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Blue Thunder

Posted in Features on July 24, 2002 Comment (0)
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Contributors: Mark DustinJeremy Sundt

It is something special when a father and son team up to build an off-road machine together. The pastime of father and son automobile restoration is as American as hot dogs, apple pie, and the World Series -- a rite of passage, if you will. Fathers and sons teaming up to build up transportation dates back to the day the first chariots rolled through the stone-paved streets of Rome. In this century, as technology evolves, the father and son projects have evolved as well. Take for example, this project prerunner from Bill Smith and Chuck Virzi.

The foundation for this truck started back in 1993, as they began what would end up as an eight-year working relationship with Rod Millen. The Millen family is a tight one, but Bill worked his way around the family from mechanic to operations manager then to crew chief. Bill and his fellow team members were responsible for getting the Millen-piloted Toyota Tacoma to the top of Pikes Peak faster than anyone else in history of the event. The team's credentials also put them at the front of the pack of the CORR Series. While all of this was going on, Bill's son Chuck was earning his stripes as a crewmember of this successful and talented team. Young and impressionable, Chuck's lust for off-road trucks began to flourish -- he was hooked.

It took Chuck more than a year to talk his father and friend into building the ultimate prerunner. Bill wanted to buy a race truck and go racing, but Chuck wanted something he could drive on the street. Finally, after many dramatic rock-paper-scissors matches, Chuck swayed Bill to the prerunner side. Chuck already owned the Ranger, so it was an easy transition into building the project. They drew up the game plan of what they wanted to do, and their brilliant effort began. The truck was completely built in the family garage.

While working at Millen's shop, Bill had some resources many garage fabricators lack -- his most invaluable of all resources being engineer and good friend John Dunn. John has worked for Millen for several years and has earned the respect of many fabricators throughout the industry. He has many designs to his credit, including Rod Millen's CORR Toyota Tundra, Toyota's first attempt at a fullsize off-road race truck. Bill constantly bounced ideas off of John, who always steered him in the proper direction. Beginning with the suspension, the stock frame horns were eliminated because they exited the rear of the truck. A new chassis was fabricated out of 4130 chrome-moly tubing. The cage design would provide ample room for the engine placement, the scratch-built A-arms, and the cutting-edge four-link suspension system. The rear provides 26 inches of rear-wheel travel. At the heart of the system, a set of 3-inch-diameter 18-inch stroke King shocks keep traction to the wheels.

The project progressed slowly, but meticulously, as Chuck attained a Ford 351 powerplant. The classic Blue Oval engine was outfitted with a set of Edelbrock Performer RPM aluminum heads, a crane cam, and a set of roller rockers. Fuel distribution is provided by an Edelbrock intake manifold and carburetor. When all was said and done, the pair had themselves a reliable 400-plus horsepower. In spite of the newfound ponies, the new engine would weigh a bit more than the stock four-cylinder. Drastic measures needed to be taken.

The factory front firewall was removed to make room to move the engine back 18 inches from the stock location. A new firewall was created to house the virtually mid-engine prerunner. With the engine in place, the weight distribution was correct and the front clip was left open for the front suspension.

Up front, Bill pulled out all the stops, using a race-proven A-arm design. The suspension system would be centered around a pair of 13-inch stroke King 3.0 coilover shocks. The lower A-arm pivots were fabricated where the engine once sat. Custom upper and lower arms were manufactured out of the highest grade of chrome-moly. Once complete, the parallelogram design would produce 20 inches of wheel travel.

The steering system on this truck is unique. Bill used his lathe to fabricate a one-of-a-kind hydraulic ram. The tie rods connected directly to the ram. This keeps the tire rods traveling on the same plane as the A-arms, keeping the bumpsteer to almost nil. A Woodward steering servo was used in combination with a Lee-reinforced Saginaw. The custom steering setup keeps the truck going in the direction it needs to go through any terrain at any speed.

Their appreciation for Rod Millen's CORR Tundra is reflected in the overall look of the brilliant-blue Ford. The 35x12.5 BFGoodrich CORR project tires nicely complement the theme of the truck. With just 13 inches of ground clearance, the tires sit tightly tucked into the fiberglass fenders. The low ride height keeps a low center of gravity, which stabilizes the truck at speed, minimizing body roll and presenting an aesthetically pleasing prerunner to the lover of the stadium-looking prerunner.

Only the future will tell what the father and son team will take on as their next project. Surely, Bill will get his way to build a CORR Pro-Lite race truck to campaign in the Midwest. Whatever their project may be, it will more than likely be glorious, if they put anything close to the 2,700 documented hours they put into building this prerunner. The duo plans to campaign this truck as the flagship for the birth of their company Product of Performance (POP) Motorsports. It is hard to call this their first truck with all of the experience and credentials they have between them, however, it is their first attempt on their own and is quite admirable.

0204or 01zoom+Ford Ranger Prerunner+Front View Airborne
0204or 02zoom+Ford Ranger Prerunner+Front Driver Side View Parked
0204or 03zoom+Ford Ranger Prerunner+Front Driver Side View In Motion
0204or 04zoom+Ford Ranger Prerunner+Wheel Well Shot Shocks
0204or 05z+Ford Ranger Prerunner+Steering Set Up
0204or 06zoom+Ford Ranger Prerunner+Hood Up Showing Suspension Under Hood
0204or 07zoom+Ford Ranger Prerunner+Front Driver Side Shot Getting Airborne
0204or 08zoom+Ford Ranger Prerunner+Coil Over Suspension
0204or 09zoom+Ford Ranger Prerunner+Wheel Close Up
0204or 10zoom+Ford Ranger Prerunner+Front Passenger Side Suspension And Skidplate
0204or 11zoom+Ford Ranger Prerunner+Front Shot Showing Grille
0204or 12zoom+Ford Ranger Prerunner+Rear Passenger Fender And Wheel
0204or 13zoom+Ford Ranger Prerunner+Engine Shot Down Through Under Hood Suspension
0204or 14zoom+Ford Ranger Prerunner+Rear Driver Side View

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