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Trophy Truck Technology

Posted in Features on November 2, 2013 Comment (0)
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Jesse Jones TT Bare Photo 68812275 Jesse-Jones-TT-Bare

Author: Craig Perronne Photos: Vincent Knakal (Mad Media)/Boyd Jaynes/Durka Durka Photo

The evolution of the Trophy-Truck has been a rapid one since it first debuted in desert racing. Wanting to be free of having to use a production frame (as required by the rules for the once-dominant Class 8 trucks), manufacturers and fabricators got their wish in 1994. The result was the Trophy-Truck class that had very few rules governing its construction, letting imaginations and talents run wild. Now with full-tube chassis, suspension travel, performance and speeds all increased on a huge scale.

At the beginning of the Trophy-Truck’s history, there were all kinds of desert racing exotica produced. Often, no two were alike with mostly one-off creations being built. The reason for this was simple; there was no proven “formula” yet of what worked and what didn’t. Fabricators and designers all had their own ideas of what would push them ahead of the competition and, with everyone looking for a faster racecar, there was quite a bit of variety.

After more than a decade of toil and tube-bending, a curious thing began to happen. One-off creations began to be replaced by Trophy-Trucks built by the likes of such hallowed names as Geiser Bros., Jimco, Racer Engineering, ID Designs and others. The reason for this shift was also a simple one as these trucks flat out worked and were capable of winning championships straight out of the box. No longer were the long development times of trying to work the bugs out of an exotic race machine necessary. Instead, a driver could get behind the wheel and drive knowing that his truck was on similar footing with all the others out there built by the likes of Geiser, Jimco or whoever. With the “new truck blues” now a thing of the past, a driver could simply focus on winning.

Of course the collapse of the economy played a role as well. With the prices of Trophy-Trucks on the rise, one didn’t want to make a near half-million-dollar investment only to waste months or perhaps years of frustration in development. An even worse scenario involved cutting up parts of the truck only to start all over again (and yes this did happen). Now with quality and high-end Trophy-Truck manufacturers offering a viable and extremely capable platform, fewer and fewer chose to forge their own path in construction.

Some would say that the class stagnated somewhat as the “Trophy-Truck in a box” mentality took over. While maybe a half-truth in terms of the demise of exotic machinery, the availability of ready-to-win race trucks actually helped the class expand. Some may look at those who can afford a Trophy-Truck as the uber-wealthy with unlimited resources to burn, and indeed some are, but many are not. While definitely not poor, those with more finite amounts of cash could now purchase a TT from a reputable builder with the knowledge that it would not be a giant money pit filled with additional development costs, massive re-engineering, or possibly the nightmare scenario of having to build a whole new truck because it simply didn’t work. The Trophy-Truck class didn’t come to a screeching stop in terms of development though. While some may be content to drive what others are, many have now begun to take a hard look at anything that will give them a competitive advantage over others. The chassis might be the same as other trucks, but teams are now searching to outfit them with cutting-edge componentry that will give them an edge.

Of course, builders have not been content to rest on their success either. Recognizing the need to put their trucks out front of the herd, they have not only constantly refined and upgraded their existing products, but also begun to make new and different versions available to customers. All of it is in the effort to get to the checkered flag first.

What follows is a look not only at some of the components that make a modern Trophy-Truck, but also those that drivers are looking for to give them any possible advantage. Some are readily in use now, while others are yet to be fully embraced. Let’s take a look at what drivers hope will keep them at the top of the desert racing food chain.

Is there a perfect weight for a Trophy-Truck? Jimco’s svelte TT comes in at 5,380 lbs. wet and ready to race.

The Lightweight TT

Weight is usually thought of as the sworn enemy in any form of racing. Similar to an ex-wife, it sucks the life out of a racecar by robbing it of many things. More of it means reduced acceleration and increased stopping distances. Of course, extra mass usually has negative affects on handling as well. As if this wasn’t enough, components also tend to expire quicker when dealing with additional girth.

