This story starts south of the border in Mexicali, Mexico, as some of the toughest vehicles ever built were about to race the inaugural Trophy Truck race in 1994. Hundreds of people would gather around the start line and await the start of the 27th running of the Baja 1000. Competitors would race 1000 miles through some of the harshest terrains in North America with some of the best drivers we had ever seen. One truck amongst those would become known as the grandfather of all modern-day trophy trucks that set the standard for truck engineering for years to come. The Truck? The Ultra Wheels Trophy Truck, piloted by Jimmy Smith built by Russ Wernimont. He would go on to place 1st that year at SCORE’s inaugural Trophy Truck race. Now, after nearly 30 years of racing by various teams, it has made its way back to Ultra Wheels at the hands of Jimmy Smith and has entirely been restored to its original form. Let’s take a look at what made this truck so unique and essential in offroad racing history.
The Trophy Truck was built by Russ Wernimont, commissioned by the owner of Ultra Wheels, Jimmy Smith. In the early 90’s Russ was already an established fabricator; he had built a few other trucks that came before the Ultra TT, such as Larry Maddox’s A-arm Jeep Grand Cherokee, Robby Gordon’s Class 8 Ford F150, and a few other notorious trucks. But the most influential truck is to be considered the precursor to this truck, the Simon & Simon Rough Rider’s Trophy Truck built in 1991. The Simon & Simon truck was the first actual tube chassis A-arm trophy truck that was truly unlimited. Meaning there were no constraints to how it was built.
Jimmy had taken notice of the success of the Simon & Simon truck and approached Russ to have him build a second version to go race. Taking what he had learned from the first version, Russ set out to build a better version of it. Taking only six months to develop and design the truck, they would have it ready to race in Class 1 by the 1993 season and by 1994 it would bring Jimmy across the finish line first at the Baja 1000.
What Russ had come up with was nothing short of incredible. A custom full tube chassis built around a 600+ horsepower Ford V8 that was pushed back 10 inches towards the cab to allow clearance for the suspension. The custom suspension cycled 24 inches of travel up front and 30 inches of travel in the rear. Russ built custom shocks for it, and at the time, he added a third shock on the rear trailing arm to act as a bump stop in a cantilever set up.
One of the truck’s unique features was a rear swaybar quick disconnect system controlled with a lever by the driver. This lets the rear end free up and articulate better going through rough terrain while keeping the truck as planted as possible. The attention to detail and craftsmanship Russ put in the truck resulted in a truck that was ready for Baja. But it also would be the last Trophy Truck he would ever build, this truck would remain as a benchmark for how many modern trucks are built today. Look at almost any Trophy Truck, and you will see design similarities to how Russ built it.
Jimmy would go on to race the truck from 1993 until 1996 before selling it to Terrible Herbst Motorsports in 1996. Jimmy would go on to focus on the further development of the NASCAR Truck Series and Ultra Motorsports. Mike Smith got to work modifying the truck making it his own – changing the body to an updated 1996 F150 body and few other changes to suit the aggressive driving style of the Herbst team. In 1999 the truck was sold to the internet company Excite.com which only ran one race, the Baja 2000 – the longest Baja race ever. By 2001 Scott Steinberger of PCI Race Radios purchased the beauty and campaigned it under the General Tire livery and later the blue Fabtech livery. Scott would race it for many more years to come as the flaming blue truck would be seen bombing throughout the deserts in Baja and the U.S. as the. the truck remained competitive through the mid-2000s.
Fast forward to 2021, the truck returned home to the Ultra Motorsports family in the hands of Jimmy Smith. It had been sitting in the corner for years needing a full restoration collecting dust. Jimmy wanted to bring it back to its original configuration so he tasked Barry Beacham of Race Prep Services to bring it back to its original glory. There was no better person for the job than Barry, he actually used to sit as co-driver for Herbst and Scott in the late 90s along with being responsible for maintaining and prepping the truck throughout the years.
Barry got to work sourcing many of the original parts as best as one could do for a 28-year-old Trophy Truck, sourcing the original fiberglass molds and making a new body. It was painted back to its original Ultra Race Livery and a new version of its original wheels. Outfitted with a few modern reliable parts such as a Chevy LS7 rated for a cool 500 wheel horsepower sending the power through a built Turbo 400 trans with Motec engine management, this combination is ready for whatever you throw at it. Even though it is now nearly 30 years since Barry did everything necessary to bring it into the 21st century – it’s ready to race.
The Ultra Trophy Truck has been through hell and back from winning the first-ever Trophy Truck race at the Baja 1000 to racing the longest ever non-stop race at the Baja 2000, it continued to compete at the highest level of desert racing through the mid-2000s. It is a truck many remember seeing fly down Zoo Road and seeing it compete with the greatest drivers ever as the grandfather of all Trophy Trucks. Even though Jimmy Smith competed with it a short time he was victorious and now it has returned home. Some may think this truck needs to head to a museum as it is a piece of history but that’s not what Ultra Motorsports has in store for it. They will be passing keys off to none other than Scott Steinberger to get back behind the wheel and go race at the NORRA 1000.
We can’t wait to see it down there.
Chassis: Custom Tube Chassis built by Russ Wernimont
Engine: Chevy LS7 Motec Engine Management
Cooling: Rear-mounted radiators and cooling fans
Lights: KC HiLites
Exhaust: Custom Headers
Transmission: Chevy Turbo 400
Tires: 37×12.5r17 BF Goodrich KR2
Wheels: Ultra Beadlocks
Front Suspension: Russ Wernimont A-Arms King bypass shocks coil-overs
Rear Suspension: Russ Wernimont four-link with trailing arms, King bypass shocks coil-overs
Navigation: Lowrance GPS
Communication: PCI Race Radios
Safety: Fire suppression system