Stephen Watson of Off Road Design shares growing up in rural Colorado to wheeling experiences all over the country. The King of Full-Size, especially GMC’s, Stephen has a storied history. Listen in on your favorite podcast app, or dive in on YouTube – wherever you are, we’ve got your content ready for you.
5:21 – learning how to steer at 3 or 4 years old
14:02 – the magic is less when you know how things work
27:53 – I think there would be more value for most people by just spending more time outdoors
36:45 – I think he was scared I’d end up being a welder
47:21 – all I needed was gas and tires
58:46 – people miss the experience of going to seeing things work
1:04:13 – working on the squares
1:21:45 – makes it easy to assume you need it because somebody built it
1:29:29 – the start of the race hangover
1:38:37 – we got bit by the Hammers bug
We want to thank our sponsors Maxxis Tires and 4Low Magazine.Support the show
[00:00:06.310] - Speaker 1
Welcome to Conversations with Big Rich. This is an interview style podcast. Those interviews are all involved in the offroad industry. Being involved, like all of my guests are, is a lifestyle, not just a job. I talked to competitive teams, racers, rock crawlers, business owners, employees, media and private park owners, men and women who have found their way into this exciting and addictive lifestyle. We discuss their personal history, struggles, successes and reboots. We dive into what drives them to stay active and offroad. We all hope to shed some light on how to find a path into this world we live and love and call off road.
[00:00:53.730] - Speaker 4
Whether you're crawling the red rocks of Moab or hauling your toys to the trail, Maxxis has the tires you can trust for performance and durability. Four wheels or two, Maxxis tires are the choice of Champions because they know that whether for work or play, for fun or competition, Maxxis tires deliver. Choose Maxxis tread victoriously.
[00:01:20.350] - Speaker 1
If you still love the idea of a printed magazine, something to save and read at any time, 4low Magazine is a magazine for you. 4Low cannot be found in a storefront or on a bookshelf, but you can have it delivered to your home or place of business. Visit 4lowmagazine.com to order your subscription.
[00:01:40.710] - Big Rick Klein
Today on today's Conversations with Big Rich, we have Steven Watson. Steven is with Off Road Design. He's the owner and the originator, and he is a full size Chevy GMC aficionado. Been around the sport a long time. It's going to be fun sitting and talking with Steven. Never get enough time to sit and talk with him. So here we are. Steven, thank you for coming on board and sharing your life.
[00:02:10.990] - Steven Watson
Yeah, great to be here. I think this will be kind of fun.
[00:02:13.840] - Big Rick Klein
Yeah, I agree. So let's get started. I know that you're from Rifle, Colorado, or that's where you're at now, but where were you born and raised?
[00:02:25.450] - Steven Watson
So my real roots, as I get a little older, I find out that those roots go deeper than anybody ever thought. But my family is all from the Oklahoma Panhandle. My mom grew up on a farm there that her dad was born on that farm and ended up he died on that farm. And then my dad was from a little town near there called Hooker, Oklahoma, which has been the butt of many jokes over the years. They met and I ended up living on the farm there. They moved out when I was four, and without the family ties, it probably would have just been for the most part. Goodbye to that influence. But we spent a lot of the holidays down there and I always spent usually at least a couple of weeks every summer down there with my grandparents. And it was kind of cool because you get to see some of the background of your parents, which ends up inevitably influencing you. But had definitely the farm influence, and that's a pretty rural place even now, which kind of affects things. But they moved mom and dad. I'm not sure exactly what all happened.
[00:03:50.470] - Steven Watson
They got the bug to go somewhere, and they landed in Carbondale, Colorado, which is near where we are now. My dad had got a job with a company servicing, repairing, building mine equipment. So not actually underground, but working on mine equipment. And they picked up mom had one high school friend that lived in the area, and they picked up and moved one person, met all their new friends and on and on, but we ended up I mean, they lived in the same house until they sold it last summer. Wow. So I really grew up in Carbondale. Like I said, summer is part of the summer is back in Oklahoma, and then was there, went to high school in Carbondale. And we live 13 miles out of town, which is another, especially in the late Seventies, 80s, Carbondale was relatively rural, and we lived out of town and up in the mountains. We had big peaks basically in the front yard. And for an off road guy, I know we've all got different backgrounds and a lot of people actually start in it and stay in it, but we always had four wheel drive stuff around by necessity.
[00:05:21.230] - Steven Watson
And it's actually kind of funny when they being in Oklahoma. Everybody has these giant sedans is what the family car was, the family hauler. And my dad had a CJ five that he actually bought new. It was 74, I believe, and my pop up, that would be my mom's dad that my dad was working for. Just thought that was the dumbest thing in the world for doing farm work, which it probably was. But he had toolboxes set up in it and had all of his stuff set up so we could go service irrigation Wells and do everything with it and actually tell stories of trying to get me at three or four years old to steer it because he could put it in low range and had whatever four speed it would have had, and he could walk alongside and he's still a pretty good sized burly guy. And back then I can't imagine. But he would pick up irrigation pipe by himself, and he had to figure out how he could load it on the trailer himself. But he'd have to hop out, load a joint pipe onto the trailer, and then drive the whole thing forward to load another one.
[00:06:40.160] - Steven Watson
So apparently at one point he tried to get me to drive the thing. Obviously, I could barely see over the steering wheel standing in the seat, but it didn't sound like that worked that well. So I can't say I was a good driver from four, but they tried.
[00:06:56.450] - Big Rick Klein
Steering a straight line kid, right?
[00:07:00.260] - Steven Watson
Yes. As long as it stayed somewhat straight, I guess he was okay. But I have this really vivid memory of that big white I think it was maybe an old sedan with a door that must have been to me it seemed like it was 8ft long. It probably was practically 5ft long stuck in the ditch on the road up to their house in a snowbank. And I had to have been four at the time but they had not gotten another four wheel drive for my mom to drive. I just have the picture of that car with that door being like half across the road and thinking this is kind of dumb. And shortly after that they bought a 74 Blazer and that was kind of I guess the beginning of the Blazer life for us and they had that until 1983 and we've got a few pictures of doing what I guess were kind of some four wheeling trips. It was really more backcountry driving and exploring. But they were camping trucks and we for a while we took the Jeep out and then when we got the Blaze take the Blazer out and go do some camping.
[00:08:32.010] - Steven Watson
But we really got into horses. My dad was actually an AG major Ranch and stuff through his earlier life and we spent from until I was out of College. We spent a lot of time up in the wilderness area. It was across the road from our house, riding horses, camping, little backpacking, but a little bit here and there and my thing was just being outdoors and the four wheels turned into a way to be outdoors and just a way to get around. And as I work through College, as I started driving that 82 Blazer, we ended up it had a. 62 diesel in it before I went to College. Not a powerhouse when we took it out it was still getting 17 18 miles to the gallon with a high school kid driving it. So can't complain about that part. But one of the things that's been a bit of an influencer is I'm pretty sure that the reason why that was the next to new vehicle at a dealership when they bought it was that it had multiple transmissions in it and within a few thousand miles of my parents owning it, it lost another 700r4 which there are early ones.
[00:10:08.170] - Steven Watson
That's how they work. But rather than getting another factory transmission or whatever, my dad and one of his friends took the thing apart and got with B and M and I don't even think that they had any sort of a kit together yet. If they did, it was very early but they went through that transmission and kind of did the BN beef up on it and I ended up using that tranny up until I think I tore up the torque converter behind my. 383. So it lasted for a decade and was super solid. But it was that willingness to just tie into this thing that was black magic at the time and figure it out and fix it. That's something that I've really come to recognize in my dad that is actually a little special because there's think about that. Now, what would you have thought about tying into a new four speed automatic in 1983 or 84? I look back on that and it's like, no, that's where you take it to a tranny shop.
[00:11:31.910] - Big Rick Klein
Exactly. Back then in that time frame, I had a buddy that worked in a transmission shop and I had him rebuild a couple of transmissions in various vehicles that I had and especially in the GM's. And it was amazing watching this kid work on the tailgate of a pickup truck, completely rebuild a transmission and stab it back in the truck. And I swear to God, it was like an hour and a half from the time he would show up with his pickup truck, open the tailgate, and then we'd have the transmission out, he'd have it rebuilt in the transmission back in. And I was just in awe because there were so many little parts and stuff, but taking one for the first time and not having worked in a transmission shop, I can't even imagine that because I think automatic transmissions are voodoo.
[00:12:33.200] - Steven Watson
Anyway, it sure seems like there's a lot of magic. And when I broke the Torqconverter, I guess I was still in high school. So that was probably 1990, I guess 90 somewhere around there, 90 or 91. We kind of did the same thing again. We actually went down to the dealership and bought a remand tranny and then took it home and spread out a couple of sheets over a couple of big tables, took the whole thing apart and went through and did again a full DNM, their shift stuff and all their magic. And one really validating thing about that seems like it's always satisfying when you find something. But we got down to the output shaft and we didn't need to pull the output shaft. We just got down to it. We're like, oh, you know, we should just pull this last drum out and look under there. And sure as hell there was a snap ring that was not seated on that output shaft.
[00:13:44.670] - Steven Watson
And maybe it would have gone home or maybe it would have popped off, but we looked at it, seated it, made it right, and put the thing together. And that tranny served for another decade.
