The Low-Cost Recipe for Big Fun – Kenny and Jessica’s 2012 Jeep® Wrangler Sport

Categories: Customization 

Sometimes, a machine can be the foundation of our lives. Through the adventures we take and the people we meet, we build everlasting memories upon the shoulders of our Jeep® 4x4s. In the midst of Jeep® Jamboree’s Big Bear gathering, we met Kenny Cunningham, Jessica Berns and their 2012 Jeep® Wrangler Sport – a base-trim, stick-shift wonder in which they managed to tackle the Jamboree’s most technical trails with little more than a two-inch lift and a grippy set of tires. But, more than being a mechanical billy goat, their Wrangler played a key role as they hitched up and went off on their own tangent together.

“I wanted a Jeep® 4×4 since I was knee-high to a grasshopper,” said Kenny. “I grew up four-wheeling with my uncles. But I was actually on my way to buy a pickup truck in 2018 when I found this.” When he arrived at the dealer, the Wrangler caught his attention off to the side, but he still looked into the truck. “I’m not gonna lie, I’m super glad I didn’t get that pickup. They wanted too much money for too many miles, and I had parked next to this Jeep® Wrangler at the dealership. I eventually said, ‘I don’t want this truck, I want that Wrangler!’”

a group of people standing around several jeep vehicles
Before jumping into the first day’s trails, the group assembles outside of a local Fire Department to air-down and make final preparations for hours of wheeling

The two-door JK carried a modest 10,000 miles on the clock and defined “bare-bones.” Owing to a short-lived life as a fleet truck, the Wrangler was equipped with a six-speed manual and highway-friendly 3.42 gears. “The manual was a conscious choice, 100 percent. I like the control of a manual transmission, like downhill descents are a whole lot easier with a manual than an automatic,” Kenny mentioned. The purchase quickly became a no-brainer for Kenny and Jessica, and the JK joined their posse in August of 2018.

“It was probably the best thing to happen to our relationship,” Jessica laughed. We met her while she was hopping rocks to spot Kenny over the first day’s attack on Big Bear Mountain, taking note of everything the trail guides were seeing and instructing: Which rocks to put a wheel on, when to bring a little extra momentum to bump over an obstacle to make up for the open differentials — all the intricacies.

“Spotting teaches you so much about communication, and you have to be so tuned-in to make it happen,” said Jessica.

The recipe here is simple but effective: They replaced stock springs, shocks and sway bar end links to increase the ground clearance and improve suspension articulation (especially with sway bar disconnects). In anticipation of impacts with boulders and stumps, they upgraded the steering linkage to TeraFlex’s 1-ton steering conversion featuring chromoly links with forged rod-ends. Along with the 33-inch Toyo Open Country RT on 18-inch K2 wheels, these simple changes stack up to create a dependable, low-budget off-road machine.

underside of jeep vehicle
You can see the updates Kenny made on his Wrangler Sport. TeraFlex’s 1-ton steering conversion is the first point of contact on the front axle, so the chromoly tubing and forged rod-ends were installed in place of the factory tie rods as “cheap insurance” for rock-crawling sections

As their Wrangler came together, wheeling trips became a fact of life. The duo joined the Rock Topperz four-wheel club, where they met a group of folks that would eventually become key to one of the happiest days of their lives.

In between weekend trips in the mountains, the two began pulling together a plan for their engagement photos. The idea was to make a run up to one of their favorite two-track trails, one they discovered, thanks to their go-anywhere Wrangler, on a whim while driving by it months earlier. Of course, a shoot like this required a bevy of camera equipment and clothing, so their fellow four-wheeling friends came with their Jeep® vehicles to shuttle everyone’s gear up the technical trail — and it wasn’t without some challenges: “There was a moment on two wheels that I’d rather have not seen, but we made it!” Jessica recalled. For just a split-second as they were crawling up a steep trail, the front tires of the Wrangler popped up as she watched from outside. With some quick footwork, Kenny managed to keep it away from the tipping point — one of those little moments that feel like a lifetime as it plays out, according to Jessica. 

man and woman standing in nature
Engagement photo and video courtesy of Mynor Guerra and Maria Fuson for Camera Obscura

While their friends circled the base of the final hill, Kenny and Jessica rode up to the top for their final engagement photos. The Wrangler played its honest part in the photos as much as it had in their lives, and there was a moment where everything radiated that experience. “The photographers, Mynor and Maria, pointed out in footage that I had never looked happier than when I was sitting on the roof as everyone set up the shoot, watching my friends pull together to make this all happen,” Jessica told us. Four wheeling had brought them some of the tightest friends they had ever made, and the adventures their Wrangler carried them through built friendships they never would’ve found in a pavement-pounding daily driver.

By the time we met them in Big Bear at their first-ever Jeep® Jamboree, Kenny and Jessica were as confident as they were studious. Jeep® Jamboree trail guides, like Randall and Kimmie Davis, were quick to adjust their line and technique at each obstacle to work with the Wrangler Sport’s modest toolset. “I think everybody should start with a base-model Jeep® vehicle before they do anything big,” Kenny said. His theory being that without the aid of lockers and rock crawling-friendly gearing (found in higher-trim Rubicon Wranglers), you have to be more selective of the choices you make. A manual means that more commitment is needed to maintain momentum, as it’s more difficult to stop and start at times — and having open differentials means that you’ve got to try your best to keep all four wheels planted firmly, as you can’t hang them in the air like a dog’s leg and bounce through rock gardens without free-spinning the unloaded tire. Where some folks would take these options as requirements for the trails Kenny and Jessica faced, they were able to chisel away at each trail with hard-earned persistence and skill.

modifications done to a jeep vehicle
For body protection, Kenny started with Redrock 4×4 bumpers and a Smittybuilt X20 10,000-pound winch. Barricade’s Rubi Rails provide protection for the lower rocker panels, while their brackets support the LED light bar and pods found on the A-pillars

And that’s the point here, you don’t have to sweat the small things with your own Jeep® vehicle — you don’t need the biggest and baddest piece of kit out there to find out why people love this as much as they do. As with life, taking the leap is the most important step, and Kenny and Jessica’s Wrangler Sport can certainly do that, thanks to a couple of well-placed modifications, a whole lot of heart, and the Jeep® Brand’s own tradition of stalwart off-road bones.

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