TROPHYLITE: Little Trucks, Big Future
At the 2007 Glen Helen Baja Cup Challenge, held at the fabled Glen Helen Raceway that is home to a variety of off-road and motocross events that range in stature from local to National level, Matt Scaroni and his family started their proverbial roll of the dice. The Scaronis chose the event to debut their TROPHYLITE spec concept race truck. One year later, no less than 13 TROPHYLITE trucks took to the starting line at the same race. It appears as though that roll of the dice is starting to pay off.
In a time where many big-name off-road chassis builders have struggled just to keep their doors open, Scaroni’s TROPHYLITE concern continues to plow steadily through rough economic seas. In just its first year, Scaroni has sold just short of two dozen copies of his “shrunken Trophy Truck” to satisfied customers and put together a viable series in which they can run. So maybe the idea of bringing a low-cost spec off-road racing vehicle wasn’t so much of a gamble after all. Or was it?
The halls of desert racing lore are littered with failed attempts to bring “cheap” off-road racing to the masses. At first take, it seems like a good idea, and yet many have tried and failed. The reasons are many, but one recurring theme among the past aborted attempts is that the low-cost alternative has quickly managed to meet or exceed the price of its more expensive rivals in terms of both initial build and maintenance costs. Why build a limited-limited anything when it will end up costing just as much as the limited vehicle it is designed to displace?
And yet, funny enough, that’s what motivated Scaroni to devise TROPHYLITE in the first place. After eight successful years of racing Baja Protruck, Scaroni, his father Steve and his brother David realized that the per-race costs of running the Protruck were beginning to creep toward that of contesting a full-blown Trophy Truck, so they decided that they might as well give Trophy Truck a try. Big mistake.
“We saw that when we went Trophy Truck racing we were spending over a million dollars a year, and the average guy can’t do that,” Scaroni says, “But the problem was that we were getting outspent by guys who were spending 10 million dollars.”
Worse yet, the enjoyment factor went right out the window.
“Trophy Truck was so serious that it wasn’t very much fun,” Scaroni says. “When you’re racing against Rob MacCachren, you’d better bring your A game, but a lot of the time we saw where people were buying their victories in off-road racing.”
GOOD CONCEPT, EXCELLENT EXECUTION
A big fan of the Baja Protruck concept, Scaroni realized that even those vehicles were an expensive proposition for the average guy. Looking around, what he didn’t see was an inexpensive entry-level class in which a newbie could purchase a competitive vehicle that is easy-to-maintain without the owner having to amass a wealth of experience or be versed in the “black magic” art required to build and maintain something such as is found in many of the limited-displacement Volkswagen-powered racing classes.
“What we wanted to do was create a vehicle that brought the fun factor of Protruck but wouldn’t compete with a Protruck and would be a much more entry-level vehicle,” Scaroni says. “I think we’ve accomplished that with TROPHYLITE.”
It would be hard to argue with him. With the aforementioned 23 TROPHYLITE now in the hands of satisfied customers, and with a first-year racing series that has boomed thanks to the support of several off-road racing industry companies while attracting a few talented drivers from the “big trucks,” TROPHYLITE is doing just what Scaroni intended it to do. TROPHYLITE provides a platform for desert zeroes to race with desert heroes in a vehicle that is so tightly regulated that the driver and not the machine is usually the difference in the winner and losers in a given race. A lot of other series have promised that outcome, but TROPHYLITE appears to be delivering on that promise.
FROM THE HEART
“The biggest thing that makes TROPHYLITE what it is, is the sealed engine program,” Scaroni says. “Nobody can get into these engines, and the trucks are all spec. In TROPHYLITE the guys who prepare the best and drive the hardest are going to win the races, and it hasn’t really been that way in off-road racing for a long time.”
