Line Mountain 7-Miler: The Toughest Seven-Mile Off-Road Obstacle Course in the USA

Sep. 25, 2009 By Daniel Spalinger
One view of only a small portion of the fields filled with campers, race vehicles and spectators.

Caffeine, nicotine and cruise control are my weapons of choice on any long road trip.

Fortunately, I had all three at my disposal this past weekend when making the near-eight-hour trek from New Hampshire to the coal country of Eastern Pennsylvania.

Stopping at a sobriety checkpoint in Treverton, PA, at 12:30 a.m., I immediately pointed out to the nice officer that “I’m not drunk, I just need to know how to find Dornsife, and the 7-Miler track.” He just laughed and pointed me in the right direction telling me I was about 10 minutes away.

Driving up the narrow dirt driveway that led to the hillside field where all the spectators, racers and vehicles would gather, it was evident that despite the late hour, no one was going to keep this crowd from having a good time.

On "I-80," one of the higher speed sections of the racecourse.

After checking in at a little shack surrounded by a handful of people (all with beers in hand) sitting in lawn chairs, I proceeded to try and find a spot where I could park my now so obviously out-of-place ’08 Nissan Altima and crash with my feet in the trunk and my head on the back of the fold-down 60/40 split rear seat.  When I first turned off the engine and radio I was greeted with the sound of The Doors blaring away from a nearby campsite and fire.  Ummmm … I guess this isn’t a good spot for me to sack out, even with my earplugs.

Though the party was definitely in full swing already, it wasn’t until the light of day on the following morning that I realized just how big the event is.  Crawling (literally) out of the back seat of my car, I was welcomed by the sight of hundreds upon hundreds of travel trailers, tents and race vehicles.  Really – no lie – a big, full-scale off-road race in the middle of nowhere, PA.

So just what is the Line Mountain 7-Miler?

Well, it is an off-road race run by the Line Mountain 4-Wheelers club in Dornsife, PA.  The club runs a number of races each year, including the Line Mountain 3 ½ Miler and the Line Mountain Coal Bucket races in the same basic area, with the 7-Miler being the crown jewel.

Truth be told, I’m not sure of the exact mileage of the race.  I was told three separate mileage figures while I was there and none of them were seven miles. A significant portion of the race course was recently rerouted when a flooded coal mine burst, washing out a substantial section under a raging torrent of black water, leaving the mileage at somewhere between eight and 10 miles per lap.

Some sweet plywood body panels. Cheap and easy to fab!

Run in this same location for the past 39 years, the 7-Miler has as great a story behind it as any motorsports event in the U.S.  Back in 1971 Dale Lenig, his brothers, and friends began racing through their woods to see who was the fastest.  Back then there were only 20 racers, and the race began at the Lenig family barn in which Dale now has his shop.  Growing over the years, the starting line moved away from the barn (no longer were they allowed to shut down a town road for their race) and up into the fields on Dale’s property.  Not only did this allow for a new starting line, but it also accommodated the large numbers of campers and racers that attended year after year.



The interior of Dale Lenig's shop - more history than you can shake a stick at.

Dale, at 71 years young, is still racing (and would finish 17th overall on this day) nearly 40 years later and still turns a wrench and fabs his own vehicles. In the 39 years that the 7-Miler has been run, Dale has missed only one, as he was busy bagging a grizzly bear in Alaska that year.

If any of you old desert racers think the name Dale Lenig sounds familiar to you—it just may. Not only is Dale one of the founding members of this event, but he also ran in three Mint 400 races back in the day, competing in the ’79, ’80, and ’86 runnings.  Dale would finish 2nd in his class in ’86 after running out of gas and having to borrow some from a group of spectating ATV riders in order to finish the race.

Unlike most race vehicles of that age, the Jeep he used in the ’86 Mint 400 is still out racing. It would, in fact, be raced in this day’s event.  Affectionately nicknamed “Minty,” she has had her rusted frame repaired and a number of other upgrades performed but proudly sports her “1986 Del Webb’s Mint 400” plaque right on the dash. Though Dale says he could have been consistently competitive in Western desert races, his love of family, friends, and his home kept him back east.

