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Geo Tracker on the Rubicon Trail and Four-Wheeling

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I'd KILL to take one of these things on the Rubicon - if I'm not mistaken, didn't you have a part in the design of one of the Calmini lift kits available for these things ?  I hope to procure and install a 3" kit by the end of next year, if all goes well.

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Knyte...Steve Kramer of Calmini was on that Rubicon adventure.  During the mid-nineties, I was consulting for G.M. 4x4 trucks and SUVs, mostly trail guiding at media events in Colorado's 'Fourteeners and at Moab.  Two Geo engineers (Suzuki obviously designed these vehicles) thought that Chevrolet's Geo Tracker needed Rubicon Trail bragging rights.  They knew that many Jeep® 4x4s had navigated the trail but had no idea how severe the rock challenges were.  I had driven the trail as early as the summer of 1967.  I volunteered to get a two-door Geo Tracker over the rock-strewn route.

Steve and I worked closely to bring a Geo to par.  He prototype'd a subtle 2.5" lift kit.  We were allowed to install 29" diameter BFG All-Terrain tires on the stock wheels.  Warn participated with a 5K pound capacity winch and prototype winch mount.  We slipped a prototype Lock-Right rear differential locker kit into the rear differential only.  We knew the vehicle needed undercarriage protection, and Steve did an excellent job of fabricating a full belly aluminum skid pan that was barely visible in a profile view of the Tracker.  I was confident we had enough to get this Tracker through.

Then Chevrolet/Geo threw the curve ball:  They insisted that a second Geo must go along with no modifications.  I insisted that the idea would not work without the bare minimum of an aluminum belly skid pan.  That was the second vehicle's only modification.  To raise the bar and provide our camp provisions carrier, I drove the lead (lifted) vehicle with a small U.S.A. VenturCraft Sportsman trailer in tow.  The entourage was me, Steve Kramer, one of the Geo engineers with no four-wheeling experience and a Southern California-based freelance photographer who called the rest of us "dude".

Geo's budget was rock bottom, though I was paid well.  At a Mexican dinner the night before we hit the trail, the waitress at Georgetown casually mentioned a recent bear attack of a runner on the Pacific Crest Trail, which passes through Desolation Wilderness and crosses the Rubicon Trail.  This account would later prove havoc.  After the second night of pup tent camping and loss of sleep, the photographer unceremoniously hitched a ride out of the region with some Jeep CJ folks from Carson Valley, Nevada.


Fresh out of Georgetown and launching onto the beginning of the Rubicon Trail.  The trailer raised the bar as I drove the route with our entire camp in tow. The budget was small, a fraction of the all-out Jeep® ad campaigns.  We were simply setting the record straight with Chevrolet's Geo Tracker 4x4!

Through the roughest trail sections, I drove both vehicles.  The lifted Geo had too much front A-arm articulation and stretched apart a CV after dark our first night on the trail.  Steve Kramer and I found all the ball bearings and reassembled the joint, packing it with salvaged grease.


We're just into the trail and still haven't eaten enough dust!  The Calmini winch bumper and Warn winch, Steve's mild lift kit prototype and his belly pan (barely visible) make up the lead vehicle.  Here, I'm in a typical "normal trail" posture with the trailer following behind.  The freelance photographer is still on the job.


Here, I climb one of the endless strings of boulders.  The trailer had to follow as well.  The U.S.A. VenturCraft trailers were outstanding for these trips.  Their only shortfall was no damping on the torsion suspension, which led to precarious bouncing at the wrong times.


Yep, that's me in the foreground moving a boulder before driving both vehicles through this Sluice.  Steve Kramer stands above the wash.  At this point, the Warn winch was far from an ornament.  I cleared rocks and kept both Trackers moving on this trip.  In the end, we managed to get these vehicles through! 


Now the stone stocker goes through, and I'm driving it, too.  I parked the lead vehicle and trailer down the trail then doubled back to drive the stock Geo through this stretch.  The gathered spectators had Jeep® CJs, and Chevrolet's photographer is taking one of his last pictures here.  He was exhausted from sleeping with one eye open in a tent, and we were approaching the Desolation Wilderness and bear country...Minutes later, he caught a ride with these folks who could drive out to Lake Tahoe in mere hours.  The Trackers would take another full day—and one more night camping under the stars.  

We towed, dragged, winched and Hi-Lift jacked the stone stock vehicle, inching along the trail.  I used every winch and recovery trick I knew to get both vehicles through the two Sluice Boxes.  Where Jeep® would support publicity runs of ZJ Grand Cherokees with a helicopter and substantial support crew, we were fully on our own and totally dependent on my trail experience and physical stamina.  A year later, I would participate in the Land Rover TreK Event as a member of the USA/UK Tread Lightly Team.  The abbreviated TreK event was modeled after the Camel Trophy.

