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How To: Prerunners

Jesse McGraw

Ready to off-road? Then let us show you how to make a prerunner your next vehicle or project!

What Is a Prerunner?

Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series - lucasoiloffroad.com
Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series - lucasoiloffroad.com

Off-road races like the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross, Trophy Truck, and Off Road Racing Series are currently in full swing and the Baja 1000 is planned for November. Heavily modified machines dive into the mud, sand, and dirt race courses filled with tight turns and high-flying jumps. Whether it’s short track or point-to-point racing, off-road racing teams don’t just go blindly into their next event. Instead, they utilize highly modified prerunners to scout out the tracks and trails so they can get a feel for what to expect when it comes to race day.

Modified Ford F-150 prerunning the 2014 Baja 1000 - bfgoodrichracing.com
Modified Ford F-150 prerunning the 2014 Baja 1000 - bfgoodrichracing.com

A prerunner can essentially be any vehicle capable of driving on a racing course and allow drivers to understand the layout and identify the best lines prior to a race. Prerunners can often be light vehicles like motocross bikes and UTVs, but in trophy truck and buggy classes teams typically want to feel the courses at full speed in a similarly sized and modified vehicle. These heavily modified “prerunner” trucks and SUVs have caught the attention of the car world.

The Face of Off-Road Culture

You’ve seen them out on the road, heavily modified, lifted trucks rolling in droves down American backroads. Enthusiast prerunners take a lot of their modification inspiration from the trophy truck design with the oversized tires, lifted sports suspensions, skid plates in place of lower front bumpers, fiberglass flared out fenders, light bars, and spare tires prominently displayed. But these trucks are less about racing and more about having fun.

Prerunners congregate in places like the Arizona sand dunes to make impressive jumps and carve out some high-banked turns. Trucks gather at the Midwest DirtFest and tear up the dirt tracks of Wisconsin. They’re showing up at the Mississippi Mud Fest and get down and dirty. They’re probably right outside your very own town doing donuts off a country road. These homegrown prerunner beasts are spreading across the United States like wildfire and major manufacturers have taken notice. So, let’s help you figure out how to buy, modify, and just go have fun in your very own prerunner.

Manufacturer Prerunners

Car manufacturers don’t always know exactly what customers want, but when one brand finds a niche with great sales numbers, the others follow suit. There’s currently battle of high-performance prerunner styled trucks going on between manufacturers. So, what better way to get a head start on your own prerunner than buying one and looking to modify it from there? Here’s some of the options out there.

Ford F-150 Raptor

2020 Ford F-150 Raptor - ford.com

2020 Ford F-150 Raptor – ford.com  |  Shop Ford F-150 on Carsforsale.com

The Ford F-150 Raptor is probably the most well-known prerunner inspired truck to date. It debuted in 2010 as a performance package including special body alterations like a front skid-plate, wider fenders, and its own decal package. The current 2020 model features a 3.5L twin-turbo HO EcoBoost putting out 450hp and 510 lb-ft of torque, Fox Racing Live Valve Shocks, BFGoodrich All-Terrain tires on 17in. cast aluminum wheels or available beadlock-capable wheels, and a Terrain Management System that includes a “Baja” mode. If that’s not quite enough power for you, rumor has it, Ford is dropping a supercharged 5.2L V8 into the Raptor next year to compete with RAM’s recently unveiled new rival.

RAM 1500 TRX

2021 RAM TRX - ramtrucks.com

2021 RAM 1500 TRX – ramtrucks.com  |  Shop RAM Pickup 1500 on Carsforsale.com

While RAM has had the RAM 1500 Rebel option for a while, it hasn’t been quite the prerunner monster we dreamt of. But, with their recent reveal, RAM back in the conversation. The 2021 RAM 1500 TRX is taking a stand against Ford and forcing their hand to compete. The truck’s design features a skid-plate, fender flairs, light bar accessories, and functioning hood scoop. It’s the built-in performance is shaking up the market. Featuring Bilstein remote-reservoir dampers, 35in Goodyear Wrangler Territory all-terrain tires on 18in aluminum wheels or available beadlock wheels, and of course the Hellcat supercharged 6.2L HEMI V8 engine putting out 702hp and 650 lb-ft of torque. Be sure to read more about the new RAM 1500 TRX in our recent news article.

Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 Bison

2020 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 - chevrolet.com

2020 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 Bison – chevrolet.com  |  Shop RAM Pickup 1500 on Carsforsale.com

Chevrolet has their own entrant into the prerunner ring with the Colorado ZR2 Bison. While the rest of the competition boasts high-power and high-end performance, the Colorado comes in as a more modest offering. The two available engines for the lineup are the 3.6L V6 making 308hp and 275 lb-ft of torque or a 2.8L I4 Turbo-Diesel making 181hp and 369 lb-ft of torque. The suspension is lifted a mere 2 inches from stock and adds an in-house Multimatic Dynamic Suspensions Spool Valve dampener technology. The added AEV modifications add to the look with HighMark fender flares, Crestone DualSport Wheels with optional beadlock, 35” tall BFGoodrich tires, specialized integrated skid plate, metal piping bumper accessories, and the bed mounted sports bar. Check out our review of the rest of the Chevrolet Colorado lineup in our past article.

Toyota TRD Pro Series

2020 Toyota TRD Pro Series - toyota.com

2020 Toyota TRD Pro Series Lineup – toyota.com  |  Shop Toyota on Carsforsale.com

Toyota has been manufacturing prerunner designs since 1998, when they actually named one of the Tacoma’s trims Prerunner. The Toyota Tacoma Prerunner trim however has been replaced by a new trim level called the TRD Pro that spans much of the Toyota lineup, including the Tacoma, Tundra, 4Runner, and even the Sequoia. Each model receives the TRD tuned Fox suspension, TRD ¼ inch skid plate, forged BBS wheels, and Multi-Terrain select capabilities. The Tacoma fits the prerunner segment the best out of the bunch with its high fender flares and the TRD Pro Desert Air Intake option drawing in air above the kicked up dustline and keeping excess dirt out of the engine.

Build One Yourself

Do the major manufacturers’ off-roading trims count as prerunners? While they definitely look the part, for true prerunner enthusiasts these OEM versions have a hard time stacking up next to their highly modified passion projects. So, why not join the faithful by building one yourself and making your prerunner one of a kind?

Custom built prerunners - Dirty Duner on duneanddirt.com
Custom built prerunners - Dirty Duner on duneanddirt.com

Most prerunner builds start with an older used truck like a Ford Ranger, Dodge Dakota, or Toyota Tacoma and even some SUVs like the Chevy Blazer or Jeep Cherokee. Then it’s into the garage to fabricate, bolt on, and swap out (or just completely remove) some parts of the vehicle. Here’s some steps to begin your prerunner journey.

Project Planning

So, the big question is – do you have the time, expertise, room, and finances to build a prerunner? It isn’t as simple as slap on some kit parts in a day and you’re ready to hit some dirt jumps (unless you really want to bring it back broken on a flatbed). Now is the time to layout the planning and scope of your project. This doesn’t mean it will never be modified again once you’re done or that you can’t adjust spending in one area to help another, but this will help you end up with a prerunner that doesn’t stall out mid-way through the process and end up as a money pit sold for cheap on the internet.

Your Blank Canvas

2006 Ford Ranger - carsforsale.com

2006 Ford Ranger – carsforsale.com  |  Shop Ford Ranger on Carsforsale.com

Start with your base vehicle. Is it your personal vehicle? Do you have another vehicle available to use while working on the prerunner? How much are you willing to spend? 2WD or 4WD? What actually is the model of the vehicle and does it have parts available without major customization? Where are you working on the prerunner? Are you personally working on the prerunner or looking for outside help from a local garage? Then once you have in mind what you’ll be working with, you can go down the list and create your wish list of parts.

Suspension

When it comes to building a prerunner, shocks, struts, springs, sway bars, bascially the whole suspension assembly is getting an overhaul. For starters, don’t buy a cheap bolt-on lift kit off eBay just because “the coils are neon green!” You’ll want quality from a rigorously tested aftermarket suspension brand like FOX, Baja Kits, or Camburg, for example. You can even piece your upgraded suspension together as long as you know what you’re looking for.

Toyota Tacoma with a Total Chaos Long Travel Suspension Kit - toyteclifts.com
Toyota Tacoma with a Total Chaos Long Travel Suspension Kit - toyteclifts.com

Some of the key parts that will be upgraded to create a long travel suspension is the springs and shocks. There are 3 distinct types of springs – coil, torsion bar, and leaf. Coil springs look like heavy duty Slinkys and are typically found installed wrapping around the shocks called coilovers. Torsion bars are flexible bars that can be found connecting from the lower control arm to the chassis mount or the cross member. Then there’s the Leaf springs which looks like several long pieces of metal at varying lengths running above or below the axle.

Sway-A-Way Long Travel coilover shocks installed on a F-150 prerunner - @wicked_prerunners on Instagram
Sway-A-Way Long Travel coilover shocks installed on a F-150 prerunner - @wicked_prerunners on Instagram

Now, the way your suspension handles bumps and jumps comes down to your shocks. Your shocks take the brunt of the upward kinetic energy generated from driving and dissipates that energy with friction creating heat. Shocks handle this extreme transfer of energy with the help of thick oil that flows through orifices in the piston of the shock. The technology behind aftermarket shocks has been continuously improved to become more efficient and refined; thanks in part to the demanding world of racing. That means your prerunner build can get racing performance shocks with adjustable fluid valves, rebuildable components, and they’re ready to bolt into a majority of OEM suspensions with little to no extra fabrication.

