We’re celebrating our one-year anniversary on Conversations with Big Rich with a release of the first episode of Season 2 – Episode 52 features Thomas Kingston of Spidertrax fame.
Thom Kingston, self-professed, highly competitive, problem-solver, shares all-things Spidertrax, from Birfield rings to Spider 9’s and how one led to the next. An authentic conversation with a true mover-and-shaker in the industry.
4:31 – National Champion in rifle
8:46 – what’s your back-up plan?
11:00– Eddie had a Samurai
13:41 – top ten in the SAE competition with an amphibious vehicle
19:39 – product #1 at Spidertrax
23:34 – why Colorado?
31:18 – how we were able to pull off Spidertrax in college, we can’t hide anymore
38:39 – It was like magic!
45:17 – Shifted our focus from competing ourselves to building components to work with teams
49:43 – Tracy Jordan is the best
53:49 – Oroville is freshest in my mind, “I don’t understand these lines”
56:04 – the Spider 9
1:02:43 – the Rock Bug build, the whole story revealed
1:15:33– why my hands are on the shop floor
1:20:59 – the future of Spidertrax
We want to thank our sponsors Maxxis Tires and 4Low Magazine.
Support the show (https://www.buymeacoffee.com/BigRich)
This transcript is extracted by AI, there will be mistakes in words, punctuation and spelling. Please forgive those.
Welcome to the Big Rich show, this podcast will focus on conversations with friends and acquaintances within the four wheel drive industry. Many of the people that I will be interviewing, you may know the name, you may know some of the history, but let's get in depth with these people and find out what truly makes them a four wheel drive enthusiast. So now's the time to sit back, grab a cold one and enjoy our conversation. 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.
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[00:01:20.720] - Big Rich Klein
On today's episode of Conversations with Big Rich, we have Thomas Kingston known otherwise as Thom. Thom is the owner of Spidetrax and has been in the industry at least as long as myself, and probably longer.
But we're going to talk to Thom about the beginnings of his four wheel drive life and his life in general and how Spidertax came about. So I want to thank Thom. Thank you for coming on board and being our guest. This is our one-year anniversary show, and it's good to have you on board.
[00:02:01.010] - Thomas Kingston
Thanks Big. Thanks for having me. And congratulations on the podcast. You're doing a great job.
[00:02:04.790] - Big Rich Klein
Well, thank you. So let's let's get right into the meat and potatoes. Where did you grow up?
[00:02:11.960] - Thomas Kingston
New Jersey or otherwise known as Jersey, for those that live there, and I spent a lot of my life there and started Spidertrax toward the end of my Jersey journey and eventually moved out to Colorado in 2001. So Nutley, New Jersey, and of course, went to school at NJIT, New Jersey Institute of Technology, where Spidertrax started.
[00:02:37.500] - Big Rich Klein
OK, let's let's go even earlier, when you were a youth growing up in Jersey now, was it Jersey Shore? You don't. Whenever I hear Jersey, I always think Guido's, you know, so.
[00:02:52.650] - Thomas Kingston
So, yeah, it's either the Jersey Shore or The Sopranos. And funny enough, it's The Sopranos. It's The Sopranos were shot right outside my house. Oh, wow. Yeah. So that's that side of Jersey.
[00:03:06.480] - Big Rich Klein
Oh, that side. OK, so then I don't want to mess with you then. OK, so let's let's talk about those early years going to school.
I know that you're you are absolutely one of the most intelligent people that I know. So I would imagine your you're going to let you down here than sorry. No, I appreciate that. Now, you've done some of the stuff that you've innovated and put together and in a lot of that stuff will get into has been phenomenal. But your your background, when you were going to school was there. This is a question I ask. Almost everybody. Was there sports involved or was it more scholastic?
[00:03:55.060] - Thomas Kingston
Yeah, that's that's interesting, so on the school side before college, so a pre- university on the on the scholastic side of for me, I just I love solving problems. I was a problem solving kind of guy. So math and science always came easy to me. Everything else was insanely difficult.
On the sports side.
I bounced around a bit early, but later on in high school, I got a lot of people don't know this, but I got really into a rifle and we had a rifle team in high school.
And actually in 95 I'm first in states. So this is rifle prone position, 50 foot, no sights, no magnification, that is. And I was really into that. So I did that for four years and it became a real big passion of mine such that, you know, after winning after winning nationals and you kind of have in the background I did for math and science, I was about about daily contacted by by different groups in the armed services like they were they were really into it.
So I remember that being very interesting because it was never a thought in my mind. And it was like a daily note to say, we would like to talk to you, we like to talk to you. And I'm like, oh, why? Like, I don't get it. And it was a lot of fun.
I know some connotations on on rifle teams today in high school are pretty much nonexistent. But I could tell you, at least in the early in the early days and the good days, it was an absolute blast. We had such a good time doing it. It was a lot of fun.
[00:05:32.530] - Big Rich Klein
Yeah, I would imagine high school right now, there's probably not very many shooting teams left. And just like there aren't, you know, the tech, unless you go to a school that is tech orientated like a tech high school, most of the tech or shop classes have have disappeared. And that's a real shame.
[00:05:53.380] - Thomas Kingston
It is a shame. You know, I, I got lucky, I guess by the time I graduated high school, I had four years of rifle team, absolutely loved it, had four years of mechanical drafting.
So that was no AutoCAD. This is all, you know, actual drafting on a draft board. Number Two, four, six pencils scumbag's for those that know what that is and absolutely, you know, t squares and all that. I was obsessive. I loved it. And it it it transformed how how I worked in college because everything went to then cad. But having the the background of line weights and where dimensions should live, the size of the dimensions, the distances of dimensions, I mean all those small technicalities are completely lost. And I, I had that in high school for four years.
I also had automotive, I had an electric class. I mean we had all these, we had all these classes that I mean, I couldn't imagine not having them.
I scratch my head today.
It's got to be an interesting and oftentimes difficult for for many students coming out because, yeah, a lot of these classes had disappeared shortly after I took them.
So I don't know what the dynamic is today. I know they have a lot of electives, so I don't want to say it's all gone. But certainly a lot of those are no longer in place.
[00:07:15.370] - Big Rich Klein
Yeah, I think is a is a focus for those students that are that are more inclined to the mechanical side of the world. I think that it's been greatly diminished and harder to find. At least that's my impression.
[00:07:30.460] - Thomas Kingston
Yeah, that's mine too. I mean, maybe where the old guys and we're not looking at it. Right. But I have a I have a niece who's wanting to become a mechanical engineer and now she has the joys of navigating all of this, this idea of remote schooling with everything going on. And she has she has to take labs on the computer. I mean, she's just clicking buttons and it's not fun. Like, I know it's not fun because she tells me it's not fun.
So I feel I feel for all of them.
I hope that she even gets a return to some normalcy soon. But on top of everything else, it's it is it is quite a bit different of a landscape, that's for sure.
[00:08:09.160] - Big Rich Klein
Correct. So then from high school and shooting team, let's jump right into that and go into it nowadays or from there to now. Did you pursue anything with your ability, the abilities that you got on the rifle team?
[00:08:28.270] - Thomas Kingston
No, I didn't at all. I don't know why. I had a lot of fun with it, and I really only thought of it as as an enjoyment, as a kind of a sport.
And I didn't go any any further with it once once I got into university, you know, it's pretty nerve racking.
I going to college for the first time, pretty much explicitly told that you probably need a backup plan. Because this is very difficult. Most most students drop out, I think the dropout rate for freshmen's was 50 percent and then after that, another twenty five percent by sophomore. It was really high dropout rate. And so the argument was, look, I don't know if you're going to be able to cut this, so make sure you get a backup plan.
So there was really no time for anything else. By the time I got into university, it was, oh my goodness, I better just do this and only this pretty much for every waking hour of the day. And my fallback was architecture. I thought, jeez, you know, I really love architecture. So if this doesn't pan out for me, like most people are telling me, it's not going to I have I have architecture to to fall back on.
And that should be quite good. And so that that was kind of my my dive into it. So freshman year, you know, loaded up with calculus and physics and chem and just like it's so overwhelming, I thought, oh, this is it, this is going to be the end. And so that was it. There was no time for anything else. I guess this is the the summary of that story. I just it was all school, OK?
[00:10:00.680] - Big Rich Klein
So then let's let's look at it, those high school years, when did you when did you start driving any kind of motorized vehicle? Was it pre-high school with motorcycles or was it just, you know, family like here's a car type thing?
[00:10:19.340] - Thomas Kingston
Yeah, it was family. Here's the car type thing. I my first vehicle was the nineteen seventy seven Buick LeSabre with an eight track.
It was cool and, and I had a lot of fun with that.
So I worked on that car to get it up and running. It was from my grandmother and I just thought, hey, that's wonderful, I'll have something to, to drive around. And the, the off roading scene didn't really come into play until until college. And that would have been about the second semester, freshman first semester, sophomore ish area, which was my second vehicle, which was the Suzuki Samurai, and that was my second vehicle.