The normal Jeep CJ/YJ trip of 8 hours stretched to 48 hours in the end.  I was the camp cook, primary driver and morale booster, spending more time on the ground with recovery equipment than behind the wheel.  Chevrolet would net a national ad campaign for the first Geo Tracker to navigate the Rubicon Trail.  I covered that run in Chevy Truck Magazine and for the official GM/Geo owner's publication.  From the time the photographer excused himself, I also took the remaining photos for the trip...Everyone was happy.  The lead vehicle, which capably handled the trail with a trailer in tow, went on display at the SEMA Show, Las Vegas that year.

Steve and Calmini had their thoroughly tested prototype lift kit.  Steve refined and improved the design before production and cornered the Sidekick/Tracker lift market.  Geo Tracker joined the Samurai as a bona fide 4x4 with true trail credentials.  These vehicles have legitimacy if owners make the significant modifications necessary for serious off-road use, including adequate ground clearance, skid plate protection, a winch, stout bumpers front and rear, and a safe track width.

My takeaway from our trip was respect for the Geo Tracker/Sidekick.  The stout ladder frame and true 4x4 powertrain earned points.  Engine power is adequate in low range even over 8,000 feet elevation.  (I guided Tracker media launches on the 12,000 to 13,000 foot passes near Ouray, Silverton and Telluride in Colorado.  We insisted that drivers stay in low range.)  Increased track width for a safe center-of-gravity is highly recommended for serious backcountry use although the stock Sidekick/Tracker is vastly better than a Samurai.  Each requires a wider track width if lifted.

As for reliability, after our Rubicon run, Jeep® was not the only 4x4 that has been "Rubicon Tested".


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Absolutely epic.  I knew I came to the right place!

Great story, thanks so much for the write up.

I learned to drive in a rural settings, starting with tractors, big and small and everything in between, then farm trucks, work trucks, and personal trucks getting or delivering hay, firewood, building materials, possibly steel and/or ductwork, in any time of year in any weather condition imaginable.  Also had access to a an army Jeep for many years, but I couldn't tell you what year - all I know is it had an engine swap to something non-stock, 4 cyl gasoline.  We drove that thing anywhere we wanted, any time of the day.

Then I got my drivers' license!

Trackers, for me, seem like the ultimate long term 4x4 for all the reasons you mentioned - with a few changes, they're incredibly capable.  Full body-on-frame and decent enough low range.  They're a miniature version of some giant but elegantly simple engineering.  All this and they're cheap to own; cheap to purchase and cheap to run.

I've been running mine all weekend - two car washes in the last ten hours.  It's muddy here today.

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Knyte...I enjoyed recollecting that trip.  Life gets busy, and it's fun to reflect on the high points and true adventures.  Taking two Geo Trackers over the Rubicon Trail was one of the most physical events I've done around four-wheeling.  On the trail that summer, I kept thinking how much easier the trip would be on my Honda XR350R motorcycle.  However, we chose this unusual challenge and venue, and that's what made it so innervating. 

We also took these little beasts over the most scenic routes in the San Juan Mountains at Colorado, traditional Jeep® territory.  I enjoyed orchestrating and leading those ride-and-drive events, routes and challenges that showed media journalists what the Geo Tracker could really do.  Four-wheelers learned to respect the Tracker.  Accessing scenic, historical sites appealed to the non-outdoorsy urban writers.  Journalists went on to write photo-illustrated stories reflecting our awesome fresh air adventures. 

Your formative years were similar to my growing up at rural Nevada in the sixties.  In that cattle country, I earned my first driver's license behind the wheel of my folks one-year-old 1964 CJ-5 Jeep®.  Its F-head four-cylinder engine was a stoic, low-tech relic.  At the time, I never imagined that the endless back roads and four-wheeling experiences of that time would one day inspire my Jeep Owner's Bible.  Working at full service gas stations, caught up in the muscle car era and fascinated with 4x4s, I also had exposure to postwar light and medium duty trucks. 

My early career work included years as a light- and medium-duty truck fleet mechanic and heavy equipment operator before heading for the University of Oregon at the age of 28 with a family in tow.  All the while, I restored personal 4x4s.  After graduation, four-wheel drive and muscle car journalism seemed a natural trajectory.  I first published in the February 1983 issue of OFF-ROAD Magazine.  Not surprisingly, my illustrated breakthrough article addressed buying a used 4x4 truck.

Yes, the Trackers are legitimate little trucks.  As you note, their boxed "body-on-frame" design is key to 4x4 capability and stamina.  Suzuki powertrains are reliable and easy to service.  With the right modifications, this is an inexpensive, highly capable on- and off-road vehicle!