Wheels and Tires

Your tires are your truck’s connection to the ground. Going with run-of-the-mill tires just won’t cut it for a prerunner. Your prerunner will need hefty tires to really dig into the outdoors while taking punishment from the environment. You’ll also need to take into consideration how much you’ll be driving on the road versus off-road. If this prerunner is basically driving everywhere, investing in all-terrain tires would be for the best, because off-road specific tires have less preferential handling on asphalt, especially in wet conditions.

Nitto Terra Grappler G2 tires - nittotire.com
Nitto Terra Grappler G2 tires - nittotire.com

Some of the big names in performance tires include BFGoodrich, Nitto, and Toyo Tires. Be sure to take your vehicles specs into consideration while shopping. Your suspension will need to provide enough lift and space for travel between the wheels and the wheel well. You’ll also need to take into account how much the enlarged diameter will affect your gearing and how the larger setup will affect your turning radius.

BF Goodrich Baja KR2 Tires on Method Off-Road Racing Wheels with beadlocks - @RogersTirePros on Twitter
BF Goodrich Baja KR2 Tires on Method Off-Road Racing Wheels with beadlocks - @RogersTirePros on Twitter

Finally, decide whether you’re getting new rims for your setup in conjunction with the tires. If you do venture into the wheel market, make sure to get your diameter and offset right. If you don’t take these precautions when installing new wheels, you can create interference with your brakes and cause excessive stress on your wheel bearings leading to preventable repairs. Another decision involves looking into beadlocking wheels. Beadlocks are a bolted-on ring that secures the bead of the tire along the circumference of the wheel. This keeps the inflated tire wall against the inside of the wheel rim and reducing the possibility of the tire falling off the wheel when under-inflated for better traction.

Body Modifications

Nefarious Customs 1972 FJ 45 Prerunner - nefariouskustoms.com
Nefarious Customs 1972 FJ 45 Prerunner - nefariouskustoms.com

So, now that the suspension is lifted and the enlarged wheels are ready, it’s on to giving even more breathing room to that area with some body modifications. There’s three ways to go about this. First, cut the stock fenders to provide more room and add plastic fender flares, though results depend on your craftmanship. Second, removing the fenders altogether will give an aggressive look, but also require some added fabrication and you’ll experience a lot more dirt and mud kicked up from your tires.

Toyota Tacoma with Fiber Glass body kit - JordanSmith127 on tacomaworld.com
Toyota Tacoma with Fiber Glass body kit - JordanSmith127 on tacomaworld.com

Lastly, the best option is buying a fiberglass wide body kit. These bolt on fender kits take strong design cues from trophy trucks with wide flares and high arches. Not only do these kits look good, they also help with weight reduction and provide ample travel room for your prerunner’s wheel setup. From there, you’ll need to replace your front bumper with either a raised aftermarket with a skid plate or just straight from grill to skip plate with a bull bar. This will help the clearance needed to hit certain inclines and protect integral mechanical parts behind the skid plate from damage.

The Outdoors is Your Playground

Chevrolet Silverado prerunner build - @Torq_OffRoad on Twitter
Chevrolet Silverado prerunner build - @Torq_OffRoad on Twitter

After you’ve worked on the suspension, wheels, tires, and adjusted the body of your vehicle, you’re basically looking at a prerunner. From here you really make your own decisions on what you want for the outcome of your project. Things like roll cages, custom fabricated truck beds, light bars, racing seats, racing harnesses, and the under the hood performance are all up to you and how much you’re willing to spend.

Ford F-150 Raptor prerunner build - @tavo_TT21 on Twitter
Ford F-150 Raptor prerunner build - @tavo_TT21 on Twitter

Some are willing to stop at a couple thousand and a lifted truck. Others go into the hundreds of thousands and make something truly classified as a prerunner, preforming reconnaissance on the trails of Baja in anticipation of the next race. How far you’re willing to take your prerunner build is up to you. Whether you bought a brand-new prerunner off the lot or you’ve built your decked out prerunner yourself, be sure to share some images of it with us. We’d love to see what builds you’re hitting the dirt with.

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Jesse McGraw
Jesse McGraw

Jesse's life-long car obsession began when he started collecting Hot Wheels as a child. He’s constantly keeping up with the latest car news and diving deep into automotive history. His automotive journey began with a rusty ‘99 Dodge Dakota held together by zip ties, only recently replaced by an impeccable 2014 Kia Soul. You can find him modifying and racing cars in video games when he’s not playing paintball or writing about cars.

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