Wrenchfest 2010

Wrenchfest in Kentucky

{This article appears in the April 2010 issue of Jeep Action magazine. Photos my Matt Gibson.}

Imagine taking a bone stock Jeep and installing a 4.5 inch lift with taller springs; replacement controls arms, longer shackles and a transfer case drop. Add a custom fabricated bumper and winch mount, front and rear lockers and trimmed fenders for clearance. Now imagine doing all that in one weekend.

That is exactly the transformation that Matt Gibson made to his Jeep in a friend’s backyard garage in Kentucky.

Matt is no stranger to organizing big events as he is the organizing force behind the Kentucky Derby Festival and Thunder Over Louisville. People who only know him from his day job often have no idea how he spends his adventure time.

Matt began by securing an appropriate work space. His friend Neal Hoover offered up a nice two bay workshop equipped with compressed air, a welder and plenty of space to work.

Next, he made the call to his friends on the Yahoo Groups XJlist for some wrenching help. This diverse group has had many off road adventures together and experience working together from many a trail repairs, but they had never done a project like this one. About a dozen members traveled from up to eight hours away to join the fun and help Matt get his rig built.

The main reason that it was possible to build a Jeep so quickly was that Matt already had all the parts he needed except for the front bumper and Winch mount installed on his old faithful XJ Red. Red however was now suffering from severe rust damage and a weakening engine. Rather than continue to patch Red, Matt elected to take over his wife’s white XJ which had just been replaced by a larger SUV.

Both Jeeps in the shop

The transformation began on Friday with the group helping Neal clear his own projects from the shop to make space for the two Jeeps. His custom J truck was moved to a safe place at a neighbor’s house for the weekend and his off road XJ took up watch in the muddy yard after being used to load the J truck on the trailer.

Once the two XJ’s were on jack stands, Evan Purser who traveled form North Carolina began work on removing the front axle as a unit. This would swap the locker, Currie steering, lift springs and control arms with just six bolts or so. So began the good plan violently executed as the control arm bolts were all very rusted. However, as another team set to pulling the front from the white Jeep Evan and his team powered out the rusty bolts and had the axle on the ground and ready for transplant before the mid evening pizza break.

Front axle dropped from red Jeep
Front axle dropped from red Jeep

Mike Strawbridge and his son Scott who drove from Tennessee began work removing the rear axle assembly. The front spring bolt was rusted solid and even cutting into the floor to access the nut did not release it. They finally had to cut the bolt to extract the spring.

On Saturday morning Adam Olukalns, also from Tennessee, began work on fabricating a new bumper and winch mount. After a few mock ups he and Brian Klotz took over the picnic table as a cutting and welding surface and began their art work.

Matt’s brother Mitch brought doughnuts and coffee for the group before he, Neal and Wayne set into wrenching on the rear axle of the white Jeep.

Matt kept the group organized with complete list of tasks to be done on a white board in the shop. He tried getting involved with the wrenching as much as possible but he was always called away for a decision on the Jeep or for other organizational duties.

The list!
The list!

The rear leaf spring bolts on the white Jeep proved just as stubborn as the red Jeep and the floor had to be cut as the nut broke loose in the unibody. Soon however, both rear axle assemblies were on the floor ready to be swapped.

At lunch break Neal took every one next door to see his project custom J Truck. The body was fresh back from the paint shop looked great as the group pushed it out into the sun shine for viewing. Matt’s wife Allison supplied plenty of chili and hot wings for the group to eat and kept the food coming the entire weekend.

One the lifted axles were in place under the white Jeep, Mike and Scott set the red jeep on the stock axle even without the benefit of bolts to hold it in place. They put some spare wheels on it and pushed it out side. This made space to move the bumper fabrication process inside.

Bumper fabrication
Bumper fabrication

Once inside, Adam began giving welding lessons as he practiced his art. Frosty, a local, welded up the rear floor that had been cut and Mike installed the transfer case drop removed from the Red Jeep.

Work Continues on the white Jeep
Work continues on the white Jeep

Having so many people working in close proximity proved the team work of this diverse group who mostly see each other once or twice a year. The only resource that became a scarcity was the 220V outlet that had to be shared between welder and the air compressor. The group quickly worked out how to let the compressor run to fill the storage tank and then swap back to the welder.

Josh Purvis began trimming the fenders for extra clearance after Scott removed the stock fender flares. The result looks better-than-factory

By late Saturday night, most of the list was checked off on the white board. Even his snorkel made the move and was hooked up to the intake.

