UTVs are tons of fun, especially when you’re safe and smart. Learn from 30-year racing icon Hunter Miller’s experience for the best off-road UTV adventures of your life.
I’m gripping the grab handle with one hand, the other crossed over my chest and digging into my seatbelt strap. Can-Am factory driver Hunter Miller is behind the wheel shredding the dirt in a Maverick X3, and he’s not taking it easy, which is fine by me.
We’re at Oak Hill Raceway in Alvord, Texas, and we have the entire track to ourselves, save for the water truck that makes the rounds to keep the dust down. Even so, rooster tails flourish in the middle of summer at this dirt track northwest of Fort Worth. It doesn’t really matter, though, because we’re going too fast to notice.
Built as a motocross track, Oak Hill added UTV races only recently. The facility has plenty of room and multiple full RV hookups if you want to set up for the day with all the comforts of home.
On this hot summer day, we’re armed with plenty of water and Gatorade, along with our safety equipment. We have the track to ourselves and we’re putting the latest Can-Am UTVs — and me — to the test.
Lessons Forged From Experience
Hunter and his brother Cody Miller started racing ATVs when they were kids, and they now compete in side-by-side machines like his Can-Am Maverick X3 X RS Turbo RR. Hunter has been with Can-Am for 14 years now, starting in 2008.
Safety is paramount for the Millers, and one thing that Hunter discussed openly was the number of injuries he has sustained over the course of his career. Pins and titanium rods replace some of his bones, and he’s broken his femur more than once.
So while he drives fast, he drives smart and safe, and he imparted that message to me in various ways. Getting expert tutoring is key to getting your form right.
“It’s exactly like lifting weights,” Hunter says. “You can go out there and hurt yourself really bad, really quickly if you’re not doing it properly. The vehicle is capable of handling a lot, but if you’re out there going crazy you will wreck it.”
While it’s going to take me a lot of practice to get a fraction of Hunter Miller’s skills behind the wheel of a UTV, I can learn how to set myself up for success. I’m here to share the lessons I learned from a day at the track with him in a Can-Am Maverick X3.
5 UTV Driving Lessons From Hunter Miller
1. Straight Lines Are Fast
When you’re trying to pick up speed, a straight line is the best way to go. But wait, you say: A track has multiple curves in it that require speed adjustments.
Basically, you want to draw as many straight lines as you can from corner to corner so that you’re not oversteering and are able to get back on the gas sooner after a corner. By envisioning racing lines on a dirt track, you’ll have the smoothest ride, and smooth is fast.
This means using as much of the track as you need, hugging the corners tightly, and swinging out smoothly to the outer edge to set up for the next corner.
Look into the curve, not right in front of you. Your vehicle goes where your eyes go.
The key to keeping your UTV planted firmly is to use the berms and ruts to your advantage, while not allowing them to unsettle or tip over your UTV.
2. Driver Ergonomics Are Important
Just like driving a car, you want to place your hands at 9 and 3, ideally. One detail many drivers don’t heed in cars and SUVs is to keep their thumbs pointed up on top of the steering wheel.
If you hit an unexpected object — which is pretty much all the time in the dirt — you don’t want your thumbs to get wrenched when the steering wheel jumps. Even with a steering quickener — an upgrade used by many racers that offers a more responsive piloting experience, it’s thumbs out all the way.
Along with that, crossing hand over hand in a turn isn’t the best way to drive smoothly quickly, although Miller says there are drivers who are comfortable with that.
Instead — and this is a tip that off-road expert Emily Miller also taught me for the Rebelle Rally — keep your hands on the wheel as far as you can turn, and then let go with the bottom hand so you can grab it again as needed. Crossing them over can cause a dangerous tangle, especially if you don’t know which way your wheels are turned.
The seating position is also critical, just like it is when you’re driving a car on the road. As a driver, it’s important to have full range of motion on the steering wheel with your arms and be able to fully articulate the pedals.
It is also vitally important to be firmly secured into your seat without having to use your legs to brace much, as if you’re two-pedal driving with one foot on the brake and one on the accelerator — Miller’s preferred method. You won’t have a foot left to brace into the footwell with.
“The thing is, if I’m driving wide open and something happens, the time it takes to let off and hit the brake takes a lot longer than pressing with the foot that is already on the brake,” he says.
3. Arms and Legs Inside at All Times
When you climb into the car of a roller coaster, you’ll very likely hear an automated announcement reminding you to keep your arms and legs inside the car at all times. Same goes for UTV riding, and it only took one admonition and explanation from Miller for me to be very aware.
Think of it this way: if the UTV bicycles, or pops up on two wheels, you don’t want to risk landing on your arm with the full force of the fall and vehicle.
You’ll want to avoid holding onto the door handle as well because if you do hit something, your hand could be crushed in the door. Use the steering wheel or passenger handle instead to keep your arms inside the vehicle. It’s all about injury avoidance.
4. Scan the Dirt
Miller says that once you learn how to read the terrain, you can master any track even if you’ve never driven it before.
Whether it’s dirt or sand, darker shades mean moisture, and that creates spots where you might slip a bit or potentially get stuck. On the other end of the spectrum is loose, raw dirt that can also get your wheels spinning. These situations are where you need to remember your selectable lockers and be ready to engage them to power through the low traction sections.
Also, remember that a UTV typically has a higher center of gravity and is narrower than an on-road vehicle. This is why UTV rollovers are so prevalent. The key is to build up your speed carefully in new terrain, learning where the vehicle and condition limits are.
5. Wear Proper Gear
Yes, you must wear a helmet, full stop. Not a bicycle helmet, not an open-face helmet. A proper helmet with a face shield is important to protect your eyes and face from flying rock fragments and dirt.
If you wear contacts, this goes triple for you, because getting dust under your contact is going to scratch the heck out of your cornea, and that doesn’t heal as easily as a scratch on your arm. At the very least, don some goggles if your helmet doesn’t have a face shield.
Next, wear sturdy boots or shoes that cover your ankles. If you roll, you want your feet and ankles stable so you can scramble out if needed.
It was over 100 degrees in Texas, and both Hunter and I were wearing long-sleeved shirts on the course. Yes, I was sweating, but I had two important things going for me. One, physical sunscreen. And two, protection for my skin from debris. Always wear long sleeves and pants when out in a UTV.
Gloves are also a must-have when you’re in a UTV, and Miller highly recommends a fireproof set. “If you’re going to wear gloves anyway (and you should),” he says, “why not wear the safer version?” It’s hard to argue with that logic.
Take a Lesson
It’s a great idea to get a lesson from an experienced UTV driver before getting up to full speed in your own vehicle. He or she doesn’t have to be a Can-Am factory racer to give you solid advice on how to drive safely while enhancing your fun quotient, either.
As long as you’re working with someone you trust who understands how the vehicle works — and how to teach you proper form — you’re going to have a great time. And you can finish up with all of your limbs intact, and new skills to employ on your next UTV adventure.