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The Best Breaks, Stucks, and Mechanical Mishaps of the FWN and TTN Staff

Our best stories from when it all went wrong.

When you get paid to go off-roading and/or play with high-performance vehicles for a living, you're gonna eventually have some cool adventures. For us, that usually means an epic stuck, break, or mechanical malady. Here are some of the Four Wheeler Network and Truck Trend Network staffers' best fubar moments.

Ken Brubaker

You'd think that with over 30 years of wheeling I'd have some insane story about an axle or transmission that exploded in my rig and spewed parts similar to when you sneeze with a mouth full of banana. Or an edge-of-your-seat stuck that required a delicate, or brute force, recovery. The reality is that my breaks have been minor (U-joints, hubs, axleshafts), and stucks haven't been too gnarly. But when I ponder things that have gone wrong when wheeling, like an off-road malady, I recall the time I tried to put my head though the windshield of a Scout. The sad part was the ER visit, noggin stitches, headache, bills, and mess inside the Scout could've been avoided if I had been wearing a seat belt. And paying attention. The story goes like this: Many years ago, the young me was wheeling in the pasture on our farm. Following an afternoon of climbing this and that, I had exited the Scout for a moment and when I climbed back in I decided to make the short jaunt back to the house and forgot to fasten my seat belt (mistake #1). I decided to take the short route back to the house on a route I didn't normally take (mistake #2). The tall grass in that route hid a creek that I apparently forgot about and at about 20 mph the Scout launched off one side of the creek bank. I can't even say I almost made it over the creek and onto the other bank because it wasn't even close. The Scout fell short and the front end augured into the creek bank. I flew forward, putting my head into the windshield, and along the way I tore my scalp open on the metal sunshade clip. Lesson I learned: Seat belts. Use 'em. The pic shown here is of that Scout a few months prior to the Creek Jump Fail.

Jason Gonderman

Now this is a fun one. I could tell stories for days of getting things buried up to their doors in sand. Most of the time, however, I've been the one dragging my friends' broken rigs back to the trailer or helping to recover them from muddy swamps. Even still, I've got stories to tell. Instead of the most gnarly breaks, here are a few of the more interesting things I've encountered with one of my off-road vehicles.

First up, a few years back I somehow thought it would be a good idea to buy a truck sight unseen off the internet. The truck in question was a rare 1985 Ford Ranger with the factory 2.3L turbodiesel engine. I somehow conned my dad into coming along for the ride, bought a couple one-way plane tickets, and we set off. Upon getting to the truck, which was in a field in central Kansas, we took a test drive, exchanged money, and hit the road. About 30 miles into what would be a nearly 2,000-mile trip, a brake caliper locked up and brought the truck to a stop. Shifting the transfer case into low-range and giving it all 85 horsepower the engine had was enough to limp off the highway but not to break the caliper loose. So, the next morning I spent a couple hours replacing both front brake calipers before continuing on. Our goal had been to stop in Oklahoma City for the night, but the delay left us staying about 30 miles outside of town instead. We awoke to news that an EF-5 tornado had ripped through Oklahoma City that night, straight up I-40. Fate is an interesting thing sometimes.

The next break doesn't quite have the wow factor of the first one, but it's quite funny, nonetheless. One weekend, many years ago, my wife and I loaded up our Ford Ranger prerunner (not the diesel truck, but I'm sure you're seeing a theme) and headed to the desert with friends. The plan was to run 200 miles of dirt to the Colorado River, stay the night, then turn back for home along the same route. About an hour into the trip we decided to charge up a sand dune in two-wheel drive, because why not. After getting stuck I went for reverse and the truck didn't move. The cable between the shifter and transmission had snapped. What would have sidelined most people didn't deter us. After a big of convincing, I had my wife hold her foot on the brake (not an easy task with bucket seats and a roll cage) while I crawled under the truck and shifted it by hand. We did this for the rest of the trip. Sometimes I'd leave the truck in gear and butt it up against a buddy's truck as a makeshift parking brake of sorts. The best were the stares I got leaving the In-N-Out parking lot, those folks didn't quite know what to think.