Depending on finish quality, between $50-60,000 delivers a full-tube-chassis, race-ready TROPHYLITE, complete with its four-cylinder GM Ecotec engine – built exclusively by Turnkey Performance of Oceanside, California – TH350 transmission and Currie Enterprises 9-inch Ford rear end. The sealed Ecotec will put out about 200 horsepower, plenty to push the little at exciting speeds in the open desert. And with.18 inches of wheel travel at all four corners, a TROPHYLITE can gobble up some pretty nasty terrain while keeping that 200 horsepower on the ground. The rest of the truck is of a build quality that would lead you to mistake it as a cut-down Trophy Truck.
“You can add some stuff, and we do a lot of customizing for people, like powder coating and painting, things like that,” Scaroni says. “But for that money you are able to go out and go racing. You can race against me, or people like Scott Steinberger and Pistol Pete Sohren, and you have a real chance to win. These things are identical. When you see a bunch of them going down the straightaway nose to tail, you don’t really notice that they’re not going as fast, and the guys that are going fast, you can tell that too because they are really hanging it out there. Louis Chamberland and Mikey Childress [the 2008 TROPHYLITE championship-winning team] are like that. They’re at a whole other level – of driving.”
Indeed. Enter a TROPHYLITE race and you are likely to experience intense, wheel-to- wheel, fender-banging action not found in many other classes outside of short-course racing. In select races, TROPHYLITES even use a land rush-style start to get underway, and the close-quartered combat and chaos continues throughout the field. Yet despite an intense competition in which the little TROPHYLITES effectively have their necks wrung for hours at a time, the trucks have already proved to be quite durable, often times requiring little more than replacement body panels after a race.
“My Trophy Truck was a parts-eating machine,” Scaroni says. “Sure, I’d go across the desert at 140 mph, but after every race it was a $20,000 prep just to get it ready to go again. Our guys are doing this on maybe $2000 prep per race. So, spending that initial $50-60,000 is a considerable investment, but the prep cost is next to nothing. We are going many, many races without really touching anything. We’ve had zero engine failures in them so far, but if one of our motors blows up we can replace the whole thing for $3500. And we don’t freshen them up between races. We just change the oil in them.”
And if a TROPHYLITE driver needs anything for his truck, Scaroni has it in stock at all times. A typical scene after a race involves all the TROPHYLITE teams gathering around the Scaroni transporter to purchase various high-wear items that the team brings right to the track.
“In other classes you may have a part that they only build one of at a time and you end up spending thousands of dollars to buy that one part,” Scaroni says. “We have everything on our shelves, and that same part only costs a few hundred dollars. And our customers get it the next day. We have great customers, and we really try to take care of everyone who buys trucks from us. It is a constant involvement, and it has been really neat to see some of our customers progress and do better in the races.”
IF YOU BUILD IT…
We’ve all heard the tired line from that overplayed Kevin Costner baseball movie, but in TROPHYLITE’s case, it appears to be holding some weight. The approach that Scaroni has take with regard to both the quality of both the TROPHYLITE vehicles and the series has already gained the support of some of the off-road industry’s top names, such as KMC Wheels, General Tire and KC HiLiTES, among others.
“KMC Wheels stepped up to be the title sponsor of the series this year, and we also have General Tire, which has been great,” Scaroni says proudly. “They used to have a real presence in off-road racing in the ‘80s, and now they have come back with a vengeance, and TROPHYLITE is a part of that.”
General’s North American Brand Manager, Tony Talbert, himself an avid off-road fan, agrees with the TROPHYLITE concept on a business level and, apparently, personally as well. A rabid off-road racing fan with a wealth of experience in other forms of motorsport, Talbert gleefully took time out of his insanely busy schedule to come to Glen Helen and co-drive with Scaroni and Trophy Truck veteran Scott Steinberger in the series finale at Glen Helen.
