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Red Rock Rider - Gary Shaffer's Custom 1997 TJ

This Custom stretched-wheelbase ’97 TJ hides lots of goodies beneath its Viper Red skin

Stuart A. BourdonPhotographer, Writer

People build Jeeps for a variety of reasons and purposes. Some are mall crawlers (ugh) and some are overlanders (good), while still others are built for the trail (really good). When we met Gary and Karen Shaffer and began really checking out their ’97 TJ Wrangler, we knew we had stumbled across something special. Don’t get us wrong, we love overlanding rigs and frankly don’t see enough of them out there, but a rig like the Shaffer’s Jeep that’s built for trail use—and having a good time while doing it—is right up our alley. Gary began custom crafting his TJ from almost the moment he acquired it. The retired industrial arts (auto/metal/CAD) teacher had the skills and the gumption, and it clearly shows in his 4x4 nicknamed RokRide.


The ’97 TJ retains the venerable 4.0L I-6 engine, and primarily for reliability reasons, its guts have been left stock. Considering it has more than 100,000 (mostly on trails) trouble-free miles on it so far, Garry seems to have made the right choice. However, the torquey engine has not been ignored when it comes to mods. Gary bolted up a set of Banks Engineering headers and 2 1/4-inch mandrel-bent exhaust system. Air gets to the engine a little easier through a K&N filter setup. We also quickly noticed the 150-psi output York compressor-driven onboard-air system once the engine hood was lifted.

An AX-15 five-speed manual tranny is hooked up to an Advance Adapters twin-stick Atlas transfer case. The driveshafts have been upgraded with 1350 CV joints and pass the power on down to a set of 44s. But these aren’t your ordinary 44s: Up front, Gary transplanted a high-steer Currie 44 (built in 1998), so it’s sort of “vintage” compared to most we see these days. The front 44 also carries 1-ton knuckles from Parts Mike. A Dana 44 rear axle from an ’05 Rubicon was transferred underneath the TJ to beef it up. Both axles contain 4.88 ARB Air Lockers to help keep the rig moving in the direction Gary wants it to. The disc brakes on both axles are boosted with an early-model Corvette master cylinder.


Here’s where Gary got very creative. The factory ’97 TJ frame was modified to create a 101-inch wheelbase by relocating the spring mount and shock locations and notching the frame to accommodate the new upper rear outboard shock mounts. The suspension system is a hybrid of parts and pieces that quite apparently works very well. A 5-inch lift was created using a modified Nth Degree long-arm system and AEV two-stage leaf spring packs in the front and rear. Rancho 5000 shocks damp the frontend, FOX shocks control the rear.

The lower control arms were moved upward to gain more clearance, and the PSC steering box was moved forward 2 inches. This allowed Gary to run 37-inch Falken MT tires on 17x9 Raceline Monster beadlock wheels with no interference. To protect undercarriage vital organs, Nth Degree Tummy Tucker skidplates were mounted to cover the engine, tranny, and axle differentials. A GenRight 20-gallon fuel tank replaced the factory can.


The interior of Gary’s TJ is almost completely stock, with the exception of an Ultimate Sports Rock Hard rollcage to keep occupants safe just in case things get a bit tipsy, and sound/temperature insulation padding was added throughout the tub. A Cobra CB keeps Gary in touch when on the trail, and a Panasonic head unit supplies the tunes.

The factory front bumper was chopped down, a custom tube brush guard added, a Warn winch bolted into place, and a KC Hilites driving light perched on each side. The front wheelwells were cut out a bit to deal with the front axle being moved forward, and then GenRight flat fenders, a GenRight swing-out tire carrier/rear bumper, and GenRight rear corner body armor panels were added. The Viper Red single-stage polyurethane paint job that coats the TJ was all done by Gary.

Gary told us that he tried a 4 1/2-inch lift short-arm suspension system years ago when he began modifying the TJ but that it didn’t articulate well enough for his needs. That’s when he went with the long-arm kit. His plans for the future? Maybe get a ram for the hydro-assist steering and an axle upgrade/swap for the Jeep’s rearend. His advice? Do your homework and decide what you want to do with your Jeep, then go out and look for the right parts to accomplish that.

What It’s For

Gary and Karen are members of the Sequoia Sidewinders and the FMCA 4 Wheelers, and have been wheeling for 30 years. The TJ’s progression of upgrades over a period of 13 years has made it stout enough for them to hit many of the big Western trail events such as the Moab Easter Jeep Safari, Dusy/Ershim, Rubicon, Parker Splash, Hump-N-Bump, and Sierra Trek year after year.

Why I Wrote This Feature

Although the TJ’s Viper Red paint job meant it could be spotted from a mile away, the rig had an unassuming look about it when we first walked by. However, after talking to Gary and looking closer, we found much to delight in. It’s loaded with custom work, and as you can see from the photos, it’s no slacker on the trail.

Hard Facts

Vehicle: ’97 Jeep TJ Wrangler
Engine: 4.0L I-6
Transmission: AX-15 five-speed manual
Transfer Case: Advance Adapters twin-stick Atlas
Suspension: Modified 5-inch-lift long-arm kit on an altered frame to create a 101-inch wheelbase
Axles: Currie 44 in front, Dana 44 from a ’05 Rubicon in rear, 4.88 ARB Air Lockers in both
Wheels: 17x9 Raceline Monster beadlocks
Tires: 37-inch Falken MTs
Built For: Wheeling on Western states Jeep trails