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Extreme wheel men: Jeep gene

Brent Burton of Colstrip, Mont., is among 20 entries selected to compete in the 2012 Top Truck Challenge with his modified Jeep Wrangler TJ four-door. (Billings Gazette)
Brent Burton of Colstrip, Mont., is among 20 entries selected to compete in the 2012 Top Truck Challenge with his modified Jeep Wrangler TJ four-door. (Billings Gazette)

Brent Burton of Colstrip, Mont., must have inherited a motor-loving gene.

He first went trail riding when he was 3 months old and started riding ATVs at 6. By the age of 10 he began a five-year project to rebuild an old Willys Jeep.

Years later he tipped the short- wheelbased Willys over backward on a rock obstacle in South Dakota, convincing him not to quit, but to take his Jeep building up a notch.

The result was a modified Jeep Wrangler TJ four-door that stands 7 feet, 8 inches tall, measures 111 inches wide and turns the 54-inch tires with a 500 horsepower Corvette V-8 engine.

“I’ve always been into Jeeps, and I wanted something big,” Burton said.

Building the new Jeep was all-consuming for six months in 2005-06, hence the vanity license plate reads HOMERKR, a family joke.

“The wife got to name that one,” Burton said with a sly smile. “That was a tense time around the house, but it must not have been too bad ’cause she’s still around.”

“We were scheduled to go on a Mediterranean cruise when he submitted his truck to Four Wheeler (magazine) and got in to the Top Truck Challenge,” his wife, Amanda, said. “He had to tell me he couldn’t go to the Mediterranean, he was going Jeeping.”

He quieted the home crowd, somewhat anyway, by winning the event with his Jeep.

Originally conceived and built as a family trail vehicle, Burton’s modified Jeep TJ will be competing again this month in the Top Truck Challenge – one of the most grueling competitions for four-wheel drives.

“It’s a bragging rights kind of thing,” said Burton said, 34, who’s also intrigued by ATVs and sand rails, a modern dune buggy.

His home address: 4 Wheel Drive. “It’s a hobby we have,” he said.

Burton’s co-pilot during the event is Corey Sell, his brother-in-law from Billings, who was on the winning team in 2006.

For the 20th anniversary of the competition in Hollister, Calif., the Montana duo will be up against the other 19 annual winners and one guest of honor. Each driver, spotter and rig will be tested in seven different events with the top point winner taking home a trophy made of shattered parts from vehicles wrecked in other competitions.

Some of the events include pulling a 5,000-pound cement truck up a hill, driving over boulders about the size of the trucks and climbing a 500-yard-long steep hill rutted with trenches dug by an excavator.

“In the hill climb, the whole time you feel like you’re going to tip it over backward,” Burton said.

It’s hard to imagine anyone willingly abusing such an expensive piece of equipment. Burton estimated it would be hard to find a shop that could build a vehicle like his for $100,000.

In “hard parts” alone, he guessed that he has spent $40,000 to $50,000.

The Frankenstein-like vehicle involves the front of a 1997 Jeep welded at about the back of the front seats to a 1987 Jeep. The front and rear differentials are from a 2.5-ton Deuce, a heavy-duty Army vehicle. The first tires Burton used were 53-inchers designed for a crane.

This year, all of the Top Truck Challenge competitors were provided with specially built Mickey Thompson Baja Claw tires. To help them throw off mud in bog events, Burton sawed off every other outside lug on the tires and removed about 35 pounds of rubber. That’s nothing when you figure his old crane tires weighed 1,000 pounds more than the new ones.

“It’s amazing how much more horsepower it brought back by getting rid of that weight,” Burton said.

Burton said he has done very little to modify the HOMERKR. And since it was built, his family has grown from one child to three.

The four-door Jeep is big enough for the whole family, although it’s a big leap to get in. Amanda has been known to pluck the baby seat from the vehicle and walk up some steep hills, rather than ride, pointing out that she’s “not about the hardcore stuff.”

“Before you have three kids, it’s all cool,” Amanda said. “But now I stay home a lot.”

However, their oldest son, Kyler, goes to the shop a lot with Brent, perhaps a third generation of Jeep-building Burtons in the making.


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