UTV PROJECT: CAN-AM DEFENDER PRO ADVENTURE BUILD
One wicked “Stepchild” By Lane Lindstrom
Zbroz Racing has built a number of project vehicles over the years. We’ve lost count and so have they, but their latest is definitely one of the most unique. “Stepchild,” Zbroz Racing’s latest build, will turn heads pretty much anywhere it goes—snow, sand, desert, mountains or wherever.
Stepchild certainly caught our eye and piqued our interest. So, we dug a little deeper, and here’s what we discovered. Let’s start with the name. Not everyone names their project vehicle, but Zbroz Racing usually does. So, what about this name, “Stepchild”? “Ha! We just coined it that because the Stepchild is always the favorite nobody wants to admit is real cool,” Nate Zollinger, division manager at Zbroz said. “No real reason, but where it is so unique and off the cuff, we thought it was a clever name.”
Zbroz Racing has been around for two decades and has carved out a niche in both the snowmobile and dirt markets with its suspension products. And, in February of 2020, the company experienced a big event when Wheel Pros bought the Logan, Utah-based company.
ALL STARTED WITH RACING
Zbroz, which derives its name from the Zollinger brothers, officially came to be when the brothers started racing, namely snowmobiles, in 1999. Zbroz began selling products in 2001-02 but the Zollinger brothers had been building race sleds starting in 1999. Zbroz’s signature products are Exit shocks, among other products.
“The Zbroz brand was sold to Wheel Pros, but it remains very much the same company, just under new ownership,” Zollinger said.
So Zbroz moved right along with its tradition of designing and creating project vehicles for snow and dirt. None of those projects, perhaps, had as quick a journey from idea to final project as the Stepchild did. How quick did it go from idea to finished product? About three months. Zollinger explained, “It was three months max. It was a pretty rushed project, but we wanted to have it ready for a show in Phoenix.”
He continued, “Basically, we just had the idea and ran with it. We asked Draco to get the deck built and all done. Then we had it about two weeks here at our shop to finish a one-off set of forward high-clearance arms along with some Exit shocks to carry the extra load of the massive bed and snowmobile.”
It’s not uncommon for an aftermarket company to design and build a project vehicle to showcase its products, which Zbroz did with Stepchild and its Exit shocks and A-arms. But, to be honest, the shocks, while an important component of the project vehicle and its increased weight, are not what catches your attention.
With its 6-foot bed and long wheelbase, the Can-Am Defender Pro is already an eye-grabber. Adding an intricate upper deck capable of carrying a snowmobile or small UTV does catch attention as does the impressive design, fit and finish.
The EFX MotoRavage tires wrapped around the Fuel Tech bead lock wheels look good, and they get the job done on desert and sand as well as in moderately deep snow. That was an important goal for Zbroz when designing Stepchild.
“The main concept was to be able to access some sick riding early and late, as well as to use the vehicle for chasing at the King of the Hammers race,” Zollinger said.
Accessing “sick riding” and chasing were priorities, but consider the opportunity for quality R&D. Many aftermarket companies design and use their project vehicles to try out new products, new designs and sometimes un- or little-tested ideas.
Zollinger explained, “Yes, it’s always to showcase the products along with helping fit the need of consumers. We know every use is slightly different so we like getting involved and learning about how to fit those needs. Ultimately, it helps us make a better product.”
A CAN-AM DEFENDER?
Some might wonder about Zbroz’s choice of a Defender, but nobody should be surprised. The company has built a stable full of project vehicles using utility and rec-utility vehicles. Zollinger explained, “We have had several (Polaris) Ranger builds, but the Defender is so similar and with the XT long wheel base option, we found it perfect for the project.”
He continued, “We have been building shocks for both the Defender and Ranger for many years, trying to fit the many ranching, farming and construction industry needs where these vehicles are so popular.
“We actually have built a number of shocks for DOT projects at different state levels where they are used for spraying. The spray systems and tanks are heavy, so having a proper spring rate and a shock that will hold up was important. One other project was a county wildfire project build that had a large tank and pump system. They needed suspension that was tuned for the weight. The Exit shocks fit the bill every time, making the machine even more capable of doing the tough job.”