[00:14:02.590] - Steven Watson
I think those things were pretty instrumental in making me a little irreverent of the magic, I guess is a way to put it for a lot of people. The magic is less when you know how things work. Right. And it just makes it for a lot of people. The voodoo of the Tranny guy is pretty strong and I can very much respect people that know what they're doing in and around them. But I also understand that that's just a guy that knows how this thing works.
[00:14:44.650] - Big Rick Klein
[00:14:45.240] - Steven Watson
And that's something that I kind of found going through the years was kind of an interesting attitude with looking at people and how they do things. And even myself, there was a point where on my Blazer, the only thing that I had not fondled the insides of was, I believe, the power steering pump, and that was it. And that's pretty satisfying.
[00:15:17.090] - Big Rick Klein
Right. I think growing up in your dad growing up, parents being from the Panhandle and it's all farming community, there's no real industry. It's all based around farming there.
[00:15:32.350] - Steven Watson
[00:15:32.970] - Big Rick Klein
And they were very self sufficient. They had to make things work.
[00:15:40.490] - Steven Watson
Right. Well, and there was a little bit of an extra thing there out of that whole influence is my dad actually grew up on a refinery because of all things. There's a refinery in Hooker, Oklahoma, that his dad actually helped put together and operated for essentially a career because during World War II, they were kind of spreading out all of our capabilities. So they put a small refinery in the Oklahoma Panhandle because chances of it getting bombed were slim. And my dad grew up in that industrial environment also. And in a situation where they had all these procedures had to do things right. But being in the Oklahoma Panhandle, you had to plan it. All right. Yeah. It's kind of an interesting mindset that I inherited and the fact that I'll go work with my dad today, I've been influenced by all of that. So anyway, there's a really long answer to where do I physically come from and grow up?
[00:17:02.310] - Big Rick Klein
That's all right, though. That's a lot of insight in that. So in Carbondale, actually, Carbondale seems to be kind of I wouldn't say a hotbed, but there's a lot of off road activity or people that are in that area or come out of that area, most notably would be powerwielder.
[00:17:28.850] - Steven Watson
Yeah. Pat and Jan. Yeah. Pat and Jan Gremillion and then Chris Overacker and I actually listened to your interview with him, and he was super instrumental in helping me get started. It is interesting that the area has changed a lot over the years. And where my parents moved there for essentially an industrial job, a mining job, there were two active coal mines in the town and on and on. And now it's essentially an extension of Aspen, and there's a couple of four wheel drive shops that do pretty well there and plenty of activity there. But it's not the same hot bed that it was years ago. But then I'm sure Chris Overacker had no idea the influence that he would have on me and what would come of that when we were back there in the early 90s. So, yeah, who knows how things are going to go forward and continue that? But yeah, somehow Pat and Jan ended up there and in the early nineties. And with Chris being there since the late Eighties, we weren't at his shop a lot, but every once in a while my dad would go in there for something and he always had some super cool projects.
[00:19:10.130] - Steven Watson
He had a J ten that was super cool. And I remember seeing one of the there's a CJ that he raced there in the back of the shop at one point. And I don't know if that directly had any influence on me learning about starting to read because there was nothing else to do to figure out anything about desert racing. But I kind of got a desert racing bug and there was really no way to feed it other than just reading about it. We didn't have money to really travel. Our hobbies were not pointed that direction. But I had a buddy that raced a stock car and I looked at that and said, well, these things have roll cages. That's a good place to start because my senior year in high school we put together a stock car and unfortunately it was right at the end of the glory days of the track in Grand Junction that my friend had raced at. And we ended up having to drive a minimum of two and a half, 3 hours to get to a track which really limited what we could do. It just wasn't something that you could go do every weekend and hit practice days during the week and so on.
[00:20:31.750] - Steven Watson
So we never raced the car a lot, but I did get to build something that eventually ended up being a pretty extensive tube chassis on the remainder of a frame. So there's a lot of cool experience for stepping into that world. And another touch point of a different industry. I remember when, after listening and into a conversation with Randy Ellis, when Shannon and Randy and those guys really sprung onto the world stage with full tube chassis, fabricated vehicles, I remember thinking it was pretty cool, but I wasn't as impressed as everybody in the four wheel drive world. I guess maybe a way to put it because I've been around stock cars and in the stock car world, even back then, a full tube chassis was not rocket science. It wasn't brand new. You could buy chassis kits and that stock car world influence. And I know it influenced those guys and gave them ideas and starting points and experience and so on. So that was a really good touch point, that racing experience, even though it was not over racing a dirt Oval. So it's sort of off road. But that was a place where I had a lot of things crammed together.
[00:22:15.800] - Steven Watson
I guess now that I think about it, because I started working on suspension on my Blazer a little bit and did the engine, did the transmission, and then started working on that stock car. And this is all before I go to College.
[00:22:31.970] - Big Rick Klein
So let's talk about schooling. You grew up 13 miles out of town, which you're in a rural area to begin with. And then you go 13 miles out, so you're pretty Dang rural at that point. So was there like a school bus that would take you in or did parents drop you off or that kind of thing? And then it probably precluded you from having the opportunity to do, like, school sports. Is that correct?
[00:23:09.450] - Steven Watson
It made it hard. I rode the school bus up until middle school years when it got really uncool. In fact, it's kind of funny because I got to choose whether I did afternoon or morning kindergarten. And I remember once again, you just have these weird flashes of memory. But I remember sitting in the principal's office with my mom when I was five years old, and she let me decide if I wanted to do afternoon or morning, which was pretty cool for a lot of kids. You do what they tell you. But I chose afternoon specifically because I thought it would be cool to ride the bus home as the last thing that I did for the day. I was excited about riding a school bus, but yeah, we actually ended up really involved in school sports, both myself, a lot, my brother to some extent. But one of the things you end up with is my graduating class was small for kind of the era, but we had 49 kids in my graduating class. So there's not a huge pool to pull from when you're trying to put together a football team and put together a basketball team and put together a marching band.
[00:24:42.080] - Steven Watson
So we kind of all ended up doing all of the things, and there was a lot of shuffling, and I had friends in town and I'd end up hanging out with them. And my dad had a fabrication shop that ended up in Carbondale. And I don't remember the years exactly, but kind of through middle schools, school in high school. And so a lot of times I'd end up you'd have to go over to his house or over to his shop to wait for an afternoon practice or whatever. But yeah, I ended up in playing football and basketball. You know, we actually had a really good marching band, which it was hard because a lot of times you'd end up at halftime of the football game, you've got guys in pads out there in the marching band. We kind of had to do it all. And once I started driving, it was a lot easier. But we had a lot of time at home. I read a lot because we didn't have a TV for a long time, which has been another pretty good influence, I think.
[00:26:04.910] - Big Rick Klein
[00:26:05.560] - Steven Watson
And a little hard when you're a kid because you don't have that connection with the other kids when they're talking about the latest TV series that they're watching. But TV broke when I was five, and there's all kinds of stories about the fits and starts. I was finally ending up with a TV, but I was probably 13 or 14 before we had a TV in the house. So lots of playing around outside and trying to damn up the Creek and sledding in the wintertime and on and on.
[00:26:40.770] - Big Rick Klein
I think that's a much better upbringing than what kids get today across the United States. And I think that kids nowadays are missing out on a lot because of the technology, the instant gratification that comes with the Internet and social media. And I never thought about spending time at home after school or on a Saturday or Sunday. As soon as I could get up and get out of the house, my friends and I would all congregate at somebody's house. And we'd ride our bikes to the park, which was only a couple of blocks away. And then it was a city park, into a County Park and up into the mountains. And we always found something to do instead of what I see nowadays, which is a lot of butt surfing on the couch, playing games or something. I think they're really missing out on that well.
[00:27:53.920] - Steven Watson
And I was right on the edge of that because my brother is two years younger and got in trouble all the time for playing Nintendo because once we got a TV, we ended up getting a gaming system. We had a Nintendo blow on the cartridge and the whole thing. And he was in trouble all the time with that thing. It was continuously getting taken away, and it was like I kind of gone over a hump and went away from it. It was never a thing for me. And I think one of the things that it's been very formative in my life, and I think there would be more value for most people is just spending time outdoors. That's where that time being quiet and being in a world that isn't basically a world that doesn't care about anything that you do is a little bit of a changer. And that's something that I feel like is another influence is when we're seven to ten to 15 miles out in a wilderness area on horses, you kind of have to take care of things, and you end up with a different mindset about preparation and taking care of details and thinking.
[00:29:39.110] - Steven Watson
And then just, I think just some toughness. And one of the early formative experiences there is when I was seven, we were on a vacation, and we only had a couple of horses at the time, so we didn't have enough for everybody to ride. So we took turns and I'm seven, my brother's five. We didn't walk far, but we're at a Lake 14 miles from a trailhead. And one of my dad's friends rides up late at night. And my dad's dad had had a stroke. And the only way to get news to us was they called a buddy and he got on his horse and drove up to the trailhead and rode the 14 miles up to us, and we packed up the next morning, and I walked the whole way out, and we didn't have any choice. My mom had actually gotten a new pair of boots before we went up and had some pretty gnarly. Blisters. So she ended up riding a horse, and my dad and his buddy and I all walked out. And that's a pretty big hike for a seven year old.
[00:30:57.320] - Big Rick Klein
[00:30:58.790] - Steven Watson
But you always have that in the tank, I think, is that I can do this.
