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A Look At 15 Years of Top Truck Challenge Suspension Systems

Posted in How To: Suspension Brakes on May 1, 2012
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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.

2003: Leaf Spring Invasion
The nitty-gritty: Ninety percent of the competing rigs in this year’s event had leaf springs on at least one end. Interestingly, only two vehicles had dual shocks. The one rig that didn’t have leaves was fitted with a custom coil/air setup.

Winning rig: Like Waddell in ’01, Toby Harrell came to TTC and won it in a fullsize rig with a leaf spring suspension. His ’75 Blazer used 6-inch-lift leaf springs up front that were relocated forward an inch. In the rear, 63-inch-long leaf springs from a ’98 Chevy were relocated three inches rearward, and mounted with a shackle flip. This suspension was the very essence of durability and it contributed to the fact that Harrell was the only competitor to complete the Tank Trap.

Worth mentioning: One of the most unusual suspension setups was found under one of the most unusual rigs. The custom rig belonged to Terry Deleeuw and it was fitted, front and rear, with a four-link, coil spring suspension with an airbag (two ’bags in the rear) positioned in the center of the axle. Instead of a track bar, a hinged pivot was used that ran from the middle of the axle to the frame. The suspension worked great and allowed him to annihilate the Mini Rubicon and do very well in the high-speed Obstacle Course.

2004: The Year of Dual Shocks
The nitty-gritty: Over half the field sported dual shocks at either both ends or one end. Forty percent of the rigs had leaf springs this year, but coils were on three of the rigs. One rig used a leaf/coil setup, one used air bags, and one used coilovers.

Winning rig: Brad Austin’s ’91 Jeep Wrangler had 4-inch-lift Superlift Chevy truck-application leaf springs up front with Pro Comp shocks and a custom three-link rear suspension with coil springs and dual Pro Comp shocks. The suspension never suffered any failures throughout the week of competition.

Worth mentioning: Robb Rutledge’s ’77 Toyota FJ45 had a custom suspension front and rear. Both ends were four-link, but the front used F-150 coils and the rear used Ranger coils. The result was reliable throughout competition and it also helped him gather a win in the Ride and Drive segment of the event.

2005: Leaves Rally, But Coilovers Win
The nitty-gritty: Reservoir shocks were found on two of the vehicles this year, while dual shocks were found on three rigs. Once again, leaf springs dominated competitor’s suspensions, claiming half the field. The remainder consisted of two rigs with coil springs, one rig on coilovers, one rig using a coilover/coil setup, and one using a leaf/air system.

Winning rig: Jerry Duffy’s ’81 Jeep CJ-8 featured a hodge-podge of custom and off-the-shelf parts. The front suspension was a Currie Johnny-Jointed three-link with 14-inch-travel King remote-reservoir coilover shocks and Eibach springs, a Currie Antirock sway bar, and limiting straps. The rear suspension consisted of a triangulated four-link with spherical rod ends, Alcan elliptical springs, King 14-inch-travel remote-reservoir shocks, and limiting straps.

Winning rig: Brad Austin’s ’91 Jeep Wrangler had 4-inch-lift Superlift Chevy truck-application leaf springs up front with Pro Comp shocks and a custom three-link rear suspension with coil springs and dual Pro Comp shocks. The suspension never suffered any failures throughout the week of competition.

2006: Reservoir Shocks Everywhere
The nitty-gritty: The most noteworthy thing about this year’s group is that over half of the suspensions were fitted with reservoir shocks of some variety. Coilovers were in the majority this year, fitted onto 40 percent of the rigs. Two of the rigs had leaf-spring suspensions, one had a coilover/¼-elliptic setup, one had air shocks, one had a coil/coilover setup, and one relied completely on coils.

