A Perfect Pair: Dennis Sletten’s Vintage Racing Jeeps

With over 50 years to draw from, the world of off-road racing has evolved in quick and tremendous ways. And yet, the motorsport has had some difficulty in keeping the legends alive and the history tangible. One man, Dennis Sletten, is on his own personal mission to rectify this, and two of his vehicles were recently rolled out for us to get a look at.

The vehicles in question were a 1968 Jeep Commando and a 1979 Jeep J-10 Honcho, and had some very intriguing stories to hear about. Dennis, himself a racer from back in the day, was able to fill us in on what made these Jeeps so incredible and worthy of cherishing.

Both of the Jeeps raced against each other back in the 1980s, and both were in the same class – Class 4, or long wheelbase four-wheel-drive.

We arranged to meet Dennis near his home turf, where we would have plenty of ground to romp around on, and possibly do some exploring. But first, we had to get the download from Dennis on his personal story.

Background

Dennis Sletten hails from a desert racing family, which originated with his uncle, Dick Dahn. “As my uncle raced, we pitted for him,” said Dennis. “He was there for a lot of the early racing hallmarks. The Riverside Grand Prix for SCORE, the Mickey Thompson off-road tracks in the stadiums, and so forth. As I got older, I started racing, and so did my brother.”

Uncle Dick also rode co-driver with his nephews as they participated in Class 11 races. Using their mostly stock Volkswagen Bugs, these boys did whatever events they could enter into. “We got to meet the big names,” said Dennis. “Walker Evans, Ivan Stewart, Bob Gordon, all of those guys.”

Dennis is keeping the history of off-road racing alive with his collection of vehicles. We were truly amazed to see these beauties in marvelous condition, and still able to get down in the dirt!

On to today, it does not escape Dennis that he has lucky stars. That he was able to not only meet individuals that shaped the motorsport, but also own and touch the vehicles that marked the milestones, is no small thing. “I never thought I would get into collecting and restoring off-road race vehicles,” he remarked.

The History of “Holy Toledo,” The 1968 Commando

The Commando traces its origins back to Brian Chuchua, an owner of an AMC Motors dealership in Long Beach. “They called him ‘Mr. Jeep,’ because he built every kind of Jeep you could imagine,” said Dennis. “Mid-engine, funny car, drag racing, off-road, he did it all. His dealership later became Don-A-Vee-owned.”

Brian built “Holy Toledo” in 1968 and raced it for several years. “It was then purchased by T&J Off Road Center in 1977, and they painted it white and called it ‘Herbie,'” said Dennis. “Then, I believe in 1978, Rock and Will Bradford purchased it from T&J and raced it until 1991.”

Dennis caught wind of it in late 2017 and together with his friend Ricky Barfield, came into ownership of it, unaware that it was the original Holy Toledo. “It wasn’t until I started sanding down the fiberglass that I realized what I had,” said Dennis. “There was yellow paint there, and then there were identifying factors in the hood. Then, recently, Brian Chuchua himself confirmed that it was his original Jeep.”

From there, Dennis made it his mission to restore the Jeep. “All I had to go off of was one color picture that I had taken out of a magazine,” he said. From September 2017 to March 2018, Dennis worked to get the Commando back to its former glory, with much of that work dedicated to sanding off the old white paint. Doing so, however, meant having to sand off many of the old-school sponsor decals; it was unfortunate, but it had to be done.

While rebuilding the Jeep, Dennis made a startling discovery. “I was pressure-washing the frame, and all of these seashells and barnacles came falling out,” he said. “I called the Bradford brothers and told them about what happened, and they said that it was from getting stuck in the beach during a race in the ’70s. The tide had come in as they were waiting for a rescue, and all of these creatures had found a new home–for the next 40 years!”

With the 2018 Mint 400 as his deadline, Dennis worked tirelessly to get the Commando ready. It wasn’t until January that he had all of his questions answered, and began in earnest tinkering on the Jeep. “I had only two months to get it ready for the Mint parade,” he said.

The 160-horsepower, 225 cubic-inch V6 is the same engine the Jeep has used since it rolled off the line. It now has an Offenhauser two-barrel carb, though, and can run on a four-barrel Holley carb when needed.