[00:31:08.750] - Big Rick Klein
Yeah. You don't panic because you've been in a situation similar at some point in your life where you've had to overcome an obstacle and you had to do it on your own or you had to figure it out where it's just amazing. I drive a lot with the event series, and I've always been kind of a Bedouin lifestyle. I just like moving the amount of people that I see on the side of the road with a flat tire. Waiting for somebody to show up to change the tire for them has absolutely amazed me.
[00:31:58.600] - Steven Watson
[00:32:00.630] - Big Rick Klein
There'll be teenagers or 20 somethings even into their 30s, and you got a flat tire. You don't even have the trunk open, but you're sitting there with the door open and looking at your friend, and they've got their phones or whatever, and they're calling dad or AAA or somebody saying, hey, I'm stuck. I need you to come change this tire. And I never thought about that when I was a kid. I mean, if we were out driving and we had any kind of an issue. I've rebuilt Volkswagen Motors on the side of the highway. Right.
[00:32:43.050] - Steven Watson
We had kind of a funny outdoor story. I started working with a friend up here that had actually was good friends with Chris overhacker and had built up early on. And we can talk about that a little bit, but I built a super cool early Bronco that he forelinked before that was a thing and actually raced with McCachran for years in his Ranger and helped in a short course project. And through all of that, I finally started getting into more desert racing stuff. And on a pre run trip for the 1000, I think maybe in somewhere in there 607 the race course went over the summit, and it was my buddy and I and one other guy on the team where we go over the summit, drop down into a wash, and all gears become zero on this PreRunner car that it was the part of the mango team stable and had one of those Eddie Audi automatics in it. So it's not really surprising that it quit, but basically we come to a dead stop in the middle of the wash, and that's it. And it's 536 o'clock, probably earlier than that time of year, but still had a little bit of daylight left and like, well, crap.
[00:34:20.210] - Steven Watson
So my buddy Sam and I we get out and it's like, well, hike up to a Hill and start making SAT phone calls. And the other guy that was with us, he wasn't panicky or anything, but you could tell he was a little nervous about what we're going to do is it's getting dark. And we managed to contact my dad. That was our chase guy, and he was on his way to us to bring the trailer. And they were getting things figured out, but everybody's many hours away from being in position to come get us. And Sam and I start gathering up firewood and start a fire and sit down. And this guy's like, what are we going to do now? Well, we're going to sit here and wait, that's all. Well, we'll keep the fire going. We can dig a hole in the sand and maybe go to sleep, but this is kind of what we got. So it was just an interesting like I said, he wasn't panicky, but you could tell this was not a situation that he was real comfortable with. And for Sam and I, it's like, well, just sit here and start a fire and add a granola bar with us.
[00:35:36.190] - Steven Watson
And that was it just is what it is.
[00:35:40.830] - Big Rick Klein
Exactly. So when you got out of high school, well, in high school, obviously, you were mechanically inclined because of the necessity and your father and grandfather being so I'm sure you held the flashlight a lot for them and that kind of thing as a kid.
[00:36:13.690] - Steven Watson
[00:36:15.370] - Big Rick Klein
Did you take any tech classes at your high school?
[00:36:18.290] - Steven Watson
Were they offered so the tech program there, it was actually in a different town and I have some friends that went through that and actually pretty successful guys, but I was on a very much more academic path. I actually ended up being the valedictorian of our class.
[00:36:42.350] - Big Rick Klein
[00:36:45.350] - Steven Watson
And was kind of the nerd out of all of my friends. Well, I was very much the nerd out all of my friends. So, yeah, very much more academic and didn't see a whole lot of value in. And I took a couple of wood shop classes, kind of as blow off classes my senior year. And it was fun doing it. But, you know, I'd worked construction for my dad and he done steel fabrication with him. He ended up he's doing all kinds of some travelling mine work for a while, and that was too much time away from home. So he came back and had a local steel shop for a while, did big structural steel jobs, big residential and some commercial stuff up in Snow, Mass. And Aspen. And so we were constantly building things and he was actually a little bit careful. Like he never purposefully taught me how to Weld. And I think it's because he was scared that I would end up being a Welder. And I think he wanted more for me than what he was doing. But obviously that was a problem because he's now doing some pretty cool stuff, but he never pushed on that very hard, but it was always there.
[00:38:22.430] - Steven Watson
And so I never felt a need for any shop classes. And the fact that it was kind of hard to do that because it was an entire different track in the school to be part of. So I ended up took my valedictorian self to Colorado State and went through the mechanical engineering program there and had a bunch of interesting experiences with being a guy who had built things and was building things and doing stuff, being mixed in with a bunch of kids that didn't. There were multiple points that when it was time to actually build things, I had a good idea how to do it or had different solutions for a lot of problems because I knew how to just put stuff together right. I understood how it worked, but that's where I met a fellow engineering student buddy. Well, I ended up with a couple of roommates. One had an early blazer and one had a big Bronco, a 78 or 79 Bronco. So we did some kind of light offroading stuff together. And then I met a fellow engineering student, became a pretty good friend that had an FJ 40 and was more into the recreational four wheeling world.
[00:39:54.650] - Steven Watson
And I have four Wheeler magazines going back into the I think I might have an 87, but he was a little bit more into it. And that FJ 40 was magical for the time. It had the four speed transmission with the three speed version T case. So we had a little bit deeper gear and had lock rights in both axles and had 33 inch Swampers on it. And it was amazing. I've seen that a little sarcastically because now that's all had a two and a half inch lift or something on it. It was not super special, but for the time, I mean, the thing, it got around really good and was reasonably durable and reliable. Still had the factory six in it, so it didn't overpower itself. And I started going out with him and then it's like, okay, I need a locker. I still had to drive my Blazer everywhere. He lived in Fort Collins was from Fort Collins, so driving around on Swampers wasn't too big of a deal. But my 240 miles trip home wasn't going to be real happy with Swampers. So I ended up with a much milder tire when we were out.
[00:41:11.640] - Steven Watson
But that was kind of the beginning of really looking at the recreational world and starting to do harder stuff. And it was also the beginning. I did a spring break trip that was pretty formative in that everybody was busy. This was 94, I think, and I was going to Canyonlands pretty much no matter what, and everybody else was doing something else. And so I ended up going by myself. So I take my blazer that was still on it's, basically a stock blazer. It had some 33s and a couple of inches of lift on it. And drive into the Maze District, go all the way out to the doll house, which is a solid 80 miles from asphalt. And when you get there, you're at the Height Marina, right. Pretty remote place and go two or three days worth of camping in and out. And the thing wrote so rough, I had no way to air tires back up, so tires were at street pressure. We'd had a local spring shop here, re arch the Springs and kind of beef them up. And with the lift, the only shocks we could find locally. I don't know why we didn't go to stage west and get some shocks, but we ended up buying one ton of shocks from Napa, and everything about it was just jarring.
[00:42:59.890] - Steven Watson
Okay. There was definitely a way to fix this, and that's where some of that desert racing interest started popping up and started figuring out how to fix that.
[00:43:14.870] - Big Rick Klein
From College and mechanical engineering. You got a degree at least a bachelor's in.
[00:43:22.910] - Steven Watson
Yeah. Ended up with a bachelor's in mechanical. And I never followed through on the paperwork for my minor, but I did a history minor. Okay. Which was essentially booted me into a fifth year of school. But I kind of liked school, which, so it didn't really bother me. But, yeah, Interestingly. I got a kind of specialized in Southwest history and have a history minor also.
[00:43:51.660] - Steven Watson
And then what did you do after graduation as I kind of transitioned out of school, there's a company that's based there in Fort Collins called Woodward Governor that does power plant controls. And I was talking to them, and as we got a little bit deeper, they wanted me to go to either Houston, Philadelphia, or Chicago to work in a power plant. And I just looked at the map and looked at Houston, Philadelphia, and Chicago. And for a kid that used to be able to walk out the door and walk for miles in public lands of whatever flavor, I looked at that and basically gave it a big no way. And so I came home. I actually ended up essentially being a hunting guide for a fall. Spent a pretty solid month to six weeks in the woods on horses, hunting, moving camps, doing stuff, built a few lumber racks. And fortunately, I'd had enough scholarship money going through school that I managed to get out of school with very little debt. And right away by this time, my dad had kind of transitioned out of one construction job and was actually running a file storage warehouse.
[00:45:30.870] - Steven Watson
But he basically still had his shop. All of his tools were in the garage. So I started pulling all that out. And like I said, I built some lumber racks for some construction companies. And I'd worked all through College for a contractor, building houses. I did that. And then that fall there was a point where I was sitting up on a mountainside and I had this idea for a sway bar disconnect for the GM full size and actually built a set and looked around it's like, well, I looked in the magazines enough and I'd met Pat Grammilian and I'd been talking more and more with Chris Overacher. I was actually doing some welding for the very beginnings of mountain off road. I was welding up shackle reversal kits and hike way up in the mountains and sit there and look out and kind of had one of those life reflective moments. It's like, well, I'm going to try this through that winter, did more welding with Chris and I guess it was the beginning of 97. So it was a few months after I graduated is when I registered the off road design trade name. And shortly after that Chris invited me to go along on a photo shoot with him down to Grand Junction.
[00:47:21.260] - Steven Watson
And you were looking at something that he had done. I think it was maybe a three quarter Elliptic set up for the front of a YJ. But anyway, we go down and I meet Ed Fortson who was writing for a couple of different magazines at the time and lives in Grand Junction and had a square body project truck, a late 70s step side short bed. And on that same trip we swing into the old Rocky Mountain off road, which was kind of a specialty Toyota place, but general four wheel drive shop. And Jim Allen drives by and he's writing for four Wheeler and has a Blazer project that he's doing. And I meet both guys. We all hit it off. I have sway bar disconnects in my bag and both of them want to write about all of this cool stuff right away. And that was really the launch was that one trip. I met those guys and pretty soon it was like at the time and I have this saying it's been useful lots of times since then. All I needed was gas and tires. I was living in my parents basement working out of their garage with my dad's tools.
