HASTINGS, Minn. — If you’re tired of the same old corporate team-building golf outings, you might want to consider taking up a sledge hammer, spray paint and driving a 19-ton excavator.
That’s the idea behind Extreme Sandbox, a company in Hastings that lets corporate groups and individuals drive heavy equipment — and maybe smash a car.
Consider what happened when nine painters, carpenters and facilities guys from Grand Casino Mille Lacs recently prepared to crush a sad-looking Chrysler New Yorker.
First, they knocked out its windows, mirrors and lights.
Then, after spending the morning driving a bulldozer, a skid-steer loader and two excavators, the men picked the lucky team member who would drive the excavator, which looks like a bulldozer on tracks, to finish it off.
Tom Trail, groundskeeper for the casino, accepted the offer. After all, he knows how to drive such equipment.
At the edge of the sand pit sat a trophy from a previous contest: a car planted nose first, with all its doors and windows knocked open.
Randy Stenger, the 37-year old creator of Extreme Sandbox, egged them on, reminding them that they weren’t the only ones using the equipment that day.
“You guys had a whole two hours here to deck that thing out as Treasure Island, or Mystic Lake,” he said. “That’s your competitors, right?”
As Stenger directed the Grand Casino team to watch from the hillside, he stood in the sand pit and gave Trail commands through a headset.
“Keep going all the way,” Stenger said. “Now this time, all we’re doing to do is raise it straight up and dump it from on high.
“Jam it hard!”
Trail managed to hook the car and drop it upside down.
“That was a good one!” he said, as he teammates laughed.
After a few more minutes of flipping, curling, prying and crushing, the car was finished and Trail accepted his buddies’ cheers.
After lunch they drove back to the casino in high spirits.
“Finally got everyone to show up on the same day,” said their supervisor, Todd Christopherson.
In the trailer that functions as the Extreme Sandbox front office, Randy Stenger explained that, a few years ago, his son first gave him the idea of opening up a playground with real machinery.
“We were driving by a construction site and my oldest, at the time I think he was 8, said, “Dad, wouldn’t it be fun to go play on that stuff?” I’m like, ‘Heck yeah, it would be.’”
Then a consultant for Target who sat in a cubicle, Stenger liked the idea of playing in the dirt.
It took him two years to find a community with zoning rules that allow what is essentially a year-round construction site. Insurance representatives required a number of safety measures, among them remote off-switches on the machinery and a sophisticated communication system that allows Extreme Sandbox personnel to talk drivers through each maneuver.
Extreme Sandbox opened in April of 2012. Stenger hoped customers would come.
“We originally thought it would very be middle-aged males,” Stenger said of the clientele. “You know, mid-life crisis, ’I wanna go out and destroy something!’ I’ve been shocked though.”
As it turns out, women make up more than a third of Stenger’s customers.
So far, the 500 Extreme Sandbox participants have ranged from 14 to 78 years old. Some simply want to use the machines to dig on the 10-acre site. But others love the competition of using the giant machines to play silly versions of golf or basketball.
The next customers who arrived were father-daughter duo, Harold Welch and his 18-year-old daughter Lauren, about to leave for her freshman year of college.
“I wanted to do something father and daughter that would be fun and I happened to see this and I thought what would be more fun than to go drive big equipment with this little bitty girl,” Welch said. “She seems pretty convinced that she’s taking me down.”
“I don’t know how you’d win it,” his daughter teased.
After some safety instructions, the father and daughter paired off in dueling excavators to complete an obstacle course. Extreme Sandbox instructor Luke Wright coached them through headphones.
Although her dad won the “golf” competition, Lauren Welch emerged as the victor in the obstacle course.
“How’s it feel, daddy?”
“Pretty cool,” her father said. “It would be cooler if I’d won.”