The Luck, Laughter and Living with What He Has Created
John Sumner Opens Up about The Big Meat Run
By Mary Pryor
He calls it luck and good timing. Perhaps there really is nothing else John Sumner could call it given the fact that he is solely responsible for the convergence of 10,000 off road enthusiasts and spectators who show up for three days each year at the end of March in the tiny town of Disney, Oklahoma.
There is no possible way the group of men building the Pensacola Dam in 1939 could have seen The Big Meat Run event coming to the town some six decades later. They probably never thought about how the release of water through the turbines of the dam over time would wear down the land to the natural bedrock to form an unspeakably beautiful rock garden, either.
John Sumner stumbled upon it 20 years ago and it became a playground for him and his Jeep. Since then, thousands upon thousands of people bring their four wheelers, side by sides, Jeeps, trucks and other off road vehicles to explore the rocks down below the Pensacola Dam.
Sumner himself hails from Claremore, Oklahoma and now resides with his wife, Edie, 20 miles north of Ponca City in Arkansas City, Kansas. The 66 year-old Sumner once worked for the railroad before taking interest in machine shops where he learned to build the rear ends of hot rods.
He has owned Sumner Machine Works for decades, helping build axels and transfer cases for the off road vehicles known as rock bouncers. These amazing machines with high horse power engines and safety cages sit atop tires referred to as “big meat tires” which start at 44 inches large.
The buzz that has caught the attention of the public is the fact that these machines referred to sometimes as “rock crawlers” can literally climb the vertical walls of the rock garden below the dam.
While 600 off road drivers show up to explore the rocks at the event; it is the amazing amount of 10,000 spectators that is a surprise to Sumner. When the craze started growing, it was also a surprise to the little towns of Disney and Langley who weren’t prepared at all for the throngs of people who started showing up unexpectedly.
“It really started off as a joke between me and about twelve of my friends fifteen years ago and then turned into a customer appreciation event,” Sumner said. “Over the years, just by word of mouth it kept growing and this is the result.”
People come in from nearly every state in the United States to witness the event and stare in awe at the crazy and adventurous spirits that sometimes make it to the top of the walls and other times flip and roll down. The roars from the crowd below rival that of those attending a rock concert screaming for their favorite band.
He has traveled to ride off road trails in New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Arkansas and Texas. He has been offered to move The Big Meat Run to Missouri for a large profit, but Sumner says he feels obligated to keep it in Disney for now- even though he makes no profit from the event itself.
“I just have a special place in my heart for those rocks,” Sumner stated. “Most trails don’t allow you to get out and walk around like you can down at the bottom of the dam. It’s every off roaders dream. It’s like a natural amphitheater down there,” he said.
While he’s not one for the limelight due to his shy nature, going so far as to turn down national radio and magazine interviews, he understands it has created a bit of a mystery as to he is. In fact, one of his favorite things to do at The Big Meat Run is to stand in a crowd of people and laugh when he hears someone say, “Who is John Sumner?”
One myth he was quick to put to rest is that it is not his personal birthday party. “I wish I had some big story as to why this event has grown, but we just chose one of the last weekends in March because no one really seemed to have much going on during that time of the year and it stuck,” he laughed. “The event down on the rocks really takes care of itself,” he said.
The name of the event has been known to bring a raised eyebrow on occasion to which stirred some laughter during the interview, “I don’t want any false advertising on my part,” he laughed. The name by the way does come from the thickness of the large tires on the rock bouncers that he helps create.
Starting an event that seems to have grown almost by accident is one that has proven good for the local economy and has brought awareness to the GRDA property that sits below the dam. The GRDA now even polices the land event each March to ensure public safety. Sumner was unaware that the GRDA was a happy supporter of the event as well as the Grand Lake Association and South Grand Lake Chamber. “That means a lot to me that they support the event, it’s nice to know that we are wanted there,” Sumner stated.
The laid back personality of the man who some have speculated must be an outlaw of sorts to have such a large following, is anything but. He gets embarrassed by the attention at times, but is not reclusive, “I’m a really busy person, I just don’t need all of the attention to be on me. I’m just a regular guy,” he said. He still likes seeing the waves of people who converge down on the rocks, “I just really like watching all of the people and seeing how happy it makes everyone.”
He doesn’t get involved in the local politics that surround the event and appreciates the goodness that has been bestowed upon him from the GRDA and towns of Disney and Langley. It’s still a little overwhelming for Sumner and his wife Edie to take in the masses of people that converge before their eyes, “I will admit that each year I’m a little nervous to see if everyone is going to show back up, but they do and when I see it I breathe a little sigh of relief.”
The 2015 BMR takes place on March 27, 28 and 29th at the bottom of the Pensacola Dam in Disney, Oklahoma. For more information on John Sumner’s Big Meat Run, please visit Facebook: John Sumner’s BMR 2015 or Sumner Machine. You can also visit www.sumnermachine.com for more information.