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Drive Like the Heroes

Posted in How To on October 1, 2001
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Contributors: Ken BrubakerMichael RuddJon Thompson
Photographers: Ken BrubakerMichael Rudd
Sometimes Brian Waddell likes low tire pressure for mud, sometimes he’ll run as much as 15 psi. It just depends on the mud’s consistency, he says. But no matter how much pressure you run, he adds, you always need lots of horsepower. Sometimes Brian Waddell likes low tire pressure for mud, sometimes he’ll run as much as 15 psi. It just depends on the mud’s consistency, he says. But no matter how much pressure you run, he adds, you always need lots of horsepower.
The key to staying unstuck and rolling in the sand, says Top Truck Challenge chief judge Ned Bacon, is “Momentum, momentum, momentum. As long as you keep the vehicle on top of the sand, you keep it humming along.” The key to staying unstuck and rolling in the sand, says Top Truck Challenge chief judge Ned Bacon, is “Momentum, momentum, momentum. As long as you keep the vehicle on top of the sand, you keep it humming along.”
Eric O’Sullivan says he hits mudholes wide open, going as fast as he can. “You want a lot of rpm,” he says, “and you want to keep your tires spinning fast.” Eric O’Sullivan says he hits mudholes wide open, going as fast as he can. “You want a lot of rpm,” he says, “and you want to keep your tires spinning fast.”
“Be prepared to lift so that you don’t launch it when you go over the top of the dune,” cautions Ferris McCollum. “Be prepared to lift so that you don’t launch it when you go over the top of the dune,” cautions Ferris McCollum.
Effective ’wheeling in rocks comes down to experience and practice, says Stephen Watson, who advises ’wheelers to look ahead of them and remember what they see so they’ll know where to put their wheels. Effective ’wheeling in rocks comes down to experience and practice, says Stephen Watson, who advises ’wheelers to look ahead of them and remember what they see so they’ll know where to put their wheels.
According to Brian Ellis, “If you come to the East where there’s a lot of mud you see that vehicles are set up differently than in the West. They have a larger tire, they don’t worry as much about articulation.” According to Brian Ellis, “If you come to the East where there’s a lot of mud you see that vehicles are set up differently than in the West. They have a larger tire, they don’t worry as much about articulation.”
Momentum is one of the keys to success in the mud, according to Ferris McCollum. He suggests, “Try to keep all the momentum that you can, as long as it’s controllable to keep the truck going straight.” Momentum is one of the keys to success in the mud, according to Ferris McCollum. He suggests, “Try to keep all the momentum that you can, as long as it’s controllable to keep the truck going straight.”
No matter where you ’wheel, and in what, remember to tie down everything in your rig, starting with yourself. No matter where you ’wheel, and in what, remember to tie down everything in your rig, starting with yourself.

If you’re new to the sport of four-wheeling, having fun in the sport may seem as easy as buying a truck, shifting into four-wheel drive, and going for it. Once you’ve done that a few times, however, that notion is revealed as fantasy. Successful ’wheeling, where you don’t break parts, don’t get stuck, and actually reach the destination you’re aiming for with a minimum of damage, is a lot more complex than it looks. It’s so complex, in fact, that even the most experienced and successful ’wheelers, even those with years of experience, learn something almost every time they go out.

Most ’wheelers are happy to share their knowledge, and that was the case at Top Truck Challenge 2001. We sat down with all 10 challengers, with a former Top Truck Challenge champion, and with the Challenge’s chief judge—surely a group of the most qualified and experienced ’wheelers in the nation—and asked them about their techniques in mud, sand, and rocks. This is what they told us.

