Obituary: Mark A. Smith, 87, founded 4x4 off-roading with Jeepers Jamboree

06/11/2014 5:50 PM

06/11/2014 5:51 PM

Mark A. Smith, a world-class adventurer and 4x4 motorsports pioneer who organized the first gathering of Jeep owners for an off-road trek along the torturous Rubicon Trail over the Sierra Nevada, died June 9 at age 87.

The cause was a stroke, said Pearse Umlauf, vice president of Jeep Jamboree USA.

Mr. Smith was a legendary outdoorsman who was widely credited with launching 4x4 off-roading as a sport more than 60 years ago and popularizing Jeeps as recreational vehicles. After settling in Georgetown in 1951, he worked with the local Rotary Club on a plan to bring visitors to the rugged El Dorado County community for an outing in Jeeps to boost the economy.

In 1953, he launched the Jeepers Jamboree, which drew more than four dozen 4x4 vehicles and 155 revelers for camping and driving along the Rubicon Trail, an old wagon route between Georgetown and Lake Tahoe. The annual event draws enthusiasts from all over the world in Jeep Wranglers – and Jeep-like Toyota Cruisers and British Land Rovers – that crawl over granite slabs and boulders to Rubicon Springs.

In 1982, Mr. Smith founded Jeep Jamboree USA to promote the activity nationwide as family-friendly, off-road adventures for Jeeps only. He stepped down as “Jeepmaster” and a board member of the Jeepers Jamboree in 1992 and served as a consultant and ambassador for the Jeep division of Chrysler Corp.

“Mark created the sport of Jeeping,” Umlauf said. “Before him, people just had their four-wheel vehicles and would go out by themselves. He created a community.”

A Marine in World War II, Mr. Smith was an intrepid individual who embodied the rugged qualities of a Jeep 4x4. Besides test-driving Jeep prototypes on the Rubicon Trail for Chrysler, he traveled to many countries to introduce new vehicles and search out off-road trails. He conducted training for law-enforcement agencies and U.S. military special forces and designed driving courses for off-road testing.

He organized a 20,000-mile expedition of Jeep CJ models that traveled in 1978-79 from Tierra del Fuego at the southernmost tip of South America to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. He led the group though the infamous Darién Gap – a 100-mile gap in the Pan American Highway formed by dense jungle and swampland in Colombia and Panama – in 30 days. In 1987, he led the Camel Trophy event, a 1,000-mile off-road drive across largely uninhabited territory along the coast of Madagascar.

“He was an inspiration to people about living your dreams,” said Umlauf, his former son-in-law.

The son of a miner, Mr. Smith was born Dec. 13, 1926, in Globe, Ariz. He grew up in eastern Nevada and the Bay Area, where his mother was a buyer for Macy’s. He drove his first Jeep as a Marine in 1944 and was heading by ship for the invasion of Japan when World War II ended.

He married his wife, Irene, in 1951 and settled in Georgetown. He worked as a logger and an El Dorado County deputy sheriff before starting a real estate business.

Mr. Smith was an outspoken opponent of efforts to close public trails to recreational four-wheelers and a longtime supporter of the national “Tread Lightly” program for safe off-roading and environmental protection. In addition to the Explorers Club of New York, he was inducted into the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame.

Although he cut back on his own 4x4 adventures in recent years, he took an off-road trip with actor Perry King to Death Valley in December.

“People ask when I plan to retire from four-wheeling,” he told The Sacramento Bee in 1992, “and my reply is, ‘Probably when I die.’ ”

In addition to his wife of 63 years, Mr. Smith is survived by two daughters, Patti and Jill; two sons, Greg and Robert; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. A memorial service is being planned.

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