hooked to a sensor that determines which direction the bar is pointed. Turn the bar slightly to the right and the clutching system slows down the right track while the left track continues at full speed, causing the machine to pull to the right. Turn the bar lightly to the left and it brakes the opposite track, causing the machine to pull to the left. If you turn the bar hard, the Mini Rip will literally stop one of the tracks instantly and turn on a dime. Do this in a high-traction area and you'll be wishing you had a clean pair of underwear in your gear bag. A quad would roll over if it had the capability to turn this quickly. But with the super-low center of gravity and width for stability on the Mini Rip, its ability to turn quickly exceeds the pilot's ability to hold on!
Will preps Mini Rip for a...
Will preps Mini Rip for a day ripping through some thick, nasty sludge.
After a few more runs to get used to the steering, I hit the swamp. This is where the true extreme capabilities of Mini Rip began to reveal its dominant abilities. The Howes pointed me to a deep mudhole in the middle of their swamp and told me I needed to "surf the cattails." I looked in the general direction but thought, "Nah, they don't want me to go down there." I second-guessed myself three times, pointing over and over to the spot I thought they wanted me to go, looking for assurance that I understood them correctly. The whole crew jumped up and down screaming and directing me to go "there!" The spot they wanted me to traverse was the same place I had been told a Jeep with 44-inch tires was buried just a few days earlier and looked as if it could swallow the Titanic. I could still see the trenches left by the stuck Jeep, which is why I questioned the guys so much. Once I knew we were all on the same page, I pointed Mini Rip in the direction of the bottomless pit and flogged the throttle. Mini Rip literally walked through the hole, throwing a rooster tail like I've never seen before. The Mini Rip's ability to devour that swamp was intoxicating. I went back and forth countless times in that soupy, tick-infested swamp-a sludge that no ATV I'm aware of could conquer-trying my hardest to get the Mini Rip completely swamped. I simply couldn't do it. After taking a beating worse than Artie Lange's liver, the original stock Polaris belt gave up the ghost and blew apart inside the belt housing. Everyone on the Howe and Howe crew was screaming and jumping up and down with excitement like I'd just landed it on the moon! After months of grueling punishment and testing, this was the very first belt Mini Rip ever shred, and I have to say I was honored to be the guy to do it! (Editor's Note: Lance will soon be receiving the steep labor and parts invoice H&H mistakenly sent to our office. )
If you want to break it, just...
If you want to break it, just call an ATVR editor! I even broke my computer while writing this caption.
Later that night, over several pounds of grilled flesh and some cold adult beverages, we shared photos from the day and pondered our experience at Mike's lakefront cabin with the brothers and a few crew members. We even got to play a creepy new game of capturing ticks that crawled from Sweet Dee's hair, who just happens to be the hottest welding specialist we'd ever laid eyes on. Amazingly, we scored five points in less than 10 minutes. The Howes are down-to-earth guys who are truly some of the smartest and most unique human beings I've ever been fortunate enough to meet. They give hope to young kids all across the country that dreaming outside of the box, hard work and a good education do pay off. They prove that good old American ingenuity can be found in all of us. And finally, they serve as examples that following one's passion with reckless abandon can truly make your dreams come true. In short, this was an incredible adventure! To top it all off, I not only get to say that I'm one of only eight people in the world to ride the most expensive and badass ATV on the planet, I can also take credit for being the only one to break it! How's that for a great ending?
Useless, Yet Entertaining H&H Facts
The tube chassis tank that started it all. Built with parts from a junkyard on a shoestring budget, the Ripsaw could go twice as fast as any tank on the planet at a fraction of the price.
The Howes once considered themselves loners. In fact, they thought of themselves as a two-man wolf pack. But when they hired Will, they knew he was one of their own. So now they're a wolf pack of three!
You might remember crash test dummy Rescue Ronnie getting blown to smithereens when the Badger was parked over a few sticks of exploding dynamite. He survived and now spends his time laying around the shop sipping soup and chowing down potato chips. We're not sure if fame and success have gone to his head, but he never said a word to us. We did see Cameron asking him for advice, though!
Look for the RipChair to debut when season two rolls around this fall. It's slow and rides rough, but it will take a wheelchair-bound passenger just about anywhere.
Dee is one of the new faces you'll see in season two. Don't let her sweetness fool you. She can lay down a weld with the best of them. She also doesn't seem to be bothered by ticks.
The venerable "Mikey Tuetul" of the group. After witnessing him do about 15 stupid things in a matter of one hour, it was obvious that bad decisions come naturally to Cameron. He may be the shop "d-bag" on the show, but he's actually a really cool kid and wishes his newfound fame would help him score with the ladies. He's also really into quads, which makes him good in our book.
Designed to drive through a 32-inch-wide door, through block walls and up and down stairs, all while protecting the operator from gunshots and explosions. The biggest challenge is getting inside it.
Barrett 50-Caliber 82A1 (aka, The Venom):
Apparently the most badass gun on the planet, it was designed to shoot planes out of the sky. Because of its size, an exhaust brake is used to diffuse some of the recoil energy. When shooting one, be sure to keep your mouth closed, because the gas discharged out of the brake is like a punch in the face.
The Mini Rip shares a proprietary clutch design with its Ripsaw big brothers. The clutches are actually hydraulically actuated disc brakes that allow power to be controlled electronically through a computer-controlled steering system. It gives razor-sharp handling and an inexpensive open-clutch design.