Michigan Long-Travel Ranger Goes Big At DirtFest

If you haven’t had enough of inspirational stories about how ordinary people do incredible things, then this one’s for you. Over the years, we’ve met some pretty awesome people that have built some pretty extraordinary things. Josh DeGraaf and his long-travel Ranger definitely make the list. This automotive painter has taken his dream of a long-travel truck and turned it into a performer.

Josh DeGraaf with his long-travel Ford Ranger at MidWest DirtFest.

While some readers may look at this build by Josh and feel like it is unobtainable, we would disagree. There is nothing that Josh has done here that is impossible. Instead, a solid work ethic and some good people that are willing to help can get the job done. Now, all of that is not to say that this kind of project isn’t quite ambitious. In fact, here in the midwest, this kind of build is pretty rare.

An Unusual Project

The Midwestern states of the U.S. have some great wheeling. However, open areas for lots of high-speed jumps are not really common. In fact, if you are from Michigan this kind of project is unusual to say the least. Even 5-10 years ago, long-travel suspensions and bypass shock setups were just not something that people in the Midwestern United States had much interest in. Being from Ohio, I can tell you that we simply don’t have a lot of places where you can really open up and run that kind of machine.

Fast-forward to today, and these types of rigs are becoming more commonplace. As places like the Silver Lake Sand Dunes become more popular, it makes more sense to build a ride you can send off-road. This shift has also spawned a boom in the aftermarket as both fabricators and shops are popping up to meet the needs of customers that have specific project requirements.

In addition to more off-road recreation shops, the Michigan off-roading scene as a whole continues to grow. Amazing geography and an off-road-recreation-friendly political climate are just a couple of the factors contributing to the growth. Also of particular note are the creation and annual holding of events like the Silver Lake Sand Dunes Prerunner Invasion and the Midwest DirtFest.

MidWest DirtFest is a great place to get dirty and show off what this Ranger is capable of.

In fact, the Midwest DirtFest is where we found Josh and his bad-to-the-bone Ford Ranger. Josh was gracious enough to take time out from sending it on the track to tell us about his ride. It has quite a history. This is not something that Josh had unlimited funds to have a large shop build up for him. Instead, he prioritized his truck and spent more than six years of his time to make the machine you see here.

The Build

Choosing the correct starting platform is vital when building a prerunner-style truck, and Josh knew just what he wanted. “It originally started out as a 1997 Ford Ranger,” he explained. “The truck had an extended cab and the four-liter motor with a manual transmission. There also was the beam suspension, as it is a ’97. That is what I was looking for, because it had the best factory stuff you could get for starting a prerunner build.”

The Ranger went through three different build phases. In the first phase, Josh built a light duty bed cage and got the ride height increased in the front. From there, a front beam kit From Lenger Racing was installed. Josh and Ryan Lenger just happened to be friends at the time. This was the perfect opportunity for Ryan and Josh to design the kit and then head west after the install.

Phase Two

The trip out west took a toll on the build. Once the trip was concluded, it was time to take it to the next level. The front beam kit had sustained some damage during the trip, so that was the first thing to get attention. After the repairs were complete, it was time to go with fiberglass.

The original bedsides and other sheet metal were replaced in lieu of a complete Fiberwerx one-piece front end. In the rear, matching race series bedsides also from Fiberwerx got the nod. New Deaver leaf springs and King bypass shocks were also installed.

This impressive prerunner build started life as a stock 1997 Ford Ranger.

“At that point, I ran the Ranger around for a while and I kept breaking transmissions,” Josh said. “It’s a common problem when you start pushing these things on the factory engine and manual transmission. The original driveshafts also were getting spit out. So basically, I just got sick of all of the mechanical failures all the time.”

Phase Three

“About that same time, I met my friend Neil Griffen of Griffen Fabworks,” Josh explained. “We started hanging out and eventually we started building the truck over in his garage. At that point, I chopped the back half off of it. I fixed the mechanical issues by four-linking it. I kept the front beam suspension the same, but added coilovers with King bypass shocks.”

Raceline beadlocks and a new paint job were also completed at this time. Corbeau race seats with PRP harnesses were added. A complete cage from front to rear was installed. Josh used tin to panel in the whole rear of the truck and the result is pretty sweet looking.

Josh chose to upgrade his Ranger's tires and added Raceline beadlocks as well.

The Aftermath

“The whole truck I have built myself. I’ve had some help from friends here and there with some basic stuff, but that’s about it,” Josh admitted. “That took me six and half years to do. It was completed last year right before the Midwest DirtFest.”

Josh spent over six years building the truck before running it last year at DirtFest.

“So far, it has been everything that I had ever hoped for,” Josh added. “It’s really dependable and fun. I can push it to what I like to do and have had very few issues. It’s really been everything that I was hoping to build.”

But Why?

Josh started out off-road with dirt bikes. Like many of us, he started getting hurt riding and then a friend, Bill Fryling, built an off-road race truck. That kind of introduced him to the hobby. However, it wasn’t until he started getting in trouble on the street with his Nissan 240sx that Josh decided to make a change.

“I started riding around with Bill in his race truck,” Josh described. “From there, I decided, ‘Yup, I’m getting a Ranger and building it.’ Overall, the look and appearance of prerunner trucks has always been badass to me. Plus I just really wanted that adrenaline like I used to get from dirt bikes. There’s nothing that compares to flying a truck through the air like we’re doing out here!”

We’re inclined to agree. After all, how many times do you get the chance to see thousands of pounds of carefully constructed machinery get sent flying through the air?

Corbeau race seats with PRP harnesses were added to the Ranger's cabin.

What’s Next

Now that the truck has been through three stages of building, Josh is hoping to have the chance to just enjoy it for a while. “It’s always a lot more fun to drive it then to work on it,” Josh laughed. Eventually, the plan is to redo the front beam suspension system. At the same time, Josh plans to do a larger hub and brake setup. This will also allow him to go with a larger wheel bolt pattern.

The current 31-spline rearend will soon be swapped out for a 40-spline rear axle. The current axle is a full floater and has held up well to the abuse. As a result, Josh doesn’t plan to do any upgrades in the immediate future unless something fails.

No One Does It Alone

My wife Jessica has always been an amazing team player and supported my hobbies and passions.,” Josh said. “Without her, there is no way that this truck would be what it is today. She is always going to be more important than this truck, so I’m just really thankful and proud. We are going to be getting a dog in about a month so that may change things a bit. I am 30, so I guess a little bit of hold down isn’t a bad thing, right?”

Having the individual drive and passion to pursue your dreams is always a great thing. It’s even better when you have someone to share those dreams with. It also goes to a whole new level when you have people in your life that are willing to share the knowledge and skills to help you get there. Josh has had all of those things. It was a pleasure to meet him and watch him share his dream with all of the attendees at the 2019 Midwest DirtFest.

About the author

Christie Materni

As a photographer, and self-proclaimed "magic maker" for over 12 years, Christie loves to create anything from amazing images to great chocolate chip cookies. Traveling the country with her camera, husband, and sometimes a dog, in search of fast cars and tough trucks is her favorite way to spend the day.
Read My Articles

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