New front bumper in place
New front bumper in place

Sunday morning, Mike and Scott loaded up the left over Red Jeep parts to be used on other XJlist member Jeeps. In the shop, final details were made to the bumper and trimmed fenders.

The steering was reconnected, seat covers installed and brakes were bled and by early afternoon, Matt was able to drive the Jeep out of the garage. Before the test drive Neal showed the group how to align the front suspension and the Jeep drove perfectly.

Ready for a test drive.

Being able to build an off road ready Jeep in one weekend was made possible by careful planning and having a great group of friends working together to make it happen. Many of the group commented that this weekend working together was one of the most fun times they have had as a group. That says a lot considering the adventures this crew has undertaken over the years. Working as a team to accomplish a goal and seeing the result drive away was very rewarding. Rewarding not only to Matt, but to all those who worked to make it happen.

We all look forward to seeing the new white Jeep on the trail soon.

Some of the folks that made it happen
Some of the folks that made it happen

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Lessons from off the road


One of the most valuable lessons I have learned from the sport of off road driving is teamwork. I have seen many examples of how people working together can accomplish so much more than people competing.

I did not see much if any teamwork in the sport of autocross racing. I guess there is a very good reason why SCCA calls their series Solo racing. It was very much a every man for himself sport. My competitors were very secretive about what tire pressures worked for them and I even heard them give false and misleading information to beginners.

Road rally taught me a little more about team work. There was the interrelationship between the driver and co driver that was critical to the success of a rally team. My navigator, Jeff Ballinger was fantastic at dong the math and complex mental gymnastics necessary to keep us on time and recover from my inevitable mistakes. We worked very well together as evidenced by the trophies in my collection.

Where the teamwork concept failed in Road rally was in the cut throat competition between teams. Often Jeff and I would win a rally on the road and then loose the rally in claims after the event. I saw many teams use complex arguments that were not beneficial to the sport just to win a single event. They caused complex rules to be written and pushed a lot of fun out of the sport for Jeff and me. I suspect the drop in participation in the sport overall may be the result of this win at all cost mentality.

RallyCross and Rally racing taught me a bit more about team work. There seemed to be more a spirit of friendly competition in the events I attended. In the service areas, competing teams shared tools and parts with one another. They swapped driving and navigation tips openly. There was still a spirit of fierce competition, but the winners really only wanted to beat the people who were running at their best. Beating a team with a broken car did not mean as much as winning when the competitor was at his best too.

The sport of off road driving has been a very different experience for me. First of all, it is not competitive. There are no points or trophies, just bragging rights for who got over the rocks. There is a group spirit that wants every one to succeed.

The first thing I observed when I met the group that I go with on the side of a trail at Windrock was the way every one pitched in to help someone fix an electrical problem with his Jeep. Every one there offered tools, advice and spare parts to assist in getting him back on the trail.

Later that day when some one rolled his Jeep, again the group worked together to quickly and safely recover his Jeep from a precarious situation. Back at camp the mood was the same as every one pitched in to make the dinner and campfire circle as pleasant as possible for every one. Including me who they had just met.

On one trail in Ky, there was no real safe way for us to enter the trail. Maybe one or two of our vehicles were capable of climbing the big rock at the entrance, but most were not. Working together we developed a plan to use straps to stabilize the vehicles on an off camber bypass. Each driver had to trust the group and his spotter to keep his truck balanced on the tricky maneuver. Thanks to excellent teamwork, everyone made it onto the trail safely and got to enjoy the trip.

Sadly not everyone who has attended these trips has been a team player. However, when a disruptive element has been introduced, the group leaders have taken action to ensure that those who do not play well with others are not invited back. Such action protects the integrity of the group and makes it more fun for every one.

While the group I normally wheel with has become very close through the years I have observed that compete strangers often work together for the good of all when off road. On one recent trip we met some people who were entering the woods at the same time as us. We banded together. As the day progressed our group grew from four trucks to six or eight as we exited the woods in the dark. We all worked together to tug, winch, spot and guide each other through the challenging conditions.

I have learned far more about teamwork and building a strong working relationship with others from off roading than I ever have in any of the corporate teamwork classes I have attended. Off road, people quickly adapt to the challenge of getting every one through the obstacles. They share resources and skills to make sure every one is successful. Business could learn a lot by taking their work teams off road.

If your business or volunteer organization could benefit by working better together, let me talk to them. I will be happy to share what I have learned off the road to help you improve your organization.