Amber Turner’s ’88 Suzuki Samurai captures the soul of grassroots off-roading
So much of the off-roading world is obsessed with “going bigger,” which typically means chunkier axles, taller tires, longer shocks. The results show in Ultra4 events like King of the Hammers, whose open-ended rules have allowed a new breed of buggy to grow out the dual demands of desert racing and rock crawling. These machines scale the earth more like 80-foot robotic tarantulas than anything resembling the automobile as we know it. Yet there are exceptions to this rule. In the ever-escalating arms race that is Ultra4 competition, competitors like Amber Turner and her co-driver Jason Berry keep the sport grounded. Turner spent a lifetime “wheeling” before turning her daily-driven Samurai into a capable, but still modest, terrorizer of the dirt in Ultra4’s 4600 Stock Class.
Off-road racing brings a driver, codriver, and machine closer together than most disciplines, since all three must fight together against the terrain to get across the finish line. While a road course has a consistent layout and a largely consistent surface, off-road courses are punishing, ever-changing challenges of creativity and reliability as the dirt is hammered and molded by racers. Success is found is in wisdom and in experience—for Amber, two by-products of a focused upbringing. “When I was growing up, my dad always had dirt bikes but our saying was that with age comes a cage, and as we got older, he bought a Toyota pickup truck and he outfitted it to do mild off-roading, and then we brought it to Rubicon for the Marlin Crawler Roundup,” she recalls. “And that was really my first experience with rock crawling, and I haven’t actually missed a Marlin Crawler Round-up since!”
The Toyota would go on to greater things but it was initially just their way of getting out into the outback for her dirt-biking brothers while serving as a capable wheeling machine in the Rubicon. These early memories would build the foundation for Amber’s off-roading addiction as she grew into driving age and began hunting down her own 4×4 project.
“I just kind of fell into it ’cause I was kind of looking for a four-wheeler for while for myself, ’cause I wanna go wheeling with my dad and my brother—like my whole family was into it, and one day it popped up on Craigslist, literally miles from my house, for $500,” she told us, explaining that there were two other Samurais on offer as $100 parts donors; the local golf club was getting rid of their fleet of maintenance vehicles. “So I bought my two and my brother got the other one.”
“I bought it initially just for it to be a wheeler, and I got it straight out of high school,” says the now 28-year-old Amber. “It was the first car I bought by myself, and it kinda became my daily driver, so I had to learn how to work on it and fabricate so that I could wheel it.” The Samurai served dutifully as her daily driver and weekend wheeler, racking up miles between trail heads and community-college parking lots. As an anti-theft strategy when parking in the latter venue, Amber would pull out the transfer-case shifter, stuffing it into her duffle bag or under a hoodie when she left the tiny 4×4, thus leaving the Samurai with no mechanical connection between the tires and transmission.
Another year at the Marlin Crawler Round-up would toss Amber a chunk of knowledge she didn’t know she needed: Out in Johnson Valley, California, lay an off-road event that was unlike any other. At this point, King of the Hammers had been operating for about five years, growing from an underground off-road race into a yearly mecca for fans of rock crawling and desert racing. Turner managed to get out to the event every year, starting in 2014 as a volunteer. “We didn’t know who these people were, or what this race was about,” she says, but after a weekend of shooting photos, they all started rolling home and, “Everybody’s crusty and miserable, just want to take a shower and we’re like, ‘We are never missing another one of these again!”
And that’s when she happily jumped down the slippery slope, beginning the build of her Samurai. She found a new set of axles which came with a spring-lover-axle lift, RCV axles, and locking differentials, providing a bolt-in upgrade on ride height and traction. Next of course were larger tires, but as tire diameter increased, the effective gear ratio grew taller, taking away any torque the meager 1300-cc four-banger could squeeze out. Re-gearing the transfer case would solve for that but it would also make daily driving difficult, so Amber bought another “Sammy.” It soon developed a worn front output bearing.