Last up is another highway failure, this time while driving a Jeep Wrangler JK that I owned for a few years. One early Saturday morning, my wife, daughter, and I loaded up and set off for some local trails. We made it about a mile before I could tell something was amiss, as the Jeep had a new vibration. It was very faint, so I ignored it and continued on. About 30 miles into the drive the vibration went from faint to explosive as the front driveshaft seized up, grenading the transfer case while rolling 70 mph in the fast lane. We quickly dove for the shoulder, then limped the Jeep into a Jack in the Box parking lot. We learned a couple lessons that day: Don't ignore even the faintest vibration, and service your double cardan joints more often than you think is necessary. It's been a couple years, and my daughter still talks about that day. Oh, and a RockTrac transfer case costs about $1,200 from a junkyard.

Christian Hazel

The year was 2001, and I had driven my '85 Ramcharger 800 miles from San Diego to Moab for Easter Jeep Safari. That particular year the Dodge was set up with the stock 318 and NP435 manual transmission backed by a Klune-V and NP205 T-case setup, and a pair of Dodge -ton axles with 4.10 gears. I had welded up the rear diff and was running a Lock-Rite locker in the factory front Dana 44 carrier. Even with fairly small 37x13.0-16 Boggers, I tended to bust stuff in the front Dana 44 quite frequently. In fact, I usually killed at least one U-joint on every trail outing, no doubt thanks in part to the rig's manual transmission, full interior, the tons of tools and trail spares I used to carry, and my propensity to run the tires at an absurdly low pressure.

Since I was a Petersen's 4-Wheel & Off-Road staffer, I wasn't in Moab just to play around. I needed to get from trail to trail in order to cover the event, shoot features, gather tech tips, and do the other stuff we're tasked with doing during the world's largest off-road gathering. And that's all aside from the fact that I'd also have to drive the truck home since back then that vehicle was pretty much my only means of transportation. So I really should've been taking it easy and erring on the side of caution. But you know that's not where the story goes.

The morning of our first day in town, John Cappa and I drove up Sand Flats Road to check out if anything was going on yet. Potato Salad Hill was dead, and not too many people were out and about on Hell's Revenge. Back then, you could access Dump Bump, which is now roped off on private property. I pulled the front tires of the Ramcharger up to the 6-foot-tall wall and thought to myself, "I'll just give it a bit and see what happens." That's what my brains said. However, back then I was running what I still consider to be one of the worst off-road carburetors of all time, the Carter AFB. At even a slight angle that engine would start to load and stumble unless I kept the rpms up. So instead of a smooth, gentle exploratory trip in which I idled up safely to see how the vehicle reacted, instead my foot said, "Hammer down, or you've got no chance of making it."

The Ramcharger was so ass-heavy from the rear seat, tools, tailgate, roof, glass, extra axleshafts, jack, recovery gear, and multiple 40mm ammo cans I carried stuff in that it had no chance of climbing anything. Momentum carried the front tires up to the top of the ledge, but as soon as the rears needed to start helping, the whole rig said, "I'm done with this," and slid backwards, digging the rear bumper into the ground and pitching the front tires up into space. There were a few split seconds that seemed like an eternity when I wasn't sure which way the vehicle would settle—either on its roof or crashing back into the obstacle. The whole time, I was revving the engine to keep it alive in case I got the opportunity to stab the transmission into reverse to save myself. Long story short, I was still foot-deep in the throttle when the front tires came whanging back down into the obstacle with the transmission in second gear and the NP205 in low range. It was then that I fragmented pretty much every component in my front Dana 44 with the exception of the ring and pinion.

I backed the truck up, pulled the front apart, and did a field fix right there at the base of Dump Bump. I ultimately took out both U-joints, both inner and outer axleshaft ears, spiral-fractured one of the inner axleshafts just inside the tube (thankfully where I could grab it with pliers and pull it out), blew both locking hubs, and completely grenaded the Lock-Rite locker. I didn't realize at the time how badly damaged the locker was until I got it home and pulled it apart, but to its credit, it was fused solid like a spool, so I wheeled the rest of the week on trails like Upper Helldorado and Golden Spike and Hell's Revenge, ultimately driving home with no issues. It was pretty much my best break ever.

 

KJ Jones

 

It was expensive as f#@k! While they're separate incidents, like my scariest ride, my best break experience also involved my race car and my 1995 Ford F-350 (7.3L Power Stroke/automatic transmission/two-wheel drive). One Friday back in the spring of 2004, I decided I was going to "go racing" for $100. A cheap test-and-tune night at Famoso Dragway near Bakersfield, California. The money would cover fuel for the truck, entry at the track, and something to eat. Piece of cake.

