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A Look At 15 Years of Top Truck Challenge Suspension Systems

Leaf Sprung Rear Suspension
Ken Brubaker
| Senior Editor, Four Wheeler
Posted May 1, 2012

High Tech & Homegrown

Top Truck Challenge has always been an indicator of what’s going on in the wheeling world. The uninitiated would expect that all of the vehicles in Top Truck would be sporting the latest and greatest in suspension technology, but they would be wrong. Why? Well, we wheelers tend to write our own rules. We build our suspensions based on how we wheel, our budgets, or depending on whatever parts we happen to have lying around. Sometimes we don’t get it right the first time, so often we have to try again.

Over the years Top Truck suspensions have reflected how our reader’s wheel and there have been a wide array of setups. Yes, technology has certainly affected how these suspensions have been built through the years, and many have sported the latest-and-greatest products of the time, but not everyone has jumped on the technology bandwagon. As a matter of fact, some Top Truck competitors have burned the bandwagon to the ground and created their own suspensions using thinking that is far outside the box.

To give you an idea of how varied Top Truck Challenge suspensions have been through the years, we’ve compiled information on the last 15 years of Top Truck. We’ve included what types of setups were used each year and a breakdown of what type of suspension the winning rig used. We even included some information on one unique suspension from each year.

It’s interesting to see how suspension trends have progressed through the years and which setups have stood the test of time. The take away here is that because suspensions are such an important facet of our rigs the unending pursuit of the perfect suspension system will always be on the mind of us wheelers whether its high-tech or homegrown. Hopefully this story will give you a few ideas.

1997: Leaf Springs Rule
The nitty-gritty: Of the ten competitors, seven of the rigs sported leaf spring suspension setups. Of those, four of the rigs used a single shock absorber at each wheel, but three of the rigs had more than one shock. It’s worth noting that one of the rigs used a ¾-elliptic setup with a single shock at each wheel. Two of the rigs had coil springs with single shocks and one, the winning rig, had an adjustable hydraulic setup.

Winning rig: Geby Wager’s ’86 Jeep not only won the competition, but it won with the most unusual suspension of the bunch. The Jeep’s IFS/IRS suspension began life under either a U.S. Military M561 cargo truck or M792 ambulance. It was completely customized and was identical front-to-rear so as to facilitate easy component swaps and replacement. It used a single Fox shock at each corner and a custom air/hydraulic spring setup that was in-cab adjustable for height and spring rate, as well as for maximum travel. The result was a suspension that could be adapted to each event and was even very streetable as we found in the Ride ’n Drive segment of competition.

Worth mentioning: William Shea’s Willys replica sported a ¾-elliptic suspension and it scored highest on the ramp travel index portion of competition, but it didn’t win the event and it came in Third Place overall.

1998: Air Crashes the Party
The nitty-gritty: Leaf-spring rigs fell to less than half of the field this year, and only four trucks had ’em front and rear. Of those four, two were ¾-elliptic made from modified Wrangler springs. Two of the competing rigs were fitted with coils up front and leaves in the rear (both were Broncos), two had coils all the way around, and two had air suspensions. It’s also worth noting that three of the rigs had dual shocks to some degree and two of the rigs had remote-reservoir shocks.

Winning rig: Heath Biggs’ Scorpion MK1 won the event and it did it on one of the most unusual suspensions we had seen to date. As a matter of fact, even by today’s standards it’s pretty unusual and complex. The main body section of the chassis cradled the engine, transmission, and transfer case. It was mated to front and rear pivoting sections, which in turn were linked together by an Articulation Equalization System (AES) that ran through the main body and distributed the forces equally to all wheels. The axles were welded to the pivoting sections and one of the benefits was axlewrap prevention. The suspension also included Bilstein remote-reservoir shocks and adjustable 12-inch Firestone airbags. The Scorpion was a flex monster, but interestingly it was beat out on the 30-degree RTI ramp by a CJ-5 with a leaf spring front and ¾-elliptic rear suspension.

Worth mentioning: The other air suspension-equipped rig to compete, Mike Niebuhr’s Quagmyr Chevy, featured 7-inch airbags up front with a pair of adjustable Rancho shocks at each wheel and a custom three-link, cantilever/rocker arm setup out back with 12-inch airbags and dual adjustable Rancho shocks at each wheel. Niebuhr took Third Place overall.