[00:10:56.960] - Big Rich Klein
And how did you fall into a samurai?
Yeah, that's that's that's interesting. I have to think about that one and scratch my head a little bit too. But I know that's when Eddie and I met. And so, Eddie, for those that are new to Spidertrax history, Eddie was my business partner. He's retired from the company for a number of years now. So we started this together back in NJIT. So he had this Suzuki Samurai first and started playing around.
And I think in Jersey it just was seen as something pretty ridiculous. You know, we'd have to drive out of Jersey, there's some places in Jersey, but we typically had to leave Jersey to do anything. And I just thought it was the coolest thing in the world.
I really dug the vehicle. I loved a lot of the engineering behind the vehicle and just it kind of clicked, watched what Eddie was doing. And I thought, yeah, jeez, I'd like to do this with you. This looks fun. So it was pretty much him and I certainly in school who had these crazy samurai's playing around. And that's kind of how that was born.
[00:11:58.040] - Big Rich Klein
Well, that's cool. Was are both of you having samurais? Were there others at the institute that had those type of vehicles or jeeps or anything? No, no, no.
[00:12:10.940] - Thomas Kingston
I know what I know. No, we had a circle of friends outside of school that then jumped on because it was it was very cool. You know, it just you had to really understand it. It maybe had to wire be wired a little bit different. But but on campus. No, it wasn't. No, it wasn't like a popular thing. There was no clubs for that. Now, I guess sidestepping a little bit, I should I should clarify this.
So that was the offroad scene. Now in college, we did have an organization called the Society of Automotive Engineers.
Now, through that organization, we did build different types of vehicles.
And one of them was a Baja style vehicle that was amphibious.
Now, this is a much smaller scale vehicle and that is an amazing organization for those that aren't familiar with SAE, definitely look into it, fantastic organization that backs up automotive engineering at a very, very big way.
So we did have that on campus that that was very popular. And so it was very school focused. Of course, you know, extending from that into building up a samurai to drive to work. People thought it was cool, but that that wasn't necessarily popular but SAE was. And so that was happening at the same time.
[00:13:22.940] - Big Rich Klein
OK, great. I just saw an ad on Facebook for volunteers for the SAE Baja program that's going to be in Phoenix outside of Phoenix at the Toyota test grounds out there.
[00:13:38.480] - Thomas Kingston
Yeah, it's it is so amazing.
So imagine you now SAE they have a variety of different events that they do. The Baja one is the one that's closest to me.
That's the one I spent most time on the idea Baja was so fun because it was an undergraduate focus only.
So you could not have graduate students coming in and developing, you know, parts and components for the vehicle. It had to be built and designed by undergraduates.
You had design parameters that you had that you had to fall within. The rule book is is pretty large and it just got you thinking as a creative engineer, you know, you might be able to draw something, but that doesn't mean you can make it and it doesn't mean it's going to work.
So this was just a fantastic opportunity for students to, you know, to really take it to the end of, OK, here's the vehicle, let's get in it and drive. And competitors come from all over the world. And at least at that time and I think today it's still the case with COVID it might have changed a little bit. But they have three events that they traditionally have done. So there's like an East, Midwest and a West.
Now, the West is like you would think it's kind of the desert inspired, kind of go fast.
Baja. The East was designed at the time at least, to build a vehicle that could go fast on the dirt track, but it would be amphibious. So you just drive it right in a lake and. You'd have to drive through the lake and then get to the other side. Oh, yeah. And it is it's madness. I mean, it's complete madness because you have a pile of undergraduate's with no money trying to build these vehicles. It's wonderful.
And so and then take it across the lake. Oh, yeah, it's crazy. Like, I remember one year, I mean, we had we had rescue teams because, like, you would you would go out on the lake and you would have these, you know, you know, flotation on the vehicle, let's say.
But let's say the left side just disconnected. Well, the thing barrel rolls underneath the lake. And it's I remember the one event we did where we're literally diving in the lake, pulling people out.
They held the event in Canada. So we had to actually go to Canada for the event.
I mean, it was snowing like we were breaking through ice with these vehicles. It was it was utter madness to think of what we did it. I mean, it's wonderful.
Honestly, it all, you know, helps you become a better engineer for sure.
[00:15:54.680] - Big Rich Klein
It was a lot of fun and too bad it was pre-cell phone smartphone. So, oh, you don't have all the everybody doesn't have, you know, 20 different angles on video from their their smartphone because that would make some. Yes. For some great stuff.
[00:16:11.170] - Thomas Kingston
Oh, I agree, you know, we didn't we didn't have the cell phones, and so the footage and stuff from the events is, yeah, it's all in the memory banks, I guess.
But the other thing you didn't have back then, too, is you didn't have Google for every answer. And so, you know, you're showing up to events, trying to beat ninety nine other teams. I mean, there's a hundred teams registered. So you're trying to beat ninety nine other teams with not a whole lot of information. You have you have the information of the vehicles that you did previous years and you have the information of the vehicles that have competed in previous years.
A lot of of it's word of mouth. But you show up to this event and you know, somebody I remember specifically was Michigan State University. So they show up to the to the event and they figured out a way in the rulebook for safety to make a vehicle that was about half the weight of everybody else because they found a supplier for a piece of tube that satisfied the safety requirements, but was about .035 wall or .030 wall. It was insane.
But but but it's still it's still satisfied the rules. And so they ended up with a vehicle that was almost half the weight of other teams. And with the motor being spec-ed, you know, they were they were blowing past everybody. And, you know, you don't find this out until you show up and you're like, oh, what?
So there was no social media, there was no forums.
There wasn't a lot of that. And so it was definitely a different world. You didn't have access to quite as much information. It was it was challenging.
[00:17:34.570] - Big Rich Klein
So how did you guys do at that SAE event?
[00:17:38.810] - Thomas Kingston
Oh, yes, so by the by the time I finished out at NJIT, we had a vehicle that was able to place in the top 10, we never won. I we would we would definitely have needed more funding, I think, to be competitive to the very, very top teams. I think we had good know how, but we were a top 10 team. I forget the the the place that we had at the very I think it was seventh, but I have to go back and check.
If it was seventh or eighth it was around there, but we were top ten by the time I left. And, you know, lessons learned, you know, up until that top ten car, all the vehicles we were building were fairly radical, like we were one of the first teams to run a gearbox. We had reverse. I mean, you didn't have reverse in these vehicles. And so we would you know, of course, we would line up to the event and put it in reverse and back up and check that out.
You know, we were really cool, but but the vehicles, you know, arguably were just overcomplicated.
Right. And, you know, one of the one of the biggest points that you get in this event is is from the endurance race. So it's a four hour endurance race. So imagine that event in Canada is four hours of running on dirt track. And you're you know, you're going through lakes and breaking ice and it's just it's madness.
And the vehicle had to be quite durable. So obviously, complexity is a big deal here, right? If the vehicles are more complex than it deserves to be, you know, good luck surviving four hours. And you can hear a lot of us now transform into Spidertrax. But, you know, you do this for four years and you realize, jeez, this vehicle needs to be simplified quite a bit. And it was that last vehicle that we worked on when I left.
And it was it was like the least probably exciting vehicle. It was just so simple. And we were able to get into the top ten.
And I'm like, OK, well, there you go. Keep it simple. Yep.
[00:19:31.310] - Big Rich Klein
How did it come about with you and Eddie and the start of Spidertrax?
[00:19:39.270] - Thomas Kingston
Yes, so that that one that one is, I think, pretty easy, actually. So yeah, you have this Suzuki Samurai and of course, you know, any OE vehicle, you start doing stuff to it that wasn't by design. And, you know, things don't quite work as well as they used to. So on the samurai, the biggest the biggest issue you'd run into with the larger tires was the front axle shaft and specifically the Birfield joint.
And Toyota has had the same issue. Right. So. Right. So, OK, so here we go. We put our thirty threes on this vehicle and now we're blowing up these these Birfield joints. So so Eddie actually had an idea to put a ring on the Birfield joint.
So it was it was a ring on the outside of the Birfield joint to try to keep everything together.
And he had already designed the thing. He was actually making a few. And so we bump into each other. I'm like, oh, that's that's really clever. Now, I haven't I don't think I own my Suzuki Samurai at this point. I think the Suzuki Samurai purchase came immediately after this. So he's making this a little Birfield ring. And I thought, jeez, that's that's a really that's a really cool idea. I'm like, man, I think we can get the price way down if I can work with the mill to supply this material in chromaly in a in an extruded tube form.
And it would it would it would carve out all the manufacturing time. And I think it'd be a pretty affordable product. And Eddie and I had known each other prior to this. So he's like, yeah, let's, let's do it. That sounds like a great idea. So we lined all that up and next thing you know, we made a Birfield ring, a really clean product, wrote some instructions for it, and we had a distributor at the time who thought it was a really cool idea.
