"Our goal is that you leave here with the same amount of blood you came in with."
The public relations woman said it in jest, but for a visiting reporter the joke landed a little flat. I wondered to myself whether anyone had been seriously hurt on the site before. There was certainly enough heavy equipment around to guarantee traumatic injuries, or much worse, in case something went wrong.
But it was all part of the thrill.
My colleague and I were sitting in a dark meeting room, watching a Powerpoint presentation about personal safety and responsibility when operating heavy equipment. Neither he nor I were paying a terrible amount of attention, and the public relations lady who was giving the shpiel probably knew it.
Our minds were already fixated on the events set to take place outside over the next few hours.
We were there, in the backwoods of Minnesota, to drive a tank.
The owner of the company offering the rare chance to drive an armored vehicle, called not surprisingly "Drive A Tank", had described his outfit to us earlier as a "Military Disneyland."
He was right. And for all its deep weirdness, it was a spectacular experience.
A Tank Called Larry
Nestled inconspicuous in the state's rural southwest, unknown even by many who live in the nearby town of St. Peter, is one of the most surreal forms of entertainment devised by modern American man.
Getting to Drive A Tank from Minneapolis requires a journey along sleepy roads, past small towns lined with American flags, gas stations named Freedom, and giant yellow billboards that posted nothing except the word "Jesus".
It's a conservative corner of America, where guns and the military are popular. To be sure, it's also an area where you can find quite a few people who don't like Washington.
As we pulled into the muddy grounds to park, the sound of groaning engines and screeching metal greeting us from behind a garage the size of an aircraft hangar, owner Tony Borglum came out to greet us. And the first words out of his mouth were, "Who are you gentlemen? I usually try to hide from the government."
If so, he may have to reconsider his advertising. The company has an easy-to-find website - it's the first entry that pops up if you google "drive a tank" - and is a small family business offering customers the chance to get behind the wheel of a number of vehicles straight from the battlefield.
For $550 you can drive around the track in armored personnel carriers, self-propelled guns, and infantry fighting vehicles. And for $550 more you can crush a car into a heap of scrap with a 60-ton-plus monstrosity affectionately dubbed "Larry".
Larry, which carries a massive 120mm caliber gun that's more than 22 feet long and has armor in some places nearly 5 inches thick, is a Chieftain main battle tank, built by the United Kingdom during the Cold War to destroy Soviet armor that might attempt to rush into Western Germany.
To familiarize with the actual driving course, customers get into a smaller 16-ton 'Abbot' self-propelled gun and navigate through a wooded area of gullies, hills, and close turns. The Abbot, like the Chieftain, hails from the mid-1960s, but carries a smaller 105 mm howitzer as a main armament.
Driver's seat for the Chieftain main battle tank. Photo: IBTimes
The controls on both are easy to handle; some could even say intuitive. Our instructor, Roman, took less than 10 minutes to explain the mechanics of the levers and pedals used to direct the vehicles; neither of us had driven a tank before, but felt we were able to quickly learn the fundamentals within a few rounds around the course.
Like all other military vehicles on the lot, the Chieftains and the Abbots had the original key targeting equipment and all machine guns removed. The main guns on all the vehicles at Drive A Tank, while still movable, were rendered inoperable for firing before being sold.
Driving an Abbot through the course. Photo: IBTimes
And all the vehicles are British, since the U.S. does not allow the commercial sale of its own military vehicles.
The Chieftain remains in operation around the world, though no longer with the British Army, mostly in Middle Eastern countries. Over 700 remain in service in Iran, which received them before the 1979 Islamic revolution.
A Different Business Model
But how does one even get their hands on such a fleet of 8 military vehicles, some too heavy to drive down the highway for long distances, all the way from England?
The Borglums did buy a number of their equipment directly from the UK and shipped them over the Atlantic. Apparently that's just something you can do after filling out the requisite paperwork and payment slips. Loaded and offloaded from roll-on/roll-off automobile-carrying ships, the armored vehicles are then delivered to Minnesota by flatbed trucks, or their tracks would chew up highways and paved roads.