Jim Piatt— Sacramento, California
Jim won the very first Top Truck Challenge in 1993. He has been a judge for six years.
Mud—“Size up where you’re going to go, take a few minutes to figure out what the best routes are. Sometimes you can see where other people have gone, if maybe the sides are better. Don’t just immediately leap into the mud pit. Maybe you might see a line that looks good. Then it’s basically hammer it to keep your lugs clean, turn the wheel back and forth to find traction when you start losing it. You want to find an underwater berm or something to hook up with. You want every advantage you can get.”
Sand—“You want very low tire pressure so that you increase the tire’s footprint as much as possible to get flotation. Tire speed is a big factor. You’ve got to move a lot of sand to get through it. It’s kind of like a jet engine. The mass going out the back of a jet engine makes it go forward, and sand is a lot that way. The more sand you’re tossing out the back you’re doing more work to help move you forward. “Sometimes two-wheel drive works as well or better than four-wheel drive because having the front area undisturbed can give you a little firmer traction for the rear wheels. “The best tire pressure depends on how heavy your vehicle is, how wide your rims are. I run bead locks so I don’t have to worry. If you go real low without bead locks and you’re going to do a lot of turning, that’s what’s going to peel your tires off their rims. So if you have a turning, twisting route to [traverse], you’re going to want a little more pressure. So you might run 3 or 4 pounds on a vehicle that weighs 4,500 pounds in some instances, and other instances maybe you might want eight or nine because of the factors involved with turning.”
Rocks—“Take a good look and pick your line. Try to keep your tires on the high points if possible so that you lift the undercarriage over the rocks that you might hang up on. So stay as high on the points as possible. Pick your route so those points line up so that your wheelbase can go from one to the other. Tire pressure also is important. If you have a very aggressive tread you may want a little more pressure so that the tread will grip the rocks. If you have a less aggressive tread you want a little lower pressure so the tire conforms to rocks.”

Ned Bacon— Gardnerville, Nevada
Top Truck Challenge chief judge since the competition’s inception.
Mud—“Avoid it! I hate mud! Mud definitely requires momentum and wheel speed so that you keep the tires cleaned out. You usually need a higher gear than you think you do. Low gears generally don’t give you the wheel speed you need to keep the lugs cleaned out, or the momentum you need going in. And it’s like anything else: You need to be able to read the terrain.”
Sand—“Momentum, momentum, momentum. This doesn’t sound like finesse driving, but as long as you keep the vehicle on top of the sand, you keep it humming along. You’ve got to keep the vehicle up on top of the terrain so that you float. A lot of guys make the mistake, especially in stock vehicles with stock tires, of running them in low range. They find themselves with not enough wheel speed and too much rpm. You’ve got to find that balance. I’ve found that even with little Suzuki Sidekicks, they’ll do sand in high range at a high rpm—you’ve got to get the speed of the vehicle up so it’ll plane on the sand, get it to dance over the sand. But you’ve got to get them up there and keep them up. Try to go slow and you’ll bog the vehicle down. “If you’re forced to [go] slow, you hope you’ve got enough flotation in your tires and enough horsepower to get you going again. Pressure needs to be very low. I’ve got bead lock rims on my Jeep, so I never run over three or four pounds in just about any terrain. For an original-equipment-type tire, you can get down to 12 to 15 pounds. And still we’ve blown ’em off the rims—stuff happens in tight turning.”
Rocks—“Slow, slow, slow. It’s a mechanical ballet. To me, proper rockcrawling is crawling—you can’t have a low enough gear. You have to pick the line, and I don’t like relying on a spotter for the line, I like to pick my own line. You have to know your vehicle, know its throttle response, know what it does in each gear. It’s also a matter of reading the terrain in front of you and photographically imaging that in your mind for the next 20 feet, the next wheelbase length, so that by the time that your vehicle is over that, you’re already looking at the next 20 feet. And because you’re looking and thinking ahead, your vehicle is already placed where it needs to be, and you’re looking at the 20 feet beyond that, and so on. You’re reading that terrain and knowing what your vehicle can do, where its high and low points are, what its gearing is, and what its throttle response is—it’s total concentration. You’re picturing how the vehicle will be over that given obstacle. Never spin a tire; pick your line so that you won’t have to back up. It’s just slow, smooth, constant forward motion. Never break the momentum.”

