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Rock Crawler - Farm Fresh

Posted in Features on August 1, 2004
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Hailing from tiny Gibbon, Nebraska, doesn't exactly put suitable rockcrawling at your doorstep. Gibbon is better known for deep topsoil and the flatness of the fertile Platte River Valley farmland. Tucked amidst the lush cornfields of this most unlikely location is one of the hottest extreme rockcrawling rigs, and one of the sport's most dominating drivers.

Joel Randall and his spotter Mike Vokoun have been involved in the highest level of competitive extreme rockcrawling since the sport's very inception. When the first formal competition was held in Las Cruces, New Mexico, back in late 1998, Joel and Mike were there with a Top 5 finish. They've finished in the Top 10 in the Rock Crawlers Association of America (RCAA) series standings each of the last three years. The number three on Joel's current ride signifies a strong Third Place finish in the final RCAA standings last year, and the team is once again gunning for the top spot this season.

Joel put together an entirely new vehicle for the 2003 campaign. This highly successful creation is based on the success of two predecessors, Joel's own observations, and some mighty shrewd speculation as to where the sport of extreme rockcrawling is heading. In Joel's mind, keeping a vehicle as light as possible and maximizing its stability are key factors to success, and his latest rig clearly illustrates that emerging trend.

The vehicle started with a minimalist approach: a 1.5-inch DOM-tube frame, using just enough material to provide a safe, rigid platform. While designing and bending up the frame, Joel made every effort to keep the ride height as low as possible, while still allowing the necessary clearance to successfully evade the big rocks on the courses. The structure is intended to provide absolutely no catch points between the front and rear differentials as everything is tucked up tight and flush with the framerails. To ensure that nothing snags on this flat belly, a slick poly-liner covers the entire bottom of the vehicle.

Up front, the low-slung frame supports an all-aluminum 3.7L V-6. This engine, affectionately dubbed the Shortstar by its adherents, is the shorter and lighter brother of the exotic Northstar inhabiting Cadillac engine compartments. Joel procured the engine and its custom management system from Turn Key Engine Supply in Oceanside, California. In keeping with the theme of stability, Joel reports that the crank on this engine sits a full 8 inches lower than on his previous ride.

The engine feeds its power back into a custom TF 904 transmission that started life behind a 2.8L V-6 in an early XJ (remember those?). With its original quasi-GM application, the tranny bolts directly to the GM powerplant. Propulsion is split and amplified through the ubiquitous Atlas II transfer case with a 4.3:1 reduction and a heavy-duty front output shaft. High Angle Driveline in Paradise, California, supplied the extreme-duty 1350 CV driveshaft that sends the power to a Currie-built Dana 60 rear axle. Up front, Currie whipped up one of its high-zoot shaved 9-inch differentials with some extreme gusseting, F-450 outer ends, 35-spline chrome-moly outer shafts, and CTM U-joints.

The axles are both located with a Joel-designed and -built custom three-link setup. Specially valved Sway-A-Way 14-inch coilover shocks handle the suspension and damping duties. The team runs 40-inch Goodyear M/TR tires on Allied wheels with both inner and outer bead locks. It makes mounting and unmounting tires an incredible pain, but there are never any worries about losing a bead at an inopportune time.

The three-link front suspension allows Joel to run a fully hydraulic steering system crafted from various components originally intended for duty in forklifts. By staying with the industrial application, Joel kept costs lower and ensured future parts availability. Keeping the forward profile low enough to offer excellent vision, an aluminum radiator resides behind the passenger compartment. The vehicle also sports a rather unique system of manual valves in the passenger compartment that allow Joel to lock up just about any combination of wheel brakes required to wiggle through the tight competition courses.

The vehicle still sports two seating positions, but the diminutive width would make for a very cozy ride with two bodies in the tub. The passenger would also share the second seating position with a custom aluminum fuel cell that is large enough to run a few competition stages between refueling. Joel wanted a look that was a bit different from the almost endless array of vertically slotted grilles. After a long search, he created a narrowed hood and grille from a Dodge Dakota to finish off his distinctive ride. Not only does the unique look turn heads, it allows great forward visibility when attacking the rocks. The tube frame is sheathed with thin aluminum panels for a finished appearance. A Ramsey winch resides at the base of the sloping hood to cinch down the front end when attacking the vertical ledges and provides (very) occasional power for extraction duties.

One of the more interesting features of Joel's creation is the ability to adjust the wheelbase to the specific conditions of a stage. The vehicle typically sits on a 99-inch wheelbase, but by changing out the rear links and using a long-slip rear driveshaft, the length can be extended to 107 inches for attacking the occasional gargantuan ledge. The changeover is fast and easy enough that the vehicle can be stretched for a single stage before returning to its typical length.

So how does all this weight reduction and low center of gravity work out on the rocks? Very well, thank you. Joel showed up at the first RCAA event in 2003 with literally zero time behind the wheel of the 2,800-pound ride. In spite of some inevitable early teething difficulties, the Extreme Team headed back home with a Fifth Place finish. They followed up the strong initial showing with a Second Place finish at the brutal Moab stop on the tour, and an Eighth Place finish in Cedar City, Utah. Heading into the final competition of the year, they're sitting in Fourth Place in the standings and are within striking distance of the top spot again.

Not only is Joel's home base a long, long way from any rocks, but spotter Mike hails from the Mesa, Arizona, area, which makes hooking up for a little weekend or after-dinner practice 'crawling almost impossible. Between the long distances involved and Joel's hectic year-round schedule of farming and driving a truck, the team doesn't do any four-wheeling outside of extreme rockcrawling competitions. One certainly wonders what competitive heights this smooth team could scale if it were able to hit the rocks with any regularity for practice.

If your travels take you up the broad green valley of central Nebraska's corn country, keep an eye out for an 18-wheeler headed west for competition, or headed back home loaded with more trophy hardware. Corn isn't the only gold that the Extreme Team knows how to grow.

SPECIFICATIONS
Vehicle: Custom rockcrawler
Owner/hometown: Joel Randall/Gibbon,
  Nebraska
Engine: GM 3.7L V-6
Transmission: Torque-Flite 904
Transfer case: Atlas II
Frontend: Currie 9-inch
Rearend: Currie Dana 60
Suspension: Custom three-link
Tires/wheels: 40-inch Goodyear {{{M}}}/TRs/
  Allied double bead locks

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