Drive-A-TankBy Grace Webb • May 2016 • Category: Feature Story
Kasota businessman Tony Borglum offers customers a one-of-a-kind driving experience.
The tank crashes through the underbrush, crushing anything in its path. It lumbers past trees, a 25-foot-long, 62-ton metal behemoth on the hunt. It plows through a shallow pond, barely slowing its 30 mph pace as it sprays mud and splashes water. Soon, it hones in on its prey: a rusty Cadillac, sitting in the middle of a clearing. The tank rolls inexorably closer, gears grinding. It reaches the car and keeps going. The sound of metal wrenching against metal fills the air as the Cadillac flattens like a Styrofoam cup. As the tank continues on its way, all that’s left is a twisted pile of metal and shattered glass.
It sounds like a dystopian war scene, but it’s not. It’s just part of the fun offered through Drive A Tank, a Kasota business that allows customers to try their hand at driving some of the largest vehicles ever manufactured. Started only a few years ago, Drive A Tank has exploded in popularity, attracting thousands of customers from around the world—as well as press spreads in notable publications like Fortune and Forbes.
It all started when Waseca native Tony Borglum came up with a crazy idea—an idea that people told him would be too stupid to try. But he plunged forward anyway.
And it’s working out pretty well for him.
Borglum grew up in Waseca and quickly discovered a passion for all things motor-related: motorsports, truck pulls, garden tractor pulling, mini-rods. He built a garden tractor with his father, then a truck, then a street rod.
“When I was little, I had a bike, and the old man helped me put a dozer blade on the front and a ripper on the back,” he remembered. “I was always taking things apart and putting them back together. I had a pretty nice bike, and I wanted to make a three-wheel bike with a rear axle that would steer. So I took apart a perfectly good bike to make it into a three-wheeler. We’ve been an entire family of builders.”
That interest came in handy as he started working for the family business, which focused on crushing concrete. He was only eight or nine when he started helping his father by dumping loads of concrete into the crusher machine.
“When I told my class I did that over my summer vacation, my teacher called me a liar,” he said.
He also helped his family crush a torn-down parking ramp in Mankato. His father ran the crusher machine, his mother watched for chunks of steel that could shred the machine from the inside, and he was responsible for running the skid steer cleaner under the conveyers.
But of all the machines and vehicles he worked with, what really interested him was Army trucks. So he bought one as soon as he found a promising possibility.
“At that point, you start to realize what’s available,” he said, explaining that he started looking into other Army vehicles that were on the market.
That’s when he found out he could buy a Ferret armored car, a British fighting vehicle built for reconnaissance missions. The only trouble was the hefty price tag—about $25,000. On the other hand, Borglum found, if he was willing to travel to England, he could buy one and ship it home for a total cost of $15,000.
At the time, Borglum was still in high school and working for his family’s construction business. His dream might have only stayed a dream, had not his mother stepped in one day in 2006.
“One day, I came back from work, and my mom said, ‘I’m sick and tired of you two being around here and making my life miserable. Go to England for 10 days and buy the Ferret,’” Borlgum said. “So my dad and I went to England.”
He and his father drove across the country, from Kent to Leeds, looking for a deal.
“They thought we were nuts,” Borglum said. “Here, we think nothing of driving to Minneapolis twice in a week. This was unheard of to the Brits. Pretty soon, everyone in England, in the military world, had heard about these two crazy Americans who were driving all over the country looking for Ferrets.”
During their search, they came across a place that offered the chance to drive an FV 433 Abbot tank for $300. The two of them gave it a try, and Borglum’s father suggested starting a similar business back in Kasota. At first, Borglum wasn’t sure, but he eventually agreed to try it. They ended up buying an Abbot and three FV 432s.
Borglum said the plan was to open their business in Waseca, and they went around asking neighbors if anyone would mind. No one voiced any worries.
“Everyone was of the thought process, ‘That’s a stupid idea and nobody’s ever going to want to do it, so knock yourself out,’” he said.
But people had second thoughts once Borglum applied for a conditional use permit. He was served a cease and desist order, spent endless days in court and faced ever-escalating accusations from people worried that his tanks posed a threat to residents’ safety. His mother’s car was keyed, and the family was accused of selling drugs to fund the new business.
“Now it became just a struggle to keep the business open, because we had all these neighbors freaked out that we had tanks,” he recalled. “‘What if somebody steals them and blows up the school with a gun that doesn’t work?’ I stood in a meeting for an hour explaining that the guns didn’t work. It weighs 35,000 pounds and has a 200 horse power engine. Everyone has a John Deere tractor nowadays that weighs 35,000 pounds and has a 200 horse power engine. It’d just be like driving a tractor around on the weekends. Then an old farmer stood up and said, ‘The Borglums want you to think that this is a tractor. It’s not. It’s a killing machine. It was made with one intention and one intention only, and that’s to kill people, and that’s exactly what it’s going to do. Each of you board members is going to be responsible when somebody steals this tank and kills all of the children at the school. It’s going to be your fault.’”
