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Growing up in Ridgecrest, a small town in Kern County, California, Darren Parsons’ world revolved around all things automotive right from the get-go. When he wasn’t turning wrenches at family auto shop, he could often be found at the track helping his dad out with his efforts in NHRA Super Gas.
In his teens and into his early '20s, Darren did his fair share of drag racing in the Super Street and Super Gas classes as well, taking home several championships along the way. Despite his success in the sport, his interest eventually shifted more toward off-road racing disciplines. “My heart just wasn’t in drag cars; I was a dirt bike kid,” he says. “I wanted to be in the desert. I was getting tired of waiting in the pits all day for a few seconds behind the wheel – I wanted more seat time.”
Initially racing dirt bikes, Parsons transitioned over to four-wheeled off-road vehicles after a crash caused him to reassess the plan. “I spent some time in a coma,” he explains. “After that, I decided it was time to sell the bikes and get something else.”
After doing some research, he decided to purchase a half-finished 1993 Ford Ranger pre-runner project with the intent of building it into a proper racer. “That’s when I met Erik Moore,” he says. “When I bought the chassis from him, he was at a point in his life where he could help me with the build. So we ended up finishing the truck together, and I learned a lot about how to fabricate during that process. It was an awesome experience.”
A pre-runner in the truest sense, the initial build was a far cry from where the truck is today. “People were suggesting to me that I should buy someone’s incomplete project because I’d avoid the most expensive parts of the build,” he says with a laugh. “That was the theory going into it. But eleven years and several hundred thousand dollars later, here we are.”
The urge to ramp things up came on fast. After just one race using the factory powertrain, Parsons knew he needed more. “I suffered the entire event – with the tire size increase, the stock transmission and the 4.0-liter V6 just weren’t having it. So after I broke two transmissions, I realized it was time to go LS.”
Although LS swaps weren’t nearly as popular in off-road builds back in 2011 as they are today, Parsons says the transplant was fairly painless in terms of fitment and tuning. Instead, the challenges arose from the kinds of teething issues that tend to pop up after adding a big dose of horsepower. “We started breaking things – axles, driveshafts, and that sort of stuff,” he recalls.
But those weak points were soon sorted out, and his fortunes out on the race course quickly began to change. “Six months after we completed the LS swap, I raced the truck in the SNORE series in the 1450 class, and I won five of the seven races that year.” Parsons would take home three championships with the Ranger in the 1450 class between 2011 and 2016, but with series car counts in flux in the years since, more of his efforts are now focused on exhibition events like LS Fest and working with the off-road content creators at Terra Crew.
Although the truck is set up to be sort of an off-road jack-of-all-trades these days, the overall concept still follows the core ethos of the 1450 class – a steel cab, working doors, and 75% of the original frame rails. That allows the truck to maintain its production-based look, but underneath the skin it is anything but factory stock.
King shocks are installed at all four corners and 21 inches of suspension travel is provided at the front end by a custom I-beam setup, while the rear is a trophy truck-style four link from Camburg Kinetik.
A naturally-aspirated 427ci LS7 provides the grunt. The seven-liter mill is outfitted with a Scat crank and rods, Ross pistons, AFR’s Mongoose cylinder heads, a Holley Sniper aluminum intake, and a Holley HP EFI system. The combination dishes out 680 horsepower through a close-ratio TH400 gearbox with a Winters gated shifter, which is in turn sends the twist to a Ford 9-inch-based differential from Evan Weller Racing with a Camburg four-inch housing and 36-spline axles.
“I use the inputs and outputs of the Holley HP system to control the truck’s various systems through the Racepak setup we’re using – things like the fresh air system, the lights, and the comms system,” Parsons notes. “I’ve been running Holley engine management in the truck since 2014, and I’ve never had a single issue with it.”
Even with all the contemporary hardware underneath, Parsons wanted to keep some of the Ranger’s original DNA intact. “I could have swapped over to a different front suspension setup – I-beam isn’t exactly ideal here, but I love it because you can’t break it,” he says. “It’s one of those ‘purist’ type of things I guess. I wanted to maintain some of the original spirit of it, which is why it also has the period-correct graphics.”
Along with his other off-road pursuits, Parsons also helps organize the off-road events at LS Fest West, where the Ranger recently got a chance to stretch its legs on a half-mile off-road circuit. “It’s fun do things like pit buggies against trucks in these call-out races – it’s something you typically don’t see in series racing. It’s just a smorgasbord of LS power out there.”
And since the Ranger doesn’t really need to adhere to a specific class rule set these days, even more power may be in store for it in near future. “I’d like to put together a bigger LS for it – something in the range of 800 to 900 horsepower,” Parsons says. “The engine that’s in there now is really reliable, so I think I might just take it out and leave it prepped in case I need it for an endurance race or something along those lines. But it’s a pretty versatile setup as it sits right now – I can go out and have a good time with this truck doing just about anything.”