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December 2012 Trail's End

Posted in Features on December 1, 2012
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Not all of the vehicle carnage at Top Truck Challenge (TTC) has belonged to competitors. Some has belonged to us. In 1995 the Four Wheeler staff borrowed two vehicles from separate manufacturers to use as transportation and for hauling supplies during the event. In what even now qualifies as a “really bad day,” the two vehicles collided head-on while being driven by staffers on a blind curve on a dirt road. The collision activated the airbags and ruptured the radiator and oil cooler in at least one of the vehicles. To make matters worse, one of the vehicles was a one-off prototype vehicle. Yep, that’s one ghost of TTC past we’d rather forget.

Here are three generations of Top Truck head judges, from left to right, Toby Lavender, Tim Hardy, and Ned Bacon.

Back in the early days we used to hold the TTC welcome dinner at an upscale Mexican restaurant in neighboring San Juan Bautista, California. After a staff prerun of the Tank Trap went sour and staff members arrived late for dinner and covered in mud, one staffer decided to wash off the Tank Trap goo in the restaurant’s courtyard fountain. Oh wait, that’s another ghost we’d rather forget, too.

This year’s 20th anniversary Top Truck Champions’ Challenge (TTCC) was filled with ghosts of TTC past, but unlike the aforementioned incidents all were good. Jim Piatt, the first-ever champion of TTC was in attendance and he shared stories from the year he won the event in his daily-driven, 350ci-powered, ’84 Jeep CJ-7 with a Dana 44 front axle, AMC Model 20 rear axle, Skyjacker 3½-inch suspension lift, and 33-inch tires. “The judges crawled around under my Jeep and declared it substandard in engineering. But strangely, when the dust and mud had settled it had won most of the driving events,” Piatt recalls. In regards to the Tank Trap, Piatt says, “My 30-year-old daughter rode along and took pictures while I drove through it. Neither of us got out. We just finished.” That finish helped to propel Piatt to an overall win, and for that he received a trophy. “The first year the winner got a trophy. That was it. No one else got anything except some Four Wheeler T-shirts and maybe a hat if they were lucky. It used to make me jealous to see all the swag the later contestants received. However, by now much of that would have been gone. I still have the trophy. And so does every other winner,” Piatt says.

Jim Piatt, the first champion of Top Truck came to our little 20th anniversary with his original trophy, shown here placed next to this year’s Top Truck Champions’ Challenge cup.

Another ghost of TTC past that graced our presence this year was John Stewart, former editor of Four Wheeler and current editorial director at Specialty Equipment Market Association. Stewart was head honcho of Four Wheeler in 1993 when the inaugural TTC was held. He and his team of legendary staff devised and ran the event. Heck, they even chose the competing rigs that were submitted by readers after the call went out in the August and September ’93 issues of Four Wheeler. Rumor has it that the event was fashioned after a car competition of the time, but with an off-road twist. TTC was unique in the early ’90s and it would be the catalyst for a number of off-road competitions. Then-staffer Jimmy Nylund was instrumental in creating the competition events and Gregory Whale “found” the Hollister Hills SVRA and recommended it as a good location to base the event.

John Stewart, the editor of Four Wheeler 20 years ago when TTC was in its infancy, is introduced to the competitors at this year’s TTCC.

Judges have been a key ingredient to the success of TTC. In the early days there was no Top Truck Extraction Team, so the judges had to recover stuck competition vehicles in addition to their many other responsibilities. This year at TTCC we had three generations of TTC head judges in attendance to help us celebrate TTC’s 20th anniversary, and they were Ned Bacon, Tim Hardy, and Toby Lavender. We’ve also had a variety of industry leaders and die-hard wheelers as part of our judging team through the years, including legendary 4x4 builder Soni Honegger and current 4-Wheel & Off-Road Editor Rick Péwé. Coincidentally, both competed in TTC as well.

So it’s in honor of TTC’s 20th anniversary that we took this quick glance in the rearview mirror at the ghosts of TTC past. Now we turn our eyes ahead and focus on TTC future. If it’s anything like TTC past, the next 20 years is going to be a wild, fun ride. We hope you’ll enter to be a part of it.

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