That was a Rocky Road Outfitters and who's still rockin today and said, man, we want to sell that. Can you make us some and we'll put it up on, you know, in the catalog and see, you know, how it'll do. And we thought, jeez, that's cool. That'll be exciting. Let's do that. So we came up with a name, Spidertrax and wrote some instructions, made some Birfield rings. Heat sealed them up and ship them to Glen at Rocky Road and said, OK, we'll see what happens.
And that was it. That's that's that's how it started.
[00:21:50.790] - Big Rich Klein
So that was product number zero zero zero one, right?
That is absolutely the very first product. Once you got through college. You guys are living you're living in New Jersey, obviously, at least for the at that graduation time. How long did you stay in Jersey and then, you know, talk about those years then and then jumping into Colorado?
[00:22:18.170] - Thomas Kingston
Yeah. So I graduated in 2000, moved to Colorado in 2001, so from 2000 to 2001. And it worked out to be about a year. Myself and my wife at the time focused on Spidertrax almost 100 percent. I was 100 percent. And then and then she was part time. Eddie was a part time as well. I had graduated and decided to do Spidertrax full time to see what we can make of this.
So that was that was the transition from graduation to getting ready to move out to Colorado, which I think ties into. Why Colorado? You know what made us jump there? So, you know, when we were talking before about you have this kind of lifted, modified, tricked out Suzuki Samurai, you want to go four wheeling, where do you go? So, Jersey, not many places. We had the down by the shore like we had talked about before.
And the baron's a beacon. New York we would go to quite a bit. So New York State had a couple of places to wheel, not all technically legal. So that was always challenging. But, you know, whatever were young, so I will just go do it. But at the time, it's all magazines, right? So still the Internet's still very early. It's happening now, but it's still very, very early. So the magazines are really driving a lot of the focus.
And of course, one of the best places to wheel by far is Moab.
So we we would make the point every year to load up the Suzuki Samurais. And it was always right. It was the week always right before or right on finals. So it never logistically made sense, but it didn't matter. We were going to do it and we would load up the samurai's, rent some Penske trucks, throw the samurai's in the Penske truck and it's a forty two hours straight drive. So we would drive forty two hours straight to Moab and we'd wheel for the week and drive forty two hours straight back to get get our finals knocked out.
And that drive from Jersey to Moab is, is pretty boring. It's actually really boring until you hit Denver at least for me that's, that's how I remember it. So it's a really boring drive. And then you hit Denver and just the world changes. It's it's it's pretty amazing. I'm still blown away by it, but having really having traveled a whole lot, just the landscape, everything was just so dramatically different. I just instantly fell in love.
I remember the first time coming through Colorado, west of Denver. I actually called my girlfriend at the time, who's my wife now of over twenty years and said, You got to check, you've got to check this place out.
Like, this is amazing. So she came on the Moab trip the next year and I just instantly fell in love with it and Eddie was the same way. I know he fell in love with Colorado too. For us, it was Colorado, Arizona, like the four states, if you will, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico.
It was all just the landscape was just so radically unique. We just fell in love. So we were looking at it right. And we were entertaining coming out to this area. And that's kind of what was on our radar. So it all it all stemmed from Moab, our trips to Moab every year. That's that's what got us to consider coming out here, which which we did about a year after graduation.
[00:25:27.140] - Big Rich Klein
Do you remember what year it was that you first came out to Moab?
[00:25:30.980] - Thomas Kingston
Yeah, would have been nineteen ninety six or seven, I think seven, I want to say seven I'm sorry I'm I think seven. Was it 1997.
[00:25:41.480] - Big Rich Klein
OK, and was that a Suzuki based event that was going on or just time wise that was the best for you guys.
[00:25:49.540] - Thomas Kingston
Well, it was Easter Jeep Safari and Suzuki Samurai presence at the time, wasn't it was big because we brought our group out and then we had some others that that, of course, are well known for Suzuki Samurai's at the time. And we can get into that if we want. So we have we had a Suzuki Samurai presence that we would come out and kind of put on our show for the for the week.
Even at that time, it was still a very Jeep focused event. But I would say it was certainly more presence then than it is today. And we had quite a number of Suzuki samurais in our group when it was all said and done. So I thought I think we did pretty well with that.
[00:26:25.440] - Big Rich Klein
Awesome. Let's get into some of the products that you guys have created. Your first one was the Birfield ring. What was product number two and how many products did you have? Were you producing in that first year when you decided to move to Colorado?
[00:26:45.640] - Thomas Kingston
Yeah, that's good. So the Birfield ring was number one. We had a disc brake conversion that was definitely number two. And then we had an emergency brake kit. All for this Suzuki Samarai, I believe that was product number three. Now, right about product number three was our first wheel spacer kit, which I put a little emphasis on because the wheel spacer line is still a prominent line at Spidertrax so that came about right around the same time as the third product.
So that was either the third or the fourth product. And then after that, we got into complete rear ends. We call them Sidewinder axles. At the time, we had developed some simple suspension things.
At the time I'm trying to think was that I think we did I think we did have a quarter elliptic suspension kit when I was still in Jersey. I have to go back on the math, but that's about it. And a couple trinkets from there. So not a lot, to be honest with you. I mean, our family thought we were nuts because Spidertrax wasn't that hadn't really grown a whole lot.
I mean, we had recognition for the early work we were doing, but we didn't really have a prominent line. Sales numbers really didn't justify, you know, a move like that. The only thing that justifies that is, you know, being young and ambitious, which is fun. So I remember when we loaded up Penske trucks. That sounds like a Penske commercial. Sorry, but we loaded up Penske trucks and we when we drove out to Colorado, I'll never forget it was my I think it was my my my wife's parents.
I think they thought we were just joking, like they didn't think we were actually leaving.
Or at least that was the impression I was under the day of. So when we drove the Penske truck in front of the house to say our final goodbyes, they kind of were like, Really? I remember it was like this.
Look of defeat of like, oh, you're really leaving?
And it's like, oh yeah, we've been talking about it like, what are you talking about? And I just because it was outrageous, I mean, really, in their defense, it was the most ridiculous thing ever.
And so we just drove we just left to set up shop.
We were able to set up shop and we ended up settling, I guess, backtracking a little bit. Right.
So before before we made the commitment to to move to Colorado independently, myself and Eddie made trips out to Colorado. And in his case, he actually did some touring of Arizona as well. And just to kind of get our feet wet and explore like so we spent my wife and I spent like two weeks just driving around Colorado. So we took kind of like a vacation. We rented a car and just drove around all of Colorado just to see if this, like, made sense, you know, if we were still excited kind of thing.
And of course, we left just really pumps and kind of picked an area of where we thought it would make most sense to settle down, which was an area between somewhere between Boulder and Fort Collins, if memory serves me right. Eddie
came back and came with pretty much the same conclusion. He he loved Colorado as well.
And an area somewhere between Boulder and Fort Collins, which is like northern Colorado, north of Denver, on the front range. Right.
So so it just so happened that one of the Suzuki guys that we would bump into in Moab owned a machine shop that was located in Longmont, technically Hygiene, and said, jeez, I also own some buildings I could rent you like a little shop. So you guys can kind of settle in and we can help you on some of the manufacturing, because I got a full machine shop and we said, OK, that makes sense, let's do that.
And so that's how we ended up settling in that Longmont area for Spidertrax, technically Hygiene.
And so, yeah. So that day when we were just we had our bags packed and we decided to leave.
We obviously we knew where we were going. Family thought it was insane and it was it was insane. We just had a couple of pallets and some raw material on on on a few pallets and some of our own personal belongings.
And we started driving. It's it's pretty outrageous.
[00:30:42.040] - Big Rich Klein
It's kind of like the story of the the pioneers, you know, a hundred and fifty years ago coming. Across the country, so,
[00:30:51.660] - Thomas Kingston
yeah, it's. Yeah, I mean, I'm like laughing right now, thinking about it is it is it is the most outrageous thing to think about. But, you know, we have no kids, so, you know, and we're just, you know, we're recently married and and just kind of love and everything and that it was the right time.
Right. If you were going to do it, that's when you do it.
So, you know, go for it. And so we settled out here, you know, backtracking a little bit into school.
So when we when we started Spidertrax in college and we incorporated in ninety nine. So Spidertrax actually started in ninety eight, but we incorporated in February of ninety nine.
The reason why we were able to pull this off is on campus. We had a manufacturing program, it was called the Center of Manufacturing Systems, and this was kind of a grant that was given to the university to have this kind of allocation of space with all of these machines and CNC machines.
We had, you know, we had like a verticle mill, we had lathes, we had a CMM, we had a sinker EDM, stuff like that. And so the idea was the school was going to run this program CMS, they were going to hire some of the best and brightest students was how it was pitched. And and they would they would also work with one to two full time engineers that was on staff. And this grant program would help local manufacturing business.
That that was that was the pitch. That was the idea. So, for instance, if you had an idea for a patent and you were trying to get help with it, you and you were on a budget, you you could come to us. And if you didn't mind, you know, having some of the assistance of students and along with full time engineer, you can get a really good value, you know, get a good bang for your buck and we could help you develop the patent, you know, do the drawings for do the research for it actually make prototypes that that kind of thing.
