Let me say for the record that I have always been a Toyota man. However, after the demise of my Land Cruiser daily driver, I found myself behind the wheel of a Land Rover.
My buddy said it was all over. He said that they, meaning the Land Cruiser hoard, would soon find me out, as if I had crossed over to the land of the soccer mom. But as I began to break in my Rover, I was continuously impressed.
In an attempt to see what I had gotten myself into, I blasted off to the annual Land Rover Twist-Off in beautiful Fruita, Colorado. Fruita is located just east of Grand Junction and sits under Independence Rock and the gate of the Colorado National Monument.
This year's Twist-Off was organized by Bill and Rachel Burke of 4 Wheeling America. Bill Burke of Camel Trophy fame is an internationally recognized trainer who teaches backcountry driving techniques in his rather spacious backyard playground, which stretches across western Colorado and Utah.
The idea for the Twist-Off grew out of the camaraderie of a group of Defender 90 owners who had met over the years at different events. To keep in touch, they began an Internet chat group called the D90 List. Heated debate concerning suspension modifications gave rise to a venue in which the question could be settled: just who had the most capable truck. Thus, the Twist-Off was born.
Potential entrants applied this year over the Internet and were chosen by popular vote. Originally, there were to be five Defender 90s and one Series II Discovery. The trucks and drivers came from across the country. The drivers consisted of Justin Dermody from Colorado in his Discovery II, Carey Steiner from California, Ed Magoffin from Colorado, Doug Marbourg from New Mexico, Bill Ritchie from Texas, and Mike Smith from Maine, all in D90s.
Unfortunately, Justin Dermody could not make it in time for the event due to a personal emergency. We were all disappointed at Justin's absence because he had been touting the abilities of his truck, and deep down we were all hoping for some Disco II carnage
With one slot open, K.C. Carpenter stepped up to the challenge with his green D90, despite the fact that it was running stock open diffs and 33-inch tires. As word spread, no one thought he had a chance. Even Bill Burke told him not to push too hard and risk his truck.
Everybody is used to seeing CJs, Broncos, FJs, and even pickups with lifts and huge tires. When one thinks of Land Rovers and their legacy across the globe, one thinks of ragged, bone-stock trucks taking constant abuse, performing day in and day out without complaint. Here at the Twist-Off, the general attire was 35-plus sneakers, winches, Hi-Lifts, ARBs, and the like.
Early Saturday morning, the event began. At 8:30 a.m., Bill gathered the contestants and laid down the rules; no hitting below the bumper and all that.
Each driver was first required to explain his or her vehicle in the engineering competition. Contestants walked around their trucks and explained the various modifications and how they worked. In this category, Mike Smith of East Coast Rovers and his yellow and blue D90 came out on top.
From the heavily modified Safari Guard suspension to the 30-spline rear axle, to the engine driven compressor, there was no question who had built the gnarliest rig.
Next was the ramp. The D90s lined up and prepared to roll on up. The D90s performed remarkably. Entrants were judged on approach and departure angles, and forward as well as reverse ramping. Watching a ramp being tackled, one can see the importance of axle articulation. After five Defenders had climbed the ramp, Doug Marbourg in his red D90 was the one to take the prize.
The off-road portion of the event was held about 20 minutes outside of town. Although I have been to this part of the country before, I am always unprepared for the grand scale of the landscape.
We drove up into a canyon, snaking past motorbike tracks and Jeep trails. This was four-wheel heaven. Further up the canyon, we parked off the trail next to a long wash. Behind us was a long caravan of Rovers trying to nudge their way off the single track to find a place to watch the Defenders run the wash.
The course was around a quarter of a mile long, but it was no racetrack. The red-brown wash wiggled its way through the canyon, squeaking past giant rocks and steep, sandy banks. It had been raining, and in the floor of the wash lay a little brook. This was going to be a tough course.
Drivers were allowed one spotter and 30 minutes to navigate the course. Points were given for completing obstacles or gates, and points were subtracted for winching, reversing, stopping too long, or bypassing a gate. Because each team was not allowed to see the course until the clock started, if he or she wished, they could use course time to walk the course. Most chose to blindly hit the wash, which made for some heated emotions at surprise obstacles.
Mike Smith and his diesel were the first to drive the course. Mike's company, East Coast Rovers, has begun installing the Land Rover 300Tdi diesel engine, and he was here to showcase the conversion.
If you closed your eyes as Mike's Rover climbed onto the course, you would swear that what was rolling up the wash was not a sick 4x4 but a UPS truck. The chatter of the turbo diesel drew a lot of smiles, but with twice the fuel economy and reliability, this engine conversion is nothing to scoff at.
How to navigate each obstacle became a bigger and bigger problem as each team took its turn up the wash. Haste gave way to potential body damage. Beads were popped, sheetmetal was bent, hardtop glass was scratched, and axles were broken.
Carey Steiner, in her white hardtop, found her rear window supporting the weight of her Defender and quickly reminded her spotter that "there was, in fact, no money to be won."
Damage and destruction became the norm as the day moved on. Bill Ritchie in his yellow D90 was the first to learn the harsh reality of a bad line when he got hung up on a large rock. It was only with the help of event fans and race officials that he was pushed off the rock to continue the run. That was just the beginning for Bill, for just a few gates after he was helped off his rocky perch, the spectators heard a loud snap as Bill broke a front axle. Bill was not going to let that stop him, though, and he crunched his way up the wash until the judge called time.
Doug Marbourg was to have a similar fate as Bill. Doug hit the wash with tremendous skill. Taking the previous drivers to school, he moved quickly through obstacles that had given others trouble. This groove, unfortunately, was not to last, as Doug popped a bead on his 35-inch Swampers and then snapped an axle.
Ed Magoffin and his spotter made a valiant attempt at the wash. However, hampered by slow-going through the middle, the team was unable to make the last few obstacles before time was called.
The course was proving to be harder than the officials had planned. Not one truck had made it across the line in the time allotted.
Finally, it was K.C.'s turn at bat. His name might as well have been Mighty K.C. after his run. Unlike his four competitors, K.C. chose to walk the course to see what he was in for. He had no idea what the drivers before him had suffered, but was determined to do his best.
With a more stock setup, K.C. set out to hit the wash in true turtle fashion: slow and steady, taking every foot of the wash with care. He was doing better than expected, but he was running out of time. It was beginning to look like K.C. might be able to finish the course. With time against him, K.C. made one last spectacular push to the finish line. With the time almost gone, K.C. lost a tire. His lack of bead locks betrayed him. This, however, did not defeat his determination. With his BFGoodrich half off the rim, the lunatic rode the steel through the rocks until the clock wound down. It was a great finish to a great day.
Although K.C.'s final run was the most exciting, he did not finish in the lead. K.C. earned a respectable Second, overcoming all the nay-sayers.
It was crazy Mike Smith from East Coast Rovers who took the overall victory. His shop's engineering skills, combined with his skillful driving, allowed him to take home the trophy.
Overall, the Twist-Off event was a blast. The Rover folks made me feel right at home. I think I'll keep my Rover, and who knows, maybe I'll even cough up the brass to scratch it this summer.
For More InformationIf you would like to know more about the next Twist-Off event, contact: Bill Burke's 4 Wheeling America, Dept. 4WDSU, 307 N. Ash St., Fruita, CO 91521, (970) 858-3468, www.bb4wa.com.