That explanation gives a clearer understanding of why Zbroz chose the Defender, a vehicle the company is very familiar with. Most snowmobiles are about 500 pounds ready to ride. Add that to the weight of the ramps and upper deck. Good suspension will make the difference between a stable ride and fighting for control of the vehicle and its cargo.
As mentioned by Zollinger, one feature in favor of the Can-Am utility vehicle is the 2020 Defender XT has a long bed and wheelbase (83 inches). “That allowed us to load a sled and not have it hang off the back,” he said. “The design incorporated some features like a full-size spare tire, Boxo toolbox, a must-have Pro Eagle off-road jack and a hot cocoa and coffee maker for those long, late nights at the races or evening rides.”
A row of KC lights runs across the front of the roofline, and there are lights in other strategic spots. “We wanted to be able to see in the desert or out on the trail at night,” Zollinger said. “We have lights on the side and back, so no matter what you’re doing, you can see what you’re working on or where you’re going.
At the heart of the ride, though, are the Exit shocks. Up front are Exit 2.2 XO-IFP shocks. “It is a basic shock but a very good performing replacement shock,” Zollinger said. “It is tuned for the weight but basically anyone can buy these shocks.”
In the rear are Exit X1 remote shocks with a compression adjuster. “Those are nice for when the weight is on the car we can click in more dampening with a turn of a knob so it’s very versatile.”
Zollinger also pointed to the A-arms as a key feature on Stepchild. “The forward A-arms were to allow for 32-inch tires without any rubbing, giving us a nice look and stance on the Fuel Tech beadlock wheels and EFX tire choice.”
TRACTION WITHOUT A TRACK SYSTEM
But wouldn’t Stepchild be even more “stacked” for snow travel by using a track system? “Yeah, it’s easy to make it more capable in snow with tracks, but when you air down the tires to 5 psi, you would be surprised how far you can get,” Zollinger explained. “And once you’re stuck, you have a snowmobile, so you’re never really in trouble in the winter with a mountain sled strapped to the top.”
While Stepchild had a quick timeline, Zollinger said there were other things to work through. The forward high clearance arms were one challenge. “Building the high clearance forward arms from scratch in a very short time” was one of, if not the, biggest challenge, Zollinger said. “Normally we have months to design and get jigs built. With this, we had to measure and build some basic one-off jigs old school and Glenn (Floyd, Zbroz head of R&D) did a great job on them. They look totally production but are truly one of a kind.”
Then he added, “I know if you ask Draco, they had a tight timeline too, so it was a push for them on that cool deck layout.”
When asked about his favorite feature on Stepchild, Zollinger replied, “My personal favorite is the deck and ramp assembly. To be able to pop the ramp out and drive a snowmobile or mini UTV up on this thing in 30 seconds is pretty cool. We did a water-skipping roll-out video in Sand Hollow (Utah) that was really fun to do. Riding across water from sand to sand and loading the sled and driving away was funny to see.”
KEEPING IT STOCK
While most project vehicles have some sort of engine mod, Zbroz left the Defender powerplant as is. “The car has plenty of power to get around, and aside from plans to clutch the machine for the larger tire, we wanted to keep it stock and reliable for pit use and getting things done,” he said.
We know how capable Zbroz project vehicles are, having spent time in the company’s vehicles in Moab, and at the St. Anthony Sand Dunes in Idaho. They look sharp, work great and are solid builds.
So far, we can only admire Stepchild from afar but we admit it could quickly become a favorite of ours because it looks so cool.
PARTS AND SUPPLIERS
BOXO USA: (714) 499-9918, www.boxousa.com
Upper deck/ramps: Not cheap
EFX TIRES: (800) 734-4890, www.efxtires.com
MotoRavage tires: $712
FUEL OFF-ROAD: (888) 316-0552, www.fueloffroadutv.com
Beadlock wheels: $1,184
KC HILITES: (888) 689-5955, www.kchilites.com
Lights Miscellaneous Coffee machine: Priceless
PRO EAGLE OFF-ROAD: (310) 513-8698, www.proeagle.com
ZBROZ RACING: (435) 753-7774, www.zbrozracing.com
A-arms: $765 for a full set of high clearance forward geometry arms
Exit Shocks: $1400–$2200, depending on choice of shock