Winning rig: Brent Burton’s ’97 Jeep TJ used a four-link system with 16-inch-travel Sway-A-Way coilovers at both ends. Limiting straps were used to make sure the suspension didn’t overextend. There were no recorded problems with the suspension during competition. The suspension was versatile, helping to carry the rig to wins in the wildly different Frame Twister, Mud Pit, and Mini Rubicon.

Worth mentioning: Sporting a tube chassis from the cab rearward, Brad Pellet’s ’02 Dodge Ram featured a custom rear suspension including a four-link setup with Tractor Supply weld-in eyelets at each link end. The upper links measured 1.75 inches in diameter and the lower links measured 2 inches in diameter. The system also included Sway-A-Way RaceRunner coilover shocks. Up front, the rig had Skyjacker coil springs, Pro Comp 3-inch spring spacers, Doetsch Tech shocks, and a four-link system using 1.75-inch-diameter upper links and 1.50-inch-diameter lower links with Tractor Supply weld-in eyelets.

2007: Hydraulic Bumpstops Come on Strong
The nitty-gritty: Only two rigs sported leaf-spring suspensions this year. Four of the rigs sported coilovers and four sported coil-spring suspensions. Interestingly, four of the rigs had reservoir shocks and only one was fitted with dual shocks. Also notable this year was that of the ten competing rigs three were fitted with then-newfangled hydraulic bumpstops.

Winning rig: Matt Thorsen’s ’00 Jeep TJ was fitted with a simple, yet high-tech suspension and even though the rig suffered a number of failures in Tank Trap, the suspension worked flawlessly. At both ends was a four-link system with dual-rate Sway-A-Way RaceRunner coilover shocks and extended hydraulic bumpstops.

Worth mentioning: Forty percent of the rigs this year had a simple coil-spring suspension. One of those was the ’89 Chevy K3500 pickup belonging to Rick Johnson. Simple, yet functional, it used a three-link arrangement front and rear with coil springs and remote-reservoir shocks. Limiting straps kept the suspension from overextending. Johnson came in last, but it was torque converter issues and not suspension issues that put him there.

2008: Suspension Chaos
The nitty-gritty: There were nine vehicles in this year’s competition and they sported an eclectic mix of suspension systems. For the first time there wasn’t any one type that held the majority. Two rigs sported a coilover suspension, two were on leaves, two were on coils, one was semi-elliptical, one had a coil/leaf arrangement, and one had air shocks. Hydraulic bumpstops were fitted onto two of the rigs and two were fitted with reservoir shocks.

Winning rigs: This year we had a tie between Jeremy Naeger and Clayton Kraatz. Both had four-link setups, but Naeger’s ’03 Avalanche buggy used 16-inch-travel King triple-rate coilovers, hydraulic bumpstops, and limiting straps.

While Kraatz’s 2006 Evolution Warthog sported 26-inch-travel Knight Stalker shocks with limiting straps. Both of these vehicles suffered damage in the Tank Trap but none of it was related to the suspension system.

2009: Invasion of the Hydraulic Bumpstop
The nitty-gritty: The big news this year was that 70 percent of the competing rigs had hydraulic bumpstops at one end or both ends of their rigs. Also noteworthy this year was that coilover-equipped rigs were in the majority again and half the field relied on them. One rig had air shocks, one had a leaf/coilover arrangement, one relied on nitro shocks, and two had coil springs.

Winning rig: One of the most unusual facets of the suspension under TTC ’09 winner David Green’s homemade tube buggy was the fact it used aluminum links for the four-link bars at each end of the rig. The uppers were made from 6061 and the lowers from 7075 and each was fitted with Evolution Engineering spherical rod ends. The suspension included a set of King 16-inch-travel remote-reservoir coilovers, limiting straps, and up front, a pair of King hydraulic bumpstops. The rig suffered no suspension failures during competition.