We also had manufacturers come in and try to do process improvement. They were trying to figure out how to make something. And so we would use our machines so that you can get some time on them and we would help process improvement there.
So ultimately, Eddie and I, we're both we're both with this program.
And so we you know, we had access to us. I mean, young students, it just it's like a gold mine, right? You have access to all these machines.
So long story short, you know, five o'clock would hit and all the full time engineers would go home and the lights would shut off and then we'd sneak back and turn the lights on and run the machines until five thirty in the morning and sweep up and pretend we weren't there.
That's how all this started. So we're we're doing this for about two years.
And it had gotten big enough to where we were no longer able to hide it, like there was no pretending, like we weren't sneaking in and running all these machines.
So I was that gave it away or what were the employees and ended.
And the two engineers, the two older engineers think it's the coolest thing in the world. So, no, it was one of those things where everybody figured it out. But like, nobody wanted to talk about it because, like, I don't know, it's like it's you know, I think they thought it was really cool, but, jeez, should we really be doing this?
And I think ultimately it came down to the liability thing. So we ended up working out an agreement with the school where we were able to rent the space on behalf of Spidertrax. And it was I don't know, I don't know. They paid very little so that it was like technically correct, you know what I mean?
So but we were still doing the same thing. We worked all day and then we would shut down and then we just fire everything back up. But now everybody knew about it.
And I include that story because when we when we moved out to Colorado, we don't we don't have any machines.
We were using the school's machines and we certainly hadn't made enough profit to, you know, set up a whole machine shop. So when we partnered with our our buddies who had machine shop, it was kind of the best of all worlds. We had a small shop, a group of work out of the machine shop. I was attached to that. They allowed us to use the machine shop, but of course, they machined as well. And that's that allowed us to continue kind of the pseudo setup we had in university.
But, you know, now in the real world and and then we were able to continue to grow from there.
[00:35:08.820] - Big Rich Klein
Excellent. So then when did you guys jump in and into the competitive scene? How did that come about?
[00:35:18.030] - Thomas Kingston
Very early on. So the timing of all this is very interesting.
In in when we had started Spidertrax and just before Spidertrax, ARCA, you know, that was a thing. And so there's that that just started.
It was it was pretty early stages. And Eddie was Eddie got into it pretty early and we were working on it together, but with the Suzuki Samurai.
So those that remember the yellow Suzuki Samurai, I mean, that that that was Eddie and that was very, very early. ARCA days now we just kind of got our feet wet.
And to see, you know, it's pretty cool and we're pretty competitive by nature, I mean, we're from Jersey, so you're already competitive.
But, you know, we're just coming out of school. I mean, we're doing SAE I. I competed in rifle prior in college. I was also in the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. I was competing there all the time.
So competition was very much a kind of a normal thing for us. So it just kind of made sense and we were watching it. So when we moved to Colorado shortly after we had built what became one of our first tube chassis
So like a complete vehicle, which was just a big, big deal for us at the time because, you know, prior to that, you were building up an OE vehicle, you know, a Suzuki Samurai or a Toyota or a Jeep.
And so we had built a full tube chassis. We DXTX that's very, very early 2000.
And I was a forward engine and we built the housings and it was just a big deal for us. And we started to play with a full tube chassis to see, OK, was this where it's going? And then the sport just got very it kind of exploded on the competitive landscape because this is right before the time.
And then, of course, through the time when we were introduced to the Tiny mid engine vehicles and the game changed quite a bit. And we were absolutely at the forefront of all of that stuff. And we got to be part of all of it. But at a very young age, I mean, Spidertrax was still very infancy when we were building our very first vehicles to compete in that.
[00:37:27.510] - Big Rich Klein
It amazes me how fast the sport evolved from those first competitions with everybody. You know, you were really tricked out if you had a quarter elliptic set. And, you know, there's some technology, you know, you'd discussed it earlier that that never I mean, it was a stepping stone. But it it never went very far for a whole bunch of different reasons, which you could answer, which you could explain a lot better than me, but I'm always amazed at how fast the sport evolved.
[00:38:05.550] - Thomas Kingston
It was it was exciting and it did feel quick because you went from bringing a vehicle like a modified OE vehicle and just having an arsenal of spare parts, and you were you were fixing this vehicle constantly, you know, through an entire competition. And then it it feels like an overnight thing. But and and I think of Tiny a lot, because that was a very revolutionary build at the time where somebody was able to sit down, kind of looking outside of the sport with an arsenal of knowledge on their side, a lot different.
You know, you're just graduating school and trying to figure this stuff out and and you build a vehicle ground up for just one purpose. And it's to win this competition. And it was like magic.
I remember it was like magic. I was so in awe watching vehicles go from just, you know, pretty much breaking and fixing them throughout an event to climbing vertical walls that that looked like it was defying physics. And this is a guy who graduated at the top of his class at school. And I'm just sitting here scratching my head like, what is happening here? How did this vehicle do that? And, of course, you know, now we're being introduced to weight bias of the tires.
Right. This was not a thing like this stuff was just coming to fruition.
And, you know, seeing that stuff for the first time, you were just in awe, like it was mesmerizing. It was like watching magic. And I just we were so hooked on getting these vehicles to a competitive level, building them better, lighter, stronger weight bias, you know, a balance to the vehicle. And you know what they could do and what was being presented to us at the events you, of course, included on that.
Where were you going to just make it technical or all of a sudden we had these climbs that required horsepower, which we didn't which we didn't need before. It wasn't it wasn't such a big deal. We just needed a low range. Well, that changes the sport. And so from that, you know, for me at least, it felt like from 2001 through 2004, there was just just insane explosion and focus on performance. It it it does feel like it happened overnight.
It was it was amazing.
[00:40:15.120] - Big Rich Klein
And I think overnight is is a perspective and in our sport. You know, four years. Out of the twenty four years at the sport's been around, I guess, since the first competition is it was fast.
I mean, it hit it felt that it because every every event somebody was coming out with something new, you know, from the sniper or avalanche engineering, you know, building the first the first tube chassis that they built and some of the other things that came out. And then, of course, John Nelson and and Bundurant with with Tiny, that was but they they did something a little different than everybody else too which is they built not only a vehicle but a team.
Yes. You know, and they they took the sport to the next level because of the team that Nelson put together to campaign that first vehicle. So which which really made a big difference and why they had such rapid success so quickly, I think, is because they they had a different focus that they they weren't out there just to to build the coolest car, but also to campaign it like nobody had done yet
[00:41:38.770] - Thomas Kingston
and to win.And to their credit, this is not meant to discredit anything that they did, because I think everything they did was revolutionary. You had John on actually not too long ago. So but for me, one of the big things that changed with them in the creation of this team is they were very private and rightfully so because they were they were looking to win. So they were they were running some new kind of technology, some new parts. But everybody was talking about everything they ran.
So, for instance, you know, if you ran a certain gear set, you know, you're able to talk to all the teams, how's it working? And I don't really like it. I break them. And the advantage in that it was it was very, very open. And not that they were they were not cordial with everybody. I remember at the time John Nelson and his team with John Bundrant, they were fairly private. So, you know, the amount of gear sets they were breaking, we had no idea the amount of weight bias they were running.
No idea like these were details that they held pretty, pretty close. And that was not something we were used to. So there was there was a lot of that hurdle to get across to. And yes, it did. It did change it into. Still, the camaraderie is still amazing. That never went away. But but it became a legitimate competition. I will say that. I mean, it was it was legit.
Right. And people took it a lot more seriously from that point. Oh, yeah. Oh, absolutely.
I agree. I mean, I think in 97, I remember the first ARCAs from ninety seven. I absolutely agree. The formation of that team and what they brought to the table definitely solidified a transformation which was yeah, we can all have fun together. But by the way, I'm here to win and it's like, oh you know, you're like, well how much weight bias are you running. I'm not telling you. It's like oh oh OK. Wait a minute, we've got to figure this stuff out.
It was awesome.
[00:43:26.420] - Big Rich Klein
Well, I know when when Nelson when Nelson came to me and said, Rich, water is free. And, you know, we're talking weight bias and yep, and weighting the tires and I said, but it's not because, you know, we're going to have to come up with some really crazy axle designs and the design of the courses are going to get more difficult and dangerous. And, you know, the overall build of the vehicles is going to change.
So it's really not free. And he goes, well, it is. Water is free, Rich. Yeah. If you don't allow water in the tires. Which everybody else has already agreed to do because I was the last holdout, he goes, I'm the only one that can afford to weld 15000 dollars worth of tungsten to the wheel. Yep, to each wheel. Yeah, exactly, and I'll do it, but water is free. Yep, absolutely.
And so I mulled over I called him back and I like you, SOB
And so I went ahead and changed.