[00:48:49.930] - Steven Watson
So I really didn't have much for expenses. And it was really easy to just, you know, when Ed was doing a Winching article, I could drive down to Grand Junction and provide a stuck vehicle. Lots of things like that, just opened up all kinds of doors. And that one trip in meeting those guys was really the launch.
[00:49:18.870] - Big Rick Klein
It's interesting how a lot of the guys in our industry that has happened to where they've had an idea, they push forward with the idea and then all of a sudden they meet the right person, which ends up being somebody in media that can help them launch the project or get it in front of people. You just look at some of the guys that are successful right now and that's what happened. Tony at Genright was the same way. Chris had mentioned that there's 107 interviews I've done already. So you go back through and there's probably 20 or 30 that that kind of a thing happened where they just were made apart for themselves and somebody saw it and hey.
[00:50:16.210] - Speaker 1
This is a great idea.
[00:50:17.350] - Big Rick Klein
We ought to move forward with that. But that was in a time when there was still a lot of innovation to do.
[00:50:27.210] - Steven Watson
Yes, and it was wide open. This is the revolver shackle days and just so many ideas being tried, people trying things and me being somewhat reverent. I think it was somewhere in 97 when Shannon's Pink Jeep was on the cover of one of the four wheel drive magazines with a Panhard bar that went backwards from the drag link. And I remember looking at that and I knew enough about suspension layout to think what the heck is he doing? And to find out, I think it was on there for a grand total of it might have only been a few hours or a few days, but there's a time when people were trying things and you see pictures of stuff built with quarter Elliptic Springs and all the different buggy Leafs that people were trying. And I was actually thinking a little bit about this this morning in 98 I started working on doing the 203 205 doubler set up because there really wasn't any sort of low gearing solution for a full size truck or anything with a full size drive frame. The clone was out and I'm not sure exactly when that item got started, but it was around but it was the only thing.
[00:52:09.910] - Steven Watson
And I kind of started looking at this 2003 gearbox and figured out how to put it in front of a 205 and started doing a commercial kit for that and then come to find out the Wagner guys have been doing it for years. And then I hear stories of guys over in Iceland that had been doing it since the 70s. So it is another one of those things that wasn't brand new, but we kind of created a commercial kit and I was in a space where magazine articles came out about this new low gearing solution and that was kind of one of those things there these days. To your point, the holes in what's available are pretty small compared to back then and I think it's probably a lot harder for people to get started now just because the holes are so much smaller. There's not a giant glaring hole for figuring out gearing for a full size truck. It's figured out right.
[00:53:24.570] - Big Rick Klein
It's been beaten on. That experimentation that was going on in the 90s is when I really think at least in the four wheel drive industry is when that blossomed. I know that here in the States, I know that the Toyota guys, the wardens were doing all sorts of crazy thing. I remember back in the early 80s or mid 80s, they had the FJ 40 push me, pull me, I think they called it or something like that. And the Toys on the Rocks Club out here in Northern California was really big and they had done a bunch of stuff, but it was all you weren't seeing that in the Jeep world. I mean, at least that I remember the first time I went on the Rubicon was in late 81 or 82, and I was all in CJ pies sevens, and then came across the Toyota guys and they had some stuff that they had modified, but it was the beginning of all that, at least here. And it's interesting. Now you would take something that was already ten or 15 years old and you would modify it because you had this idea. Now, guys, companies are getting brand new vehicles before fresh off of the production line or even beforehand getting all the drawings through the manufacturers, through SEMA and through other avenues where they're able to take everything that's there on the stock vehicle and modify it for aftermarket production basically before they even have the vehicle.
[00:55:27.890] - Steven Watson
[00:55:28.680] - Big Rick Klein
And that was unheard of back then. People didn't modify unless they were racing it, or in most cases, at least with the off road. A lot of it was where they were racing mud racing or whatever, but they were just trying to get a little deeper into the trail or do something a little harder. And it was slow process back then. But it's amazing how the times have changed because of all that.
[00:56:02.810] - Steven Watson
And I think of the tools that we had for that pace of development versus what we have now. It's really hard for a lot of people to think that until the late 90s we really didn't have an Internet and you couldn't just email a file to somebody. That was rocket science, taking a picture. I mean, it was a huge deal for me to have a digital camera that you could take like 25 pictures before the card was full. But there in the late nineties, that was a huge deal. You know, to be able to email somebody a picture of something was pretty dramatic. And being able to figure out for a kid in rural Western Colorado, how do you know what's going on in the desert race world? My only eye into that was the magazines. And Thankfully Off Road magazine had some guys that were super into that. So I could see what desert race vehicles look like. And TV coverage was spotty. And especially for people that only have three channels and don't watch TV much, it was really hard to pick up that information. And you think nothing of sitting down and Googling up an Internet full of information on any subject and you couldn't do that on some levels.
[00:57:46.570] - Steven Watson
It's really amazing that we've got done what we did. And Unfortunately, I was right on the cusp of that change, the beginnings of the Internet. And we put together a website where you could go at least look at things and then eventually order things and to be able to be part of forums, which is people don't really know what that is anymore. But that was a huge deal. There was a time when there was a lot going on.
[00:58:24.230] - Big Rick Klein
Yeah. And it's amazing when you look back on it and like you said, there wasn't the technology that we had that we have now. Of course, sending a Fax first time saw facts. I was like, well, this is pretty cool. I can send a letter to somebody over the phone. Wow.
[00:58:46.670] - Steven Watson
Right. Yeah. Well, it really illustrates how the part of the reasons why the pace of development has stepped up so much over the last few years on the desert racing thing. And this is where some of it was good because you actually go there. But one way or the other, I ended up going to the very first Vegas Arena race with some local guys from here that were racing dirt bikes. And I had very little time on two wheels and really wasn't that interested in the dirt bike side of things. But it was a way to go to a desert race. And the cool thing about that even now is I think it's really easy for people to miss the real experience of going and seeing things work. And you see the video clips, you see the pictures, you see all of that, and it's still lacking a certain amount of what goes on when you're really there and there's still room for editing and making things look better. And you end up going on that trail ride and it's like, oh, I thought this thing worked way better than that because I saw this one clip where it climbed right up that rock.
[01:00:09.170] - Steven Watson
Well, what you don't see is the 32 tries before. That where they didn't make it. That's something that I feel like is maybe a little too easy to miss. But that was the thing. The only thing you could do is just go do things. Go ahead.
[01:00:34.300] - Big Rick Klein
No, I was going to say so with that, you've got off road design, you're creating the doubler adapter for the 20523, correct?
[01:00:51.430] - Steven Watson
Yeah. The suspension goodies. Like I say, that sway bar disconnect was really product number one and Interestingly and kind of, I don't know, company culture going and doing things. But the very first thing that I sold was a set of sway bar disconnects, and it was on the trail up at the top of Gold Bar Rim during the Jeep Safari Week 25 years ago. Actually, just last week. I don't know what the actual date was because I haven't looked it up and I don't remember what day of the week it was and all that, but it was during Easter Jeep Safari and it was on the trail. So that's pretty cool. I don't know how many places can say their first dollar was quote made with a sale on the top of a place like Gold Bar Rim. But anyway that was product number one. And then the suspension stuff was really kind of the meat there for a little while and then the transfer case world started opening up doing the 203 two five deal and then got into doing our custom Springs there sometime in 98. Also fortunately the company that we work with was very open to working with me because I basically got out of school, bought the SAE spring design manual and started looking at how am I going to make some Springs that are nice and soft and started going through there and figuring out these Springs and I just went down there and said hey can you build these and told them they're mine Springs.
[01:02:47.990] - Steven Watson
You guys are not liable for anything on them. You're building the my spec and they were open to it. So that was another thing that took off that's really big for us now is that custom leaf spring program. And once again we've dabbled a little bit in the years with a little bit of other stuff. In the transfer case world that knows no real boundaries because people mix and match and swap so much stuff. So in the transfer case world we'll talk to a guy that is working on a Jeep 1 minute to Scout the next a Chevy truck, a Ford truck, a Dodge truck, whatever, because all that gets swapped so much. But in the suspension world and the steering stuff that we do, it's mostly GM with a little bit of the old lease rung Dodge stuff because we joke about the Ram Charger being the Dodge Blazer and the Dodge trucks being the Dodge K 20 because they're very similar trucks overall. So some of our products actually cross over pretty easy with those but yeah pretty much predominantly GM.
[01:04:11.830] - Big Rick Klein
[01:04:13.430] - Steven Watson
Where's the company going now with product line for so long we've had basically a struggle to keep up is how a lot of it has worked out. And so basically to start that out for so long we just focused on the squares because that was the meat of our market and they were still going really strong. And then through that time everybody said oh you need to move into new trucks, keep pushing on new trucks. And we have, we have solid axle swap set ups to get up into up to 2010 at this point model years. But a few years ago we were at the SEMA show and walking around the SEMA show and their square bodies quote everywhere. There were a lot of them and we came away from that show thinking these things are really blowing up and practically speaking I could probably finish out my career working on square body stuff and that is a focus for us going forward is continuing to flush out the line and continue servicing that group and just making them work better. We've got so many ideas on doing more things, making everything work better, easier to install on and on.