Most racecars are built with a maniacal attention to weight reduction, but many Trophy-Trucks fly directly in the face of that idea, almost with pride. Like a fat man running across the desert, some Trophy-Trucks have even weighed in at a morbidly obese 7,000 lbs. or more. Most modern versions weigh somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,800 lbs. give or take a bit. Many racecar designers from other genres of motorsports would wonder if we have gone mad and how the hell a TT can weigh so much?

They probably don’t realize that weight does have its place in Trophy-Truck racing. Nothing can bomb through the rough like a Trophy-Truck and part of that is actually due to its extra mass. Lighter vehicles tend to deflect or skip (somewhat) over the rough while heavier TTs simply absorb it. The experience is similar to doing a trail on an uber-lightweight mountain bike and then doing that same trail on a dirt bike. Compared to the moto, the mountain bike will always feel more “active,” deflecting off bumps where the moto will blow right through them. Because of this, many builders were not exactly looking to shed some pounds.

While all that mass is great in the bumps, in the corners things quickly get ugly. Like watching an Irishman trying to walk home on St. Patrick’s Day, there is lots of body roll and stumbling as some Trophy-Trucks plod their way through a corner. Shock tuning, the proper spring rate and a rear anti-roll bar can help alleviate the problem, but mass is mass and one cannot completely tune around it.

Some have been willing to live with the compromise, but with corners found everywhere on a racecourse, others have begun to look for ways to cut down on weight. A perfect example of this is the R&D Motorsports Trophy-Truck that we featured in our special Baja 45th Anniversary issue last year. The team at Jimco used a single spare tire and a host of other tricks to take its weight down to a very svelte 5,380 lbs. full of gas and ready to race. A front anti-roll bar is also employed to make it even better in the corners. Is there a perfect weight to a Trophy-Truck that allows it both to gobble bumps and corner on rails? Undoubtedly there are a host of different answers to that question, but you can bet racers are searching for the magic number.

Jimco TT Photo 68812278 Is there a perfect weight for a Trophy-Truck? Jimco’s svelte TT comes in at 5,380 lbs. wet and ready to race.

When Nick and Larry Vanderway teamed with Curt LeDuc and crossed the finish line first (Andy McMillin won on corrected time) at the 2011 Baja 1000 on BFG’s 42, many thought they would become standard equipment but that has yet to be.

More Speeds Please

It must be crazy to be plopping down all that cash for a shiny new Trophy-Truck only to know that the transmission in it will be celebrating its 50th birthday next year. Yes, that is right, the venerable TH400 made its debut in a 1964 Cadillac, and actually predates the Baja 1000! On top of this, it is a three-speed automatic known for a big gap between first and second gears with only one additional forward gear.

The reason for its continued use is again a simplistic one, as it remains one of the few transmissions capable of living up to the abuse of off-road racing at the highest level. A Trophy-Truck bombing through the whoops creates huge torque-spike loads on a transmission and, while some boffins have tried to design something better, the venerable TH400 has been one of the few transmissions up to the task. With specialists such as GearWorks and Rancho Drivetrain Engineering extremely adept at building them and making them virtually bombproof, one would be a fool to look at other options.

With the advent of the Albins ST6-i though that line of thought might begin to change. A six-speed sequential, it features lightning fast shifts and twice the gears of the TH400. With its drop gear designs, changing the ratio of those gears rather quickly is also an option. Two possible heights for power inputs allow for engines to be mounted low in the chassis. Straight-cut, profile-ground gears are shot-peened and isotropic-polished for maximum strength and it also features inspection ports for easy inspection. Want to run a torque converter? It can do that. A clutch? It can do that as well. How about both? Sure, with the ST6-i it is no problem.

While great on paper, a transmission is worthless without real-world results. The ST6-i delivers here as well, with Robby Gordon taking a first (before being penalized) at the Best In the Desert Parker 425 this year. For those who might have thought that was a fluke, he backed it up with a win at the SCORE Baja 500. Some are already calling it a game-changer, but is it still too early to tell if the venerable TH400’s days are numbered?

