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1993-2005 Top Truck Challenge Winners - 13 Years of (Super) Bad Trucks

Posted in Events on October 1, 2005 Comment (0)
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Photographers: Four Wheeler Archives

The idea was first suggested by our former Senior Editor Jimmy Nylund, at a long-ago staff meeting when Bush's dad was still president. As originally conceived, it was meant to be some kind of long-distance 4x4 rally along the lines of the Hot Rod Power Tour-an "ultimate adventure" of sorts-but somehow, it didn't turn out that way.

What we got instead was an event that has gone down in four-wheeler lore as a consummate test of engineering smarts and driver acumen. To win at Top Truck-or even to finish with your rig intact-you need a purpose-built vehicle that's designed to withstand some of the worst abuse imaginable. You also need superior driving and navigation skills, the patience to keep your wits when your truck is sinking in 6 feet of water and spitting out drivetrain parts ... and sometimes, you need a bit of luck.

For our 500th issue, we thought we'd look back at the history of Four Wheeler's flagship event, and invite some past editors to share their fondest memories.

Jim Piatt's winning CJ made short work of the Stair Step at TTC1.

The first Top Truck Challenge was a seat-of-the-pants affair. We'd never hosted a competition before, so we kept the rules at a minimum and told the competitors even less. Our events were different-and a lot more time-consuming-than they are today. The Hill Climb, for instance, was a crawl-off that was won by the slowest competitor, and events such as the Mini Rubicon and Tank Trap (known then as the "Stream Bed") had no time limits at all. There was also a Tire Pit, a Stair Step course, and a Slalom in lieu of the much-more-difficult Obstacle Course. We also ran the event the week after Labor Day-a big mistake, as summer temperatures in Hollister routinely exceed 100 degrees well into October.

Competitors at the inaugural included legendary four-by builder Soni Honegger, who brought his 8,500-pound "War Wagon" Ramcharger, and Rick Pewe, now editor of 4-Wheel & Off-Road, who finished 2nd overall in his Olds 455-powered '42 Ford GPW. In the end, a mildly modified CJ-7 took top honors; Jim Piatt's ride wasn't flashy, but with six 1st-place finishes, it won going away.

Winner: Jim Piatt, Manchester, Washington
Vehicle: '84 Jeep CJ-7
Engine: Chevy 350 V-8, Holley Pro-Jection
Transmission: TH400
Transfer case: Dana 300
Axles/diffs: Dana 44, AMC Model 20/ARB Air Lockers
Suspension: Skyjacker 3.5-inch leaf springs
Tires: 33x12.50 BFG Moab Mud-Terrains

In 1994 we introduced the Tow Test to the competition. Contestants hooked up to Soni's War Wagon before attempting a full pull, and five competitors completed the test successfully. (Nowadays we hook 'em up to a 40,000-pound cement mixer!) Also new were time limits-weary of having yanked stuck rigs out of the Tank Trap after dark, as we'd done the previous year, we finally wised up and imposed time limits on our events.

The field for TTC '94 was one of the most diverse ever, with an early Bronco, a 4Runner, a Scout, an M38, a Toyota pickup, and a Scrambler 6x6 conversion among the entries. In the end, Tony Fox's 304-powered CJ-5 took top honors, winning On-Road and Engineering honors, and impressing judges with its go-anywhere versatility.

Winner: Anthony Fox, Bremerton, Washington
Vehicle: '79 Jeep CJ-5
Engine: AMC 304 V-8, Ford two-barrel
Transmission: T-18
Transfer case: Dana 20
Axles/diffs: Dana 44s/Detroit Lockers
Suspension: Rancho 2.5-inch leaf springs
Tires: 33x12.50-15 TSL Super Swampers

Tim Hardy wowed the judges with his Samurai-trailer tandem at TTC '95. The little pack mule came in handy as ballast during the Mini Rubicon.

This marked the first year we invited the readers to pick our contestants, and it was also the first year we held an On-Road Ride & Drive. Among the notables was Tim Hardy, who was called in at the 11th hour when another contestant dropped out. Tim wowed judges and competitors alike with his '87 Samurai and matching trailer, which made events like the Tank Trap and Mud Pit look easy, even with a stock motor and a strange amalgam of Sidekick, Ford, and Subaru (!) drivetrain parts. He finished 2nd overall, and Tim has been a staple of TTC ever since-for 2005, he was our Head Judge.