[01:05:46.480] - Steven Watson
And as that market changes into more of a restaurant market, there's still a pretty good number of guys that actually use them off road, but it's percentage wise it's dwindling. We are definitely looking at going forward and looking more heavily at the 88 to 98 trucks. I think those are going to be there's a short period of real usability here and then at some point those things are going to start turning into the classics and be resto mods and we don't hate working with the rest of Mod guys. I tore my blazer up, which is another thing at the time that's what you did. But in 93 we put a really nice paint job on it and by 2003 the thing was a reason. I mean, it was the tube chassis, the skin stapled to it. That's a cool thing with a lot of these trucks that guys are working on now. They'll put together a nice truck and in ten years it's still going to be a nice truck and that's pretty cool. But yeah, going forward it's something that we're constantly looking at just as we try to keep up with what we're already doing.
[01:07:12.410] - Steven Watson
I've kind of coined this new catch term. I'm IFS curious and after spending the time in the race world that I have in the ultra four world and seeing the UTV market blow up the way that it has, the world didn't end when GM came out with IFS. They were just maybe a little too far ahead of the game. But I want to see what we can do with some of these trucks and it's not like we're innovators in that space anymore. There's a lot of companies doing really cool stuff, but figuring out how to adapt that into our take on how to use a truck and use it off road, on road, and everything is something that we're going to end up moving into. But the big thing is for right now is just getting to where we can keep up with what we have going and that's kind of exciting. This is all starting to jump a little bit out of order, but we've been at the same shop property since 2004. It's the second shop that we've had and obviously grew a lot there. But just this last fall we bought a property in Rifle and have moved the shop there and essentially doubled our space.
[01:08:43.950] - Steven Watson
The previous place our offices were in a job site trailer. The warehouse was a garage as part of my parents rental property. There was about 1100 sqft in a nice space but limited size. The shop is a QuantIT hut that was overflowing. We couldn't work on a vehicle inside there for very long because it was in the way of actual just daily workflow. And we had stuff stored in sea containers and sheds and some stuff stored outside. So basically with this new place, it's about 11,000 sqft of buildings and it's so much nicer and we're still continuing to settle in, but productivity is going up. Just things like the way our Valley dynamics lay out. It's a lot easier commuting and a nicer lifestyle for most of our employees because they can live near work now. And there's just a lot of things that are starting to come together right now that are going to really turn us loose to be able to build more and grow more.
[01:10:07.870] - Big Rick Klein
So let's talk about the affiliation with the magazine industry early on, your early products being advertised that way and then getting to know the magazine guys and keeping up with it as guys left the magazine world and then new guys came in and that kind of stuff. And you're still a participant in ultimate adventure, is that correct?
[01:10:40.190] - Steven Watson
Yeah. And that's obviously very much magazine rooted just because that started. I guess the first one was 2099. You would think I would know the history a little bit better than that. But somewhere in there and we ended up with basically with the media being the advertising outlet, we would be able to gauge when magazines were hitting the news stands or hitting subscribers mailboxes across the country by the phone calls and where they came from. And it was that powerful because it was the media source. We obviously paid attention to it. And one of the things too is there are a bunch of really cool guys that work for the magazines at the time and we're actually good people that were fun to hang around with and do stuff with. But we ended up kind of our start on ultimate adventure stuff is David Kennedy showed up at our shop with a blazer with a freshly swapped six liter in it with a blower on it in 2003. And he planned on going through we were going to do a little bit of suspension work and that was pretty much it. He was ready to drive to the on his drive to the East Coast, and you think about a six liter swap and a blazer in 2003.
[01:12:19.910] - Steven Watson
And that was cutting edge stuff at the time, and especially with the blower on it and being cutting edge. It also wasn't very well tuned and was already melting Pistons and eating spark plugs. But we thrashed on that for three or four days straight, maybe a little longer than that, and sent them out the door with a vehicle that successfully drive to the East Coast, did the ultimate adventure trip and ended up losing the engine in Albuquerque on the way back to California. So they almost got a home. But it was something that essentially our prep was good. We've sent them down the road with a good vehicle. So when David Kennedy was working on the magazine vehicle, which was the Chevy Stepside in 2005, they were interested in bringing us on as sponsors and participants. And so that was our first trip and we did a big overhaul on my Blazer and took it on that first five trip. And since then we've missed the 2010 trip, only we've been on everyone since then.
[01:13:49.310] - Big Rick Klein
That's pretty good.
[01:13:51.700] - Steven Watson
Yeah. A super fun deal. And just the idea of that kind of fourwheeling is really attractive. And the fact that it's still a popular event and still kind of a popular concept, I think really lends itself to the fact that it's valid is being able to drive around and it kind of resonates with us. It's kind of what we do is drive somewhere. In my case, from the very beginning, drive from Fort Collins to the middle of nowhere in Utah and do some four wheeling on whatever level and turn around and drive it home and know you can do it right.
[01:14:37.230] - Big Rick Klein
And I think a lot of people nowadays are starting to get back into the experience of things. I think that people were living other people's experiences and now you're seeing more interest in people instead of living it through others actually going out and doing it themselves.
[01:15:02.310] - Steven Watson
Yeah. One of the things we found, too, is that there's a broad range of people basically with different needs as far as different likes and desires when they're working on and around a vehicle, because they're definitely guys that get a lot of satisfaction out of actually working on the vehicle. And this is where you see a lot of what we call kind of perma projects. A guy does something on the truck and before it even runs again, he's doing something else on the truck and before he's done with that, he comes up with something else to do to the truck. And clearly if they keep doing this for a while, they just really like working on it. They don't get their enjoyment out of actually using it as much. And then the opposite side are people that have no desire to work on anything and just want to go use it. And then obviously there's all in between. But the idea and especially as you and I have talked, the Overlanding word has all kinds of connotations and hidden meanings for everybody on and on. We can all laugh about that all we want, but we'll call it going camping out of a vehicle thing has really taken off.
[01:16:36.610] - Steven Watson
I think it's more inclusive and more inviting because for a lot of people, they're not going hardcore fourwheeling and you can slap a rooftop tent and we see it up here all the time. Rooftop tent on the top of the Subaru to go out and go camping somewhere.
[01:16:58.930] - Steven Watson
And that's totally valid. Maybe they just want to be able to sleep more comfortably at a trailhead, but I think it kind of publicizes vehicular use in some sort of off road manner and kind of opens things up, which I think is really good. This is when a crowd that would potentially be really anti off road starts seeing the value of putting some off road equipment on their vehicle just to be able to get to a trailhead better or ride a little bit better, be more durable while they're doing that, I don't see any downside in bringing more of us together that way.
[01:17:53.950] - Big Rick Klein
No, I agree. And hopefully we get those people to come full circle, whether it's mountain bikers or hikers or river rats, caneurs rafters, whatever, for them to get to wherever it is that they start to enjoy their activity, they're having to push farther to do that, and hopefully they come full circle and come to understand that public access and all that is a necessity no matter what they're doing right.
[01:18:29.530] - Steven Watson
And maybe start understanding that after they go into an off road shop to get some better shocks for their vehicle or whatever. The thing is, they realize that a lot of the stereotypes that they see are not everybody in that world. So just opening the eyes to that, I think is a pretty big deal. I see doing nothing but helping bring people together that way.
[01:19:01.630] - Big Rick Klein
Agreed. So is it just because there was so much work to do and to keep you guys offer a design into the GM Chevy world where you haven't expanded into other lines? I know that there are some companies out there that were strictly Toyota and now you're seeing so much more of the Jeep influence in their businesses. Trail gear is one of those. Do you find that at some point? Well, I know we already talked about that. You're still pushing forward with the Chevy because now from the squares you're getting into that, I would call it the Gen two, but it's not really a Gen two, but you're getting into that ifs Chevy with the swaps and stuff like that. But was it just because there was already other people doing the Jeep stuff or Toyota stuff that you didn't?
[01:20:05.070] - Steven Watson
We have been really busy taking care of the GM world, and part of our business model has been understanding that platform so well that we really know what we're talking about with it and to be able to create that kind of knowledge of a different vehicle platform really it feels a little bit disingenuous just in that if we go buy a JK and start coming out with JK parts, we don't have history in that. There's no until I had that vehicle platform and basically lived with it for a while, I wouldn't be able to say that I was doing a good job for the customer by solving the problems that really need to be solved because that is something that the proliferation of machines and tools and tooling and techniques has been great for us, being able to manufacture things easier and easier. When I think about the amount of work that went into producing the sway bar disconnect for the first few years. And for listeners, this is a device that really looks like a rear shackle off of about any full size truck. It's a bushing at the base of it with a couple of ears going up, and the sway bar drops in between those two ears and gets pinned in place.
[01:21:45.250] - Steven Watson
When we started doing those, I was cutting these plates out with a torch and had to drill the holes to make them round. And the amount of work that went into doing that was just insane compared to what we do now with laser cut pieces and CNC machine parts and so on. But now it's really easy to come up with a widget for anything. And now more than ever, it's easy to just slap crap on a vehicle because somebody makes it and to assume that you need it because somebody built it. And that's something that we've always been really focused on is, as you can tell, when a formative trip for me is going on a long camping trip and saying, hey, this thing needs to ride better. This is a problem that we're solving. It needs to ride better. It needs to steer better. We need deeper gearing, and there's nothing out there to address these problems. But we don't come out with things just to have things. We come out with things to solve problems. And the way that you really figure out what the problems are is by using the thing. Like I say, it makes it to where we are a little bit limited by that mindset in that there's only so many platforms that myself and our close friends and family and customers and kind of the pool that we pull from for this collective experience.