[00:44:40.770] - Thomas Kingston
Yeah. No, that's great. And to your point, you know, you're thinking ahead, you're like, hey, but this is going to demand better components. I mean, you know, keeping in mind that as revolutionary as revolutionary as these vehicles were, I mean, certainly to me and everybody else, it was still very it was still very infancy stage on the development of all of these other components. I mean, we were still using sheet metal housings and off the shelf hubs that were really designed for other applications.
We were getting the work, but they definitely were not ideal. I mean, nothing on these early vehicles was ideal.
And and that kind of that kind of gets us into a little bit of a segue here on when we decided to start shifting our focus from competing ourselves to taking a step back as the sport was growing very, very well, like legitimately, that there needed to be some better components. Do we really want to rely on just sheet metal housings and and hubs that were designed for another application? Or can we maybe develop something that's more specific for this? So not a whole vehicle approach, but more of an approach on that, the drivetrain components and could we improve on those?
And that that was a shift for us because we we stopped personally competing almost exactly at the same time as starting to come up with that spider nine axle line so that we could work with all the teams as opposed to feel like we were competing against the teams and see if we could make some progress in this market.
[00:46:12.420] - Big Rich Klein
Yeah, and you guys did a great job of that. One of the things that I always credit, BFG, you know, B.F. Goodrich with was the way they came into the market. And how they defined themselves as the best. Tire and you had to run their tires if you wanted to be competitive, which I believe was not really the case, and it isn't the case so much today as well. It's just they did a really good job.
Of. Approaching the sport to making sure that the best drivers were on their tires, with that being said, I think that that you as Spidertrax did a very similar thing by teaming up with Tracy. Tracy, arguably, or or without a doubt. In my mind and and I'll get arguments from others on, this is probably the best rock crawler of all time, OK, competitive rock crawler. He he understood the sport. He understood what it took to win.
He did his homework. He was fearless. You know, all of those things that it took, you know, highly competitive sometimes. Too much, so maybe never too much, right, but I know what you mean. You know, there's there's. He's just you know, he's that guy and you guys built a relationship with him early. At least it appeared that way to me to where with him winning. It was like, OK, everybody, he's got that, I've got to have that to beat him and Jesse Haines kind of uses that now with his chassis
Until Tracy decides if he ever decides to come out of retirement again. So if you know where I'm going, but anyway, I do.
[00:48:22.870] - Thomas Kingston
So, yeah, no, I love I love the Segue and I actually really appreciate that.
I had never I had never personally made any kind of connection between what BFG did.
And for those that don't remember the early days you had, actually, Goodyear was a big sponsor and a lot of these events and you were you were able to show up to an event and get free tires from Goodyear even if you didn't win. It was just, you know, it it was just the most amazing thing in the world. But these were just off the shelf tires. BFG at the time made a very special tire for a very selective group, just as you said, it was called the Red Label.
And this was the tire that was not DOT approved. It was a lot stickier than a traditional tire. And it it yeah. I mean, you needed this tire if you wanted to win it. I had never made a connection between that and kind of the work that we did early on with some of the early competitors. But I appreciate that. I think that's a very fair I think that's a very fair comparison.
We as we as we started to develop the spider nine line. Yeah, we wanted to work with guys to help us, you know, really perfect it. So in the early days, it was Twisted Customs and Tracy Jordan. So that was kind of the connection there. And so we worked with Twisted Customs and Tracy Jordan and Tracy Jordan had known the Twisted Customs crew and Jason Paule for a very long time. And so we got that early connection through there.
And yeah, it was it was a great relationship. I agree. By the way, you know, as far as commenting on Tracy and his ability to rock crawl, I think I think he is the best. I'm not sure how much argument. I mean, there's amazing rock crawlers, but I have I have a lot of videos that we had shared on the website when we had done the rock bug. And I spent a lot of time with Tracy because I got to not have to drive or spot.
I just got to be outside the vehicle and watch it right in detail. Yes. And he would see he would just see lines, I, I just didn't see them. And I kind of pride myself on pattern recognition.
And it's kind of what I do, you know, and I certainly got a lot better hanging out with Tracy. I could tell you that, because he would just look at a course and just know what to do. And even as I'm trying to follow him with the camera and I like to kind of navigate the viewer through it, if you watch some of these old videos, like, OK, he's going to do this is going to do that, you can catch me by surprise.
You do something I didn't see coming. I'm like, wait, what's he doing here? You know?
And he'd come up with some outrageous, you know, rear burn maneuver to save a point, you know, on an obstacle that made the difference in him winning. And I'm just like, wait, what happened here? You know, so him and his brother, I will give credit to as well. Oh, yes. Phenomenal. Just a phenomenal team and and just absolutely fun to watch for those that go to Spidertrax.com. If you click on if you click on our, I think the YouTube channel and we have some categories on the YouTube channel that goes way, way back.
So you're going to go kind of go back in time here. I just following Tracy around with a camera at a lot of these WE Rock events, and it's just fantastic.
It really is amazing to watch. Yeah.
[00:51:23.770] - Big Rich Klein
If anybody that's that's new to rock crawling is listening to this and you want to get into competitive rock crawling if you watch. I always recommend that teams come out before they're ready to compete. And judge, and the reason that you judge is because then you get to learn. Right up close and personal, what these guys are doing, you can see them with the controls, you can see what what they're thinking and doing. If you go back to the videos, like you said, of Tracy.
Doing what he did and watching the videos that you produced, you're going to learn these guys, anybody that comes out to compete will learn a lot. Even some of the guys that are out competing now that may be close to the top of the game should be watching some of that stuff. Just to get an idea of what you can do with a vehicle. You may have all the tools, but you may not be using the tools correctly or you may not be using that, even knowing that the tools are there to be able to do something like what he would do.
Yeah, you know, I mean, right now we have, you know, Cody Waggoner and Jesse and Keilman that are that are really, really superb drivers. But you watch what Tracy did. In those days and some of the things that he came up with were just, you know, just outside the box thinking it was one of the guys that he's one of the guys that when I'd set up a line or we'd set up a course and we before we set the cones, you go through all the scenarios, what somebody could do, how they would approach it for each set of cones, and he would constantly surprise me and do something that I didn't see.
[00:53:20.670] - Thomas Kingston
Yeah, yeah, yeah, me, too. What's the event in Northern California? Donner. No, not Donner a little bit more south, it was the one with the military vehicle that was just kind of like, oh, of course, that was her.
It was along the river, the Feather River outside.
I don't why am I drawing a blank on it?
Yeah, I'm doing the same thing I got. I'm sorry. Yeah, I got the video. So the video is on the website. It's the one I remember the most. So we show up to this event and this is one of those events where them Oroville.
Thank you. Yes. Yeah. Oroville, I don't I don't know. You were just like outside of the box, just going crazy as far as I was concerned. You you were using broken down military vehicles. There was just a massive climb on the other side that we had never really seen before. I mean, just massive, massive climb.
Actually, there was a to climb. There was a climb on the back side that the only way that we could deem it possible was to have a spotter strap on the front of the vehicle so it wouldn't, you know, just immediately roll backwards. It was such an insane event. And it's the one that's freshest in my mind, because I remember showing up there, walking around thinking I I don't understand these lines.
Like, I don't know what's going to happen. And it's the one if you watch any set of videos, watch the one from Oroville with Tracy where he's and I think Jesse's part of it, too.
And he did phenomenally well there as well, where these guys are just they're seeing things that I I'm just not seeing. And they're negotiating this new course in Orville. That was just one of my favorites. It's the one that's freshest in my mind. Oddly enough, I don't know why, but I remember that event like it was yesterday. And it was it was it was one of those events where you could definitely see the the people that shine and know what they're doing.
I mean, the spread in the field was so dramatic from those that were winning to those that were trying to negotiate this new terrain. It was it was impressive. It was amazing.
[00:55:09.960] - Big Rich Klein
Yeah. Orville, I wished we could have kept going there. The owner of the property just made it impossible. Yeah. All I can say. And that's and that's a shame. It's yep. I have no idea if it's even being used anymore or not, but it's I don't know. It's too bad. That was fun. Yeah. So let's, let's talk about some of the product development that you guys did that came from. From the competitive scene, and I know that a lot of your product line is based for.
Was based on the competitive scene, whether it's the Rock crawling or the rock racing with Ultra four or what we were doing with Dirt Riot or NorCal rock racing, all the organizations that do that kind of stuff. But, you know, it all comes back to the roots of rock crawling. And, you know, let's talk about some of those products.
[00:56:04.960] - Thomas Kingston
Yeah, so in Rockcrawling, we we came up with a product line called the Spider Nine, and so our our focus, oddly enough, we we didn't do it intentionally.
But in all of the kind of early work with the Suzuki Samurai, if you really were to look at the products we were developing, the majority of them were drivetrain for no other reason than we just, I guess, like drivetrain. So when when we came up with the idea for the Spider nine, which was a nine inch gear set, which had been and still is but was being used, but it was being used around other components that were just off the shelf for other applications, we thought, geez, I think we could build a product line specific for this for this nine inch gearset that's just for rock crawling.