Winner Randy Ellis' CJ was the first-ever TTC rig to sport a multilink suspension (a three-link rear), and it helped him max out the RTI ramp and win the Engineering judging en route to an overall victory. Nowadays, Randy runs his own fabrication business-Randy Ellis Design-and regularly competes in the ARCA and UROC pro rockcrawling circuits.

Winner: Randy Ellis, Gilbert, Arizona
Vehicle: '80 Jeep CJ-5
Engine: 377 Chevy V-8, Holley Pro-Jection
Transmission: TH350
Transfer case: Dana 300
Axles/diffs: Dana 440, Dana 60/ARB Air Lockers
Suspension: Springs over axle (f), three-link (r)
Tires: 35/16-15 Super Swamper Boggers

TTC '96 marked the introduction of the off-camber Obstacle Course as a replacement for the easier Slalom. This also marked one of the few times we've ever questioned the readers' wisdom about picking competitors, when Jim Mathews-and his carbureted F-350 on 44s-showed up a day late with no winch. Not having the heart to send him away after he'd driven 3,000 miles from New Jersey, we let him compete in the remaining events anyway. To everyone's amazement, this "unqualified" truck blasted straight through the Tank Trap despite breaking a rear U-joint-the first time the Trap had been completed without the use of a winch.

Shannon Campbell, now a renowned builder of competition rock buggies (he's the owner of Campbell Enterprises), won the Trap in his Chevy-powered Willys, and with three 2nd-place finishes also under his belt, it was enough to propel him to victory at TTC '96.

Winner: Shannon Campbell, Gilbert, Arizona
Vehicle: '47 Willys CJ-2A replica
Engine: 400 Chevy V-8, Holley Pro-Jection
Transmission: TH350
Transfer case: Dana 300
Axles/diffs: GM 10-bolt, Dana 60/ARB Air Locker, spool
Suspension: Custom leaf springs (f), four-link (r)
Tires: 35/16-15 Super Swamper Boggers

Shod with 44s and rolling on 2 1/2-ton Gama Goats with four-wheel independent suspension, Geby Wager's CJ-7, which won in 1997, was unlike anything we'd ever seen before at Top Truck.

A Jeep on 44s? With a 502 V-8, four-wheel independent suspension, rear steering, and 2 1/2-ton axles? Sounds like a typical TTC entrant nowadays, but back in '97, we'd never seen anything like Geby Wager's Canadian creation when it appeared at Hollister Hills. Geby's CJ only won one event at Top Truck (Acceleration) but with top-four finishes in all 10 events, his consistency propelled him to a 1st place overall standing and a runaway "People's Choice" winner.

Also in '97, we managed to roll a stock H1 on the Obstacle Course (guess we made it tough enough); another winchless vehicle (this time, a K-Blazer) won the Tank Trap in 6 minutes, 48 seconds, a record time that stands to this day; and for the first time, a Four Wheeler TV crew videotaped the event for posterity.

Winner: Geby Wager, Kelowna, B.C., Canada
Vehicle: '86 Jeep CJ-7
Engine: 502 Cadillac V-8, Holley 800
Transmission: Ford T-19
Transfer case: NP205
Axles/diffs: Gama Goat 2 1/2-tons/open
Suspension: Four-wheel independent
Tires: 44x19.5/15 Super Swamper Boggers

Heath Biggs' Scorpion was the first tube-chassis creation ever to enter Top Truck, and at TTC '98, he ran away from the field.

If 1997 gave us a peek into the future, Top Truck VI gave us the Real Deal: The Scorpion. The brainchild of Soni Honegger and driven by Heath Biggs, the Scorpion MK1 was the prototype for today's 4x4 rock racers: A ground-up fabrication utilizing a full tube chassis and pivoting multlink/airbag suspension. The Scorpion was among the Top 10 TTC vote-getters of all time, and it didn't disappoint, laying the field to waste; Heath took 1st-place honors in the Obstacle Course, Tank Trap, and Engineering, and had three 2nd-place finishes as well. His margin of victory was the biggest in TTC history at that time.