Two buggies as stablemates, typical of the vintage VW-powered vehicles still running here.

No matter, as you get the feeling that the racers attending the 39th annual 7-Miler would race in total anonymity, perhaps for a case of Natty Light, if it came down to it.

The 7-Miler remains, at its heart, a family event.  It seemed like everyone I ran into was a Lenig or somehow a relative of the Lenig family. Truly, these same families and friends have been coming back to race in this event for multiple generations now, even telling stories of how some of the children now attending, were conceived at prior 7-Milers.

After visiting with Dale at his barn/shop (complete with a hand-operated beer can-crusher hooked up to an odometer style counter, currently somewhere North of 20,000) and taking in the early morning quad race (with 30 entries of its own), which ran over the same course but for only two laps, it was time for the main event.

The race itself (however long it actually is) is laid out over the property of several private landowners. This, among other factors, has allowed the race to continue for as long as it has with only the most minor of issues between the race organizers and the local government and citizens.

One of the cleanest buggies to be entered in the race. Would look right at home in the desert.

Another factor in the race’s favor is its relatively small footprint.  In the mostly treeless expanses of the American far West, to create a nine-mile course one would need to take up a distance of near the full nine miles of track as the crow flies.  Here, however, the thick forest allows the race not only to double back upon itself, but to weave up and down the side of Line Mountain without fear that competitors will make large course cuts or mistake what direction to go.



"Minty" as she stands today, is still clean, in one piece and a well-put-together racer.

The 39th annual 7-Miler saw a near race record number of entries with 147 teams ready to rock.  Just shy of the 151 that I am told is the all-time high for the event, Line Mountain 4-Wheelers President Bill Lahr is very pleased with the turnout and hopes that the event is beginning to get the recognition it deserves.

Some of the first competitors who seem to have caught on to this event, outside of the local racing contingent, are East Coast rock racers and King of the Hammers aspirants. With the East Coast qualifying for the 2010 King of the Hammers race taking place just up the road at the Rausch Creek Off-Road Park earlier this year, and a new rock racing series just underway at the same said off-road park, it appears many looked at the 7-Miler as a great additional event for these dual-purpose vehicles that try to balance their design between going fast and being able to crawl over large obstacles.  At least half a dozen of this style of vehicle entered the race in an attempt to beat much simpler, older, and “home-brewed” style vehicles.

Now this is "old school," and it raced in the '09 7-Miler, believe it or not.

Yeah, many of the vehicles entered in the 7-Miler aren’t exactly what you would see displayed at the annual SEMA show. Most have been put together in the owner’s small shop or home garage and are unlikely (at best) to pass any sort of SCORE or BITD tech inspection.

We’re talking plywood body panels, bed frame crossmembers, rebar welded to wheel rims, recommendations to wear a long sleeve shirt versus a required fire suit, and a whole lot more of what some might call “redneck engineering.”  You also won’t see much fiberglass or pretty paint jobs.

Given that the race is run through a tight forest, in order to pass a stuck or broken competitor you must just point the nose of your vehicle toward the smallest tree you can find and just plow it down to make a new trail; worrying about things like how your vehicle looks is just plain moronic.

Beginning with the usual pre-race info to competitors—“You’re supposed to give a love-tap to let them know you want to get past … some guys just kiss harder than others!” and other new (to me) takes on familiar phrases, get the field of old Broncos, Scouts, Class 9s, Suzukis, and of course, Jeeps ready to go.

Separated by only a minute at the start it would still take more than two hours to get all 147 racers off the line, and with their order drawn mostly at random it made for some nutty action out in the forest.

A typical shot of the slop and rocks that the competitors were required to negotiate.

Jumping on board a local’s quad for a brief run down a town road to get out to the first checkpoint, I find masses of buggies and Jeeps flying through the woods on trails no wider than your average JK. This poses a problem for those with either a wide-tracked vehicle or anything less than precise steering. A fact brought home to me shortly after arriving at CP1 as I hear yells of “Help!!  Rollover!!” and begin running.

