Feature: High Schoolers Build “Freedom” Truck for SEMA

Feature: High Schoolers Build “Freedom” Truck for SEMA

Story and photos by John Gunnell

Freedom High School, in Freedom, Wisconsin, is one rare educational institution these days, since it has defied the nationwide trend in the United States of moving away from teaching hands-on technical skills. Freedom High School clings to the tradition of offering industrial arts courses such as woodworking and automotive technology. Because of this tradition, it is said that on a summer’s night, almost every garage door in the town of Freedom will be open and reveal some sort of car or truck project going on.

Automotive instructor Jay Abitz, and his father before him, have been credited with creating this enthusiasm for the automotive trades in Freedom. For years, Jay’s dad honed the skills of local teenagers who learned to do mechanical and body repairs on regular cars. When Jay followed in his dad’s footsteps, he put more emphasis on the restoration of special-interest vehicles. He also took the automotive enthusiasm way beyond the confines of the classroom/auto shop by generating massive media attention for some of his more interesting projects, and by forming the Freedom High School Auto Club.

On the walls outside the auto shop that Abitz teaches in are dozens of framed copies of articles that appeared about his students in both local publications and national magazines. The Freedom students and auto club members have been involved in preparing a car for the Interstate Battery Great Race and the restoration of the one-of-a-kind Mohs Ostentatienne Opera Sedan.

Abitz created the Freedom High School Auto Club to expand what he can do. The club has over 40 members, some of whom are students and others who qualify as alumni, community members, professional helpers or car enthusiasts. “The auto club has done frame-off projects and body-off projects and all types of restorations in previous years,” Abitz pointed out to Off Road Plus. “Some of the projects take a year and some take longer. But the latest one is not a restoration. . . it’s a build. . . it’s a little different than anything we’ve done in the past. We’ve never done any four-wheel-drive stuff either, so this is a totally new thing for us.”

The students and auto club members built a 4Runner for the annual SEMA Show. The old Toyota 4×4 was converted from a rusty old truck into a “rock crusher” to be displayed in the Sherwin-Williams booth at the giant automotive trade show. Abitz organized the build, but the idea and the 4Runner came from Rick Paulick, the owner of the NEW Motorama, an indoor multi-segment car and truck show held in Green Bay, Wisconsin each spring.

“The Freedom High School students and other members of the Freedom High School Auto Club help out at my show,” said Paulick. “We have a workshop where young kids can use metal shaping machines supplied by Baleigh to stamp out tin toy cars. This workshop grew so popular that I needed helpers, and the Freedom High School Auto Club members came to help me. They did such a great job that I wanted to help them out in return. I decided to do this by donating a car to them and this morphed into the idea of the kids doing a SEMA build. Jay Abitz had the connections that made this sort of thing really happen.”

Starting last spring, the students began going through the 4Runner to make sure it was mechanically sound. They got going with a coolant flush, changing belts and cleaning the truck up a little bit. One of the first aftermarket items installed on the truck was a lift kit donated by a Green Bay company called Truedell Performance. Then, they nailed down the off-road, rock crawler look.

Paint for the 4Runner was donated by Sherwin-Williams—one of Abitz’s biggest supporters. “They sponsor us through the Collision Repair Educational Foundation,” he explained. “They donated the base coat, clear coat, paint, primer and all that, as well as most materials like filler, etc.; whatever we needed.”

The students and auto club members at first met on Wednesday afternoons and worked on the 4Runner together. With the school year factored in, the transformation of the truck was initially targeted for October. In the final phases, the people power and hours invested into the project had to be upped. It became much more than a Wednesday evening get-together.

On Thursday, Oct. 19, the truck was displayed for around 200 people at Beyond Redline Performance in Green Bay. “Rick Paulick had the vision,” Abitz stressed. “It was his idea and he lined the vehicle up for us. Then, we started working with Sherwin-Williams to get it ready for SEMA and actually put it in their booth at SEMA. We committed to a SEMA project and we got it done,” Abitz said.

A big boost came on Sept. 14 when representatives of Toys For Trucks, a Wisconsin-based truck accessories retailer, delivered $7,849 worth of donations from its supplier companies to the enthusiasts to help keep the SEMA project on track. Bill Ciuplinski, the manager of the Toys For Trucks store in Green Bay, delivered the parts to Freedom High School. They were supplied by ARB, AVS, Bushwacker, Hi-Lift, Lund, Mile Marker, Pro-Car by Scat, Rampage, The Stripe Guy, Vision Wheels and Yakima. They included individual donations as high as $1,800. In addition, Ciuplinski lined up help for painting the truck.

“We knew from our past experiences that these jobs take a lot of time,” Abitz said. “I worked to trim down the time line by increasing the number of people involved. Of course, professional assistance, like that from Toys For Trucks and its suppliers, helped, too. Getting companies like those to pitch in and give us direction helped and I’m sure that it sped the project along as well.”

The original plan was to paint the truck bright red, but the students took things in another direction. The truck was finished in black and then painted a flat red over the black. The red was then sanded to let the black show through in certain areas for a “distressed” look. Then, four coats of clear were applied.

Among the accessories supplied by the companies listed above were a new Pro-Car by Scat red-and-black seat, Bushwacker cut-out flares, a Hi-Lift bumper jack, Lund Proline carpeting, a beefy ARB “guardrail” style front bumper system and an ARB snorkel, an AVS bug shield, a Rampage Trail Can tool kit, Vision Nemesis wheels, a Mile Marker waterproof winch system and, from Yakima, a roof rack, wind fairing, Mega Warrior basket and Hi-Lift mount. .

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