And so we we we we came up with the Spider nine, and this was an end to end product. So we were making everything. Now we were making the housing, the axle shafts, the steering knuckles. We were making the unit bearings at the time. We're really modifying a one time unit at the time, the early days. And so we were we were building all of these components so that when it was all said and done, you weren't hodgepodge stuff together because that's kind of what you were doing before.
You're going to get everything in one shot and it's a builder's axles. So we don't have to necessarily put it together and put it on a pallet. We can sell it to you in a builder form so you can get the parts and and and kind of cut down the housing where you need to and put it together.
So it was it was it was a new idea at the time, obviously Dynatrac and Currie had a presence then every every, every every bit. So as they do today. But their focus had always been on building you complete rear end not this is a builder's axle for a competitor where you can kind of put it together yourself. So that was kind of our angle at the time. And officially that kind of broke in two thousand five. And that was that was really our focus.
So everything we were doing from there on the competitive side was around that axle.
[00:58:05.980] - Big Rich Klein
OK. What I noticed were what I not not necessarily what I noticed, but what I believe is that the competitive scene of rock crawling really pushed the aftermarket scene for the enthusiast where the enthusiasts said, I want my vehicle, whether it's a tube chassis vehicle or just their Jeep or Samurai or Toyota pickup truck, to be able to look like or do what these guys are doing in competition.
And I really think that that helped the aftermarket get to where it's at today.
[00:58:48.380] - Thomas Kingston
I you know, I agree with you, it got to a point where we were able to build these spider nine components such that the way you were building a rear end before was you go to the junkyard, you'd find a particular rear end that you thought was suitable for your application. A lot of work in modifying it, cleaning it up, trimming it out, trying to get it set, ready to go.
And by the time you were done with all that, we weren't that far off in price. I mean, of course, it's going to be more money to build something new from from scratch.
But it wasn't outrageously far off.
So it became a kind of a much easier sell to say, look, if you are watching these guys and you see that they're getting through a competition, I mean, people are no longer breaking things anymore.
Right. So now, you know, you remember the early days you would have multiple spare axle shafts and drive chassis.
I mean, now you're getting through an event and you don't have a single failure. You put the vehicle back in the trailer and you're going home. So that would be nice. It would be nice to go trail riding and get home in one piece.
That would be that would be wonderful. And if the price isn't so outrageously far off. OK, yeah. Let me take a look at that. And so absolutely. You know, with with whether it was full to chassis vehicles for for travel like Twisted Customs at the time, or if you were just building up your own vehicle for the trail, these these components became more and more sense as you wanted to push yourself maybe a little bit harder on the trail, maybe not at the comp level, but a little bit harder than your friends anyway.
And so that that was pretty cool. Yeah.
[01:00:16.060] - Big Rich Klein
Like I can remember during that time where everything was was was moving along in the aftermarket, I sponsored Bob Roggy and Mike Shaffer at I think it was the first UROC event. Nice and. I went with them, who was in St. George, Utah, I get handed. These this Hub wrench and which is T. Allen wrench, basically, and Warn hub fuses they weren't happy with that, I've got pockets of these things right, because on every course they would break one and so we would change them out before the next course.
Yep, and I'm like, this is absolutely ridiculous. I don't know how long those hub fuzes were on the market. I know they were really popular that year because I, I carried so many of them, just that one event. I would imagine that others were using them as well, but it kept from breaking Axle's, you know, you'd have that Fuse. Yeah, to me, that was just the craziest stuff.
[01:01:32.880] - Thomas Kingston
I love that you mentioned this product.
It's one of my favorite products because it's the product I know it's one of those products that really transformed our thinking.
So these hub fuses come out.
And I remember at first thinking, well, that's a genius idea, you know, and then immediately moving to, well, wait a minute, why don't we just make the axle shaft stronger and then we don't and then we don't break anything.
And honestly, there's there's a number of things that helped push us to the spider nine line. That is definitely one of them. I'll never forget that.
I'll never forget that conversation with the Warn hub fuse. You said and Mike Schafer might even be part of that now that we're mentioning.
He's an early Suzuki Samurai guy for those that don't know.
And I remember having that conversation saying, why don't we just make the shaft stronger, like and we just don't break anything and do the, you know, like that's an idea, you know? And then we just kind of then we kind of moved on, you know, started thinking a little bit different.
Why don't we make these components right? Why are we why are we so reliant on the two OE axle shaft manufacturers in the states?
Why don't we just make our own shaft? You know, that sounds crazy, right? So, yeah, I remember that. That's funny.
[01:02:43.200] - Big Rich Klein
So then where when did the rock bug. Come about how and why and. I know that I know part of that was trying to get as lightweight as possible, but let's first talk on on when.
[01:03:02.660] - Thomas Kingston
Yeah. So this is all detailed on the blog.
If you go to Spidertrax and click on blog, which I guess by today's standards is a very old term, but it's still there.
That was kind of the inspiration of getting a blog. Right.
So this is 2011.
This is, you know, for me, at least in my mindset, this is the time when social media is like a thing.
Now people are making blogs and kind of telling their story more than relying on the more traditional means of having their stories.
Being told like a magazine is what I would traditionally go back to.
So we we wanted to create a blog. We wanted to kind of showcase the different things that we do with Spidertrax. So why don't we do something crazy? I don't know. Let's work with Tracy and build a car. And we were we were not in the business of building vehicles at this time. So this was not a mechanism to create a line of vehicles. It never was. That was never our intention. And of course, it never became that.
But that was never our focus.
It was it was really just to to try to get our feet wet and kind of showing off what we do and and figuring out how to run a blog and kind of tell a story in the very early days of social media.
And it was such a a big deal for us because we have built vehicles before, usually just personal vehicles. And and we would have those vehicles featured in magazines. I mean, that's what you did. So I remember the arachnid, which was a Suzuki Samurai that we built out, real gorgeous vehicle that was built out for four wheel drive and sport utility. So this the idea that we would build this vehicle and just show everything that we're doing. So the complete opposite of kind of that older school, you know, early team thinking that we talked about where you're going to keep this a secret, not a secret, because it's a competition, which rightfully so.
We're going to work with a guy that's just one of the best one of the best rock crawlers out there. So why don't we just reveal everything? I mean everything. We'll talk about the components in the weights and how we're making them and how we made the bolts and how we made the engine work. And so it was just like everything out in the open kind of experiment.
And that all I think kicked off in 2011, if I remember correctly on the blog. And you could follow that along if you if you go to the blog and click on the rock bug tag, I mean, it's like every couple of days.
I mean, we're posting things and that whole build is revealed. A lot of fun. I mean, really is just what it came down to. It was just a wickedly fun build to demonstrate, you know, kind of how how to how to show how it goes. Obviously, the purpose of the build was for us, it was cutting edge. That cutting edge line was really just very lightweight vehicle. We had a couple of new ideas we wanted to experiment with.
We're going to use this vehicle to do that. And the rock bug was born. That was it.
[01:05:52.760] - Big Rich Klein
Yeah, I remember two things. About that vehicle. First of all, everything on that vehicle seemed to be gun-drilled, everything, everything had holes in it, yeah, everything had holes, the bolts were hollow. We made every bolt. They were all hollow, every bolt hollow. Exactly. The other thing is, is I remember asking you at one of the first events that it showed up to at WE Rock and you were there and I said, OK, what would it cost to read to to build this car from scratch if you were going to build you know, if you're going to build a second one and you go.
I don't want to know the price because I'm never going to build another one. That sounds right. That's accurate.
You were just like, you know, matter of fact, no, there will never be another Spidertrax rig built.
[01:06:48.140] - Thomas Kingston
Yeah, this was not a financial move. It was. But but it was kind of a it was an exercise more than anything.
And and it was, again, to just kind of kind of get our feet wet and being a little bit more open and kind of how we work and how we do things and kind of share our experiences with it, you know, because, you know, a lot of that stuff gets gets kind of left behind the scenes and obviously all the work that you're doing, like you're doing today with the podcast and all mean, this is all very good stuff.
You know, back then it was still a lot of secrecy. So that was kind of the experiment there.
And, you know, of course, the vehicle, of course, it did very well. I mean, it was it was a very lightweight vehicle. I if I remember correctly, we clocked under 2000, but I'll go back and double check that on the blog. And and it had a rear steer option, but he could swap that in and out. And of course, Tracy's just an amazing driver and he just he did amazing things with the vehicle, was a lot of fun.
[01:07:43.280] - Big Rich Klein
And I remember that it was a two seater because I believe it did run in the in the ProMod class as well. Because it had the bolt on bumper. At some point, yes, yes, as I remember, Tracey left it at an event with somebody and said, tell little rich he can shove this. He didn't say he didn't. I'm not going to say where. He told him he could shove it, but he did not like having a bumper on there that I know.
[01:08:19.760] - Thomas Kingston
I don't remember that, but I believe it 100 percent.
