What happens when you combine a certified master mechanic from Sandpoint, a lifelong dream of off-road racing and an old truck?
You get Al Rhodes in a Monster Truck with a crazy pastime of crawling over boulders, jumping logs and plowing through deep pits of mud.
Not only has Rhodes, 49, realized his dream, but his truck recently placed second in the country in Four Wheeler magazine’s Top Truck Challenge.
In the winter of 1996, Rhodes needed a snowplow for his driveway, so he bought a ‘58 Dodge truck with a blade on the front.
After several years, he replaced the truck with a tractor, deciding plowing was a bit too hard on the old beast. Soon, he began turning his plow into a Monster Truck.
“The engine and transmission are from a junkyard in Coeur d’Alene,” said Rhodes. “My friend rebuilt the engine, and I slowly started improving the truck to do more and more off-road things. It just kind of got out of control.”
“Out of control” is one way to look at it. The doors came off and a roll bar was added, as well as a custom link suspension. Rhodes threw in some 2 1/2-ton truck axles and fully hydraulic steering and converted the fuel system to propane.
“With a carburetor, a steep hill climb will flood the engine with raw fuel sloshing around,” he said. “The next best thing would be to convert to fuel injection, but that would cost thousands.”
Rhodes read a magazine article about a guy who had converted a vehicle to propane. Rhodes called him and found out he could convert his truck for a fraction of the cost of fuel injection. Plus propane creates fewer emissions and is cheaper to run.
But why stop there?
Rhodes added bead lock wheels and 46-inch tires. And if that weren’t enough, he made the truck amphibious.
“It’s completely waterproof,” he said. “The whole truck. You can drive it underwater.”
That ought to come in handy along the rivers of Idaho – after all, there’s not always a bridge where Rhodes wants to cross.
Fifteen years ago, Four Wheeler magazine started the Top Truck Challenge.
Each year, off-roaders send in pictures of their trucks along with their bios. Magazine editors sort through hundreds of entries and narrow them down to 50. Those pictures are published in the April issue, and readers vote for the ones they like best. The top 10 are invited to take part in a competition in California.
“I’m a gear-head,” said Rhodes. “I read gear-head stuff. The Top Truck Challenge is the best part of Four Wheeler magazine, and every year, I’ve wanted to enter.”
But he always felt his truck wasn’t ready.
Rhodes ordered the DVD about each year’s Top Truck Challenge and studied the course and how the winning trucks had been driven though each event. He prepped his truck to handle every possible race scenario.
This year, Rhodes knew his truck was ready, and he entered the contest.
“Douglas McColloch is the editor of Four Wheeler magazine,” said Rhodes. “He called and told me I’d taken second and asked if I wanted to go to California.”
Rhodes gathered his buddies – a co-driver and two crew members – and headed to Hollister Hills, Calif. From June 5 through 8, the 10 top trucks and drivers bruised and battered themselves through a seven-event timed race.
“There was the Tow Test, where we had to pull a full water truck up a hill. And the Mud Pit,” said Rhodes. “There was the Obstacle Course, the Hill Climb, Mini-Rubicon (rock crawling), the Frame Twister and the Tank Trap. I did the best in the Frame Twister and got the most air.”
It was the final leg that stopped Rhodes’ ‘58 Dodge.
“I was doing really, really well,” he said. “The last event was the Tank Trap. It’ll either make you or break you – it broke me.”
The Tank Trap is a series of seven water holes set on cliffs. One of the components in the truck’s suspension sheared in half, ending the race for Rhodes.
According to Rhodes, he was the oldest member of the Top Truck Challenge by at least 10 years.
So how did those 49-year-old bones fare when he launched his truck airborne over a water pit filled with logs or when he tipped the truck on its side while maneuvering over a massive boulder bed?
“There are only 4 to 5 pounds of air in the tires, so it’s like landing on giant balloons,” he said. “But once you start bouncing, you can’t control it.”
Rhodes learned technical things during his trip that he is itching to apply to his truck.
After realizing a dream this big, what’s next?
“I want to do more,” said Rhodes. “I want to go to Moab (Utah), which is the Mecca of off-roading. It’s got big, giant red rocks to crawl on. I like rocks.”
It’s a good thing Rhodes spared his truck from the treacherous life of a snowplow. This off-road racing should be much easier on it.