Well, things didn't work out that way. On my first pass, I felt my car start to nose over at about 1,000 feet down the track. By the time I got out of the throttle, it was too late. The engine had shut off, and when I turned off the track and tried to refire the motor, it spun over once and locked up. Jep! The engine blew on the first pass (the forensics back at the shop found eight melted pistons)!

I loaded the car into the 28-foot enclosed trailer and headed home around 10:00 p.m. Driving south from Bakersfield, "The Grapevine" has a truck-breaking grade that has to be climbed in order to get home. As I started into the hill, in the right/truck lane, everything was fine until I heard the "ka-PINK" sound of something metallic snapping, and the engine's rpm shot to 3,000-plus. I realized that despite being at wide-open throttle, the truck was not moving forward under its own power. The noise was the sound of something in the drivetrain (transmission) breaking.

Thankfully, I got the rig off the freeway and onto the shoulder, but it literally took all night for a big-rig recovery to finally come and get all of my broken equipment home. We pulled up to the house at 8:00 a.m. on Saturday morning. The tow cost me $945 (and that's with AAA knocking off $200), the truck's transmission repair was another $700, and rebuilding my Mustang's engine was another $7,500 (machine work, pistons, cylinder heads, bigger injectors, intercooler, and much more).

It was supposed to be a simple $100 race day. That didn't work out at all!

 

Jered Korfhage

Whilst slogging my '17 two-door Jeep Wrangler through the snotty roots and rocks of the Ohio backwoods, I smashed headlong into some stationary rock, embankment, tree, something—memory evades me. Regardless, I hit the object with enough oomph to put an immobilizing bend into my passenger-side lower control arm. This bound up the front driveshaft and demanded immediate attention. Beating the arm back into shape was out of the question, so we pulled it out from beneath the Jeep and employed winch power and some trees to straighten the unit. Were we gentle in using the Jeep on the trails thereafter? Absolutely not, but the arm held up to the rest of the adventure's challenges.

 

Verne Simons

Oh there are so many where do I start? There was the one time I broke a front axleshaft in my 1956 CJ-5 goofing around on a (relatively small) rock in the middle of a very easy trail. That time I rolled my 1949 Willys Truck on the first obstacle on the first day of Ultimate Adventure that was after losing a distributor drive gear in the same truck on the highway on the way to Ridgecrest, California, from Phoenix wait that's two different stories. There was also that time I flopped in Mickey's Hot Tub in Moab in a near stock TJ on 32s one of many times got stuck in Tierra Del Sol's Desert Safari, or nearly rolled. Ooh, the many, many times I got stuck in the 10,000-pound RESQ1 when I was its driver on Ultimate Adventure in the Southwest so many!

One of my first memories of being stuck off-road was when I was in high school. I was driving somewhere fairly casually with my buddy Erin Clark. We were probably headed to the stab and grab for a soda. I saw a favorite mudding spot along the way, the kind of place where teenage hoodlums who don't know any better got their parents' 4x4s stuck. That's exactly what I was and almost exactly what happened to me (technically, it was my car that I got stuck, but I was hardly independent of my folks at the time). It was a power line clearing in North Carolina, where I grew up, and I was driving my recently lifted 1985 Toyota SR5 4Runner. I'd just added a 2.5- or was it 3-inch lift kit from Skyjacker Suspensions and a set of 33x9.50R15 BFG ATs on the factory steel wheels. I figured 5 minutes in the mud would be quick and fun I was wrong.

The truck sank to the framerails, and those tall, skinny tires did nothing. Somehow ('cause I don't think we had cell phones) I called my other buddy, Nelson Caron, and talked him into going to my house, getting my mom, filling her in on what had happened, and commandeering her 1990 Toyota 4Runner to afford rescue. My mom is a very wonderful and forgiving person who allowed all this to happen, but Nelson was necessary to drive said 4Runner, 'cause I was a little bit leery that my mom, bless her heart, would apply enough throttle in her 4Runner to pull mine out of the mire. She probably wouldn't admit it, but she's a bit of a conservative driver. Needless to say about 3 or 4 hours later both 4Runners were covered in mud, but we were all out of the mud, and I had to wash two cars and eat a ton of humble pie. Thanks Nelson, thanks Mom, sorry Erin!