Legendary action, a bit of drama ... and a few surprises.
We're not sure who's crazier- us smart-alecks here at Four Wheeler for devising the grueling Top Truck Challenge or the ten competitors who actually show up with their 4x4 rigs to compete in ninety-two hours of insanity in some of the worst terrain imaginable. Actually, the casual observer would probably say we're all nuts, but what do they know?
For those of you who are new to Four Wheeler Magazine, here's a quick history lesson: Top Truck Challenge was devised in 1993 as a test of "engineering smarts and driver acumen." It has been held annually in the Hollister Hills SVRA outside of Hollister, California, and has dutifully evolved to mirror the changes in off-highway technology. Quite simply, the event places competitors and their trucks in a number of challenges that revolve around treacherous off-highway terrain. Top Truck Challenge is a magnet for the best four-wheel-drive rigs on Mother Earth, and has not only become known as one of the major tests of man and machine, but has also become the envy of other four-wheeling magazines. Top Truck's rugged regimen is more than just 'wheeling however. To do well in this event, a competitor must not only use their right foot, but also the right side of their brain. Over the years some legendary drivers have competed at Top Truck Challenge. Conversely, Top Truck has created legendary drivers. For a detailed and fascinating overview of past Top Truck Challenges see the story "13 Years of (Super) Bad Trucks" in the October 2005 issue of Four Wheeler. Oh, and most intriguing of all, Top Truck Challenge competitors are chosen by Four Wheeler readers.
We believe that it's okay to fix something that isn't broke. With that said, we overhauled the entire schedule of events at this year's Top Truck Challenge. We streamlined the event by retiring the acceleration, braking, mechanical and ride and drive portions of the event, which gave us more time in the dirt. We also added a surprise event, which caught a few competitors off-guard.
Enjoy our exclusive coverage of Top Truck Challenge 2005!
We began the first day of competition with a brand-new event, the Trail Fix. A collective groan went up from the competitors when head judge Tim Hardy gleefully announced that teams would compete in a front driver's side axle change competition. Competitor quotes ranged from John Cappa's "I was bummed. I kept waiting for the 'just kidding', but it never happened," to Jeff Gotz' "You got a perfectly good working rig and you gotta take it apart and put it back together?" However, all groaning quickly disappeared when it was announced that the winners would each receive $500 cash courtesy of Yukon Gear. The three competitors vehicles sporting Rockwell front axles were grouped together and the remaining seven vehicles with Dana 60's and one Ford 9-inch were grouped together. When it was all said and done, Team Cappa demonstrated they're not entirely composed of hot air when they won the Rockwell portion of the challenge, thanks in part to time saved due to their pinion brake setup (the other rigs had disc brakes mounted on each wheel). Because Cappa is a Primedia employee, he donated his winnings to another team at the end of the week. Team Duffy demonstrated their prowess with a wrench and their familiarity with their rig to easily win the second group of competition.
This competition is legendary, and over the years it has largely remained unchanged. We fixed that this year by adding over one hundred feet of mind-bending misery to the start of the course. Competitors now had to endure a high-speed start, 180-degree turn, car-sized boulders and a 90-degree turn before even getting to the infamous rocks, water and truck-swallowing mud of the Frame Twister. Expectedly, some vehicles had more trouble with the Frame Twister than others. For instance, the first competitor, Tom Lawlor, amazed everyone by tiptoeing his 8,040 lb. M715 through the rocks and almost entirely through the infamous logs and mud before winching. "We're happy with that, we'll take that any day," he said after completing his run. This made us wonder if we made it hard enough. That question was answered on the next run when Josh Tippit's 1979 F-150 snapped a drag link on the first set of rocks, ending his run. The other eight competitors each attacked the Frame Twister with their own plan and created their own drama. As in previous years, the most challenging portion was the last log and mud section. Some chose the heavy-footed approach, like Team Bargmann, Duffy, Devlin and Weidhuner, which resulted in big air before winch cable was spooled out. In the end, not one competitor made it through without winching. Jerry Duffy in his CJ-8 recorded the fastest overall time at 1 minute 52 seconds, edging out Jay Albrecht in his TJ who logged 2 minutes 17 seconds. Albrecht was ecstatic with his 2nd place finish, but humble at the same time. "Today chicken, maybe tomorrow feathers," the Texan noted.
Last year, our 150-foot mud pit was way too hard, and no competitors made it more than halfway down its evil length. Guess we shouldn't have added all the dirt and water. We're slow learners, but this year we did leave the murk mostly alone, and some competitors almost made it all the way through. By this third event of day one, Frame Twister-induced breakage was starting to rear its ugly head for some of the competitors. Phil Bargmann ran the mud pit with a broken steering box on his FJ-40 that was jury-rigged onto the frame and Josh Tippit had to battle the mud with a hastily welded drag link on his F-150. Some competitors attempted to back up and punch through the mud when they started to get stuck, which turned out to be a tactical error, as they couldn't fight their way to their previous position. Thus, they actually lost overall distance. When the mud quit flying, the J-2000 and M715 dominated. John Cappa, whose plan was to "Put it in 3rd gear and go," traveled the longest distance of 125.8 feet. He edged out Tom Lawlor's M715 by only slightly more than an inch. They were followed by the monster F-150 of Jeff Gotz, whose forward velocity was impeded less than an inch behind Lawlor.
