We often focus so hard on the parts that make a good 4x4 we sometimes forget about the people that drive the 4x4. After all, a 4x4 is a machine that must have a person behind the wheel and that person must have the skills to make the machine work to its full potential.
The 4x4 community is, and has been, comprised of some very talented individuals. Like you, each staffer here at Four Wheeler has members of the 4x4 community that we admire. Call 'em heroes, icons, idols, or whatever, they're people who have had a direct positive effect on our lives from a four-wheel-drive perspective.
In this story, Four Wheeler Editor John Cappa, Technical Editor Ali Mansour, and Senior Editor Ken Brubaker each share five of their "off-road heroes." We're actually in agreement in most cases, but we had to limit our choices to five and we didn't want to duplicate. What you'll find is a wide range of folks from the 4x4 community-some you may know and some you won't. What they all have in common is that they've influenced us and four-wheeling in general.
In the '80s I read about the unbelievable trail repairs Granville King had done in the pages of Off-Road and Four Wheeler. I still don't know if they were fact or fiction. Anything is possible, since Granville was originally a script writer from Hollywood. But it doesn't matter-even if it were all make believe it was that never-say-die ingenuity that stuck with me and so many other readers decades later. To this day there are very few trail failures that I can't come up with a solution for. I usually plan for the worst and have plenty of tools and spare parts when I hit the trail, partially because of this man. Of course, even my best mends don't hold a candle to some of the outlandish stories told by Granville King.
I remember reading the Nylund stories in Four Wheeler. They were real-world builds and adventures that I could easily replicate in my own backyard. These included being one of the first guys to take a fullsize Chevy Blazer over the Rubicon Trail, building an off-road rig out of a postal Jeep, and numerous Jeep and fullsize tech stories. When all of my friends had Toyota FJ40 Land Cruisers, I wanted something smaller and more capable. Jimmy Nylund was the guy that made me want to own a flatfender Jeep. He made the early Jeeps seem so simple and easy to work on and modify. Plus, there were still plenty of aftermarket parts available even though it was a 40- to 50-year-old vehicle at the time. Decades later, you can still find him wheeling the same old flatfender Jeep at many off-road events. In fact, it doesn't look much different than it did 30 or more years ago. If you meet him in person, you'll find out he is quite a bit more of an eccentric than how he reads.
Having been bit by the flatfender Jeep bug, I fell in love with the many versions of Ned Bacon's Killer Bee over the years. The version I especially liked was totally unconventional for the mid-'90s. It featured a GM 454ci big-block, an SM420 manual transmission, a tiny Spicer 18 transfer case, a spring-over lift, an eight-lug Dana 44 front axle, a 35-spline full-floater Dana 60 rear axle, and 39-inch Super Swamper TSL tires. Many years later I asked Ned how he kept the Spicer 18 alive. He said he didn't. Ned was the first head judge at Top Truck Challenge and was a successful competitor in the early rockcrawling competitions. You can still find Ned at many off-road events in the southwest either driving the snot out of a 4x4 VW Syncro Van or the latest version of the Killer Bee that looks more like a flatfender flatbed pickup, among other 4x4s.
If it has ever been broken off-road, it's very likely it has been welded back together on the trail by Pat Gremillion and one of his company's Premier Power onboard welders. Pat is by far one of the nicest, most humble guys you can meet up with on the trail. If you're busted and in a pinch he is often the first one under your rig with a welding rod in hand. In the '90s I read about him, and in the 2000s I was lucky enough to wheel with him many times. He once welded a steering box mount back together on one of my borrowed 4x4s. He used to roll around in a four-corner coil-sprung early Bronco that was later narrowed and painted his now-signature Dayglow Orange. Today you can still find Pat on the toughest trails behind the wheel of his latest creation (a Jeep), painted bright orange of course, that features a military H1-inspired independent A-arm suspension at all four corners with portal ends.
As a dedicated 4x4 magazine reader in the '90s, I often saw Rick's beat-up, turd-brown GPW show up in tech and event stories. I scoured the images looking for tech tips to use on my own Jeep. Little did I know that his vehicle was in far worse shape than anyone let on. It wasn't until years later when I saw the Jeep in person that I found out just how vandalized with repairs his Jeep was. Regardless, Rick's antics and unbelievable trail repair stories rival even those of Granville King. From eating pork burritos cooked on an oozing Buick 455 engine that barely runs at 160 degrees to welding a frame back together with batteries, there is never a dull moment with Rick around. If you wheel with him enough, you'll realize he is the worst at vehicle maintenance. If it can be fixed on the trail, why do it at home before you leave? Today you'll find him at the helm of our sister publication, Petersen's 4-Wheel & Off-Road. He rarely takes out the old beat-up flattie anymore, but you can usually find him behind the wheel of a barely running beat-up vintage Jeep.
I grew up watching, playing, and generally enjoying most everything about monster trucks. For me, Bigfoot was just about the greatest thing on the planet when I was a small child. I even used to have VHS tapes of Bob Chandler's early Bigfoot demos. While today's monster trucks may be a far cry from the primitive car crushers of old, everyone who has successfully made a career out of monster trucks has Bob Chandler to thank.