I enjoy your keen interest in Sidekick/Tracker mechanics and keeping the Tracker rolling reliably!  I remain a strong advocate of preventive care.  Keep us posted and thanks for providing a service for fellow owners!


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  • 2 years later...

Hello Moses!  You won’t remember me, by name; but I had the green Landcruiser that asserted with a tow chain getting your Tracker up Cadillac hill the night you left the Rubicon.  You had sent me a copy of the article that you wrote and I lost it due to life circumstances about 10-years ago.  I’m hoping you might have an extra copy you could send!!!  Hope you’re doing well!  that night was absolutely one of the best Rubicon highlights ever!!!  

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Actually what I should ask, is if you know what issue the article was posted in and I could possibly track down a copy somewhere.  I’m guessing you don’t have extras just laying around. 😂

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Hi, James...What a memorable experience to share.  An article appeared in Geo Times, and it's likely in my stored archives.  (My wife says that I "keep everything".  The article and a Chevy Truck Magazine piece I did are likely in there somewhere.)  If I find coverage at some point, I'll make a PDF copy. 

Chevrolet/Geo ran a subtle national ad campaign with a press photo(s) emphasizing the stone stock model.  Chevrolet's pro freelance photographer left us at the Sluice Box and rode out with a CJ Jeep group from Carson Valley, Nevada.  I took photos from that point to the Springs.  Here are a few pictures that I do have on hand.  At the Sluice, you can see me moving a large rock with the winch.  In addition to driving the lead, lightly modified blue Tracker with the trailer in tow, I drove both vehicles through the rougher trail sections.  I'm driving in each of these photos and also winching the rock aside:


The stone stock (green) Tracker that you remember was tossed into the mix by two Geo engineers at the last stage of trip planning.  I knew that vehicle would be our challenge.  No import SUV had done the trail in stock form.  Today, the "normal" tire size on the trail is a minimum of 35" (a short wheelbase vehicle) to a maximum of 42" diameter for JK/JL/JT long wheelbase models and rock buggies.  My oldest 'wheeling story worth sharing is borrowing my parents' stone stock 1964 Jeep CJ-5 F-head and driving the Rubicon Trail from Tahoe to Georgetown (up the Sluice from the Springs) in the summer of 1967.  On stock tires, I didn't bother to remove the side steps and got home without denting or blemishing them.  The trail was much more passable then.

Are you still running the Rubicon?  Some sections of the trail are far worse today than ever, large granite boulders exposed in many places.  See my WFTW (Wheelers for the Wounded) video coverage at the magazine site.  Those shoots were 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014.  The trail is worse today. 

Back to the Tracker adventure in the mid-nineties, Steve Kramer (co-owner of Calmini Products and a first time Rubicon driver on that trip) prepped my lead/support Tracker with a 2.5" prototype chassis lift and 29" diameter BFG tires, a Lock-Right rear differential, the Warn 5K winch on a prototype bumper and an aluminum belly pan.  The totally stock Tracker had only the aluminum belly pan, suitable for "tobogganing" over the worst rocks, often with a tow strap hooked to my lightly modified lead vehicle.  I drove that modestly lifted Tracker to Rubicon Springs with a U.S.A. VenturCraft Sportsman trailer in tow.  The lead vehicle performed the heavy work, winching and towing.

We pulled off that risky trip with a boost from other wheelers like yourself—in the true spirit of the Rubicon.  That adventure was a typical 8-12 hour short wheelbase Jeep or FJ40 4x4 outing that morphed into a 46-hour marathon centered around two virtually stock, mid-nineties Geo Tracker 4x4s.  When Chrysler created the "Rubicon Tested" SUV badges, they did the trail with support from a helicopter, the Jeep Jamboree staff, a corporate support team and a large budget.  Our budget was one meal out at the Mexican restaurant in Georgetown, groceries from the local store, one night's lodging and our camping gear.  The next two nights we slept on granite, and I did all the camp cooking.

This venture says volumes about Rubicon Trail camaraderie and everyone's willingness to get the job done.  I have never used a winch or Hi-Lift jack as much as that venture.  I was 46 years old when we did the Rubicon Trail with the Trackers.  In condition, I subsequently competed in the 1996 Land Rover Trek event, a mini-Camel Trophy.  Our Tread Lightly Team earned a podium finish.

Your role, in particular, I remember with gratitude.  We caravanned up Cadillac Hill in the dark, the tow chain compensating for the stone stock Tracker's beaten tires, chassis fatigue and powertrain stress.  I had a 6 a.m. flight the next morning from Reno to New Jersey for a Chevrolet media event.  I had never missed an assignment, and with the time and energy you saved us, I drove from the Lake Tahoe trailhead home to Yerington, Nevada, slept for three hours then drove to Reno.  I caught my early morning flight...Again, thanks very much, James!


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