Arriving on scene I find one of the higher-end rock racers, in this case one running a rear-steer setup on Dana 60s, over on its side and about seven guys trying to get it upright. The Toyota-powered rock buggie had clipped a tree and rolled over. While attempts were made (eventually successful) at getting the racer upright, other competitors were making a new racecourse by crashing through the surrounding saplings and bushes in order to route around the halted truck.  Though the well-fabricated and comparatively expensive rock racer would get back on his wheels and tear off into the forest once again, he would not finish.



The muddy aftermath of the '09 7-Miler. Anyone wanna try and guess the true color of the vehicle?

Neither would the behemoth that is the “Timberwolf” run by Bottoms Up Rock Racing. Normally a four-seater running on Rockwells and 47-inch tires, owner AJ Condon had downsized to 44’s for this event.  Condon would also suffer defeat at the hands of the Pennsylvania vegetation, catching a tree at 40 mph and rolling the massive vehicle at speed taking out his rear steering and bending a substantial amount of tubing.

Condon’s Bottoms Up Rock Racing partner Stu Wilkinson had much better luck on the day with his 22RE-powered Samurai.  Stu finished 42nd overall in a time of some 3 hours and 21 minutes.  Stu stated that the 7-Miler course is rockier than he anticipated, and I would have to believe that the small dimensions of his Suzuki-bodied vehicle had at least something to do with his ability to finish the race as opposed to his stablemate.

Perhaps unsurprisingly it was the local racers who carried the majority of the day.

One of the more modern almost "Jeepspeed" type racers that was present.

Josh Gottshall was one such racer and was competing in his tenth 7-Miler, having never previously finished one.  On a racecourse that Gottshall says gets rougher every year, he fought an engine fire and a loose coil spring in order to grab his first 7-Miler finish, coming in 27th overall on the day.

As Gottshall’s struggles to finish indicate, you must consider yourself lucky to have just finished a 7-Miler, let alone actually compete for a win.  On the day, only 48 out of 147 racers who started race would finish all four laps, with 35 entrants unable to finish even a single one.

After nearly 40 miles of racing through the trees, over rocks, through the mud, up the infamous 7-Miler hill climb, and around numerous competitors, it was a close relative of race patriarch Dale Lenig who took the overall.

In a blazing time of 1 hour, 52 minutes, and 14 seconds (2 ½ hours faster than the slowest finisher), Dale’s grandson, Jared Erdman and his Ford V-8 powered Jeep brought home the win.

Jared has a bit of a home field (literally) advantage, as he is intimately familiar with the terrain the race is held on, having grown up on and around the property itself and living just down the road.  Do not let that negate his accomplishment, however.  Running a vehicle he and his father built on their own in their shop, Jared outran and outlasted competitors two and three times his age with some running vehicles that cost thousands and thousands more than his to fabricate.

The 1986 Mint 400 plaque that is still attached to the dash of "Minty," which is still racing today.

In all, Jared said he really had no problems on the day.  He never had to stop for an issue and was able to cleanly pass all the vehicles he ran down. Unassuming and shy almost to the point of speechlessness, Jared closed out the day taking home some substantial money while his mom took a picture of him, his girlfriend, and the largest trophy handed out on this day just before the event wrapped up with a spectacular fireworks show donated and created by a fellow Line Mountain 4-Wheelers club member.

With all the racing said and done, the sharp smell of burning pine would mingle with the sounds of thousands of cans of Genesee and Copenhagen being opened, deep into the night while tales of broken parts and missed opportunities were recounted, adding another chapter to what is already a truly great American race.

The race in 2010 will mark the 40th running of the 7-Miler, and though it will not have the same fanfare as the recent 40th running of the Baja 1000 or the 40th run at Crandon, I find it unlikely that any racers or race fans anywhere will have more fun (and beer) than the ones found there in the coal-filled hills of Eastern, PA.

Overall Winners
1-Jared Erdman (Ford V-8, 4WD Jeep Body), 1:52:12
2-Mark Madera (Stock VW Buggie), 1:56:57
3-Richard Fortune (Modified VW Buggie), 1:56:59

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