“So it was kind of funny it worked out, because the Samurai I bought had a bad transfer case,” she says. “So I took the stock transfer case out of my wheeler and put it in the daily and then rebuilt the broken transfer case out of my [then new] daily and re-geared it to 6.5:1 and put it in my crawler.” Amber had continued volunteering for events and racers. In these high-stress environments a certain kind of friendship is born under the pressure, and that display of community is especially strong in off-road events: There’s something of an Us vs. The Course spirit given the incredible risks of an uncontrolled surface. Where breakage is an expectation and perseverance is the best tool in the kit, a unique bond forms between everyone while trying to simply finish the race.
“The sense of community that comes with off-road racing—it’s definitely one of the things that pushed me forward, because I dove all the way into it, and those are literally all my friends and all my family,” Amber says. “So everyone I know is wheeling, and I just wanna bring everybody up with me.”
At this point, the Sammy was largely just a wheeling toy, taking its lickings through the Rubicon and her local trails, but two big events pivoted Amber into motorsport in 2019: Justin Reece’s win in the 4600 Stock Class combined with the death of Jessi Combs during a land speed attempt. Justin’s win in the Stock Class, and his choice of a 1985 Toyota pick-up, set the bar for Amber. “That was the first year that he took first place, and he came in right before the car that we were pit-crewing for, so I got to see him cross the podium and at that point, light bulbs went off and I was like, just a little Toyota could do it, so could I. It’s been everywhere with my dad and his Toyota pickup trucks, I can do anything they can do!”
Then in the fall of 2019, Jessi Combs died during a land-speed record attempt across the Alvord Desert, leaving behind a legacy that created a vacuum for female racers. “There was a void and it’s hard to explain, but she’s really inspired a lot of people to make huge leaps and that was my huge leap,” Amber says. “And it’s been a real blessing to get to know her friends through racing, and it makes me feel closer to her cause and her purpose, ’cause I never got to develop an actual personal relationship with her.” Jessi also competed, and won, the 4600 Stock Class in 2016—and Amber had met her, so the crash served as a final tip over the edge. With an Ultra4 race in a few months where the Samurai could undergo technical scrutiny, she began prepping it for the 4600 Stock Class. By this point, the ‘Zuki was mechanically close to where it needed to be, but details like the cage and safety gear were a priority over the winter.
The Jessi Combs Foundation stepped in to help back Amber’s King of the Hammers debut in 2020. The race was an imperfect debut on paper, ending with a technical DNF, but a perfect racing adventure in its own right. The Samurai’s leaf springs were failing, losing pace in King of the Hammer’s quicker desert sections while also needing time to repair. Amber’s codriver, Jason adds that, “rock crawling is definitely a ‘slow and steady wins the race’ kind of thing, and in the desert you’re going as fast as you can—as fast as that car can take it—because you’ve gotta spend as much time as you can rock crawling.” This meant they lost significant time while dealing with the damaged suspension until they could swing back around and enter the pits, particularly after also losing a differential to a blown seal. While it was hard to admit defeat, the opportunity jumpstarted Amber’s career. “The way I see it as being the light that you wanna see in the world, and [Jessi] embodied that, so that’s how I try to be.”
View this post on Instagram
Amber’s still hunting that elusive King of the Hammers finish; 2021 resulted in more leaf-spring issues after an overzealous jump bent the front packs. On the flip side, a spectator donated leaf springs off the Samurai he drove to the event, giving Amber the parts needed to continue on until the race was called before her last lap was finished. Amber will be back, even as she works on her other off-road projects. For several years she’s organized “Zukicon,” a long-weekend on the Rubicon, and during the seven-slot grille festival that is Easter Jeep Safari, Amber hosted an all-Suzuki wheeling day on Hell’s Revenge with a mix of local and folks from all over the U.S. “I think it’s the best way, in my opinion, to get people into the sport, because that’s how I got into it. So putting on the little Suzuki event that I did here in Moab and there’s also Zukicon—that’s pretty much one of the highlights of my year, just because it’s so cool to see people from my community come and do this bucket-list trail.”
The Samurai’s path from its roots as a loyal daily-driver is perhaps why Amber is adamant about it staying humble. It’s the natural consequence of someone who lives and breathes the sport. The Sammy’s limitations are its charm. Perhaps that’s the best way to describe her commitment to the sport too, with years of family memories and volunteering building the momentum to launch a racing career that also pays back into the communities which got her to this point. What does the future hold? For Amber, the answer almost certainly involves that little truck.