The last event of day one, our 600-foot Hill of Doom (or so we thought), stood between the competitors and a hot meal. As usual, the objective of this event was to climb the steep, loose hill as quickly as possible. This event rewards horsepower and lightning-fast reflexes. Interestingly, almost all of the competitors flew right up the hill like it wasn't there. There were a few interesting twists, however. Jeff Gotz made it to the top in his monster F-150 in a hair under 40 seconds while inadvertently showering the course with hand tools. In an about-face, the hill spanked the pair of M715's that dominated the previous competition. Cappa's smoke-belching rig couldn't muster much of anything and Lawlor's rig was suffering from some distributor issues. As the Hill Climb competition and day one drew to a close, Don Brown celebrated his first win of the week as he tiptoed up the hill in 31.21 seconds in his beautiful 1955 Willys pickup. Jerry Duffy piloted CJ-8 up the hill in 33.28 seconds to capture 2nd place.
The second full day of competition began with the full field of ten trucks. First up was the event that the Four Wheeler staff lovingly refers to as the Obstacle Curse, because every square inch is designed to create the utmost challenge. This 1/8-mile Mass of Misery is a timed event, so speed is of the essence. Josh Tippit was the first competitor, and after analyzing the twisty course he wisely decided that its tight quarters would be easier navigated if he removed the right front drive flange from his Detroit-locked Dana 60 front axle. It worked, but unforeseen carburetor flooding and some trouble ascending into the first water hole caused him to time out. Jason Weidhuner shocked judges and spectators alike when he chose to back down into the first mud hole. He figured this would speed up his overall time, but he didn't count on his electric fuel pump cutting out about halfway through the course, which bumped him to a disappointing 7th place finish. Things were much worse for Jay Albrecht however, when breakage loomed large. The upper track bar bolt suffered catastrophic failure when the front right wheel of the TJ slammed into the wall of the 2nd mud hole. The result was that the Ford 9-inch front axle shifted to the right, which bent an array of components including the shaft on the Rock Ram. After an ill-fated attempt at re-rigging the track bar, time was called. We began to see a pattern at this point in the competition. Jerry Duffy, who had already won the Frame Twister and placed 2nd in the Hill Climb, easily blew through the Obstacle Course in 2 minutes 23 seconds to snag 1st place. He was thrilled with his performance, and noted, "It went perfect. My plan was to do what I did." Don Brown took 2nd place in his Willys with a time of 2 minutes 49 seconds after an aggressive run where he turned the big 454ci engine loose. "That was a fun course. It's really tight, but I'm glad we could reverse without losing points. Without rear steer you really needed to have that reverse option," he said.
In the past, we've used dump trucks and a 920 military truck as the dead weight in our Tow Test. This time around, we bumped it up a notch and used one of San Benito Supply's 40,300 lb. cement mixers. Even though the weight came in a new form, the objective was the same - competitors had to drag the monster up an incline in an effort to get the furthest pull. This event tests horsepower, traction and durability. Surprisingly, there wasn't much breakage this year. This says a lot about the superior build quality of the competitor's vehicles. The only fatality was an outer Dana 60 stub shaft on Phil Bargmann's FJ-40. "We hopped it a few more times than we probably should have," he pointed out. After the scores were tallied we found that the top two positions belonged to 427ci-powered rigs. Tom Lawlor's M715 was the only rig to log a full pull, and he did it in 15.37 seconds. Nick Devlin and his Chevy Blazer came in 2nd with a measurement of 143 feet. Don Brown and Jerry Duffy tied for 3rd place and there had to be a tiebreaker pull-off, which Brown won.
The end of day two went out with a bang and a crunch when we hit the rocks. Our rock course is approximately 125 feet in length, and like its namesake, is packed full of boulders. In this competition, standard rock crawling rules apply and points in the form of seconds are assessed for infractions. Naturally, when it's all said and done, the lowest overall time wins. Some drivers were very vocal about their dislike of rocks and their lack of optimism of a good finish. After Oregon resident Nick Devlin DNF'd he said, "I definitely knew I wouldn't be strongest in this event." Tom Lawlor also DNF'd and his co-driver chimed in that he wasn't surprised. "We have the heaviest truck with the least amount of articulation, and we knew we wouldn't do anything in this," he said. Nonetheless, both of these teams left the course with no competition-ending damage, which left them in a good position for the Tank Trap, which is what they both wanted. Josh Tippit chose to skip this event altogether in an effort to keep his vehicle intact for the Tank Trap. Interestingly, the only vehicle that suffered obvious damage was Jeff Gotz' F-150, and it was minor transmission pan damage that caused some leakage. This came after a spectacular run that saw them complete the course in 7 minutes 35 seconds (including penalties) without either the driver or co-driver exiting the cab. They earned a 2nd place finish. Jerry Duffy continued his dominance to this point as he easily took 1st place honors with a run of 6 minutes 5 seconds (with penalties). He demonstrated a textbook run highlighted by excellent driver/spotter communication, which resulted in only two infractions.