“It has been a great relationship,” says Talbert of the association between TROPHYLITE and General, the latter’s readily available Grabber AT2 all-terrain tire serving as the spec rubber for the class. “We see this as an entry-level class with some truly great-performing trucks. The Scaroni family has put together a great series, and we see it growing. We think that there will be a lot more trucks out there in the future, and we think that TROPHYLITE will serve as a stepping stone into a lot of other classes. It is a perfect entry-level racing series, and it has worked out great for us because General Tire has made a strong effort to be the tire for everybody and not just to come in and work with the multi-million dollar teams and develop a tire only for them.”
Nor are the TROPHYLITE trucks only for beginners, as evidenced by the involvement of such off-road racing stars as Mikey Childress, Scott Steinberger and “Pistol Pete” Sohren. When Scaroni says “A lot of people in the industry like what we are doing, and they have supported us,” he isn’t just talking about sponsors.
“TROPHYLITES are cool,” said Steinberger, who was making his class debut at the Glen Helen Baja Cup Challenge. “They handle really nice. Just add a few hundred horsepower for guys like me [laughs]. You just have to realize that you’ve got to keep up your momentum. That’s what this class is all about, momentum. I’ll tell you what: Matt, David and Steve have done a really good job of bringing truck racing to the masses at an affordable price. If I had started in something like this, who knows where I would be right now. “
Sohren, who traded a recently purchased Pro 2 short course rolling chassis for his TROPHYLITE, was also impressed.
“I like them,” he said. “I think that they’re tough. This is the ultimate class for the first-timer. They’re a perfect vehicle to get into the sport of off-road racing with. They have a good series with a lot of payback, they’re really fun to drive and they’re built like a Trophy Truck, so you know they’re going to be reliable.”
THE TROPHYLITE EXPERIENCE
What self-respecting off-road racing fan would resist a personal invitation from Matt Scaroni himself to come to Glen Helen and experience TROPHYLITE racing firsthand? Let’s just say that it didn’t take a lot of arm twisting to sign me up to fill the right-hand seat for the Glen Helen Baja Cup Challenge. Besides, with its 4.5-mile, serpentine short course, the race wouldn’t require a real navigator anyway, making it the perfect opportunity to get my feet wet and be able to judge if a TROPHYLITE was the real deal in terms of off-road racing thrills. A recent test in a Class 1/2-1600 buggy left me primed to discern the differences between a TROPHYLITE and that well-respected and more traditional class of off-road racer.
My chauffeur at the race was none other than 22-year-old David Scaroni (left), the younger brother of Matt (right). A talented racer in his own right, David drives with a Tasmanian vengeance that belies his quiet, well-mannered personality. Prior to the race, it was hard to get more than a few words out of him, but my basic instructions were simple enough: “Watch out for other cars, let me know when someone is coming, help me look for passing lines and keep an eye on the voltmeter on the GPS.” Fair enough.
I have to say that the land rush start was totally cool. As the 13 TROPHYLITES (that entry count tied Class 1450 for the largest class of the day) funneled into the first turn, we swapped a little paint with two other competitors before straightening up and making our way down the short chute that led past the pits. We were running roughly fifth at that point as David continued to pressure the drivers directly in front of us. As we hammered through the bumps at full throttle, it didn’t take long for me to realize how the TROPHYLITE provides a veritable magic carpet ride compared to the buggy in the chop. The suspension quality really came into play as we sailed over the double jump on the motocross course section. About the only real bad moment of the race came when we accidentally helped a competitor go over on his lid just after he turned totally sideways in front of us on the motocross track around the third lap. We tried our best to avoid hitting the guy, but there was no room. Hey, that’s racing.
It may have been the way that Scaroni had it set up or it may have been the way that he was driving, but I couldn’t believe how much speed we were able to carry through the turns on the course. The truck appeared to handle really well, and the little Ecotec pumped out enough power to break the wheels loose and help us power through the corners as necessary. About the only time that the little truck ran out of steam was on the steep hills that dotted the course in a couple spots. Despite David’s best momentum-saving efforts, the long pulls always bogged the little truck down, necessitating a downshift or two in order to maintain forward progress. Matt later told me that TROPHYLITE has developed a new exhaust system for 2009 that will add another 20 horsepower – or roughly 10 percent – to the trucks’ output. I’m sure that a lot of drivers will pony up for the extra ponies.