Asked what the drive-away price of a Chieftain is today, Borglum said he could be convinced to part with one for around $100,000. He almost certainly received them for much cheaper when he originally purchased them, as excess military stock has been plentiful across Europe since the end of the Soviet Union.
A number of those purchases also came from the estate of David Estes, the former owner of Texas-based "Tactical Tank". Estes, who also ran a company centered on using tanks for team-building exercises, died in a mysterious plane crash in 2005. When his properties, including a large fleet of 8 Chieftains, were put on the market, the Borglums grabbed a portion. They suspect the others went to military contractors, who may be testing them for pointers on how to deal with all those Iranian tanks in the event of a war.
Although the family admits they're not the first business in the U.S. to offer tank driving, they said they are the only one operating today in America. Tony said he ultimately sees the company expand "nationwide". "Worldwide", qualified his father, Richard, rather ambitiously. "We are the first to offer tank driving and shooting under the same roof," added the older Borglum.
Anti-tank weapons, including rocket propelled grenade (top) and a Panzerfaust (bottom). Photo: IBTimes
That's difficult to miss, considering the welcome center was filled with all sorts of small arms. In a corner lay machine guns, mortars and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, and even a World War II-era German Panzerfaust antitank weapon; on the walls were mounted AK-47s and other military rifles; near the front entrance were positioned Israeli tank munitions and a Thompson submachine gun. And near the gift shop I noticed a grenade, with the trigger pin still attached.
"Small arms" here is relative: in a locked walk-in safe, the Borglums keep a .50 caliber Barrett sniper rifle, a weapon that can destroy trucks, cut through armor, and shoot through walls, with a projectile than can travel more than two miles. At one point, the roar of the weapon shook the room even outside of the sound-proof and vacuum-sealed gun range.
All that firepower is good business, according to the family. "It's become super busy since Christmas," said Tony. National news outlets have arrived for interviews. Playboy TV did a video shoot on site. The family says it has also been approached to do a reality TV show, though it didn't specify for what channel.
Tony Borglum standing with the Barrett sniper rifle. Photo: IBTimes
When Drive A tank first started operating in 2007, it did local promotions and targeted a local audience. At the county fair that year, it offered visitors free rides on its vehicles.
That model quickly turned south, since rural Minnesotans had neither the money nor the interest to sustain the business. Instead, Drive A Tank pushed up prices, and publicity began drawing visitors from outside the state and even the country.
Both Borglums say business at the 5-year-old Drive A Tank has boomed over the last ten months, having come a long way from being first set up with money from their construction and concrete recycling businesses.
But that was after years of trouble with local county officials and concerned neighbors who were anxious about their activities.
"They just don't get it," said Tony.
Complaints about noise are bolstered by suspicions of just what the family is doing with so much military hardware, even if much of it is unable to fire.
No one here is plotting a revolt. "It's not political," said the younger Borglum.
Nor is it a huge money-maker, most likely, even though the company doesn't seem to have a very firm grasp on its finances.
Our questions about profit margins and costs got puzzled looks and unclear answers. Tony did say that under current market conditions, he thinks he loses money on every crushed car. Getting the tanks themselves was not even the hardest part of the process: the laborious process of maintaining older, giant war machines, either with self-fashioned parts or imported ones, consumes vast amounts of money and time. Tank tracks especially are hard to get spares for.
Yet the product is seductive. What Wall Street banker, to name just one testosterone-heavy constituency, wouldn't pay good money to go crush cars with a tank? It's easy, relatively safe, exhilarating, and utterly novel.
The people at Drive A Tank are betting that they've captured an idea that will open up more opportunities.
Tony foresees eventually expanding his operations, either in Minnesota or elsewhere, into a sort of military-reenactment theme park. Participants would take part in a make-believe war zone, but with real equipment. The vehicles could all be fitted with laser-tag equipment, making it possible to act out a large battle scene.
He also wants the opportunity to teach customers about the background behind the weapons, where they come from, who built them, why they were built - a World War I to Cold War history primer.
But wouldn't that be boring? Not at all, if you ask the Borglums. "It'll be like a lesson," said Tony. "Except you can shoot your friends."