[01:23:22.390] - Steven Watson
There's only so much we can pull from there. But we've got a really thorough understanding of what we do. Right.
[01:23:30.690] - Big Rick Klein
Okay. Makes sense.
[01:23:33.020] - Steven Watson
So we don't talk about any racing stuff yet. Yeah.
[01:23:36.210] - Big Rick Klein
Let's get into the racing stuff.
[01:23:39.910] - Steven Watson
[01:23:41.350] - Big Rick Klein
You said you first went to Best in the Desert with motorcycle guys. Was that your first experience with racing?
[01:23:49.450] - Steven Watson
Yeah, that was my first desert racing experience. And that was far enough along that I've been able to watch some videos and stuff. The Internet was mature enough for that, but it's not like you had tons of content there, but I got to watch a very little bit of racing. And there really weren't very many cars even at that race, but it still kind of went with the appetite. And I ended up through what would have been Chris Overarcher's old shop after he sold Stage West. They had a customer that built or had an early Bronco, and I helped him do some revisions to it and raced a little bit in the Boer series out in Wendover in like I want to say 97, 98 somewhere in there.
[01:24:41.970] - Big Rick Klein
And if anybody's wondering what boar is that's Bonneville off road.
[01:24:47.870] - Steven Watson
It's a little desert series that runs on. I think it's all in Nevada now. At that point we could still race on the Utah side right around the Bonnetville Salt Flats. Legit desert racing. It was lap stuff and small course stuff. Kind of feeder series for getting into a best in the desert and score type. But I ran a few races with Andy Schiffanelli there and then as I was building houses in school, this was before that. 96 VIPD racing. When I graduated. My buddy Sam was a framing contractor basically that I worked with quite a bit. And he had just got the bug to go desert race and always been interested in it and just went out and volunteered at the ventble shop and ended up working with McCrone because Sam knew how to do things and get stuff done and do it right and he'd come back and for linked his Bronco. So that was some of that racing technology kind of trickling back into the recreational world really early on there. But really the next I ended up with a few years where life got kind of serious. 99 I met the girl and get married and now I need more than gas and tires.
[01:26:28.910] - Steven Watson
I have a house, have a kid. Pretty soon there's another kid but ended up getting with another Blazer guy. There's a customer that I just started talking to and called to order some parts and ended up going to the Baja 1000 in 2003 and ended up riding about half of the race because this is the thing where I learned the thing is at 400 a. M. When it's cold and dark on the Peninsula and everybody's been up too long and on and on, there's guys that don't want to get in the car, which is inconceivable to me that a guy that was scheduled to ride a leg as a co driver didn't want to get in the car. And so I ended up riding in this Blazer for about half of the race and raced with those guys that was Chris, Rafael and team for the next couple of years and actually did a lot of work on that vehicle and drove part of the leg in 2004. I got to be the leg that the truck broke on, which really sucked. But anyway, so I actually got to drive in a Baja 1000 at that point.
[01:28:00.010] - Steven Watson
And that's the only point I need to go back and that's one of the things I need to do. But we kind of got bit by that bug. And this is around the time I did top truck challenge as a co driver in 2000 and then in my own rig in 2001, which is a little bit of a very tiny taste of competition stuff. But we started working out, trying to get a class three racer together. We wanted to go run down in the desert and racing a Blazer was the thing to do. But before we could get a whole lot of traction with that, we ended up racing with some other teams, the Mango guys riding around with their pro truck effort. And I ended up riding the last leg in the race with Gary in six, I believe so. Got across the finish line in La Paz and the truck there and then helped McCrone with his race effort in 2007 at the Thousand, when they actually somewhat through the season. But the year that they won the Score Championship and the VitD Championship and won the Thousand, actually, maybe they didn't get VitD.
[01:29:29.550] - Steven Watson
Anyway, that was super cool. Following him all the way down the Peninsula and just being a part of that when you overall, the Baja 1000 that goes to Cabo was pretty epic. And then this is one thing you might relate to is the beginning of the Hangover was particularly epic on that one because the first trophy truck comes in at, I don't know, one or two in the afternoon. And we ended up Mark Post, who Rob was driving with his longtime friends with the Herbst family. And so we ended up on one of the Herbs yacht for a party that night in Cabo, 2007.
[01:30:23.430] - Big Rick Klein
I remember that night.
[01:30:26.010] - Steven Watson
Yeah. Were you on the boat?
[01:30:28.200] - Big Rick Klein
Yeah, I was with Pistol Pete that year.
[01:30:32.250] - Steven Watson
Okay, interesting. So there's a chance we crossed has there and just don't remember it. But yeah, we woke up the next morning and get ready to start driving out of town. And for one thing, the race is still going on. I mean, there are a lot of cars still coming in because I think the time limit was like 52 hours and Rob and crew had finished in 25. It's barely mid race. There are still fast cars coming down the Peninsula as we're driving home. And at one point I look down, it's like we have 1100 miles of driving to get to the border and it's another 1000 to get back home. It's like, oh, my God, what have we done? Like I said, that was the beginning of an epic after race hangover feeling right there. Oh, no, we're going to drive for four days to get out of here.
[01:31:45.110] - Big Rick Klein
I used to love that part of it though, because we would never rush back. We'd always take that. You'd come down, especially when you were with Pete and that race, we ended up fourth in the trophy truck. You get down there like you say, it's 24, 25, 26 hours. And even as a pit crew, you take off either when the truck takes off or just before the truck takes off. And at least with Pete we had to kind of follow the truck. We didn't have a big enough crew that could stage two days ahead of time down in the pit area. So you'd get down there and then we'd hang out the whole next day. And then some of the guys would jump off and just take off. And then there was others of us. It would take a week, ten days to get home because we didn't have that nine to five job that we had to worry about. We were down there to experience. And then I kind of missed that.
[01:33:00.170] - Steven Watson
Yeah, I never had it and I miss it because those two consecutive years, we ended up in La Paz and Cabo, and in both years it was get in the truck and drive home. Unfortunately, racing with Post effort was really nice because we only spent one night on the way up. But I think we got up to and they had given us a three ring binder with hotel rooms. They had rented hotel rooms all up and down the coast, up and down the highway. And they were there for us basically for the crew in this situation. And so we stopped into this hotel and the guy says, well, I'm glad somebody actually stopped by to use the room. They have it reserved for two weeks. And you guys are the only ones that have used the reservation, right? There's another one of those tastes of trophy truck world, but what a great way to take care of people. I mean, in years past, we'd pull over and camp out on the side of the road, which wasn't terrible either, but being able to pull into a hotel and have a bed, have a shower and have that available was pretty big and definitely a good way to take care of your people.
[01:34:30.390] - Big Rick Klein
Our trophy truck effort wasn't that big. Pete was always string. I still think he was probably one of the best drivers ever, but he was always bringing a knife to a gunfight because those guys there was no messing around with those trophy trucks. I mean, like you said, the yacht is one thing, but helicopters on the way down and just their own medical staff and everything else, it's just crazy.
[01:35:01.660] - Steven Watson
They had a fixed wing aircraft up all night because you can't fly a helicopter at night. And so Post had somebody in a fixed wing aircraft flying over the making ovals over the Peninsula for radio relay.
[01:35:15.690] - Big Rick Klein
Yeah, that's crazy.
[01:35:17.160] - Steven Watson
We had radio relay with the car all night long. And, you know, it's funny is kind of your point that all of the efforts aren't like this. Mccrone had stories of driving down and getting finished in the race and being in La Paz and nobody has hotel rooms. What are we going to do? It's like, well, let's see. These guys we saw on the side of the course broken down, they didn't come down here. So they go to the hotel and say, oh, yeah, we're with these guys team. Okay, we got a room for you exactly. We know they're not using theirs. So those are the come back and put the car behind on a flat deck behind a pickup, and the Katherine gets to drive it back home. Definitely a different effort than racing with the herb skies where when we were down kind of chasing along on a pre run, you see those guys and they spend the night on the yacht that's pacing them on the coast and come over, pre run their leg, drive down, give the car to the crew to take back up to the start of the leg while they fly back over to the yacht for the night.
[01:36:45.870] - Steven Watson
There's a lot of different levels. And the cool thing is basically how successful Rob is with what nobody really understands really is a shoestring. And that's always a really cool point. But back into some of our story, through this whole thing, there's kids in life and moves on and on, and the class three never really materialized. But in 2009, Jeff Knoll calls me up and says, hey, I saw you were in this super crawl and you did top truck, and you should come race Hammers. This is what a sucker I was and how good he was. Yeah, this would be great. We'll have a spot for you and just need to come down and do this LCQ thing, and you'll be right in. Oh, yeah, 100%. We're on board. So it's not like we ever had a guaranteed spot, but after being around some successful race efforts, we kind of knew what we needed to do. So my brother and I put together basically, his tube chassis crawler that he had been using was our candidate for something to go race because it was the most capable rig that we had on our stable. So we did some work on that thing and drove down in I think it was the end of December, the very beginning of January.
