Every year, thousands of performance industry leaders converge on the Las Vegas Convention Center for the annual Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) event to show off their latest hardware. While most are content to take Highway 15 into town or hop on a shuttle from McCarran Airport, Tyler Francis of RSO Performance decided to take a different route.
“We built a Toyota FJ60 to drive from San Diego to the SEMA show,” Francis explains. “But instead of taking freeways, we decided to plan a route that would keep us on dirt roads using the Magellan GPS TRX7. We geared the whole thing around Magellan – we figured we would put their system to the test in order to off-road through the most civilized part of California. San Diego to Las Vegas goes through the heart of the concrete jungle, but if we could figure out a route that was mainly dirt, we thought that would be a huge success for the off-road community.”
Francis says that he also wanted to establish a trend – which he did, as multiple industry groups followed suit and also forged an off-road route to SEMA. “One we worked with, Aaron from Garage Shop, also used Magellan GPS to come from North Carolina to Vegas all on dirt,” Francis told us. But more than anything, they were in it for the adventure.
“We were on the trails for three days in a self-sustained vehicle so we can take our time and see all the sights we wanted to see – not to mention camp out and have fun,” Francis continued. “We started the trek on October 26th and pulled into Vegas on the 30th.”
The goal for RSO Performance was to provide an example that proved that enthusiasts could build a fully capable overlanding vehicle with high-performance aftermarket hardware. “We know the overland market and have been involved in the community long before we opened shop in 1999,” said Francis. “We figured this would be a great way to showcase how the products featured at SEMA worked in the real world, freshly tested on the trails.”
The team started with a 1986 Toyota Landcruiser as their canvas. The first order of business was swapping in a Chevy 350ci V8 with throttle body injection, along with a custom-built 4L60E automatic transmission from Maximum Offroad Transmissions. The FJ60’s suspension also got some tweaks with a spring over setup using the original springs, which were paired with Bilstein 5165 shocks and Energy Suspension bump stops.
“The Cruiser was my first car and I’ve been building it for six years,” Francis explained. “The paint, suspension, engine swap, fabrication, and wiring were all done here in our shop.”
Working with Magellan, Francis and the team at RSO devised a route that would get them from near border by Coyote Wells to Ocotillo Wells, then from Johnson Valley to the Mojave Desert and finally into Las Vegas.
“The original plan was to take two FJ60s, but the other one had ECU issues and wasn’t ready in time,” Francis told us. “We learned that the difference between an ’05 and a ’06 flash can dictate whether the throttle will work or not,” he joked. While that other FJ60 would end up displayed at the show, Francis, and his co-driver would be heading without a second vehicle along for the trek through the dirt. He was looking at going out by himself, which he wasn’t particularly stoked about.
Fortunately, Francis found a co-driver to ride along with him. “He was going to take his own truck, but realized it just wasn’t going to be reliable for the trip. I met Dylan, my co-driver, for the first time the day before we left – now we’re best friends, we talk to each other almost every day. Spending several days on the trails will do that to you.”
Even though Francis and his co-driver got a late start, the trip got underway without a hitch and it appeared as though it would be smooth sailing most of the way. “By the time we got out to Ocotillo Wells it was getting dark, so we set up camp for the night. We got up early the next morning and drove through the notches and riverbeds around Ocotillo Wells, testing to make sure everything was working well, and everything seemed okay. From there, we got on the 86 and headed up to Berdoo Canyon, which is the back way into Joshua Tree. There’s a lot of washed out roads and nooks and crannies up that route, so I finally got a chance to put the wagon into four-wheel drive, which was awesome because it was just eating it up.”
All seemed well – until it didn’t. “I started to hear spitting and sputtering from the engine,” Francis recalled. “I pulled over wondering what was going on. I’d had an issue with the fuel filter before, so I checked there first. After banging it on some rocks, I saw chunks of rust and dirt coming out, and I’m thinking, ‘This isn’t going to be fun.’ There were no parts stores around me to pick another one up; I knew I had got to get into Johnson Valley to pick up more fuel filters, but I had to get there with this situation. I found out later that there was a recall for these fuel tanks, which tend to rust out like crazy.”
Francis explained that he cleared out the fuel filter as best he could, which got him to the top of the hill before the fuel system choked up again. “Fortunately we’d made it to Geology Tour Road, which was a nice, mellow downhill dirt road, so I just threw it into neutral and coasted down.”
After clearing out the filter once more, Francis was able to get the FJ to a parts store in Joshua Tree, where he loaded up on fuel filters, adding a second plastic filter to the mix that he could swap out with a replacement as needed. From there, everything was seemingly back to business as usual.
“We got into King of the Hammers country,” Francis recalled. “We were making our way into Barstow when it died again after plugging up another filter. After another swap, we made our way to Afton Canyon Campground to settle in for the night. It was only five miles off Highway 15, but there was just amazing scenery out there. That was probably the coolest part of the trip – not necessary a hard drive, but really scenic.”
After heading out of the campground in the morning, Francis and his co-driver encountered their first water crossing. “The surface was up to the bumper, about three and a half feet deep, so that was fun. But not long after, the fuel system began to act up again. At this point, I was out of new filters, so I was just cleaning them, but the truck was only making it a few miles between stops,” he recalled. “We tried a few things, like a makeshift sump catch to filter the fuel, but it didn’t really work because all the sediment was stuck in the baffles inside the tank.”
Eventually, the fuel pump started to give up the ghost as well. “We cleaned the filters, but now the motor wouldn’t turn over. We checked for spark, everything else was working great – it had to be the pump. We pull the hoses off the pump, and it’s just spitting fuel,” Francis said.
After some deliberation, Dylan suggested as a last ditch effort that they try banging on the pump with a ratchet while Francis cranked the ignition. “It fired right up,” Francis said with a chuckle. “OK great, the fuel pump was working. So we put it all back together, headed about another mile or so, and the fuel pump died – this time for good.”
At this point they were in the middle of nowhere – no cell service and the closest highway or road was about twenty miles away, which is not an ideal hike through the middle of the day on foot through the desert.
“We started clicking through the race radio and eventually we got a hold of some guys who were able to get in contact with our support, who in turn got to a local sheriff and relayed our GPS coordinates from the Magellan. He came out, helped pull us off the trail and waited with us until support showed up with the fuel pump and filter. We got the new pump and filter installed, headed out, fueled up at the next gas station and hopped on the 15 all the way to Vegas. We got there at about 9:30 at night, so we’d been stuck in the desert for about seven hours that day. We were prepared, though – we had dual batteries in the wagon, and we’d packed plenty of food and water – we could have stayed out there for two or three days if we had needed to,” he pointed out.
The Road Ahead
Francis says that after taking into consideration what he learned this time around, he has something much bigger planned for next year with a bigger crew along for the ride. But despite the trials and tribulations of this year’s journey, he says it was a blast anyway. “Even though we were breaking down and I smelled like gasoline, the trails were better than the 15,” he explained. “We were still having fun. This was a car I’d been building since high school, and it was its first off road run. So with that in mind, we still consider it a success and we’re super proud of what we accomplished.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see this turn into a phenomenon with the off-road community and SEMA,” he continued. “I bet there will be 20-30 rigs at SEMA next year that show up dirty from some sort of expedition that took them to Las Vegas for the show.”
As for advice on how to prepare for a trek like this, Francis offers some words of advice. “If your car isn’t new – or even if it is – have a backup plan. Expect to break down, expect to be stranded, and plan for that situation with extra food, water, and communications methods. And bring spare parts!”