Yeah, and it was. And so the rock. But I think the idea at the time was we obviously we are still, you know, then and even still today, you know, very into rock crawling. But there was this other kind of thing going on that was taking, you know, arguably rock crawling to that next step, which was rock racing. We kind of talked about that a little bit before. Now, that started a few years before this.
But that was that was changing just as radically as rock crawling was year over year. And it just didn't seem to be stopping any time soon.
And that was kind of the head scratcher. So when we built the rock bug, the idea was this would be a world class rock crawler that could also be competitive in rock racing. And, you know, he did hold one place at the stampede. He did very well with the vehicle, but the vehicle was getting quickly, quickly outclassed on the rock racing side. That sport was changing dramatically. And so and so that was interesting to watch as well.
And so the rock bug really never catapulted or transformed into rock racing. It even that build was becoming very quickly outclassed in that sport.
[01:09:39.950] - Big Rich Klein
Right. And it in that. That genre of rock motorsports is still. Accelerating the technology is accelerating. To this day. At the same pace that it did early. It feels like and it's amazing that that that there's any more room for growth, but it's amazing that that it keeps doing it, that people keep finding ways to improve. And I think that I truly think that what the guys doing that sport right now have created or are creating in the areas that they're working in.
With. With just four wheel drive, suspension, technology is transferring over into the desert scene as well. More and more trophy trucks are coming out, four wheel drive under, drives over, drives all the different. You know, I'm not an engineer. I'm not a builder, fab guy. I don't know all the the specifics. But, you know, there are a lot of that stuff seems to be transferring over to that side of the sport where at the beginning we were taking what they were trying to do in the desert and trying to adapt it to four wheel drive to make the buggies go quicker.
[01:11:04.520] - Thomas Kingston
Yeah, it's the blend is interesting. You know, for for us, we didn't have a trophy truck background. So the the movement was from rock crawling to rock racing. And four wheel drive was not an option. You know, you couldn't show up with two wheel drive, so we didn't know any better for us. You needed four wheel drive. And we have to figure out how to make four wheel drive last. An insane event like King of the Hammers.
You know, the idea that you would, you know, race in the desert, race through all these rocks, you know, something that would take somebody one or two weeks to do a trail rig. You're going to just do it in a few hours. And by the way, you need to come back and not break anything.
And so we didn't know any better for us that that was the sport. So we're like, well, we need to now. We really need to get into metallurgy. We need to get into heat treat. We need to get into some very specific stuff. And we need to make all the stuff ourselves. Because, you know, that that axle shaft, that component, I think is possible. But we're going to we're going to need to pull off some stuff we've never done before.
And, you know, you fast forward these these vehicles cross the finish line of King, the hammers. I mean, they're they're fully running vehicles. I mean, it's insane. And so now we get the enjoyment of saying, you know, our focus had always been four wheel drive. And so when you look at other sports where a four wheel drive was an option and it was a wickedly difficult option because a lot of the stuff at the time didn't work, why don't we just simplify it and use two wheel drive?
Now they're coming back and look and I know there's crossover here because they're looking back at a lot of the stuff we're doing and a lot of stuff we're doing is finding its way into that market where we had we've solved some problems that have been solved yet, and that's a lot of fun. And so now we're seeing a lot more blend between the the different markets, you know, desert sports and the rock racing where components are now being shared back and forth because we have managed to solve some problems that have been solved before.
And that that's very fun.
[01:12:51.590] - Big Rich Klein
Yeah, because, I mean, when you're running at the top levels in in any kind of motorsports. There's like, let's say, trophy truck, if you're going to delve into the four wheel drive side of it and try to. Try to get the fastest vehicle you can out of four wheel drive in a desert scenario, you're not going to you're not going to be competitive to begin with. You're going to go through a lot of testing at races in that kind of an environment.
And that's really costly. And a trophy truck campaign. It is. Yeah. So so let the four wheel drive guys develop that technology, because what a lot of people don't understand is, is when you get into that massive amount of movement, which is, you know, I'm talking about the ifs, what it creates is not only, you know, all of the the angles and geometry that's going into just the wheels movement up and down and making the axle shafts in the center section and everything else.
That's just part of the drive train. But then you got to throw in the steering components as well. Yes, and, you know, having to marry those two plus to the rest of the vehicle and to get the the weight biases and everything to work the way it needs to work to survive is incredible. And what what companies have done is insane. And I know that you guys have worked really heavy into the unit bearings. You guys are creating the axle shafts and center sections as well, aren't you, for some of those?
Yes. Yeah, we are. That's it's amazing to me what. What you guys do as engineers, what's also amazing, I will say, about engineers is that and something I've always said about engineers is that everybody that that gets a degree in engineering before they go into their trade, whether it's, let's say, an automotive designer, they need to work on the other end. As a mechanic before they draw it out on paper. Oh, yeah, they should, yeah, they they should, because I got to know that it's going to work not only on paper, but in real life, like who designed putting a starter underneath an intake manifold.
That guy should be shot. Yeah.
[01:15:33.500] - Thomas Kingston
It's you know, that lesson was learned so early on. I had some professors in school who I still talk to this day. I mean, they're great. They're great guys. But when I was when I was working on that that that manufacturing floor of the center manufacturing systems, you know, one of the responsibilities we had was to make some parts for the professors.
They had some projects, some lab, they were doing so forth, et cetera. They would constantly give us drawings that could not be manufactured, something as simple as a pocket with square corners.
And, you know, you would think that's no big deal. Well, I can't machine that. I'm using an email. I need I need a corner with a radius and the larger the better.
Right. So what can we do?
There was almost not a single professor that could provide me a print of something that could be made. And I remember early on thinking, I will never do that right. I'm always going to be able to run a machine. I think that's such an important thing that you don't want to lose. And and to your point, on the other side, it's the same thing. You you you don't want to design something that you haven't actually put together yourself because it may not go together quite as easy as you thought you.
It better be a good listener.
[01:16:41.060] - Big Rich Klein
So one of the one of the things that I always go back to on on that whole scenario is my dad was when he when he retired, he was a model maker. So that means he had gone through a basic machinist. Everything he did was with, like Bridgeport Mills, all manual, never how he ever worked with CNC. So everything he did was, you know, it was hands on, he retired at 55 years old with 38 years in the government.
So that means he started at 17 and he he went through all the levels as a machinist tool and die maker model maker, you know, all those steps. And one of the things when he worked for the San Francisco Mint is that they had been working on this project with the Susan B. Anthony coin. And they came to. A meeting where he was involved in it and he listened to what they what these people, the designers of this coin were saying and what they were going to do, because my dad at that time, what his job was, was to make sure that their machining could make.
The dies. To press the coins, but also all the machinery to put them into proof sets, because San Francisco was the proof was where all the proof coining was done. So, you know, all the high end stuff and he starts laughing and they're going, what's the problem? Because this will never work. Your coin design is bullshit and you got to start over. And they had they had a quite a few years involved in this thing.
And they go, well, what do you mean? And he goes, well. You have 360 degrees, everything, what machine has to be done and, you know, every corner has to be an equal. You know, degree or something, I don't know what the exact terminology was, but you have you want to make this coin eleven- sided because first of all. If we could machine it that way, which we can't.
That's a start because the next thing you have is you have coin machines that you're going to want to use these coins in, whether they be tollbooths, whether they be, you know, convenience stores or, you know, you know, that a drink machine or whatever dispenser you're never going to get a coin with sides to roll down the coin slot.
And all these engineers look at each other like, oh, shit,
[01:19:20.460] - Thomas Kingston
it's so great because it's such an obvious thing.
But you're so wrapped up on a print, you can lose sight of what would be deemed the obvious. And if you lock yourself in a room and don't get out on the floor and actually work on this stuff, it's so easy to do. Yeah.
[01:19:36.470] - Big Rich Klein
And they had they had a program then in the government, I don't know if they still do, which they called beneficial suggestion. And that was anybody that worked for the government could, you know, you couldn't have your own patent if you develop something. Correct. You know, you were it's like if you work for IBM, you know, that's you made it for IBM. You were under the clock for them. So they had this beneficial suggestion and it was called a Beny sug.
And you would get a bonus based on what the what what it made for the government or what it saved the government. And he ended up with a lot of those because of these kind of meetings. But if I remember right, that one was probably the one that got him the best, because at that point, everything had to stop because they were getting ready to start to try to produce these coins and had spent years trying to do it. So it's just a fun fact about what I always remember about engineers.
They got to you got to have real life hands on experience before, you know, making an eleven sided coin or putting a starter in underneath the intake manifold.
I completely agree.
So what are some of the things that that are happening now with your life and Spidertrax?
[01:20:59.230] - Thomas Kingston
Yeah, I mean, we're still doing the things that we've always done where we're very much a drivetrain focused company and we make performance drive train components, we do all the things that you see in the competition side.