[01:38:37.450] - Steven Watson
And we knew that the LCQ course was going to go around back door. And this is like the second time that we'd ever been to the Hammers. But we knew where things were and done a bunch of the trails. So we went down and ran. I think it was 17 laps that we did because we knew it was going up. Back door would go up the Sandhill and then cut out through the desert. And we did 17 laps. A back door, maybe it was 18 or 19, basically, by the time we were raised, the qualifying effort was lap 20 for us in the course of a few weeks. And a qualified has been pretty easily. I think we were 6th or 7th, something like that. But after that, the thought of going desert racing was not really something that was on the radar anymore. We kind of had to definitely got bit by the Hammers bug, right.
[01:39:41.210] - Big Rick Klein
And a few houses later, right.
[01:39:45.320] - Steven Watson
Yeah. And then we raced. We kept it together. So, yeah, the Hammers bug really bit. And I don't know what it was about that style of racing that really hit home, but I know we played a little bit in the rock crawling, cone dodging competition kind of world and our vehicle base was just too big for that. I tried doing a couple of comps in my Blazer and one of them being the super crawl down in Farmington. I think that was three and it was just clear that you needed a more purpose built rig for that. And it was outside of the bounds of what we could really justify doing. Business wise. It's not a home for full sizes. Not that Hammers is, but we are at a point where we could better tolerate some of that. And then the desert race world still beckons. But there was some promise of going desert racing in a vehicle that was much more capable than a class three, although as you remember, and everybody actually, I don't know that everybody remembers back when everybody argued about whether ultra four cars were faster than Jeep speeds. It seems hard to think that that was an argument, but it was.
[01:41:25.650] - Steven Watson
But we got to raise something in the desert that was way more capable than any class three, because class three is the generally full size. It's not restricted to full size, but short wheel based, four wheel drive and very production based. I've mentioned it a few times as we talked about racing stuff here.
[01:41:50.910] - Big Rick Klein
Yeah, that's where you get the Dodge power wagons and the Ram Chargers, the Blazers, the Broncos, right?
[01:42:02.130] - Steven Watson
Yes. And pretty restrictive rules that basically make it to where the TTP Bronco is the vehicle that should win everything. And for a while we tried lobbying score to open up the rules to where you could put coilovers on the front of a Blazer, because that was clearly the way everything was going and so on, but it never really materialized. And then all of a sudden it's like, oh, we can go desert race or rock crawler too. So we did that first King of the Hammers and then did the first biggest arena race, nine, that's become kind of iconic and ended up, I think that's a place where having some desert race experience and a pretty good eye for prepping for this kind of stuff paid off. Not dramatically, but enough that it helped us out because we ended up second in that race and just couldn't quite put enough time on Ccalis. We finished ahead of him on the third day, but not enough ahead of him to make up the time split. But we had enough fewer problems than everybody else that we were able to do that. It was even super fun from the beginning.
[01:43:35.050] - Steven Watson
We were pretty well out classed car wise, which was real evident on the second day after we had what all happened in all of that. The fuel cell mounts broke on the first day and we had all kinds of fuel delivery problems on the first day. So at the pit that night, we ended up jab Nasty Matt. We borrowed his welding rig on his truck for a while and remounted the fuel cell and got that all squared away and cut the exhaust out from underneath the back of the car, where it wrapped around the fuel cell so that that heat wasn't contributing to our problems and insulated some fuel lines. And the next day had essentially a flawless run as far as the car was concerned, but had an epic afternoon of racing with Ben Napier in his bomber car. And the one trick that we had done is we knew we needed every advantage we could get because we still had a throttle body 350 in the car. And it was right out of the 88 Suburban that my brother pulled it from. And that trim in that vehicle, it might have made 250 HP at the flywheel.
[01:45:05.030] - Steven Watson
And this was a time when I don't know what Ben had in that car to start with. I think it was an LS one, but a 350 HP engine in those cars was pretty commonplace. Not unusual, but we put an extra fuel cell in. So we carry a total of 55 gallons of fuel because we put this second fuel cell in the back of the car. And that's what won the second day for us, because as we started moving into the afternoon and we're racing back and forth with Ben two or three times, we'd be going down the course and he'd just fly by us. We had just put some bypass shocks on the back of the car, but didn't have a chance to tune them at all. So the front, just to coil over the rear, actually has a pair of bypasses, but they're just kind of scabbed in there and not tuned and we're just giving it all we have. But he just fly by us in chattery stuff. But it was good enough that we could keep up and they had a little fuel cell that they had to fill out of, like these regular gas cans, like dirt bike style gas cans.
[01:46:26.090] - Steven Watson
And with 55 gallons of fuel on board, we didn't stop at all the entire afternoon. So back to some of the magazine stuff. Robin Stover was writing for four Wheeler and he co drove with me. I was driving that second leg and he was super on point. We got along great. Everything clicked in the car and we got in with, I don't know, 210 miles to go or something like that and never stopped. And we got to the point that as we're getting later in the race and later in the afternoon, we'd have our guys go ahead and pull up and set up a full pit stop and they'd have the Jack out and we'd call out on the radio, they'd put a speaker out because we're all pitted right next to each other and we put a speaker out, hey, this is where we're at. We're coming in and then we drive right by one of my guys that actually still works with us was helping us and he loves the story, but he was standing there next to one of the guys helping with the bomber car. And we go plays and buy and the guy just looks over, he goes, they're not stopping.
[01:47:56.570] - Steven Watson
What are we doing here? And we passed them twice in the pit and I think they passed us three times on the course and we finished right behind them at the very end of that leg and ended up picking them up on time. But it was a super cool day and it was neat. That the one trick that we had we were able to exploit and that we just didn't have to stop. And they had to stop and get gas and keep fuel cool in the car and we're filling out a small cans and that one little thing managed to get us close enough that we've still finished in their dust. I don't know how big of a split it was, but we managed to win that day, so super cool deal. And then the next day we're chasing Circalis and we'd be in first. The day before we started first and somehow Kevin had got around us at some point. And this is a race that Sikhala was talking about being out wherever he was on the course and at one point gets out of the car and has a sandwich and is sitting in a chair and all of a sudden somebody's like, these guys are right here.
[01:49:19.030] - Steven Watson
And I don't remember if it was us or somebody else, but he's like, oh, shit, get everything together and jump in the car and go, It's just a different race field than a lot of the stuff that we have going today. But there's a point. We've been pacing Kevin for quite a while and we figured out that we're in some twisty stuff, whatever it was, we were able to get up on him and we put together a run and went to the 110% and just ran up on him super hard right out of the dust and lay on the Horn. And he had seen us kind of coming around a corner and thought we were one of the desert cars, class one car or something coming up on him. So he just pulls over and lets us go. No way we could have driven that hard for very long, but we managed to fake him out and got in front of him. But then he knew who it was and knew where we were and knew that he only needed to be. I think he had to be within a minute of us so he could drive at the edge of our dust and just paste off of us and came in and ended up winning that day and winning the overall.
[01:50:37.110] - Steven Watson
That was super cool. And for a handful of cars that weren't supposed to beat the XJS, I think we did pretty good.
[01:50:46.370] - Big Rick Klein
Absolutely. How many years did you race at Koh?
[01:50:53.610] - Steven Watson
So we ran a good number of races in the series over the next five years and 13 was the last race that I was a driver of record. Okay. And since then I think I missed one year of being in the car somewhere in there. But since then I've been riding with a couple of friends and I've basically been in a car practically every year since then but haven't put together our own race effort. As I look at it, there's really no way that I could do what I've done with family and business. My brother pretty much sort of forced the issue because it was getting to a point that we knew that we needed another car that last year we raised before we broke a spindle. We were running in the top ten, which was our goal and practically it was the only goal that we could look at because by 2010 stuff was starting to get pretty fast.
[01:52:09.160] - Steven Watson
And I'm sorry, by 2013, when you go out in a car that you're hoping to be able to finish top ten. We'd been twelve in 2012 and the very first one we did in nine, we were 13th. So we had a couple of pretty good finishes and one other 17th or something one of the other years, but it was clear that we needed to build a new car and it was time to step the program up that we needed to start testing and driving more. And if we were going to continue to have any success, it was going to get harder. And I think he had a life assessment moment and very justifiably just pulled out. He's like, I can't do it. And so I ended up, like I say, racing with friends, which has worked out well. And the upside is it was good for my family. Also, I was able to spend more time around my boys that as I look back, I hadn't been and more time with my business that as I look back would have been very hard to continue making happen. So it worked out pretty well. But I do miss driving and I think we're close to a point where I can look at putting together a race effort of my own of some sort here pretty soon.
[01:53:45.080] - Steven Watson
Next few years probably awesome.
[01:53:47.700] - Big Rick Klein
And you're going to go desert or are you going to go back Koh type?
[01:53:54.590] - Steven Watson
I'm not sure. Probably Hammers stuff, Johnson Valley still, there's still something to that and I think it's the allure of what we do in the real world is with this camping, exploring, outdoors type use of a vehicle is you go drive, help, potentially a bunch of highway and then a bunch of just regular back roads. And at some point you may end up doing some rock crawling and putting all of that together. The challenge of it and the kind of the real gritty feel. And this is not to play down courses like in Baja, especially in Baja. I mean, there's some really rough stuff that it makes you wonder how anything that's two wheel drive gets through this stuff. And I'm not telling you anything you've been there, but a lot of people, I don't think, really understand that there are places where you're just blazing down, essentially a long graded gravel road. But there's also spots where there's dudes going rock crawling and trophy trucks. And like the Ledge Drops, dropping down whatever the area is down by La Paz when we dropped off of that. And a two wheel drive truck, it's one of those where you kind of have to Blit the throttle at the top of this thing.
