BFGoodrich asked us to do video clips and feature stories on "Our Playgrounds," places where we go when we're off the clock to have fun. I chose Southwestern Utah, including Sand Mountain OHV Area in Hurricane, Utah.
If you've read the magazine for a while, I'm sure you'll recognize Sand Mountain's red sand and rocks. It's the perfect place to do feature vehicle photo shoots. Companies from around the planet come here to film commercials. For me, Sand Mountain and the surrounding area is heaven—lots of terrain to tackle and endless opportunities to explore, all directly out the door of my house.
When the film crew arrived, we were going to Sand Mountain. As we had changed the TrailRunner JK extensively, it wasn't the same Jeep it had been. I figured I better take it out and drive it a bit to get used to it. I wasn't worried. TrailRunner had a MoTech aluminum block GM V-8, 6L80 six-speed automatic, Currie RockJock 60 front and rearends with Yukon Grizzly Lockers, and a TeraFlex long-arm suspension that had been endlessly massaged and tweaked. The JK was an almost perfect Jeep. No problem.
As I headed for the rocks through whoop-de-dos and sand dunes, I ruminated that maybe that 6L80 transmission, with its super-low 4:1 first gear, was too low. The V-8 and suspension were working well, but I couldn't seem to find the right gear and my confidence level—that had been brimming over when I opened the entrance gate—was quickly decreasing.
Once on the rocks, TrailRunner made quick work of a short tough climb and descent, where the low first gear worked fine. Using the tap shift on the steering column, I was able to manually select the gear needed. Hmmmm. Not so bad after all, but there were a couple of problems. I hadn't installed a PSC hydraulic ram assist yet, so the JK was much tougher to steer in the rocks than my old Detroit Locker–equipped Jeeps of yore. The JK Wrangler weighed a third again more than those old CJs and was putting much more weight on the front axle. The other issue I had forgotten was how BIG the JK Wrangler is. With reflexes learned decades ago in much smaller 4x4s, I have to remember that the JK is no flatfender, CJ, Samurai, or even Toyota Pickup. Constant vigilance was required to ensure the Bushwacker flat flares weren't left on the rocks.
The sand had shifted so that when the JK dropped off the slickrock, it had to immediately climb a steep dune with no approach run-in to gain momentum. I eased the Wrangler off the rocks, set up on the dune, and stepped on the go pedal. As the wheels spun, the Jeep dug into the talcum-dry sand, heading for the center of the earth. I immediately let up and somehow was able to back up on the slickrock to get another line. Gingerly dropping off the rocks into the sand to the right of my tire holes, I considered. First gear low range was too low. I could select second gear, but the 6L80 started in first before shifting to second. Oh, where was my trusty old T-18? High range had been worthless with the anemic 3.8 V-6, but maybe it was better with the new V-8. After letting the tires down to 3 psi, I gave it another try. In high range, there was plenty of power and with a roar TrailRunner topped the dune. Still, I was no longer cocky and didn't like the Jeep.
Another trip was needed. A few days later we were back out there poking around again. This time, I chose a slickrock trail that showed I didn't know how far I could push the Wrangler. Things improved over the first trip, but I went home thinking I'd forever lost my touch and still didn't like the Jeep.
The day for the photo shoot came and we headed out. For some reason, I was feeling good. TrailRunner worked great—better than almost all my past project vehicles—and the shoot went fine. Somehow, the machine's abilities and limits had entered my subconscious. I hadn't lost it after all (or, at least, I found it again) and TrailRunner is an outstanding Jeep that is much more than the sum of its parts. I finally liked the Jeep.
No matter how experienced we are, no matter how many vehicles we've driven or how difficult the trails and obstacles we usually tackle, it takes a while to learn a new project vehicle. I'd forgotten this and was discouraged the first two times TrailRunner and I went out. We have to work the bugs out of ourselves as well as our projects.
Look for the "Our Playgrounds" feature next month in 4Wheel Drive & Sport Utility Magazine.