Vanderway TT Photo 68812281 When Nick and Larry Vanderway teamed with Curt LeDuc and crossed the finish line first (Andy McMillin won on corrected time) at the 2011 Baja 1000 on BFG’s 42, many thought they would become standard equipment but that has yet to be.

Robby Gordon’s Trophy-Truck debuted the new six-speed sequential Albins ST6-i and was first to the checkers at both the BITD Parker 425 and the SCORE Baja 500.

Is Bigger Really Better?

Let’s face it, some Trophy-Truck drivers have pretty big egos. Okay, probably all of them do, so usually when a bigger version of something comes along, they absolutely have to have it regardless of what it is. When BFGoodrich released a 42-inch version of its Baja T/A race tire (the largest diameter race tire available), we figured it inspired massive lust among the TT ranks. Then, when Nick Vanderway went on to a second place at the 2011 Baja 1000 on that very tire, we imagined everyone would be throwing out their now “worthless” 39s.

Strangely, that never happened though, and the approach to the massive 42-inch tire among those who run BFGs seems to be a more cautious one. While the 20-inch wheel size of the 42 does allow for much bigger brakes to be used, the roughly 30-lb. increase in weight of the combination makes a brake upgrade mandatory. The bigger wheel also negates any gain in sidewall height. Of course, the benefit is a 1.5-inch increase in ground clearance, but perhaps some are wondering if already stressed components such as hubs, shocks and brakes can handle the increase in weight. Whatever the case, the 42 has yet to be widely accepted among the Trophy-Truck ranks. The overall trend for tires sizes has of course been up. Once a 35-inch tire was considered large, but is now diminutive (at least for Trophy-Trucks). So, will the 42-inch tire eventually be adopted and a few years from now 46-inch tires become the norm, or have we reached a point of diminishing returns and maximum diameter?

Robby Gordon TT1 Photo 68812284 Robby Gordon’s Trophy-Truck debuted the new six-speed sequential Albins ST6-i and was first to the checkers at both the BITD Parker 425 and the SCORE Baja 500.

MoTec’s trick PDM unit has begun to make its way into off-road racing and eliminates the need for relays, circuit breakers and fuses.

A New Way To Wire

It turns out that relays, fuses and circuit breakers are so 2012. An interesting new bit of technology that we have begun to see creep into some Trophy-Trucks and other high-end race machinery is MoTec’s Power Distribution Module (PDM). The trick unit completely replaces conventional fuses, relays and circuit breakers. Major benefits include not only simplifying wiring, but also reducing weight and increasing reliability. Managed by MoTec’s PDM Manager software, the compact units can be programmed to restart devices after a short, automatically switch to a reserve pump if the main pump fails and systematically shut down devices if battery voltage begins to drop. It has even been used to in the Australian V8 Supercar series to regulate the water flow in a driver’s cool suit.

In addition to electronically switching power, the PDM also provides full diagnostic information including the output currents and error statuses of anything electronic on the vehicle. All of this capability is housed in a compact, rugged housing with waterproof connectors making them perfect for use in the brutal off-road racing environment. While it is a technology that is just starting to trickle into off-road racing, we expect to see more PDM-equipped TTs.

MoTec PDM Unit Photo 68812287 MoTec’s trick PDM unit has begun to make its way into off-road racing and eliminates the need for relays, circuit breakers and fuses.

King’s heavily finned reservoirs are visible on the latest ID Designs Trophy Truck and are said to reduce shock oil temperatures up to 100 degrees.

Bigger and Better Shocks

It used to be that a lot of the top Trophy-Truck teams made their own shocks since there weren’t any off-the-shelf components that met their needs. Now with dedicated companies such a Fox Racing Shox, Bilstein and King Shocks building excellent shocks that anyone can purchase, there really is no reason for a team to try to design and build their own. Instead, they can focus on perfecting other aspects of the truck.

