Heavy Metal: The Stuntman and the Sudafed Sled.

The Sun Runner: The Journal of the Real Desert, Winter 2016

We met at a crossroads. We'll follow him, he said, but the location stays secret. And then he was gone. I tried to keep up, dustblind in his wake. My small Tacoma rocked over the jagged ruts, the tires melting into the sand. Two signs greeted us: one, stenciled in paint screamed “Mayhem”. The other scratched in black on a plywood sheet: “ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK”.

The thin road opened to a wide expanse, a faraway field of cholla and a backdrop of hazy mountains, the property dotted with rusting metal sculptures. My wife, along for the ride as a photographer, took in the scene and snapped some pics. It was a dead end.  

We were here to meet Carl Rice and get the story on his bastardized 1991 Volvo 240: the “Sudafed Sled”. Rice offered his hand. The menace of his machine belies his personality. He’s warm and friendly, a dry wit. With his angular features, unkempt locks and a raspy voice deliberate in its cadences, he reminds one of the actor/playwright Sam Shepard, another car obsessive dialed into the strangeness of the American west.

In fact, Hollywood is a place that Rice knows well. For years, he worked as a movie stuntman, doubling for the actors Harrison Ford and Dennis Hopper. He drove cars on the show Fear Factor and in commercials. Now 44, he makes a living as a Colorado River guide, leading tourists through the Grand Canyon. He’s also a photographer, an artist and, most importantly, a mechanic.

On practically every outing, Carl Rice and the Sudafed Sled have become a one-man car show. He’s brought the car to high schools and technical colleges, eager to blow the minds of future welders and mechanics. People even wait for him in parking lots, wanting to learn more. He’s a willing showman.

The engine is stock, completely original, down the wires and plugs. Rebar and sheet metal (mostly scrap) are welded to the body, spray-painted “with about 20 shades of black.” Huge exhaust pipes decorate the sides and are strictly ornamental – for now.

“Some of [the metal] I found at the swap meet, some of it we had lying around,” he said. “My goal with the pipes is to pump liquid propane through them – get some flames.”

The front grill is enormous, handmade with steel bars. A small artillery shell sits atop it, a fifteen-dollar score in Flagstaff, Arizona. Bike chains encircle the windows. The dashboard was crafted from an old air conditioner.

“The coolest thing about this car is that it makes people happy,” he said. “It breaks down all socioeconomic barriers, all ethnic barriers. It’s like when people go to the beach. Everyone gets along.”

But he doesn’t take the car as seriously as one would assume, using it as an object of playful commentary.

“I’m partly making fun of the hot rod guys,” he said. “It takes sixteen years to build a cherry car. Come on.”

For the Sled, construction began about two years ago. With no proper shop, Rice worked in the dirt with minimal tools, just a grinder, a welder and a torch. When he starts a project, he looks at what he calls “the negative space”, using no plans or blueprints. One piece was added, which led to another, solving problems of gravity and engineering along the way. 

During our conversation, some of Rice’s friends pulled up in a truck.

“A great haul!” they yelled to us.

Many of his friends are scrap metal artists, the original “American pickers”, who scour the desert for material. But, as the economy faltered, so did the pickings.  Where once huge, hulking machines ionized under the relentless sun – as if waiting to be repurposed –they now have to reach further and further out, competing with junk metal haulers, as the cost of scrap continues to rise. Grab it or it’s gone.

Rice invites me to sit in the Sled and it’s more comfortable than imagined. You dissolve into its only seat (the driver’s), while the chain link steering wheel feels solid in the hands. The smell of oil and grease mingle with the sweetness of creosote in the air. Punk rock stickers plaster the doors, while a huge American flag is spray-painted across the entire inside roof. He’s taken the Sled as far as Oakland, California, but he has bigger plans.

Born and raised in Concord, New Hampshire, he traveled west as a young man, living all over California and parts of Arizona. He settled into the area fifteen years ago, attracted to the landscape and its culture of free creativity. 

“I’d love to drive this thing across the country,” he said. “Just drive into Concord, right onto the steps of City Hall: ‘Hi everybody, I’m home!’”

Yet for Rice, like many East Coast exiles who end up west, the idea of “home” has long been a fluid, abstract concept, the past as seen through the prism of miles in a rearview mirror. But as the old saying goes, you’re either called to the desert or the desert calls you, and for Rice, that sound was a clarion bell.

“I love it here,” he said. “I’ve been here fifteen years. This is it, man. It’s freedom. It’s love for the natural world. It’s being outside, out there in the desert.”

The origins of the name – “Sudafed Sled” – are a little vague. Rice confides to us that he’s been sober for years and that he takes his recovery seriously. He has stories, to be sure. Naming the car after a drug with such a demented history might be another trick of the showman, a glimpse behind the curtain of the raconteur.    

As we prepared to leave, he had some words of advice.

“Don’t ever let someone tell you when you’re ready to do something,” he said.

People told me, ‘Oh, you’ve got to make sure this is legal. You probably shouldn’t do it.’”

He gazed out to the desert miles, his voice low in its rasp.

 “I don’t worry,” he said. “I just went and I did it.”