Also in '98, one of TTC's more memorable moments occurred in the Tank Trap, when a legendary Midwest Chevy known as "Quagmyr" ran into trouble in the canyon past Mudhole No. 2. Winching through the sluice, the truck began to smoke-and smoke, and smoke some more-to the point where a vehicle fire was feared. It all turned out to be a result of the effects of off-camber driving on an EFI motor, but to this day, the spot on the course where the Chevy engulfed the forest with a canopy of smoke is still referred to as Quag Canyon.

Winner: Heath Biggs, Fayetteville, Arkansas
Vehicle: Scorpion MK1
Engine: 350 TBI Chevy V-8
Transmission: TH700R4
Transfer case: Atlas II 3.8
Axles/diffs: Dana 44, Dana 60/ARB, Detroit Locker
Suspension: Pivoting AES multilink, 12-inch Firestone airbags
Tires: 35x15.50-15 Super Swamper Boggers

One of the most unusual rigs to qualify for Top Truck was Chris Reiberger's Dodge Raider-bodied Hummer H1, which placed 6th at TTC '99.

For 1999, readers chose some of the most unusual vehicles ever to compete: a Dodge Raider on a Hummer H1 chassis; a TJ sporting a Viper V-10; a GMC Safari "Flexivan" mounted on a '77 Jimmy frame; and a Chevy K-10 that ran a de-tuned 557 marine block (still the biggest motor ever to run in Top Truck). When it was all over, a fairly conventional Chevy-powered Willys ran away from the field. Grady McLeod's flatfender won the Frame Twister, Mini Rubicon, Obstacle Course, and Engineering, as well as our Driving Elegant award.

Also in '99, the Tire Pit was run for the last time. Filled with water each year for TTC, then drained afterward, the usually dry pit had turned into a rattlesnake habitat over time, so the park rangers had the tires hauled away and the area cleared. No one seemed to mind.

Winner: Grady McLeod, Sacramento, California
Vehicle: '48 Willys CJ-2A
Engine: Chevy 350 V-8
Transmission: TH350
Transfer case: Toyota/Marlin 4.7
Axles/diffs: Dana 44, Toyota V-6/ARB Air Lockers
Suspension: Springs over axle (f), four-link (r)
Tires: 38.5x14.5-15 Super Swamper SXs

He didn't win our Driving Elegant award, but Sam Patton's Tread-Unlightly style of 'wheeling served him well as he eked out a narrow win at TTC 2000.

To aficionados of our Top Truck video series, the name Sam Patton evokes visions of a mythic figure flying through the skies-or more accurately, flying his 425hp CJ-7 through the Frame Twister, over the Mini Rubicon, and inching his way across the finish line in the Tank Trap. In the closest Top Truck competition to date, Patton winched, nursed, and crawled his Jeep in three-wheel drive through the Trap, completing a full run with less than 30 seconds to spare and sealing a narrow victory over Steve Rumore's Avalanche "Sniper" rock buggy. Sam took top honors in the Frame Twister, Mud Bog, and Engineering.

Also in 2000, we invited representatives of the California Highway Patrol to inspect competitors' rigs for street-legality for the first time. With bead locks everywhere, nobody escaped without at least one make-believe citation.

Winner: Sam Patton, Tulsa, Oklahoma
Vehicle: '84 Jeep CJ-7
Engine: 350 TPI Chevy V-8
Transmission: TH700R4
Transfer case: Atlas II 4.3
Axles/diffs: Dana 60s/Detroit Lockers
Suspension: Springs over axles
Tires: 39-15.5/15 Super Swamper Boggers

Brian Waddell's Suburban broke the Jeep Jinx at TTC IX, becoming the first-ever fullsize rig to take Top Truck honors.

Before TTC IX, the scorecard of Top Truck winners read: Jeeps 7, buggies 1, everything else 0 ... until Brian Waddell's "Big Bad 'Burb" became the first-ever fullsize rig to win the competition. The Suburban only captured one event-the Mud Pit-but 2nd-place finishes in the Tank Trap, Frame Twister, and Mini Rubicon allowed it to eke out a narrow victory over another fullsize, an '82 Jimmy built by Stephen Watson, now better known as the owner/mastermind of Off Road Design.

Across the board, Jeeps oddly flamed out at Top Truck that year-a Kaiser M37 managed to finish 5th, but the only two civilian Jeeps in the field finished 7th and 10th, respectively.