One cool thing about a TROPHYLITE is that when it runs out of gas, the ECU throws into a power-down mode rather than running the tank completely dry. I know this because we managed to run out of gas twice that way during the race. The second time it happened, we were trying to make it back to our pit and had very little hope of doing so, as a rather large hill loomed in our path. Hero of the day award goes to the guy in the Class 5-1600 – I think it was one of the Lone Kids Racing team cars – who literally nerfed us all the way to the top of the hill. It made all the difference between finishing and being stranded. Thanks, bro.
Unfortunately, we also managed to twice whack this mini boulder that was giving a lot of people trouble in the heavily wooded single track section that ran parallel to the access road that leads to the Glen Helen Pavilion. The first time we nailed it, the impact sheered a brake caliper fitting, causing us to lose brake fluid and thus lose stopping power. Making repairs would require a stop in our main pit and cost us several minutes of downtime. Fortunately, we only hit the rock again with about two laps to go, ripping the inside sidewall on our left front tire and leaving us with a flat tire that Scaroni masterfully drove to the finish. We later found out that we lost an entire brake caliper somewhere out on the course as well.
In the end we finished eighth out of 13, a result that should have been much higher but for our bad luck. But hey, that’s racing too. The man to beat all day was Gary Messer of Kingman, Arizona (above). Messer put nearly a lap on just about everyone in the field. Randy Blacker of Fresno, California, finished second, followed by Louis Chamberland, who clinched the TROPHYLITE title for 2008. Congrats to all on a fine race and/or season.
Overall, I couldn’t help but come away impressed with the TROPHYLITE truck and race program. In fact, if I were to start off-road racing tomorrow, it would be the first class on my list of potentials. The ride quality is more Trophy Truck than Class 1/2-1600, which translates to less shock on the drivetrain and other components, which makes it easy to believe Matt Scaroni’s claim that race prep costs are way down on a TROPHYLITE compared other classes.
SO, WHAT NOW?
With TROPHYLITE already building into a strong entity with just one year under its wheels, you would think that Scaroni would be content to continue to foster the class as is. His vision, however, extends much farther than just one class of truck within the TROPHYLITE series itself.
“In 10 years’ time I’d like to have 200 TROPHYLITES out there, but in two years’ time I want to look at having a bigger truck because my customers are going to want to go faster,” Scaroni says. “I think that the AMA has been very successful with its 125cc and 250cc [now 250cc and 450cc] motocross classes, and that’s what I want to see in TROPHYLITE. I’d like to be able to come to a track like Glen Helen and have a race that is TROPHYLITE only.”
It’s an interesting thought that provides a glimpse into the future of TROPHYLITE, a series that very clearly appears to have one. When asked if thought that TROPHYLITE could someday leave the kind of mark on off-road racing that would give the Scaroni name a legacy reserved for the likes of legendary drivers and other key figures in the sport, Scaroni is quick to dismiss that notion.
“I guess we’re just a bunch of dumb farmers who have enjoyed the opportunity to go off-road racing when our business has done well and we’ve had the money to do it,” Scaroni answers. “TROPHYLITE is not my only job, but it has been a fun business to run. I mean, how many business do you know where part of your job is to go out and race a truck in the desert? I don’t know if this is my legacy or not. I’d like to be remembered as someone who was an innovator and who thought outside the box, but if I can be remembered as the guy who got a lot of people into racing and gave them a lot of fun times, then that will be all right with me.”
Then sitting back and pausing for a moment, he adds, “I guess we have come a long ways in one year.”
For more information on the TROPHYLITE trucks and racing series, check out TROPHYLITE.com. Make sure to check out our TROPHYLITE video at Off-Road.com and MyOff-Road.com. Special thanks to TROPHYLITE TV for supplying the action footage of the Glen Helen Baja Cup Challenge.