Trail Run: One Club's Hard Work Goes a Long Way

Piston's Wild builds off-road trails the right way

Sep. 14, 2017 By Matthew Guy

Good things come to those who work. That's not the official motto of the Piston's Wild Motorsport Group, but it could be.

If you're reading this site, there's a pretty good chance you're a gearhead. There's also a pretty good chance you're an avid off-road enthusiast, too. Most of us are fortunate enough to live in an area where one can wheel as they please, perhaps through trails cared for by the Bureau of Land Management, for example. In the Portland area of the Pacific Northwest, one group had to build their playground literally from the ground up.

The Piston's Wild Motorsport Group is a team of off-road enthusiasts who set out to open up off-road trails that had been shut down at the state level about ten years ago. Irresponsible wheeling by other people and nefarious activities by local ne'er-do-wells conspired to scupper everyone's enjoyment of the great outdoors. Piston's Wild sought to right these wrongs and prove that not all off-roaders stomp anthills and burn hybrids in their spare time.

Horsepower has always been a jerk magnet, after all, and it doesn't take more than a couple of bad apples to spoil the bunch. Where one clown goes, blaring their exhaust through a set of open headers at sunrise or leaving a pile of trash in the woods, others inevitably follow. It was up to the Piston's Wild to clamp down on these boneheads if they wanted to make any headway with the government in Olympia.

"One of the real turning points was when government officials were invited to accompany some respectful off-road wheeling," said one club member. "DNR wasn't keen at first, pointing to the past bad behavior of other off-road enthusiasts. We really had to get in there and earn the trust of our local governments."

So the group took the suits in Olympia out for a few hours of wheeling, with Tread Lightly being the message of the day. In other words, after years of misuse and abuse by jerks - none of whom are welcome at Piston's Wild - the good folks of this motorsport group had to prove they had no interest in tossing beer bottles at road signs or opening up a chop shop in the woods.

Other groups tried to turn the tide too but were discouraged and scared off by miles of government red tape and unfair prejudices against off-road wheelers. Through lots of planning and a good bit of stubbornness, Piston's Wild persevered and proved themselves to be stewards of the land and a proponent of the Tread Lightly movement. I heard the term "betterment of the sport" a lot during the day, and that ethos is clearly what the club is all about. With the government on-board, Piston's Wild started building some trails.

I rode up to the trailhead in an immaculate 1996 Toyota Land Cruiser, shiny black and bearing 237,000 miles on its odometer. Rolling on beefy 315/75/R16 BFGoodrich All-Terrains, this FJ80 sported a 3-inch lift in the front and a 2-inch lift in the rear to help accommodate the truck's natural rake. A true Toyota guy who works on transfer cases and axles at Daimler Trucks, its owner also has an FJ40 at home in the garage and just traded a mint FJ Cruiser as part of a fleet reduction program.

Safe to say, these are serious off-roaders who know what they're doing and love the hobby. Currently, there are five miles of trails for club members to enjoy, with seven more miles being opened in the foreseeable future. By following through on promises and earning the trust of the suits in Olympia, a total of thirty-five miles of trails will eventually be built ... and that's just the stuff for off-road wheelers. The efforts of Piston's Wild have also allowed horseback riders and hikers to plan their own trails, too, proving that all hands can co-exist. The group's efforts have definitely broken down the traditional "us-versus-them" mentality between off-roaders and hikers and horseback riders and everyone else who wants to use the forest in a sustainable manner.

After all, there's plenty of forest for everybody. The Yacolt Burn area, so known for a massive fire in 1902 which scorched nearly half a million acres of woods, was selected for the group to build some trails upon. Roughly one-fifth of that area will be carefully developed into trails ... and it's all done with volunteer work.

"Our membership has invested over 40,000 volunteer hours in this project over last few years," explained Crystal Crowder, President and Founding Member of Piston's Wild. "GPSing, surveying, building ... our team has created everything you see here from scratch." Standing at the summit of a trail they've dubbed Old Ugly, surrounded by supportive club members and framed by the beautiful Oregon wilderness, the pride in her voice is evident. These are good people.

