Vol Invasion

What's it like to ride a 22,000-pound military vehicle down Kingston Pike? Our fearless reporter climbs into The Big Orange Tank to find out.⢠UT Football Issue Continued: Brothers on (a

⢠UT Football Issue Continued:

Feature Story

by Kevin Crowe

"You sure you're up for this?â” asks John Black, who, for all intents and purposes, is the second-in-command of the Big Orange Army. We pull into a parking lot alongside Parkside Drive. The Big Orange Tank, affectionately nicknamed â“Huey,â” lumbers across the asphalt. It rolls to a halt, which is followed by an earsplitting bang, like cannon fire, as Huey burns out a couple of spark plugs. We're not going anywhere.

â“The wiring in it is worthless, just like any British vehicle,â” says Mark Brakebill, the official driver and unofficial mechanic of the Big Orange Tank. â“She's just mad because she's been sitting out here for a couple of weeks.â”

Brakebill's wearing a fireproof jumpsuit, and even in the 100-degree weather, he's barely cracking a sweat. Once a Marine, always a Marine. Brakebill's already pulled out his toolboxes, digging into Huey's innards with surgical precision.

â“Anytime you let an engineer have his wicked way with a vehicle, it's gonna get screwed up,â” he says flippantly. â“This is the highest-maintenance vehicle that the British military has ever had. We found that one out not too long agoâ. Right now it gets two miles to the gallon, if that.â”

â“It doesn't go that fast,â” Black continues. â“It's probably the most underpowered vehicle in the city. It has about 166 horsepower. It weighs 22,000 pounds.â”

Even at rest, the Big Orange Tank turns heads. Folks walking by stop and stare, searching the orange six-wheeler as if to ask, What the hell is that? â“Here's your caption,â” Brakebill shouts, throwing his hands into the air in surrender. â“ For sale by owner. CHEAP! â”

But after nearly half an hour of pleading, Huey finally screams back to life, the original Rolls Royce Mark II engine purring as it begins to guzzle through the fuel reserves.

â“We'll have to fill her up,â” Brakebill says. There's never a single moment of serenity when he's driving the tank. â“My biggest fear is someone pulling in front of me. They think it'll stop on a dime. It won'tâ.

â“A biker pulled right in front of me once and stopped. He was almost a grease stain on the road. This vehicle will drive through virtually anything on the road.â”

She's a 1958 British Saladin, an armored vehicle designed for urban combat, so she handles fairly well on the street, all things considered. Brakebill climbs down into the driver's seat, a maneuver that looks like a New-Age return-to-the-womb exercise. Huey fires up, grumbling loudly when idling.

Slowly, we approach Parkside Drive. I'm poking through the turret, a veritable Michael Dukakis as we come screeching to a halt, trying to turn left against noontime traffic. Finally the traffic stops, and we pull out. I give a half-hearted salute, not knowing what's an appropriate way to say thank you from the turret of a tank. And we chug along, toward Cedar Bluff.

The horns are relentless. I can't separate the joyous honks from those of the truly pissed-off motorists who are unlucky enough to get stuck behind this slow-moving behemoth. A line of cars snakes down the road until it finally opens up into two lanes. Brakebill shifts his weight forward, enough to poke his head out of his tiny window. He's just making sure there's no one in his blind spots. And with the Big Orange Tank, there's hardly anything but blind spots.

We pull into a Shell station. I jump out of the tank, trying to look like I've done it a thousand times.

â“Where y'all taking that?â” a man asks.

â“We're just trying to get it home,â” I say.

â“How fast does it go?â”

â“Wanna race?â”

We put $70 worth of petrol into the tank, and Huey screams back to life, inching forward around the pumps. People watch with a sense of both excitement and fear, praying that Brakebill knows what he's doing as he steers around a few parked cars.

â“I'm an attention hound,â” he admits. Deep down, in spite of the constant maintenance and extreme inefficiency, Brakebill loves every minute behind the wheel of the Big Orange Tank.

We pull out onto Kingston Pike, slowly chugging up the west hills. The honks are few and far between now, with most drivers doing their best to get around the big orange roadblock. From the turret, I soldier on. There's nothing else I can do.

"Our goal is to build the biggest fan force in college sports,â” Black explains. Last year, the Big Orange Army teamed up with Action Sports Media, a collegiate sports marketing company headquartered in nearby Alcoa. â“We wanted something that everyone can be a part of,â” Black explains. â“If you're a Vol fan, we want you.â”

State Sen. Tim Burchett, no stranger to superfluous politicking, with the help of John Wilder, the speaker of the Senate, issued an official proclamation on Feb. 16, 2006: â“I, John S. Wilder, Speaker of the Senate of the One Hundred Fourth General Assembly of the State of Tennessee, at the request of and in conjunction with Senator Tim Burchett, do hereby proclaim that we recognize and honor the Big Orange Army and all of its members.â”

â“When you come to UT,â” Black says without cracking a smile, â“you come to battle.â” Face it, if you owned a tank, you'd probably take home games a little more seriously, too.

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