[01:55:26.800] - Steven Watson
The Ledge jump, and they do some pretty serious terrain in two wheel drive vehicles. But it's obviously nothing compared to Hammers, but still some hard stuff there. But I think the accessibility of Hammers appeals to me a lot. Also, you don't have to go to Baja to go do it.
[01:55:51.150] - Big Rick Klein
And it's easier if you can stay easier and less expensive, in all honesty, than trying to do a run down the Peninsula a lap rates for the 1000 or the 500. It's not like going to that's why they only do the point to point races every three years, right?
[01:56:18.830] - Steven Watson
Yeah. That's because it is a pretty major deal. And I do want to go do something in the login raise a thousand. But that might get satisfied with going down and putting together an Ora effort. And my buddy Kevin that I've been riding with, Stearns, has an old Chevy X race truck that we're looking at getting together for a Nora effort. And that sounds like it'd be a pretty good time and it might be enough to satisfy the Baja urge. So we'll kind of see where that goes. Yeah.
[01:56:59.020] - Big Rick Klein
I've never spent any time with the Nora race. It never works out schedule wise for me, but I look forward to that in the future. Going down and at least running like recovery or something like that, sweeping the course.
[01:57:17.070] - Steven Watson
Right. Yeah. And I'd like to go down and just go be part of it myself, kind of like you at some point. But, yeah, it sounds like a much more gentlemanly way to race than driving through the middle of the night. So, yeah, we'll kind of see where that goes. The one thing is, like I mentioned earlier with this ifs curious hashtag, as the ultra four world has started bringing ifs to where it is presently and as that four wheel drive technology is, I hesitate to even say trickled. It's like flooding the high end desert race world. It's more obvious than ever that there's we've learned so many things from racing. It really is an environment that pushes the cars and pushes the people and forces you to learn things. As I look back on the first coilover suspension, the links set up that I put on my Blazer, I wonder how the heck I drove the thing. It was terrible. And I look at it now, and the stuff that we're building now with basically the technology that we've pulled out, the things that we've learned from making these things go fast in all kinds of terrain, and we have stuff a video clip today of what's essentially the Blazer equivalent of a supercar that one of our customers put together with our coilover kits.
[01:59:04.970] - Steven Watson
And I think we may have built them a transfer case, but the thing has got a blown LS three in it and relatively long travel suspension and 40s and guys are driving down the road. It tracks straight, drives great. This is a fully usable, reasonably quirk free vehicle that can also go bomb the desert. In our case, without King of the Hammers specifically and the ultra four racing that has popped up and the number of people from the recreational off road world that it's brought into it, things would not be where they are today. With being able to do the stuff we can with a vehicle.
[01:59:54.870] - Big Rick Klein
I agree 100%. So what else is in the future, do you think for Offer Design and Steven Watson?
[02:00:06.270] - Steven Watson
It's a little bit of an interesting question for me, shop wise. I've got a good crew of guys and ladies. It's a little bit interesting at this point. A little bit of my focus and a little bit of my reward from work is in helping them, and that's a little bit different. I've always been super technical and really been rewarded with racing has been a big thing that it's nice that it's around because it provides some excitement that it's hard to get. And I don't want to call it from the day job because running something like Offer Design and having that be my baby is pretty awesome and is a pretty dreamy quote day job. But everything that you get paid for, there's something mundane. You got to work at it. And it's always been nice having the more technical side to keep my brain really stimulated. But something that I've gotten some reward out of more than I thought that I would lately is seeing some of those people really step up and grow in the business. So that's one of the things that I think is pretty bright is future wise for us is being able to just keep that going forward.
[02:01:49.100] - Steven Watson
And then for me personally, that's always an interesting question. And after listening to your interview with Randy Ellis, it does make you wonder at what point should I just sell everything and go buy a boat in kind of a proverbial sense, but I feel like I'm getting to a point. I have kids mostly, out of the house. I've got a business that's doing well enough that well, there's times that I still need to be there. I need to be there a lot, actually. But there's something on the horizon to where I have some time for some choices and some of that I got to figure it out. Like we've talked with the racing world. I've got a few things that are kind of on the bucket list, and I want to get a couple of different vehicles put together. I haven't had a good camping truck for a long time, which seems really weird, but I'm looking at my window at a Suburban that we have here at my house that I want to turn into a dedicated camping truck because so much of our stuff has been really dedicated to the ultimate adventure builds and using those trucks, that a lot of the vehicle capabilities.
[02:03:15.420] - Steven Watson
What I got into this for have been kind of pushed by the wayside. That's one that has got me a little bit more excited for things over the last few weeks, probably. Yeah. There's a lot of stuff to figure out still going forward. I don't know what my boat is, and I'm kind of looking forward to figuring it out.
[02:03:42.750] - Big Rick Klein
Awesome. I know that Mayan is a boat. Our off season is spent on our boat, and I'm looking forward to that time when we can spend more time on the boat and maybe that'd be our home base and go out from there. So I enjoy being on the water. I really do.
[02:04:07.050] - Steven Watson
Yeah. And that's something I want to take a look at. Two is just going through. As we talked about a little bit earlier, one of the reasons for buying our shop where we did is it's a lot better quality of life for all of our people. It's convenient near more affordable housing. It's hard to say what affordable is for anybody anywhere these days, but it's better than where we were. And my commute is a little bit shorter. So my podcast time gets cut a little bit short. But as we've been talking and after we talked in Moab, I went back through your podcast list again. It's like, man, I need to come back and listen to more of these and kind of see what people are doing because it's always interesting watching progression of other people and other businesses. And as we've talked about seeing things change just in the four wheel drive world and kind of the technical side of it, but it's also seeing progression of people is really cool. And that's something that you've got 100 and some podcast of interesting people.
[02:05:26.850] - Big Rick Klein
Yeah. That's the one thing I have to say, is that learning about everybody, even those that I've known very well for a long time, I always learned something new. But it's the insight in what's driven people and to move forward in the offroad industry. I first started doing this and I was going to just be specifically into the rock crawling world, rock sports. And then I realized that there's so much crossover between offroad desert style or overlanding or extreme car camping, whatever you want to call it, and rock crawling and all the different industries that poke into those worlds that this whole thing needed to be expanded. And so I'm doing more of the people on my list that I want to interview are getting more and more into the desert racing side, I would say, than necessarily strictly four wheel drive or rock crawling because there is so much crossover. The gap between the desert world and the rock world is getting smaller and narrower as we go along.
[02:06:54.790] - Steven Watson
And I was happy to see over the last few years the real resurgence of hardcore cone dodging, if you want to put it that way.
[02:07:06.020] - Big Rick Klein
[02:07:08.230] - Steven Watson
With the portal steering cars kind of making a real comeback. And I kind of feel like sand hollow as just an area, as a wreck area has been pretty instrumental in that. In addition to we rock stand strong and so on. But I feel like that's something that waned a little bit and is coming back strong and there's always going to be all kinds of cool stuff coming out of that world. That's trickling up in speed maybe, I guess, is a good way to put it. Yes. But like we talked about at the very beginning, just with the stock car world, in my case, with that influence, it's cool taking these other industries and seeing where they go. And one that I'm interested to look at in the future is electric drive. Where that's going pull from is her CC cars, right?
[02:08:17.460] - Steven Watson
Which seems weird that's a major trickle up because that world seems like, as always, they're trying to make a thing that looks like a full sized vehicle, but we're going to end up driving our C cars. And I'm Super pumped for that because the capabilities are going to just be unreal, like to the point that we're going to have to figure out how to keep people alive in the damn things. You think about what you can do, you know, what an RC car will do and take and then you think about a little soft, squishy human being in that thing. We're going to bump into some different limits. It's going to be really interesting.
[02:09:05.080] - Big Rick Klein
Yeah, absolutely. Well, Steven, I want to say thank you so much for coming on board and spending this Sunday morning discussing your life and your history and your take on offroad and rock motor sports and motor sports off road in general. And thank you for spending the time with with me, me and sharing your life with our listeners.
[02:09:36.150] - Steven Watson
Yeah. Thanks for the opportunity. And hopefully you've got enough stuff there. You can cut it down and make a pretty cool podcast out of it. A lot of times it just seems like we're telling stories and that's about it. And I also forget that for so many people, this is way cooler. And as I look back on some of this stuff, it's like, wow, that was really cool, but it's easy to kind of get jaded, but there are so many people that where this is all cool stuff. And even guys like me, it's fun going back and listening to the stories from other guys talking about Vegas to Reno and talking about these desert race events. So thanks for the chance to tell my side of some of that.
[02:10:25.560] - Big Rick Klein
Well, I appreciate it. And tell the family hello and we'll catch up again later. Yeah.
[02:10:35.000] - Steven Watson
Plan on seeing you out in the dirt somewhere.
[02:10:37.210] - Big Rick Klein
Sounds good. Thank you.
[02:10:39.300] - Steven Watson
All right. Thanks, Rich.
[02:10:42.150] - Speaker 1
Thank you for listening to Conversations with big Rich. Please let your friends know about this podcast. Let us know what you think of conversations with big Rich. Please forward ideas to me contacts of those that I should attempt to interview leave a rating on any of the services you found us on on. We look forward to your comments and ideas. Enjoying life is a must follow your dreams and grab all the gusto you can.