What do you do when it's time to trade-in your racing shoes and part out the project car for something with four-doors and room for a baby seat? It might feel like the world is over, but a few happily married friends of ours (with kids) have discovered a different type of four-wheel fun that unites their families and can also be shared with their fellow automotive enthusiast friends: Off-roading!
I recently got together with Steven Lam, owner of RPM Garage, who's known for his outstanding work getting Toyota Land Cruisers and 4Runners trail-ready. I tagged along on a Sunday morning run to see what it was all about. Steven brought out his '91 Toyota Land Cruiser that's lifted and fitted with Enkei RPT1 wheels wrapped in BFGoodrich K02 all-terrain tires while his buddy Johnny Lum of SoCal Trail Buds brought out a '97 Land Cruiser that was equipped to tackle any obstacle that Cleghorn Ridge Trail (two hours outside of Los Angeles) had to offer. Both rigs had OEM center differential lockers-similar to an LSD in a car, that locks out the diff-to help the trucks overcome loose/unleveled terrain and rocks. Johnny's 80 Series also had front and rear diff locks-a rare option from the factory.
Steven and Johnny weren't always into climbing rocks or navigating through narrow dirt trails, though. As a matter of fact, Steven used to be a regular at track days and HPDE events in his K-swapped '88 Honda CR-X. In '15, he'd even competed at our annual FF Battle, finishing sixth in a field of 13 competitors. He's also owned quite the collection of Nissan, Toyota and Lexus project cars.
For Johnny, he was also a track addict with a Honda S2000 but since retired when he had kids. Both have had to put their families first over their track toys, but that doesn't mean the fun had to completely stop... Steven and Johnny went from lowering their Hondas to lifting Toyotas.
If you're completely new to off-roading, Johnny recommends riding shotgun in a rig on one of their trips-exactly what I was doing in Steven's Land Cruiser. What type of off-roading you're planning on doing and the bottom line budget are two things Steven and his friends consider before trying to narrow down what type of truck to buy and build. "You can't go wrong with a Toyota, Nissan or Jeep," Steven points out. Toyotas have great reliability and unique old-school styling. Nissans can be very capable with the right mods and are typically less expensive. Jeeps are the most capable right out the box with their suspension and short front and rear overhangs (for better approach and descent angles). All-terrain tires, suspension lift for travel and ground clearance, rock sliders, and a basic recovery gear kit is all that's needed to turn a truck into a trail-ready rig.
Even though we weren't smashing corners at speed or smoking the rear tires, there was still a lot about off-roading that was enjoyable. Steven adds, "It's the opportunity to experience nature while exercising the capabilities of your vehicle and driving ability." For Johnny, shaving tenths off lap times wasn't doing it for him anymore and he found a lot of satisfaction in the technical aspect of driver and vehicle control over sketchy terrain. Sitting shotgun in Steve's 26-year old truck, we climbed obstacles so steep that we could barely see over the hood and through areas where the terrain was so uneven that the suspension flexed like crazy. It was really amazing to see how capable these trucks were and the limits of the all-terrain tires since I'm more familiar with stickier tires made for attacking corners. There were plenty of times that I found myself grabbing the "oh shit" bar while we were three-wheeling. Glancing over at Steven, he was as relaxed as could be enjoying the scenery and the capabilities of his truck. There's something to be said for experience.
Camaraderie was a feeling they both mentioned when asked about what they liked most about off-roading. On the trail, people are usually helpful and ready to lend a hand to anyone in need. "It could be as easy as spotting a truck on a particularly hairy offshoot or working together to straighten out someone's bent tie-rod," Johnny explains. This type of friendly environment is why it's easy for them to bring their wife and kids along on daytrips. With a family, it can be a challenge to bring them to a track 150 miles away from home to sit under an EZ-up tent for hours. But when it comes to an off-roading trip, the drive there rocking side to side, bouncing up and down, hamming it up on the radios with other rigs, is most of the fun. After the peak of the climb or a vista point is reached, families unload from their trucks and prepare a potluck picnic with everyone. Drivers can dice it up talking about the trail while they watch their kids all play together. Steven even mentioned that some of his friends have taken their parents and grandparents up to the trails before.
Perhaps adulting isn't all that bad, especially when you can still play with Enkei wheels and [baby-sized] Recaro seats.