BFGoodrich Tires was a great kickstarter in the early days and continues to be a big supporter of the group. With the backing of a respected corporation, Piston's Wild grew from ankle-biter status to driving-force, causing government officials to sit up and take notice. Naturally, just about everyone in Piston's Wild run BFGs on their rigs, a testament to the group's positive attitude and commitment to thanking those who have helped them on their journey.

It's clear, then, that the Piston's Wild group know how to work ... and it didn't take long to learn they also know how to have fun, too. Darel Crowder has over 30 years of amateur off-road racing and rock-crawling experience, having built his own rigs from the frame up. He is also a Founding Member of Piston's Wild. You probably recognize the last name from earlier in this story: he and Crystal have been married for over 20 years.

"The Old Ugly trail you just wheeled is about two miles long, climbing 1000ft of elevation," Darel explained. "We built it ourselves using our own skid steers, Bobcats, and excavators. Nothing went to waste, and we made sure to respect the land while building these trails." He then expertly placed the rig's right front wheel on a boulder the size of a Ram 1500 and eased onto the throttle, deploying a few of his rig's 350 horsepower. It would've taken me the better part of a week to execute the same maneuver. This guy is good.

"There's more to these trails than meets the eye," said Darel with a fantastically mischievous grin. "I've buried rocks and boulders along the way that will only reveal themselves over time. That way, as the trail matures and seasons, it'll present different challenges as time goes on." The out-and-back style trail features a couple of good playgrounds for max-flex opportunities and some well thought out switchbacks as the track snakes its way up the hill.

This would be a good time to mention that Darel and his team custom built this rig with their own hands for the King of the Hammers event in California. Considered to be the toughest one-day off road race in the country, it combines desert racing and rock crawling, expanding from one race to a series of five races now held throughout a week in February.

The rig's tub and grille are from a Jeep YJ but that's where the similarity to anything that rolled off Jeep's assembly line comes to an end. Pretty much everything else has been custom built and designed by Darel and his team. Running the 4500 Class in King of the Hammers, the rig deploys 37" BFGoodrich KM2 tires and gonzo 14" Fox shocks giving it yawning-chasm levels suspension travel. It has a 108-inch wheelbase and is 2-inches wider than a Jeep TJ. The big 6.0L V8 growls like Chewbacca on a bad fur day and unleashes its 350 horsepower with a mere flex of the driver's big toe.

Darel and Crystal's 1979 Jeep CJ-5 is on the trail with us as well. Old Yeller packs a Dana 44 rear and Dana 30 front, with 4:56's all around. A Detroit Locker up front and an ARB locker in the aft cabin keep the wheels turning. Big 35-inch BFGoodrich KM2's on 15-inch beadlocks are turned by a fuel-injected AMC 258 hooked to a T-18 heavy duty transmission. These people certainly know how to build a rig but they don't do it with a megabucks shop or top-dollar race team. Their ingredients are perseverance, determination, a wood stove, and some pretty tall jack stands.
They're hard-core too: in a sport where most people deploy an automatic transmission, just about everyone in the club runs a manual. It is difficult to rock crawl with a stick shift unless you have three legs. One enterprising club member, a generous and knowledgeable guy who allowed me aboard his bright orange 1999 TJ with 37-inch BFGs, has installed a hand throttle on his Jeep's gear shift. Smart man.

In fact, the whole group is generous with their time and talents, and not just to this slovenly journalist who showed up from the East Coast to drive their rigs. Piston's Wild is working with other clubs in the area to help them cut through government red tape in their own quests to build the sport. A Forest Watch patrol now exists to keep an eye on the area. The exhausting volunteer hours led to these successes, changing the attitude from "no one owns this woodland area so who cares" to "we all own this and it's important." By making that shift, they've created a culture of responsibility and have earned the right to enjoy the trails they've built.

At the end of the day, Crystal gave me a run back into town in their black Super Duty dually. Glancing at the odometer, I learn it has covered 618,000 miles, putting an exclamation point on Darelís declaration that "we're in it for the long haul." These people know how to work and, thanks to their efforts, they've earned their place to play.


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