photography by Patrick Cox
photography by Patrick Cox
Chris Durham Motorsports in Pickens County caters to the off-road set
Imagine rock as far as the eye can see, something akin to moonscape only with the pesky inconvenience of gravity, where prehistoric stone rises up and down like angry waves in a stormy sea—imposing in some places, tumultuous in others, but mostly downright violent.
There is a brand of outdoor enthusiast that seeks out this topography the way Sherlock Holmes sniffs out a suspect. And these adventurists bring their toys along for the ride. Big toys. Because what fun is a 70-degree rock-faced slope if you don’t have a 4x4 vehicle to help you scale it?
Pickens County native Chris Durham is one of the nation’s most recognized experts in an industry that’s all-but-unknown to the everyday outdoorsman. Commonly referred to as “rock crawling,” this extreme form of off-road driving uses highly modified, four-wheel vehicles to traverse some of the nation’s harshest terrain. Durham is a mechanic by trade but a four-wheeler at heart, and he uses both his expertise and passion to build some of the most innovative and in-demand systems in the nation—all from his sprawling Pickens County workshop, which sits nestled in the forested foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“Every trail is different. Every obstacle is different,” Durham says. And that means every vehicle he modifies is different, too.
The work he does on a truck or Jeep relies largely on the terrain it will travel on, the type of vehicle, and the size of tire a driver is planning to use. But Durham’s customized execution varies by geography, as well. “You can’t do as steep of climbs on the East Coast as the West Coast—the rock is smooth and slippery on the East Coast, and on the West Coast, it’s like sandpaper,” he explains.
Durham, 36, is as East Coast as they come—born and raised in the Upstate, this is also where he now houses his sprawling automotive workshop. A graduate of Pickens High School and Greenville Tech, Durham can modify most any car component, a skill that requires a lot of metal fabrication and machining work, from the transfer case to the transmission, axle, suspension, and more.
He’s built up such a loyal following that he’s apt to spend three years or more, working in stages, to complete a client’s entire customization project. He’s worked with hundreds of four-wheelers, and he also does research and development work for a handful of companies whose brands he can’t disclose (but they are household names in the universe of automotive technology). His vehicles have a trademark low suspension, one-ton axles, massive tires, and mind-bending features like a flexi-glass hood that bends 45 degrees without so much as a scratch of damage.
It wasn’t until recently that Durham became a mostly full-time mechanic. Durham, a “full-time, hardcore wheeler” spent the better half of his 20s on the road, competing in “rock crawling” events all over the nation. The last year that he drove competitively on the circuit, he was 30 years old, and he spent 27 out of 52 weeks on the road. Sometimes a race might last for weeks at a time. He participated in several four-wheeling adventures that spanned more than a thousand miles—crossing multiple state lines, sleeping under the stars, and living off what can be packed in a Jeep or picked up at a convenience store.
Not that you’ll hear Durham talk much about the wins he’s notched or the sacrifices he’s endured. Young, attractive, and single (stereotypically “extreme”), he’s also quiet to the point of stoicism. More notable, perhaps, he’s as thoughtful and deliberate under the hood as he is in polite conversation. And perhaps most surprising, he’s a neatnik.
He considers mud and dirt a personal affront to his line of business. “If you ever get in a lot of deep mud on a vehicle, you can never get it clean,” Durham explains. “It’s constantly falling off, in your eyes, and making a mess. It shortens the life of a lot of components. I was that person for a long time. Once I found out there was a difference, I ain’t never been back and I won’t go back. For us, mud is out of the question.”
His concrete-floor workshop—scattered with metal car frames, roll bars, tires, and an arsenal of welding equipment, generators, power tools, and more—is, as the crow flies, just a few miles northeast of Glassy Mountain and an excellent reflection of Durham’s mean and clean philosophy.
He’s built up such a loyal following that he’s apt to spend three years or more, working in stages, to complete a client’s entire customization project.
Down the road from Glassy, of course, is Table Rock and the jagged terrain of Jocassee Gorges, which by the way, just happens to be one of his favorite places to go for a Sunday afternoon ride—off-road, of course.