Winner: Brian Waddell, Vancouver, Washington
Vehicle: '72 Chevy Suburban
Engine: 454 Chevy V-8, Holley 950
Transmission: TH400
Transfer case: NP203/205
Axles/diffs: Dana 60, Eaton/McNamara locker, Detroit
Suspension: Springs over axles
Tires: 44-16.5-15 Super Swampers

The Frog tube buggy didn't win at Top Truck X, but it did set a new Long Distance record, traveling more than 8,000 miles from Tel Aviv to compete at Hollister Hills.

With a Chevy breaking the Jeep Jinx in 2001, we reasoned it would be poetic justice if a Ford could win the following year. And that's exactly what happened ... sort of. John Reynolds' Bronco did sport Ford sheetmetal, a 426 V-8, and a C6 transmission, though the full tube chassis, rear steer, and four-link suspension were likely not factory options in 1973. Regardless, the flexy Bronc' dominated the competition, winning the Tank Trap, Acceleration, and Engineering and finishing 2nd in the Mini Rubicon and Obstacle Course.

Barry Toledano, owner of the "Frog" rock buggy, set a new record for the Long Distance Award in 2002, freighting his rig overseas more than 8,000 miles from Tel Aviv, Israel to Hollister Hills to compete in TTC.

Winner: John Reynolds, La Crescenta, California
Vehicle: '73 Ford Bronco
Engine: 426 Ford V-8
Transmission: Ford C6
Transfer case: Atlas II
Axles/diffs: Custom Strange-Unimog/Detroit Lockers
Suspension: Reverse four-link
Tires: 42-15/16.5 Super Swampers

Warren Kreyer's M37 awed spectators at Top Truck XI with its trick articulating chassis. He won our Driving Elegant award en route to a 3rd-place finish overall.

The trend toward fullsizes continued in '03, when readers selected only three Jeeps to compete at TTC XI. Chevys and GMCs dominated as never before, capturing five of the top six slots at Top Truck, with Toby Harrell's big-block, twin transfer-cased K-Blazer first among equals. Toby only won two events-the Frame Twister and Tank Trap-but being the only competitor to successfully complete the Trap within the allotted time gave him the edge over a closely bunched field.

Winner: Toby Harrell, San Angelo, Texas
Vehicle: '75 Chevrolet Blazer
Engine: Chevy 466 V-8, Holley 900 Pro-Jection
Transmission: TH400
Transfer case: NP203/205
Axles/diffs: Dana 60, GM 14-bolt/ARB, Detroit
Suspension: Springs over axles
Tires: 44-18/15 Super Swamper Boggers

After a three-year interregnum, Jeeps returned to the winner's circle at Top Truck XII, taking the two top spots and setting a new record in the Mini Rubicon. Brad Austin's 454-powered YJ won the Tank Trap and garnered five top-5 finishes en route to an overall win. Interestingly, Brad's ride was the only one in TTC history to sport different tire treads, front and rear.

Howard Jacques' "Jeepzilla" CJ-7 made hash of our rockpile, blasting through the boulders in a record 1 minute, 45 seconds, though he nicked a cone on the way out and took a 5-minute penalty as a result. Penalty or no, it's still the fastest uncorrected time ever through the 'Rube.

Also in 2004, we dropped our street-legality requirements. The Highway Patrol was grateful to be spared the task of carpal-tunnel-inducing ticket-writing.

Winner: Brad Austin, Mustang, Oklahoma
Vehicle: '91 Jeep Wrangler
Engine: 454 Chevy V-8, Holley EFI
Transmission: TH350
Transfer case: NP203/205
Axles/diffs: Dana 60, GM 14-bolt/Detroit Lockers
Suspension: Custom three-link, coils
Tires: 44-18.5/15 Super Swampers (f), Boggers (r)

For 2005, we decided to shake things up in a big way. Long reviled by readers, the Show & Shine and Engineering competitions were dumped, as were the pavement contests: Acceleration, Braking, and On-Road Ride & Drive were cut from the curriculum, being deemed unnecessary for vehicles that were no longer expected to be (and all too often weren't) streetable. We also added a brand-new task: the Trail Fix, a timed test of competitors' mechanical skills, teamwork, and trail-readiness.