1999: The Year of the Elliptic Spring
The nitty-gritty: Leaf-spring suspensions continued to hold their ground with four competing rigs using them. Of the others, two used a leaf spring/¼-elliptic setup, two used coil springs, and two used a coil/leaf setup. Interestingly, there were no dual shocks or remote-reservoir shocks used on any of the rigs this year.

Winning rig: Grady McLeod’s ’48 Willys took top honors and it arguably featured the most creative suspension setup. Up front, it had Jeep Wagoneer springs mounted on top of the axles and a single Rancho shock per side, but out back it featured a custom four-link ¼-elliptic setup with airbag assist and a pair of Rancho shocks. The ¼-elliptic packs were anchored to the rear axlehousing via custom swivel mounts. The judges were very impressed by McLeod’s engineering and it helped the rig win the Engineering portion of competition.

Worth mentioning: Kevin Myers’ Toyota FJ40 sported a suspension that included ¾-elliptic leaf springs front and rear. It won the RTI portion of competition, but had to settle for an Eighth Place finish overall.

2000: Coilovers Make an Appearance
The nitty-gritty: The new millennium brought with it coilovers, and two of the rigs sported suspensions consisting of a four-link/coilover setup. One rig had a leaf-spring/¼-elliptic setup, but all the other seven competing rigs were leaf-sprung. Dual shocks and remote-reservoir shocks also made an appearance this year on two rigs.

Winning rig: Sam Patton’s winning CJ-7 sported a relatively simple leaf-spring suspension setup. It used Superlift 2.5-inch-lift springs mounted over the axle along with Currie shackles and dual Old Man Emu XTR remote-reservoir shocks up front and singles in the rear. A Sam’s Offroad traction bar helped to keep the rear axle planted. The CJ-7 took Second Place in the RTI portion of competition, earning a score of 943 on our 30-degree ramp.

Worth mentioning: The Jeep XJ of Josh Pariseau sported a front leaf-spring suspension consisting of Skyjacker spring packs and single Skyjacker shocks. The rear suspension consisted of Avalanche Engineering ¼-elliptic springs and Skyjacker shocks. The suspension was not only competent off-road, but on-road as well. Pariseau drove the rig to Top Truck from his home in Vermont.

2001: Simplicity Wins
The nitty-gritty: Air suspensions were absent again this year. Leaf springs dominated yet again with half of the field using them, but the remainder of the setups was an eclectic mix. Two rigs used a coil/leaf setup, one used a coilover/leaf setup, one used a leaf/¼-elliptic setup, and one used IFS. Only one rig had remote-reservoir shocks and only two rigs had dual shocks at one end or the other.

Winning rig: There was nothing high tech going on in regards to the suspension under Brian Waddell’s ’72 Chevy Suburban, but it worked. Up front, the rig had a pair of 8-inch-lift Skyjacker springs on Offroad Design shackles and a duo of Rancho shocks. In the rear were a pair of 6-inch-lift Skyjacker springs in conjunction with a shackle flip and a pair of Rancho shocks. The rig earned the highest RTI score on the first day and never looked back.

Worth mentioning: The ’82 Jimmy driven by Stephen Watson, sported a four-link front suspension with remote-reservoir, dual-rate coilovers and custom extended rear leaf springs with 2.5-inch King shocks. The result was a suspension with 16 inches of wheel travel.

2002: Coilover Invasion
The nitty-gritty: This year saw a major shift in the suspension systems of the competing vehicles. With only three rigs sporting leaf-spring suspensions, they were no longer the majority. Coilovers were attached to 40 percent of the rigs. Two rigs had coil-spring suspensions and one had a coilover/coil suspension. One rig had dual shocks and reservoir shocks were beginning to become more commonplace.

Winning rig: John Reynolds dominated the event in his tube-frame ’73 Ford Bronco. The suspension consisted of a front and rear reverse four-link system with 14-inch-travel King coilover shocks. A rear Currie Antirock sway bar was located in the aft end. Interestingly, the rig didn’t wow anyone during the RTI portion of competition earning a Seventh Place finish. The suspension had no recorded failures during Top Truck.

Worth mentioning: One of the rigs rolling on a custom all-coil spring suspension was the ’86 Toyota pickup belonging to Jesse Haines and it earned an impressive 900 points on our 30-degree RTI ramp. It used a four-link setup both front and rear with Ford Bronco coils in the front and Grand Cherokee coils in the rear. A single Rancho shock was bolted at each corner.

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