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

1984 Jeep Cj7
Douglas McColloch | Writer
Posted October 1, 2005
Photographers: Four Wheeler Archives

Top Truck Challenge: An informal history

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

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