Reader response this year reached an all-time high, with over 2,500 ballots (and more than 25,000 votes!) mailed in. It took us nearly two weeks to count them all, another TTC record.

Winner: Hey, you wouldn't want us to ruin the suspense, would you? We haven't even shown you this year's field! To see America's Top 10 Trucks for '05, check out next month's issue of Four Wheeler, and we'll have full event coverage in the December issue. 'Til then, if you absolutely can't wait, log onto fourwheeler.com for in-depth coverage. And keep an eye on these pages for news of our Top Truck Challenge 2005 video. With nonstop four-wheeling action, it should be the biggest and baddest DVD we've yet produced.

My favorite moment came in Year 1, when one Richard Pewe was on the verge of winning the first-ever TTC. The way I remember it, Rick entered the mud bog in his big-block-powered flatfender and drowned out just a few feet short of the lead.

No problem. Rick reaches back, digs around and finds a can of WD-40. He crawls forward, opens the hood, finds the distributor, and prepares to dry off the points with the spray. The can sputters. Empty. Laughing like a madman, Rick crawls back, digs down to the floor, finds another can, gets ready, and tries again. Empty. We all fall down laughing. Time ran out and Rick never got it started ... but he never got muddy, either. He ended up in second place. Thirteen years later, Rick is Editor of 4-Wheel & Off-Road magazine, his flatty is still around, and I'll bet you 10 to one there is at least one empty can of WD-40 in the back.

At TTC '94, Eric Graves drove his wife's 4Runner to the competition. He was under specific instructions not to damage it-it was her daily driver. During the Slalom Course, he caught a rut during a hard right-hander, popped up on two wheels, then rolled completely over and back onto its wheels. Everyone was stunned, worried that the driver and co-driver might be hurt ... but after driver and co-driver cleared their heads, the co-driver yelled, "Go! Go! Go!" The engine roared, the Toyota gunned it past the last two turns and the finish line, with everyone cheering at the top of their lungs-judges included. Driver and co-driver jumped out of the truck, arms raised in triumph, as if they'd just won Indy. Later, after assessing the bent body panels and broken windshield, Eric was heard saying with head in hands, "How am I going to make this call to my wife?"

It was the second Top Truck Challenge (1994), when the judges were still stupid enough to run the various obstacles in their personal vehicles [They still are.-Ed.], including the Tank Trap, and usually at night. This was Monday evening, when a fancy pre-event welcome dinner awaited both contestants and judges at a ritzy joint in nearby San Juan Bautista. The sun was setting, but five judges and their flatfenders were still in the Trap. Rick Pewe had lost three beads off his GPW (some more than once) and his converted A/C compressor finally seized, which burned the fan belt off. Overheating and practically immobilized, Rick needed to be winched out, which Soni Honegger was in a relatively good position to do. Ned Bacon, clad in his anti-poison-oak rubber outfit, waded Soni's cable to a stand of trees and rigged the strap and snatch block.

Soon the sounds of winching were joined by some less pleasant ones-those of a cracking tree. Before anyone could react, Soni had winched the tree right onto his now-not-so-flatfender. Turns out that Ned had picked the only dead tree in sight, and also put the strap some three feet up from the ground in an effort to improve the pulling angle.

With Ned and Soni trapped behind Rick and time running out, we had to abandon the stuck Jeeps and rush back to camp in the two remaining CJs. There, we piled into more streetworthy vehicles for a very hurried trip to the dinner that had already begun.

More upstanding patrons of the establishment surely wondered about the severely mud-covered crew that practically ran through the restaurant in an effort to grab whatever leftovers were still above room temperature. We scarfed down whatever we could, cold or not, and in a matter of minutes the party was over and everybody casually strolled out towards the entrance. That's when yours truly decided to clean up a bit before heading back to camp, using a cute little fountain in the center of the courtyard. Just as the last globs of mud came off my face and hair, the owner appeared. He stood silently next to me for a few moments, watching the ornamental basin disappear in a cloud of heavy silt, then said in a calm voice, "I've never thought of anyone using [the fountain] for that before."

We were allowed back at the restaurant the next year, and the judges' vehicles were all extracted from the Tank Trap by daylight on Tuesday. Both somewhat miraculous.

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