Eventually, the Borglums decided it would be better to find a different location to open their new business, and they checked Kasota first because of some local connections. They had already bought property out there to better serve some of their construction clients, and they visited the mayor to ask about opening their tank business. When he told them to come in for a permit meeting, they were worried, Borglum said, especially when the board asked them for $851.
“I thought, ‘In Waseca, you give them $400 and then they’ll talk about if they’ll do it,’” he explained. “We walked in and they asked for that, and I thought that was pretty expensive. But he explained, ‘That’s the building permit fee. You give us that, you can start building tomorrow and open your business the next day.’ It was no big deal—45 minutes and it was done.”
Borglum opened “Drive A Tank” in 2010, within Kasota’s city limits, and said he has never had to worry about disturbing his neighbors; in fact, people were still asking them when they were going to open a year and a half after they started offering rides.
“Nobody even knows we’re here,” he said. “That’s our impact on the surrounding area. Everybody does their own thing, and nobody worries about anybody else. You do your thing, I do my thing, you don’t bother me and I won’t bother you. So many towns nowadays, it’s like, ‘I don’t like the color of your house.’ Not here. You can do whatever you want. It’s perfect.”
Once the tank business was up and running, Borglum had to stop working for the family business and focus his attention on his ever-increasing customers. Last year, more than 1,650 people visited. Borglum and one other full-time employee handle all those customers, though they do sometimes have part-time help.
Borglum said his business really took off in 2012 after a slew of articles and television features. He was featured on Larry the Cable Guy’s show “Only in America,” the Huffington Post, Popular Mechanics, Fox News and many others.
“All I did was answer the phone and take people’s money, and I couldn’t do it fast enough,” he said.
Before the publicity, he added, five drivers and three car crushes was the high point of business. Now, they sometimes receive 20 or more visits in a day, and they’ve organized up to 14 back-to-back car crushes. Borglum said he prefers to cap things off at 20 drivers on regular days, so that he can give everyone enough attention, but there can be up to 80 people at corporate team-building events. He also prefers to offer a smaller number of his bigger packages (such as “The Sherman Driver” and the “5 Star” package) compared to squeezing in many more small packages.
“The majority of my customers, they’re not here just to drive fast,” he said. “They want to learn all the different things. The average lifespan of a Sherman tank or World War II tank is 40 minutes. Their mind is blown by that. They watch so many movies and think that’s what tanks are all about, but usually it’s quite different.”
Borglum’s business is especially popular with bachelor parties and corporate outings. He and his employees recently worked on pulling the original gun out of one of their tanks and refitting it with a replica that is operated by air, so that they can adjust how severe the force is. Teams are able to get the complete “battle” experience by working together to load the gun (albeit with rubber balls) and engage pop-up targets throughout a course.
“There’s no more extreme team building experience than military equipment, and tanks are one of the top ones,” Borglum said. “Just being together in an unfamiliar place is teambuilding. I don’t care who you are; you can work with someone for 10 years and then, all of a sudden, when you’re in a desperate situation with them, you get to know each other very well very quickly.”
Groups are also able to break into teams and compete against each other to see who can shoot the most targets. Borglum said that’s always interesting, since the people you would suspect to be the most competent—those who hunt and shoot as hobbies—often don’t do that well. He explained that it comes down to being willing to ask for advice.
“It’s not against the rules to ask for advice,” he said. “Don’t assume you know everything. Every time, it was the person with hunting experience who’d pick a gun, and it was the wrong one. If you’re at work and you need a piece of equipment, there’s nothing wrong with asking the manufacturer what it should be and how you should use it. If you just stop and ask a question, ask for help, anybody can be perfect at it.”
In fact, Borglum said listening to directions is the toughest part of the tank experience for many people, since they would rather forge ahead on their own.
“Our ladders into our tanks are the most dangerous things we have around here,” he said. “Sometimes in the team building events, people won’t use the ladder properly. If you’re a fireman, you’d want to have your helmet on. It’s the same thing here; you have to use the safety equipment properly. They think it’s tanks and machine guns and it’s going to be super difficult, but it’s all about following directions. The shooting’s easy, and the driving’s easy. The most dangerous driver I ever had was someone who wasn’t paying attention. He said, ‘I can’t learn anything from a dumb kid like you. I’ve been driving tractors longer than you’ve been alive!’ We got him in the vehicle, and it revved off, and it went in a straight line and hit the first tree. People come with this expectation, ‘I don’t know if I can drive a tank.’ Just shut up and listen, and you’ll be fine.”
Along with his tanks, Borglum offers customers a chance to shoot a variety of guns, including submachine guns, assault rifles, machine guns and anti-material rifles—including the WWII Browning M1919 machine gun.
“It’s something different that puts people somewhere where they’ve never been,” he said. “They think it’s going to be wild and crazy, but it’s safe. Just follow the directions and keep the gun pointed where it’s supposed to be.”