Worth mentioning: Similar to Pellett’s Ram in ’06, Doug Kahlstrom’s ’70 Dodge Power Wagon was modified from the cab rearward and featured a four-link rear suspension with 16-inch-travel coilovers. However, instead of fixed bumpstops, the Power Wagon had hydraulic bumpstops. Up front, the truck had a spring-over conversion with Deaver leaf springs and a single shock at each wheel. Aside from a little suspension hop in the Tow Test, the suspension performed perfectly. The truck earned Kahlstrom a Fifth Place finish overall and contributed to winning the Driving Elegant award.

2010: Leaves in the Minority
The nitty-gritty: For the first time, leaf-spring suspensions were only found under one vehicle and they were only in the rear of the rig (the front had coilovers). Speaking of coilovers, they were found under three rigs. The rest of the rigs were a fascinating study in configurations. Two of the rigs relied on air shocks, one had coil springs, two had a coilover/air shock setup, and one had a strut/coil setup.

Winning rigs: TTC had separate truck and buggy classes this year. The winning vehicle in the Truck Class was the ’75 GMC pickup truck belonging to Jason Gray. This vehicle was fitted with a triangulated four-link, FOA coilovers, and pneumatic bumpstops up front. Out back, things were a bit different with a double-triangulated four-link and FOA air shocks.

The Buggy Class-winning vehicle was the ’09 Sigma machine belonging to Mike Karwath (above). It used a triangulated four-link with 18-inch-travel Fox air shocks front and rear. Neither of these rigs suffered any suspension-related failures.

Worth mentioning: P.J Hale’s ’48 Willys pickup had a three-link at each end, but up front he used ORI struts and in the rear he used Tuff Country coil springs with Ford shocks. This suspension helped him earn a strong finish overall, but it did break a spherical rod end on one of the rear lower link bars in the Mini Rubicon.

2011: Unusual Suspensions Win It All
The nitty-gritty: The popular coilover suspension returned this year under 40 percent of the rigs. Leaf-spring suspensions reappeared under two of the rigs. One rig had struts, one relied on air shocks, one had a leaf/coil setup, and one had a leaf/air configuration. Hydraulic bumpstops were fitted onto four of the rigs.

Winning rigs: Separate truck and buggy classes returned this year. The winning vehicle in the Truck Class was the ’49 Willys owned by Steven Montpas. It used a unique suspension he called a “double-leaf.” It was a variation on the “buggy springover” suspension and used two full opposing leaf packs that are joined at the front by a shackle and at the rear by a radius arm. This was supplemented by a three-link up front with Tuff Country shocks and a four-link out back, also with Tuff Country shocks.

The custom Chevy buggy belonging to Alex Sanders won the Buggy Class and it had a unique “grader ball” front suspension. Essentially a triangulated single-link similar to a torque tube, the grader-ball utilized a trailer-style ball and mount that was sourced from a road grader and welded to a frame crossmember, and a coupler that’s welded shut so it can’t separate from the ball. The coupler attaches to the axles via a solid V-link, both ends of which are welded directly to the axletube. A pair of coil springs, a panhard bar, and 25-inch-travel homemade shocks rounded out the front suspension. Out back, the rig used leaf springs and another pair of those homemade 25-inch-travel-shocks.

Worth mentioning: The first top-finishing rig that wasn’t on coilovers belonged to Jeff Wood. His ’66 Kaiser/Jeep CJ-5 had a custom coil suspension that was nothing fancy but worked well. Up front it had a three-link system with Rancho shocks and a ’70 Wagoneer sway bar with custom end links. Out back was a four-link system with Rancho shocks. All of the link ends were fitted with polyurethane bushings. It wasn’t a flex monster, but it helped to carry him to a Fourth Place finish overall.

Worth mentioning: The ’94 Chevy S-10 of Tim Dallner had a four-link suspension fitted with Currie Johnny Joints at each end. No coilovers here though. He used ORI struts that offered 16 inches of travel. The suspension flexed its way through the Mini Rubicon to earn Dallner the win in that event and a Second Place overall finish in the Truck Class. FW

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