The Currie family has made a tremendous impact on the wheeling industry, but it may be John Currie that is one of the most well-known in the 4x4 world. The Johnny Joint has become the industry standard for suspension endlinks and is often slang for any given flex-joint. As an avid off-road enthusiast and competitor, John Currie has continued to look for ways to push the industry and the sport that he and his family are so immersed in. The Curries are simply a shining example of the old saying that a family who plays together, stays together.
For those new to the magazine world, David Freiburger is one of the main editors that helped transform off-road magazines like Petersen's 4-Wheel & Off Road from mall-crawler showcases to technical how-to books that featured real-world wheeling trucks. Ultimately, the shift from monster trucks and pink shock boots grabbed traction and set the stage for other magazines to follow suit. Freiburger now commands the ship at Hot Rod magazine and has managed to put new blood into our company's oldest brand.
In the world of Suzuki Samurais, I can't think of a bigger name than Tim Hardy. He didn't receive that title by building the most over-the-top 'Zuks, but rather by taking moderately, and often cleverly, built-ones and doing amazing feats. He is likely one of the smartest and most inventive problem solvers on the planet and a downright nice guy. He's been a long-time Top Truck Challenge judge and continues to be a top-notch wheelman.
As is the case with many others in this hobby, I started out riding dirt bikes. During my tenure on two wheels, Jeremy McGrath was well into his championship streak. Today, McGrath has shifted into truck racing and so far it seems that his MX background is serving him well. While some say it's easy to admire the guys at the top, I counter by saying look at how many guys at the top burn out and become bench racers on the sidelines. McGrath has made his way into our hobby, which can only bring good things.
I met Pietschmann on the Rubicon Trail. He drives with an unlit Backwoods cigar between his lips, prefers to sleep under the stars, and cooks an impeccable steak over an open fire. But it was his driving that impressed me the most. He was behind the wheel of a somewhat-modified '77 Toyota FJ40 and no obstacle was a match for his abilities. Pietschmann came to the U.S. from Germany in 1984. He's an author, photographer, Rubicon Trail guide, and Baja California guide. He has led numerous international expeditions to places like Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and the Indonesian jungle. He has instructed civil service personnel, automotive engineers, law enforcement, FBI, and U.S. Special Forces. He was also part of the dramatic Iceland Expedition '91 that we covered in the January '13 Trail's End piece.
Gary and Monica Wescott
I've always been fascinated by the places this couple has wheeled. Known as the Turtle Expedition, they have used four-wheel drive vehicles to explore some amazing places. The Wescotts seem impervious to inhospitable weather conditions, brutal terrain, and even political instability. For me, their most memorable adventure was when they drove across Russia, including Siberia, from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean. In winter. With the possibility of temperatures as low as -100 degrees F. Who does this frozen insanity if they don't absolutely have to? Clearly this was no small task and their adventure was riveting.
The first time I met Barbour I was instantly impressed by his off-road, and overall, confidence. This Scotland native has a long history in the off-road world. He was shortlisted three times for the Camel Trophy British team and he spent five years as the Camel Trophy Special Events organizer. He has organized and led more than 40 events and expeditions to every corner of the globe including Zambia, Botswana, Argentina, Cyprus, Japan, Thailand, Italy, Turkey, and more. He is also the brains behind the BATT (Barbour All Terrain Tracking) vehicle, which is used for on- and off-road camera tracking in the film industry. His movie credits include Braveheart, The English Patient, and The Mummy.
The man, the myth, the legend. Perry, the owner of Clemson 4Wheel Center in Clemson, South Carolina, can most often be found on the trail. I've wheeled with Perry in numerous places over the last 20 years, but most often he can be found in the high country of Colorado exploring some old mining road. Often accompanied by family, he's always behind the wheel of a Jeep product that he has Perryized. When there's a breakdown on the trail he's often the first guy to break out the tools to help, offering his time and knowledge to fix the problem without a second thought. He's a soft-spoken man with a southern-drawl, positive attitude, and deep technical knowledge. He's a pretty good driver, too.
I met Runte back in the '80s when he worked at a service station in his hometown of Freeport, Illinois. I limped my K5 Blazer in with a spike in one of my new 36-inch mud tires (which were fairly large for the time). A couple of years later Runte went to work for Bigfoot 4x4, and that's where he still is after 24 years. During that time he has earned 10 championships, he holds the current record for the longest monster truck long jump, and the fastest speed in a monster truck. He's an incredibly talented driver and his body is apparently strong enough to hold up to 24 years of the physical abuse inherent to piloting a monster truck. This ex-farm boy is also an ace in every technical aspect of 4x4 monster trucks from mega-functional long-travel suspensions to heavy-duty axles to high horsepower blower motors.
Who Is Your Off-road Hero?
Chances are there is someone who has had a direct influence on your off-road life, driving style, general outlook, or aspirations. Maybe you've wheeled with that person or maybe you've just heard or read about them. It could be a major player in the off-road world or your Uncle Joe who taught you everything you know about off-road travel.
Whoever it is, drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us who it is and why they're your hero.