They aren't pretty, comfortable or fast, but the machines that transport, tow, haul and protect our soldiers are the uncredited heroes keeping America safe during war and peace. The Carolina Military Vehicle Preservation Association will recognize these sturdy vehicles during a special display at the April 8-11 Food Lion AutoFair at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Rob Jopek, of Selma, N.C., appreciates the role the military's mechanical beasts play in moving and supporting troops. After serving in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1986-89, Jopek bought a war surplus 1967 M35 2.5-ton truck - a six-wheel-drive brute known as a "deuce-and-a-half."

"I missed driving those big trucks," Jopek said. "After you spend a lot of time in one, it becomes like a member of the family. Back then, I didn't even know there was a hobby devoted to military vehicles; I've owned 30 or more trucks since that first one."

Jopek's enthusiasm for olive drab and camouflage eventually led him to start the not-for-profit Carolina Military Vehicle Preservation Association, in which he is currently the commanding officer. CMVPA holds monthly meetings and attends nearly 50 events per year, including parades, air shows, Veterans Day celebrations and every type of military fundraiser within driving distance. Fifteen members have received North Carolina's Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training; during the state's recent winter storms, there were eight CMVPA volunteers manning five trucks around the clock.

The club's goal is to conserve World War II-and-later machines for future generations, which includes teaching new members how to identify, purchase and maintain them.

"This is the greatest hobby I know of," Jopek said. "You can buy a deuce-and-a-half in decent condition for $2,500. What old car can you buy for that little money these days?"

Used military trucks are often in much better shape than one might think. They are engineered to be nearly indestructible, and they are repaired and inspected by strict rules to be kept in a state of constant readiness. The majority never see combat conditions. Their gasoline and diesel engines are simple to work on, and replacement parts are plentiful. For example, a restorer can still buy M35 tires for $100 a pop - about what it costs to put new rubber on a Ford Taurus or Toyota Camry, except that those passenger cars have six fewer wheels to fit than the deuce-and-a-half.

Don Creason was a flight engineer on a transport aircraft for the U.S. Air Force before starting Creason Automotive in Charlotte in 1978. His love of vintage airplanes and need for heavy-duty towing power explain why he and his son Don (aka "D") always have a few former military vehicles in their collection.

The workhorse of the group is a 36,000-pound 1981 AM General M816 wrecker equipped with a 50-ton rear winch and 15-ton hydraulic boom. A six-wheel-drive camouflage green monster, the M816 features a Cummins diesel, low-range transfer case, and 10 11x20-inch tires. Top speed is around 55 miles per hour, and it manages only five miles per gallon. The M816 has hauled many aircraft to the Carolinas Aviation Museum, which Creason serves as vice president.

"Even though it is restored and we show it," Creason said, "we use it as it was meant to be used. It was built to be a tank retriever, so there's nothing we could throw at it that it can't handle. We've had it in places it really shouldn't go, but it has never been stuck."

The Creason collection also includes a U.S. Air Force R-2 crash truck, built on a 1953 Dodge long-wheelbase chassis with an aluminum body. Only about 300 were built, which makes survivors extremely rare today. During the decades it was in service, the R-2 was the first responder to any civilian or military aircraft crash. Its crew wore silver heat-resistant suits and used axes, power saws, and machetes to rip open a plane's fuselage to effect an escape for pilots and passengers. The R-2 was paired with an O11A fire truck that would spray fire-suppressing foam during these rescues.

The Creasons and other members of the Carolina Military Vehicle Preservation Association  - including Todd Hergott, of Goose Creek, S.C., whose 1986 Humvee regularly appears on the Army Wives television program - will participate in a special patriotic display during the April 8-11 Food Lion AutoFair at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

AutoFair hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday through Saturday and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday. Ticket prices are $10 for adults; children under 12 are admitted free when accompanied by an adult. Parking for the event is $5. For more information on the four-day event, contact the events department at (704) 455-3205 or visit the Food Lion AutoFair event web site.