In any type of motorsports, if you are not developing your product and constantly pushing it forward, then you are moving backward. Cognizant of this, both Fox and King have recently taken steps to try to reduce shock oil temperatures on their bypass shocks. If you have paid attention to any of Professor Morris’ Dirt Sports University series, then you will know that one of the basics of fluid dynamics is that as shock oil temperatures increase, its viscosity decreases. With less viscosity, the affected oil passes through the piston and valving shims easier, decreasing compression and rebound. Basically the suspension becomes softer and mushier the hotter things get, forcing Trophy-Truck drivers to slow down.

The absolute last thing any respectable Trophy-Truck wheelman wants to do is lift off the throttle, so Fox developed the External Cooling System for its shocks. Code-named and more commonly referred to as “Cactus Coolers,” the unique setup adds an additional finned billet aluminum and stainless steel heat sink. The normal motion of the shock piston as it cycles up and down pushes the fluid through a fully adjustable bypass check valve and the cooler. Even better is that as the shock works harder and goes through its stroke faster, the more fluid is pumped through the system. It is said to reduce shock temperatures by as much as 100 degrees.

King’s design is a bit simpler, but is said to be similarly effective in reducing shock oil temperatures. In lieu of an additional cooler, King employs a heavily finned remote reservoir. Basic thermodynamic science tells us that the more surface area exposed to the cooler outside air, the quicker and more effective cooling will be. By finning their otherwise round reservoir, King is able to increase its surface area massively, reducing internal oil temperatures. King also uses a large reservoir, further expanding its effectiveness.

Another way to keep oil temperatures in check is to expand upon the volume of oil inside of the shock. To accomplish this, shock manufacturers have been steadily increasing the overall diameters of their shocks. Fox’s biggest bypass shock is available in a 4.4-inch diameter, while King’s can be sourced with a 4.5-inch body. ADS Off-Road Racing Shocks recently turned some heads with its 5.25-inch body Carnegiea bypass shock, as seen on Curt LeDuc’s Trophy-Truck at the Best In The Desert Vegas To Reno Race. All of the work is in an effort to give Trophy-Truck drivers the ability to go faster without worrying about having to save their shocks.

King Shocks Photo 68812290 King’s heavily finned reservoirs are visible on the latest ID Designs Trophy Truck and are said to reduce shock oil temperatures up to 100 degrees.

BJ Baldwin was the first fully LED-light equipped Trophy-Truck to win the Baja 1000 shod with an assortment of Rigid Industries LEDs.

A Light Revolution?

When LED lights first appeared upon the scene, they were thought of as a good floodlight but lacking the distance to be used on extremely fast vehicles like Trophy-Trucks. Then manufacturers quickly went about improving their beam patterns, making better reflectors and increasing their output to make LED lights a viable alternative to HIDs. Proving that LEDs can now be a full-fledged option to HIDs, BJ Baldwin and his Rigid Industries-equipped Trophy-Truck led the charge down the Baja Peninsula to take the overall win at the 2012 Tecate SCORE Baja 1000, after the disqualification of Tavo Vildosola.

For speed-obsessed Trophy-Truck drivers, the LED light can make a lot of sense. It is smaller for less drag and better aerodynamics, along with being lighter. Their tough housings, virtually indestructible lenses and smaller lens area make them less prone to being broken while passing, nerfing or the occasional off-course excursion. Without any filament to break in them, they are also rugged. Will they completely replace the HID as the light of choice in the Trophy-Truck class? They haven’t yet, but it is a possibility.

These are just some of the current Trophy-Truck trends we know about. We have been shown other advancements more top-secret in nature, only after being threatened a slow and painful death if we revealed them. Of course, there are also the wise teams that are very good at keeping their secrets just that, and only a few select souls know about them. Whether they are known or unknown, the technology and components found in the modern Trophy-Truck will continue to evolve and change as teams keep searching for that elusive competitive advantage over others in the class.

BJ Baldwin TT Photo 68812293 BJ Baldwin was the first fully LED-light equipped Trophy-Truck to win the Baja 1000 shod with an assortment of Rigid Industries LEDs.

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