There’s an urge in all of us as off-roaders: We may have the big Jeep, the fast and nimble Toyota, or even a classic cruiser like a Meyers Manx. But the one thing we all want, deep down inside – is a vehicle we can take flight in. Not a flying car, exactly, but a soaring one, yes.
That’s why we were stoked to hear that Jump Champs, the latest off-road event here in California, was making its debut out near San Bernardino. While the location – Glen Helen Raceway – is most often associated with other motorsports like motocross and short-course trucks, this event would center mainly around two things: one was the milder time trials held on the short course, and the other was the headliner involving taking a vehicle and hucking it as far as possible, without fear or worry of the consequences. It’s the sort of madcap motoring that comes from monster trucks, but scaled down for the little guy with just a heart full of hope and a head full of bad ideas.
We went out to see what all these vehicles and their owners were capable of, and whether they had the guts and gear to prove themselves the ultimate champion. The turnout wound up being quite a bit larger than we expected, and gave us a lot to choose from to fill our list of five favorites. Here are the vehicles that made the cut.
#5 Vinny Santangelo’s 1992 Chevy Pickup
Hailing from Hemet, California, Vinny Santangelo was out giving his early ’90s Bowtie truck a good beating on the short-course track. With a father and brother who had been into off-road competition since 2009, it was only natural that Vinny check it out for himself.
Despite its age, the Chevy had the right equipment to handle the harshness of the jumps during time trials. “It has a Fabtech mid-travel kit on it, with bump stops all the way around,” said Vinny. “The engine is a stock 350 ci V8 with some aftermarket headers, and that’s about it.”
Purchased as is, the truck has been serving Vinny for a solid two months, as of May 2016. “It’s been treating me pretty well out there today,” Vinny affirmed. “It turns a little hard, but you get used to it. I have no clue what kind of time I’m going to get, but I hope it’s fast!”
#4 Austin Lessel’s 2004 Chevy Prerunner
Posted up near the Mob Armor display, this cherry red Silverado had all sorts of goodies meant to embolden the driver off of the beaten path. Its owner, metal fabricator Austin Lessel, had made the journey from Pismo Beach to this event. He was on hand to give us the scoop on his own history with off-roading.
“I started getting into off-roading about six years ago,” he said. “I’d seen videos and I started cutting open my Duramax. I sold it, and this truck here was purchased recently from a guy up north. It was fully built and ready to have some fun.”
The rearend was made by Tubeworks in Riverside, California, with a four-linked back half and Fox external reservoir shocks and King bump stops. Mazzulla Offroad front end suspension gave the truck plenty of shock travel, too. 37-inch BF Goodrich Baja T/A KR2s put the power to the ground, one on each corner and two more strapped to the bedcage.
#3 Brian Goetsch’s Toyota Tacoma
Brian Goetsch’s passion for off-roading began the way most of us would imagine: family loves the dirtbike lifestyle, dirtbikes move onto trucks, and the rest is history. Brian was able to make his whole life about off-roading, as evidenced by his current position at the prestigious Brenthel Industries in Anaheim, California. The shop builds some of the most capable desert racing and prerunning vehicles on the market.
For his part in Jump Champs, however, Brian was rocking a 1999 Toyota Tacoma that he had owned since high school. “Everything that’s been done to it was done by me,” he said. “It was all hand-built, all the suspension and roll cage and everything, and that was started back in 2010.”
Brian still rolls with the stock motor and transmission, but the front end is a custom job with one-off A-arms, spindles, and other components. The rearend was yanked from a T100 and made to be a “Lincoln Locker” while the suspension is three-linked for better off-road performance than stock. In the way of future modifications, Brian is looking at “supercharging it, and then putting in a Currie 9-inch rearend in. I have it, I just haven’t done it yet.”
#2 Gabe Homolya’s Ford Bronco
Coming out of Redlands, California, Gabe Homolya was making waves at Jump Champs with his black Ford Bronco. The man got involved in off-road competitions through a friend several years ago, and then had to make his own way after the friend went through a divorce. There at the first-ever Jump Champs, Gabe commented, “I think it’s awesome, it’s been a great event. The track is tight. I’m loving it so far.”
Homolya’s Bronco was prepped for the time trials, and had 4.5 inches of lift in the front and long-travel suspension installed up front, with regular leaf springs prepped for long travel in the rear. “It’s got a Currie 9-inch rearend, 4.56:1 gear ratio front and rear, and the motor is basically stock,” said Gabe. “The motor is next on my list. I’m thinking of doing a 408 stroker V8, that’s what everyone seems to like.”
Gabe was due for another go at the track just before our interview concluded. “I hope I do better than I did last time, we just did some little rearrangements, so we’ll see what happens,” he said. Unfortunately, we watched as the Bronco had to limp away after its steering pump broke, but we were still glad to see this big, bad, black Ford make a showing at Jump Champs.
#1 David Franks’ Toyota Pickup
“Since I was 10 years old and watching Ivan Stewart, I’ve been into trucks and off-road racing,” said David Franks, there at the event behind the wheel of his 1992 Toyota Pickup. David was undeniably a fan of Toyota, as evidenced not just by the truck and massive flag hoisted skyward, but also by what was burbling under the hood: a 4.7-liter V8, also made by Toyota, and never offered in an early ’90s trucks such as this one.
David’s appreciation for Ivan Stewart led him to follow a Toyota life, following a mechanical trade in community college and working in dealerships for 15 years. Throughout it all, the pickup stayed with David, whether it was actively taking him places or simply sitting in the backyard, awaiting its transformation.
He finally got the nerve to make it into a high-performance machine and took six years to get it ready. “The electrical kicked my butt during the build,” he said. “Toyota’s so tight with the information and letting it out on the web. I used a stock wiring harness and getting everything to run right was just a huge pain, but I eventually got it to work.”
From his nearby home in Riverside, David had always heard of the Glen Helen Raceway, but it wasn’t until Jump Champs came along that he decided to make the journey out. “I wanted to race the vehicle and now I’m here,” he proclaimed. Speaking just before he was about to make another lap, he said, “The course feels slippery and sloppy. I think the back side with its quick turns will be the most annoying part.”
These were just a handful of the dozens of trucks, Jeeps, SUVs, and buggies that made up the off-roading heaven we experienced out at Jump Champs. We hope we can see more of this type of homegrown, dirt-slinging action in the near future, but in the meantime, what did you think was the best pick of our top five? Let us know in the comments below.