He left the drivetrain completely untouched because of this, changing only the fuel lines and fuel filter. “I didn’t even have time to change the oil!” he said. “I was worried, I’ll admit, but the guy who had kept it before me had kept it well-serviced, and the oil was clean when I first examined it.”

Powering the Commando is a 160-horsepower Dauntless 225 cubic-inch V6, which is connected to a Turbo 400 transmission with a manual valve body. The transfer case is a Quadra-Trac, one of the first to ever compete off-road. The wheels and tires are Centerline and BF Goodrich units, respectively. “We threw those on the Tuesday before the Mint 400,” commented Dennis.

The Commando is destined to be in Dennis' family for a long time. "I want my grandchildren's children to be able to take rides in this thing," he said.

As for other highlights, the Jeep runs on an Odyssey battery, the lights are stock, the steering is a Saginaw steering pump, and the shocks are Rough Country units, with stock leaf springs. “I’m still trying to learn it all,” said Dennis.

In spite of its considerable age, Dennis does plan on racing the Commando. “I have to go through the motor, transmission, and axles,” he said. “I’ll update the shocks to Fox, most likely, too.”

The Other Pea In The Pod, The J-10 Honcho “Water Boy”

The Honcho’s story begins with Dennis’ cousin, Paul Price. “Paul had a J-10 built for him back in 1980 by Ray Russell and Warren Beard,” started Dennis. “Paul had previously raced Volkswagens and Class 8 trucks.”

The Honcho, known as “Water Boy,” was later sold. Before Paul passed away, Dennis made a promise to his cousin – Dennis would either track down Water Boy and restore it, or else build a tribute vehicle to Water Boy’s specifications. The end result was the latter.

Early into owning it, Dennis' grasp on its history of this particular J-10 was murky at best, but he "just had to have it." He later discovered it belonged to Rodney Inch, and Uncle Dick had raced it for Rodney back in the 1980s.

“Through Race-DeZert, I bought a J-10 in 2007 and totally stripped it,” said Dennis. “It got around to 2016 and I made up my mind to try and get the Honcho done before the 2017 Mint 400, which I wanted to race in with the truck.”

Dennis thus ripped apart the J-10 once again. He swapped out the fleetside bed for a flareside bed, gave it new paint, new shocks, new seats, and a new fuel cell. Within three months’ time, it was prepped and ready for the Mint 400, and it did it successfully. “We ran it the way it was,” said Dennis.

“After I built it, I put it up on Race-Dezert to share with the community,” commented Dennis. “Another member messaged me to let me know that he had the genuine Water Boy, and I tried to trade him this one for his, but he wouldn’t have it.”

One major highlight of the J-10 is its Unser-built V8. “The Unsers are motorsports,” said Dennis. “They’ve done Indycar, Pikes Peak, sprint cars, the works. I used to talk with Louis when I was a kid. If I felt like it, I would rip out the engine and donate it to the Unser Racing Museum in New Mexico.”

Another one is the painting. “I had a couple of pictures, that’s it,” said Dennis. “I sanded it, I painted it, I did it all by myself. I rolled it into the shop on New Year’s 2017, and raced it the first weekend of March at the 2017 Mint 400, just as it sits now. I went to Utah to Arizona and back to California to get it all done.”

The significance of the J-10 (even if it isn't the real Water Boy) is more than he can put into words. "For me, to have my uncle drive this truck, along with me, my boys, and my seven-year-old grandson – four generations – is a wonderful thing."

There are many things that come to mind when reviewing the history of off-road racing. Tenacity, sweat, joy, spontaneity, and so many other words describe the thrills and chills of the motorsport. Unless you’ve lived through it and seen it for yourself – what it was like to build, test, and race in these machines in their heyday – the next best thing is to keep the hobby alive by seeking these vehicles out and giving them the appreciation they deserve. Dennis has done, and is doing, both; and for that, we at Off Road Xtreme tip our hats in respect.

About the author

David Chick

David Chick comes to us ready for adventure. With passions that span clean and fast Corvettes all the way to down and dirty off-road vehicles (just ask him about his dream Jurassic Park Explorer), David's eclectic tastes lend well to his multiple automotive writing passions.
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