Brian Ellis— Hurricane, West Virginia
2001 Top Truck Challenge Competitor
Mud—“I don’t think mud is as technical as rocks, it’s just more right-foot than anything. If you come to the East where there’s a lot of mud you see that vehicles are set up differently than in the West. They have a larger tire, they don’t worry as much about articulation as they do in rocks—people in the East have no concept of rockcrawling. We want a bigger tire for more bite in the mud and more ground clearance. And you need a coarse, open tread.”
Sand—“I can’t address that, I’ve never done much of it.”
Rocks—“We go to Tellico a lot. That seems to be a tough spot, in my opinion. I’ve done Moab, and that’s beautiful and very difficult, but you add some mud and water to the rock, as in Tellico, and it’s just very, very difficult. I believe a good spotter is worth his weight in gold. You can’t see out of the vehicle at all times, so you have to have somebody that you can trust. It seems like everybody has gone to big motors, but I think that’s more a macho thing than it is a necessity. Too much horsepower will help you break things. Rocks are just a lot more technical than mud. You have to know when to go easy, when to go hard, you have to have more coordination, you don’t want to use too much power and hurt yourself or someone else.”

Scott Ellinger— Firestone, Colorado
2001 Top Truck Challenge Competitor
Mud—“My most useful technique is generally avoiding it. Most of the ’wheeling I do tends to not involve mud. When I do find mud, I use a little momentum, a little horsepower, and I see-saw the wheel, which seems to get some bite going to get the frontend pulling a little bit more.”
Sand—“That’s all horsepower. You don’t turn too sharply or you’ll blow a tire off a rim. You air way down, and you get heavy with your right foot. My wheels are 15x8s, and I have no bead locks. I go to 4 pounds.”
Rocks—“It’s just, go slow and easy.” Bob Kelly— Ashville, North Carolina
2001 Top Truck Challenge Competitor
Mud—“Mud is all tire speed. You want fairly low pressure, but the more tire speed you have, the better you’ll do. You probably want 15-20 pounds, but not down to 10—that’s been my experience, anyway. It’s pretty simple.”
Sand—“You have to keep moving. If you stop, you can get stuck pretty easy. A lot of tire speed will just sink you down to the axle. Pressure around 15 pounds, and then just keep moving. If you stop and then throttle it hard it’s all over.”
Rocks—“The trick here is to go as slow as you can go unless you have to get on the throttle to get over the obstacle or up an embankment or whatever. Too much speed on the rocks is dangerous for drivetrain breakage.”

Mike Kasmarek— Antioch, California
2001 Top Truck Challenge Competitor
Mud—“I don’t do a lot of mud, but waterproofing is important. You don’t want to get stuff wet.”
Sand—“Definitely air down to get a good fat footprint. You need lots of horsepower, but you don’t need real low gearing.”
Rocks—“You’ve got to have lockers front and rear, that’s really important. You need gears, too. Keep a smart head. Too much horsepower is how you start breaking stuff.” Chris Moeser— Penndell, Pennsylvania
2001 Top Truck Challenge Competitor
Mud—“You need big tires and some experience. The more you do it, the better you’ll be at it. Try to climb the sides of the hole, if you can.”
Sand—“I haven’t ’wheeled in sand.”
Rocks—“That’s easy. You want low tire pressure and a good spotter.” Ferris McCollum— Kemp, Texas
2001 Top Truck Challenge Competitor
Mud—“You want a little bit of momentum and a fair amount of throttle to maintain it. If you start losing momentum, give it more throttle. If it’s deep mud, it’s full throttle to start out with. Try to keep all the momentum that you can, as long as it’s controllable to keep the truck going straight. If it’s a deep puddle, I’d hit it wide open. If it’s a slick road that I’m going to have to drive down, if the road is crowned, stay on the top and maintain a little speed. But for mudholes put the hammer down.”
Sand—“Sand is just a lot like mud but it’s not as messy to get off your truck. You go wide open up the dunes. Air pressure doesn’t seem to make that much difference in mud, but in sand you want extremely low pressure. You go up dunes at full throttle, but be prepared to lift so that you don’t launch it when you go over the top of the dune. If you lift too soon the truck will bog down dead.”
Rocks—“The key is picking a line. I have a lot of torque in my engine, and I use an automatic transmission, but I don’t have an extremely low crawler gear. I torque-brake the engine, bring the rpm up with my foot on the brake. I try to maintain that pressure on the gas, keep the rpm up, and control the speed of the truck by how hard I mash on the brake. If I need to slow down I don’t let off on the gas, I push on the brake real hard. That keeps the drivetrain loaded up under stress, keeps the truck from hopping and bouncing, and you don’t shock stuff, which is where you get broken U-joints. So I try to keep it under moderate load, regulate my speed with the brake. If you’re doing boulders, it’s just trying to pick points that your tires will reach, that you can crawl up on, without hanging up a diff, without having a rear wheel drop off in a hole. It’s just picking a line and just easin’ along.”