The beauty of the Tank Trap is that it's consistent year after year. Consistently difficult, that is. This evil trail treks though the bottom of a natural gorge. It features loose dirt climbs, steep rock waterfalls, sick off-camber sections and seven deep, ridiculously murky water holes that are lovingly filled by the Hollister Hills SVRA staff. The Tank Trap is approximately 1/4-mile in length (though it seems much longer when you're driving or walking it) and according to our GPS its elevation steadily increases 195 feet from start to finish. This event is critical to Top Truck Challenge competitors because it is worth double the points of the other competitions. Do well here and you can bolster a good score or make up for bad luck in another competition. This year, over half the field failed to complete the course in the allotted 30 minutes. One of those was Tom Lawlor, who with a smile on his face said; "That was ugly. That was the ugliest thing I've ever been in." Jeff Gotz F-150 lost its entire left rear wheel and tire in Water Hole Two; Jay Albrecht's TJ shorted out the electric cooling fan switch which caused the radiator to overheat and blow the upper radiator hose forcing a time consuming trail fix; Don Brown's transmission failed just before Water Hole Six; and John Cappa lost a bunch of time partly due to a roll onto the passenger side before Water Hole Six. Even with all the carnage there were some amazing success stories, like the dramatic finish of Team Devlin, who came back from an underhood fire and winch cable-wrapped front axle to triumphantly cross the finish line with only 40 seconds left on the clock. Ultimately, Jerry Duffy set the fastest time of the day, recording a 22:33. His sense of awe was obvious. At the finish line he quickly noted; "That's a thrill of a lifetime. I don't know if you can make it any worse. It's a blast." As darkness closed in around the Hollister Hills we were forced to delay Jason Weidhuner's run until Friday morning. Sweet dreams, Jason.
Tank Trap Part Two
It's rare that we don't complete Tank Trap in one day, but that's exactly what happened this year. It used to be that we'd compete well into the wee hours of the morning if we had to, but new park rules disallow that now. Hence, we had to run Jason Weidhuner by himself on Friday morning. Talk about pressure. Weidhuner was up to the challenge though, and finished the course with minutes to spare. "I'm sure glad that the Canadians didn't show up," the last minute alternate said after hearing of his 3rd place finish in the Tank Trap. As the competitors headed to breakfast at camp, the judges went to work tallying the scores.
By The Numbers
Following is the event-by-event Top Truck Challenge scoring. We've also included a list of specialty awards as chosen by the judges and staff of Four Wheeler Magazine.
Top Truck Challenge awards points based on finishing order. The top finisher for each event gets 10 points; the 2nd place finisher gets 9 points, and so on. The exception is the Tank Trap, which awards double points.
|Frame Twister||Mud Pit ||Obstacle Course||Tank Trap ||Mini Rubicon||Tow Test ||Hill Climb ||Total Points||Finish Order|
Epilogue: Everyone's A Winner
That may be a clich, but it's true at Top Truck Challenge because we show up with a truckload of prizes that have been donated by a slew of generous sponsors (for a detailed list of these products see the story on page TK). Hey, everyone leaves with something. Even the staff and judges - we usually leave with a stellar case of poison oak.
After a killer Mansmith's Barbecue breakfast on Friday morning (one of many meals served up by these Wizards of the Smoker throughout the week), we broke silence and announced that Jerry Duffy of Twin Falls, Idaho, had earned 1st place honors at Top Truck Challenge 2005. We also recognized many of the competitors with special awards.
"Fish Out of Water" Award:
"More Fun Than the Law Allows" Award:
Long Distance Award:
Tom Lawlor, 2,896 miles
Hard Luck Award:
People's Choice Award:
Judges' Choice Award:
Driving Elegant Award:
Team Spirit Award:
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A big hug goes out from the Four Wheeler staff to the following folks for their generous dedication and assistance in this year's Top Truck Challenge:Judges Tim Hardy (Head Judge), Dan Black, Toby Lavender, Stan Prueitt, and John Stewart.Extraction technicians Rodney Hill, Jason Finstead, Chris Finstead, and John Lockwood.Jack Shelton, for the judging and recovery help as well as use of the ATV. Mansmiths' Barbecue for keeping judges and competitors well-fed with rockin' gourmet meals (as trail food goes) all week long.Sammy Schipper from San Benito Supply for providing the cement mixer for the Tow Test.A&S Metals for the equipment usage.Muffler Bob and Fulcrum Fabrication for design and construction of the winner's trophy.San Juan Rock Crawlers for general logistics assistance.All of the rangers and staff of the Hollister Hills SVRA.And of course, a very special thanks to the product sponsors of Top Truck Challenge 2005.