We have the products that are a little bit more bolt on friendly to for more of the trail rigs. And some of the stuff that people don't see, you know, certainly on the website, some of the stuff that's a little bit more behind the scenes are some of the light tactical vehicle work that we do for the military. And that that is really fun and really rewarding because these are the products that we've developed over over the course of many years to to be able to do all the insane things that these drivers do with them.
And they found their way in a number of tactical vehicles because they work, they survive, they they don't break like other things break. And just like it used to be magic for me to watch, you know, Nelson take a tiny and crawl up a wall because he had weight in the tires. I mean, a lot of the stuff I think is kind of magical today that we're able to push these vehicles as hard as we do and they stay together.
It's it's it's pretty cool. So there's there's a lot of that going on as well. And so, yeah, we're just staying really busy with all the stuff that we have always done.
Excellent. And family wise, I know that you have a number of kids.
[01:22:26.750] - Thomas Kingston
Yeah, my family is grown so still married, which is amazing, she's still with me, that's great.
And we have we have four kids. So, yeah, we're a pretty big family. You know, I, I my house is like ten minutes away from the on the shop here and I cannot complain. I mean, it's every day is not the easiest. But but I'm very I'm very fortunate and very blessed in that sense. So so yeah. I get to come home for lunch and see my family and and we're doing really well out here in Colorado actually.
[01:23:00.420] - Big Rich Klein
Excellent. That's good to hear. And I want to say one of things that I want to make sure that I say is thank you very much for being a supporter of the sport, not just through the drivers that you've helped through the years, but also the promoters, whether it's, you know, ARCa back in the day or UROC or Ultra4 or WE Rock, CalRocs. I just want to say thank you so much for the support that you've given the sports side of it as well.
A lot of a lot of people don't realize that that the the events wouldn't be there without marketing partners. Even though there's lots of drivers that want to do it. You know, and that it's a sports are that are continually growing, that the you know, the the guys behind the scenes that are putting the events on need that support as well. And I want to say thank you very much for for doing that over the years. That's awesome.
Thanks. But, yeah, I mean, it's absolutely our pleasure. And it's an honor to work with everybody. It's it's a lot of fun and I can't imagine doing anything different.
Cool. So is there anything that we have not discussed that you think our listeners would want to listen or to know about?
[01:24:14.640] - Thomas Kingston
So, yeah, I mean, I I love everything we talked about, I think it's great, I'm not very good at that, so I'm not sure. I I'm trying to. Is there anything new we're working on people might want to talk about? Is there something else in our history that maybe we didn't cover?
[01:24:32.480] - Big Rich Klein
New would be interest would be great. I know that a lot of guys don't like to talk about things that are in development if you don't don't get into too much detail because, you know, there are trade secrets. Thanks to John Nelson, you know, I mean, I know that that's good.
[01:24:48.050] - Thomas Kingston
We try that. We try to not do that.
You know, it's funny, you know, like one of the new things that we're developing that I'm really, really excited about, we have we we probably have more invested in this this one product than any single product in the company's history. And this is a new U joint that we're developing. And we teased it a little bit just so people knew we we were working on something because I think people were wondering if we were even thinking of working on something.
But yeah, it does get a little bit more complicated now. I mean, the company is a little bit bigger than it used to be. And so you go back to the rock bug days. I would just show every single day the development of this U joint. But then and rightfully so, I hear from my sales team that says, you know, the phones constantly ringing for this thing and it's not even a product we're selling. Like, we can't do this, you know?
And I'm like, oh, yeah, I didn't think about that.
So it kind of kind of the golden rule behind the scenes here is anything that's in development that we are that we don't have a release date for like a very specific release date for where we have had the tendency to keep quiet on it.
Now, that said, the allowance for teasing has been much through partners, people we work with drivers predominantly. So in the case of the u joint, Loren Healy, it's gotten a lot of time. He's one of the drivers that has a lot of time on the new joints that we're developing.
And he's he's gotten a chance to show them off quite a bit. And so people get to learn a lot about what we're doing there, although they don't get all the details. But but they learn about a lot of what we're doing there. And then you come to our side and you see it's very quiet and that's hard. That's hard for me because I love to share everything but you joint. I am happy to talk about that one. There's there's a lot in that.
And we're actually going through the final final phases of manufacturing now, just dialing in tooling and some less specific string to start small production runs on that. We're ready to move forward on it. So that's going to be a good one.
[01:26:54.230] - Big Rich Klein
Oh, that's awesome. Glad to hear that. So then I guess the next thing that I'm going to ask you and put you on, on the hot seat, is there a question that you've always wanted to ask me that you've never asked or something that you know about me that you want to ask so that maybe the view the listeners will get a chance to to know about it?
[01:27:19.520] - Thomas Kingston
Oh, I love that, that's great, actually, you know, and if you've answered this before, because it's it's kind of such a general question, you probably have got it before, but I don't know the answer.
So I'm going to be selfish and just ask you what got you going with WE Rock? What got that started?
[01:27:39.860] - Big Rich Klein
Well. It's it it can be a long question or a long answer, but I'm going to try to shorten it up and and just jump into the high points. I got to go four wheeling in a four wheel drive vehicle on the Rubicon, my first time in like 1984, I believe it was. And I fell in love immediately with the sport. It was I had always backpacked. I'm an Eagle Scout, had spent a lot of time up in the Sierras.
And. It was such a way to go see more and without having to carry a backpack, which meant a lot to me. I carried away too many years and it was it was something I instantly got into. And then I moved because of work. I chased a job to Cedar City, Utah. And got involved with the four wheel drive community there, guys like Dean Bulloch and, yep, Buzzy Bronsema and Phil Doc, Phil Smith and some of the guys that were, you know, some of the early wheelers out in that area.
Yes. And became the club president, ARCA was getting started. They were looking for locations as a club. We we approached them and got them to come to Cedar City. I helped with the Cedar City event. Then I started helping with some other events. And I knew that at that point I was going to move back to California. Back to the Sierra Nevada foothills, and when I made before that decision to actually move. And, you know, setting the date, I always said that, you know, I'm going to do this.
When I moved back to California and so I looked. What year is this now? What time frame are we at now? I moved back to California in 2000.
OK, yes, we're all connected here. That's historical. Yeah, I love it. And so I was talking to a guy and he goes, hey, I got to when you come back to California, I got a perfect location for you to do the event that you want to do. And I said, OK, great. And it was Randy Burlison.
And so. I met with him when I moved back to California. I looked at the place it was Lake Amador in outside of Plymouth, outside of. Yeah, in that central California area outside of Stockton and I went for it and put on that first event and the reason but the reason I did it was because I was watching. I consider myself there. At least I was at that point really organized. Maybe I didn't. I still don't write everything down, luckily, I have Shelley who loves to take notes and so she writes everything down.
But. I knew that putting something together like that, an event that I could do, I thought I could do a really good job of putting on a great competition. And a good event where some of the other guys were putting on great events, but maybe the competition was lacking and I don't mean the drivers, I just mean the way the competition was ran. Sure. So I approached the beginning of CalRocs a little differently and we focused on the competition and the drivers more so than on the event.
And I think that's one of the reasons that I'm still doing this. After 20 years, this will be our 20th year of seasons and actually twenty first year of putting on event an event. So I'm. I think that longevity has been a sign of either being being addicted to the sport or being just too stupid to quit.
[01:31:53.060] - Thomas Kingston
Yes, I don't know which it is and being smart about it, too.
You know, I we went through that transition with the other organization that was going to just be the biggest thing in the world.
Right. They were going to take over TV and it was just going to be this huge, huge thing. And it's it's fun to think big. There's nothing wrong with thinking big. And you want to have big dreams for sure. But, you know, is there is there a backup plan?
Like what if it doesn't work out, you know, and your your your approach is just like you said, you're addicted.
You don't know how to quit, but you know how to put on an event within the confines of the event. You know, it's it's it's it's sustainable and it's realistic and it's an absolute blast and it has everything that we want. So when all of that fell apart, you continue to go like, OK, we could we could still do this. Hang on. And I think that's fantastic. So I appreciate that, by the way. Thank you.
[01:32:55.340] - Big Rich Klein
Yeah, no worries. I think it's been good for the sport. I just hope that as I get closer and closer to retiring myself someday, that somebody will step up and be that next person to. To take the sport into the next 20 years. Yes, I would I yes, I'm with you hundred percent, that's the tough that's a tough position.
So I don't know if anybody wants to work that hard, though.
Oh, that's awesome.
So, Tom, thank you so much for coming on board with us and sharing your life in the history of yourself and Four-Wheel Drive and Spidertrax. Really appreciate the conversation today. And I think it was a great interview. Thanks. It's a pleasure to be on here. I really appreciate you invite me on and congratulations on the podcast. It's it's great. Well, thank you very much. OK, and thank you. And we'll talk again later.
If you enjoy these podcasts, please give us a rating, share some feedback with us via Facebook or Instagram and share our link among your friends who might be like minded. Well, that brings this episode to an end. OK, you enjoyed it. We'll catch you next week with conversations with Big Rich. Thank you very much.