Borlgum’s customers come from around the world, with many showing up from India and Canada. They range from kids to elderly folks, and he’s even able to make the experience work for people with disabilities such as blindness or a missing leg.
“We had a child who was eight, terminally ill with brain cancer,” he said. “We had to put a 4×4 block on the throttle, but he did it. He was one of the best drivers of the day.”
Every year, he works with more customers. Sometimes, there’s a waiting list weeks long. In fact, there’s such a demand that he’s considering adding one more tank to his arsenal: another Russian T-55.
“There’s definitely demand for it,” he said, “though it’s an elite crowd. It’s not for everybody. I never claimed to be an ice cream shop. It’s not people who happen to be in Minnesota for a golf tournament and decide to come here. We’re drawing them in. Basically, what we’ve learned is, if you do something that’s super bad-ass, that everybody else says is impossible, if you can pull it off, people will travel the world to see you.”
The Cost Of Making Memories
Borglum is totally open about the cost of doing business with him—it won’t be cheap. But, he explained, it can’t be, since tanks cost so much to operate. Most of his tanks only have a lifespan of about four hours. The Chieftain costs about $1,000 an hour to operate, and even the Abbots burn four gallons of fuel per mile, which quickly adds up.
Another cost is the price of finding replacement parts, especially since tanks wear out quickly. These parts can be hard to find, since Borglum usually has to find collectors willing to part with them. In January, he managed to scoop up the last sets of Chieftain track in the world.
His British tanks are the cheapest and easiest to repair, since Great Britain has been surplusing its tanks for decades (though it recently ended the practice). Even so, there are only 300 Abbots available in the world—and he has a few, which cost him about $100,000 each. He also has a Russian T55, the most produced tank in existence, and a British Chieftain Mark 11, one of only five surplus models in the world (and also the star of the 2002 Reign of Fire movie). He imported that one from Ireland.
It’s the American tanks that are hard to come by, since the United States doesn’t surplus its old military vehicles. Borglum was the first person in the world to let customers drive a Sherman E8, which he only offers in his business’s top tank package.
Part of the secret to his success is how he is able to modify his tanks with easier-to-replace modern pieces. (The one exception is the Sherman, which is 100 percent original.)
“Other people in the United States who try tank driving usually come and go, but we’ve been at it for almost a decade now,” he said. “It’s because of our re-powers and our re-modifications.”
When it comes to choosing which of Borglum’s tanks to drive, it depends on just how authentic you want your experience to be. The simplest package (“3 Star Lt. General”) costs $449 and lets guests drive the FV433 Abbot SPG, which is technically not a tank but an armored vehicle. Meanwhile, the most expensive package (“The Sherman Driver”) costs $3,699 and adds the FV 432 APC and Sherman E8 for guests to drive.
There are a few places in the United Kingdom where tank enthusiasts can drive Abbots, but Borglum’s business is one of the first in the world to offer rides in real tanks such as Chieftain MK10s and Russian T-55s. Altogether, he has nearly a dozen vehicles in his arsenal.
Borglum said that Abbot is one of the easiest to drive, since you actually drive with your head outside the vehicle, so you can see where you’re going. With the next package, you move up to the FV 432 APC, which requires the use of a periscope—and makes driving that much more difficult.
“People come and say, ‘I’ve been riding construction equipment my entire life,’” Borglum said. “That doesn’t matter, because you’re in a different position than you’re used to. You’re not in your element. Most people, when they’re done, they say, ‘It wasn’t fun.’ And I always say, ‘You didn’t come here to have fun, did you? You came here to experience tanks.’”
He went on to explain that the Abbot is usually considered the most fun to drive, while the FV 432 is the most confusing and the T55 is the most work, since it has manual transmission and brakes. And all of it requires much more training than most people realize.
“I can’t tell you how many people walk through my door and say, ‘I want to drive a tank and blow stuff up,’” he said. “But I tell them, ‘You’re not supposed to drive your car and text message. What makes you think you can take an $8 million vehicle and drive it 45 mph, aim a 120-mm cannon to your side and still not run into things?’”
If you really want the full experience, you can pay to crush a car from the local salvage yard or even drive through a mobile home. Borglum said he only gets a few requests for home deconstructions a year, but he still offers them.
And, while tanks might conjure up a sense of danger and excitement, Borglum said his customers are totally safe when they head out, no matter their level of experience.
“You’re in a metal box that weighs 120,000 pounds,” he said. “How can you hurt yourself? You can’t.”
Behind The Scenes
Borglum was recently approached about helping supply the sound effects for video games, as well as loaning out his tanks for movies and TV shows.
He worked on a video game for Microsoft, as well as providing the tank for “In an Instant,” a television series filmed in the Twin Cities. He also helped with the sound effects for “World of Tanks,” a free online game.
“I’ve got the most reliable fleet of armor in the country,” he explained.
Drive A Tank
Address: 550 West Cherry Street, Kasota, Minnesota
Phone: (507) 931-7385