Give a guy the keys to America's No. 1 selling pickup truck, mount it on Firestone's new line of Firehawk pickup tires, turn him loose in central Idaho's scenic and rugged terrain, and he's bound to say he's having a good time.

"This is the best job available, end of story," said Jim McCraw, editor for Popular Science magazine. "Can you imagine getting paid to do this?"For two days, McCraw and 22 other automotive journalists gleefully churned up dust, splashed through mud holes, bounced across bumps and roared up hills at Twin Peaks Guest Ranch 20 miles south of Salmon.

Strapped into the air conditioned, soft-cushioned cabs of 1993 Ford F150 4-by-4 pickups, they had the dirty job of test driving Firestone's new line of tires designed for different degrees of off-road truck use. Ten trucks were supplied for the tire tests by Gary Anderson Ford of Salmon.

Allen and Lenabelle Davis, owners of Twin Peaks Guest Ranch, paved the way for the event by bulldozing test tracks and installing a sprinkler irrigation system to make a mud track out of the bentonite clay, one of the reasons Firestone chose the site.

"This is the slickest mud we've ever seen," John Taylor of Firestone said as the mud-frosted pickups raced back and forth amid choruses of "oohs" and "aahs" and "did-you-see-thats."

What better way to advertise their product than to throw a test party for those who can best spread the word about their new product, said Firestone representative Stan Cooper.

"You can't beat a good journalist who gives an honest evaluation of a product," he said. "People trust that article more than any ad we can come up with."

For McCraw, test driving and then reporting on vehicles and anything auto related is a way of life. Cooper said that's why Firestone tries hard to think of new angles to attract writing connoisseurs of industry products.

"These guys have been every place and seen everything," Cooper said. "We've got to offer them something unique that will attract them. Then they hopefully will write good stories about our tires."

When they aren't driving, the test crew can swim, fish, go horseback riding, explore or sip mint juleps. Despite the "party" aspect, Sport Truck editor Kevin Wilson said it's not all that hard to write the truth about a product.

"You walk a fine line between being as honest as you can without being offensive," he said. "We're obligated to tell the truth. These guys have their credibility on the line."

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So, how did the tires measure up?

McCraw said he thought the tires were so good that it was hard to tell the difference between the different treads. That was before he tried to climb a steep mountain with the highway tread. He couldn't quite make it to the top.

Cooper said that no matter what writers or dealers recommend to most drivers, they'll opt for the heavy-duty tread, even if they never venture out of the city.

"It's called psycho-graphics," he said. "Guys who don't need the aggressive tires will get them anyway because they want to look like off-roaders."

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