TJ Sport built to play
Being drug behind a motor-home is no life for a Jeep TJ. Chuck Butitta of Prescott, Arizona, thought the same thing. But he knew the ’02 Wrangler Sport he purchased from a traveling Maryland couple would be a perfect base for a trail rig he wanted. The fire-red Jeep had a very reasonable 65,000 miles on it and some 33-inch BFGs with a small lift.
In Chuck’s hands, the TJ has gone through three build stages. It first saw an upgrade to a Rubicon Express 41⁄2-inch short-arm suspension, a slip-yoke eliminator, 35-inch Goodyear MT/Rs, and some lockers. Following that was a swap to a Rubicon Express long-arm suspension, 37-inch MT/Rs, and a TeraLow 4:1 T-case kit. All the while Chuck was wheeling the rig and exploring trails in Arizona.
Today Chuck still runs the upgraded Rubicon Express components providing 51⁄2 inches of lift, and the rear suspension has been upgraded to a triangulated setup. This puts the wheelbase at 96 inches, a small stretch over stock. Rubicon Express coils are used on all four corners, with 2-inch spacers added up front to compensate for the weight of the front bumper and winch. In the rear, Chuck also relocated the upper coil buckets 3 inches rearward to correct the spring angle with the added lift. Rubicon Express monotube shocks are used all around. The 11-inch-travel front shocks are remote-reservoir units and the rears are 9-inch-travel dampers.
The Jeep still retains the factory steering box, but Chuck fabricated beefier linkages. Some 11⁄2-inch, 0.250-wall DOM tubing was used to build the tie rod and drag link setup. In lieu of tie-rod ends, Chuck used 3⁄4-inch rod ends. The pitman arm was converted to a double-shear setup, and the steering stabilizer was relocated to an axle/tie rod configuration.
A 4.0L inline six rides between the framerails. It’s stock save for the Banks air intake system that was added and is backed by a factory NV3550 five-speed transmission. The trails Chuck tackles range from dirt fire roads to challenging boulder trails in the Southwestern desert. His latest (and probably final) choice of transfer case hardware is that of a four-speed Atlas. The heavy-duty gearbox gives him low range choices of 2.73, 5.3, and 11.7 to meet all his dirt wheeling needs.
A pair of shafts by Tom Wood’s Custom Driveshafts connects the Atlas to a Dana 30 up front and a Dana 44 in the rear. Both axles have been built to better withstand the strain of the 37-inch Goodyear MT/Rs on 17x9-inch Unique steel wheels. The front axle is filled with Alloy USA chromoly shafts and an Eaton E-locker. The rear D44 was converted to disc brakes using ’95 Grand Cherokee components. It also uses Alloy USA shafts, and a Yukon Grizzly locker. Yukon 4.88 gears spin in each end and the diff covers are capped with Warn guards. Additionally, a small winch mounted under the hood tethers the front axle and allows Chuck to suck down the front end of the Jeep for those steeper waterfall climbs.
Body and Interior
Creature comforts help on the road and on the trail. To that end, Chuck installed a pair of Hunsaker bucket seats and five-point harnesses. The seats flank a Tuffy Security console, but the rear seat has been removed to make more room for cargo supplies and other trail necessities. Other interior amenities include an Alpine/Infinity stereo system and Cobra CB radio.
As he did with a number of projects on this Wrangler, Chuck fabricated a six-point rollcage. He started with the factory rear tubes and added on to fully cross brace the tubular structure. The A-pillars drop in front of the dash to keep from eating into available legroom.
Front body mods include the addition of GenRight front fenders with a 3-inch flare. Also up front is a Warn bumper that Chuck shortened 13 inches and augmented with an A to Z Fabrication winch mount and some custom tube work. It’s topped with a Ramsey E8500 winch controlled via in-cab switches should self-extraction become a necessity. There are 3-inch flares on the rear fenders as well with Fabtech corner guards and a Warn rear bumper just behind a 19-gallon aluminum fuel cell. A- to-Z rock sliders cap off the body armor collection.
Good, Bad, and What It’s For
Chuck’s TJ has morphed into the trail machine he had hoped for. It’s a well-built Jeep that looks sharp on the trail. He’s combined a mix of quality aftermarket parts with his own personal fabrication mods, and integrated them well.
While Chuck has a reliable powertrain and robust versatility in the beefy Atlas four-speed, he’s pushing his luck with the front Dana 30 on 37-inch tires. We’ve not seen his Jeep explode on the trail, but there’s only so much you can ask for from the smallish ring-and-pinion. In his hands, the Wrangler sees a good bit of trail time from hardcore rockcrawling to backcountry exploring.
However, he’s looking to step up performance yet another notch and has already acquired a pair of junkyard 1-ton GM axles and is slowly building them up with the thought of using a V-8 to drive them to turn 40-inch tires. Those mods will be accompanied with an additional 6-inch stretch to get closer to that just-over-100-inch wheelbase which seems to work so well on boulder trails in Arizona.
Vehicle: 2002 Jeep TJ Sport
Engine: 4.0L inline six
Transmission: NV3550 five-speed
Transfer Case: Four-Speed Atlas (1:1, 2.73:1, 5.3:1, 11.7:1 ratios)
Suspension: 51⁄2-inch Rubicon Express long-arm lift and shocks, triangulated rear
Axles: Dana 30 (front); Dana 44 (rear)
Wheels: 17x9 Unique black steel
Tires: 37x12.50R17 Goodyear MT/R
Built For: Running Southwestern rock trails and backcountry exploring
Why I Wrote This Feature
I’ve wheeled with Chuck on trails and always appreciate how clean a rig he has and his ability to push his rig where he wants to go. He continues to progress through a thoughtful process to construct a Wrangler that’s both reliable and capable of tackling a wide variety of wheeling scenarios. I felt our readers might see this as an inspiring TJ that they might replicate for their own trail use.