Brian Waddell— Vancouver, Washington
2001 Top Truck Challenge Competitor
Mud—“I like low tire pressure for mud, though it depends on the type of mud, too. If it’s marshy, I want to sit on top. But if there’s a bottom to it, I want to pump 15 pounds in to test the bottom. It all depends on the trail. Then you just use enough horsepower to get through it.”
Sand—“I usually don’t even use the frontend. I’ve got 3 pounds of air in the back tires and 5 pounds in the front. I disengage the front because I find I can climb the bowl a lot faster in two-wheel drive than in four-wheel drive by far. But I can’t pull up to the bottom of the bowl and take off in two-wheel drive because I’ll bury down when I get going. To start from the bottom you need four-wheel drive.”
Rocks—“Low tire pressure, 8 to 10 pounds. Use the front locker as needed, keep it disengaged for turning purposes. Big tires help quite a bit, and I have a doubler, so I have as much low gearing as I need. Just put it in low and crawl through ’em.” Eric O’Sullivan— Katy, Texas
2001 Top Truck Challenge Competitor
Mud—“Hit it wide open, try to keep it in a straight line. If you’re in ruts you can let the truck take you through, because you can’t really climb out. But if it’s just flat, [apply] a lot of rpm and keep your tires spinning fast. Don’t go so fast you’ll drown your motor, but you still need tire speed to get you through. I like wide tires for more flotation because I’d like to float on top of the mud.”
Sand—“Same as mud, you want a wide tire for flotation, but not as much wheel speed, because sand’s real soft and you’ll sink real fast.”
Rocks—“I don’t really have a whole lot of experience, but you want low, low gears so you can keep your tires turning very slowly.”

Robin Hood— Winchester, Tennessee
2001 Top Truck Challenge Competitor
Mud—“Back home a lot of people just go hammer down, drive it hard until it goes through. That’s about the only way you can do it. You want to float on top, get some wheel speed, [and] skim on top.”
Sand—“I’ve never been on sand.”
Rocks—“Take it real easy. Sometimes if the rocks get slick you might have to give it some gas, but take it easy, let it feel its way over rocks, let it find its own way.” Stephen Watson— Glenwood Springs, Colorado
2001 Top Truck Challenge Competitor
Mud—“Really, all you can do is stand on it and go get a good launch. Beyond that it’s light weight, wheel speed and horsepower. Look for the more solid sections, look for the edges. Sometimes the banks are more solid. Try to stay out of the ruts created by guys with bigger tires than you.”
Sand—“I rarely play in sand, but the biggest thing I notice is that traction bars in the rear help immensely. You don’t have to worry about axlewrap and therefore, about wheelhop. With traction bars, you get that under control. Past that, it’s a lot of the same rules as mud. Don’t dig yourself in. If you start to dig in, stop and back up rather than dig yourself a hole down to your framerails. Use paddle tires and lots of horsepower. With more aggressive tires, if you spin them you’ll drop, land on your framerails, and then you’re really stuck. It’s kind of the same thing in snow. You pack and back —drive forward, pack down your tracks, back up, and then go forward again.”
Rocks—“Practice makes a lot of difference, practice and experience. Just knowing your rig, knowing how to read everything as it goes by the hood—that’s just huge. There’s no substitute for that. You have to really look ahead and see everything a good 20 to 30 feet ahead of you before you get there. You have to have a good memory of that so that you can know where to place your rig’s tires. When I’m walking a trail or even when I’m driving, if I know I have to put my tire on something, sometimes I’ll pick out a rock or a tree as a visual indicator on the left side to give me a cue of where I’m at.

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